Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 4100 features much-needed improvements for the next Wear OS watches

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Qualcomm is announcing two new Wear OS processors today, the Snapdragon Wear 4100 Plus and the Snapdragon Wear 4100, the first major updates to its smartwatch platform since 2018. Qualcomm claims the new chips will have vastly improved speed, with a “significantly faster new processor,” and big jumps in performance for the GPU, memory, camera, and overall battery life.

They’re big promises, but put simply, Google’s Wear OS badly needs this kind of hardware overhaul. The last major revision to the Snapdragon Wear lineup, the Snapdragon Wear 3100, was a minor update to 2016’s Snapdragon 2100. In fact, given that the 2100 and 3100 have the exact same main processor, the debut of the 4100 marks the first concrete speed improvements for Wear OS in about four years.

The biggest changes are in the processor, which is jumping from a 28nm process to a 12nm one, with four A53 CPU cores clocked at 1.7GHz replacing the 3100’s A7 cores (at just 1.1GHz), which Qualcomm says should deliver more than 85 percent faster performance. The GPU is now Adreno A504 (up to two and a half times faster than the 3100), along with faster memory.

Qualcomm is taking a slightly different approach with the 4100 line, though. It’s actually shipping two SKUs to developers. The flagship model is the Snapdragon 4100 Plus, which (like the 3100 before it) is a hybrid platform that features the main SDM429w SoC, along with an updated version of the always-on QCC1110 co-processor that it introduced with the 3100. But for developers that don’t want or need to offer always-on features, Qualcomm will also offer a standard Snapdragon Wear 4100 model, which just offers the SDM429w SoC.

For the Snapdragon 4100 Plus, though, the QCC1110 co-processor — which handles the ambient display mode common to most modern smartwatches — is also getting some improvements. Those include the ability to display vastly more colors — as many as 64,000, up from the 16 colors that the 3100 could show — as well as support for new features when in “watch mode” like step tracking, continuous heart-rate tracking, alarms, haptic feedback, and more (which previously had to rely on the main processor).

The shift to the new 12nm CPU architecture (along with other, more technical improvements) also means that watches with a Snapdragon 4100 should see up to 25 percent better battery life.

Qualcomm is already shipping its Wear 4100 and 4100 Plus chipsets to hardware manufacturers, with the first devices set to arrive in the coming months. Mobvoi has already announced that it’s working on a new TicWatch model that will feature the new chips, and Xiaotiancai is working on a kid-friendly smartwatch powered by the Wear 4100, too.

On paper, at least, these are the sorts of big improvements that Qualcomm needed to make to help boost the struggling Wear OS hardware ecosystem (which is almost entirely reliant on Qualcomm’s platform at this point) back into the competitive game.

But the smartwatch world is a very different place now than it was in 2016, when the last major improvements to Qualcomm’s processor arrived, or even 2018. Wear OS is largely dominated by fashion brands like Fossil, but the entire smartwatch ecosystem itself is dominated by Samsung’s Gear line and the Apple Watch.

Google’s own ambitions to make a flagship smartwatch are up in the air. The company’s recent announcement that it intends to purchase Fitbit for $2.1 billion may be a way for it to beef up its hardware division to make better Wear OS watches — or it may be for something else entirely.

After years of lackluster hardware and a seemingly apathetic Google when it comes to developing new Wear OS software features, the question is whether Qualcomm’s new chip is just too late for Google’s smartwatch experiment.

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