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New reports say the Pixel 6 will feature a custom Google “Whitechapel” SoC

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Ron Amadeo / Intel

It sounds like this custom Google SoC-powered Pixel is really going to happen. Echoing reports from about a year ago, 9to5Google is reporting that the Pixel 6 is expected to ship with Google’s custom “Whitechapel” SoC instead of a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip.

The report says “Google refers to this chip as “GS101,” with “GS” potentially being short for “Google Silicon.” It also notes that chip will be shared across the two Google phones that are currently in development, the Pixel 6 and something like a “Pixel 5a 5G.” 9to5 says it has viewed documentation that points to Samsung’s SLSI division (Team Exynos) being involved, which lines up with the earlier report from Axios saying the chip is “designed in cooperation with Samsung” and should be built on Samsung’s 5nm foundry lines. 9to5Google says the chip “will have some commonalities with Samsung Exynos, including software components.”

XDA Developers says it can corroborate the report, saying “According to our source, it seems the SoC will feature a 3 cluster setup with a TPU (Tensor Processing Unit). Google also refers to its next Pixel devices as ‘dauntless-equipped phones,’ which we believe refers to them having an integrated Titan M security chip (code-named “Citadel).” A “3 cluster setup” would be something like how the Snapdragon 888 works, which has three CPU core sizes: a single large ARM X1 core for big single-threaded workloads, three medium Cortex A78 cores for multicore work, and four Cortex A55 cores for background work.

The Pixel 6 should be out sometime in Q4 2021, and Pixel phones always heavily, heavily leak before they launch. So I’m sure we’ll see more of this thing soon.

Reasonable expectations from Whitechapel

It’s easy to get overhyped about Google’s first in-house smartphone SoC—”Google is ready to take on Apple!” the headlines will no-doubt scream. The fact of the matter, though, is that Apple is a $2 trillion hardware company and the iPhone is its biggest product, while Google is an advertising company with a hardware division as a small side project. Whitechapel will give Google more control over its smartphone hardware, but Google’s custom chips in the past have not exactly set the world on fire, and therefore it’s reasonable to temper expectations for the company’s first-generation SoC.

Google’s consumer hardware team has already shipped several custom chips, and I don’t know if you could call any of them world-beaters:

  • The Pixel Visual Core in the Pixel 2 and 3 was a custom camera co-processor created with the help of Intel. The Visual Core helped with HDR+ processing, but Google was able to accomplish the same image quality on the Pixel 3a, which didn’t have the chip.
  • The Pixel Neural Core in the Pixel 4 was spun out of the company’s Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) AI accelerator efforts and had a similar job doing camera and AI voice recognition work. It was unimportant enough to just cut from the Pixel 5 entirely.
  • There was the air-gesture detection chip, Project Soli, on the Pixel 4. This was a radar-on-a-chip concept that Google originally pitched as capable of detecting “sub millimeter motions of your fingers,” but by the time it was commercialized, it could only detect big, arm-waving gestures. The feature still exists today in the new Nest Hub, for sleep tracking, but it was not good enough to make the jump to the Pixel 5.
  • The company’s Titan M Security Chip works as the secure element in some Pixel phones. Google says this makes the Pixel phones more secure, though a roughly equivalent secure element also comes with a Qualcomm chip, or at least, the company has never demonstrated a tangible difference.

I think the biggest benefit we’ll see from a Google SoC is an expanded update timeline. Android updates go a lot smoother when you get support from the SoC manufacturer, but Qualcomm abandons all its chips after the three-year mark for major updates. This lack of support makes updates significantly harder than they need to be, and today that’s where Google draws the line at updates. With Qualcomm out of the way, there are no excuses for Google to not match Apple’s five-year iPhone update policy. With a custom SoC, Google will totally control how long it can update devices.

Currently, Google is in the embarrassing position of offering less support for its devices than Samsung, which is now up to three years of major updates (Qualcomm’s maximum) and four years of security updates, while Google only offers one year less of security updates. It’s a weird position for Google to be in, which previously was leading the ecosystem in hardware support. Maybe Google didn’t immediately match Samsung because it’s waiting for the Pixel 6 launch, where it will announce dramatically longer support timelines thanks to its own chip?

