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Why Google Tensor in the Pixel 6a is a big deal

Google Tensor
Google Tensor (Image credit: Google)

With the arrival of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, it's clear Google is serious not just about smartphones, but smartphone processors. The first-generation Tensor chip may use a fair bit of Samsung technology, but it nevertheless represents a strong statement of intent for Google. Rumors are already swirling around a possible second-gen Tensor, with one development board being given the codename "Cloudripper". That moniker seemingly alludes to running previously cloud-based computational tasks directly on the chip.

But what about the Pixel A-series? Typically these mid-rangers have relied on mid-tier Snapdragon chips from Qualcomm. Google has shown it can work within these limitations to ship phones with unique Googley features like Live Transcribe and Astrophotography. Case in point: the recently launched Pixel 5a, based on the pretty unremarkable Snapdragon 765G. It seems inevitable, though, that Tensor chips will eventually power Google's entire smartphone lineup.

Google will save elsewhere on its bill of materials to meet a cheaper price point for the 6a.

It turns out that is happening. 9to5Google recently reported that the upcoming Pixel 6a will use a Google Tensor chip. Android Central can confirm that the report is accurate, based on information from a source familiar with the device. The chipset used in the 6a will be the same GS101 processor used in the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro.

While other specs for the phone are unclear, Google could save elsewhere on its bill of materials to keep the price of the 6a competitive with the best cheap Android phones. One obvious area would is camera hardware. The report mentions, among other things, that a familiar IMX363 image sensor will be used in the Pixel 6a's primary camera, with other cameras lining up with that of the Pixel 5 or 5a. The display is the other area where Google could save costs to meet a cheaper price point — AC understands that the 6a will use a 60Hz panel as opposed to the quicker 90Hz screen of the regular Pixel 6 — while prior leaks have confirmed a 6.2-inch display size.

Tensor in the Pixel 6a may seem like overkill. But moving the entire Pixel line over to Google silicon sooner rather than later does make a lot of sense.

Google Pixel 6 Pixel 5a Side By Side

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

Tensor may seem like overkill for an A-series Pixel, but it actually makes a lot of sense.

It allows Google to continue building out unique features powered by machine learning, and do so at its own pace without backporting them to run on Qualcomm silicon for its cheaper phones. Google would also benefit from reduced engineering overhead if the A-series Pixel simply uses the same Tensor processor from the previous year's Pixel flagship. This would establish an Apple-like cadence for Google phones, where a new processor is introduced every year. Assuming a support lifecycle of five years, eventually Google would only be building for five platforms, as opposed to a mess of different Qualcomm parts.

High-end Pixels could continue to differentiate themselves through snazzier designs, better camera hardware and superior screens, plus value-add features like wireless charging — all of which are absent from current A-series models. Meanwhile, Tensor raises the ceiling in terms of the AI-based features Google is able to offer in mid-range Pixel phones. The A-series would finally be able to compete with the iPhone in terms of raw power, while also bringing the heat to cheaper, higher-specced devices from the likes of Oppo and Xiaomi, whose budget models don't offer great longterm software support.

Google Pixel 6 Camera Bar Colors

Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Tensor would also allow the Pixel 6a to boast the same five years of software support as the rest of the Pixel 6 series. That's a big deal for the mid-range space, where competitors are unlikely to offer such generous support lifespans.

If Google is as serious as it appears to be about Tensor, it makes a lot of sense to have all its phones running on homegrown silicon. Moving to Tensor across the board could also benefit the flow of Google's supply chains, even if the company took a small hit on a 6a with a higher per-unit cost in the short term. A steady, predictable supply of Tensor chips for the mainline Pixel series, the A-series, and eventually a series of foldables.

While a high-end processor and a relatively old image sensor like the IMX363 might seem like a technical mismatch, Google has plenty of experience with the sensor, and has shown that it can squeeze a lot of performance out of it. Current A-series Pixels are likely limited more by their processors than their imaging hardware, especially when it comes to video capture. The cinematic effects first introduced in the Pixel 5, for instance, could shine on a future Pixel 6a thanks to the more advanced processing capabilities of Tensor.

Ultimately, using Tensor in the Pixel 6a shows that this is a long-term project for Google, and that there's almost certainly no going back to Snapdragon-powered Pixel phones. It should energize the mid-range space by allowing the 6a to boast superior AI and image processing capabilities, and bring some serious competition to the likes of Xiaomi, Oppo, and Motorola who currently dominate the $400-500 price range.

