Google will abandon Qualcomm and build its own smartphone processors this year

Technology

CNBC 02 August, 2021 - 11:47am 78 views

Google announced Monday it will build its own smartphone processor, called Google Tensor, that will power its new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro phones this fall.

It's another example of a company building its own chips to create what it felt wasn't possible with those already on the market. In this case, Google is ditching Qualcomm. The move follows Apple, which is using its own processors in its new computers instead of Intel chips. And like Apple, Google is using an Arm-based architecture. Arm processors are lower power and are used across the industry for mobile devices, from phones to tablets and laptops.

Qualcomm said it will continue to work closely with Google on current and future products based on its Snapdragon platform.

Google Tensor will power new flagship phones that are expected to launch in October. (Google will reveal more details about those phones closer to launch.) That, too, is a strategy shift for Google, which in recent years has focused on affordability in its Pixel devices instead of offering high-end phones. And it shows that Google is again trying to compete directly in the flagship space against Apple and Samsung.

The name Google Tensor is a nod to the name of Google's Tensor Processing Unit the company uses for cloud computing. It's a full system on a chip, or SoC, that the company says will offer big improvements to photo and video processing on phones, along with features like voice-to-speech and translation. And it includes a dedicated processor that runs artificial intelligence applications, in addition to a CPU, GPU and image signal processor. It will allow the phone to process more information on the device instead of having to send data to the cloud.

"The problem with Pixel has been that we keep running into limits with existing off-the-shelf technology solutions, and it's just really hard to get our most advanced stuff from research teams onto the phone," Google's hardware boss Rick Osterloh told CNBC in an interview last week. "It's going to really transform what we can do on the phone with machine learning and AI."

Osterloh said the new chip will help Google's phones take better photos and videos. "We've really made a custom computer built for computational photography," he said.

Google's Pixel phones already take some of the best pictures of any phone on the market, so that's a big claim. But in a demo with CNBC, Osterloh showed one example of how the new chip can help decrease blurring when a subject moves while you're taking a picture. The same technology Google uses to improve photos can now be used to improve videos, which Osterloh said wasn't possible with other chips.

Osterloh showed other examples, like faster and more accurate text-to-speech when you're speaking out a text message, and new offline translation for captions for videos. Those are neat examples of the power of the chip, but they may not be enough to get people to buy a Pixel over an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy device.

And that's the problem Google really needs to solve: getting people to buy Pixel in the first place.

The company's earlier phones have been great, but Google hasn't done enough marketing to make consumers aware that they exist, or that they're any good. With earlier models, it couldn't even get all the major U.S. carriers to offer them. And it's unclear if it has all of them on board this time. But Osterloh said Google will make more flagship-tier phones and that we can expect a big marketing push around Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro in the fall. 

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Google’s own mobile chip is called Tensor | Engadget

Engadget 02 August, 2021 - 11:00am

He’s understandably proud and excited to share the news. The chip is called Tensor, and it’s the first system-on-chip (SoC) designed by Google. The company has “been at this about five years,” he said, though CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a statement that Tensor “has been four years in the making and builds off of two decades of Google’s computing experience.”

That software expertise is something Google has come to be known for. It led the way in computational photography with its Night Sight mode for low light shots, and weirded out the world with how successfully its conversational AI Duplex was able to mimic human speech — right down to the “ums and ahs.” Tensor both leverages Google’s machine learning prowess and enables the company to bring AI experiences to smartphones that it couldn’t before.

Holding a diet Coke in one hand and gesturing animatedly with the other, Osterloh threw around hyperbolic marketing language like “We’re transforming the computing experience” and “It’ll be what we consider to be a pretty dramatic transformation overall.”

He’s alluding to Tensor enabling experiences that previous chips (the company’s mostly used Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors in its prior phones) couldn’t deliver. Things like being able to run multiple AI-intensive tasks simultaneously without a phone overheating, or having enough power to apply computational processing to videos as they’re being captured.

That belief in Tensor’s significance is part of why Google chose to announce it today ahead of the Pixel 6’s actual launch in the fall. The company isn’t giving away all the details about the processor yet, nor is it sharing specific information about its latest flagships now. But “there's a lot of new stuff here, and we wanted to make sure people had context,” Osterloh said. “We think it’s a really big change, so that’s why we want to start early.”

