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Ctrl+Alt+Del: Google should make a Tensor chip for Chromebooks

OPINION: Google hasn’t launched its own Chromebook since the release of the Pixelbook Go back in 2019. That’s very strange given it is the creator of ChromeOS, the operating system that powers the low-cost laptops. 

That’s not to say there’s a lack of Chromebooks on the market, with the likes of Acer, Asus, Lenovo and HP launching multiple models each year. But due to a Chromebook’s affordable nature, there’s arguably a dearth of innovation – they either get old features trickling down from Windows machines, or nothing at all. 

Google has seemingly tried to remedy the issue by launching its Chromebook Plus initiative, which gives a Chromebook a special badge when they meet Google’s minimum spec. But this will probably only make Intel Core i3 or AMD Ryzen 3 processors more popular rather than incentivising Chromebook-makers to try something new. If Google wants the Chromebook market to continue to grow, it’s going to need something more drastic. 

One solution is hiding in plain sight: a Google-made processor. This week Google launched both the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, both of which will be powered by the new Google Tensor G3 processor. Back in 2019, Google decided to start creating its own smartphone chips to have more control over the development of its Pixel phones, while also pushing hard into AI to differentiate Pixel phones from other Android smartphones. 

Pixel 8 PR shoot
Google Pixel 8

I’d argue that this has been a hugely successful move. Google’s innovations with the AI engine has allowed Pixel phones to become competitive (even with the iPhone) for photography, while it’s also enabled new features such as Magic Eraser and Best Take that allow the average person to make Photoshop-grade tweaks to snaps. 

Apple and Samsung remain the dominant forces, but Google was the fastest growing smartphone brand in North America during Q1 2023. Given the level of success that the Tensor processors have helped the Pixel phones to achieve, I can’t help but wonder why Google won’t make the same move for the Chromebook. 

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The Tensor chip seems to be a perfect fit for the Chromebook. It’s not known for high performance, but that isn’t an issue for these affordable laptops. Instead, Tensor processors specialise in AI performance, and this could be exactly what Chromebooks need to mount a serious challenge on their Windows rivals. 

Windows-powered laptops have started to dabble with AI. The Surface Pro 9 and Acer Swift Edge 16 have a dedicated NPU in their chip, allowing them to make use of AI-powered features such as Windows Studio Effects during video calls, allowing you to easily blur your background, minimise background sound and keep your head framed. They’re certainly impressive, but hardly the game-changing features on the same level as Magic Eraser on Pixel phones. 

The Surface Pro 9 in tablet mode
Surface Pro 9

Google is in a fantastic position to leapfrog its rivals and become the leader in AI performance for laptops. It’s already enabling Pixel users to make easy tweaks to photos and videos, and I’d love that same functionality to come to Chromebooks. There’s also a huge opportunity for Google to improve its own apps such as Gmail, Google Docs and YouTube, with AI helping to boost productivity and make simple tasks much easier for the average person. 

Tensor would likely bring more advantages than AI performance too. Since Tensor is built on Arm instead of Intel x86, it will likely offer superior battery efficiency than Intel Core and AMD Ryzen processors. That’s a big win for me, as I often prioritise battery life over performance when picking out a laptop for office work. 

Google is in a unique position to develop its own chip for a Chromebook too. When launching a completely new processor range, one of the biggest obstacles is to get it working in harmony with the operating system – Arm chips still don’t play nice with Windows, for example. But with Google already developing ChromeOS, it shouldn’t be a problem to get Tensor running on a Chromebook. 

If Google were to launch a Pixelbook with a Tensor chip, I genuinely believe it could have a similar effect on the laptop market as the M1-powered MacBook Air. It would likely become the gold standard for Chromebooks and finally offer an incentive, besides a lower price point, to pick a Chromebook over a MacBook or Windows machine. 

Such a move makes so much sense that it would be silly for Google to miss this opportunity. But then again, this is the same company that canned Google Stadia after just three years… 

Ctrl+Alt+Del is our weekly computing-focused opinion column where we delve deeper into the world of computers, laptops, components, peripherals and more. Find it on Trusted Reviews every Saturday afternoon.

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