Entertainment, Hardware, Software Programs

Qualcomm Toq Review ? A Solid Standard for Smartwatches

Qualcomm’s Toq watch was originally announced by their former CEO, Paul Jacobs, in September during their UPLINQ conference after most of their competitors (some also customers) had already made their announcements. Qualcomm certainly wasn’t first to market, nor were they last as we have yet to see a current gen smartwatch from the likes of LG and Apple (if they actually do it). However, Qualcomm’s justification for entering the smartwatch arena was not to compete with many of their customers as many industry watchers have aptly pointed out. Qualcomm claims that the Toq is a reference design or platform of sorts through which they can encourage their ecosystem to utilize Qualcomm’s innovations in their products. Based on that premise, we’re going to go through this review analyzing the various Qualcomm technologies as well as the feasibility of this watch as a real competitive smartwatch as well as how it fares as a reference platform of technologies for other watches to build upon.

In terms of technology, the Toq’s crowning glory is its display which is actually Qualcomm’s own MEMS display called Mirasol. This display is unique in that it is not an LCD, LED or even an eINK display. It is actually made of thousands of tiny mirrors that move to reflect light. Because of these micro electric mechanical systems (MEMS) the complexity of manufacturing such a device is vastly greater than making an LCD, LED or even an OLED display. As such, Qualcomm has poured over $1 billion in trying to get a fab in Taiwan to manufacture the displays for tablets and eReaders. However, due to the poor yields at such display sizes, Qualcomm was forced to write down the investment since they don’t see themselves making that money back anytime soon.

As is with almost any new display technology, the yields on larger panels are always more difficult to obtain. Now this is where smartwatches come in, because smartwatches have such tiny displays relative to 8" eReaders the yields are vastly greater and make the technology feasible from an economic standpoint which in turn makes them more accessible. What Mirasol effectively allows for is the ability have a color display that gets the battery life of e-Ink and at a much higher resolution. So, naturally, many smartwatch manufacturers should find Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology attractive when power becomes as big of a concern that it is. Also, because Mirasol is a MEMS display utilizing mirrors it actually looks much better than any LCD, OLED or eINK in broad daylight since the brighter the light the brighter the display gets. This surprisingly also makes the display fairly visible in low-light, although Qualcomm still included a front light to light the display at night which I would argue is a bit too powerful and turns the watch into a flashlight. It would be nice if they made this adjustable for users (and OEMs that implement it) so that users can decide what brightness they like.

The Mirasol display itself is 1.55 inches across, diagonally, and features an impressive 222 PPI resolution, which gives it an impressive level of definition when compared to watches like the Pebble that we recently reviewed. Admittedly, it still isn?t as nice as the Galaxy Gear?s 1.6 inch, 275 PPI SuperAMOLED display, but the Galaxy Gear?s battery life is also a joke compared to the Toq. However, the color depth and framerate of the Galaxy Gear is far superior to the Toq?s Mirasol MEMS display. With the Mirasol display you sacrifice color depth and the ability to do video in its current iteration. However, when we first learned about Mirasol there were possibilities of future revisions that could actually do video and with better color depth than the Mirasol?s 24-bit display. Another great feature of the Mirasol display, which is an absolute must, is the fact that it is always on but doesn?t always consume power (like the Galaxy Gear?s SuperAMOLED). The fact that the Galaxy Gear?s screen is off at all is a huge problem to me, a smartwatch must always be on and if you have to wait at all to see what time it is or what a notification is saying, that?s already too long. You could simply take your phone out in that time.

Another interesting technology feature of this smartwatch is that it has capacitive touch sensors in the band of the watch in addition to the touch display and touch Toq sensor directly below the touch display. So, this watch effectively has 4 different touch sensitive points on the watch, making it probably the most touchy smartwatch to date. Qualcomm also decided to build the smartwatch’s battery into the clasp with a 240 mAh battery.

Since we’re already talking about the clasp and the touch sensors in the band, I honestly believe that Qualcomm made a grave mistake here. In order to fit the watch, you must cut this rubber wristband to your size with a pair of scissors (or a knife). This means that there is only one-time sizing which means that once you’ve picked a size you can never change it again. And while I absolutely abhor synthetic bands on a watch, I will wear one if I can wear it a bit more loosely. As a result, my Toq rests on my wrist more loosely than I would normally wear a watch.