Actually competing in the SoC business is tough

Beyond easier updates, I don’t know that we can expect much from Whitechapel. Lots of Android manufacturers made their own chips now, with varying levels of success. Samsung has the Exynos line. Huawei has its HiSilicon chips. Xiaomi made the Surge S1 SoC back in 2017, recently launched the Surge C1 camera chip in the Xiaomi Mi Mix Fold, and it has an investment in a silicon designer. Oppo is working on developing in-house chips, too. None of the existing efforts has been able to significantly beat Qualcomm, and most of these companies (other than Huawei) still choose Qualcomm over their own chips for important devices. Everyone, even Qualcomm, is relying on the same company, ARM, for its CPU designs, so there’s not much room for difference between them. When everyone is using off-the-shelf ARM CPU designs the major areas of differentiation left are the GPU and modem, two areas Qualcomm excels at, so it gets picked up for most major devices.

The companies that take hardware seriously do their best to separate themselves from ARM’s baseline CPU designs, choosing instead to design their own cores based on the ARM instruction set. Apple dominates mobile CPU performance thanks to its acquisition of an entire semiconductor company, PA Semi, back in 2008. Qualcomm is doing its best to catch up, buying Nuvia, a chip-design company founded by some of those ex-Apple chip designers, and it plans to ship its internally designed CPUs in 2022. Google has made a few chip design hires, but those are split between the separate hardware and server teams, and they pale in comparison to buying an entire company. When even Qualcomm isn’t currently shipping custom chips, I don’t see any way Google uses anything over the off-the-shelf ARM CPU designs.

Google’s GPU and modem solutions will be an area of great interest. There aren’t a lot of GPU designs to go around. Qualcomm has its own Adreno division, which it purchased years ago from ATI. Samsung has a deal with AMD for its future GPUs, but I doubt that would be up for grabs in its Google partnership. If this chip is really Exynos-adjacent, Samsung and many other also-ran SoC vendors go with off-the-shelf ARM Mali GPUs, which are generally not competitive with what Qualcomm puts out. Samsung signed that AMD partnership for a reason!

Imagining Google’s SoC having an onboard modem is a challenge. You generally don’t get to integrate a modem into your SoC unless you own the modem design, and Google doesn’t own any modem IP. Samsung has produced chips with onboard 5G modems, but they generally don’t come to the US, so a Samsung modem would require both sharing the design to Google and bringing it to the US for the first time. Qualcomm is, of course, the king of strong-arming companies with its modem IP and keeping competitors out of the US, and it’s also generally a leader in modem technologies like 5G. Apple has managed up to now with separate cellular modems—today the iPhone 12 comes with a discreet Qualcomm modem for 5G, which is probably the most likely option for Google. Apple also bought Intel’s modem division for a billion dollars, indicating it’s working toward onboard modem tech.

Along with the usual CPU/GPU/modem options, Google could also include some camera and AI special sauce in the form of some kind of co-processor (hopefully we’ll also get the Pixel’s first camera sensor upgrade in four years). Google will also probably include a Titan security chip. Even if it did, I can’t imagine these making a huge difference compared to something like shipping with a low-quality GPU or modem. Google has never demonstrated a strong end-user benefit from its custom silicon in the past, just a whole lot of hype.

It’s hard to be bullish on Google’s SoC future when the company doesn’t seem to be making the big-money acquisitions and licensing deals that Apple, Qualcomm, and Samsung are making. But at least it’s a start.

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Nvidia’s RTX 3050 brings ray tracing and DLSS to $800 laptops

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Nvidia has added two entry-level GPUs—the GeForce RTX 3050 Ti and RTX 3050—to the RTX 30 laptop line. Nvidia says the chips will be available “this summer” in laptops starting at $799.

Like every other product in the RTX 30 line, these cards are based on the Ampere architecture and are capable of ray tracing and Nvidia’s proprietary “Deep Learning Super Sampling” (DLSS) upscaling tech. As you can probably guess from their names, the cards slot in below the existing RTX 3060 GPU, with cuts across the board. You can dive into Nvidia’s comparison table below, but the short version is that these cheaper GPUs have less memory (4GB) and fewer CUDA, Tensor, and ray-tracing cores.

Nvidia's comparison of its laptop GPU lineup.

Nvidia’s comparison of its laptop GPU lineup.

