Qualcomm’s New Chip Opens the Door to Smartwatches Without the Biggest Smartwatch Annoyance
For the first time in more than two years, Qualcomm is overhauling its chips for smartwatches and the results may please watch aficionados.
The chipmaker says its new Snapdragon Wear 3100 microprocessors, which will debut later this year in watches running Google’s Wear OS software, were specially designed to add some of the most desired functions for consumers. Better battery efficiency, for example, will allow for a colorful, always-on display showing a watch face—even for users who haven’t raised their wrists.
Popular watches from Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit—along with many current watches running Google software—show just a black screen most of the time—a turn off for fans of traditional watches. Watches with the new Snapdragon chip will be able to constantly display a multi-colored live watch face with a moving second hand and updated bits of information such as the date, remaining battery life, and steps taken that day.
At Monday’s announcement, Qualcomm also said the chip would be used in new watches that will premiere during the important holiday shopping season from Fossil Group (FOSL), Montblanc, and Louis Vuitton, which owns the brands TAG Heuer and Hublot, among others. More partners will be disclosed later, Pankaj Kedia, head of Qualcomm’s smart wearables segment, told Fortune ahead of the announcement.
The new always-on display feature is especially important to the luxury brands and the fashion brands, Kedia said. “They are jumping into the smartwatch space but they don’t want to give up their heritage of a good looking watch,” he added. “They don’t want their customers wearing a piece of technology. They want their customers wearing a fashion watch which happens to be smart.”
Qualcomm and partner Google could use a lift. Even as the smartwatch sales increased 37% in the second quarter over the same period a year earlier, devices running Google (GOOGL) software lost market share, constituting fewer than one out every 10 sold, according to research firm Counterpoint.
And the competition is getting more intense. Samsung just introduced a new smartwatch running on its proprietary Tizen software last month and Apple (AAPL) is expected to unveil the fourth generation of its watch on Sept. 12. Meanwhile, Fitbit (FIT) is having success with its Versa smartwatch introduced in April that also runs on proprietary software.
Qualcomm’s north star
Kedia says for much of the past two years he’s had two simple phrases written on a big whiteboard in his San Diego office: “make it more useful” and “make it last longer.” He posted the goals with the aim of ensuring that all decisions furthered those simple aims, he says. “It’s been up there for a while,” Kedia says. “That’s our north star—everything we do has to get us to those two things.”
Qualcomm (QCOM) has been supplying chips for smartwatches since 2014, he notes, but prior designs were adapted from smartphone chips. That wasn’t a great match, as a smartphone is used directly with its full display lit up for five or six hours a day while a smartwatch is viewed for a total of maybe an hour daily or less because users glance at them only briefly. “Only 5% of the time are you interacting with your watch,” Kedia explained. “95% of the time you are not.”
So the big innovation in the 3100 chips is the inclusion of two completely different processors running different software. One section is based on an ARM Holdings A7 chip design that runs Google’s Wear OS and supplies the greater processing power needed to run applications like fitness tracking, map navigation, and mobile payments. But it’s also a relative power hog compared to a secondary processor, dubbed the QCC1110, which runs a much simpler operating system that can only handle a few tasks. It’s the low power processor that manages the simpler watch face that’s likely to be displayed 95% of the time.
The end result is that watches running the new chips will last for more than two days of heavy use. Customers can also put the watches into an energy saving mode that will last a week or more if they aren’t using many apps.
The power savings could also be used by some manufacturers to make smaller or thinner devices with smaller batteries that still have the same battery life as models with older chips.