Google announced Monday that it will build its own smartphone processor, called the Google Tensor, which will power its new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro phones this fall.
It’s another example of a company building its own chips to create what it felt was not possible with those already on the market. In this case, Google is abandoning Qualcomm. The move follows Apple, which is using its own processors in its new computers instead of Intel chips. And like Apple, Google is using an Arm-based architecture. Arm processors are lower powered and used across the industry for mobile devices, from phones to tablets to laptops.
Qualcomm said it will continue to work closely with Google on current and future products based on its Snapdragon platform.
Google Tensor will power the new flagship phones that are expected to launch in October. (Google will reveal more details on those phones closer to launch.) That’s also a change in strategy for Google, which in recent years has focused on affordability on its Pixel devices rather than offering high-end phones. And it shows that Google is again trying to compete directly in the flagship space against Apple and Samsung.
The name Google Tensor is a nod to the name of Google’s Tensor Processing Unit that the company uses for cloud computing. It’s a complete system on a chip, or SoC, which the company says will offer big improvements to photo and video processing on phones, along with features like speech-to-speech and translation. And it includes a dedicated processor that runs artificial intelligence applications, plus a CPU, GPU, and image signal processor. It will allow the phone to process more information on the device instead of having to send data to the cloud.
“The problem with the Pixel has been that we keep running into the limits with the technology solutions available on the market, and it’s really hard to get our more advanced stuff from the research teams on the phone,” said Google’s hardware chief Rick. Osterloh, to CNBC in an interview last week. “It’s going to really transform what we can do on the phone with machine learning and artificial intelligence.”
Osterloh said the new chip will help Google phones take better photos and videos. “We really made a custom computer for computational photography,” he said.
Google’s Pixel phones already take some of the best images of any phone on the market, so that’s a big claim. But in a demo with CNBC, Osterloh showed an example of how the new chip can help decrease blur when a subject moves while taking a photo. The same technology that Google uses to enhance photos can now be used to enhance videos, which Osterloh said was not possible with other chips.
Osterloh showed other examples, such as faster and more accurate text-to-speech when speaking a text message, and a new offline translation for video captions. Those are good examples of the power of the chip, but they may not be enough to get people to buy a Pixel on an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy device.
And that’s the problem Google really needs to solve: getting people to buy the Pixel in the first place.
The company’s first phones have been great, but Google hasn’t done enough marketing to let consumers know they exist or are good. With the older models, you couldn’t even get the major US carriers to offer them. And it’s unclear if he has them all on board this time. But Osterloh said that Google will make more flagship-level phones and that we can expect a big marketing boost around the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro in the fall.