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Wearable Tech

Qualcomm's newest chips promise Google smartwatch battery boosts

Fossil, Louis Vuitton and Montblanc are the first partners, with 30-day standard watch mode and GPS sports watches in 2019.

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Qualcomm's new smartwatch chips get better battery life: This is the company's reference design watch model.

James Martin/CNET

With the next Apple Watch likely to debut this week, Qualcomm has launched an early smartwatch counterpunch. Qualcomm's next-generation smartwatch chip platform, Snapdragon Wear 3100, will be in Google WearOS watches starting this holiday, starting with the Montblanc Summit 2 watch in October.

The new chips were first teased by Qualcomm at Google's developer conference in May. Along with Google's updated WearOS software, the updates aim to improve the problems in current Google WearOS smartwatches... mainly when it comes to battery life. 

Battery life on most high-end smartwatches is days at best. Qualcomm's new chips won't do much better than that in standard mode. But they will add new super low-power modes and sports watch-focused enhancements to get more battery life, in a next wave of watches expected between the end of this year and through 2019. Fossil Group, Louis Vuitton and Montblanc will be the first to feature the chips in new Google WearOS watches. 

According to Pankaj Kedia, senior director for Qualcomm's Smart Wearables Segment, the new platform is mostly about ultra low power, to make smartwatches last longer. "Your phone is not very useful without a network," says Kedia. "Your watch is not very useful if you don't have time."

But the extended-life watch modes that promise the most battery life might not have more than basic watch and fitness functions for now.

Always-on watch faces that do more

Google's WearOS watches already have an ambient always-on watch mode, but it doesn't do much. Watches with the newer Qualcomm chips will now have always-on watch faces with smooth-moving second hands and up-to-date information displayed via complications, with the possibility of looking more stylish.

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GPS fitness-tracking battery improvements coming in 2019

Kedia says that a next wave of sports fitness watches will arrive next year that take advantage of low-power modes to track fitness, heart rate and GPS for longer times, up to 15 hours. (Using GPS and heart rate tracking in current smartwatches often zaps the batteries before the end of your average half-marathon.) In those longer-life fitness modes, other smartwatch features will be inactive. 

Longer battery life could go up to a month in low-power mode

Snapdragon 3100 smartwatches should have anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 days of battery life in regular smartwatch mode before shifting into a standard watch mode that lasts a week or more before recharging. That low-power watch mode won't do anything more than tell the time and date for now, but could maybe do more in the future. Kedia says to expect up to 30 days of battery life if you used a Snapdragon Wear 3100 watch in just a basic watch mode.

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New ambient always-on watch faces have added information, more colors.

James Martin/CNET

No always-on assistant, yet

A promised feature of next-generation Google and Qualcomm WearOS watches back at Google I/O was an always-on Google Assistant that would always be listening. But that's no longer on the table at the moment. "Always-on assistant is not something we're announcing at this time," says Qualcomm's Kedia. 

Maybe that's something a future Google-branded WearOS watch would introduce. It's a curious absence from Snapdragon Wear 3100's offerings, but Kedia also suggests that watches with this new processor will continue to see new features and performance upgrades via firmware updates in the future, including possibly adding more features to the longer-battery basic watch mode over time.

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Snapdragon Wear 3100 on top of a penny.

James Martin/CNET

What it all means

After trying a demonstration of how the new watch features work on a Qualcomm smartwatch reference design, it's clear that the battery-saving elements in Snapdragon Wear 3100 won't all work the same way.

An "enhanced ambient" mode allows the always-on WearOS watch faces to look better and less like the watch has gone into some sort of low-power sleep state. But, in regular always-on mode, next-gen WearOS watches are still only expected to last a couple of days. At that point, a completely separate ultra-low-power mode takes over, just showing date and time in a "traditional watch" setting. But that low-power mode isn't always on: you'll need to tilt to wake up the watch to look at it.

A third GPS sports mode will work totally separately from WearOS and be used for active workouts. Watches featuring this mode, code-named "Project Stamina," could possibly work as hybrid smartwatch/fitness watches.

These battery changes and better watch faces mean that fashion smartwatches could end up showing better-looking, more "normal" looking watch displays more often.

More big brands to come

Google's WearOS smartwatch platform attracted lots of fashion watch brands last year, including Fossil Group, Tag Heuer, Movado and Montblanc. This year's updated WearOS watches have already started to be announced, including new offerings from Casio, Diesel and Skagen.

The Louis Vuitton Tambour Horizon, Montblanc Summit 2 and an unnamed Fossil watch will be the first WearOS watches that get Qualcomm's new 3100 processor. 

Google has already indicated a Pixel-branded smartwatch isn't happening this year, but a number of third-party updated smartwatches with Qualcomm's new processors inside could begin arriving through the end of this year and into next. "New customers will jump in the fray," promises Kedia.

It all sounds like a useful upgrade to WearOS smartwatches, but also entirely necessary if any competitors hope to face off against the imminent next-generation Apple Watch.