The Pixel 6’s Google Tensor could be the fastest chip for Android

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Leaked tidbits from a real Pixel 6 Pro device suggest that the included Google Tensor chip may be one of the fastest chips available for Android phones.

Earlier this year, and well ahead of schedule, Google officially unveiled the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro by announcing the Google Tensor chip that will be included in the phones. While Google previously upgraded its phones with components like the Neural Core, which processes photos and handles some Google Assistant functions, and Titan, its dedicated security hardware, the Tensor chip would incorporate these into its own design for efficiency reasons.

While Google is surprisingly open about the tensor chip and its improvements, the company has left many details unpublished. For example, we don’t know how well the chip will perform against competitors from Qualcomm, Samsung or even Apple.

Over the weekend, a listing for the Pixel 6 Pro appeared on Geekbench, a popular tool for benchmarking computers and smartphones that shares many of this device’s specifications. While this may seem like a gold mine – and it did for a while – it wasn’t long before people started making counterfeit “devices”, uploading the results, and watching outlets label them as “leaks.”

That even proves Another Geekbench listing for the “Pixel 6 Pro” released on the same day, which appears to have a Qualcomm processor, an obvious contradiction and a fake. Since it is so easy to forge these listings, each one must be viewed with caution.

However, the folks at XDA cite a source with a real Pixel 6 Pro model in hand. That source was reportedly able to confirm some details of the more plausible Geekbench listing – along with many other Pixel 6 tidbits – including some details about the Google Tensor processor slated to debut in the Pixel 6 series. The crucial details about the supported source of the Google Tensor Chip XDA are the arrangement of the processor cores as well as their frequencies, which together are enough to puzzle the entire design.

For years, most ARM processors in smartphones followed a “big.LITTLE” design, using a cluster of more powerful (or “large”) cores for demanding apps / games, while a cluster of more energy-efficient (or “small”) cores takes care of it take care of the rest of your phone. This strikes a strong balance between being able to perform well in one moment and having good battery life the rest of the time.

More recently, chip designers have moved on to adding a third cluster to the mix. Both Samsung and Qualcomm have opted for a so-called “1 + 3 + 4” design, ie one cluster with a very powerful core, another with three medium / large cores and a third with four low-performance cores. The Snapdragon 888, for example, uses a single Cortex-X1 core for its high-performance cluster.

If the verified Geekbench listing is to be believed, the Pixel 6’s Google Tensor chip is shifting things more towards high-performance activities with a “2 + 2 + 4” configuration. Specifically, the frequencies used and hidden details from the Geekbench list indicate two Cortex-X1 cores, two Cortex-A78 cores in the middle slot and four Cortex-A55 cores for the lower end. Compared to the Snapdragon 888 and Exynos 2100 processors, the difference is one less A78 core in exchange for a second X1.

As explained in the announcement of the Cortex-A78 and Cortex-X1, the two are pretty similar in design, but where the A78 balances performance and energy efficiency, the X1 goes for sheer performance and offers an increase of around 23%.

While it’s hard to tell without putting it through its paces, all the indications right now are that the Pixel 6 is faster than current Snapdragon 888 phones because of the Google Tensor chip, albeit possibly at the expense of energy efficiency . Conversely, however, the Pixel 6 Pro performed much worse than phones with the Snapdragon 888, according to Geekbenchs benchmarking. It is possible that the low score was just a fluke, or it is still possible that the listing as a whole is fake.

Should this leak be true, this would be a major correction of the course for the pixel row. Last year’s Pixel 5 went for an upper-midrange processor that helped Google build an affordable flagship. Even before that, Pixel phones – which typically launched ten months after each generation of Qualcomm chips and two months before the next generation – tended to lag behind other companies’ phones in performance.

Between the significantly improved machine learning performance of the Cortex-X1 and the signature built-in TPU (tensor processing unit) of the tensor chip, it’s clear that Google continues to make a point of making Pixel phones great through its machine learning capabilities. The biggest difference this year is that the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have the processing power to get these tasks done quickly, unlike the Pixel 5, which left the Neural Core behind.

We’ve already seen insights into features like “Quick Phrases” for the Google Assistant, what Google plans to do with the performance of the tensor chip beyond faster image processing. We’ll likely learn more about how Google sets the Pixel 6 series apart from other Android smartphones when it launches this fall.

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