Time to upgrade my 2014 smartwatch —

Are there any Wear OS manufacturers and customers left to buy Qualcomm’s new chip?


A Qualcomm watch.

Enlarge / A Qualcomm watch.

After years of repackaging the same basic smartwatch chip over and over again, Qualcomm has graced Wear OS with a modern smartwatch SoC. Meet the Snapdragon Wear 4100, a Qualcomm smartwatch chip that, for the first time ever, is faster than the previous chip.

The Wear 4100 uses four 1.7GHz Cortex A53 CPUs built on a 12nm manufacturing process, a major upgrade from the 28nm Cortex A7s that every other Qualcomm smartwatch chip has been up until now. It’s not the state-of-the-art 7nm process that Qualcomm’s high-end chip uses, and the Cortex A53 is an old CPU design, but for Qualcomm, it’s a major upgrade. Between the new CPU, the Adreno 504 GPU, and faster memory, Qualcomm is promising “85% faster performance” compared to the Wear 3100.

There are actually two versions of the 4100, the vanilla “4100” and the “4100+.” The plus version is specifically for smartwatches with an always-on watch face, and like previous Wear SoCs, comes with an extra low-power SoC (based around a Cortex-M0) to keep the time updated and log sensor data (like step counts). Qualcomm is promising a better display image quality in this low-power mode, with more colors and a smoother display.

A block diagram of the Wear 4100+.

Enlarge / A block diagram of the Wear 4100+.

Qualcomm

There are also dual DSPs now, which Qualcomm says are for “optimal workload partitioning, support for dynamic clock and voltage scaling, Qualcomm Sensor Assisted Positioning PDR Wearables 2.0, low power location tracking support, and an enhanced Bluetooth 5.0 architecture.” There are also dual ISPs with support for 16MP sensors (on a smartwatch?). As usual, connectivity options are plentiful, with onboard LTE, GPS, NFC, Wi-Fi 802.11n, and Bluetooth 5.

Can Wear OS be resurrected? (No, probably not)

Qualcomm has been neglecting the smartwatch market for years, and while Wear OS has many of its own problems, the sorry state of Android smartwatches today is primarily Qualcomm’s fault.

It’s not that Qualcomm hasn’t been releasing any smartwatch chips at all—the company has just been investing as few resources as possible by selling the same basic chip for six years. In 2014, the first Wear OS (then called Android Wear) smartwatches came out with a Snapdragon 400 SoC, which used four Cortex A7 CPUs and was built on a 28nm process. In 2016, Qualcomm launched the “Snapdragon Wear 2100,” but it wasn’t much different from the previous chip, using four Cortex A7 CPUs and a 28nm process. In 2018, Qualcomm recycled the same basic design again, launching the “Snapdragon Wear 3100,” using four Cortex A7 CPUs and a 28nm manufacturing process. Qualcomm might point to tiny additional features available in each release, but the fundamentals like CPU speed and power usage have not improved for six years.

After standing still for six years, is anything left of Wear OS? The lack of viable hardware has devastated the ecosystem. Many hardware manufacturers—like Samsung, Huawei, and Asus—have walked away from the platform. Wear OS’s market share is at-or-approaching single digits and is so low that it doesn’t get separately called out in market share reports anymore. Without the hardware sales, developers can’t justify building apps.

As for Google, the company seems to have slowed Wear OS development. For the first few years of its life, (Android) Wear OS closely tracked the mainline Android release, but an Android 10 update never arrived. The last big update was to Android 9 (which Wear OS calls system version “H”) in 2018. Recently, Google has made some acquisitions supporting Wear OS that we haven’t seen the results of yet. In early 2019, it acquired an unknown technology and an R&D team from Fossil Group, the biggest Wear OS OEM, for $40 million. In late 2019, Google bought Fitbit, a pioneer of fitness tracking gadgets, for $2.1 billion. Fitbit wasn’t involved with Wear OS, but Google called the purchase “an opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices into the market.” The deal—Google’s fifth-largest ever—is still winding its way through regulatory approval.

It’s not clear that there is an ecosystem left to purchase Qualcomm’s new chip. The company is usually all about touting the manufacturers it has lined up for these chip launches, but it couldn’t quote or name-check a single major OEM in its press release. The launch partner for the Wear 4100 is a company called “imoo,” the self-described “leading brand for kid smartwatches.” The company says its next-generation “Z6 Ultra smartwatch” will launch in the next 30 days with Qualcomm’s new chip.

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