Google Pixel 6’s Tensor chip goals to make the Android 12 cellphone smarter and last more

Google's Tensor chip aims to make the Pixel 6 smarter and last longer

Google has designed its personal processor for the primary time. 


For the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Professional, search large Google is taking a web page from Apple — by styling itself as a chip designer with extra management over its flagship smartphones. For homeowners of Google’s new Pixel 6, that might imply a cellphone with synthetic intelligence that you will really wish to speak to and battery life lengthy sufficient to nonetheless energy by a busy day. 

Google, which unveiled its $599 Pixel 6 and $899 Pixel 6 Professional telephones throughout a digital occasion Tuesday, launched adjustments like new colours, show enhancements, Android 12 and a horizontal digital camera bump strip on the again as a substitute of a square-shaped nook array. However the largest distinction is what’s inside: Tensor, the primary chip designed by Google.  

Phil Carmack, the vp and basic supervisor answerable for Google’s chip enterprise, and Monika Gupta, senior director of Google Silicon, chatted with CNET over video conferencing the week earlier than the Pixel occasion to get an in-depth take a look at what makes Tensor particular — and why Google even bothered to make the processor. 

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“The key element in making this decision was around AI and how we could bring AI at a much different, more personal level to the end user,” Carmack said. “We simply weren’t able to get there with the existing solutions that were out there.”

The goal is to create a Pixel phone loaded with more AI smarts and the power to make those calculations without sacrificing battery life. In the new Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, that manifests through real-time language translations, highly accurate voice transcription and high-end camera features like the ability to unblur the face of a person in motion. On top of that, Google promises 24 to 48 hours of battery life. 

“It was kind of like we were being held back a little bit,” Gupta said. “We have access to state-of-the-art [machine learning] proper inside Google, but we could not carry it to our Pixel customers. Now we have this imaginative and prescient for Pixel, and we could not notice that imaginative and prescient.”

That adjustments with Tensor, which marks Google’s first foray into the costly and tough world of SoC design. It began engaged on the processor about 4 years in the past with a crew of 76 folks. (The crew “is quite a bit greater now,” Carmack stated, although he declined to specify its measurement.) Most semiconductor firms have 1000’s of engineers growing their new chips. However Google has one thing else behind it — its crew of researchers who concentrate on synthetic intelligence and machine studying. 

“On Tensor, we’re working the state-of-the-art [machine learning] fashions from Google Analysis, like the most recent and best,” Gupta stated. “And we’re doing it far more effectively than ever attainable earlier than because of the Tensor structure.”

Whereas most handset makers use chips equipped by Qualcomm, Apple has stood out as an exception by creating processors for all the pieces from its iPhones to its Macs. Designing its personal processors lets Apple optimize for the options it cares about probably the most, like excessive efficiency and lengthy battery life. Now, Google is seeking to observe that technique because it faucets into its power in search and AI. The transfer offers a blow to Qualcomm.

“Qualcomm Applied sciences and Google have been companions for greater than 15 years, beginning with bringing the primary Android gadgets to market,” Qualcomm stated in an announcement. “We’ll proceed to work carefully with Google on current and future merchandise primarily based on Snapdragon platforms to ship the next-generation of consumer experiences for the 5G period.”

Google may use a contemporary path. Whereas its Android software program powers nearly 9 out of each 10 smartphones shipped globally, Pixels make up lower than 1% of telephones shipped around the globe, based on Technique Analytics. 

However Anisha Bhatia, a senior analyst at researcher GlobalData, referred to as Google’s efforts to make Tensor “important.”

“Making a chip is a posh and costly course of, and Google, an organization that is not robust in smartphones, is investing cash and sources into this course of,” Bhatia famous. “It might enable Google to raised compete within the smartphone market.”

Tensor’s specs

Tensor is what’s referred to as a system-on-a-chip, primarily a monster processor that mixes the CPU — the brains powering the machine — with different capabilities. 

Within the case of Google’s design, the eight-core CPU is built-in with a 20-core Arm Mali-G78 MP20 GPU, a Tensor Processing Unit machine studying engine, a sophisticated picture sign processor for pictures, a Tensor safety core, a “context hub” for ultra-low energy capabilities, and 8MB system cache. Tensor additionally features a 4MB CPU L3 cache and is constructed on the 5-nanometer manufacturing node. 

