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What is Google Tensor?

Google Tensor is the tech giant’s first entry into the smartphone chip space. But what exactly is Google Tensor? What sets it apart from the Qualcomm Snapdragons and Apple’s A-series of this world?

For answers to these questions and more, read on.

What is Google Tensor?

Google Tensor is Google’s first ever custom smartphone system-on-chip. It was announced as part of a preview of the Google Pixel 6 and Google Pixel 6 Pro on August 2, 2021, and first became available with the launch of those phones on October 19, 2021.

It’s an ARM-based chip, just like every other mobile processor on the market (Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, Apple’s A-series, Samsung’s Exynos etc.), but with crucial custom elements that call upon Google’s expertise with artificial intelligence (AI).

The Tensor name comes directly from the company’s own Tensor Processing Unit, which is an AI-focused application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) that Google developed and began using internally in data centres in 2015. It also relates to Google’s TensorFlow software library for machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Despite being described as an internal Google production, a deep dive on the Google Tensor chip Anandtech revealed that it shared a number of common points with Samsung’s own custom Exynos SoC, suggesting that the Korean giant had a major hand in the first generation Tensor chip’s design.

Why did Google create its own chip?

Prior to the release of its Tensor chip, Google relied on off-the-shelf processors from Qualcomm for its Pixel phones. However, the company ran into computing limitations that prevented it from implementing all of the features it would have like to.

With the Google Tensor, the company has been able to focus on the areas that best suit its strengths and areas of interest. In this case, that means a big boost to machine learning, or ML.

As benchmarks of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have demonstrated, the Google Tensor isn’t the fastest mobile chip on the market when it comes to raw CPU and GPU performance. That’s not where its strengths lie.

Rather, as Google’s Senior Vice President of Devices & Services
Rick Osterloh explains, “it’s about using that ML to unlock specific experiences for our Pixel users”.

Some of those enhanced features include:

Image processing

Google Tensor enables advanced image processing features in the Pixel 6 family, including Motion Mode, Face Unblur, and Magic Eraser.

Motion Mode enables you to capture dynamic action shots with a stable focal point and a blurred background. In a similar fashion, Face Unblur picks out static faces in shots with high levels of movement.

Magic Eraser lets you automatically detect and delete unwanted background elements from your photos.

Tensor has also improved the Pixel 6 range’s video capture capabilities, which have historically never been as strong in Pixel phones as their stills.

Speech enhancement

With Google Tensor on board, the Pixel 6 range boasts the most accurate Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) Google has ever produced. For the first time, it’s able to implement this ASR into its Recorder app and its Live Caption tool, and it doesn’t place a huge strain on battery life.

Google Tensor also enables a powerful Live Translate feature, which instantly translates languages across live chat and media – again in an extremely energy-efficient fashion.

Titan M2 security

Google has gone to great pains to highlight how secure its Tensor chip is. That comes thanks to a custom Titan M2 security core which provides “the most layers of hardware security in any phone”.

Google claims that the Titan M2 can withstand attacks from electromagnetic analysis, voltage glitching and laser fault injection.

Which devices run on Google Tensor?

At the time of writing, the Google Tensor chip powers the following two devices:

  • Google Pixel 6
  • Google Pixel 6 Pro

You can bet your bottom dollar that a second generation Tensor chip will be powering the Google Pixel 7 range come the end of 2022. What’s more, there have been reports that Google plans to power future Chromebooks with its Tensor chip, with the first fruits rumoured to launch in 2023.

It seems inevitable that Google Tensor will find its way into the company’s smartwatches, speakers, and Nest smarthome products.

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