Ode to practicality

Once again, hello to ya folks one eternity later. Today, I’m not going to touch the usual topics I’m supposed to touch in this blog, I want to talk about wristwatches. And no, not the RCVD project and its guts, that’s very interesting but too mainstream anyway. Besides, I’m going to prepare a more-or-less professionally looking publication of all the Casio’s BLE protocol spec once all the required details are found and known. Today, I want to talk about something lots of us have forgotten, as it does not deserve to be forgotten at all.

If anything, I am not a watch reviewer, and never have been. However, I do have a fairly large collection of watches (yes, most of them are Casios). It used to be bigger but I decided to get rid of almost half of it, only to fill that missing half with some other, more useful timepieces which are interesting to this or that extent. They range from Casio MQ-24 to GM-B2100BD, from F-84W to GMW-B5000D, from Benyar BY-5185M, a weird Chinese mechanical/automatic three-hander with two lume colors, to Casio OCW-T200S, the coolest compact Oceanus three-hander with sapphire, Bluetooth and longwave sync.

But first, let me tell you something right away: when it comes to choosing a watch, my three main priorities are accuracy, practicality and design. Yes, in this particular order. Accuracy — because this is what determines how good a watch performs its main function: to show current time. Hence quartz only, unless the piece is purely for experimenting. Practicality means I can use the watch to its fullest in any possible conditions, as I don’t take them off, like, at all. Design — because it is important to me not only for the watch to look attractive on my wrist (to myself and probably others), but also to be as compact and unobtrusive as possible for its functionality (this is why most G-Shocks, except the 5600, 5000, 2100, 2900 and B001 series, are definitely not for me).

All the top-notch watches in my collection (e.g. OCW-T200S, GM-B2100BD, GMW-B5000D, GW-B5600BC and so on) fully meet these criteria: they are always accurate thanks to the Bluetooth LE (and also longwave in some models) synchronization, they have a most practical set of features (even on a purely analog Oceanus three-hander you’ll never have to manually fiddle with the date on the end of a month that doesn’t have 31 days), outstanding build quality, solar charging and the design that I like. These are truly modern classic timepieces of the 21st century that don’t have to go full-on into the “smartwatch” craze in order to be really useful. There are, however, two caveats.

The first one is the price. Especially where I live and especially nowadays. I know some people whose monthly salary is much less than the price of some of these timepieces. And these watches aren’t Rolexes, APs, Omegas, Tag Heuers or some other exorbitantly luxurious and inaccurate blingy nonsense for the fat cat parasites on the planet’s body. And not even Seiko Astron or Citizen’s The Citizen series. They are Casios, good watches for those who just need good watches. Yet most people here cannot afford even them, and either opt for cheaper and lower-quality solutions or get away with seeing the current time on their phones and saying they are OK with this.

The second caveat, being the main reason I decided to write this post, is my observation that more and more modern watches, even the Casio ones, are really tailored for the usage in a purely urban setting or other conditions where you fully depend on technology that surrounds you. For most of the new non-solar-powered modules, inherently weaker batteries like SR626SW or SR921W are replacing CR2016 and CR2025, leading to the need to change them every 3 or even 2 years instead of every 10 to 13. For the models with radio sync, the recent ones from Casio (including the top-notch GM-B2100, for instance) are dropping the longwave reception in favor of BLE-only connectivity. For the overall functionality, no newly developed module (not counting the rehashes and updates of the older ones) contains iconic functions from the past, such as pulsing light alarm, auto backlight on the wrist turn, telememo or databank. Even the famous electroluminescent backlight has been silently dropped in all the new modules in favor of LEDs. They even had the audacity to call these LEDs “Super Illuminator”, when in fact it’s a real step back from EL made to cut the production costs even further.