The hot button is the entire elements of Tensor working collectively to hold out an motion on the Pixel 6. 

“It is type of uncommon that one in all these blocks is the star of any essential expertise,” Carmack stated. “They must be rigorously choreographed.”

The Tensor safety core is a CPU-based subsystem that is separate from the principle apps processor. It permits delicate duties and controls to run in an remoted and safe atmosphere. Alongside Tensor will sit a co-processor, Google’s next-generation, devoted safety chip referred to as Titan M2. And since Google created Tensor, it is extending safety assist to Pixel homeowners to 5 years, letting folks maintain onto their gadgets for much longer. 

Google Pixel 6 Pro

The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Professional (pictured right here) characteristic a digital camera strip on the again as a substitute of a sq. digital camera array within the nook.

James Martin/CNET

The CPU itself is eight cores primarily based on structure from chip designer Arm — two high-performance Cortex-X1 cores with clock speeds of two.8GHz, two midrange A76 cores at 2.25GHz and 4 small, high-efficiency A55 cores at 1.8GHz. Chip specialists like XDA Builders referred to as the configuration — which mixes Arm’s strongest new cores with older cores — uncommon when the specs leaked earlier than the occasion.

Carmack stated Google designed the CPU in a manner that will ship the most effective responsiveness and energy effectivity for intensive use circumstances like computational pictures.

“We did one thing totally different than the remainder of the Android ecosystem is doing as a result of we did not construct it with the intention to win a benchmark of single threaded efficiency for the minimal quantity of {dollars} invested,” Carmack stated. “We constructed it to ship the experiences. … Having two actually high-performance cores helps us get higher general responsiveness and higher general sustained efficiency.”

In the end, the Pixel 6’s Tensor CPU efficiency is 80% quicker and its GPU is 370% quicker than the chip within the Pixel 5, Qualcomm’s midrange Snapdragon 765G. Notably, that chip was slower than the top-of-the-line processor present in different premium Android telephones

Nonetheless pictures

One of many areas that can see enhancements on the Pixel 6 is pictures. Already a robust space for Pixels, Tensor permits even smarter digital camera talents. 

A brand new characteristic referred to as Face Unblur places the face of a subject-in-motion in focus whereas sustaining the blur of the remainder of the physique. For example, you may seize a photograph of a kid leaping on a trampoline, with the face sharp and in focus and the limbs blurred in movement. 

The expertise works by tapping right into a Google Analysis face-detection ML mannequin referred to as FaceSSD. Earlier than even taking the photograph, the Pixel will detect there is a face within the scene. If it is blurry, the Pixel will robotically spin up the second digital camera so it is able to go while you press the shutter button. 

The digital camera takes two photographs concurrently, one from the principle digital camera and one from the ultrawide digital camera. The principle digital camera makes use of regular publicity to provide you a low-noise {photograph}, after which the ultrawide makes use of a quicker publicity to supply a brilliant sharp picture. 

“Machine studying will align these two photographs, it is going to merge them, and it’ll take the sharper face from the ultrawide and the low-noise shot from the principle to get you kind of the most effective of each worlds,” Gupta stated. Lastly, the Pixel will take one closing look to see if there’s any blur remaining within the merged photographs. In that case, the cellphone will estimate the degrees and path of the blur and take away it. 

“All in all, it takes about 4 machine studying fashions to mix this information from two totally different cameras after which ship you the {photograph} with a pleasant clear face,” Gupta stated. “Not solely is nearly the complete chip lit up with totally different subsystems doing various things, even on the cellphone degree, we’ve got a number of digital camera sensors lit up. However this kind of will get to type of the center of why we strategy Tensor in another way and why our focus is absolutely rooted in ranging from the tip customers.”

FaceSSD may work with video, Gupta stated. The corporate has by no means been capable of apply face detection to video earlier than as a result of the older chips weren’t quick sufficient and consumed an excessive amount of energy, she stated. The brand new FaceSSD runs twice as quick, at 30 frames per second, which makes it appropriate for video. It is also decrease energy. 

“Loads of our computational pictures strategies that we utilized to images traditionally, we at the moment are capable of apply the movies for the primary time,” Gupta stated. “All of those strategies are simply going to make movies higher.”

