Smartwatches Keep Ticking Along

The global market for wearables has enjoyed a buoyant few years, with the boost in interest triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic sparking a solid period of growth. Smartwatches have continued to sell particularly well thanks to their more-advanced features, particularly in terms of health and fitness tracking. And there’s no doubt that they’re becoming more capable; late last year I wrote about how impressive smartwatches are at keeping users connected when they’re out and about.

As ever, the performance of a connected device is only as good as the silicon under the hood; that’s why the latest update to Qualcomm’s wearables platform is exciting news. This week, the company announced its Snapdragon W5+ and W5 chipsets — borrowing the naming convention we’ve seen the company roll out on its smartphone silicon — which aim to support an increasingly segmented market. CCS Insight clients can access full analysis of the announcement here.

Snapdragon W5+ is the company’s new flagship chipset for smartwatches, and it builds on Qualcomm’s established blueprints by offering a hybrid architecture combining a system-on-chip with an always-on coprocessor. The system-on-chip itself sees a major update, moving from a 12 nm design in the previous process to 4 nm; this should help strike a balance between chip performance and power consumption. The always-on coprocessor transitions from a 28 nm to a 22 nm process technology, providing the same capability for background computing when a device isn’t in active use — meaning that simple tasks like displaying the time will chew through less power.

Qualcomm sees evident gains on how the W5+ stacks up against its predecessor, the Snapdragon Wear 4100+. It’s promising twice the performance and richer features as well as 50% longer battery life, all with a 30% smaller design. This is very welcome as device-makers continue to push the boundaries of what wearable devices can do while seeking to offer improved battery life, something we’ve consistently found to be a major concern for buyers. Fewer details were provided about the W5’s performance, but battery life will slip slightly as this design has no always-on coprocessor.

The first company to feel the full benefit of this is Mobvoi, which will include the latest silicon in its next flagship TicWatch device; Oppo’s Watch 3 series will use the Snapdragon W5 chipset when it launches in August. Qualcomm also revealed that there are 25 customer designs in the pipeline, showing the appetite for its silicon.

Of course, there are some problems. It’s notable that some of the biggest players in the market — including Apple, Garmin, Huawei and Samsung — aren’t using Qualcomm’s wearables silicon. This is in contrast with products like smartphones, where the company is the dominant premium chipset provider. But Qualcomm will be aiming to take advantage of Google’s Wear OS 3 roll-out reaching more device-makers throughout the year. A more unified landscape would play to Qualcomm’s strengths in providing a scalable silicon solution; it was keen to highlight its ongoing partnership with Google in the announcement of these latest chipsets. Qualcomm will also be hoping that the significant improvements to its wearables platform may tempt more companies toward it.

It will be fascinating to see how the wearables market unfolds over the coming months. We’ll undoubtedly see advancements in the mainstream smartwatch space, but some of the smaller categories — including fitness trackers and watches for kids and seniors — also have the potential to grow. Qualcomm has a strong history of supporting emerging designs and uses; exploiting Wear OS might be a question mark, but the ongoing desire for more powerful and scalable chipsets is something that’s certain in any device segment. Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon W5+ and W5 platforms bring that to the table — and should help to keep the wearables market ticking along nicely.