Nvidia

DLSS lets your GPU render a game at a lower resolution and then uses AI to upscale everything to a higher resolution, helping you hit a higher frame rate than you could at your native resolution. It sounds like AI hocus-pocus, but it actually works—you just need the right Nvidia card and a game that supports it. On a lower-powered laptop, anything that helps boost gaming performance without sacrificing graphical fidelity is welcome.

Intel’s Tiger Lake-H processors were also announced today, and we should see a lot of devices launching with both chips. That’s if there is sufficient supply of the chips to go around. Nvidia is already facing serious video card shortages, and Intel is being hit by the global chip shortage, too. Maybe partner laptops are getting a higher allocation of chips?

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Intel claims its new Tiger Lake-H CPUs for laptops beat AMD’s Ryzen 5000

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Enlarge / Intel’s new Core i9-11980HK leads the 11th-gen laptop CPU lineup.

Intel today announced 10 new 11th-generation CPUs for high-performance laptops like those made for gamers or content creators. Built on the 10nm SuperFin process, the new chips are in the Core i9, Core i7, Core i5, and Xeon families, and they carry the label “Tiger Lake-H.”

New consumer laptop CPUs include the Core i9-11980HK, Core i9-11900H, Core i7-11800H—all of which have eight cores—plus the Core i5-11400H and Core i5-11260H, which each have six cores.

Naturally, Intel today put the spotlight on the fastest Core i9-11980HK chip. The company claims this CPU is able to beat its predecessor by several percentage points in games like Hitman 3 or Rainbow Six: Siege, depending on the game—anywhere from 5 percent to 21 percent, according to Intel’s own testing.

Intel also claims that the Core i9-11980HK beats AMD’s Ryzen 9 5900HX by anywhere from 11 to 26 percent. Obviously, reviewers will have to put these claims to the test in the coming weeks.

Other features in the new Tiger Lake-H chips include support for Thunderbolt 4 and Wi-Fi 6E.

As is the custom with new Intel CPU launches, numerous OEMs refreshed their laptop lineups with the new chips, including Dell, HP, Lenovo, MSI, Acer, Asus, and others. You can just about bet that if an OEM offered a portable gaming laptop for which these chips are suitable—like the Dell XPS 15, for example—a new version of that laptop was announced today.

Today was a big day for laptop hardware. By no coincidence at all, Nvidia also announced the new GeForce RTX 3050 Ti GPU, which is offered as a configuration option in some of the same laptops that now feature the new Tiger Lake-H CPUs.

In case you’re curious about more information for Intel’s new laptop chips, Intel has more details on its website. The new chips obviously won’t be sold to consumers on their own, but you’ll likely see them in numerous laptops on the market throughout the next year.

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Samsung and AMD will reportedly take on Apple’s M1 SoC later this year

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Samsung is planning big things for the next release of its Exynos system on a chip. The company has already promised that the “next generation” of its Exynos SoC will feature a GPU from AMD, which inked a partnership with Samsung in June 2019. A new report from The Korea Economic Daily provides more details.

The report says that “the South Korean tech giant will unveil a premium Exynos chip that can be used in laptops as well as smartphones in the second half of this year” and that “the new Exynos chip for laptops will use the graphics processing unit (GPU) jointly developed with US semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices Inc.”

There’s a bit to unpack here. First, a launch this year would be an acceleration of the normal Samsung schedule. The last Exynos flagship was announced in January 2021, so you would normally pencil in the new Exynos for early next year. Second, the report goes out of its way to specify that the laptop chip will have an AMD GPU, so… not the smartphone chip?

It was always questionable that Samsung was planning to beef up its Exynos smartphone chips, since the company splits its flagship smartphone lineup between Exynos and Qualcomm, depending on the region. Exynos chips are always inferior to Qualcomm chips, but Samsung considers the two products close enough to call the Exynos- and Qualcomm-based phones the same product. If Samsung knocked it out of the park with an AMD GPU, where would that leave the Qualcomm phones? Would Samsung ditch Qualcomm? That’s hard to believe, and it sounds like the easy answer is for the company to just not dramatically change the Exynos smartphone chips.

