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Qualcomm jumps into wearables with Toq smartwatch

Qualcomm on Wednesday unveiled its Toq smartwatch, becoming the latest technology company to take on the hot wearables market.

Like other smartwatches on the market, Toq doesn’t have the full functionality of a smartphone or tablet. Rather, it syncs with users’ smartphones, allowing them to quickly scan through texts, phone calls, and other alerts, such as calendar and WhatsApp notifications, without taking their phones out of their bags. It runs on Qualcomm’s operating system and uses the company’s low-power mirasol display. For now, Toq will only work with Android, but Qualcomm is considering extending the connectivity to iOS as well.

To make the device thinner, Qualcomm placed its battery in the clasp of the watch band; users can cut the band to adjust it to the appropriate wrist size. The battery will last about five days with typical use or three days with heavy use. It recharges wirelessly by placing the watch on a dock (included in purchase). In addition, the smartwatch comes in either black or white and with wireless Bluetooth headphones.

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Qualcomm will sell Toq for about $300. It should hit the market in about mid-October and be available online and possibly in some retail stores. The company will sell only a limited number of smartwatches — in the tens of thousands — to show customers what its technology can do, said Rob Chandhok, president of Qualcomm Internet Services and Qualcomm Innovation Center.

“We’re not trying to be a consumer electronics company, but we do want to make a statement about what we think features and characteristics of successful wearable computing [are] going to be,” he told CNET.

Qualcomm’s announcement comes as the wearables war heats up. Samsung, the world’s biggest handset vendor and a close partner to Qualcomm, unveiled a smartwatch of its own during an event Wednesday at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin. The Korean company’s device, dubbed the Galaxy Gear, allows users to perform more tasks, such as run apps like Evernote and Pinterest, and it also contains a camera.

The Qualcomm Toq smartphone can toggle between different watch faces.
Shara Tibken/CNET

Qualcomm isn’t traditionally known as a device maker, at least not since it sold its cellphone business to Kyocera in 1999. Rather, it supplies wireless processors that power most of the world’s smartphones and tablets, including those from Apple and Samsung. But Qualcomm saw a need to push its ideas for smartwatches into the market and give consumers the ability to see features for themselves.

For example, popular smartphone screen technology, such as OLED, can be difficult to see in daylight. That may not matter to someone using a phone, but it can be a big problem for someone trying to read notifications on a watch. Instead, Qualcomm is pushing its mirasol display, which appears brighter in full sunlight and consumes less power than other screens.

Mirasol is a reflective display technology similar to e-reader e-ink screens. Like e-ink, mirasol can be viewed in sunlight and can allow devices to last days or even weeks without being recharged. Unlike e-ink, mirasol produces vivid colors and refreshes quickly enough for video. Mirasol, though, is largely unproven in the market and faces limitations in dark environments where there’s no outside light to create the images. In the case of Toq, Qualcomm addressed the lighting problem by incorporating a backlight that can be turned on as needed.

Qualcomm has been developing mirasol for years, but few companies have used the displays in their devices. The technology has been costly for Qualcomm, and it also has faced some production problems. As a result, the company said a year ago that it would focus on licensing the technology and would directly commercialize only certain mirasol products.

Qualcomm’s mirasol screen on the Toq smartwatch looks brighter in sunlight than other display technology.
Shara Tibken/CNET

In particular, Qualcomm will push mirasol’s power-sipping feature as a benefit for users. And Toq also uses a 200 MHz Cortex M3 processor — rather than a high-end Snapdragon chip — to extend battery life.

“One question we don’t know the answer to is, are watches good enough if they only last through the day?” Chandhok said. “With watches, we think you’re going to want more than that. … Some devices with OLED, we’re not sure how they’re going to make it through the day, let alone multiple days.”

Meanwhile, Chandhok said Qualcomm has no plans to release further versions of Toq in the future. Other companies are working on devices with mirasol screens, he said, and Qualcomm expects those to hit the market soon.

“We prefer our partners make them,” Chandhok said.

Updated at 12:40 p.m. PT with clarification about availability.

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