Google announced Monday it will build its own smartphone processor, called Google Tensor, that 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 wasn’t possible with those already on the market. In this case, Google is ditching 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 power and are used across the industry for mobile devices, from phones to tablets and laptops.
Google Tensor will power new flagship phones that are expected to launch in October. (Google will reveal more details about those phones closer to launch.) That, too, is a strategy shift for Google, which in recent years has focused on affordability in its Pixel devices instead of 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 the company uses for cloud computing. It’s a full system on a chip, or SoC, that the company says will offer big improvements to photo and video processing on phones, along with features like voice-to-speech and translation. And it includes a dedicated processor that runs artificial intelligence applications, in addition to 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 Pixel has been that we keep running into limits with existing off-the-shelf technology solutions, and it’s just really hard to get our most advanced stuff from research teams onto the phone,” Google’s hardware boss Rick Osterloh told CNBC in an interview last week. “It’s going to really transform what we can do on the phone with machine learning and AI.”
Osterloh said the new chip will help Google’s phones take better photos and videos. “We’ve really made a custom computer built for computational photography,” he said.
Google’s Pixel phones already take some of the best pictures of any phone on the market, so that’s a big claim. But in a demo with CNBC, Osterloh showed one example of how the new chip can help decrease blurring when a subject moves while you’re taking a picture. The same technology Google uses to improve photos can now be used to improve videos, which Osterloh said wasn’t possible with other chips.
Osterloh showed other examples, like faster and more accurate text-to-speech when you’re speaking out a text message, and new offline translation for captions for videos. Those are neat examples of the power of the chip, but they may not be enough to get people to buy a Pixel over an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy device.
And that’s the problem Google really needs to solve: getting people to buy Pixel in the first place.
The company’s earlier phones have been great, but Google hasn’t done enough marketing to make consumers aware that they exist, or that they’re any good. With earlier models, it couldn’t even get all the major U.S. carriers to offer them. And it’s unclear if it has all of them on board this time. But Osterloh said Google will make more flagship-tier phones and that we can expect a big marketing push around Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro in the fall.