Published on September 26th, 2023
When Google unveiled its inaugural Tensor chipset with the Pixel 6, its objectives were unmistakable: to establish independence from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon (or any other chip supplier) and to create unparalleled experiences that would otherwise be unattainable.
While the release of the Pixel 8 series and its accompanying third-generation Tensor G3 processor is still pending, Google’s chips have already brought forth remarkable features, particularly in the domains of AI and image processing, features that would likely be unattainable on alternative chipsets.
Regrettably, this accomplishment has been somewhat overshadowed by the fact that Tensor chips, up to now, have been the product of a collaboration with Samsung.
While they incorporate components developed by Google, substantial elements of their design are rooted in Samsung’s Exynos chips.
Tragically, this pattern will persist with the forthcoming Tensor G3 and subsequent Tensor G4. Thanks to insights from a Google insider, Android Authority has gained insight into Google’s Tensor roadmap for 2024 and beyond.
Google Tensor’s G4 and What Lies Ahead:
Originally, Google planned to launch its 2024 Pixel series with a “fully custom” Tensor SoC codenamed “Redondo,” but due to a missed deadline, it couldn’t be included in the 2024 Pixel 9 series.
Instead, Google will produce the Redondo SoC for testing purposes, as its successor, likely to be used in the 2025 Pixel devices, will share its design elements.
Google has also designed a development board named “ChallengerDeep” to work on this chip.
For the Pixel 9 series, in the absence of Redondo, Google has introduced a new chip codenamed “Zuma Pro.” It’s worth noting that the Tensor G3, slated for the Pixel 8 series, is known as “Zuma.”
Pixel 9 Adopts Zuma Pro Chip Over Redondo as Originally Planned
The new chip set to power the Pixel 9, referred to as Zuma Pro, retains a semi-custom design approach, which means it is co-developed in collaboration with Samsung’s System LSI division.
This suggests that the chip’s upgrades may be more modest than initially anticipated.
This situation mirrors the transition from the original Tensor (codenamed “Whitechapel”) to Tensor G2 (codenamed “Whitechapel Pro”), where the latter represented a relatively minor improvement.
Currently, the chip operates on a development board with the codename “Ripcurrent 24” (also known as “Ripcurrent Pro”), whereas the Tensor G3 used the simpler “Ripcurrent” board.
Google is already in the early stages of developing its next-generation fully-custom Tensor chip, codenamed “Laguna Beach” or simply “Laguna,” which is expected to be used in the 2025 Pixel series.
The development board for this chip is known as “Deepspace.”
In the context of SoC (System on a Chip) design, “fully custom” typically means that the chip is developed entirely from the ground up, with all aspects of its architecture, components, and design tailored specifically for the intended purpose.
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“Semi-custom” implies that while some elements are customized, others may still rely on existing designs or components, often due to collaborative efforts with other companies like Samsung in Google’s case.
Creating A Rapid Custom SoC Design:
Joint SoC Design Venture with Samsung
It appears that Google’s initial foray into designing its own System on a Chip (SoC) followed a strategic vision to consolidate the impressive innovations from its existing hardware divisions.
This included integrating technologies like the Pixel Visual Core, the Titan security chip, and the Edge TPU into a single, purpose-built smartphone chip uniquely tailored to Google’s specifications.
However, at the time, Google’s in-house chip team, known as gChips, was relatively small, making the development of an entire SoC from scratch a daunting task, if not entirely unfeasible.
Consequently, Google opted to seek external assistance to handle aspects of the design process that exceeded its team’s capacity, while concurrently focusing on elements more directly enhancing the Pixel user experience.
Samsung LSI, as reports suggest, established a dedicated “Custom SoC” division in early 2020, aiming to provide comprehensive design support to new chipset collaborators.
Leveraging its extensive library of intellectual property (IP) blocks, ranging from CPUs to 5G modems, Samsung drew upon its proven track record across various product lines.
While the exact timeline of Google’s collaboration with Samsung remains undisclosed, it likely commenced in 2019 or even earlier, with the nature and timing of the Tensor chip aligning remarkably well with Samsung’s entry into the custom chip venture.
