While Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear chips power the vast majority of current Wear OS watches, the platform itself has never quite delivered. Until now, Snapdragon Wear chips have been repurposed into mobile processor designs based on outdated technology and are a big reason why Wear OS watches have been so lackluster. But today Qualcomm is releasing a revised wearable platform called Snapdragon W5 Plus and W5. And this time, it looks like Qualcomm is all about business.
For starters, the company is ditching the Snapdragon Wear brand. It may seem unimportant, but it’s more like a new symbolic slate. Instead, the new W5 Plus and W5 chips will be tucked under the main Snapdragon umbrella. The W5 Plus is designed for high-end smartwatches, while the W5 is for simpler devices like kids’ smartwatches, fitness trackers, and enterprise devices. And, according to Qualcomm’s global head of smart wearables, Pankaj Kedia, both chips are specifically designed for wearables. As in, these aren’t repurposed smartphone chips.
Specs-wise, the platform retains the hybrid architecture featured in the Snapdragon Wear 3100 and 4100 chips. There’s the main processor for interactive tasks and an always-on co-processor to help save battery life. For the W5 Plus, Qualcomm is making a huge leap 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. That’s not to say the W5 Plus is automatically better because it’s on 4nm – it’s more than Qualcomm is finally using running process technology like its peers.
With the W5 Plus platform, the always-on coprocessor powers functionality that was previously handled by the main SoC. They include audio, keyword detection for PDAs, and notifications via low-power Bluetooth 5.3. Meanwhile, health tracking features like sleep and heart rate monitoring are also handled by the co-processor. Kedia says the coprocessor can also support embedded machine learning, though we’ll have to see 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 the result is 50% longer battery life, doubled performance, and a 30% size reduction compared to the 4100 platform. According to Kedia, the platform W5 Plus shape should be able to deliver days of battery life in some cases, which a Wear OS watch has yet to achieve. In a briefing, Kedia noted that Bluetooth watches with an always-on display that have a 300mAh battery will see around 15 hours of extra battery life. Since these numbers are based on Qualcomm’s own internal research, it’s impossible to say at this time how this will translate into, say, a genuine Fossil smartwatch.
Kedia also said The edge that greater power efficiency and smaller chip size will allow manufacturers to create smaller and more elegant watches. If true, that’s great news for people with smaller wrists. As companies include more advanced features, they also tend to add larger batteries to compensate for the additional power consumption. Indeed, the size of smartwatches has slowly but steadily increased over the years. For example, a larger Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro is all but confirmed.
But perhaps the biggest change is that there won’t be much of a wait before the first Snapdragon W5-powered watches hit shelves. Oppo says it will be the first to launch a watch on the W5 platform with the Oppo Watch 3 in August. Meanwhile, Mobvoi says its next TicWatch will launch this fall with the W5 Plus chip.
This is a major change from the past. For example, the Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform was announced in 2018, but we didn’t see most apparel makers adopt the SoC until fall 2019. The wait was even worse with the Snapdragon platform. Wear 4100. It was announced in the summer of 2020, but only two smartwatches featured it a year after its 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 clear idea of how it will perform on a non-Samsung smartwatch. (The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 line is the only widely available Wear OS 3 smartwatch at the moment.) 4100-generation chip. Meanwhile, it’s rumored that the next Google Pixel Watch will be powered by an older Samsung chip. So really, we won’t know how a current Qualcomm chip-powered Wear OS 3 watch can perform until Mobvoi’s W5 Plus-powered TicWatch arrives this fall.
The transition to Wear OS 3 was always going to be difficult, but it also looks 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 with next-gen hardware. Again, Qualcomm has failed to deliver before. Still, between the massive leap in process technology, the rebranding, and the shortened wait time to market – maybe this time around Qualcomm will finally pull it off.