In addition to the large ‘external’ battery, touch sensors and Mirasol display, the Toq also features Qualcomm’s own wireless charging technology. I think that this idea should catch on with other smartwatch manufacturers because it allows for a much more seamless watch design without needing to have connectors anywhere on the watch like the Pebble, Sony Smartwatch or Omate. One thing to consider, though, is that wireless charging may not be possible for a watch made with a metal casing due to the challenges that wireless charging coils have with going through metal. As such, Qualcomm’s Toq has a plastic housing and requires a charging base/plate in order to work properly.

I have heard a lot of complaints that this device uses a proprietary wireless charging standard called Qualcomm® WiPower? LE – Magnetic Resonance Charging. Qualcomm claims that they opted for their own WiPower st
andard because currently there is no low-power standard that exists for wearable devices. They basically said that the technology wasn?t there in order to enable a wirelessly powered watch, so instead they invented it. While I admire Qualcomm?s innovative and ambitious thinking, there is a problem with this wireless charging standard, nobody is using it right now. Sure, it will hopefully get folded into some Qi low power standard, if Qualcomm lets it, but as of right now the only way to charge this watch is using the wireless charging base that the watch comes with. The nice thing about the wireless charging dock is that it requires no cables to connect the watch to the charger and if you leave it on your nightstand the watch could be used like an alarm clock.

Although, to be fair, the watch itself doesn?t really need much of a charge even though it has a 240 mAh battery, thanks to the Toq?s impressive battery life. From my experience, I got about 4 to 5 days of battery life with normal usage, which to others will probably be considered heavy usage. The nice thing about the Toq is that because of the display, you almost never need the frontlight during daytime and you rarely need the frontlight at night.

From my experience, the Toq itself, when considered as a complete solution, watch, charger and mobile app is probably the most complete smartwatch package available on the market. When you buy the Toq, you know exactly what you?re going to get and it probably won?t deviate much, but for most people it will get the job done and do it flawlessly. The Toq comes out of the box with more functionality and with less configuring, updating and installing than any of the other watches that I have used thus far. All of the features of the Toq are already built into the watch and the smartphone app and work extremely well. These features aren?t necessarily unique to the Toq, but they are unique in the sense that they are self-contained within the app and available almost immediately from the second the watch has been setup.

The watch in conjunction with the smartphone app comes with its own music player that integrates into Google Play Music (my default music App). It also has a built-in weather app that pulls weather info from Accuweather and a stock app powered by Etrade. All of these mini apps work really well and have up to date and accurate information from my experience. There are also watch faces available that utilize this information and its quite nice when traveling and you can know the weather outside without even taking your phone out. Similarly, you can see your stocks on your watch face at any given moment with the obligatory 5 minute Etrade delay. There were also some really interesting seasonal watch faces that Qualcomm released around the holiday season which were perfectly designed to show off the watch?s capabilities. Ultimately I ended up going back to my 3 panel watch face with the time, temperature and weather condition, it?s clean and informative. But I would certainly like more than the 17 watch faces available right now, considering that with my Pebble I had both Darth Vader and Stormtrooper watch faces. I believe the lack of watch faces has to do with the lack of a developer community for the Toq, since the Toq is so new. It would be nice if Qualcomm enticed more developers to make watch faces for the Toq since it supposed to be a platform, that way anyone that adopts Qualcomm?s theoretical platform could in theory use those watch faces.

In addition to 17 watch faces, the watch also has 6 different menu styles which effectively come out to different color schemes and visual representations of the same 4×4 menu. You can also customize which applets, calendar, music, stocks, etc. go in the main menu so that they are more easily accessible.

One of the other nice features of the watch that we already mentioned was the fact that it has two capacitive touch sensors in the wristband. This does likely drive up the cost of the watch itself, which is currently $349 before any discounts (like the $50 off they?ve been giving). But it also makes it really nice because there are effectively no buttons on the watch to search for in the dark. You know exactly where to tap with your finger to activate the frontlight or the menu button. Also, the capacitive touch display is a nice thing and something that I feel like Pebble was missing with their watch. Samsung has it in theirs as well, and to be quite frank with all of our touch laptops, tablets and smartphones, our smartwatches are going to have to be touch as well.