Plus, there’s an added benefit. “Information gets out,” Osterloh added. “Nowadays it’s like, stuff leaks.”

Thanks to those leaks, though, we’ve heard plenty of rumors about Google’s efforts to make its own mobile processor for a while, under the code name Project Whitechapel. While the company won’t publicly discuss code names, it’s clear that work on Tensor has been going on for a long time.

The chip’s name is an obvious nod to the company’s open-source platform for machine learning, TensorFlow, Osterloh said, and that should tell you how big a role AI plays in this processor. Though Google isn’t ready to share the full details about Tensor yet, Osterloh did explain that the SoC is an ARM chip designed around a TPU, or Tensor Processing Unit. The mobile chip was co-designed with Google’s AI researchers and the TPU is based on their larger versions in the company’s data centers.

It’s not just designed to speed up machine learning tasks on your phone, either. Osterloh said they’ve also redesigned the image signal processor, or ISP. Specifically, he said there are a “few points in the ISP where we can actually insert machine learning, which is new.”

Google also reconstructed the memory architecture to make it easier to access RAM, and allow for data manipulation while processing images. There are also a few places where Osterloh said they’ve directly encoded their image processing algorithms into the hardware. He says this allows Google to do “stuff that was previously impossible to do on standard SoCs,” though he didn’t share specific details on what Tensor now enables that previous SoCs couldn’t.

Of course, with this being Google’s first mobile chip, Osterloh concedes people might see the company as unproven. Though he did push back by saying, “I think people are pretty aware of Google’s overall capability.”

It’s natural to wonder if the company can compete in areas like power efficiency and heat management. Osterloh said they’ve designed Tensor to perform some tasks more power efficiently than previous processors they’ve used while staying within a thermal threshold. Similar to existing processors, Osterloh said “the system has a bunch of different subsystems, [and] we can use the most power efficient element of it for the task at hand.”

Though there’s an ongoing global chip shortage, Osterloh is confident that Google can manage demand. “Everyone’s affected by this, no doubt,” he said. “The positive thing about this is it’s under our control, we’re making this and we’re responsible for it. So we think we should be okay.”

So what can Tensor do that other mobile processors can’t? Google is saving most of the juicy bits for the Pixel 6’s launch in the fall. But, it did offer two examples of areas that would see dramatic improvement: Photography and voice recognition (and processing). At our meeting, Osterloh showed off some demos of new Tensor-enabled features on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, which also gives us our first look at the phones. The handsets feature a distinctive new look and bright color options. They also have a horizontal camera bump that spans the width of the rear, which is “a very intentional part of the design,” Osterloh notes. "We’ve really been known for photography, [so] we wanted to really emphasize this.”

Google’s upgraded the cameras themselves, but the promised photography improvements aren’t just from optical hardware. Tensor is behind some of it. With previous chips, the company kept running into limits when trying to improve photography on its phones. “These weren’t designed for machine learning, or AI, and certainly not designed to optimize for where Google’s headed,” he said.

So where is Google headed? Towards a world of “ambient computing,” a vision that Osterloh and many of his colleagues have touted in the past. They see a future where all the devices and sensors we’re surrounded by can communicate with Google (sometimes via the Assistant) or the internet. But Osterloh knows that for most people, the most important device is still going to be the smartphone. “We see the mobile phone as the center of that.”

So when Google wanted to improve beyond the limits of contemporary processors, it had to do something different. “What we've done in the past, when we encountered these kinds of engineering, constraints and technical constraints, is we take on the problem ourselves,” Osterloh said.

With Tensor, the Pixel 6 can do things like concurrently capture images from two sensors, with the main one recording at normal exposure and the wide-angle running at a much faster shutter speed. Osterloh said the system runs a number of different machine learning models in real time to help figure out stuff about the scene, like whether there’s a face and is the device moving or shaking. The Pixel 6 will then combine all that info and use it to process photos so that if you’re trying to capture a hyperactive puppy or toddler, you’ll be less likely to get a blurry shot.

