New Silicon Gets Pixel Watch Ticking

It’s fair to say that the past two years have been challenging for wearables companies, as the market has gone through a period of consolidation around the two market leaders, Apple and Samsung. Smaller companies, particularly those with more value-orientated product portfolios, have struggled to maintain sales, with double-digit percentage year-on-year declines in revenue a common occurrence.

However, more recently, there’s been a sense that the tide is turning. We’ve seen a suite of new smartwatches launch throughout the second half of 2023 that look set to help users look after their health and well-being in all sorts of new ways. I’ve also been watching the progress of new types of wearable device with interest, and there’s some great innovation going on in areas like smart rings. The wearables category was once a bit of an arms race to squeeze more and more sensors into devices, but the conversations seem to have shifted toward proving maximum value and usefulness for users in a variety of scenarios.

On that note, the latest smartwatch that has caught my eye is the Pixel Watch 2, which has just been announced by Google. I used the first-generation Pixel Watch extensively after its launch, even writing about my experience using it as a smartphone replacement. I found it to be a fairly capable all-rounder but with some glaring flaws. Perhaps the most obvious problem I and many others had with it was the poor battery life. I would frequently get less than 14 hours of power from the watch during normal use, and although this did improve slightly as I got used to the watch, it was always a huge drawback to what was otherwise a good, albeit noticeably first-generation, product from Google.

Enter the Pixel Watch 2. It arrives with an array of new sensors, including a beefed-up multipath optical heart-rate sensor and a continuous electrodermal activity sensor, and improved Fitbit integrations. But for me, the most important upgrade is the vastly improved battery life. With a promised 24 hours of usage — even with the always-on-display turned on — the Pixel Watch takes a huge step toward standing as a genuine competitor to flagship smartwatches from Apple and Samsung.

Comparing the internals of the two Pixel watches, the most obvious place to start looking for the source of this extended life is of course the battery size. But with only a meagre increase from a 294 mAh battery in the original Pixel Watch to 306 mAh in its successor, it’s clear this isn’t the reason for a leap forward in battery life. Instead, it appears that the main reason for the improvement is the chipset upgrade from the five-year-old Samsung Exynos 9110 to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon W5 Gen 1.

The previous 10 nm Samsung chip had enough power to keep the Pixel Watch running smoothly, and in my experience, the user interface and features like mapping rarely felt bogged down or laggy, but efficiency was clearly a massive challenge. This is one of the areas where Qualcomm’s 4 nm architecture stands out. The efficiency of the Snapdragon W5 has given the Pixel Watch 2 a huge leap forward. Qualcomm has a long history of problem-solving in this regard, with its low-power architectures a common bonus on a multitude of devices.

It’s also worth noting that Qualcomm’s relationship with Google is likely to have contributed to the improvement, as the two firms will have collaborated on optimizing the silicon design to work efficiently with Wear OS. We can already see this in other watches running on Qualcomm’s latest chipset and Google’s operating system. For example, the Mobvoi Ticwatch Pro 5 boasts a battery life of 80 hours and the Xiaomi Watch 2 Pro claims 65 hours of normal use, both of which are powered by unions of Wear OS and Snapdragon W5 or W5+.

Alongside being efficient, the Qualcomm chip is powerful. It doubles the cores and has a nearly 50% faster clock speed than the Pixel Watch 1’s Samsung chip. This should allow the Pixel Watch 2 to better take advantage of Fitbit’s health sensing and Google’s smarts, and if the new sensors and regular Wear OS feature drops are anything to go by, perhaps live up to the tagline “Help by Google, Health by Fitbit”. Arguably, this was something that the first-generation device never lived up to, owing to a half-baked Fitbit integration and an energy-hungry processor.

Another step Google needs to take for Wear OS watches if they are to match the best-in-class technology of the Apple Watch is in the app ecosystem. I’m consistently impressed by how many feature gaps in the Apple Watch can be filled by third-party apps, but my experience with Wear OS has been patchy at best. This was also a problem in the early days of Android, where it was far from guaranteed that you could find the same apps in both the iOS App Store and the Android library.

Wear OS now finds itself at a similar crossroads, and a more coherent, consistent set of applications would be a huge boon to the overall experience. To create a truly high-quality user experience, developers need to have confidence that their apps will work on the devices they will be available on, and this is another area where the proliferation of Snapdragon W5 and W5+ chips on Wear OS watches could be hugely beneficial. If more devices follow Google’s lead in adopting Qualcomm’s latest designs for wearables, it could help to rapidly provide a greater sense of scale, encouraging more developers to come on board and improve the user experience of the watch.

Realistically, this has always been the goal for Google and Qualcomm, and a greater level of collaboration between the two could help the non-Apple segment of the market take a genuine step forward. There are signs that we’ve also reached an inflection point, with some popular apps, like WhatsApp, available on Wear OS and not Apple’s watchOS.

After a slightly slow start, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon W5 and W5+ Gen 1 platforms are now the engines behind a growing list of Wear OS watches, and the partnership between the chipmaker and Google looks to have huge potential. The Pixel Watch 2 is a major design win for Qualcomm and provides a strong blueprint for other Wear OS devices looking to offer a rich blend of health, fitness and well-being features alongside a host of other day-to-day benefits.

The hope will now be that other device-makers look at the example being set and follow suit; this would benefit both Google and Qualcomm as they seek to grow the overall market. With Wear OS starting to move through the gears and Qualcomm powering the engine, it could be time for change in the smartwatch market.