Pixel 6’s most important feature could be invisible

Twelve days and that counts.

It’s hard to believe, as long as we’re on this topic, but Google’s highly anticipated Pixel 6 phone and its big brother, the Pixel 6 Pro, are finally about to go official. The new devices will roll out of Google’s metaphorical belly a week from Tuesday – October 19, like the proud mum Googleschmoop announcement this week.

We’ve been thinking about Pixel 6 phones for so long now that we almost feel like we know everything about them. But perhaps the most significant advance in phones is something we haven’t yet come across – and may never actually see, at least in a literal sense. In fact, the full scope and value of its presence might not become clear for some time, even after the Pixel 6 has made its way into our oddly wet paws.

Let me take a really quick step back, and I’ll explain what I mean.

The history of the Pixel 6 processor

Back when we first heard rumors about the idea of ​​Google building its own custom processor for the Pixel 6 – around 47 years ago in 2020 – we explained just how much of a ‘having a Google-made chip inside the phone could be important to us. ordinary animals who worship Android in several key ways.

The first is that it would give Google total power to decide how long the processor – and therefore the phone around it – is supported. Although nothing is official yet on this front, leaks suggest the Pixel 6 could receive five years of operating system updates, which would certainly put that point into action.

Another is that having a self-created processor could give Google a new ability to cut costs and potentially pass those savings on to us. Simply and simply, avoiding the markup associated with paying for a part to someone else can lead to significant savings in a phone’s base cost, especially when that component is the core-shaped processor that powers the phone. the whole schlebang (and isn’t exactly cheap). Again, we don’t have any official answers on this yet, but recent leaks do it see like the Pixel 6 could be almost unbelievably affordable.

And then there’s the third factor, and that’s the one I want to focus on today. That factor is that creating the processor inside the Pixel 6 would give Google full control over what, exactly, is included in the phone’s virtual brain. Processors may seem like a concern mostly for engineers, super nerds (heyya!)

As I said in November, with the accent being freshly added now:

Processors are what provide fundamental support for standards like 5G, for example (insignificant as this specific example may be at the moment). They provide the framework for tons of different camera functions, biometric authentication systems, fast charging capabilities and even features related to artificial intelligence operate.

As it stands, Google relies on companies like Qualcomm to give it that framework and determine a lot of what it can do with its Pixel products. And for a company that laser-focused on areas such as machine learning and an always-on-the-go assistant service, this creates serious limitations with the types of experiences it is able to provide.

And that brings us to today – and to a new context eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. main the motivation with his self-made Pixel processor could in fact be and why it could ultimately be so important to the future of the company’s IT vision.

Pixel 6 and the advantage of Google AI

Before we dive too deep, we need to clarify one thing – an often overlooked reality: the Pixel 6 isn’t the first time Google has created its own custom processor. The company has been doing this for years, in fact, until now, mostly on computers in its own internal data centers.

Now stay with me here, because it’s gonna be a little techie for a minute. But I promise it gets us somewhere that’s super relevant to everyone (even those of us who don’t call ourselves Ned).

So here we go: in 2017, as the Pixel program began, a team of Google researchers published a sprawling study who analyzed the performance of the company’s custom processors in these data center devices. Notably, the document refers to chips as units of tensor processing – a Google name. came with to describe the primary purpose of processors to improve the level of machine learning and artificial intelligence processing that associated systems could perform. Notably, it is a name that is also found in the Pixel 6 processor, which is officially marked as the Google Tensor chip.

In 2017, the study compared the performance of Google’s then-internal-use-only Tensor processing units with other third-party processor options in the area of ​​AI-related tasks.


The TPU is on average around 15X – 30X faster than its contemporary GPU or CPU, with TOPS / Watt around 30X – 80X higher. Additionally, using GDDR5 GPU memory in the TPU would triple the TOPS achieved and increase the TOPS / Watt to almost 70X the GPU and 200X the CPU.

Gooblede-gobblede, porgas schmorgas borgas – right? I know. But let me translate this into normal human language:

Google’s homemade Tensor processor was a hell much faster than the best third-party alternatives available – by an almost ridiculously high margin.

For an additional perspective, I spoke with an industry veteran who has spent decades working in the semiconductor field and has close professional connections with the authors of the article. (He has chosen to remain anonymous, as he has no direct involvement in this specific research or work on the current Google processor.)

His opinion ?

“These are scary good numbers. I think because of that a lot of [the] the little delays or failures you see when trying to talk to your phone or do translations or do anything that requires Google to do its math in the cloud will suddenly blaze up – because the phone won’t have to ship much of the math from the phone to the mothership. “

And what’s more: “There is no chance that the standard processors offered by Qualcomm or anyone else will be within an order of magnitude of this kind of performance and power consumption for a long time.”


The larger image of the Pixel 6

To finish filling in that image, zoom out even further for a second: For years, we’ve been talking about how we entered what I like to call the post-OS era – a time when what an assistant virtual you ‘Reuse is more important to a business like Google than which operating system or type of device you prefer. Assistant, ultimately, is more meaningful to the future of Google’s core business than any other variable. And so, getting people to invest as much as possible in the Assistant ecosystem and in the habit of using it as often as possible is arguably Google’s biggest motivator at this point and the thread. underlying that ties most of its movements together.

As this 2017 study illustrates, the main variable holding back Google’s AI-focused efforts and preventing them from reaching their full potential has been processing power and the fact that even the best commercial processors aren’t. optimized for the types of calculations Google wants to do. . The Pixel 6’s homemade processor is the key to changing that – or at least the first step on what will likely be a long, multi-faceted journey.

Google itself alluded to it. In its initial public recognition of the Pixel 6 Tensor chip earlier this yearGoogle Hardware Manager Rick Osterloh put it this way:

AI is the future of our innovation work, but the problem is, we’ve run into some IT limitations that have kept us from fully pursuing our mission. So we started to build a technology platform designed for mobile that allowed us to bring our most innovative AI and machine learning to our Pixel users. …

Tensor was designed for how people use their phones today and how people will use them in the future. As more and more features are powered by AI and ML, it’s not just about adding more computing resources. It’s about using this ML to unlock specific experiences for our Pixel users.

Now, how exactly that will manifest itself in the real world is something we’ll have to wait and see – and something that might not be fully worked out for quite some time yet. So far, Google has hinted at improvements with on-device photo processing, voice recognition, and on-the-fly language translation. But chances are, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

As the semiconductor expert I spoke with said:

“You often think that all of the processor advertising is basically irrelevant in baseball. It’s not that. It’s a very significant change, if what I’m saying is correct – and I’m convinced that it is. is the case. “

The bottom line is this: The Pixel 6 is bound to get a lot of attention for its unusual new design, newly improved camera capabilities, and other surface-level qualities. And by all means, it all counts.

But overall, the part of the last Pixel that matters most may be something we can’t really see – and the extent of the impact won’t become fully apparent for months, if not years, to come. .

Now let’s see if Google can accomplish what it has rarely been able to do and educate the masses of phone buyers about its progress and the practical benefits it will bring in our day to day lives.

Don’t miss an ounce of Pixel magic. Sign up for my new Pixel Academy online course to discover tons of hidden features and time-saving tips for your favorite Pixel phone.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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