For laptops, Samsung has to chase down its favorite rival, Apple, which is jumping into ARM laptops with its M1 chip. If Samsung wants its products to have any hope of being competitive with Apple laptops, it would have to launch its own ARM laptop SoC. Getting AMD onboard for this move makes the most sense (it already makes Windows GPUs), and while that would be a good first step, it still doesn’t seem like it would lead to a complete, competitive product.

What about the CPU?

Even if we suppose everything goes right with Samsung’s AMD partnership and the company gets a top-tier SoC GPU, the kind of chip Samsung seems to be producing is not what you would draw up for use in a great laptop. The three big components in an SoC are the CPU, GPU, and modem. It seems like everyone is investing in SoC design, and some companies are better positioned to produce a competitive chip than others.

Of course, everybody is chasing Apple’s M1 SoC, but Apple’s expertise lines up well with what you would want from a laptop. Apple has a world-beating CPU team thanks to years of iPhone work based on the company’s acquisition of PA Semi. Apple started making its own GPUs with the iPhone X in 2017, and the M1 GPU is pretty good. Apple doesn’t have a modem solution on the market yet (its phones use Qualcomm modems), but it bought Intel’s 5G smartphone business in 2019, and it’s working on in-house modem chips. This is a great situation for a laptop chip. You want a strong, efficient CPU and a decent GPU—and you don’t really need a modem.

An AMD GPU is a start for Samsung, but the company does not have a great ARM CPU solution. ARM licenses the ARM CPU instruction set and ARM CPU designs, a bit like if Intel both licensed the x86 architecture and sold Pentium blueprints. Apple goes the more advanced route of licensing the ARM instruction set and designing its own CPUs, while Samsung licenses ARM’s CPU designs. ARM is a generalist and needs to support many different form factors and companies with its CPU designs, so it will never make a chip design that can compete with Apple’s focused designs. By all accounts, Samsung’s Exynos chip will have an inferior CPU. It will also be pretty hard to make a gaming pitch with the AMD GPU since there aren’t any Windows-on-ARM laptop games.

Qualcomm is trying to get into the ARM laptop game, too. Qualcomm’s biggest strength is its modems, which aren’t really relevant in the laptop space. Qualcomm has been in a similar position to Samsung; the company had a decent GPU division thanks to acquiring ATI’s old mobile GPU division, but it was always behind Apple because it used ARM’s CPU designs. Qualcomm’s current laptop chip is the Snapdragon 8cx gen 2, but that chip is not even a best-effort design from the company. The 8cx gen 2 doesn’t just use an ARM CPU design; it uses one that is two generations old: a Cortex A76-based design instead of the Cortex X1 design that a modern phone would use. It’s also a generation behind when it comes to the manufacturing process—7 nm instead of the 5 nm the Snapdragon 888 uses.

Qualcomm seems like it will get serious about laptop chips soon, as it bought CPU design firm Nuvia in January 2021. Nuvia has never made a product, but it was founded by defectors from Apple’s CPU division, including the chief CPU architect. Qualcomm says that with Nuvia, it will be able to ship internally designed CPUs by 2H 2022.

And then there’s Google, which wants to ship its own phone SoC, called “Whitechapel,” in the Pixel 6. Google does not have CPU, GPU, or modem expertise, so we don’t expect much from the company other than a longer OS support window.

And what about Windows?

With no great ARM laptop CPUs out there for non-Apple companies, there isn’t a huge incentive to break up the Wintel (or maybe Winx64?) monopoly. Getting a non-Apple ARM laptop most likely means running Windows for ARM, with whatever questionable app support that system has. Microsoft has been working on x86 and x64 emulation on ARM for a bit. The project entered its “first preview” in December in the Windows dev channel, but it doesn’t sound like it will be a great option for many apps. Microsoft has already said that games are “outside the target” of the company’s first attempt at x64 emulation.

Native apps are also a possibility, though developers don’t seem as interested in Windows ARM support as they do in macOS ARM support. Google was quickly ready with an ARM-native build of Chrome for macOS, but there still isn’t a build of Chrome for ARM for Windows. Adobe took a few months, but Photoshop for M1 Macs hit in March, while the Windows-on-ARM build of Photoshop is still in beta. You can, of course, run Microsoft Office. You’ll probably be stuck with OneDrive for cloud folders, since Dropbox and Google Drive don’t support Windows on ARM.

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