Google unveiled its first internally designed chip for consumer devices on Tuesday, the latest sign of the search engine’s hardware ambitions and a threat to its current semiconductor suppliers.
Pixel Visual Core is a system-on-a-chip that improves the camera of the Pixel 2, Google’s latest smartphone. The chip will help the phone handle images with high dynamic range, or HDR, a technology that captures more detail in mixed lighting situations, Google said in a blog post.
Designing chips is time-consuming and expensive, and few smartphone makers beyond Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. do it themselves. Google has crafted processors for its data centers, but this is the first time the company has tried it for its nascent consumer hardware. If the company wants to catch smartphone leaders like Apple, it has to do more to marry the hardware and software features of these devices.
Using the Pixel Visual Core, Google said the phone’s camera hardware will process HDR images five times faster and use less than a 10th of power than doing so on its main applications processor. It’ll be activated in coming months via a software update that will let other apps tap into the chip’s capabilities, the Alphabet Inc. unit said.
All this chip work may be bad news for Qualcomm Inc., which makes the Snapdragon applications processor chips that Google uses in its Pixel phones and its earlier Nexus devices. Qualcomm has touted the ability of its chips to do the kind of image processing that Google now says suggests it can do better by itself. Google said it has no plan to change reliance on Qualcomm and no immediate plans to sell the chip to others, but the new component is more evidence of Google’s increasing ambitions in semiconductors.
Indeed, Google included a picture of its new chip’s layout showing it contains many of the constituents of a full-blown modern applications processor. Part of the art of building a high-end phone component like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon or Samsung’s Exynos, is the ability to get all of the parts packed in tightly together and working in harmony.
Google’s in-house work on chips for its data centers is already considered a threat to suppliers such as Intel Corp. and Nvidia Corp. That’s part of a larger push by companies such as Apple, Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to supply themselves with silicon for at least some of their needs.