News broke earlier this week that Google has apparently been working with Samsung to develop a new chipset for its devices. The new Google chipset would reportedly appear in Pixel phones as soon as next year, which means the inevitable Pixel 6 might not have Qualcomm power.
This mystery chipset’s appearance is still a while away then, but how could Google and Samsung deliver a new Pixel processor? And what would it be capable of? Join us as we try to demystify the situation.
Why would Google want a new processor?
One of the main reasons could be Google’s increased focus on machine learning and image processing in recent years. We’ve seen the company tout dedicated in-house silicon to address these needs, as the Pixel 2 and Pixel 3 shipped with a so-called Pixel Visual Core for improved image processing. The search giant then stepped things up with the Pixel 4 series, which shipped with a Pixel Neural Core for improved machine learning in general.
Between features like live HDR+ previews, Night Sight, dual exposure controls, the new Google Assistant, Live Caption functionality, and its Recorder app, it seems like Google could be putting this in-house silicon to good use (even if some of these features don’t require special hardware). Either way, it’s clear that Google is pushing imaging and voice capabilities in a big way.
An in-house processor for Pixel phones would offer tighter hardware/software integration and reduce Google's reliance on Qualcomm.
However, Google’s in-house chips sit alongside the high-end Snapdragon chipset rather than residing within it. Bringing those in-house bits into the main processor would theoretically deliver a more power-efficient design. Unfortunately, Qualcomm doesn’t let brands add their own silicon to its chipsets.
Another potential reason for Google to go on its own would be to reduce its reliance on Qualcomm. All signs point to the Snapdragon 865 being significantly more expensive than previous Snapdragon 800 series chips. So Google, like other flagship brands, could be forced to increase the price of its phones by opting for this more expensive SoC.
The other alternatives would be to maintain pricing but suffer reduced profit margins (or even losses) or to merely opt for a cheaper, less capable Snapdragon processor. This may well be the case for the Pixel 5, as evidence is mounting that the Pixel 4 successor will be powered by the mid-range Snapdragon 765G chipset.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 series processors might be considered the best flagship chips around, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. Samsung’s Exynos chips have generally supported the likes of 4K/60fps and 8K video before Qualcomm’s SoCs, while MediaTek’s top-end processor offers 5G+5G dual SIM and the AV1 video codec.
However, if Google doesn’t want to pay a ton of money to someone else, wants tighter integration with its own silicon, and wants more freedom to add features, designing its own chipset seems like the way to go.
What would the chipset look like?
The new chipset will reportedly be designed by Google and manufactured by Samsung on a 5nm process. This suggests Samsung has no input whatsoever in terms of actually designing the processor.
If this is indeed the case, then we’d expect Google to use off-the-shelf parts for the CPU and GPU. Arm is the go-to company for brands wanting smartphone CPUs and GPUs and the new chipset is alleged to have an octa-core Arm CPU. Presumably, this means Google is adopting Arm’s latest CPU cores, such as the Cortex-A77 or even the unannounced Cortex-A78 as one rumor out of Korea suggests.
The GPU is a bit murkier, but Google could likely use Arm’s latest GPU tech as well. In fact, the aforementioned Korean source points to this Google chipset using Arm’s unannounced GPU based on its Borr architecture. Historically, Arm GPUs have lagged behind Qualcomm’s Adreno graphics, so we look forward to what Google is using.
What if Samsung has a bigger role in designing this Google processor though? Well, that spices things up in some ways. Samsung’s decision to kill off its custom CPU unit means we’re not expecting to see a Pixel with Samsung’s CPU technology. We’re still likely to see an Arm GPU in a Google/Samsung processor, especially as all Exynos processors adopt Arm GPUs.
Samsung’s announcement of a partnership with AMD does raise some questions though. We can’t imagine that the deal between the two companies would allow Samsung to give AMD GPU IP to Google. But it would certainly help make Google’s processor stand out if it could get an AMD GPU — don’t hold your breath though.
More than just a CPU and GPU
The CPU and GPU are only half the battle when it comes to designing a processor though, as the likes of Qualcomm, MediaTek, and other companies all focus on heterogeneous processing; that is, offloading tasks from the CPU and GPU to other dedicated chips.
Google has already embraced this trend with its previous in-house silicon, offloading some machine learning tasks to its Pixel Neural Core and some imaging tasks to the Pixel Visual Core. So we’d expect these chips or evolutions of them to land inside an all-new processor.
A custom chipset also gives Google the chance to develop other bits of silicon from scratch to go into the SoC, such as a new image signal processor, a security chip for Face Unlock, always-listening tech, and more.
One of the final pieces in the puzzle is the modem, and it’s proven to be a stumbling block for everyone from Intel and Nvidia over the years. But we seriously doubt the company would go to the trouble of trying to create its own modem for an in-house processor, owing to technological challenges and patent issues, likely relying on Qualcomm, Samsung, or even MediaTek instead.
The modem issue is only exacerbated by the ongoing transition to 5G, and Google will undoubtedly be expected to offer this in next year’s phones. But if Intel with a legacy of building modems couldn’t build a 5G modem and ended up selling its entire division to Apple, what does that say about Google’s chances? Time will tell.
That’s it for our look at how Google could bring its own smartphone processor to life! There’s no guarantee that this chipset actually makes it into a commercial device and if it does, we’ll likely need to wait until closer to the Pixel 6 launch for more concrete details. Until then, let us know your thoughts on a potential Pixel CPU in the comments!