Makers of smartphones and PCs are always eager to offer their customers an experience not available from their rivals. Back in the day, vendors competed for the best ergonomics, software, and some exclusive features. Still, more recently, companies like Apple, Huawei, and Samsung started to develop their own system-on-chips (SoC) to differentiate at all levels. A report says that Google is now following their steps with its own silicon for Pixel smartphones and Chromebooks.
Google recently successfully taped outs its codenamed Whitechapel SoC and has been playing with it for several weeks now, reports Axios, citing one source with knowledge of the matter. The processor packs eight Arm cores and some additional silicon designed to speed up Google’s machine learning algorithms (i.e., a small TPU for inference) and improve the performance of the Google Assistant app. The chip was reportedly made using Samsung’s 5LPE (5 nm) process technology. Since it usually takes about a year for a new mobile SoC to reach commercial products, expect the Whitechapel to power Google’s Pixel smartphones sometime in late 2021 if everything goes as planned and the chip provides competitive performance.
Google’s silicon ambitions do not stop with the Whitechapel. The company is allegedly mulling developing processors for its Chromebooks. Given its vast resources, it can design its own SoC for PCs, but the company would likely prefer to obtain experience in chip design first with its own processors for smartphones.
High-end off-the-shelf system-on-chips from Qualcomm or MediaTek used by the vast majority of smartphone makers provide very high general-purpose as well as graphics performance, therefore enabling manufacturers to innovate with their cameras and software. However, because they are off-the-shelf, they do not carry any custom-designed exclusive hardware that could differentiate a device in terms of performance and capabilities.
To offer a unique user experience, cut down costs (if possible), and have better control over their own products, companies like Apple, Huawei, and Samsung have developed their own smartphone SoCs for a while now. Apple went even further and built its own highly-integrated SoC for its Macs, which appeared to be quite powerful when compared to x86 processors from Intel, based on early reviews. Furthermore, its M1 chip carries numerous special-purpose accelerators that enable performance and capabilities not accessible to off-the-shelf CPUs, which changes the way Apple’s PCs can be used.
For Google, a leading high-technology company with smartphone and PC ambitions, it makes great sense to tap into silicon design in a bid to differentiate its own Pixel smartphones and Chromebooks as well as bring all-new features to the market. Yet, there is a catch. When Huawei designs its own SoC for its own smartphones, it competes against other players in the Android ecosystem. But when Google comes out with its hardware powered by its own silicon, it competes against its own partners among SoC developers and hardware manufacturers, which hardly makes them happy.
Meanwhile, if Google wants to innovate its Android and Chrome OS platforms quickly and stay competitive with Apple and Microsoft, own SoCs are one of the ways to go since it is considerably easier to implement certain features into in-house designed silicon than persuade a third party to incorporate something into their SoC.