While the Apple Watch has leveraged Apple-developed chips to dominate the smartwatch industry, Qualcomm hasn’t given up on creating alternatives to power Google’s Wear OS and Android competitors. Today, the San Diego chipmaker announced the Snapdragon Wear 4100 platform, which will significantly raise the bars for both midrange and high-end smartwatches later this year.
There are actually two variants of this year’s Snapdragon Wear — the 4100 and 4100+, differentiated by the latter’s addition of an AON coprocessor. The trick is that only the 4100+ will support either Wear OS- or Android-based smartwatches, while the standard 4100 is designed to only run Android. Smartwatch makers will be able to choose between the platforms, but to achieve the lowest possible power consumption, they’ll likely need the 4100+.
Both variants benefit from a major upgrade to the “big” side of the platform’s “big-little” hybrid CPU architecture, which was previously used in Snapdragon Wear 3100. The 4100 shifts from a 28-nanometer manufacturing process to 12nm technology, enabling a much denser and more power-efficient collection of chip transistors to fit in the same area. Qualcomm has consequently shifted from ARM’s 1.1GHz four-core Cortex-A7 to a 1.7GHz four-core Cortex-A53, enabling 85% faster performance with a 25% savings in power consumption compared with the Snapdragon Wear 3100. The GPU is 2.5 times faster, backed by 750MHz LPDDR3 RAM, and has two DSPs to handle discrete tasks, rather than one.
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While those numbers provide specific performance quantifications, the bigger picture is that smartwatch applications are about to become deeper, more immersive, and more interesting — closer to smartphone apps in look and features, enabling greater periods of true independence from phones. OEMs will have the option of including a new, higher-performance 4G modem in 4100-series watches, enabling users to enjoy smartphone-like features such as real-time GPS maps, full voice assistant access, real-time language translation, and robust music streaming, all without relying on a tethered phone.
Snapdragon 4100-series watches also include support for Bluetooth 5.0 and superior assisted GPS positioning, as well as continued support for the outdated Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n). OEMs will now be able to include up to two cameras, enabling direct-from-wrist video calling and/or photography with up to 16-megapixel stills. At least one OEM — BBK, the company behind Oppo — has a watch called Z6 coming with camera functionality.
That said, Qualcomm notes that smartwatches typically spend 5% of their time in active use (relying on the “big” CPUs) and 95% in “ambient” mode (using the little core). This is why prior Wear 3100 series watches were able to achieve 48-hour typical runtimes between charges and Wear 4100+ will extend that number by another 25%, depending on the apps and usage scenarios. Even high-end 4G-capable smartwatches will see around 25% better battery life, Qualcomm says, and some apps will use 40% less power than before.
The Wear 4100+ includes a QC1110 AON ultra-low power coprocessor that lets watches do more when they’re being passively worn. Always-on displays will now be able to show 64,000 colors at all times, rather than 16, and benefit from typography tweaks such as number and font kerning. AON will also be able to handle sleep, heart rate, and step tracking — plus alarms, haptics, and tilt-to-wake features — without needing to waste big CPU energy. It will also support a super low power consumption mode that promises a week of battery life with that full-color display while still tracking steps and heart rate.
Early Snapdragon Wear 4100 watches will be available later this year, including the aforemented Z6, a timepiece with an easily detachable wristband targeted at kids. Additionally, Mobvoi will introduce the first Wear OS watch based on the Wear 4100+ chipset in 2020. Given Google’s somewhat soft updates to Wear OS in 2019, it’s unclear when the software will be updated to support all of the new functionality, but Qualcomm says the companies are continuing to work together to further Google’s wearable platforms.