One other pictures characteristic referred to as Movement Mode provides blur right into a nonetheless picture. It “brings kind of knowledgeable feel and appear to city images, an evening out and even nature scenes,” Gupta stated. “Sometimes, you’d create these results with like perhaps a tripod or lengthy exposures or fancy tools and a number of apply. However inside the Google Digicam app, we make this tremendous simple with the Movement Mode.”

The Pixel 6’s digital camera takes a number of images and combines them. Utilizing the on-device machine studying and computational pictures, it is going to establish the topic of the photograph, determine what’s transfer and what’s not, after which add a kind of aesthetic blur to the background. For example, if taking a photograph of a bicycle owner, Movement Mode would make the bicycle owner in focus and blur the wheels and background barely to point the motion. 


Google Pixels have lengthy gained accolades for his or her photograph high quality, however video usually hasn’t measured as much as the standard present in rival telephones. The corporate goals to make its video simply pretty much as good as nonetheless photographs within the new Pixel 6 utilizing its computational pictures expertise, Gupta stated.  

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Google developed an algorithm called HDRnet. It embedded parts of the algorithm directly into the Tensor image signal processor to “vastly” speed up the processing while “drastically” reducing the power consumption, she said. HDRnet allows the Pixel 6 to capture video at the quality of still images, and it can run on all video formats, even 4K video at 60 frames per second. 

“Once you put ML in the interactive loop, it’s a real-time guidance system now,” Carmack said. “An intelligent photographer is there in real time, making sure you get the right thing.”

Speech and transcription

Another area where Tensor benefits Pixel users is in how you talk to the device. The Pixel 6 comes with on-device speech recognition that “can transcribe speech with incredible accuracy,” Gupta said. Because of Tensor, that transcription consumes half the power as before. 

That improved speech recognition will help with features like Voice Access, which lets users talk to the phone without having to type in commands, and Google Call Screen, which uses Google Assistant to answer incoming calls, talk to the caller and provide a transcript of what the caller’s saying. 

Google Assistant also should have improvements, thanks to Tensor and the advanced ML enabled by the chip. The processor allows for more effective “hot word” detection — the “OK Google” that triggers the voice assistant to respond. In the Pixel 6, it can detect the hot word even when the background is noisy. 

Google Pixel 6 Pro

Google’s Tensor chip enables new features on the Pixel 6 Pro.

James Martin/CNET

And the new Tensor security core works with the rest of the processor to secure sensitive information. For instance, you may need to call on the Google Assistant to unlock your phone or grant access to your contacts. The Pixel 6 will do all of that processing on the device instead of sending it over the cloud. 

“On-device AI might help them placate some of the concerns people have around Google and better compete against iOS on the privacy and security side,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said.

And because of Tensor, Google can apply more ML to problems to further refine and understand the nuances of the individual speaker, Gupta said. 

“This could be the difference between knowing is it Monica with the ‘C’ or Monica with the ‘K,’ or where do you put the comma, where do you put the punctuation, all the nuances you get depending on who’s speaking, based on their accent or based on the nouns they often use,” Gupta said. 

Live translation

When it comes to translation, the Pixel is running a new, “state-of-the-art” model called Neural Machine Translation, Gupta said. It consumes half the power than previously possible, Gupta said. 

Live Chat Translation quickly translates from one language to another. It works on any Android chat app, and translations happen directly in that app, rather than forcing a user to copy and paste text into Google Translate. The new Pixels also can translate media in real time, like providing live English interpretations on a French-speaking video. 

And thanks to Tensor and NMT, the new Pixel 6 can provide on-device translation for speech.

“Tensor was essentially designed to be the best on-device [machine learning] SoC out there,” Gupta stated. “If I am watching one thing, and it is being reside captioned for me or reside translated for me, that is personal.”

These kinds of duties would usually drain a cellphone’s battery, if not for Tensor. 

“One among our product targets was to type of remove this compromise with Tensor and actually push [performance and energy efficiency] concurrently,” Gupta stated. 

For Google, Tensor and the Pixel’s new AI options aren’t the tip. They’re only the start — they usually’re solely restricted by how highly effective and vitality environment friendly Google could make its chips.

“This tight collaboration between Analysis, Android platform, Pixel and the silicon crew creates a pleasant virtuous cycle,” Carmack stated. “Now we have a complete roadmap of merchandise.”

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