Tensor will also let Google perform computationally intensive tasks while you’re shooting video. Osterloh said that in the past the company hasn’t been able to apply a lot of machine learning to video, since it would be too taxing for a phone processor. But “that all changes with Tensor,” he said. One thing they’ve been able to run is an HDRnet model on videos, which drastically improves quality in tricky situations like when the camera is pointing at the sun.

Osterloh showed me demos of how the Pixel 6 did both these things, including a before-and-after example of a blurry photo of an active child and video comparisons of a campground at sunset. While there was a clear difference, I unfortunately can’t show you the results. Besides, these were controlled demos from Google. I can’t really gauge how impressive and useful these features are until we get to test them in the real world.

I did get to see a more telling preview, though. Osterloh also showed me how voice dictation will work in the Pixel 6 on GBoard. On the upcoming phone, you’ll be able to hit the microphone button in the compose field, narrate your message and use hotwords like “Send” or “Clear” to trigger actions. You can also edit typos via the onscreen keyboard while the mic is still listening for your dictation.

This all works via a new Speech On Device API, and I was impressed that the system was smart enough to distinguish between when you say “Send” in “I will send the kids to school” versus when you’re telling it to send the message. Osterloh told me the algorithm is looking not just for the hotword but also your tone of voice and delivery before it triggers the action.

Finally, there are a couple more things that Osterloh showed me: Live Caption with Translate, as well as Android 12’s Material You design. Thanks to Tensor, Android’s Live Caption feature, which provides subtitles for anything playing through your device’s sound system, will be able to translate what’s being said in real time as well. This all happens on device, so the next time you’re watching a foreign-language TED Talk or your favorite international TV show, it won’t matter if they don’t have subtitles — Tensor will provide.

Meanwhile, Material You, which Google first unveiled at I/O this year, is what Osterloh called the biggest UI change in Android maybe since the beginning. I’ve been waiting to see the feature in the Android 12 public beta, but it’s still not available there. At our meeting, Osterloh showed me how it works — he changed the wallpaper of a Pixel 6 from something more rosy hued to a scene of a body of water, and the system’s icons and highlights quickly updated to match. App icons were painted to match as well, but something new I learned from this demo was that if you’re like me and prefer your icons to keep their original colors, you can opt to leave them untouched.

We’ve gotten a really good look at what’s coming in the fall, though Google is still keeping plenty of details under wraps. We don’t know yet if it plans to say if it had help from other manufacturers in coming up with Tensor, and details about CPU and GPU cores, clock speeds and other components will be shared later this year. But with the new chip, Google’s been able to realize a years-long dream.

“We kind of see this as The Google Phone,” he said. “This is what we set out to build several years ago and we’re finally here.”

This is the Pixel 6, Google’s take on an ‘ultra high end’ phone

XDA Developers 02 August, 2021 - 11:00am

Google’s new Tensor SoC is the heart of its next phone

Tensor is an SoC, not a single processor. And so while it’s fair to call it Google-designed, it’s also still unclear which components are Google-made and which are licensed from others. Two things are definitely coming from Google: a mobile TPU for AI operations and a new Titan M2 chip for security. The rest, including the CPU, GPU, and 5G modem, are all still a mystery.

Less mysterious: the phones themselves. I spent about an hour at Google’s Mountain View campus last week looking at the phone hardware and talking with Google’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh about Tensor. After all that, my main takeaway about the new Pixel 6 phones is simple.

Google is actually, finally trying to make a competitive flagship phone.

Both versions of the Pixel were glass sandwiches with fit-and-finish that are finally in the same league as what Samsung, Huawei, and Apple have to offer. “We’ve definitively not been in the flagship tier for the past couple years, this will be different,” says Osterloh. He also admits that “it will certainly be a premium-priced product,” which I take to mean north of $1,000.

The Pixel 6 Pro will have a 6.7-inch QHD+ display with a 120Hz refresh rate. That screen is very slightly curved at the edges, blending into shiny, polished aluminum rails on the side. It has three cameras on the back: a new wide-angle main sensor, an ultrawide, and a 4X optical-zoom folded telephoto lens. Google isn’t sharing specs on the camera beyond saying the main wide-angle sensor takes in 150 percent more light.

