Qualcomm Toq aims to reinvent smartwatches with a Mirasol display
The year 2013 may be coming to a close, but for wearable tech things seem to still be heating up...or warming up, slowly. Products we've expected for the last few months are slowly but surely being released, and the Qualcomm Toq, expected in October, has at last appeared at CNET. Here are my first impressions as we work on the full review.
Smartwatches seem to be everywhere all of a sudden. Samsung's got one. And now Qualcomm has one, too. What does the Toq have that will make it stand out from the crowd?
A reflective color Mirasol screen.
In what amounted to a surprise development, the Qualcomm Toq emerged at CNET's offices back in September, where we got to get a little hands-on time with the upcoming watch. Qualcomm doesn't have a track record of making its own gadgets, but the Toq is intended to be a smaller-scale product, a collector's item of sorts, and most importantly, a reference design for how Qualcomm technology can work in future wearables. Qualcomm may not be making smartwatches after the Toq -- or so the company says -- but if everything goes as planned, other watches might be incorporating Mirasol displays in the future.
Unlike possibly powerhouse watches like the Samsung Galaxy Gear, the Toq has a relatively low-power 200MHz Cortex M3 processor to extend battery life. The Mirasol display -- a technology that's been making the rounds for years and was originally demonstrated in e-ink-style e-readers -- sips power and can stay on without draining battery life, much like e-ink. It's also highly reflective and can display color.
How is Mirasol on a watch? It looked pretty great in the office, producing display quality better and more reflective than a Pebble, with a faster refresh rate than many e-readers.
It's not the type of display you'd want to use for rapid, complex animations, though. In more-direct light, it looked even better, but the color, while crisp, is a very different beast than something like OLED -- it has a slightly iridescent tone, like anodized metal. Watch faces and icons popped. When Mirasol's good, it's excellent. But in dimmer office lighting, the screen sometimes seemed a little murky.
Luckily, the Toq also has a backlight, in case you need it -- you tap the top of the wristband twice to turn it on. With the backlight on everything was readable, but colors were even more washed-out. It resembled my old Game Boy Advance SP, which had a reflective color display and side lighting, too.
The Toq as a watch, however, is big, bigger than watches like the Pebble; but the wider 1.55-inch, 288x192-pixel-resolution display has some advantages. Reading calendar appointments, texts, and even e-mails seemed easier with more text fitting on the screen. I'm not sure I'd use the Toq to read a novel, but I could see myself browsing tweets on it. The wristband's pretty chunky, too: stylishly patterned, but adding to the Toq's sense of size. The whole package feels like a throwback "smart" watch from, say, 2005 rather than 2013.
The band needs to be specifically cut for the owner before use, an odd move for a smartwatch. The buckle houses the Toq's battery, helping offset the size of the watch. The cut-to-fit element (it involves scissors and included spring bars in a packed-in ziplock bag) is awkward to say the least, but once the fitting process was done the watch did feel comfy when snapped on.
What the Toq can do is pretty similar to what other notfication-rich smartwatches already accomplish: screen incoming calls, show text messages, and hook into weather and e-mail. The Toq also gets detailed calendar data, receives stock data via E*Trade, and has a music-playback touch interface with volume control (there are no speakers, though: this is a remote for playing back music on your phone). Another intriguing wild card is support for Qualcomm's own AllJoyn technology, which promises connection to the Internet of Things.
Apps exist on the Toq, but it's meant to work while connected to an Android phone, from which the Toq can receive pushed software and firmware updates. Theoretically the Toq could work via iOS, according to Qualcomm's executives, but it's being designed as an Android-exclusive device for now. You need Android 4.0.3 or later, and it looks like any Android phone with Bluetooth is supported: the Toq uses Bluetooth 3.0 + EDR with A2DP audio support, instead of Bluetooth LE like many fitness devices. It paired with a Moto X once I downloaded from Google Play the necessary Toq app, which manages settings, customizes watch faces and notifications, and installs firmware updates, and is laid out pretty cleanly.
The Toq has a few other clever twists up its wristband besides its Mirasol display: a pair of wireless in-ear stereo Bluetooth earbuds has been designed to connect the whole package into a unified system, something that makes a lot of sense, but didn't come in the Toq smartwatch package I received and is currently out of stock. Also, the Toq watch wirelessly recharges (as will the earbuds, eventually) via a bedside-table-friendly included inductive case using Qualcomm WiPower LE technology. Plug the case into a Micro-USB port and you're set. It saves having to deal with an in-phone USB port or specialty cables like the Pebble uses, but it still requires carrying that case around.
Now, about that price. The Toq costs $349.99 (not the $300 we were originally told it would), and is already listed as "out of stock." At $350 it's more expensive than a Galaxy Gear, more than twice the price of a Pebble, and way too much to pay in general for a watch like this. But Qualcomm only intends to sell "tens of thousands" of the device, and odds are you won't be able to buy one easily anyway.
Instead, think of the Toq as being like Google Glass: a hero prototype that actually works, but mainly shows the way for future products using the technology. Qualcomm intends for Mirasol displays and low-power processors to be used by other smartwatch-maker hopefuls -- possibly even mainstream watchmakers that want to go smart but don't want to invent the tech themselves. That's actually a smart idea, as long as the concept of a "smarter watch" doesn't mean running aground on specialized software and services like those that sunk long-ago efforts like Fossil's Palm watch and Microsoft's SPOT watches.
Stay tuned for the full review.