A wave of better smartwatches is on the way soon. Qualcomm just unveiled two new processors—the Snapdragon Wear 4100+ and Wear 4100—which will both power upcoming wearables running platforms like Google’s Wear OS.
Qualcomm claims the chips offer a sizeable bump over their predecessor, the Snapdragon Wear 3100, which debuted in 2018. That’s mostly because the pair of new chips are fabricated on a 12-nanometer manufacturing process as opposed to the 3100’s 28-nanometer process. The smaller the size, the less power the chip needs, making it more energy-efficient. Plus, a chip with smaller features can be packed with more transistors, which results in more computing power.
Qualcomm claims that new smartwatches using the Wear 4100 chips can expect to see an 85 percent performance improvement over smartwatches using the Wear 3100, as well as 85 percent faster memory, 25 percent lower power usage, and a boost in graphics performance that’s 2.5 times greater than the older chip. Such gains should result in faster app launches, a smoother user experience, better multitasking, and longer battery life.
All of these improvements are important upgrades for Wear OS watches, which lag behind the competition—most notably the Apple Watch, which is the best-selling smartwatch on the market.
The 4100 and 4100+ both use a quad-core Cortex A53 processor, but between the two, only the 4100+ combines it with a smaller coprocessor. This coprocessor handles many of the background tasks Wear OS smartwatches run when the device is in ambient mode, the low-power state the wearable defaults to when it’s not actively being used.
The coprocessor hasn’t changed much over the one on the Wear 3100, but upcoming Wear OS smartwatches will still be able to offer a richer experience. For example, at the moment only 16 colors are supported in ambient mode; with the 4100+, that number goes up to 64,000. Newer watches will also be able to show continuous heart rate and sleep monitoring data in this mode (if sleep monitoring ever becomes natively supported on Wear OS).
Those upgrades also impact Watch Mode, a feature in Wear OS that lets you turn off most of the device’s smart functions in order to extend the battery life by several days. Rather than just showing the time and date in Watch Mode, wearables with the new processor will be able to also show step count, heart rate, a battery indicator, alarms, and reminders. They will also be able to make haptic vibrations in Watch Mode.
Rounding out the rest of the improvements are support for the Bluetooth 5 standard and an upgraded 4G LTE modem for faster cellular data connectivity. Qualcomm says the faster LTE modem should improve services like maps, music streaming, and voice assistants.
Does It Matter?
But both Qualcomm and Google’s Wear OS platform play a small role in the broader smartwatch ecosystem.
In the first quarter of 2020, just 4.2 percent of all smartwatches sold were running Google’s Wear OS platform, according to Vincent Thielke, an analyst at Canalys. Comparing that to Apple’s 36.3 percent market share in the same period, it’s easy to see just how far back Google’s operating system sits. And of the 66 million smartwatches sold in 2019, Thielke estimates only 5.6 million used Qualcomm chips, with Wear OS making up the bulk at 56 percent. (The rest are mostly smartwatches from Chinese manufacturers that use different processors.)
“Wear OS has not been growing year over year,” Thielke says. “It didn’t grow in Q1 2019, it also didn’t grow in Q1 2020. I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s kind of just fallen behind other smartwatch platforms. Other platforms have really been prioritizing health features—specifically regarding heart rate—and from what we’ve seen with the Wear OS platform, we just haven’t seen as strong of a push. There are limited health features.”
Apple introduced an electrocardiogram in its Series 4 Apple Watch in 2018, which was cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration and other governments around the world. Samsung more recently saw the South Korean government approve similar functionality in its watches, which run the company’s own Tizen operating system.
Samsung, currently third in the smartwatch market as of the first quarter, offers sleep tracking in its watches. Apple is also set to introduce the same feature later this year in its next version of WatchOS. Google has no native sleep-tracking functionality in Wear OS yet, though you can use a third-party app. Also, Wear OS doesn’t include support for electrocardiograms. The overall health and fitness offerings in Wear OS are also more limited than what you can find in smartwatches and fitness trackers from the likes of Fitbit and Garmin.
Something else holding Wear OS back, according to Thielke, is the dearth of apps on the platform. Big platforms like Apple’s WatchOS and Samsung’s Tizen, with their large and active user bases, are more attractive than Wear OS as targets for app developers, Thielke says.
That’s where Google’s Fitbit acquisition comes in. The deal is still pending regulatory approval, but if it succeeds, it will deliver a much larger user base for Google to learn from. It will also give the company access to Fitbit’s fitness-tracking prowess, which includes advanced heart- and sleep-tracking features. None of this will happen anytime soon though, as integrating Fitbit and Wear OS will take a lot of developmental time.
Thielke also thinks that Google marrying Wear OS with Fitbit might detract from the Fitbit brand, due to Google’s poor track record with its own wearable platform, not to mention the public’s broader concerns about Google’s data-collection practices. He believes the best move is for Google to keep the two brands separate as it works on a next-generation version of Wear OS that will pull in the strengths of both.
But even if these changes come to fruition, it’s unlikely Google will make much headway in the market. Looking at Canalys’ data from the first quarter of 2020, Thielke says Wear OS and Fitbit combined only amounted to 1.5 million smartwatches sold. That’s still far behind Apple, Huawei, and Samsung.
“Wear OS needs “to move beyond a fitness or fashion accessory and really push further into this health space,” Thielke says. He points to all of the recent health-tracking innovations in wearables: remote monitoring tools for electrocardiograms, blood pressure monitoring, blood oxygen level measurements, disease detection, and sleep tracking among them. “All of these things could help push Wear OS to that next level, but because of the advances that are being made by Apple and Samsung, I think it’s very difficult for Wear OS to break into the top.”
The First Wear 4100 Watches
It’s important that Qualcomm keeps its chips updated in this growing market, which Thielke says is expected to grow from 66 million smartwatches sold in 2019 to 106.7 million smartwatches in 2024. There’s potential for Qualcomm to build its wearable chip business outside of Wear OS. But it’s Google that needs to do more of the heavy lifting if it hopes to see some positive news for Wear OS.
Google declined to comment for this story.
Qualcomm plans to continue shipping the older Wear 3100 chips, so don’t expect widespread adoption of the newer processors just yet. However, we do know which brands will be among the first to use the Snapdragon Wear 4100. A new children’s watch from Imoo (which is owned by BBK Electronics, the same company that owns brands like OnePlus, Oppo, and Vivo) will start shipping in the next 30 days.
Mobvoi, a Chinese company that makes affordable Wear OS smartwatches, will also launch the Snapdragon 4100-powered TicWatch Pro 3 toward the end of the year.
More Great WIRED Stories
- Screen share: A college teacher’s Zoom journal
- Why NASA designed a new $23 million space toilet
- Tips to get the most out of Signal and encrypted chat
- How to make your virtual jam session sound—and look—good
- The pandemic is transforming the rental economy
- 👁 Is the brain a useful model for AI? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- 🎧 Things not sounding right? Check out our favorite wireless headphones, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers