After a series of false starts and missed forecasts, the smartwatch market has finally started to come into its own. Android Wear, Google’s smartwatch operating system, was recently redesigned, relaunched, and rechristened Wear OS. And smartwatches sales have never been better, with shipments hitting a record 10 million globally in Q2 2018.
That’s all despite the fact that the Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 2100, one of the most popular choices in chipsets among manufacturers, is more than two years old. It wasn’t particularly cutting edge at launch, and competitors like Apple and Samsung have long since leapfrogged it with their respective architectures.
Qualcomm hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines, to be fair — it launched the Snapdragon Wear 2500, a midrange system-on-chip designed for LTE-equipped kids’ watches running a custom version of Android, earlier this year. But on the eve of a press event where Apple’s expected to announce a next-gen Apple Watch, the San Deigo chipmaker jumped back into the ring today with a new high-end chipset: the Snapdragon Wear 3100. It’s based on a brand-new architecture Qualcomm claims is the most efficient it’s ever created, optimized for wearables-specific use cases like step tracking, heart rate monitoring, and always-on connectivity.
A new coprocessor
“We had two mantras when we were designing this chip: make smartwatches more useful, and make them last longer,” Pankaj Kedia, senior director and business lead of Qualcomm’s Smart Wearable division, told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “That’s how we’re increasing their utility. That was the laser focus.”
To that end, the company’s engineers stuffed the Snapdragon Wear 3100 with a four A7 cores and two secondary chips — a digital signal processor (DSP) and an ultra-low power coprocessor (QCC1110) — in what Qualcomm calls a “big-small-tiny” arrangement. The “big” A7 cores handle intensive, complex tasks like switching between apps, while the “small” and “tiny” DSP and coprocessor perform sensor fusion and other background chores.
The way Kedia tells it, the coprocessor — a diminutive 5.2mm x 4mm chip that’s the product of more than five years of research — is the inarguable showrunner. It taps a Qualcomm-designed memory module that draws a mere 0.6 volts of power, and it’s altogether 20 times more power-efficient than the A7 cores.
“What is different about the [new chipset] fundamentally is that it’s designed for how we use smartwatches,” Kedia said. “It’s very different from how you use your phone. You don’t shut a smartwatch down at night — it’s working for you 24/7, always sensing you and monitoring your sleep patterns. Today’s architectures are not meant for that.”
So what’s it do? It’s principally meant for light workloads like listening for the wake phrases that precede voice commands (“OK, Google”), streaming music in the background, and updating digital watch faces. However, it’s designed to be extensible — OEMs can tap the coprocessor for real-time sleep and activity monitoring, for example, or for heart rate tracking.
“OEMs want to bring their own algorithms, especially the sports customers. That’s what they bring to the table. The coprocessor takes the brunt of that processing,”, Kedia explained.
The coprocessor — along with the DSP and A7 cores — drive three smartwatch operating modes intended to boost battery life. Enhanced ambient mode displays a basic watch face UI in up to 16 colors, with a smoothly animated second hand, live complications, and ambient brightness. Traditional watch mode dispenses with those bells and whistles in favor of a basic analog watch face. Dedicated sports mode — which isn’t available at launch, but will arrive later with sports OEMs, Kedia said — enables core features like heart rate and GPS tracking, but nothing else.
All three are made possible by both a “dual display” architecture that allows the A7 cores and coprocessor to render elements on-screen cooperatively, and by a new power management subsystem (PMW3100) that supports “lower power” and “higher integration” than previous generations.
“When you talk to smartwatch customers, they tell you they want rich, live, and colorful complications — they want the watch to look like a watch, ” Kedia said. “Watches with the Snapdragon 3100 will continue to function as watches for an extended period of time. We’re targeting the fashionistas and sports people who don’t want to switch to a different form factor because of battery life concerns.”
Qualcomm provided a blow-by-blow comparison of the Wear 3100 and Wear 2100’s power consumption:
- Lowest power mode: 67 percent lower
- GPS and location batching: 49 percent lower
- Keyword detection: 43 percent lower
- Clock update once per minute: 35 percent lower
- MP3 playback: 34 percent lower
- Voice queries over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi: 13 percent lower
The translates to gains of about four to twelve hours in practice (depending on the form factor), or between a day and a half to two days of battery life. In traditional watch mode, Wear 3100 devices can last up to a week on a charge with 20 percent battery (or up to 30 days with full battery), according to Qualcomm, or 15 hours in dedicated sports mode (with a 450mAh battery).
The DSP, A7 cores, and coprocessor aren’t the Snapdragon Wear 3100’s only highlights. There’s a new NFC chip from silicon supplier NXP that supports more readers and smaller antenna designs; a 4G LTE modem with high-performance gallium arsenide power amplifiers; and a new power management system that makes charging more efficient.
The first Wear 3100-based devices will ship “this holiday season,” Kedia said, from the Fossil Group, Louis Vuitton, and Montblanc. (The Montblanc Summit 2 was announced during an event on Monday.) Interestingly, Qualcomm’s not planning to phase out the Snapdragon Wear 2100 or any of the other SKUs in its wearable portfolio — at least for now.
“The number one segment we’ve seen is smartwatches for kids, and the 2500, 1100, and 1200 are great for this. We’ll continue to support them,” Kedia said.
Momentum in the market
With the launch of the Wear 3100, Qualcomm’s building on pretty impressive momentum in the wearables market. Its partner list reads like a who’s who of the fashion, fitness, and consumer electronics industries: Misfit, Nixon, Huawei, LG, Boss, Guess, Kate Spade, Porsche, Diesel, Fossil, Michael Kors, Movado, Skagen, Armani, Gucci, Marc Jabocs, Asus, ZTE, and Mobvoi.
Its chips are in more than 200 wearables on the market and about 80 percent of Wear OS devices today, Kedia said.
“We ship, roughly speaking, one new product a week with our customers,” he said. “It’s similar to what happened in the phone space. If you … compare the number of products shipping, it’s one of [our] fastest-growing segments.”
It certainly seems that way. Analysts at IDC project smartwatch shipments will hit 124.9 million by the end of 2018, up 8.2 percent from the prior year. Moreover, according to MarketWatch, it’ll be worth $35.7 billion by 2024.
Kedia credits the segments’ continued growth with its broad appeal.
“I don’t think of [smartwatches] as a consumer electronics space. It’s fashion — whether you’re buying a luxury smartwatch from Louis Vuitton, a fashion watch from Tag Heuer, or a general-purpose watch from LG.”