Google calls them Tensor chips, and this will be the first time the company has put full chipsets of its own design into its smartphones.
“We are no doubt a challenger in this domain,” Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “There are two main category leaders, and I think a lot of people see the space as potentially in a little bit of stasis.”
The practice of designing your own processor is not new, or even all that unusual: Apple has been designing its own mobile chips since the days of the iPhone 4, and Samsung uses lots of its own processors in the phones and tablets it sells overseas. That Google is now designing its own chips instead of sourcing them from longtime partner Qualcomm is a clear sign that the company is getting serious about the future of its smartphone business.
Still, Google is undeniably playing catch-up. The search giant’s devices accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the smartphones shipped in the United States this second quarter ended June 30, according to data from market research firm Strategy Analytics.
Osterloh said he believes that these new chips, which are built to supercharge software features that rely on artificial intelligence, could help “break through” to new users.
For now, Google isn’t talking openly about what we can anticipate from its new phones, including the price and when they would be released. The company has typically launched its new smartphones in October, except for last year when it held the launch virtually at the end of September. Though Google declined to go into specifics, this year’s Pixel phones feature sleek glass-and-metal designs, multiple cameras and big screens, which all but guarantee they will cost more than last year’s Pixel 5, which costs about $700.
The company wouldn’t comment on whether its new chips will be as fast as the ones found in smartphones you can buy right now. And while Osterloh said that security was a “key part” of the Tensor chip’s design, he would not comment on whether it could help make Android more resilient against specialized spyware used by outfits such as NSO.
But here is what you can expect from Google’s new hardware in action.
First up: You can expect to see clearer photos, especially of squirming subjects.
Parents and pet owners are probably more used to blurry photos than most, but the Pixel 6’s cameras can compensate for motion and less-than-ideal lighting. Let’s say you are trying to take a photograph of a finicky child indoors — instead of capturing a single still and presenting it to you, the phone will actually combine images taken with both of its cameras.
The Pixel 6’s main camera snaps one, which correctly exposes the scene and renders its colors. Then the phone’s ultrawide camera shoots the same scene at a higher speed for sharper contours. With some help from that new chip, Google’s software mashes up both photos and uses a handful of machine-learning tricks to make a better image than either of the phone’s cameras could take alone.
Beyond better pictures of the family, the chip also helps its phones recognize your speech more quickly and accurately. (If you have ever watched in horror as a text message you tried to dictate came out mangled and mispunctuated, this AI feature is for you.) All of that speech recognition happens on the phone itself — Google says none of your words get recorded and shuffled off to a server somewhere.
That improved speech recognition could come in handy even when you are not the person talking. Google’s Pixel phones have had the ability to automatically transcribe and caption videos and podcasts on the fly for a few years now, but the company’s forthcoming models will also be able to generate live, translated captions when you are watching — or listening to — content in another language.
Whether these features are enough to make you buy a Google phone instead of something else is a very personal determination, and you definitely should not jump to any conclusions. We will know more about the company’s plans in a few months.
But it is worth keeping in mind that Google’s plans carry weight even if you never plan to buy one of its phones. That is because the very existence of the Tensor chip raises interesting questions about Google’s relationship with the rest of the Android world.
For the past five years, smartphone makers that use the company’s software have watched as Google has carved out a unique path for its own devices: one that delivers fast, frequent software updates and introduces new features that do not always make it to rival devices. In other words, the Android experience found on Pixel phones is not just different from what you would find on say, a Samsung or a Motorola device. In many ways, it is also better.
Case in point: Google’s phones can screen incoming calls, allowing you to listen to callers explain why they are attempting to contact you, and accept or decline depending on their response. The company’s own Help Center listing for the feature notes that it works perfectly on Pixels, but only on “select other Android phones.”
With Tensor chips being pressed into each of the company’s new Pixel 6 phones, it seems possible that Google’s flavor of Android continues to become more convenient and feature-rich. That is great if you are a Pixel fan — or do not mind becoming one — but could put people who prefer other Android phone brands at somewhat of a disadvantage. Google, for its part, sees that as business as usual.
“Android is an open-source system,” Osterloh said. “People can modify it however they want. And lots of people do that in a way that’s appropriate for their brand. We’re just doing it in a way that’s appropriate for ours.”
For now, at least, it is too soon to tell if Google’s plans will make for phones you will actually want to buy. But if things do not work out, it will not be for lack of effort — or resources.
“We are definitely going to invest a significant amount in growth,” Osterloh said.