The regular Pixel 6 has a 6.4-inch FHD+ screen with a 90Hz refresh rate. Its screen is perfectly flat, with matte-finished rails. It also loses the telephoto camera.

Although there will be memory differences between the phones, both will have the new Tensor SoC, a Titan M2 security chip, and in-display fingerprint sensor. There will be slightly different color options for the two types of phones.

As is often the case with polarizing designs, the look of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro make a little more sense in person than in leaked images. There is a huge “camera bar” that runs the full width of the phones, with a barely raised metal rail to protect the glass from scratches. There are only so many ways to handle massive camera bumps on big phones and Google’s solution is to “celebrate and highlight” them, in Osterloh’s words.

So excited to share our new custom Google Tensor chip, which has been 4 yrs in the making ( for scale)! Tensor builds off of our 2 decades of computing experience and it’s our biggest innovation in Pixel to date. Will be on Pixel 6 + Pixel 6 Pro in fall. https://t.co/N95X6gFxLf pic.twitter.com/wHiEJRHJwy

Qualcomm has a virtual monopoly on processors in Android devices in the US. Worldwide, there is a little bit more competition as Samsung, MediaTek, and Huawei all have chips in Android phones. But on the whole, processing power on Android phones is rightfully thought of as woefully behind what Apple has done with its own in-house silicon on its A-Series line of chips.

Because of that situation, there’s a lot of interest to see if Google could potentially make a more competitive chip that could differentiate its products. But don’t let that interest trick you into thinking that Tensor is exactly equivalent to Apple’s A-Series chips. Tensor is the system on a chip, with a mix of components that Google itself has designed and others that it has licensed.

Google’s not sharing who designed the CPU and GPU, nor is it sharing benchmarks on their performance — though Osterloh says that it should be “market leading.” (Current rumors suggest that it might be Samsung providing those more standard component designs.) He adds, “The standard stuff people look at will be very competitive and the AI stuff will be totally differentiated.”

Instead, this week’s announcement is an attempt to reframe the narrative away from gigahertz and toward artificial intelligence and machine learning in phones — areas where Google, of course, has a big advantage.

Typically when you think about a phone’s specs, you think of the core three: CPU, GPU, and RAM. Those pieces of the SoC are what impact your day-to-day experience the most — how fast the phone feels, how long it lasts on battery, how well it connects to a cellular network, and so on. After that, there are generally some co-processors off to the side that handle discrete tasks like image processing or security. Google itself has already made some of those — the Titan M chip and Pixel Visual Core have appeared on previous phones.

“It’s definitely very different than just another co-processor,” Osterloh says. “Like with any SoC, we license a lot of technology into it, but this is our design and it was designed specifically with the purpose of driving our ML and AI forward.” Google’s argument is that the new chips in Tensor are an essential part of many of the things the new Pixel phones can do — not unlike Apple’s Neural Core in its A-Series processors.

The most important of those chips is a mobile version of a Tensor Processing Unit. Google has been making TPUs for its server farms for over five years now, dedicated to more efficiently performing AI and ML tasks. It offered an “edge” version of its TPU for enterprise solutions a few years ago, but the Pixel 6 marks the first time Google has put a mobile TPU in a phone.

So what can the new TPU inside Tensor actually do? Google had a small handful of demos. The first two were, unsurprisingly, related to photography. Using ML to make better photos has historically been a huge advantage for Pixel phones, but in recent years progress has stagnated and competitors have caught and surpassed the Pixel — and far surpassed it when it comes to video.

Google clearly wants to take back the crown and thinks the TPU is the way to do it. The first demo Google showed was a blurry photo of a toddler — the kid was moving because that is what kids do. A second version of the photo was the same but run through Tensor’s TPU, and the kid’s face was sharper.

But impressive image demos are a dime a dozen these days. Google itself famously promised to remove chain link fences from photos in 2017 but never delivered. The promise of Tensor is to deliver better results more quickly, since the SoC is designed to more efficiently run data through the TPU.

It’s right to be skeptical until we get a chance to test the camera ourselves. It’s necessary to be skeptical of the Pixel 6’s video abilities given the Pixel line’s history of mediocre video — but Google’s second demo didn’t make skepticism easy.

