Digital watches. Mass market. Throwaway tech. Bit of a relic. Yes? It seems Seiko doesn’t think so. It was typically contrarian of the Japanese watchmaker to release a remarkable new top-end digi—the SDGA001—at Baselworld in 2010. It wasn’t the first time they’d done it either, so Seiko’s designers made sure the new watch’s genetic heritage was there, clear as the digits on your face, right from the start.
Back in October 1973, when digitals were more exciting than the space race, Seiko built the world’s first solid-state watch with a liquid crystal display (LCD), the 06LC. Seiko’s new “black on yellow” liquid crystal displays were not only efficient, their displays had high contrast and were always on.
Before this, digital watches showed the time with bright red light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that needed a push of a button to activate; when the display wasn’t lit, the watch face was dark. LEDs were fiddly to operate and they had the same profligate attitude to fuel consumption as a Jensen Interceptor R. LED owners quickly became good friends with their battery suppliers.
The 06LC had buttons too—three of them on the front of the case—but they did rather more than act as a sophisticated on-off switch for the display. They controlled the watch’s functions and each had a tiny circular recess filled with color to make it simpler to find the right one at a glance.
To recap, in ‘73, Seiko launched a revolutionary digital watch, the 06LC, controlled by three case front buttons and with a groundbreaking new type of display. Then, in December 2010, they did exactly the same thing again with the SDGA001. Look at the pictures and you’ll be able to tell exactly who’s the daddy.
Where the 06LC’s displays used liquid crystal segments, the SDGA uses an active matrix electrophoretic display (EPD), rather like the sort you’d see on an e-book reader. And on the case front of the new watch? You guessed it—three buttons.
EPDs score over LCD for two principle reasons: they’re a great deal finer than LCD segments (300dpi and 80,000 pixels in this case) and they’re exceptionally power-efficient. If the original LEDs were 6.2 liter Jensens, EPD watches are whisper-silent Teslas.
An EPD only consumes power when it changes the display. That’s because it’s made up from a matrix of microscopic fluid-filled individual containers. Each tiny container has both white and black particles suspended within it. When the circuit inside the watch passes a negative charge through the container, the white particles rise to its surface and show on the display. Pass a positive charge and the black particles rise. Once the particles—white or black—are in place they don’t need any further power to keep them there.
The tiny screen dots meant that Seiko had freed watch displays from the restrictions of the large, digital segments and allowed them to display almost anything—even images of playing cards or stills from the Star Wars movies—with clarity. And unlike an LCD, you can view the SDGA’s display clearly from almost any angle.
And they made the most of it. The standard SDGA’s display shows, respectively, the time in large black-on-white digits, slightly whacky full display-width greyshade-on-white digits, white-on-black digits, full display-width greyshade-on-white and, finally, playing cards. The face value of the card indicates the hours and the watch shows minutes in the screen’s top right corner. The two greyshade displays are a little pointless, but the others are paragons of clarity or sheer damn fun.
If those aren’t enough for you, how about your choice of the time in 32 cities around the world? And, because this is an EPD watch, you get to see a little map of the city’s place in the world as you change the time.
Mind you, changing the display is the one area where the watch could be sharper. Because it aims to minimize the power draw on its solar cell, the EPD is not a rapid changer. Push a button, then wait for the display to change. Frenetic button pushing will get you nowhere; this is a watch that does things in its own good time. It takes a little while to get accustomed to, but it’s fine once you do. Power draw is the same reason that the SDGA doesn’t have a chronograph or a timer—the constant flicking of digits would eat power. But it does have a proper perpetual calendar that’s accurate to 2060.
A desire to be parsimonious with electrons also means your SDGA will power down after a while into one of two modes if it’s not charging from a light source. It’ll start by shutting down the display to show “Power Save” mode after about an hour in the dark. Leave it in darkness for three days, and the watch goes all Sleeping Beauty and drops into “Sleep” mode where it will remain quite happily for nearly three and a half years. Just pushing a button or exposing it to light wakes the watch.
And if you’re in the dark, your SDGA has two white LEDs on the right side of the display that are quite bright enough to show you the time at night.
Controlled by the 32,768Hz cal. S770 movement, the SDGA quite happily keeps its own quartz time. But it has another trick up its solid state sleeve—radio control. The movement updates each day at 0200 by receiving a signal from one of four cesium atomic time signals and fractionally correcting the time to match. It’ll check again at 0400 if it doesn’t find a signal the first time.
As you’d expect, there’s a transmitter in Japan, one in the USA, one in Germany and one in the UK at Anthorn. As they’re accurate to around ±1 second every thousand or so years, your watch should be accurate enough to get you to work on time. Without a transmitter to talk to, Seiko claims ±15 seconds a month.
In a standard digital watch case all this tech this would have been impressive enough. But Seiko decided to make a digital watch to rival its mechanical ones in quality. Seiko managed to make the SDGA embody the concept of “solid state” rather well. This is 138 grams of hefty, milled-from-billet watch, with a stainless steel case and bracelet and an apparently unscratchable sapphire display cover. Even at 45.5mm at its widest, it still manages to be comfortable and feel smaller than the dimensions suggest. Both the case and the bracelet taper, so it never feels as though you’re wearing a wrist-mounted version of HAL.
An eye-watering MSRP of £1,250 ($1,658 as of this writing) in the UK at launch meant Seiko’s new offering didn’t exactly fly off the shelves, so six years later these are hardly common watches. They appear on eBay every now and then, with one currently for sale at £670 ($890). If you fancy one of the even rarer Star Wars versions you’re in for an even longer wait, though the chance to have Yoda, Darth Vader and the rest of the team may be enough of a draw.
The SDGA—with its bang-on accuracy, no need to wind or change a battery and the capability to tell you the exact time anywhere in the world—might just be the only watch you ever need. It’s certainly one of the very best of the top-flight, high quality digis. And no, that’s not a contradiction in terms.
SDGA series specs:
– Caliber S770 movement
– Hours, minutes and seconds, plus calendar for year, month, date and day
– Perpetual calendar up to December 31, 2060
– World time function for 32 cities with daylight saving time capability
– Dual time function
– 3-channel daily / single-time alarm function
– Sound demonstration function
– Automatic radio wave reception function with manual reception capability
– Automatic time correction function
– Battery level indicator
– Power reserve: 9 months (41 months in ‘sleep’ mode)
– Overcharge prevention function
– Power save function
– 2 LED bulbs
– Clasp type: Three-fold with push button release
– Glass: Sapphire crystal with anti-reflective coating
– Water resistance: 10bar
– Dimensions: 45.5 x 46.0 mm, thickness: 9.5 mm