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How Smartwatches May Finally Become as Useful as Traditional Watches

Aaron Pressman
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How Smartwatches May Finally Become as Useful as Traditional Watches

Smartwatches running Google’s Wear OS software could be getting a key new feature later this year that even the Watch still lacks, at least so far.

Among several planned improvements, one in particular could address the big downside to most smartwatches compared to traditional watches. Most smartwatches conserve battery life by keeping the display turned off until a user raises his or her wrist to look at the watch. But the triggering gesture doesn’t always trigger the screen to turn on and users can’t sneak a side glance at their watch to see the time. Even watches with some form of constant display don’t offer the colorful backdrop of a normal display. Traditional watch wearers never face the frustration of seeing a blank or washed-out display.

But this fall, new watches using a forthcoming chipset from will include a feature improving even the “ambient mode” available on some powered watches to improve the display, according to Pankaj Kedia, Qualcomm’s senior director of wearables. The feature was especially desired by some of the high fashion watchmakers that have relied on Qualcomm and Google , like Fossil , Guess, Movado, and TAG Heuer.

“When you look at the watch today it’s very good when we’re interacting with it, but when you’re not, it’s not as good,” Kedia said in an interview with the web site Wareable. “You will see this new platform, this new architecture, significantly improve the look and feel of the watch whether you’re interacting with it or not.”

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“It needs to look good when I’m looking at it or when I’m not looking at it,” he added. “It cannot be static when I’m not looking at it. It cannot be black and white when I’m not looking at it.”

The new Qualcomm chips will also enable longer battery life, thinner designs, and connections via LTE mobile networks, Kedia said. Unlike its previous two smartwatch chipsets, which were modified from chips designed for phones, the newest version was designed “from the ground up” for watches, Kedia said. Qualcomm hasn’t updated its smartwatch chipset since it released the Snapdragon Wear 2100 more than two years ago.

Google hasn’t said much about forthcoming versions of its watch software, which used to be called Android Wear OS. Attendees at last week’s Google I/O developer conference said smartwatches on display running the next version of Wear OS had only minor tweaks compared to current models.

While no smartwatch has met the sale expectations set by Wall Street a few years ago, watches relying on Google and Qualcomm have particularly struggled. Apple says sales of its watches have been booming, though analysts say sales in the third year of the device are still well below what they predicted at the 2015 debut. Fitbit , Garmin , and others are also trying to crack the smartwatch market with proprietary designs that don’t rely on Google, though they have also yet to catch on in a big way.

Apple is also expected to release an updated, fourth-generation smartwatch this fall, but few details have yet leaked about it.

(Update: This story was updated on May 14 to correct that the new chips would improve ambient mode.)

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