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Tensor is Google’s most important launch of 2021, not the Pixel 6


The Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Professional are indisputably landmark telephones that we’ll be speaking about for years to return. They bear a daring and instantly recognizable model, and are setting a brand new bar with their mixture of cameras and post-processing capabilities. Whereas these qualities are nice for attracting prospects, Google doubtless sees its first custom-designed Tensor chip to be an important a part of this launch. Not solely does it issue into formidable options like dwell translation and ambient computing, however this chip additionally alerts a strategic shift for Google as a {hardware} producer, and maybe hints at better plans for the longer term.

However what’s Tensor? To jot down it off as one other system-on-a-chip (SoC) can be truthful in informal dialog, however there’s rather more to it. In fact, Google isn’t throwing open the doorways to the entire intricate particulars, however because of the corporate’s advertising and weblog posts, leaks and evaluation by neighborhood members, and interviews held with Ars Technica and CNET, we are able to piece collectively fairly a couple of particulars in regards to the elements and the way they’re utilized.


Let’s start by trying on the most important elements. Like most different cellular chips, Tensor is made up of an array of bodily cores, a few of which have been designed to run effectively on low energy whereas performing background duties and sustaining idle states, whereas the opposite cores deal with bigger duties in a short time at the price of extra energy and warmth.

For instance, this 12 months’s de facto flagship chip for smartphones is the Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888. It includes a single Cortex-X1 “supercore” for giant duties, three Cortex-A78 “medium” cores, and 4 low-power Cortex-A55 cores. The X1 will run for brief bursts to deal with large jobs, however will probably be shut down rapidly to cut back energy consumption and warmth. The medium cores are there for sustained workloads and nearly all of customary apps; however once more, Android makes an attempt to restrict their use.


Google labored with Samsung to construct Tensor utilizing Exynos SoCs as a template. That occurs to contain utilizing the identical cores constructed on Samsung’s 5nm LPE manufacturing course of, however Google broke from the normal design to make use of an unusual configuration. The 4 A55 cores remained for background duties, however Google opted to double up on the large X1 cores. And as a substitute of utilizing three A78 cores, that are the “medium” cores of this era, Google slotted in two of final 12 months’s “large” A76 cores.

In accordance with Phil Carmack, vp and basic supervisor of the Google Silicon staff, this association permits Tensor to separate demanding workloads between the pair of high-power cores. Since they’ll end duties extra rapidly with out producing as a lot warmth, they’re really extra environment friendly than operating a single core for longer.

Because it seems, the X1s will even be used for some average duties that will usually have gone to the A76 cores. Carmack says that the X1s barely must work for a lot of of these jobs, which permits them to be run at low frequencies, however the identical workload would max out an A76. This will likely imply the A76 cores are simply there to deal with chores requiring a little bit extra pace than an A55 can ship, however too small to justify spinning up an X1.

Google says Tensor’s CPU efficiency is 80% sooner than the Snapdragon 765G present in final 12 months’s Pixel 5, and the GPU efficiency is as much as 370% sooner because of the 20-core ARM Mali-G78 MP20. If we’re being sincere, these claims are considerably undermined by the actual fact Tensor is being in comparison with an older chip that was solely supposed for mid-range telephones. Nonetheless, critiques of the Pixel 6 verify the system may be very responsive and snappy the place it must be; and regardless of some blended leads to benchmarks — particularly for gaming — it’s moderately corresponding to the Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100. For a deeper dive and evaluation on the structure, take a look at AnandTech’s article.

Good bits

Prime-tier specs and a few delicate enhancements to person expertise are good, however these hardly warrant the 4 years Google says it has spent growing a {custom} chip if all it may do is tie the competitors. The true advantages of Tensor come from Google’s {custom} cores.

Monika Gupta, senior director of the Google Silicon staff, says Tensor is designed with a powerful give attention to synthetic intelligence (AI) and machine studying (ML). The truth is, the chip’s title is impressed by the Tensor Processing Items (TPU) that make up a part of Google’s Cloud infrastructure, which is itself designed for the TensorFlow software program platform.

In fact, Google isn’t new to constructing {custom} cores. These efforts started with the Pixel Visible Core, and later the Pixel Neural Core. Google additionally developed the Titan M safety chip, a full coprocessor that’s bodily distinct from the SoC.

So what is definitely included in Tensor past CPU and GPU cores? The same old suspects are current, like video encoder/decoders, audio, reminiscence, and so forth. Nonetheless, there are additionally a couple of {custom} elements that play a giant position in Google’s imaginative and prescient of the Pixel expertise.


Firstly is the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), extra conventionally often called a Neural Processing Unit (NPU). That is the place nearly all of AI and ML operations will happen, and it’s chargeable for a lot of the Pixel 6-exclusive options like automated speech recognition for dwell captions, dwell language translation, and computational images (e.g. Movement Mode, Motion Pan, Lengthy Publicity).