Alex Dobie
Alex Dobie

Alex is global Executive Editor for Android Central, and is usually found in the UK. He has been blogging since before it was called that, and currently most of his time is spent leading video for AC, which involves pointing a camera at phones and speaking words at a microphone. He would just love to hear your thoughts at alex@androidcentral.com, or on the social things at @alexdobie.

10 Comments
  • I have a Pixel 4a. It replaced my Pixel 1. I was looking at the 6, but now I will wait until the 6a comes out and decide then. Been very satisfied with the 4a, and I am in no hurry.
  • Interesting…let’s see facts. Tensor was supposed to be efficient yet powerful. Benchmarks do not back up the powerful part as it is for most part worst than Snapdragon current flagship chip. Efficient? As proven by numerous battery tests on Youtube, despite having one of the biggest battery around, it does WORST than other flagships…and we’re only talking about Android flagships. Compared to iPhone 13 Pro Max, it is not even in the same ballpark! Camera smarts? Well, as being proven repeatedly, P6 camera is very inconsistent and the processing takes forever, esp night shots. Despite having one of the biggest (main) camera sensor around, P6 actually gathers LESS light without Night Sight. And you have to hold still for over 6 seconds just to use Night Sight at times! It’s daytime pics are way over-processed to the point where shadows / blacks are never black…you get gray! Everything get light up day or night. One look at P6 and you know that it is P6 because there is not a black color in sight and everything is over-HDR processed to hell. And as being shown on Youtube, P6 gets hot quite quickly with any gaming or camera use. So, remind us all, what exactly is good about Tensor? It ain’t efficient…actually far from it! It ain’t powerful…certainly not class-leading. It heats up with about any moderate processing. It’s camera processing leaves a lot to be desired. Tensor is no Apple A7 chip in 2013. Tensor is not breaking any new grounds. It has not caught anyone with their pants down (as A7 did to Qualcomm in 2013).
  • So you don't actually own the phone? You're just repeating stuff you heard on YouTube videos? I actually own the phone and it runs like a dream. Battery lasts me 2 days and I've gotten 8 to 10 hours of screen time. I keep hearing people complain about the battery but I don't seem to be having those problems. Maybe it's because I turned off all the battery sucking crap. I don't need for the phone to recognize music playing in the background throughout the day, I don't need it to automatically turn on Wi-Fi when I get home. I'll just turn it on and off myself instead of having it drain my battery by looking for a familiar Wi-Fi signal all day. If you turn off all the bell and whistle background features, the battery works just fine.
  • So, you are working around the deficiencies of the phone. Other phones don’t need for the user to compromise usability and yet have amazing battery life. If those work-arounds work for you, then great…but that doesn’t mean that other folks concerns are less valid.
  • Those features aren't going to make much of a difference. I think you'll find very similar battery life with them on, at least I do.
  • Nice. So you've never used the phone, have no actual hands on experience with it. Have cherry picked anything negative you wanted to hear about the phone and presented them as fact. What phone do you use? I can rip it apart based on things I've read online as well.
  • I have to agree, it's easy to slam any phone with "facts" that are hand picked and of dubious quality. He seems to rely heavily upon exaggerating as well. Most likely we're seeing an insecure and hardcore iPhone fan here. They always feel threatened by the Pixels. I see it as a sign of how good the Pixels are.
  • LOL!!! Come on, you actually believe what you just wrote?!
  • I have a Pixel 6 and I haven't experienced anything you mentioned. I've used two of them actually because I returned the unlocked one and got the Verizon variant because I was having trouble getting updates. The processing of pictures wasn't noticeably different or longer than any iPhone or Samsung phone I've used. I just took a pictured of black objects to see if what you said was true and nope, the blacks were true to life. The night shots might take a little longer but to me they look better. The only problem with overheating with a camera was when I was taking video using the Pixel 5a. I don't game but most phones get hot because of that.
    The battery life is great BTW. At least for what I use it for. I know the iPhone 13 Pro Max is supposed to be the best but all I need is for my phone to get me through the day and it does, even with heavy use I still have battery to spare. I knew buying the phone that it didn't have the most powerful processor but having used one since it's release date I wouldn't know it without being told. It doesn't sound you're expressing your own opinion and it's only based upon what you've seen on the interwebs. I'm sorry you're not happy with a phone you don't own, do not like, and obviously don't want. But ok.
  • I've owned nothing but Samsungs for years but I'm getting bored and needed a change. I was definitely considering the Pixel for my next phone, but good battery life is a must for me. I decided on the iphone 13 max pro after not owning an iphone since the 4. Google tries hard with the pixel but can't seem to nail the entire package.