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Google Says Only Certain Smartwatches Can Upgrade to the Next-Gen Wear OS

After Google and Samsung announced their collaboration to build a new Wear OS, the biggest unanswered question was whether existing smartwatches could upgrade to the platform. Today, Google clarified which smartwatches qualify in a Wear OS support forum — and if you have an older Android watch running Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 3100 chip, you might want to start thinking about your options.

But first, the post also reveals that the unified platform will officially be called Wear OS 3 – a godsend for tech journalists who have run out of ways to write “new Wear OS”. Samsung and Fossil have said their upcoming watches will run Wear OS 3, but upgrades to other eligible devices won’t arrive until mid-2022 at the earliest.

“User experience is a top priority for us and we’re excited about the interest we’ve gotten in Wear OS 3, the new unified platform,” Google wrote. “For the previous generation of Wear OS smartwatches, a system update to Wear OS 3 will benefit from many of the new experiences, and in some limited cases the user experience will be impacted.”

Those previous-generation watches eligible for an upgrade to Wear OS 3 include Mobvoi’s GPS and LTE TicWatch Pro 3, the TicWatch E3, future TicWatch devices, and the next-generation Fossil smartwatches. All of these are, or will be, 4100-powered smartwatches. That doesn’t bode well for Snapdragon Wear 3100 smartwatches, especially since Fossil has confirmed that the existing 3100 smartwatches won’t be upgraded.

To upgrade to Wear OS 3, eligible smartwatch owners must reset their devices to factory settings. The company said it will provide more details before the update.

The company also stressed that the current version of Wear OS isn’t going anywhere, as it anticipates that many Wear OS smartwatch owners may not be eligible to upgrade or want to upgrade right away. Google also said it’s committed to bringing “new app experiences” to Wear OS, pointing to recent updates to the Play Store and Gboard. More such updates are reportedly on the way. Crucially, it finally made it clear that current Wear OS smartwatches will receive security updates for a minimum of two years from the device’s launch.

It was clear that the transition from Wear OS to Wear OS 3 was going to be a journey. As I’ve written many times before, there’s just no easy way to completely overhaul or update a platform. (See: Sonos Dealing With Its Legacy Products.) In the case of Wear OS, an open ecosystem created a fragmented space that couldn’t really thrive because of Qualcomm’s outdated and outclassed Snapdragon Wear chipsets. This is also not something that just started in 2021. Google’s renewed push for wearables arguably started in early 2019, when it bought $40 ($54) million worth of Fossil technology.

Today’s announcement and recent news that Qualcomm plans to release a new Snapdragon Wear platform next year indicate that once again it comes down to hardware and patience. Noting that some user experiences may be affected, it’s likely that even the 4100 platform may not be suitable for everything Wear OS 3 has to offer.

This is confirmed when you look at the specifications of the 4100. In the year 2021, as companies gear up to jump from 5nm to 3nm process technology for their smartwatch chips, the 4100 will still rely on legacy 12nm process technology. It’s a significant improvement over the 28nm 3100, but it’s been over five years since 14nm and 12nm chips were considered ‘new’. Unfortunately, Google has no control over what hardware is available for Android smartwatches. It’s on Qualcomm.

So is Wear OS 3 doomed from the start? No. A potentially bumpy transition is a bad reason to write off Wear OS 3 prematurely. Growing pains are unavoidable, but it’s actually a good sign that we’ll find out if we qualify almost a year in advance. Now that we know what to expect, there seems to be a genuine commitment to long-term improvement and consumers have time to see what works best for them.

There’s another crucial difference this time: Samsung. For its next-gen Galaxy Watches, Samsung has reportedly developed an Exynos chip that is exponentially more powerful than any Snapdragon chipset Qualcomm has ever made. This is a major reason why Samsung’s smartwatches are likely to be a more accurate gauge of Wear OS 3’s potential than 4100 smartwatches. We’ll have to see what comes out of Qualcomm’s overdue efforts to create a chip that isn’t trash.

For consumers, that means taking a closer look at the processor of your next Android smartwatch. Don’t buy, I repeat, a new Snapdragon Wear 3100 smartwatch – even if the discounts are tempting. If you already own a 3100-powered watch, you have a couple of options.

The easiest is to keep your watch, stay on the current Wear OS, and work out new options as they become available. Or, if you need to upgrade sooner, opt for one of Samsung’s next-gen smartwatches or a reasonably priced 4100-powered smartwatch. At least you don’t have to make this decision now. As a reminder, upgrades won’t be available for existing watches until mid-2022 or later. You have plenty of time to think about it.

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