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Ambiq Micro, a semiconductor company in Austin, Texas, has been working for the last five years to build a lower-power chip by applying to silicon a technology that has been used in quartz wristwatches. It has finally managed to do so in high-enough densities and manufacturing volume to make it worth the consumer electronic industry’s time.
On Monday, it launched its Apollo microcontroller, which can lower the power consumption of the tiny chips used inside wearable devices by as much as 10 times in wake mode and 38 times in sleep mode depending on the type of ARM core used inside the chip. For the consumer, this means a battery life for a smart watch or activity tracker that could last for weeks or months longer than the current standard.
Ambiq manages these lower wattages by never going above a certain voltages when sending power through the chip. Most chips send their signaling information, which determines if it is sending zeros or ones, at between 1 and 1.8 volts, but the Ambiq chip sends its information .5 volts. That means it uses much less energy overall. Ambiq has built out this technology on about $30 million in funding.
It does this without requiring fancy changes in manufacturing or a new way of writing software, which means it can be designed into existing products easily. Ambiq VP of Marketing Mike Salas says he expects to see Ambiq microcontrollers in shipping products by the middle of the year. Its microcontrollers will compete with those already on the market from Atmel, ST Microelectronics and other large chipmakers.
Salas also says that for customers of Ambiq the change in power consumption mean manufacturers can advertise longer battery life, or they could use smaller batteries and then design smaller enclosures for their electronics. As a woman who finds almost all of the smart watches on the market today to be too large, I’d love to see a slightly more delicate form factor using a smaller battery and more power-efficient chip.
Update: This story was corrected on 1/21/2015 to change Mike Salas’ title. He is VP of Marketing, not the CEO.