Some members of the modding neighborhood have efficiently activated Pixel 6 unique options to run on different gadgets, they usually normally work, however not as rapidly, and never with out heating up and quickly operating down the battery. This lends some credence to Google’s claims that Tensor is critical to perform a few of these formidable options — not as a result of it’s unimaginable on different chips, however as a result of they’re too demanding to run nicely with out optimized {hardware}.

Tensor additionally consists of an enhanced Picture Sign Processor (ISP) chain. That is the portion of an SoC chargeable for interfacing with the cameras, turning uncooked information into pixels, and making corrections like lowering noise and correcting colours. Google has credited two specific options to the brand new ISP: Actual Tone for precisely representing pores and skin tones, and HDRNet for real-time processing of video with the identical methods that had been beforehand unique to stills. Rick Osterloh advised the Verge that the ISP is instantly linked with the TPU, successfully lending a variety of additional horsepower to the processing necessities.

On the opposite finish of the spectrum is the Context Hub, which Google frames as machine studying for low energy operations. That is the place Tensor will run duties which have decrease precedence, particularly throughout idle states, they usually’ll have much less impression in your battery. Or to place it merely, Context Hub is the champion for ambient computing options like Now Taking part in.

Safety has additionally been a daily speaking level for Google, and a variety of consideration has been placed on the brand new Titan M2 coprocessor. The Titan M2 occurs to be bodily separate from the Tensor chip, but it surely’s tightly coupled with the devoted Tensor Safety Core within the SoC. This core is operating Google’s open-source Trusty OS and maintains a safe surroundings from the second a Pixel 6 boots. The Safety Core and Titan M2 are chargeable for storing and dealing with person information keys, cryptographic operations, and most of the different authentication and verification duties which might be referred to as for.

Why construct it?

Tensor growth started in 2017, across the similar time Google introduced plans to accumulate HTC’s Pixel staff. In collaboration with Google Analysis, the Silicon staff got down to design a chip based mostly on the way forward for machine studying, and to place a few of that expertise to make use of for brand new experiences that will give Pixel telephones room to do greater issues.

Gupta defined that this happened after seeing a lot expertise within Google that couldn’t be applied on Pixels with the SoCs obtainable in the marketplace.

“It was type of like we had been being held again a little bit bit. We’ve entry to state-of-the-art [machine learning] proper inside Google, but we could not convey it to our Pixel customers. We’ve this imaginative and prescient for Pixel, and we could not notice that imaginative and prescient.” — Monika Gupta, CNET

Wanting towards Apple provides us one more reason Google might have chosen this path. It’s no secret that Apple’s swap to {custom} silicon within the iPhone line has been good for each boosting efficiency and slicing part prices. The iPhone transition proved so profitable that it led Apple to make the identical transfer with its Mac lineup.


Tensor actually does obtain some large efficiency features over presently obtainable chips, however they’re very narrowly centered on machine studying operations. This brings loads of profit to Google’s personal purposes, and a few restricted profit to exterior builders with ML-oriented software program. Nonetheless, not like Apple’s A-series chips, Tensor doesn’t actually enhance something for the bigger scope of apps and video games. Nevertheless it’s truthful to keep in mind that that is simply the primary era to see daylight, so it’s attainable Google will proceed to broaden its efforts to extra elements sooner or later.

As for value, we’ll most likely by no means know if Google is saving cash with Tensor, particularly if the market share for Pixel telephones stays low in comparison with its main opponents. However the potential additionally isn’t unique to telephones, Google stands to see better returns on this funding as Tensor is customized for future Chrome OS and Wear OS gadgets.

However this leaves us with a much bigger query: What comes subsequent for Tensor? Google’s new chip poses a risk to a number of completely different opponents, notably chip makers like Qualcomm, but in addition different cellphone producers like OnePlus.


Google is now able to broaden its partnership with Samsung and start promoting future generations of Tensor chips (or at the least the {custom} cores) to different OEMs. Not solely is that this a worthwhile avenue, it additionally expands the attain of Google’s most superior ML-based software program and companies to many non-Pixel gadgets. In fact, which will additionally contain going into direct competitors with Qualcomm. Then again, Google might select to maintain Tensor in-house to keep away from a battle of curiosity, however this inhibits the software program benefits and might also encourage OEMs to align extra intently with different chip producers to create their very own competing options.

Google’s new chip is nearly actually greater than only a method so as to add a couple of intelligent software program options to the corporate’s newest smartphone. Whether or not this seems to be one other short-lived Google experiment or turns into an entire new aspect of the enterprise, Tensor has the potential to kickstart the following chapter for smartphones.

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