Nikkei Asia has been sniffing around the Google supply chain and came away with a fun pair of Google rumors. The first is that Google is so optimistic about Pixel 6 sales that it is increasing production capacity for the device by 50 percent. The second is that the Pixel 6’s “Google Tensor” SoC is headed to Chromebooks around 2023.
First, Pixel 6 optimism: Nikkei reports that Google “has high hopes for the Pixel 6 range and has asked suppliers to prepare 50% more production capacity for the handsets compared with the pre-pandemic level in 2019.” Google shipped 7 million phones in 2019, according to research firm IDC, so Google is hoping for 10.5 million in sales. For a gut check, Apple ships over 200 million iPhones a year, and Samsung ships anywhere from 260 million to 300 million phones.
Google has many reasons to be optimistic about the Pixel 6. The device marks the company’s return to the flagship smartphone market after bowing out in 2020 with the mid-range Pixel 5. It will be the first phone to ship with the hyped-up “Google Tensor” SoC, Google’s first self-branded main smartphone SoC. With its own SoC, there’s nothing to stop Google from dramatically increasing the life span of Pixel phones above the current three-year mark, which we’re really hoping the company does. Google’s image-stacking camera algorithms have long made the company a leader in the smartphone camera quality wars, but it has also rested on its laurels when it comes to hardware, choosing to ship essentially the same camera sensor in the Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4, 4a, 5, and 5a. The Pixel 6 will mark the first big camera upgrade in years, and expectations are high for what Google can do with modern camera hardware. The phone will also be the first to ship with Android 12, which puts a beautiful color-changing UI front and center. It will look great in all the commercials.
Google has confirmed that the Pixel 6 is coming with a “Google Tensor” SoC, but other than the name, the company hasn’t detailed the makeup of the chip or provided technical details. Judging by the rumor mill, the chip seems to be nothing more than a rebranded Samsung Exynos with some extra Google AI bits. Google only fanned the flames of this theory when it announced Tensor, saying, “The highlight of Tensor is that it can process Google’s most powerful AI and ML models directly on [the Pixel 6].” That’s the highlight? Just AI and not far more impactful areas of SoC development like the CPU?
Google seems to be “making” smartphone SoCs the same way it was making Nexus phones: by slightly tweaking the work of other companies. My favorite rumor is that the Google Tensor has an Exynos model number—Exynos-9855—at Samsung LSI. That would put the chip between the current Galaxy S21 Exynos 2100 (model number 9840) and next year’s Exynos 2200 (supposedly, model number 9925).
So with the idea that Google SoCs are tweaked and rebranded Exynos chips, it would not be a huge deal to stick an Exynos chip in a Chromebook. Samsung has been doing that for years. Shipping Tensor chips in Chromebooks was actually a part of the original Axios rumor that started all this Google “Whitechapel” stuff. “Google has made significant progress toward developing its own processor to power future versions of its Pixel smartphone as soon as next year,” the 2020 report said, adding, “and eventually Chromebooks as well.”
Nikkei now says Tensor chips for Chrome OS laptops and tablets are happening “around 2023,” which would be several iterations deep into Google’s custom SoC journey.
Google has to start somewhere with custom SoCs, but the company doesn’t seem close to Apple right now. The main difference between the two companies is that Apple has an in-house CPU design team with totally custom silicon that is light years ahead of the ARM competition. Apple got there by buying an entire chip design firm, PA Semi, back in 2008. Apple is also a $2 trillion hardware company and has significantly invested in silicon design because it’s a core part of the company. Google is an advertising company with a hardware division as a small side hobby and has not made an Apple-style investment in silicon. Various Google divisions have developed in-house hardware, but unless we see a VP of Google Silicon and a division-independent chip-design team, any chip expertise is most likely split up across Google divisions, with little cross-communication.
The company most inspired by Apple in terms of investment, and not just branding, is Qualcomm, which recently bought chip design firm Nuvia for $1.4 billion. Nuvia hasn’t shipped a product yet, but the CEO was formerly Apple’s chief CPU architect for nearly a decade and, as the new SVP of Qualcomm Engineering, will hopefully remake the company in Apple’s image. While Samsung, Huawei, and MediaTek all ship off-the-shelf ARM CPUs and therefore are mostly even, Qualcomm has a chance to rise above the fray with better-than-ARM CPU designs. Samsung is trying to differentiate Exynos SoCs by making a GPU deal with AMD, but as with Google, this seems to be more of a grasp at what it can accomplish rather than what’s important, which, first and foremost, is a strong CPU.