Luckily, there still are a few watch models out there that are still manufactured from old blueprints, using time-tested (pun intended) technological solutions and containing all the rich functionality that we know and love at a very affordable price point. Aside from true classics like DW-5600E, I’d also like to briefly mention another G-Shock from the starting price segment, the G-2900(F), which is really something I could advise for anyone looking for the most functional purely digital watch under $100. It got everything I had listed in the previous paragraph (even the pulsing light alarm IIRC) and has awesome legibility for its size and over 10 year battery life on a single CR2025. Also, despite being a sporty looking G-Shock, it’s not so big on the wrist and the strap is very comfortable. Without further ado, here is mine:

Casio G-2900

To give you an idea how good this watch turned out to be, I’ll just say it was developed in 2002 and is manufactured to this day with absolutely minimum changes (probably only updating the auto calendar range and world time zone data from time to time, but I didn’t track the history of the module changes here). This is probably also why it is so good — nothing has been spoiled since the time when no one depended on their phones as much as they do now. That’s why G-2900 probably is the only watch you can still buy new where all five alarms have labels for custom reminder texts and the databank is dynamic and password-protected.

But it definitely is not the only current Casio model worth mentioning here, and now I want to tell you about something I had been avoiding for a solid span of about 15 years, only to find out in 2023 that it was a big mistake to avoid such a watch. Lo and behold, the icon of low budget ana-digi timepieces, the one and only Casio AW-80.

Casio AW-80

While not having a market lifespan as long as e.g. DW-5600, this model is on the market for so long that it has undergone at least one module change. It started in 2003 with the module 2747, and now, since 2017, is shipped with the module 5574. So, just like with G-2900, the concept itself is already 20 years old, and most probably, the only fundamental upgrade across these modules was related to updating the time zone information that might change significantly during that period.

Still, who cares? It’s not like this watch supports the concept of “home city” or auto-DST capability anyway — the world time, along with the DST flag, is set completely indepentently of the main time here. And the analog time is set completely independently of the digital time, and only synchronized within the current 20-second interval (oh, and you can also retain the current minute hand position within this interval if you reset the digital seconds). That’s just mind-blowing for anyone who has been only using more modern ana-digi Casios where everything is synchronized and bidirectional, but still not so crazy as in some other even more vintage-tech watches one still can buy, like AW-49 or AW-90 that don’t even know about current year and assume February always has 28 days. And yes, you get it right, setting the DST flag for the main digital time in AW-80 doesn’t automatically move the analog hands, you have to do it manually. And I know how painful it can be, I had an AQ-160 at some point in the past. But that still doesn’t bother me, and let me tell you why.

If you wear polarized sunglasses, telling the time using just an LCD screen can be quite uncomfortable. And purely analog solutions don’t allow to fit a lot of functionality into them (e.g. I have a DCF77-controlled three-hand Citizen that also allows to set the timezone and the year relative to the closest leap one using hands only, but that’s the limit of what it can do). This is why, for a “zero phones around” scenario (a hypothetical one, but we’ll see), I began looking for a combo indication watch that would be as close to G-2900F as possible functionality-wise, but which also would allow me to just see the current time at a glance whenever I need it, without having to take my shades off. Unfortunately, all the solar powered models I found, if you don’t count their connectivity features, turned out to be much less functional than G-2900 while obviously more expensive or at least on par with it. So I decided to live with that and started searching across CR2025-powered models guaranteed to last at least for ten years on a fresh battery. And within the sub-$100 price range, only one model popped up that does have at least a similar set of functions and wouldn’t look like a hockey puck strapped to my wrist. That’s how I rediscovered AW-80 for myself.

I’m saying “rediscovered” because I have been seeing this model everywhere for the last 15 years, so it’s nothing new for me. But, until this January, I hadn’t owned it, just ignoring its existence. Of course, there also is AW-81 which is the same exact story but barrel-shaped, I just don’t like that shape, as well as ovals and vertically positioned rectangles (which are only fine if you hold them in your hand, not on the wrist). But the round-shaped AW-80 does everything it’s supposed to. Once again, imagine that you have no mobile phone at all. Not even a Nokia 1280 class feature phone. And your only connectivity is the stationary (or relatively stationary, like Starlink) internet at home and probably at your workplace, as well as some FM and/or SDR receivers. I know it is hard to imagine nowadays, but just try. But you do have a music player with wired headphones or earbuds, a small digital camera you take with you only when it actually is needed, a pen, a paper notebook, a pocket calculator, a wallet with your cards, cash and a slim multitool knife, a keychain EDC flashlight and a wristwatch that you wear all-day-round. What kind of functionality would you expect from your wristwatch in this case? Here are my expectations. As always, your mileage may vary.

