Google Pixel 6, Ultra High End Phone To Sport Tensor SoC Chip

GoogleGoogle is announcing the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro today, though it might be better to call it a preview or a tease. Rather than releasing all the details on its new Android phones, Google is instead putting the focus on the new system on a chip (SoC) that will be inside the new Pixels. It’s called the Tensor SoC, named after the Tensor Processing Units (TPU) Google uses in its data centers.

Tensor is an SoC, not a single processor. And so while it’s fair to call it Google-designed, it’s also still unclear which components are Google-made and which are licensed from others. Two things are definitely coming from Google: a mobile TPU for AI operations and a new Titan M2 chip for security. The rest, including the CPU, GPU, and 5G modem, are all still a mystery. Less mysterious: the phones themselves. I spent about an hour at Google’s Mountain View campus last week looking at the phone hardware and talking with Google’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh about Tensor. After all that, my main takeaway about the new Pixel 6 phones is simple.

Competitive flagship phone

ThisThis fall, Google will release two slightly different Pixel phones: the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro. If the final versions are anything like the prototypes I saw last week, they will be the first Pixel phones that don’t feel like they’re sandbagging when it comes to build quality. “We knew we didn’t have what it took to be in the ultra high end [in the past],” Osterloh admits. “And this is the first time where we feel like we really have it.”

google tensor

Both versions of the Pixel were glass sandwiches with fit-and-finish that are finally in the same league as what Samsung, Huawei, and Apple have to offer. “We’ve definitively not been in the flagship tier for the past couple years, this will be different,” says Osterloh. He also admits that “it will certainly be a premium-priced product,” which I take to mean north of $1,000.

Google is only sharing a few of the key specs for each phone, leaving the details for later — likely October. (And no, there was no mention of a folding phone nor a watch.) Google also wouldn’t allow us to take photos or video of the devices during our meeting. In any case, here is what we do know:

The Pixel 6 Pro will have a 6.7-inch QHD+ display with a 120Hz refresh rate. That screen is very slightly curved at the edges, blending into shiny, polished aluminum rails on the side. It has three cameras on the back: a new wide-angle main sensor, an ultrawide, and a 4X optical-zoom folded telephoto lens. Google isn’t sharing specs on the camera beyond saying the main wide-angle sensor takes in 150 percent more light.

The regular Pixel 6 has a 6.4-inch FHD+ screen with a 90Hz refresh rate. Its screen is perfectly flat, with matte-finished rails. It also loses the telephoto camera.

Although there will be memory differences between the phones, both will have the new Tensor SoC, a Titan M2 security chip, and in-display fingerprint sensor. There will be slightly different color options for the two types of phones.

As is often the case with polarizing designs, the look of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro make a little more sense in person than in leaked images. There is a huge “camera bar” that runs the full width of the phones, with a barely raised metal rail to protect the glass from scratches. There are only so many ways to handle massive camera bumps on big phones and Google’s solution is to “celebrate and highlight” them, in Osterloh’s words.

IfIf all Google were doing was rescuing the Pixel line from the doldrums of the midrange, that would be significant but not worth a months-early pre-announcement. The most important part of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro is that Google is using that new Tensor SoC inside.

Qualcomm has a virtual monopoly on processors in Android devices in the US. Worldwide, there is a little bit more competition as Samsung, MediaTek, and Huawei all have chips in Android phones. But on the whole, processing power on Android phones is rightfully thought of as woefully behind what Apple has done with its own in-house silicon on its A-Series line of chips.

Because of that situation, there’s a lot of interest to see if Google could potentially make a more competitive chip that could differentiate its products. But don’t let that interest trick you into thinking that Tensor is exactly equivalent to Apple’s A-Series chips. Tensor is the system on a chip, with a mix of components that Google itself has designed and others that it has licensed.

Google’s not sharing who designed the CPU and GPU, nor is it sharing benchmarks on their performance — though Osterloh says that it should be “market leading.” (Current rumors suggest that it might be Samsung providing those more standard component designs.) He adds, “The standard stuff people look at will be very competitive and the AI stuff will be totally differentiated.”

Instead, this week’s announcement is an attempt to reframe the narrative away from gigahertz and toward artificial intelligence and machine learning in phones — areas where Google, of course, has a big advantage.

Typically when you think about a phone’s specs, you think of the core three: CPU, GPU, and RAM. Those pieces of the SoC are what impact your day-to-day experience the most — how fast the phone feels, how long it lasts on battery, how well it connects to a cellular network, and so on. After that, there are generally some co-processors off to the side that handle discrete tasks like image processing or security. Google itself has already made some of those — the Titan M chip and Pixel Visual Core have appeared on previous phones.

“It’s definitely very different than just another co-processor,” Osterloh says. “Like with any SoC, we license a lot of technology into it, but this is our design and it was designed specifically with the purpose of driving our ML and AI forward.” Google’s argument is that the new chips in Tensor are an essential part of many of the things the new Pixel phones can do — not unlike Apple’s Neural Core in its A-Series processors.

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