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Wireless earbuds that actually last awhile are on their way

More-efficient earbuds are just one of Qualcomm’s announcements at CES 2018 as the company pushes beyond smartphone technology.

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Qualcomm's main focus is phone chips, but the company is looking beyond phones too.

Lynn La/CNET

Get ready for smaller, longer-lasting wireless earbuds, thanks to a new Bluetooth processor from Qualcomm.

The mobile chip giant on Monday unveiled a low-power Bluetooth processor, the QCC5100, at its CES 2018 press conference at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas. The chip integrates into one package the Bluetooth tech that connects to other devices, the application processor that serves as the brain of the device, the digital signal processor that processes data in real time and other technology.

You'll never see Qualcomm's name in retail stores because it builds the processors and components that go inside popular devices like Apple's iPhone, but its technology can hint at the capabilities of products coming in the next year and beyond. More-efficient wireless earbuds -- sometimes dubbed hearables -- are just one of the glimpses of the future that Qualcomm is offering at the trade show. The company is also talking up its work with smart speakers, as well as with automobiles. 

Qualcomm, the world's largest supplier of chips for phones, is actually eager to move past its dependence on phone makers. It's fighting fierce legal battles against Apple and governments around the globe. Apple, Samsung and others also have been working on their own processors and partnering with Intel to reduce their reliance on Qualcomm's wireless chips. At the same time, rival Broadcom is attempting to buy Qualcomm.

As a result, Qualcomm is using CES 2018 to show that it's more than a one-trick pony. 

Your earbuds are shrinking

Wireless earbuds are great -- until they run out of battery just when you need them for a run.

The all-in-one QCC5100 chip cuts power consumption by up to 65 percent for both voice calls and audio streaming, when compared with previous Bluetooth audio processors.

This means that starting later this year -- likely around the winter holidays, Qualcomm said -- you'll be able to buy wireless earbuds with triple the playback time from current-generation products that are the same size.

Qualcomm's new Bluetooth chip will enable smaller earbud designs, like this prototype created by the company.

Qualcomm

Some companies instead may make your earbuds even smaller, giving you the same battery life as current products in a more compact package. And the smarts in these earbuds will be twice as fast, letting you interact more naturally with the digital voice assistants whispering in your ear.

"Devices are going well beyond music playback and voice calls," Anthony Murray, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm's voice and music operations, said in an interview ahead of the announcement.

To that end, the new chip will let you listen to music, make calls, access voice assistants and run biometric sensors like heart rate. It also supports active noise cancellation, which makes everything sound much clearer.

You may even be able to call on your voice assistant just by speaking aloud. Currently, you must tap or press a button to access them on earbuds since activating always-listening features would drain the already short battery life. But the QCC5100 supports always-on voice detection.

Murray estimated the earbuds will be able to last 12 or more hours for playback. If you're accessing all of the features, like biometrics, the voice assistant and other areas, you'd probably get about three to five hours of battery life. For comparison, Apple's AirPods (which use its own W1 Bluetooth chip) and Samsung's IconX earbuds both boast five hours of battery life when streaming audio over Bluetooth.

Beyond smartphones

Qualcomm last month unveiled its new Snapdragon 845 processor that likely will power many of the world's highest-end smartphones this year. The company at that time also showed off the first two-in-one PCs that use its chips and act more like phones. Those include the Asus NovaGo and the HP Envy X2. Both sport Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor and its X16 LTE modem, giving them the smarts and connectivity speed traditionally found only in smartphones.

Qualcomm on Monday noted other partnerships that are helping it expand beyond smartphones.

For one, there's Amazon. Qualcomm's new "Smart Audio Platform" is designed to make it easier for companies to build smart speakers and other audio devices that use Amazon's Alexa digital voice assistant. The companies working with Qualcomm will be able to customize the speakers how they want and offer always-ready wake word detection and integrated Hi-Fi audio playback, among other features.

"To build a smart speaker is a lot more complicated than you might imagine," Qualcomm's Murray told CNET. The Smart Audio Platform "really slashes the time to market."

The result will be a flood of new speakers beyond Amazon's Echo line and the Google Home family.

Qualcomm also said its Snapdragon chips power the 2018 Honda Accord's infotainment and telematics systems. Qualcomm said Chinese energy company BYD plans to use Qualcomm's technology in its upcoming electric vehicles.

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