It sounds like this custom Google SoC-based Pixel will really happen. 9to5Google echoed the report about a year ago, according to reports, Pixel 6 is expected to be equipped with Google’s custom “Whitechapel”
The report said: “Google refers to the chip as “GS101”, “GS” Potentially It is an abbreviation of “Google Silicon”. It also pointed out that the chip will be shared in two Google phones currently under development (Pixel 6 and similar “Pixel 5a 5G”). 9to5 said that it has reviewed the document involving Samsung’s SLSI division (Team Exynos). The document and Axios’ previous report stated that the chip was “designed in cooperation with Samsung” and should be built on Samsung’s 5nm wafer production line. 9to5Google said the chip “will share some commonalities with Samsung Exynos, including software components.”
XDA Developers stated that it can confirm the report and said: “According to our sources, SoC seems to be equipped with a 3-cluster setup with TPU (Tensor Processing Unit). We believe this means that they have an integrated Titan M security chip ( Codenamed “Citadel”.) “3 cluster setup” is similar to how Snapdragon 888 works, it has three CPU core sizes: a single large ARM X1 core for large single-threaded workloads, and three medium Cortex A78 cores for multi-core Work, four Cortex A55 cores are used for background work.
Pixel 6 should be phased out sometime in the fourth quarter of 2021, and Pixel phones will always leak in large numbers before they are launched. Therefore, I’m sure we will see more information about this soon.
Whitechapel’s reasonable expectations
It’s easy to hype about Google’s first internal smartphone SoC-“Google is ready to compete with Apple!” Headlines will undoubtedly scream. However, the fact is that Apple is a $2 trillion hardware company, the iPhone is its largest product, and Google is an advertising company, and its hardware department is a small project. Whitechapel will provide Google with more control over the hardware of its smartphones, but Google’s custom chips in the past have not fully attracted the attention of the world, so it is reasonable to adjust the expectations of the company’s first-generation SoC.
Google’s consumer hardware team has delivered several custom chips. I don’t know if you can call it a world-class product:
- This Pixel Vision Core One of Pixel 2 and 3 is a custom camera coprocessor created with the help of Intel. Visual Core helped with HDR+ processing, but Google was able to achieve the same image quality on the Pixel 3a without this chip.
- This Pixel Neural Core The development work of Pixel 4 was separated from the company’s Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) AI accelerator work, and similar work has been done in camera and AI speech recognition work. It doesn’t matter just to delete Pixel 5 completely.
- There is an air gesture detection chip there, Soli Project, On Pixel 4. This is the concept of on-chip radar. Google initially positioned it as being able to detect “sub-millimeter movements of fingers”, but when it was commercialized, it could only detect larger ones with arms and waving gestures. Today, this feature is still used for sleep tracking in the new Nest Hub, but not enough to jump to Pixel 5.
- company’s Titan M security chip Used as a security element in some Pixel phones. Google said that although Qualcomm chips are also equipped with roughly the same security elements, this makes Pixel phones more secure, or at least the company has never shown a significant difference.
I think the biggest benefit we will see from the Google SoC is the extended update schedule. When you get the support of the SoC manufacturer, Android updates will become smoother, but Qualcomm abandoned all of its chips after a three-year major update. The lack of support makes updates very difficult, and today, this is where Google draws the line in updates. With the development of Qualcomm, Google has no excuse for not being able to compare with Apple’s five-year iPhone update policy. With a custom SoC, Google will have complete control over how long it can update the device.
At present, compared with Samsung, Google is in an awkward position to provide less support for its own devices. Samsung currently has three years of major updates (Qualcomm’s most) and four years of security updates, while Google only provides one year of security updates. For Google, this is a very strange position, it used to be in a leading position in the ecosystem in terms of hardware support. Maybe Google did not immediately match Samsung, because it is waiting for the release of Pixel 6, and thanks to its own chip, Pixel 6 will announce a longer support period?
In fact, it is difficult to compete in the SoC business
Apart from easier updates, I don’t know we can have high hopes for Whitechapel. Now, many Android manufacturers have made their own chips with varying degrees of success. Samsung has the Exynos series. Huawei owns its HiSilicon chips. Xiaomi manufactured the Surge S1 SoC in 2017, and recently launched the Surge C1 camera chip in the Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold and invested in silicon designers. Oppo is also developing internal chips. No existing efforts can beat Qualcomm, and most of these companies (except Huawei) still choose Qualcomm instead of their own important equipment chips. Everyone, even Qualcomm, relies on the CPU design of the same company ARM, so there is not much room for difference between them. When everyone is using an off-the-shelf ARM CPU design, the remaining main differentiating areas are GPUs and modems. These are the two areas that Qualcomm excels at, so it can be used on most major devices.
Companies that value hardware will try their best to distinguish themselves from ARM’s benchmark CPU design, but choose to design their own cores based on the ARM instruction set. Apple acquired the entire semiconductor company PA Semi in 2008, thus occupying a dominant position in mobile CPU performance. Qualcomm is doing its best to acquire Nuvia, a chip design company founded by some former Apple chip designers. Google plans to deliver its internally designed CPU in 2022. Google hired some chip designers, but these people were responsible for independent hardware and server teams, and compared to the acquisition of the entire company, they are insignificant. Even if Qualcomm hasn’t delivered custom chips yet, I don’t see any way for Google to use anything on off-the-shelf ARM CPU designs.
Google’s GPU and modem solutions will be areas of great interest. There are not many GPU designs to choose from. Qualcomm has its own Adreno division, which it acquired from ATI a few years ago. Samsung has reached a deal with AMD for its future GPU, but I doubt whether this partnership with Google is worth discussing. If the chip is indeed adjacent to Exynos, then Samsung and many other SoC suppliers will use off-the-shelf ARM Mali GPUs, which are usually not competitive with Qualcomm’s products. Samsung signed the AMD partnership for a reason!
Imagine that a Google SoC with a car modem is a challenge. Unless you own a modem design, and Google doesn’t own any modem IP, it is usually not integrated into the SoC. Samsung has produced chips using onboard 5G modems, but they are not usually shipped to the United States. Therefore, Samsung modems need to share the design with Google and bring them to the United States for the first time. Of course, Qualcomm is the king of a powerful armament company that has a strong modem IP and can shut out competitors, and it is usually a leader in modem technologies such as 5G. Apple has so far managed through a separate cellular modem-now, the iPhone 12 is equipped with a discreet 5G Qualcomm modem, which may be Google’s most likely choice. Apple also bought Intel’s modem division for a billion dollars, which shows that it is working hard to develop car modem technology.
In addition to the usual CPU/GPU/modem options, Google can also add some camera and AI-specific seasonings in the form of some kind of co-processor (hopefully we will also get the Pixel’s first camera sensor upgrade in four years). Google may also include Titan security chips. Even if it does, I can’t imagine that they are very different from using low-quality GPUs or modems for transportation. In the past, Google has never shown the powerful end-user benefits of using its custom chips, just hyped.
When Google doesn’t seem to have made large acquisitions and licensing deals like Apple, Qualcomm and Samsung, it is difficult to be optimistic about Google’s SoC future. But this is at least the beginning.