Google is working on its own chip for Pixel phones and Chromebooks
Custom SoCs are a rarity in the value mobile device market today, but they are still found in flagship smartphones. Qualcomm’s SoCs dominate the smartphone industry, while MediaTek’s SoCs act as a lower-cost alternative. At the high-end, Samsung and Huawei’s HiSilicon continue to make custom SoCs, and they are restricted to their own phones. The top three smartphone manufacturers in the form of Apple, Samsung, and Huawei, all use custom SoCs these days (although Samsung sells its flagship phones with Snapdragon SoCs in some markets). Google has long wanted to compete with the big leagues in the smartphone market, but for a variety of reasons, its Pixel phone venture has failed to take off even after three-and-a-half years. This year, some evidence shows that the Google Pixel 5 may be powered by the mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 SoC instead of the traditional choice of the high-end Snapdragon 865 SoC. But next year, things may get even more interesting.
Over the past two months, ETNews and Clien.net, two South Korean publications, have both reported that Google may be developing its own SoC to power future versions of the Google Pixel. This has now been corroborated by Axios. Axios independently reports that Google has made “significant progress” towards developing its own processor to power future Google Pixel phones as soon as next year. Eventually, the custom chips will power Chromebooks as well.
Axios notes that this move could help Google better compete with Apple, which has designed its own chips since 2010, and its own custom CPU cores since 2012. It would be damaging for Qualcomm, which has supplied Snapdragon SoCs for the vast majority of flagship Android phones, including all Pixel phones released so far.
The details about this chip are scarce so far. It’s code-named “Whitechapel”, and was designed in cooperation with Samsung. Interestingly, the report mentions that Samsung’s cutting-edge 5nm process would be used to manufacture the chips. The 5nm process (using EUV) is expected to be used in the next-generation mobile SoCs. This would be a boost for Samsung Foundry, which has lost two major clients in the form of Apple and Qualcomm over the past four years. The Axios report is incorrect in that it mentions Samsung also manufactures Apple’s iPhone chips, but this is wrong as Samsung hasn’t actually manufactured an iPhone SoC since supplying half of the Apple A9 chips back in 2015. Since 2016, the Apple A series chips are manufactured by TSMC. These days, Samsung manufactures the mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 on its 7nm LPP (EUV) process, as well as its own Exynos chips. The flagship Exynos 990, for example, is made on Samsung’s own 7nm LPP process.
Axios says that in recent weeks, Google received its first working versions of the chip. These Google-designed chips aren’t expected to be ready to power Pixel phones until next year, though. Subsequent versions of the chip could power Chromebooks, but the report says that’s likely to be even further off. The chip will have an 8-core ARM processor (according to previous reports, it may have two Cortex-A78 + two Cortex-A76 + four Cortex-A55 cores), and will also include hardware optimized for Google’s machine learning technology. A portion of its silicon will also be dedicated to improving the performance and “always-on” capabilities of the Google Assistant. In terms of the GPU, it’s expected to feature off-the-shelf IP (Mali GPUs) from ARM. The modem is a question as it’s unknown whether it will be supplied by Samsung.
This isn’t the first time Google has experimented with building custom chips. In 2017, it collaborated with Intel to develop the Pixel Visual Core for the Pixel 2, which was retained for the Pixel 3. The Pixel 4, on the other hand, featured an upgraded Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) in the form of the Neural Core. Google has also hired a number of chip experts from companies such as Apple and Intel.
All of this remains unverified, as Google hasn’t confirmed any of its plans yet. However, the independent reports are expected to be reliable. Developing a custom SoC is a big deal. It’s important to remember, though, that developing a custom SoC is different from designing a custom CPU core from scratch. Huawei, for example, uses custom Kirin SoCs, but these chips feature off-the-shelf CPU cores from ARM and use ARM’s Mali GPUs. Samsung started its own custom core project in 2016 with the Exynos M1, but it failed to compete with ARM, never mind Apple. That project has now come to an end, with the Exynos M5 in the Exynos 990 being the last fully custom core from Samsung for the foreseeable future. As we found in our Galaxy S20+ review, the Exynos M5 couldn’t match ARM’s stock Cortex-A77 core. Similarly, Qualcomm’s last fully custom core was the Kryo core in the Snapdragon 820/821.
The upcoming Google custom SoC, therefore, is expected not to feature custom cores. It’s likely to use ARM’s next-generation CPU cores such as the Cortex-A78. In this sense, it won’t look too different from next year’s flagship Exynos SoC from Samsung, as the report mentions that the custom Google SoC will be designed in cooperation with Samsung.