(Pocket-lint) – Google’s Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro feature a new system on a chip (SoC) inside, designed in-house. Called the Tensor SoC, it’s named after the Tensor Processing Units (TPU) that Google uses in its data centers. Here’s what you need to know about Tensor.

What is Google Tensor?

Tensor is Google’s in-house SoC. It’s not a single processor. Previously, Google relied on Qualcomm processors, as do most other Android devices in the US. Globally, however, there is more variation, with Samsung, MediaTek, and Huawei all producing chips for Android phones.

Keep in mind Apple has its own in-house silicon, the A-Series line of chips. That doesn’t mean Tensor and Apple’s A-Series are equivalent – Tensor is a system on a chip using a mix of components that Google has either designed or licensed. That’s perhaps why Google is spending so much time hammering home Tensor’s artificial intelligence and machine learning advantages, rather than discussing specifics about CPU, GPU, and RAM.

Those components impact how fast a phone seems, how long the battery lasts, cellular connectivity, etc. There are also co-processors that handle dedicated tasks such as image processing or security. Google does have experience in those areas: the Pixel Visual Core and Titan M chip, respectively, both have appeared in previous phones. And don’t forget Google has also been making Tensor Processing Units for its servers for years.

Tensor even refers to Google’s open-source TensorFlow machine learning programming ecosystem. But Google Tensor marks the first time Google has introduced a mobile TPU specifically for a phone. Ideally, it allows a phone to process more information on-device, rather than send data to the cloud.

What can Google Tensor do?

Google provided press demos of what the new TPU inside Tensor could do in the Pixel 6 months before it actually unveiled the phone. It said Tensor uses machine learning to improve photos, and in one demo, it showed a blurry photo of a kid. After running through Tensor, the toddler’s face appeared sharper.

The initial reveal of the Pixel 6 and its Tensor chip was largely focused on the AI-enhanced TPU, and the company doubled down on that angle when it launched Pixel 6 in October 2021, calling Tensor a “milestone for machine learning” with “the most accurate Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR)” that it’s offered.

Google said Tensor can handle quick Google Assistant queries and longer audio tasks like live captions. In another demo during the launch of the Pixel 6, Google teased an on-device auto-caption feature that quickly and accurately translated language in a playing video from French to English in real time.

Google also showed how Tensor enabled other Pixel 6 features, such as Motion Mode and more accurate face detection. There’s also a context hub that it powers. This is used for ultra-low-power AI tasks, like the now-playing alerts that show on the always-on display when the phone is locked.

You can watch part of the Pixel 6 unveiling at the top of this page for a more thorough breakdown of Tensor and all the new features it powers.


What are Google Tensor’s specs and benchmarks?

Google is promising 80 per cent faster CPU performance compared to the Pixel 5, and 370 per cent faster GPU performance.

Tensor packs a custom TPU (Tensor Processing Unit) for AI with a CPU cluster of two ARM Cortex-X1 cores, two mid-range (possibly older Cortex-A76 cores), and then four low-power efficiency cores (possibly Arm’s Cortex-55). Graphics are powered by a 20-core Arm GPU. Plus, there’s an image processing core.

Thanks to all that hardware, Google claimed Tensor can handle dedicated machine learning tasks far more efficiently than previous Pixel phones.

In addition to the TPU, the Pixel 6 sports a new version of Google’s Titan M security chip. In the blog post announcing the Pixel 6, Google claimed, “with Tensor’s new security core and Titan M2, Pixel 6 will have the most layers of hardware security in any phone”.

Is Google Tensor ARM-based silicon?

Yes. According to Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh (via Wired), Tensor is based on the same ARM architecture as Qualcomm and other mobile processors. 

GoogleWhat is Google Tensor and which devices does it power? photo 2

Which devices offer Google Tensor?

Google is releasing new Pixel phones – Pixel 6 and 6 Pro – in October 2021. They’re premium-priced phones powered by Tensor, making them the first devices to launch with Google’s in-house SoC. We’re assuming more Google devices will get Tensor, or versions of it, down the line.

Who developed Google Tensor?

Google said Tensor was co-designed alongside Google Research. Samsung is fabricating the chips on its 5-nanometre LPE process.

Why is Google doing this now?

It’s been five years since Google started making Pixel phones, yet it’s still often asked whether it’s serious about hardware. Google said it began work on Tensor silicon four years ago (around the time it announced it wanted to buy HTC’s phone hardware division). We suspect, with all of Google’s main competitors gaining experience making their own in-house silicon, Google wanted to prove the Pixel line isn’t just a hobby project for it.

But Google has also talked a lot about how computing limitations inspired it to make Tensor. “We set about building a technology platform built for mobile that enabled us to bring our most innovative AI and machine learning (ML) to our Pixel users,” Google said in a blog post announcing Pixel 6. “We set out to make our own System on a Chip. . . Tensor was built for how people use their phones today and how people will use them in the future”.

The company explained that, increasingly, more smartphone features are powered by AI and ML. Tensor will not only unlock computing resources for those tasks, but it can also help provide new, specific experiences for Pixel users, whether it’s a revamped camera system or speech recognition.

Want to know more?

Check out Google’s blog post about Tensor.

Writing by Maggie Tillman. Originally published on .

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