While Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear chips power the vast majority of today’s Wear OS watches, the platform itself has never worked. So far, Snapdragon Wear chips have been repurposed mobile processor designs based on legacy technology, and this is the main reason Wear OS watches have been so dim. But today, Qualcomm is launching an updated wearable platform called the Snapdragon W5 Plus and W5. And this time it looks like Qualcomm is serious about it.
First, the company is ditching the Snapdragon Wear branding. It may not seem important, but it’s more like symbolic fresh slate. Instead, the new W5 Plus and W5 chips will be folded under the main Snapdragon umbrella. The W5 Plus is for premium smartwatches, while the W5 is for simpler devices like smartwatches for kids, fitness trackers, and corporate devices. And according to Pankaj Kedia, Global Head of Smart Wearables at Qualcomm, both chips are built specifically for wearables. That is, these are not repurposed chips for smartphones.
In terms of specifications, the platform retains the hybrid architecture of the Snapdragon Wear 3100 and 4100 chips. There is a main processor for interactive tasks and an always-on co-processor to save battery power. As for the W5 Plus, Qualcomm is making a huge leap from 12nm to 4nm in the main chip and from 28nm to 22nm in the coprocessor. In comparison, Samsung’s Exynos W920, which powers the Galaxy Watch 4, uses a 5nm process. The Apple S7 chip for the Apple Watch Series 7 uses a 7nm process. This doesn’t mean the W5 Plus is automatically better, because it’s 4nm – which is what Qualcomm is finally using. Current technological process, like its peers.
On the W5 Plus platform, the always-on coprocessor supports functions that were previously performed by the main SoC. These include sound, keyword detection for digital assistants, and notifications via Bluetooth 5.3 Low Energy. Meanwhile, health tracking functions such as sleep and heart rate monitoring are also handled by the co-processor. Kedia says the coprocessor could also support embedded machine learning, though we’re yet to find out if and how companies use it.
Essentially, the main processor is only used for interactive features such as calls, 3D watch faces and animations or GPS navigation. Qualcomm’s press release says that as a result, battery life has increased by 50%, performance has doubled, and size has decreased by 30% compared to the 4100 platform. According to Kedia, in some cases, the W5 Plus platform should provide multi-day battery life – something Wear OS watches haven’t achieved yet. At the briefing, Kedia noted that a Bluetooth watch with an always-on display and a 300 mAh battery will last approximately 15 hours on an additional battery. Because these numbers are based on Qualcomm’s own internal research, it’s not yet possible to say how this will affect, say, a real Fossil smartwatch.
Kedia also told edge that higher energy efficiency and a smaller chip size will allow manufacturers to create smaller and sleeker watches. If true, this is good news for people with small wrists. As companies include more advanced features, they also tend to add larger batteries to offset the extra power draw. Of course, the size of smartwatches has slowly but steadily increased over the years. Thing is, the larger Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro is almost confirmed.
But perhaps the biggest change is that the first watch based on the Snapdragon W5 will hit stores very soon. Oppo says it will be the first to launch a W5 platform watch alongside the Oppo Watch 3 in August. Meanwhile, Mobvoi says their next TicWatch will launch this fall with the W5 Plus chip.
This is a major shift from the past. For example, the Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform was announced in 2018, but we didn’t see most wearable device makers using the SoC until fall 2019. The anticipation was even worse with the Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform. It was announced in the summer of 2020, but a year after the launch, they appeared in only two smartwatches. Even now, there are only a few 4100-power smartwatches on the market.
Wear OS 3 doesn’t have the smoothest start, and we still don’t know how it will perform on non-Samsung smartwatches. (The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 line is the only widely available Wear OS 3 smartwatch at the moment.) The first non-Samsung smartwatch to run Wear OS 3 is the exorbitantly expensive Montblanc Summit 3 watch, but it has just been released and running on the latest version. chip gen 4100. Meanwhile, there are rumors that the future Google Pixel Watch will run on an old Samsung chip. So we won’t really know how a Wear OS 3 watch running on Qualcomm’s current chip can perform until Mobvoi’s W5 Plus-powered TicWatch arrives this fall.
Switching to Wear OS 3 has never been easy, but it looks like things are falling into place. Last year, Samsung and Google began to solve the software problem by creating a single software platform. Now Qualcomm seems to be keeping an eye on the next generation of hardware. On the other hand, Qualcomm was unable to deliver earlier. However, given the massive leap in manufacturing processes, rebranding and reduced time-to-market, maybe Qualcomm is finally getting it right this time around.
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