It was a simple pan across a beach, with the setting sun fully in frame for much of the shot. As an HDR video, it was challenging. Google set up a rig with the Pixel 6, Pixel 5, and iPhone 12 Pro Max and shot the same pan with all three. As you might expect in a demo provided by Google, video from Google’s new phone looked the best.

Specifically, it didn’t artificially brighten shadows too much like the iPhone 12 Pro Max and also maintained a more natural white balance throughout. Compared to the Pixel 5, it was no contest. Last year’s Pixel over-sharpened everything into abstract art while the Pixel 6 looked much more natural.

The main reason the Pixel 6’s video was better, according to Osterloh, is that putting the TPU in line with the whole image processing stand means that the same HDRNet process that Google applies to still images can now be applied to every single frame in video. The demo I saw was in 4K at 30fps.

The other demos were a bit more subtle and were related to translating speech to text, which Tensor handled locally without needing an internet connection. In one, the Pixel’s on-device auto-caption feature appeared to be a little faster and more accurate — and was even able to translate from French to English in real time from a playing video. “We’re now able to run data-center quality models on our device,” says Osterloh.

In another demo, Osterloh showed that speaking to type was nearly instantaneous and that he could use the keyboard to edit words inline at the same time he was speaking — both input methods were active at the same time.

In addition to the TPU, the Pixel 6 will also have a new version of Google’s Titan M security chip. In the blog post announcing the Pixel 6, Google is going so far as to say that “with Tensor’s new security core and Titan M2, Pixel 6 will have the most layers of hardware security in any phone,” with a footnote that the claim is “based on a count of independent hardware security subsystems and components.”

Finally, Osterloh says there will be an “always-on computer” that will handle low-level, low-power processes like the ambient display. The battery life target for the Pixel 6 is still only “all day,” however.

So Google has its work cut out for it. Doubly so, actually, since the Google Pixel line has languished in the low single digits of market share in the US ever since it was announced.

With the Google Pixel 6, Osterloh says that’s going to change. He’s ready to start grabbing market share wherever he can get it — whether that be from Apple or Samsung. “The product is really, now, The Google Phone,” Osterloh says. “So we are ready to invest a lot in marketing and we want to grow.”

In last week’s earnings call, Google CFO Ruth Porat warned investors to keep a look out for higher than usual marketing costs: “In addition, we expect sales and marketing expenses to be more heavily weighted to the back half of the year in part to support product launches in the holiday season.”

It has been five years since Google started making Pixel phones and in nearly every single one of those years I’ve asked some variation of the same question: is Google really serious about hardware? Does it intend to be a real competitor and make real money or is the entire effort just a rehashing of the old Nexus strategy? Or, to use a more recent reference, is the Pixel line just in a kind of “Pantry Mode,” kept alive just in case it’s ever needed for real?

Osterloh says that work on this new Tensor silicon began four years ago. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was about four years ago when Google announced it intended to buy HTC’s phone hardware division. That must have been the year Google got serious about the Pixel line — and it’s only now that we’re beginning to see the fruits of that effort.

Will it be enough? Will the Pixel 6 seriously vie for the enthusiast crowd that wants the very best phone and also grab measurable market share at the same time? We are very far from being able to answer those questions right now.

I am not going to tell you to get hyped up for the Pixel 6. It’s too early and there’s too much we don’t know. But I do think it’s very interesting that Google wants to start building up hype.

This is the Pixel 6, Google’s take on an ‘ultra high end’ phone

The Verge 02 August, 2021 - 11:00am

Google’s new Tensor SoC is the heart of its next phone

Tensor is an SoC, not a single processor. And so while it’s fair to call it Google-designed, it’s also still unclear which components are Google-made and which are licensed from others. Two things are definitely coming from Google: a mobile TPU for AI operations and a new Titan M2 chip for security. The rest, including the CPU, GPU, and 5G modem, are all still a mystery.

Less mysterious: the phones themselves. I spent about an hour at Google’s Mountain View campus last week looking at the phone hardware and talking with Google’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh about Tensor. After all that, my main takeaway about the new Pixel 6 phones is simple.

Google is actually, finally trying to make a competitive flagship phone.

