Apple recently announced the new Apple Watch Series 4 with some amazing improvements such as more accurate heart rate monitoring, zippier performance and overall enhanced design. How is all this possible – Apple’s custom made S4 System in Package (SiP) chip.
My previous article hit on why custom hardware is important for system designs and improving how we use devices. Additionally, it mentioned how Apple is several years ahead of other mobile chip makers mainly due to their more advanced architecture and leading manufacturing practices. By being first to the 7nm chip size, Apple can cram more performance into smaller chips while at the same time reducing power consumption – hence why the Apple Watch Series has been more feature packed than its many competitors.
It’s no coincidence that Qualcomm announced their (finally!) updated wearable focused chipset called the Snapdragon Wear 3100. They wanted to hit news stands before the Apple Watch would make waves and it most definitely makes sense.
I'm still skeptical about these performance gains when @Qualcomm hasn't released its fab nm size. Yeah, the chip is finally designed for smartwatches but did they actually shrink its core design? Apple watch will have 7nm chips my guess is these are 14nm.https://t.co/9fowASsLA0
— Dan Proctor (@DanProctor11) September 10, 2018
For some history, all smartwatches not produced by Apple over the past 4 years have been powered by either a Snapdragon 400 or the Wear 2100 platform. Both are essentially the same low end smartphone chip that is built on the now archaic 28nm manufacturing platform. Why has this been a big deal? Battery life. Whereas smartphones have always had the luxury of having 3,000mAh batteries most smartwatches are lucky to have 400mAh. Unless the processor is heavily optimized you simply won’t be able to go much longer than a day on battery which has been the number one complaint with all smartwatches in this time period.
Because smartwatch sales are relatively low, no manufacturer outside of Apple can spend the resources on developing a custom chip themselves which leaves every OEM dependent on Qualcomm for innovation in the space.
— Dan Proctor (@DanProctor11) April 14, 2015
Back to the Snapdragon Wear 3100
Every feature enhancement added to the chip, to me, seems like raw manufacturing improvements such as 67% low power improvement. However, every press release has neglected to mention its fabrication size which lends me to believe we’re still dealing with a smartphone chip that has been slightly tweaked for smartwatches. My guess would be based off a Snapdragon 400 series design which just recently made the switch to 14nm.
This is ok in my book if Wear OS (Google’s platform that powers most smartwatches) is optimized. More than likely this chip will only handle managing the OS in addition to power hungry tasks such as AI voice recognition and radio communications.
Where the magic is occurring, though, is in the ‘QCC1110’ co-processor. Qualcomm mentions this could be standalone but the main processor is still needed by ‘enhanced’ audio, display, and sensors which justifies the inclusion of the quad core processor. Give it another generation bump and we might just have an Apple Watch S2 level competitor (two years old) in terms of battery life to performance ratio.
Qualms aside, the chip can handle events such as notifications and in tandem with another co-processor will power on the display using very minimal power vs awakening the larger less efficient chip. This enables ‘Traditional Watch Modes’ to have up to a month of battery vs today’s 2-3 days.
What This Means for Us Users – Options
With this new chip available for manufacturers we should start to see slimmer, better designed smart watches from all our favorite watch brands giving us more choices in how we fashion smartwatches. Additionally, Google’s emphasis on re-thinking Wear OS should give consumers more features to play with such as improved fitness tracking and Google Assistant led capabilities like providing you with relevant notifications based on location and setting.
I’m excited for Google’s next hardware event as we might finally get to see a Google Pixel watch. Because Google develops Wear OS users should be treated to the best experience possible in addition to timely updates and support. It may not be as feature rich as the just announced Apple Watch Series 4 but maybe Android users can finally be treated to Series 2 level performance and features.
My Experience with Android Wear
I gave up on smartwatches when I retired my Moto 360 as I felt the design wore off on me and Android Wear (Now Wear OS) lacked compelling features to keep using it. Not too mention that if I went on a trip I had to lug a separate charging stand around.
— Dan Proctor (@DanProctor11) June 19, 2015
I gave the LG Sport Watch a try when Google attempted to make it their ‘Nexus’ like device. Although it was zippier than my previous Moto 360 it still lacked any stand out features and was incredibly bulky to wear.