While Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear chips power the vast majority of current Wear OS watches, the platform itself never really delivered. Until now, Snapdragon Wear chips have been repurposed mobile processor designs built on outdated technology and are a major reason Wear OS watches have been so lackluster. But today Qualcomm is launching an overhauled wearables platform called Snapdragon W5 Plus and W5. And this time it seems like Qualcomm means business.
For starters, the company is abandoning the Snapdragon Wear branding. That may seem irrelevant, but it’s more of a symbolic fresh slate. Instead, the new W5 Plus and W5 chips are folded under the main Snapdragon umbrella. The W5 Plus is for premium smartwatches, while the W5 is for simpler devices such as kids’ smartwatches, fitness trackers, and business devices. And, according to Qualcomm’s global head of smart wearables, Pankaj Kedia, both chips are built specifically for wearable devices. As in, they are not recycled smartphone chips.
Specifically, the platform retains the hybrid architecture of the Snapdragon Wear 3100 and 4100 chips. There’s the main processor for interactive tasks and an always-on coprocessor to save battery. For the W5 Plus, Qualcomm makes a huge jump from 12nm to 4nm on the main chip and from 28nm to 22nm on the coprocessor. For context, Samsung’s Exynos W920, which powers the Galaxy Watch 4, uses 5nm process technology. Apple’s S7 chip for the Apple Watch Series 7 uses a 7nm process. This isn’t to say the W5 Plus is automatically better because it’s at 4nm – it’s more that Qualcomm is finally using current process technology like his colleagues.
With the W5 Plus platform, the always-on coprocessor powers functions previously handled by the main SoC. They include audio, keyword detection for digital assistants, and notifications via low-power Bluetooth 5.3. Meanwhile, health tracking functions such as sleep and heart rate monitoring are also handled by the coprocessor. Kedia says the coprocessor could also support onboard machine learning, though we’ll have to see if and how companies take advantage of that.
Essentially, the main processor is only used for interactive functions such as calling, 3D dials and animation, or GPS navigation. Qualcomm’s press release says the result is a 50 percent longer battery life, a doubling in performance and a 30 percent reduction in size compared to the 4100 platform. According to Kedia, the W5 Plus platform should be able to offer several days of battery life in some cases, something a Wear OS watch has yet to achieve. In a briefing, Kedia noted that Bluetooth watches with an always-on display with a 300mAh battery will have about 15 hours of extra battery life. Because these numbers are based on Qualcomm’s own internal research, it’s still impossible to say how that will translate into, say, a real Fossil smartwatch.
Kedia also said: The edge that the greater energy efficiency and smaller chip size will allow manufacturers to make smaller, sleeker watches. If that’s true, that’s big news for those with smaller wrists. As companies have more advanced features, they also tend to add larger batteries to make up for the extra power consumption. Sure enough, the sizes of smartwatches have slowly but steadily increased over the years. In this case, a larger Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro is all but confirmed.
But perhaps the biggest change is that there will hardly be a wait for the first Snapdragon W5-powered watches to hit the shelves. Oppo says it will be the first to launch a watch on the W5 platform in August with the Oppo Watch 3. Meanwhile, Mobvoi says its next TicWatch will launch this fall with the W5 Plus chip.
That is a big shift from the past. For example, the Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform was announced in 2018, but we didn’t see most wearable makers adopt the SoC until fall 2019. The wait was even worse with the Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform. That was announced in the summer of 2020, but only two smartwatches had it a year after launch. Even now, there are only a handful of 4100-powered smartwatches on the market.
Wear OS 3 hasn’t had the smoothest start and we still don’t have a good idea of how it will work on a non-Samsung smartwatch. (The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 range is currently the only widely available Wear OS 3 smartwatch.) The first non-Samsung smartwatch with Wear OS 3 is the prohibitively expensive Montblanc Summit 3, but it just launched and is running on a latest one. – generation 4100 chip. Meanwhile, there are rumors that the upcoming Google Pixel Watch will be powered by an older Samsung chip. So really, we won’t know how a Wear OS 3 watch powered by a current Qualcomm chip can perform until Mobvoi’s W5 Plus-powered TicWatch arrives this fall.
The transition to Wear OS 3 would have always been difficult, but it also seems like the pieces are starting to fall into place. Last year, Samsung and Google started tackling the software side of the equation by creating a unified software platform. Now Qualcomm seems to be following the next generation of hardware. On the other hand, Qualcomm has not delivered before. Still, between the huge leap in process technology, the rebranding and the reduced wait time for the market – maybe Qualcomm will finally get it right this time around.