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Qualcomm finally has a new chip for the next generation of Android smartwatches

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It’s been two and a half years since Qualcomm last released a major new smartwatch chip, and in the time since, Android smartwatches have languished. But in the coming months, they could finally start seeing some meaningful improvements: Qualcomm is releasing a new processor for watches, called the Snapdragon Wear 3100, that’s meant to extend battery life, enhance always-on displays, and offer more versatility when it comes to sports devices and fitness sensors.

The new chip’s key feature is the addition of a secondary low-power processor, which is supposed to handle most of the work when a smartwatch isn’t in use. This co-processor will power a watch’s sensors and ambient display, doing so while using up to 20 times less energy than the main processor would, according to Qualcomm.

“The 95 percent of the time when you’re not actually interacting with [your watch], you are in ambient mode or always-sensing mode,” says Pankaj Kedia, Qualcomm’s wearables leader. “So the co-processor, that’s where you are 95 percent of the time … we are doing less and less things in the main [processor].”

For this chip generation, that’s about all that’s changing. Both the Wear 3100 and the Wear 2100, its predecessor, share the same main processor — so there’s no reason to expect major speed gains. The co-processor is the main improvement, and that means almost all of the enhancements enabled by Qualcomm’s new chip come from what the co-processor can do.

A lot of those improvements are related to battery. Qualcomm estimates more than a day of battery life for a typical Wear OS smartwatch, or around a five-hour boost over current fashion-style models. Companies could also choose to use a smaller battery and slim down their watch. Sports watches are supposed to get a boost, too. The new chip is designed to do a better job with GPS, helping them run nonstop with around 15 hours of usage — though Qualcomm is assuming these watches will have larger batteries in the first place, meaning thicker devices.

The co-processor is also supposed to allow for a much richer ambient display. Qualcomm says a watch can now show a smoothly moving second hand as well as live-updating complications, like a step counter, and do all of that in up to 16 colors. Most of that does not sound particularly impressive, but one of Wear OS watches’ few advantages over the Apple Watch has been their ability to show a watch face at all times; adding complications to that will make the feature even more valuable.

Smartwatches with a Wear 3100 processor will gain one other handy trick: if their battery gets low, the major functions of the smartwatch can shut off, allowing the battery to last potentially for days longer while powering a simple watch face. Qualcomm says that from 20 percent battery, you’d get a week of additional use in this mode. The downside, though, is that Wear OS shuts down, so you don’t get features like notifications. But it’ll at least continue to tell the time.

The final interesting update is to how the chip handles sensors. In the past, companies had to rely on algorithms built by Qualcomm to read heart rate or other collected data. But now, Qualcomm says hardware companies will be able to write their own code, potentially allowing some companies to get an edge on others. That’s something Qualcomm thinks will be particularly valuable to companies building sports watches.

Qualcomm says the first watches with a Wear 3100 chip will ship before the end of the year. Among the first out the door will be models from Fossil, Louis Vuitton, and Montblanc — Google, however, will be a no show this year, having said last week it isn’t planning to release the rumored Pixel Watch. That fashion brands will be the first adopters should come as no surprise. Over the past couple years, fashion brands have taken to smartwatches and churned out model after model of watch with differing designs and not much else in the way of improvements.

But the bigger question is if any of this will be enough to revive the Wear OS ecosystem. While it launched with a lot of promise, the platform quickly hit a slump and has been slow to see updates — both on the software side from Google, and on the hardware side from Qualcomm and other chip companies.

Clearly at the end of this year, the platform is getting another push. Alongside Qualcomm’s new chip, Wear OS watches are also getting improved software from Google that’s supposed to make the platform easier to navigate and just generally more helpful.

None of these are major overhauls, though. And the platform faces a tough future: in two days, Apple will announce a redesigned version of the Apple Watch that appears to be, at least on the hardware front, leaps and bounds ahead of Wear OS watches. And while Apple’s software isn’t necessarily worth marveling at, it has evolved enough to simply and coherently handle the basic functions people want from a smartwatch.

Wear OS will need more than just a single push to catch up. Qualcomm says it’s not accurate to say the company did nothing with watches for two years — the Wear 2100, which came before this, was improved over time via software updates, Kedia says. And Wear 3100 will be the same. “The features we announce on day one are just the beginning of the road,” he says. Planned updates are supposed to add new features and reduce power consumption even more.

Still, these all sound like basic steps forward. And unlike Apple, which can improve hardware and software all at once at a regular pace, improvements for Android smartwatches are reliant on three different parties: Google, Qualcomm, and the hardware companies that actually build the watches. So far, we’ve seen what two of them have in store for this year. Next up, the actual watches.

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