Qualcomm has redesigned its silicon designed for wearable devices such as smart watches and activity trackers to launch what it’s calling the Snapdragon W5+ wearable platform. These designs are completely new and hopefully will help the makers of every other smart watch that isn’t an Apple Watch finally compete against the Cupertino-designed device.
The new Qualcomm silicon embraces the concept of an ambient mode, offloading several sensing and other processes to co-processors that save on power without sacrificing performance. The design takes sensors such as heart rate and microphones for voice activation and embeds them on an always-on microprocessor. Qualcomm has also put a smaller GPU on this always-on chip so the screen gets cool visuals in ambient mode. Finally, it has put notifications and audio playback on this lower performance, low-power always-on processor to save on battery life.
This is not a new design strategy for battery-powered devices. Apple introduced its first sensing co-processor back in 2013 for the iPhone 5s and had continued putting sensing co-processors in its devices until 2018. Apple had the co-processors handle motion detection, wake-word detection, and even mapping functions.
This focus on ambient mode should result in much better battery life without sacrificing the wide variety of features people want in their smart watches. The shift from a 12-nanometer process to 4-nanometers will also improve battery life and boost performance. Qualcomm also added silicon support so watch vendors could add the ability to playback video and add 3-D watch faces to their wearables. Pankaj Kedia, senior director and global head of the Qualcomm wearables division, says 3-D features such as watch faces or navigation are very popular in Asia.
It makes sense that Qualcomm would try to focus there given the absolute dominance that Apple has in the smart watch category in the U.S. with a 46% market share. Globally Apple has a 30% share of the smart watch market. For the last few years, consumers who wanted a high-quality smart watch experience turned to Samsung or Fitbit (which Google purchased) for a device that never seemed to measure up to the Apple Watch.
Google’s efforts at Android Wear devices have been lackluster, and as far back as 2018, the industry blamed Qualcomm’s silicon for the problem. So I was glad to see that Qualcomm has taken a completely new approach for the entire wearable platform. But aside from the new video capabilities, which I’m not sure the U.S. market wants, the performance offered by these chips seems like it may only match what Apple is doing today.
This is a great step forward, but I would have loved to see Qualcomm leading the charge in more than just video playback. However, I will 100% try out a smart watch with the W5+ inside. Qualcomm says the first devices to contain the W5+ will come out in August from Oppo. Kedia also says there’s a Wear OS watch in the pipeline from Mobvoi, and the Qualcomm presentation on the new silicon did feature a quote from Google.
So I would love to see a tightly integrated watch from Fitbit that ties into my Android devices or even a Pixel phone.