First of all, in this case, I wouldn’t worry about synchronization, neither longwave nor Bluetooth. If I have a trusted communication channel in a trusted place, I am totally OK with syncing my watch manually from the PC using NTP or time.gov webpage or a hardware GPS receiver or any other suitable resources, not having to worry about anyone intercepting my BLE sessions or a bogus DCF77 transmitter suddenly appearing closer to my place and messing up all the time and date settings (yes, if I have no phones, it is logical to assume I’m that paranoid… well, if you knew some things I do, you’d be too). My only requirement would be for the watch not to lose or gain over 30 seconds between DST corrections every 6 months. A minute in a year is not a hell of an accuracy anyway, and usually, when the quartz watch manufacturers state ±15 or ±30 s/month, they just leave a bigger gap than the divergence that ever happens in real life. None of the Casio watches I ever had were observed to lose or gain over 7 seconds per month, and usually that’s more like 7 seconds per quarter at most. Especially when they are 24/7 on my wrist where the temperature conditions are much more stable.

Second, I wouldn’t worry about solar charging if the watch runs on a 3V lithium beast like CR2025 or even CR2032. Yes, I wouldn’t know how long it would run just after I have bought it, but I can always put a fresh battery myself and then know it would run at least for another 10 years, regardless of whether I’m wearing it now or storing in the drawer. Solar models, on the other hand, are usually not drawer-friendly, not even very bunker-friendly. They do require some care, preferably in the form of natural sunlight. And, while probably lasting longer than 10 or even 20 years, their CTL920 or CTL1616 rechargeables also are prone to degradation and subject to replacement. And when it comes to replacement, they are usually harder to find than your average CR2025.

Third, while such features as full auto calendar, a countdown timer and a stopwatch are undoubtedly mandatory in such a scenario, I’d also like the watch to have more than one alarm. The first one (usually with the “snooze” feature) can be used, well, as an alarm, and the extra ones can be just used as rudimentary reminders that you can turn on and off individually. Of course, nothing can match the G-2900’s alarms that can be set to any date with a text description added to them, but just having more than one (or better, more than two) is sufficient for me. The hourly chime function also can come in handy sometimes, although I can’t imagine myself using it throughout the entire day and night, so there should be a quick and easy way to turn it on and off.

Fourth, and that’s my most important expectation, the watch must be able to store some textual and/or numeric information in its own memory. Yes, the very databank/telememo facilities seemingly not wanted by anyone these days. I don’t even care whether it’s password-protected or not, how the data is organized (dynamically or in the fixed records fashion) or how (un)comfortable it is to enter or view the data on a tiny dot matrix part of the watch display. I just want to be able to store short pieces of valuable information (phone numbers, emails, IP addresses, domain names, card numbers, access codes, setting parameters etc) right on my wrist, to have them handy and accessible even in the moments when my notebook isn’t easily reachable. Not to mention one can store much more than that, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

Those are my expectations. And in the league of compact ana-digi watches, Casio AW-80 looks like the only model that meets them all. It runs on a single CR2025, has full auto calendar until 2099, a stopwatch, a countdown timer, three alarms (one of them with snooze function), hourly chime, 29-city world time display and a telememo-style 30-record databank with an auto-sort by name. What else could I want for its price?

