Tensor is Google’s big bet, centered on the AI-boosting TPU that promises to improve photos and videos, search, captioning, text-to-speech, and more. It’s a tall order for any chip, much less one focused mainly on machine learning as its standout feature — but while the Tensor SoC might not launch Google to iPhone-like heights just yet, it could be a crucial first step toward turning its Android also-ran into a top contender.
Google’s Pixel 6 is shaping up to be the company’s most ambitious smartphone in years, thanks in large part to the new, custom-designed Tensor processor, which hopes to push Google to the forefront of the smartphone industry by leveraging Google’s years of machine learning knowledge. And Google needs it: despite the popularity of Pixels in tech circles, Google’s phones aren’t popular sellers in the United States, hardly moving the needle in comparison to juggernauts like Samsung and Apple, or even smaller companies like Oppo or Xiaomi.
Google hasn’t given a lot of information about what Tensor’s actual architecture is going to look like for things like the CPU, GPU, modem, or other major components of the SoC beyond the TPU. But based on rumors and the fact that Google isn’t taking the chance to crow about any major customization or advances its made here, it’s likely the case that most of Tensor’s hardware stack will be outsourced designs. Qualcomm and Samsung already do something similar — the Snapdragon 888 uses partially customized versions of Arm’s Cortex-X1, A78, and A55 designs, while Samsung’s Exynos 2100 uses Arm designs for both its CPU and GPU.
The rest of the SoC is a mystery right now, but it seems like Google will be using third-party designs for things like the CPU, GPU, and modem — meaning that the Pixel 6 will probably feel pretty similar to any other Android smartphone powered by a Qualcomm or Samsung processor for most tasks, instead of some sort of revolutionary upgrade on par with Apple’s A-series powered iPhones.
XDA notes more specifically that the Tensor will likely be some combination of Arm’s Cortex-A78, Cortex-A76, and Cortex-A55 CPU cores and Arm’s standard Mali GPU. Which means that the difference between Tensor and, say, a Snapdragon 888 or Exynos 2100 might not be that major for things like overall CPU or GPU performance. That’s a good category to be in, especially if Google is trying to truly make a flagship device. But as Google’s Rick Osterloh told The Verge, “the standard stuff people look at will be very competitive and the AI stuff will be totally differentiated.” The things that make Tensor special and unique aren’t how fast it can run games or how efficient its CPU and battery life is, though.