Google’s chip ambitions have always been rumored to go beyond the smartphone and eventually be used for Chromebooks. A report last week pegged 2023 as when we’ll see such a computer. There are many open questions about what the resulting Chrome OS device(s) will look like, but Tensor will undoubtedly be Google’s best chance to reboot the Pixelbook and offer a broader lineup.
The not-so-distant past and punted present
In April of 2020, Axios reported that Google is working on its own processor for Pixel phones. That article correctly pegged 2021 as when it would launch, while also adding that “subsequent versions of Google’s chip could power Chromebooks, but that’s likely to be even further off.”
Nikkei Asia just reported how Google “plans to roll out the CPUs for laptops and tablets, which run on the company’s Chrome operating system, in around 2023.” Assuming a fall launch, that is a full two years away from happening.
2023 would match historical precedent in that Google released the first Chromebook Pixel in 2013 and followed that up two years later. Made by Google 2017 saw the Pixelbook and 2019 the Pixelbook Go. There was of course the Pixel Slate in-between, while the two-year cadence would dictate another Pixelbook in 2021.
Left: 2013 Chromebook Pixel | Right: 2015
However, there have been no recent signs of such a device this fall. Google could have significantly ramped up its secrecy, but the likelier possibility is that there’s nothing imminent. It doesn’t make sense for Google to go all out with a third-party chip this year if all that underlying work and status as a flagship gets scrapped two years later. As such, the next milestone we can look forward to is 2023.
Neither the Axios or Nikkei Asia report explicitly said these (presumed) Google Tensor chips would debut on “Pixelbooks.” Of course, this could simply be due to the final product being so far off and branding decisions having yet to be finalized.
Meanwhile, the most recent rumor very interestingly mentioned “tablets.” Google backed away from that form factor in mid-2019 following the Pixel Slate launch — and reportedly killed two in-development tablets with detachable keyboard bases — in favor of laptops, which includes 2-in-1s.
It’s possible that the company is rethinking that decision following the recent success of Chrome OS tablets. This started with Lenovo’s IdeaPad Duet last year, while Asus has the Chromebook Flip CM3000 and HP released the most premium offering so far with the Chromebook x2 11. Unlike the Pixel Slate, these devices are squarely in the low to mid-range and mimic entry-level Chromebooks rather than try to explicitly go after the iPad Pro. This form factor gives people a good-enough laptop, as well as a tablet for casual leanback experiences.
However, that leads to a broader question of what custom silicon allows Google to do and what a premium Chromebook looks like two years from now. Chromebooks have found clear market success amid the pandemic and work from home.
As such, people are becoming very attuned to how the platform works. When it comes time for them to get a personal laptop, that familiarity might cause them to get something running Chrome OS. Some will go for a device that has a flashier build than the fleet-esque nature of the Chromebooks they’ve been using, while businesses might opt for something higher-end right out of the gate as adoption grows.
A premium Chrome OS device is no longer the oxymoron it was during the days of the first and second-generation Chromebook Pixel. Historically, Chrome OS has used $1,000+ devices to showcase new technologies. The 2015 Chromebook Pixel was one of the first laptops to adopt USB-C, while the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook has a 4K AMOLED screen with Ambient EQ adjustments.
The next new technology for Chromebooks could be face unlock and presence detection as we reported just last week. It comes as Google, during the 10th anniversary of Chromebooks this year, said devices will “become more intelligent, accessible, and helpful to improve computing experiences for everyone.” Specifically, “intelligent experiences” entails “using artificial intelligence and sensor technology to proactively help users and create more personalized experiences.”
Google is very much working on ambient computing for Nest smart home devices and phones, with laptops and tablets needing it as well to complete the ecosystem. Besides unlocking with your face, it could be as simple as making sure the screen doesn’t turn off while you’re actively reading or as fancy as gestures (a la Soli) for better leanback controls, if not games. Premium hardware is also the best time to introduce expensive cellular technology with 5G Chromebooks inevitable. Google has already said it wants “more devices with cellular connectivity.”
The other key technology will be the custom chip itself, with Google’s “Tensor” brand likely getting extended from data centers and phones to Pixelbooks. Google would no longer be tied to Intel or Qualcomm, whose ‘c’ class of Snapdragon chips are nothing to write home about right now. Like on phones, Google could allow for much faster AI/ML processing, while putting a very good camera sensor on a tablet-like device would be easier than ever with Tensor. Ultimately, the chip provides independence and the ability for Google to prioritize its vision.
A Pixelbook lineup with Google Tensor
Outside of components, the whole package that houses each chip and sensor is of course important. If Google is essentially rebooting its Pixel line of Chrome OS devices, all form factors have to be considered. A full Pixelbook lineup with Google Tensor would be even better.
At the high-end, a 2-in-1 convertible is very likely the flagship. There could be a high-resolution touchscreen with a good stylus experience (high refresh rate is a must for good note-taking), cellular connectivity, face unlock, and the aforementioned Human Presence Sensor (HPS).
Meanwhile, a cheaper Pixelbook Go-style device would let the company apply what it’s learned and the success it found with A-Series phones and headphones to laptops. Here, Google could just release a Chromebook with the modern chip and good keyboard. That alone would go a long way.
Last in a hypothetical — but realistic — lineup is a detachable. Google and partners have been very adamant of including a keyboard dock to allow for full productivity. It has yet to fully embrace Chrome OS as an entertainment device. (Android tablets with Entertainment Space and Kids Space launchers will likely serve that role for a long time to come.) This device could either go the A-Series route or be higher-end, but the former is likely safer as there is no proven demand yet for a premium Chrome OS tablet.
In all, a two or three-device lineup is very safe, but I’d personally argue there’s also room for a more experimental form factor to keep Chrome OS in the conversation as display technology rapidly innovates. All those unique devices run Windows today and they are what draw people’s attention during trade shows. I’m not advocating for a wear and tear-prone Lenovo ThinkPad X running Chrome OS, but I think a Surface Neo-style device with two touchscreens would let Google start thinking about how its operating system should evolve.
2023 is still a long time away and many things about the computing landscape could shift before then. However, these rumors of a new Tensor chip are the perfect time for Google to really create a flagship Chromebook and consider how bold it wants to be with the Pixelbook brand.