Front light is too bright, especially at night (daytime above, low light below)

I also like that the watch has a few built-in features like airplane mode or power down mode that enable you to save battery if you don?t really need to know what time it is. The only slightly annoying part is that there?s no way other than by charging with the dock in order to turn the watch back on again if you?ve powered it down. That is, I guess, one of the drawbacks of not having any physical buttons like the Galaxy Gear (1) and Pebble (4) do. I also like that the find your phone feature works quite well and if you walk out of your phone?s Bluetooth range it will buzz. Admittedly, this feature was prevalent in all three watches, although it needed to be installed with the Pebble. The Galaxy Gear also does this, and frankly, I think it?s one of the greatest features of smartwatches because it likely reduces the amount of lost phones. The problem, however, is that right now the Toq still only works with Android phones, as the Galaxy Gear (only Galaxy S4 and Note 3). So, if you?re shopping for a watch and already have a nice phone, but it isn?t a Galaxy S4 or Note 3, you?ll be looking at a Pebble or Toq. The Pebble, though, will work with both Android and iOS even though the Toq does have plans to release iOS compatibility relatively soon. This watch was announced back in September and now we?re nearing the end of January without an iOS version, which doesn?t sound very promising for the possibility of iOS usage.

One of my favorite things about the Toq was how well it handles notifications and h
ow it separates out SMS and phone notifications from application notifications. In addition to that, I really like how when you get a Facebook message or notification you can actually read it, unlike on the Gear that simply tells you to that you?ve got a Facebook notification and that you should look at your phone. However, with the Facebook messenger application, it does for some reason create a buzz/notification on the watch every time you open chat bubbles even if there are no new messages.

The one feature that I have yet to be able to test out is the AllJoyn feature. This feature is what could really set this watch apart from the rest and could actually make your watch the center of your connected home. By having AllJoyn functionality, this watch could do things like turn your smart TV on or off or adjust the temperature of the room based on where you?re located in order to fit your personal preferences. The possibilities are endless; lights could turn on and off as you walk in and out of rooms and music can follow you as you walk through the house from room to room. The watch can act as the remote on your wrist to control these things and the possibilities are really exciting. But for now, AllJoyn needs to pick up some more momentum and adoption inside of the home until these theoretical possibilities are realized. Unfortunately, I didn?t take my Toq with me to CES to test out the AllJoyn feature of the watch inside of their connected smart home demo they had at their booth.

One final problem with the Toq is that in terms of aesthetics, it still looks like a geeky accessory. It is entirely made of plastic and rubber and it lacks the design elements of a traditional watch. Sure, it looks better than some other smart watches, but it still stands out enough to be seen as a smartwatch.

The truth is that the Toq is really a great smartwatch and like any early smartwatch, it has some flaws but it also has some great things about it. I think that the Toq itself probably doesn?t have much of a future considering that Qualcomm is only creating this watch as a proof of concept for others to get ideas from. And hopefully, those ideas utilize Qualcomm?s own technologies like Mirasol, AllJoyn and WiPower and other technologies so that Qualcomm can monetize on smartwatches. At $349, this watch is actually the most expensive smartwatch I?ve used, because the Pebble is only $149 and the Galaxy Gear is $299. Yes, there is a $50 discount that brings it down to $299, but at the time that I got this watch it was $349. I?m not entirely sure that many people will be able to utilize Qualcomm?s technologies in this watch, but I do think that if Mirasol can improve their color depth, they could attract a lot of companies with their Mirasol display. I wouldn?t mind a Pebble with a Mirasol display, that would be really nice, especially the new Pebble 2.0 watches that barely look like smartwatches (as they shouldn?t).

Based on my usage of the Toq and the overall technological advancements that it achieves with the display and wireless power, I am going to give the Qualcomm Toq the BSN* Innovation Award since it doesn’t necessarily win in the value segment and I’m not sure that it is quite the best. Our next smartwatch will be the Galaxy Gear from Samsung, which we used during CES.