Google’s custom Tensor chip will debut in the Pixel 6

3 Aug 2021

Image: Google

The integrated system on a chip will allow Google to move away from using Qualcomm processors in its phones.

Google’s Pixel 6 line of smartphones, due to launch this autumn, will feature the company’s first in-house chip design, called Google Tensor.

Previous Google phones were powered by Qualcomm processors, but the company is now following in Apple’s footsteps in beginning to design its own chips. Specifically, the Tensor will be a system on a chip (SoC), meaning most or all of the phone’s computing hardware will be located on a single integrated circuit.

Specifications for the Tensor, the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro were not made public at the time of Google’s announcement, but will be released when the phones are launched. The company did publish photos of the new product line, and confirmed that devices will feature UI upgrades and the Android 12, announced in May.

The company also said that the new Pixels will feature a ‘camera bar’, as “the improved sensors and lenses are now too big to fit into the traditional square”.

Google's Pixel 6 phones, featuring the "camera bar" across the back.

The Pixel 6. Image: Google.

In a post on the company’s blog, Google’s senior vice-president for devices and services, Rick Osterloh, said: “With Tensor we thought about every piece of the chip and customised it to run Google’s computational photography models. For users, this means entirely new features, plus improvements to existing ones.

“Tensor enables us to make the Google phones we’ve always envisioned — phones that keep getting better, while tapping the most powerful parts of Google, all in a highly personalised experience.”

Osterloh also said that the phones would integrate numerous machine learning-powered features, not just in the area of photography but also applications like speech recognition. Notably, the word ‘tensor’ (which refers to a concept from multilinear algebra) is also featured in the name of Google’s open-source artificial intelligence library, TensorFlow.

Although it is rolling out its new SoC, Google will continue to buy Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips for its A Series of phones and Tensor will be based on the same ARM architecture as Snapdragon, according to an interview Osterloh did with Wired.

Speaking to Wired, he said: “Are you able to actually do the processing necessary to really run sophisticated advanced AI models? Unquestionably, you run into different constraints with off-the-shelf technology. So several years ago, we decided if we’re going to really innovate for the future, we’re going to need to build our own system.”

As well as Tensor, the new line of phones will run the company’s Titan M2 security coprocessor, giving them “the most layers of hardware security in any phone,” Google claimed.

The announcement of Google’s proprietary SoC is the latest in a number of shifts in the global semiconductor market, which is experiencing a major supply shortfall. TSMC is due to debut its 3nm technology in 2023, with Intel and Apple among the first customers.

Jack Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin