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Your Next Smartwatch May Have 90 Hours of Battery Life and Maybe a Camera Too

Dick Tracy, eat your heart out. Qualcomm may finally convince smartwatch makers to put a camera on our wrists.

A view of the inside of a smartwatch, with each layer extended from the other, showing the W5 chip above a circuit board.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon W5 chip is the company's next-generation silicon for wearables that extends battery life and supports cameras.
Qualcomm

People often gripe about smartwatch battery life, and for good reason, as even premium watches like the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 last only two to three days before needing a recharge. But Qualcomm's upcoming W5 chips promise to extend battery life by up to 24 hours thanks to a slew of performance and efficiency advancements.

These new designs, officially called the Snapdragon W5 and W5 Plus, are the successors to the Snapdragon 4100 and 4100 Plus that powered the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4, TicWatch 3 Pro and other wearables that statistically few people actually bought. Qualcomm said its new silicon achieves better battery life by reducing the chip's size to 4nm. That's just a fraction of the 80,000 nanometer size of a human hair, and down from 12nm in the 4100 series.

Qualcomm's W5 Plus has all those benefits, plus an extra feature to eke out even more battery life of up to 24 hours longer than with the prior 4100 Plus chip. The W5 Plus pulls this off with what's called a co-processor, or effectively a separate computer chip designed to do basic tasks, like displaying notifications. 

In the W5 Plus, Qualcomm has also decreased how much of the chip's various parts "wake up" to do something, leaving the rest  dormant to save even more battery. For instance, when going for a run or listening to music, only the satellite GPS location service, Wi-Fi, and audio portions functions would be active. Qualcomm's senior director of Head and Wearables, Pankaj Kedia, compared it to only turning on a few lights to get to the kitchen at night instead of wastefully flipping on every light in the house. "The rest of the SoC is power collapsed so you get longer battery life," Kedia said.

Qualcomm's steady drumbeat of wearable advances are arriving as smartwatches are becoming more common. Smartwatches have already outsold the entire Swiss watch industry. The questions facing tech companies now are whether smartwartwatches will remain a relatively niche product among techies and fitness enthusiasts, or whether new functionality can make them essential to more customers' lives. 

Apple, which is by far the most popular smartwatch maker, is rumored to be making a ruggedized Apple Watch meant for extreme sports and could reveal it later this year. Meanwhile, Google is working on a new smartwatch called the Pixel Watch that's expected to launch in the fall alongside the upcoming Google Pixel 7 to compete with Apple and Samsung's premium watches, though there's no word on Pixel Watch pricing. 

It's also not clear what kind of chipset will power the Pixel Watch, so a lot of its capabilities are unknown -- except that it will run Wear OS 3, Google's wearable operating system that integrates parts of Samsung's Tizen OS. That gives it a similar advantage as the Apple Watch: using their own software for a better integration with hardware. 

"On the watch side, the problem is that the silicon needs to be tightly integrated with the end product," said Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst at research firm Techsponential. "While Qualcomm has had silicon products with the [Snapdragon] 3100 and 4100, it hasn't been able to tie those with software and hardware in a product consumers want to buy anywhere near what Apple has been able to do." 

Despite the competition, Qualcomm's W5 series has features that could pave the way for the next generation of wearables. 

Battery, battery, battery

One key feature of Qualcomm's W5 Plus chip is its battery life. The W5 promises longer wear times, but the W5 Plus, with its extra power-saving features, can get up to 24 hours more battery life than before. Given most Apple Watch models won't last longer than a day, and even the leading Wear OS watches last three days at most, getting more battery life is a big deal.

That focus on battery life is also likely why the Snapdragon W5 series doesn't support 5G. The newer cellular technology promises faster web surfing but is still a battery hog. So, for now, any cellular-connected watches will be able to connect only to older, slower 4G LTE networks for mobile service (but don't worry, your music will still stream just fine). Qualcomm declined to comment on when we'd see a wearable with 5G capabilities.

That 4G LTE ceiling also applies to other devices using the W5 too. Facebook's Ray-Ban Stories photo and video-sharing glasses, for example, used the older Snapdragon 4100 chipset, Qualcomm said. Future augmented reality glasses may use the W5, and though they won't have 5G, they would likely benefit from the rest of the chipset's battery efficiencies. That could help make the glasses easier to design with smaller batteries, which are critical for making them look as normal as possible

W5 Series: An actual Dick Tracy watch?

You may not know it, but Qualcomm chips have supported cameras since 2018. Back then, the company's chip powered the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3, which didn't come with a camera. Only a few smartwatches have come out with the ability to take photos and videos, and they've either launched in China or been designed for kids. Mainstream smartwatches haven't implemented cameras, but Qualcomm thinks that might change with the W5, because it has better battery life that would make taking photos less burdensome. 

This includes two-way video calling, a feature that gadget nerds have been dreaming about since the Dick Tracy days, as well as smoother video playback and Memoji-style 3D watch faces, all made possible with cameras on watches. 

Qualcomm said it's notched 25 products that are currently being developed with its W5. The first will be the next-generation Oppo Watch coming in August with the W5 chip. Qualcomm said an unnamed TicWatch will be the first to use its W5 Plus, though the chipmaker didn't have any details to share about it, including if it would have a camera. Qualcomm's Kedia also declined to say whether any of the remaining 23 devices were AR glasses.

"I wish I could share the 25 customers in the pipeline -- they bring a whole new meaning to the next-generation wearables," Kedia said.