Leveraging Expertise, Google’s Collaboration with an Accomplished Chip Designer
Google initially outlined its project requirements, specifying the custom hardware components it wanted to incorporate, including unique features like Tensor’s 2+2+4 CPU core layout.
Samsung, as part of the collaboration, began utilizing its extensive intellectual property (IP) resources to construct the remaining elements of the System on a Chip (SoC) to meet these precise specifications.
In parallel, Google readied its custom hardware components, encompassing the Titan chip, Edge TPU, custom ISP elements, and a custom AV1 decoder, for delivery to Samsung for final integration.
Following this phase, Samsung assumed responsibility for the physical design of the chip and carried out the manufacturing process in one of its fabrication facilities.
During the chip’s development, Samsung provided invaluable support to Google during the initial stages of work, referred to as “the bring-up,” and continued to assist in resolving issues and bugs.
Additionally, Samsung supplied Google with software components for certain design elements integrated into the chip.
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The collaborative effort with Samsung significantly expedited Google’s journey to bring its first custom chip to the market.
This approach allowed Google to achieve this milestone within a shorter timeframe and with a smaller team than if it had pursued the development of Tensor independently.
Embracing Complete Autonomy:
In recent years, Google’s gChips team has experienced significant growth, both in terms of its personnel and its expertise. Additionally, their library of intellectual property (IP) blocks has expanded.
For instance, Tensor G2 featured a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) named GXP. These developments have bolstered Google’s capabilities, making them less reliant on Samsung’s assistance.
With the introduction of Redondo and Laguna Beach, a substantial shift in responsibility occurs. Google will now take charge of every aspect of the design process that was previously managed by Samsung.
Initially, Google will need to secure the essential hardware IP blocks required for their custom SoCs. This can be accomplished by either designing these blocks in-house or obtaining licenses from third-party providers.
Several companies offer such IP services, including Arm, Cadence, Synopsys, and notably, Samsung. It’s plausible that Google may still incorporate some IP components originally used in Exynos chips into their “fully custom” chips.
However, the distinguishing feature of these designs will be their significantly higher degree of customization, allowing Google to tailor them precisely to their needs and requirements.
This shift toward greater customization provides Google with more control and flexibility over the design of their SoCs.
Seizing Command: Google’s Bid for Enhanced Control Over Future Chipsets
Google’s design team will face significant challenges in managing the verification and physical design aspects of their chips, which are notoriously complex.
Additionally, they’ll assume responsibility for liaising with chip fabrication facilities like TSMC and handling various other intricacies that may arise during the process.
A substantial amount of software will likely need to be developed from scratch, and Google will no longer have Samsung as a resource for assistance.
In practical terms, the transition to a fully custom approach is unlikely to yield dramatic changes in the short term for upcoming Tensor chips.
This shift represents a strategic move towards greater independence, enabling Google to tailor its chips to a degree not currently achievable.
It’s a logical progression in the evolution of Tensor chips rather than a miraculous transformation. However, one significant benefit is that it will allow Google to transition to TSMC’s foundry, which presently offers manufacturing nodes known for their superior efficiency compared to Samsung’s offerings.
The delay of the Redondo chip may have been a disappointment, but it carries the promise of something greater on the horizon.
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Google’s commitment to advancing its Tensor chips for future Pixel devices is a testament to their dedication to innovation.
While the immediate plans for Tensor G4 may have shifted with the introduction of Zuma Pro, it paves the way for an even more promising Tensor G5.
This delay provides Google with an opportunity to refine and enhance their custom chip technology, ensuring that it aligns even more closely with the unique requirements of Pixel smartphones.
With each iteration, we can anticipate improved performance, innovative features, and a seamless user experience.
In the end, while waiting for the next Tensor chip may require some patience, the anticipation is well-founded.
Google’s continued investment in custom chip design signifies their commitment to delivering top-tier hardware and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in future Pixel devices.
For prospective Pixel buyers, this signals a bright and exciting future of innovative technology ahead.