Qualcomm unveils new wearable SoC, as Apple adds ECG to watch

Just before Apple unveiled the fourth iteration of its Apple Watch, Qualcomm had taken the wraps off of its latest smartwatch SoC – the Snapdragon Wear 3100. Supported and backed by Google, the Qualcomm design is the latest flagship platform for Android-based Wear OS devices, which matters not a jot to Apple – the company that has dominated the smart watch sector to date.

The new silicon platform claims significant improvements in battery life, which is still the biggest problem facing smartwatches. A quad-core ARM A7 CPU is the powerhouse of the SoC, supported by a new coprocessor that Qualcomm says is very efficient. It is claiming that you can now enjoy the battery life of a sports watch with the richness of a smartwatch – which is a big win if true. This has been quite a long time since the Snapdragon Wear 2100, leading some to question Qualcomm’s enthusiasm about the market – a fair criticism, given that it makes so much more money through smartphones than smartwatches.

The coprocessor, the QCC1110, measures 21mm2, and handles much of the audio, display, and sensor functions. Qualcomm says that the new chip also houses a deep-learning engine, which can be used for custom workloads by developers. Qualcomm says keyword detection is a good example, but that the performance can be changed over time if the applications change. A new power management subsystem, the PMW3100, is responsible for the claimed 4-12 hour improvement over the previous generation’s performance.

In terms of OS-level improvements, the newest version of Wear OS will be able to provide three new ‘personalized experiences,’ thanks to that low-level coprocessor. There are three different skews of the SoC – a Bluetooth plus WiFi unit, a GPS but tethered option, and finally an LTE version.

According to Google and Qualcomm, there will be a new Enhanced Ambient Mode (fully featured fashion watch), Dedicated Sports Experiences (ultra-marathon capable GPS, for 15-hours of long-duration activities), and Traditional Watch Mode (which sounds like a battery saver mode, to be blunt, but does promise a week-long life). The A7 CPU is offloading display and sensor processing to the QCC1110, helping to conserve power.

The offloading approach is similar to ARM’s big.LITTLE implementation, where the most powerful CPU cores are kept asleep as long as possible, with low-level tasks assigned to smaller more energy efficient cores. In the 3100, the coprocessor is taking on that function.

With Google on-stage, singing its praises, Qualcomm announced the first customers for the 3100 SoC. They include Fossil, Louis Vuitton, and Montblanc, which is a pretty strong emphasis on the luxury/fashion watch segment.

“Together with Qualcomm Technologies and the ecosystem, Wear OS by Google has enabled a vibrant set of wearable devices, offering consumers with great choice and diversity,” said Dennis Troper, director of product management, Wear OS by Google. “We’re excited to see Qualcomm Technologies’ new Snapdragon Wear 3100, their continued investment in the wearable space, and we look forward to the ecosystem bringing the next generation of smartwatch technology to the industry.”

Now for Apple, which is still the top-dog in the market. The latest reports from Canalys and Counterpoint recently surfaced, which outlined the state of the smartwatch market. Apple shipped 3.5mn units in Q2 2018, according to Canalys, up 30% compared to Q2 2017. Total smartwatch shipments hit 10mn in Q2, and Apple enjoyed a 34% market share – although that has slipped from the 43% share it held in Q1 2018.

Counterpoint agreed with Apple’s lead, and that it had slipped compared to the same quarter in 2017 – down from 48% to 41% share. It found that the total smartwatch market had grown 37% in the past four quarters. The ‘Others’ segment took second place in the tracker, on 26% of total shipments, with Apple comfortably out front on 41%. However, Fitbit’s new focus on smartwatches has let it jump from 8% to 21% in that period.

Historically, Apple sales slow down in the lead up to a new Watch, and once that new unit is available, sales tend to lift the entire wearables market – such is the impact of pricing and Apple’s share. We expect that pattern to play out again, thanks to the new features. The regular watch will cost $400, with the LTE-equipped unit priced at $500.

These include a scree that is around 30% larger, housed in two different sizes, a 40mm and 44mm unit, and three different colors – gold, silver, space gray. The OS has been tweaked again, to provide a more modular and customizable watch face, and the case itself has been adjusted for better cellular reception – with more ceramic and sapphire.

The battery life remains unchanged, claiming 18-hours and enough to make it through a day. In contrast to the Snapdragon Wear 3100, the Apple Watch claims six-hours of full GPS use – far less than the 15 claimed by Qualcomm. That would be a killer blow if more users relied on getting more than those six hours, but as it stands, the number of fitness enthusiasts who might need that feature is small enough to be pretty inconsequential to Apple’s technical consideration.

Apple’s focus on health is apparent in many of the new features. The integration between its Health application and healthcare providers seems to be getting stronger, and the addition of ECG heart monitoring is a good step forward. It is able to monitor heart beats through the day, and will send a notification if it spots an irregular rhythm. The device can also spot falls, and can automatically make emergency calls and get in contact with listed emergency contacts.