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Could this chip give the Pixel 6 a chance against the iPhone 12?

Published May 26th, 2020 4:36PM EDT
Pixel 5 Specs
Image: Zach Epstein for BGR

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  • The Pixel 5 specs will be underwhelming, according to recent leaks, especially when compared to the iPhone 12 series that will feature Apple’s next-gen A14 flagship processor.
  • While the Pixel 5 might be as powerful as the Pixel 4, the Pixel 6 that could make up for Google’s missteps.
  • Arm just launched a series of mobile processors that will power next year’s flagship series, including a brand new, powerful Cortex-X1 chip that could power premium phones like the Pixel 6.

I’ve written quite extensively about how and why Google will ruin the Pixel 5 this year, and it really boils down to this: For reasons that may be out of Google’s control, the upcoming “flagship” Pixel phone will be about as powerful as the Pixel 4, if that. The silver lining is that the Pixel 5 will be a transitional phone for the company in a year that’s already going to be painful for smartphone makers. But with the Pixel 6, we might finally see the Google innovation we’ve been waiting for: A custom processor to rival the iPhone. Make no mistake, specs and performance do matter, and they matter more for Android fans and device makers than Apple or Google.

The A-series chip in the iPhone is the processor to beat. As I’ve explained before, when the iPhone 12’s A14 chip arrives, it’ll obliterate the performance of the Pixel 5, even if Google decided to spring for the Snapdragon 865 chip after all (though this is unlikely). But come next year, flagship Android phones might finally have a real response to the A-series chip, and that’s Arm’s new reference flagship chip, the Cortex-X1 CPU.

Arm on Tuesday announced a variety of new silicon designs that will power the next generation of mobile devices, including flagship smartphones that will succeed the Galaxy S20, OnePlus 8, and Pixel 4. We’re looking at the new Cortex-A78 CPU, the Mali-G78 GPU, and the Ethos-N78 NPU. But the most exciting announcement is that of the Cortex-X Custom program that will allow companies to create even more powerful chip designs going forward, including CPUs that could reach the kind of performance only iPhones and iPads offer.

The Cortex-A78 will offer precisely the generational performance and efficiency bumps that we expect. That’s a 20% performance upgrade thanks in part to the new 5nm process architecture, and a 50% drop in power usage while still delivering the same performance. Again, the more efficient 5nm process will also help with that. This could easily be the blueprint for the main core of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 successor.

Image source: Arm

But the Cortex-X1 chip really stole the spotlight. The chip will deliver 22% faster performance over the Cortex-A78, and will be 30% faster than the Snapdragon 865. It will also cater to clients looking for custom solutions — the first paragraph in Arm’s blog post on the matter makes that very clear:

Cortex-X1 is the most powerful Cortex CPU to date, bringing 30 percent peak performance improvements in the next generation over the current Arm Cortex-A77 CPU. It is designed to bring ultimate performance for next-generation custom solutions.

When it comes to performance gains, AnandTech explains it best (emphasis ours):

The Cortex-A78 would generally end up with the same power usage as current generation A77 products such as the Snapdragon 865 – with the vendors possibly using the process gains to get the last hundred MHz required to reach the 3GHz mark. The performance projection here is largely based on Arm’s +7% performance boost as well as a small clock boost. It would be a respectable upgrade, but nothing too earth-shattering in terms of generational updates.

The performance bump of an X1 system would be extremely competitive here, essentially being 37% faster than a Snapdragon 865 SoC today. That’s a huge generational bump and would put Arm very much in distance of Apple’s A13 cores, although in reality its competition would be the upcoming A14.

Yes, the A14 will probably still be faster than the Arm CPU when all is said and done. But Android phones get closer to reaching Apple than they have in recent memory. The Snapdragon 865 isn’t really the answer to the A14 — it’s the answer to the A13 that launched last fall, and it can’t touch the A13 in terms of performance anyway.

Image source: Arm

There are no guarantees that Google will opt for the Cortex-X1 in its quest to develop its own custom chip. But word on the street is that Samsung will partner with Google on the venture. Samsung hasn’t had a great deal of luck with its own Exynos chips to begin with. The Galaxy S20 series is the latest reminder of that.

Interestingly enough, Samsung went on record to applaud Arm’s newest chips.

“Samsung and Arm have a strong technology partnership, and we are very excited to see the new direction Arm is taking with Cortex-X custom program, enabling innovation in the Android ecosystem for next-gen user experiences,” said Joonseok Kim, Samsung Electronics vice president of SoC design team.

Image source: Arm

As AnandTech points out, a quote like that is somewhat unusual coming from Samsung:

It’s extremely rare to hear Samsung talk about a new Arm IP like this during a launch, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that this is very much an indirect confirmation that they’re a licensee of the X1 cores. In which case, we’ll be seeing the core in the next generation of flagship Exynos chipsets. Looking back at what happened with Samsung’s custom CPU design team last year as well as their lackluster performance of their custom cores, the very existence of the X1 probably further sealed the fate for their custom core efforts.

This is more indicative of Samsung’s own plans to make its mobile products even more competitive than a Google-Samsung partnership. But while Google can afford to waste another year with a disappointing Pixel 5, the Pixel 6 needs to put the brand back on the map. Arm’s Cortex-X1 and Samsung might make that happen.

Whether the Cortex-X1 will have a future in the Pixel 6 or not, what is clear is that Google is more than aware of the Pixel’s shortcomings and plans to fix the issues. “Hardware is hard,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a recent interview with The Verge, but progress is being made, as you can see from the full quote below:

The last couple of years have been a major integration phase for us because we’ve combined our Google hardware efforts with Nest. We absorbed the mobile division of HTC. So it’s been a lot of stitching together. And we have a wide product portfolio, too. So it’s definitely been a building phase. We’re super committed to it for the long run. Hardware is hard. And it definitely has components, which take real time to get it right, thinking about underlying silicon or display or camera or any of those tacks. And so we are definitely investing in it, but that timeline. I think we’ve made a lot of progress.

Arm’s full set of CPU announcements are available on its website.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.