Breaking Down The Google Tensor Because Google Didn’t Do So

Google's Tensor chip has been expected for a long time now, and it's all about enhancing the Pixel 6's machine learning capabilities.


Smartphone makers get on stage every year and say they improved the camera sensor, added a bigger battery et all. Google gets on stage every other year and says ‘look, more AI and ML’. Because that’s what Google is. Since its inception, Google was never a hardware company. It does software, often better than most, and with Android it has the freedom to dictate where smartphone software goes in future, even if Samsung and Apple may not like it. Which is why the new Tensor chip on the Pixel 6 is so important. Not because Google spouted a bunch of “this is the best ML ever” scenarios in its keynote, but because it’s perhaps the first time the company has made key electronic hardware to go with its own software.

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What is Google Tensor?

You know this one already. It’s THE chip that will run Google’s Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. No, there’s no extra Snapdragon on this, and this isn’t a co-processor. It’s simply a system-on-chip, a miniscule version of that box under your computer which you once used to call the CPU.

The tensor chip has two high performance cores, two mid-performance clusters, and four low performance cores, making it an octa-core chip. No, we don’t know whether Google designed its own cores or is using generic Cortex cores designed by ARM. It’s likely the former though, given that Tensor is a “custom” chip designed for the Pixel 6 devices.

Speaking of Pixel devices, we would be really surprised if this same chip or iterations of it do not end up in other Google devices in future. But that’s a story for another day.

What does Google Tensor do?

It does machine learning (ML). That’s what it does.

When Qualcomm and Apple talk about their new chips, they talk about enhanced CPU performance, more GPU cores and increased execution units. What does Google say?

“We’ve seen Google Assistant make your devices more helpful and Google Translate break down language barriers, but we haven’t always been able to bring the best of ML to the smartphone.

That’s why we made Google Tensor. A chip that can deliver totally new capabilities for Pixel users by keeping pace with the latest advancements in ML.”

What does doing ML mean?

Big tech companies want the world to believe that AI is the answer to almost all our problems. So the Tensor chip is like the answer to all of AI’s problems.

Google says that the “core experience areas” for the Pixel 6 series are speech, language, imaging and video. And these experiences are enhanced by machine learning. Pixel cameras have always been about ML, while speech recognition and language have always been enhanced by feeding more and more data to ML models.

For what it’s worth, the examples Google showed didn’t really tell us much. Adding or removing blur from a photo doesn’t seem too far-fetched for smartphone cameras nowadays, and while Google says that the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro will bring the “most advanced automatic speech recognition ever”, the interview with Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo would have been much more convincing if it didn’t have a plethora of camera shifts (the interview is in the video above).

There are other things too, like Live Translate. The Pixel 6 will allow users to voice type a text in one language, and automatically send it in another. Sure, but it’s a little difficult to believe we needed a whole new chip for this. Heck, Google can’t even promise video as good as Pixel photos right now.

In its own words — “We’ve always dreamed of getting Pixel video to match the quality of Pixel photos — and Google Tensor has helped us deliver better experiences in each area.”

Doesn’t that sounds like something every smartphone maker says about camera and video every year?

Google Tensor

So, only ML?

Of course not. Like we said, the Tensor chip is a full SoC. It has a security core, which is Google’s Titan M2 chip, and Google claims it will deliver the “most layers of hardware security in any phone”.

Why does Google Tensor matter?

Frankly, it’s a little hard to tell at this point. For one, we don’t have Pixel 6 devices in India, so we don’t know what the real world performance looks like. And according to reviewers in the US, Google didn’t allow them to talk about the software today, which sounds really fishy, coming from a company that is promising to revolutionise ML on smartphones.

All we can really say right now is that Google’s Tensor is a new chip, because that’s really all the company is telling everyone too right now. It’s hard to say whether or why Google couldn’t do everything it did with a Snapdragon 888, and though everything the company showed today looks good, it’s hard to say how any of this makes the Pixel worth buying over an iPhone or Samsung flagship with all their flashy new features.

If anything, the most interesting thing about the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro remains their pricing. At starting prices of $599 and $899, they’re really cheap for flagship class phones right now.