Google’s next Pixel flagship — the presumably named “Pixel 6” — will reportedly feature a Google-designed GS101 “Whitechapel” SoC (system on a chip), a first for the company, as reported by 9to5Google and XDA-Developers.
9to5Google’s report claims Google is working on two phones that will feature the Arm-based GS101 — presumed to be a flagship device to succeed last year’s Pixel 5 and a Pixel 4A 5G follow-up.
XDA’s report, meanwhile, goes into further detail on the new SoC, claiming the GS101 chips will feature a “three cluster setup with a TPU (Tensor Processing Unit)” for machine learning applications. (For reference, Qualcomm’s own flagship Snapdragon 888 uses Arm’s Cortex-X1 / Cortex-A78 / Cortex-A55 as a triple cluster CPU setup.) Additionally, the new SoC may feature an integrated security chip, similar to the Titan M.
The idea of Google making a custom TPU or security chip isn’t new: Google has previously made TPUs for servers and the Pixel 4’s Neural Core, along with the discrete Titan M chip on its current phones. But the custom-designed GS101 would presumably allow the company to integrate those features on a deeper level.
Rumors of the Whitechapel chips have circulated since last year when Axios reported that Google was looking to develop its own in-house chips for use in Pixel and Chromebook devices. That report claimed the company would be optimizing its chip for Google’s machine learning technology — something the XDA report corroborates. The GS101 chip for the 2021 Pixel lineup would be the first fruits of the Whitechapel project, although Axios’ original report noted that Chromebook chips weren’t expected until further in the future.
9to5Google’s report also includes references to a “Slider” codename tied to the new device, which it says is also connected to Samsung’s Exynos SoCs (which the company uses on Galaxy smartphone devices outside the US). Samsung’s involvement on the manufacturing side — which Axios also reported last year — would make sense, as one of the largest manufacturers of smartphone semiconductors.
The idea of Google-designed chips is a compelling one. Apple has long touted its tightly integrated software and hardware stack as a key part of how its iPhones, iPads, and now, its Mac computers are able to run so well — a key part of which is the company’s custom-designed A-series and M-series chips.
Google — and almost every other Android manufacturer, save Samsung and Huawei — doesn’t have that advantage. It instead relies on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips, which dominate the Android marketplace in the US. Oftentimes, an Android device lives or dies on how well its manufacturer is able to synergize Qualcomm’s chips, Google’s software, and its own hardware designs. Similarly, the fact that, at their core, almost every Android device runs on the same chipset and the same software makes it difficult for any one model to stand out.
But a Google-designed GS101 chip brings a tantalizing promise: that Google could bring an Apple-like boost in speed, performance, and battery life to Android (and specifically, its Pixel lineup) with a similar level of control over the hardware design, software, and processor. It’s an intriguing idea — assuming Google can pull it off.
That said, building a smartphone processor at the level of Apple or Qualcomm isn’t easy. While both companies use Arm as a common base, they’ve spent years refining those basic building blocks with customizations to suit their needs. Apple has been using custom designs in its processors since the 2012’s A6 design (as opposed to previous models that used licensed CPU designs from Arm itself). Qualcomm takes a similar approach in its modern processors, using custom Kryo cores that are semi-customized versions of Arm’s base Cortex designs.
It might take Google a few generations to fine-tune its Pixel chips. But if Google can actually deliver on a proper customized chip that’s built from the ground up to be specifically designed for Android’s software and the Pixel’s hardware, it could be the key to transforming the Pixel line from a sideshow to a true smartphone powerhouse.