Both versions of the Pixel were glass sandwiches with fit-and-finish that are finally in the same league as what Samsung, Huawei, and Apple have to offer. “We’ve definitively not been in the flagship tier for the past couple years, this will be different,” says Osterloh. He also admits that “it will certainly be a premium-priced product,” which I take to mean north of $1,000.

The Pixel 6 Pro will have a 6.7-inch QHD+ display with a 120Hz refresh rate. That screen is very slightly curved at the edges, blending into shiny, polished aluminum rails on the side. It has three cameras on the back: a new wide-angle main sensor, an ultrawide, and a 4X optical-zoom folded telephoto lens. Google isn’t sharing specs on the camera beyond saying the main wide-angle sensor takes in 150 percent more light.

The regular Pixel 6 has a 6.4-inch FHD+ screen with a 90Hz refresh rate. Its screen is perfectly flat, with matte-finished rails. It also loses the telephoto camera.

Although there will be memory differences between the phones, both will have the new Tensor SoC, a Titan M2 security chip, and in-display fingerprint sensor. There will be slightly different color options for the two types of phones.

As is often the case with polarizing designs, the look of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro make a little more sense in person than in leaked images. There is a huge “camera bar” that runs the full width of the phones, with a barely raised metal rail to protect the glass from scratches. There are only so many ways to handle massive camera bumps on big phones and Google’s solution is to “celebrate and highlight” them, in Osterloh’s words.

So excited to share our new custom Google Tensor chip, which has been 4 yrs in the making ( for scale)! Tensor builds off of our 2 decades of computing experience and it’s our biggest innovation in Pixel to date. Will be on Pixel 6 + Pixel 6 Pro in fall. https://t.co/N95X6gFxLf pic.twitter.com/wHiEJRHJwy

Qualcomm has a virtual monopoly on processors in Android devices in the US. Worldwide, there is a little bit more competition as Samsung, MediaTek, and Huawei all have chips in Android phones. But on the whole, processing power on Android phones is rightfully thought of as woefully behind what Apple has done with its own in-house silicon on its A-Series line of chips.

Because of that situation, there’s a lot of interest to see if Google could potentially make a more competitive chip that could differentiate its products. But don’t let that interest trick you into thinking that Tensor is exactly equivalent to Apple’s A-Series chips. Tensor is the system on a chip, with a mix of components that Google itself has designed and others that it has licensed.

Google’s not sharing who designed the CPU and GPU, nor is it sharing benchmarks on their performance — though Osterloh says that it should be “market leading.” (Current rumors suggest that it might be Samsung providing those more standard component designs.) He adds, “The standard stuff people look at will be very competitive and the AI stuff will be totally differentiated.”

Instead, this week’s announcement is an attempt to reframe the narrative away from gigahertz and toward artificial intelligence and machine learning in phones — areas where Google, of course, has a big advantage.

Typically when you think about a phone’s specs, you think of the core three: CPU, GPU, and RAM. Those pieces of the SoC are what impact your day-to-day experience the most — how fast the phone feels, how long it lasts on battery, how well it connects to a cellular network, and so on. After that, there are generally some co-processors off to the side that handle discrete tasks like image processing or security. Google itself has already made some of those — the Titan M chip and Pixel Visual Core have appeared on previous phones.

“It’s definitely very different than just another co-processor,” Osterloh says. “Like with any SoC, we license a lot of technology into it, but this is our design and it was designed specifically with the purpose of driving our ML and AI forward.” Google’s argument is that the new chips in Tensor are an essential part of many of the things the new Pixel phones can do — not unlike Apple’s Neural Core in its A-Series processors.

The most important of those chips is a mobile version of a Tensor Processing Unit. Google has been making TPUs for its server farms for over five years now, dedicated to more efficiently performing AI and ML tasks. It offered an “edge” version of its TPU for enterprise solutions a few years ago, but the Pixel 6 marks the first time Google has put a mobile TPU in a phone.

So what can the new TPU inside Tensor actually do? Google had a small handful of demos. The first two were, unsurprisingly, related to photography. Using ML to make better photos has historically been a huge advantage for Pixel phones, but in recent years progress has stagnated and competitors have caught and surpassed the Pixel — and far surpassed it when it comes to video.

