In a recent video discussing the history of Google’s phones – well worth watching! – YouTuber MKBHD shared a tidbit about the development of the Google Pixel 5. However, we are skeptical about the claim that Google switched the Pixel 5 from a Tensor chip to a Snapdragon chip “at the last minute”.
Citing previous conversations with Googlers, Marques Brownlee shares in the video that the Pixel 5 was once intended to run on a Tensor chip.
They actually planned that the Pixel 5 would be the first phone with Tensor. But then with COVID and the supply chain issues, and a lot of things that got in the way at the last minute, they kind of had to forgo that.
Without access to Google’s internal roadmap, there’s no denying that it’s possible there were once plans to launch the Tensor chip along with the Pixel 5 in 2020. the hardware change and the impact of COVID-19 – not quite weathered. That aside, others have since made further claims that don’t match the evidence from Google’s development timeline.
So let’s take a look at the Pixel 5’s development history, or at least what’s publicly available. Our own reporting showed the first evidence of Pixel devices in development with the Snapdragon 765 in January 2020. A month later, we were the first to suggest the possibility that this might actually be the Pixel 5, pushing the series away from its predecessor. “flagship” roots.
Shortly after a Pixel device is released to the public, much of the code related to that device is also made available through the Android Open Source Project. This provides in-depth insights into the day-to-day process of preparing for the Pixel 5, including a more definitive timeline.
Pixel 5 always had Snapdragon 765
The first code change that started development of the “Redfin” Pixel 5 was made on July 15, 2019. Shortly after, on August 16, 2019, a large batch of code was added, which also directly confirmed that the Pixel 5 would run on a Qualcomm Snapdragon chip (sm7250 is the internal name for the Snapdragon 765).
Furthermore, the earliest evidence we can find of the first Google Tensor chip (internally called “GS101”) in Android code was not written (by Samsung actually) until March 2020. This rules out the possibility of a Tensor development device being built on. generally available to Googlers at the time.
Two things become very clear from these finds. First, COVID-19 and the supply chain issues that followed didn’t affect or affect which chip the Pixel 5 would use. The decision to use the Snapdragon 765 was made no later than August 2019, months before even the earliest identified cases of COVID-19.
Second, using a Snapdragon chip instead of a Tensor chip was not a “last second” decision by Google. The Pixel 5, equipped with a Snapdragon 765, started development in Android about 15 months before its release. By comparison, development of the Pixel 4 XL, codenamed “Coral,” began in August 2018, or 14 months before release.
Whitefin: a real Pixel 5 on Tensor?
Moving on, there is another claim floating around, which some have cited as proof that the Pixel 5 is intended to run on a Google Tensor chip. This comes from a Pixel device we’ve been tracking for a few months, codenamed “Whitefin.”
From what we were able to put together a few months ago, Whitefin seemed like a potential test device for Google or a third sibling in the Pixel 6 series that would never be released. Later, when the code for the Pixel 6 became public, others inspected Whitefin further and concluded that it seemed to have a lot in common with the Pixel 5 but with a Google Tensor chip.
With MKBHD’s claim that the Pixel 5 was once intended to run on Google Tensor, some have viewed Whitefin through the lens of confirmation bias, taking it as proof that Google did indeed have last-minute plans for a Tensor-powered Pixel 5. deleted.
However, the earliest evidence we’ve found of this alleged Tensor-powered Pixel 5 “Whitefin” in Google code is from September 8, 2020, just a month before the Pixel 5’s release. Shortly after, Google added Oriole and Raven — the respectively Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro – to the same code project.
From a line in that code change — “taken entirely from Whitefin” — it seems likely to us that Whitefin was a temporary development device meant to give developers extra time to get Android ready for Google Tensor. By repurposing the basic framework of the Pixel 5, Googlers could theoretically have their hands on a true Tensor-powered device long before the design and production of the Pixel 6 was finalized.
So to recap, publicly available code allows for a rough timeline of when Google’s sales and tester devices for 2020 and 2021 each began development.
- The development of Pixel 5 (Redfin) started in July 2019.
- Pixel 5 had a Snapdragon 765 from the start.
- Whitefin started development around September 2020.
- Whitefin may have been something like a Pixel 5 with a Tensor chip.
- The Pixel 6 series (Oriole/Raven) also began development in September 2020.
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