So, I had finally got it and tested out everything I could. The first thing that came to my mind when I put this watch on my wrist was “I wish I could swap the strap with one of my MQ-24s”, but then I realized it would look rather silly. Again, no PU strap I had ever tried (even the G-2900’s one) is close to the ones on MQ-24/MQ-71 in terms of comfort. I don’t know why Casio doesn’t manufacture them from the same consistency material for their more expensive models. The second thing is the weight, just 34 grams. On the stock PU strap. On a textile NATO strap I converted it to the day I bought it, it weighs 31 grams. For its capabilities, this watch is feather-light. The third thing is the comfort of pressing the buttons. They are traditional Illuminator-styled plastic buttons that almost don’t stick from the casing and operate very smoothly. I don’t understand why the Search button is assigned to switch between 12/24-hour format in the main digital timekeeping mode, but luckily it doesn’t work when this mode is set to display the date (this switch is done with the Adjust button). As someone who despises 12-hour format when it comes to digital timekeeping, I wish this setting was hidden somewhere deeper and I could set it to always have 24h and forget about this. Nevertheless, all the functions are arranged in quite a logical way, and you can access them easily despite all limitations. This menu kinda reminds me about early Ericsson phones, I mean the ones with single-line LCDs. No wonder since ideologically this watch is almost from the same era. Although, when first introducing it back in 2003, Casio obviously was catering to the public who didn’t yet have any cellphones of their own and couldn’t afford a G-2900 or any Databank-series watch, yet needed a small and portable way to store their phonebook to use with home, office or public telephones.

Now, onto the fun part. How much information can we actually store in this Telememo 30 phonebook? First, let’s look at the structure of a single record. It consists of 8 positions for the name (can be dialed using 50 possible characters) and 16 positions for the number (supports digits 0 to 9 and five additional characters: whitespace, (, ), + and -). So, if we look at an individual Telememo record, its name part can contain |log2(50 ** 8)| = 45 bits, and the number part can contain |log2(15 ** 16)| = 62 bits, that’s 107 bits in the entire record. However, if we are to concatenate the records, we also must consider the auto-sort feature that can’t be turned off here, so we must reserve the first letter of the name as a mandatory part index. This leaves us with |log2(50 ** 7)| = 39 bits per name and 101 bits per record. Now, lets multiply this by 30 and we get a whopping 3030-bit or 378-byte capacity. This is the amount of raw binary data we can theoretically store in the Telememo space alone using proper encoding and decoding procedures (I have even put together a dedicated JS library to do just this, it relies on BigInt calculations though so no KaiOS support for now). 378 bytes doesn’t sound like a lot, but this actually can fit most cryptographic keypairs along with plenty of other useful and sensitive information. Despite all the tedium it takes to enter or even read all 30 records, this can be done if really necessary, and that’s what matters most.

As a verdict, I can tell that AW-80 has the best practicality to weight to price ratio I have ever seen in Casios, and trust me, I have seen a lot. The only real downsides for me are: a positive digital display which looks out of place with a black dial, a plastic case with silver paint that will peel off over time like with all other silver-painted plastic Illuminators, and a spherical (and I mean AQ-160-grade spherical!) acrylic glass that will collect scratches. All this contributes to a very cheapskate look despite all the feature-rich internals. Even the itsy-bitsy MQ-24-7B2, the zen of watchmaking that literally cannot do anything other than telling the time in 12-hour format and is twice as cheap on average, doesn’t look as cheap overall as this feature-packed monster.

But it is a cheap watch, after all. For this price, I don’t even mind the fact that the LEDs effectively almost don’t light the digital display, or that the analog hands can only move in one direction. But still… If only there was a bit more premium looking version of AW-80 that would at least have a stainless steel case, an inverted display (for the dark dial variants like mine) and a mineral and flat crystal for its glass…

…Enter AMW-870.