Google clearly wants to take back the crown and thinks the TPU is the way to do it. The first demo Google showed was a blurry photo of a toddler — the kid was moving because that is what kids do. A second version of the photo was the same but run through Tensor’s TPU, and the kid’s face was sharper.

But impressive image demos are a dime a dozen these days. Google itself famously promised to remove chain link fences from photos in 2017 but never delivered. The promise of Tensor is to deliver better results more quickly, since the SoC is designed to more efficiently run data through the TPU.

It’s right to be skeptical until we get a chance to test the camera ourselves. It’s necessary to be skeptical of the Pixel 6’s video abilities given the Pixel line’s history of mediocre video — but Google’s second demo didn’t make skepticism easy.

It was a simple pan across a beach, with the setting sun fully in frame for much of the shot. As an HDR video, it was challenging. Google set up a rig with the Pixel 6, Pixel 5, and iPhone 12 Pro Max and shot the same pan with all three. As you might expect in a demo provided by Google, video from Google’s new phone looked the best.

Specifically, it didn’t artificially brighten shadows too much like the iPhone 12 Pro Max and also maintained a more natural white balance throughout. Compared to the Pixel 5, it was no contest. Last year’s Pixel over-sharpened everything into abstract art while the Pixel 6 looked much more natural.

The main reason the Pixel 6’s video was better, according to Osterloh, is that putting the TPU in line with the whole image processing stand means that the same HDRNet process that Google applies to still images can now be applied to every single frame in video. The demo I saw was in 4K at 30fps.

The other demos were a bit more subtle and were related to translating speech to text, which Tensor handled locally without needing an internet connection. In one, the Pixel’s on-device auto-caption feature appeared to be a little faster and more accurate — and was even able to translate from French to English in real time from a playing video. “We’re now able to run data-center quality models on our device,” says Osterloh.

In another demo, Osterloh showed that speaking to type was nearly instantaneous and that he could use the keyboard to edit words inline at the same time he was speaking — both input methods were active at the same time.

In addition to the TPU, the Pixel 6 will also have a new version of Google’s Titan M security chip. In the blog post announcing the Pixel 6, Google is going so far as to say that “with Tensor’s new security core and Titan M2, Pixel 6 will have the most layers of hardware security in any phone,” with a footnote that the claim is “based on a count of independent hardware security subsystems and components.”

Finally, Osterloh says there will be an “always-on computer” that will handle low-level, low-power processes like the ambient display. The battery life target for the Pixel 6 is still only “all day,” however.

So Google has its work cut out for it. Doubly so, actually, since the Google Pixel line has languished in the low single digits of market share in the US ever since it was announced.

With the Google Pixel 6, Osterloh says that’s going to change. He’s ready to start grabbing market share wherever he can get it — whether that be from Apple or Samsung. “The product is really, now, The Google Phone,” Osterloh says. “So we are ready to invest a lot in marketing and we want to grow.”

In last week’s earnings call, Google CFO Ruth Porat warned investors to keep a look out for higher than usual marketing costs: “In addition, we expect sales and marketing expenses to be more heavily weighted to the back half of the year in part to support product launches in the holiday season.”

It has been five years since Google started making Pixel phones and in nearly every single one of those years I’ve asked some variation of the same question: is Google really serious about hardware? Does it intend to be a real competitor and make real money or is the entire effort just a rehashing of the old Nexus strategy? Or, to use a more recent reference, is the Pixel line just in a kind of “Pantry Mode,” kept alive just in case it’s ever needed for real?

Osterloh says that work on this new Tensor silicon began four years ago. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was about four years ago when Google announced it intended to buy HTC’s phone hardware division. That must have been the year Google got serious about the Pixel line — and it’s only now that we’re beginning to see the fruits of that effort.

Will it be enough? Will the Pixel 6 seriously vie for the enthusiast crowd that wants the very best phone and also grab measurable market share at the same time? We are very far from being able to answer those questions right now.

I am not going to tell you to get hyped up for the Pixel 6. It’s too early and there’s too much we don’t know. But I do think it’s very interesting that Google wants to start building up hype.

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