Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon Wear chip could revitalize smartwatches

Snapdragon Wear 3100 is designed to maximize battery life and utility.

Don't give up on smartwatches just yet. Qualcomm has finally unveiled its latest made-for-wearables processor, which it first teased at Google I/O earlier this year. The new chipset is called the Snapdragon Wear 3100 and succeeds the existing 2100 model you'll find in many smartwatches currently on the market. The 3100 features revamped architecture that should provide the long-lasting and always-ready performance that wearables have been missing for years. The new Wear 3100 platform also integrates with Google's Wear OS and features three new software modes that are designed to maximize battery life and utility in a variety of scenarios.

New architecture

Let's start with the hardware. Qualcomm's senior director of smart wearables, Pankaj Kedia, told Engadget that wearables previously used CPUs that basically had "phone architecture shrunk for a watch." But the way people interact with their watches is different from how they use their phones. According to Kedia, we only truly interact with our smartwatches about five percent of the time. During the rest of the time, "(the watch) is just sitting on your wrist... showing you the time." But onboard sensors are also at work, keeping track of things like your location or your heart rate.

It seems a waste to use a powerful processor to manage small, energy-sipping but long-running tasks. That's why the Snapdragon Wear 3100 uses architecture with big, little and tiny cores instead of just large and small ones. In fact, the new chipset has a dedicated "ultra-low-power co-processor" to tackle those background tasks.

Compared to the Wear 2100, which had just a single A7 CPU and a digital signal processor (DSP), the 3100 seems significantly more powerful. It has four A7 CPUs, a DSP and the "ultra-low power co-processor."

New modes

Designing a made-for-smartwatch processor isn't simply about revamping architecture, though. Qualcomm also had to think about what functions were most important to people. According to Kedia, the most popular utilities were telling time, tracking GPS and controlling and playing music. His team targeted those areas and saw notable performance improvements between the Wear 2100 and 3100 models.

Qualcomm also teamed up with Google when working on the new processor and will bring three new "personalized experiences." The enhanced-ambient mode mimics a real watch face by implementing a moving second hand, as well as improving brightness and color options. This setup allows for complications on the watch face and runs on the co-processor.

Next, the traditional-watch mode lets you turn your smartwatch into a regular one when you're running out of juice. In this profile, all you'll get is a simple timekeeper, but at least you're not carrying around a dead screen on your wrist. If you activate traditional-watch mode on a full charge, Kedia said you can get about 30 days out of it. Switching over when you have, say, 20 percent remaining, however, and you'll squeeze about a week from the device before needing to plug it in.

Both the enhanced ambient- and traditional-watch modes will be available on Wear OS devices with the Snapdragon Wear 3100 chipset at launch, but another new feature may take a little longer to arrive. The dedicated sports experience promises up to 15 hours of GPS and heart-rate tracking -- you know, for when you go crazy and do a 15-hour exercise marathon. Or, more realistically, if you're training for days in a row and forget to charge your watch, you can still get continuous GPS and heart-rate stats for repeated sessions between regular use of Wear OS. According to Qualcomm, this "experience" will arrive in a "future release with a sports customer." I'm going to guess it's a company like New Balance or Garmin, but I don't know for sure, just yet.

New watches

Qualcomm isn't done with the new features yet, and Kedia said that "over time, we will bring more experiences to the platform." Fossil Group, Louis Vuitton and Montblanc have announced they'll be launching products using the Snapdragon Wear 3100, and we're expecting the products to ship in time for the holidays. What these devices will actually look like isn't clear yet -- it's up to manufacturers to decide on things like battery size, screen technology and whether to include onboard GPS and NFC.

Since there are so many variations on components, it's difficult for Kedia to estimate how much more battery life we can expect from the Wear 3100. He did say we can expect "four to twelve hours longer than [watches using the Snapdragon] 2100." Depending on how you use your smartwatch, you could also see up to 1.5 to 2.5 days (or 36 to 60 hours) more battery life than the older CPU.

We'll likely have to wait a little while longer to hear more about actual watches with the new Wear 3100, but for now, Qualcomm's announcement breathes fresh hope into a category that needs it.