Casio AMW-870

Yes, it is triple the weight even on a rubber strap (and mine is an 870D on a stainless steel band that weighs 168 grams before shortening the band and 153 grams after) and almost triple the price of the resin-band AW-80 versions. But this just fulfilled my wish. In fact, almost all AMW-8x0 models, starting from AMW-830 and up to AMW-880, are various incarnations of the concept “how the AW-80 would look in full metal”. That’s it, nothing else. Same module, same functions, only exterior is on another level. A Breitling-grade level if you please. This watch really looks more expensive than it actually is. The digital display isn’t even that noticeable from a certain distance but always available to the owner. Personally though, I’d rather even get an AMW-830 or 840 but they are nowhere to find here, so I got an 870. If the weight bores me, and it surely looks like it will, I’m going to replace the band with a NATO strap or something else as well, but it’s fine for the time being. Sizing the band also was a piece of cake and only involved a small screwdriver and a pair of mini-pliers, and a SIM pin for the only possible micro-adjustment.

Here’s an interesting fact: while my AW-80 has 2747 module number on the caseback and AMW-870 has 5574, both of them show 2747 (revision 0) on the third screen in the display test mode (press all buttons except Light, and scroll between screens with the Search button). Another interesting fact is while the AW-80 mentions the Telememo 30 function both in the front and the back sides of the watch, there is no mention of it anywhere on the AMW-870. So, you cannot tell this function is supported just by looking at the watch. This is what I additionally and wholeheartedly like here: no one knows about one of the most important functions unless they specifically look for the information about the model. Also, the test screen shows us that the display (on both models, of course) features one segment never used by the watch (be it module 2747 or 5574): an indicator of flashing illumination during the alarm, like in DW-5600E. So, either this feature was planned originally but got canceled before the release due to its inefficiency with these two LEDs (and I really doubt there is any secret combination to turn it back on but I don’t know what I’ll do if there is one and I’m the first in the world to find it after 20 years), or the watch module shares the display (and probably the mainboard) with another module I’m currently not aware of, where this function actually is present. Also, I’m not completely sure what the segment with an exclamation mark on the right side of the display means, again, either it’s only used on a different module or it might signal about low battery charge remaining, and I bet on the latter but that’s easier to check eventually.

There are two things, however, that I consider minor setbacks of the AMW-870 compared to the basic AW-80 but it would be unfair to not mention them. First, AMW-870’s piezo signal is a little quieter. This is easily explained by having a full-metal case and a mineral glass instead of acrylic. Second, and this is what baffles me a bit more, AW-80 has lumed hour markers while AMW-870 doesn’t, only hands. Yes, the indices are reflective and very legible in any conditions except total darkness (this is where the LEDs help), but how hard would it be to add lume onto the markers in a more premium version if you did this in a cheaper one? Also, and this totally was expected, the inverted display is much less legible in limited lighting conditions and doesn’t get lit by these two LEDs at all. I don’t have any problem with that either, that’s just a kind of sacrifice you have to make if you choose to use the same module with the same lighting system with a different display type.

As far as I know, this model only appeared in 2020, and the entire AMW-8x0 lineup started in around 2017. So, this can’t be considered a retro-remake of any sort. Before I ordered it, it took me (even me) some time to realize that the hardware here is not just similar to the AW-80’s but exactly the same, not counting the display polarization, of course. I’m sure most people who bought this since 2020 didn’t even have any prior experience with the AW-80 or any other 2747-based watches, and even more people probably don’t use even a half of its functions and just bought it for the combination of look and price. And I totally can understand such people. But then, if you know the full story and appreciate what can be done with this model, having a dressy-looking timepiece where it just so happens you can store up to 30 text+number entries or 378 bytes of arbitrary binary data in a covert (or rather unnoticeable) manner is a rare situation in today’s world, as well as not having to change the batteries every 2 or 3 years or keep the watch exposed to light on a regular basis. This alone makes it worth an honorable place in my collection, despite all its apparent flaws and strange “too cheap to be premium, too good to be low-budget” market positioning. Well, it still belongs to the Illuminator series (although some resources place it into the Enticer series, heh) but this definitely is one of the top-tier Illuminators we rarely get here these days.

So, what can I say as a conclusion? Even the most practical watches still can be fun. Just need to know where to look.