Seiko EPD: The Best Digital Watch Ever.
I need to start this review with a bit of a confessional: My name is Rick. I am a watch geek. I have recently had feelings toward a digital watch. There, I’ve said it.
One of the main reasons I love watches is because I respect truly high end watch making. I could bore even the most die-hard watch fan senseless about my Zenith Striking Tenth and Seiko Spring Drives. I’ve never had the time of day (pun intended) for digital watches. They are, by and large, mass produced by machines, as opposed to the hand crafted personal involvement required to produce an accurate and reliable mechanical movement. I appreciate that the components of even the most ludicrously expensive mechanical timepieces will have been produced by machines (unless your name is Roger W Smith and you live on the Isle of Man), but there is still a charm and character of any mechanical ebauche that is lacking from an electronic movement. Understandably, I would never have entertained any thoughts about coveting such a watch. Until now that is. The Seiko Active Matrix e-ink Electrophoretic Display watch (Seiko EPD for short) has well and truly caused me to revoke my prejudices. I hate having my deep felt beliefs questioned. Damn you, you technical boffins at Seiko.
Please allow me to excuse myself for this seemingly blatant hypocrisy:
First of all, we have the pioneering technology that is the Active Matrix e-ink Electrophoretic Display that has been miniaturised to fit in this 46mm x 46mm timepiece. This presentation method has, of course, been utilised in the glut of e-readers that have swamped the market of late.
Image courtesy of Amazon.co.uk
This is another gadget (because watches are fundamentally gadgets on your wrist) that I will not be enthusing over any time soon. Give me a book with a folded down corner, to highlight the page I’m on, and an abused spine (the book’s, not mine) and I’m much happier. And don’t get me started on streaming music! Crikey, it seems I really am an old fashioned curmudgeon. Well, all that changed recently because I love the technology utilised that creates the unique (for a watch) display of the Seiko EPD.
The Seiko EPD was released in December 2010 and was, reportedly, an instant hit in the Japan. The Japanese love their technology, and what wonderfully innovative technology this is.
Image courtesy of seikowatches.com
The main components of the active matrix for the Electrophoretic Display are the millions of microscopic capsules, each of which are about the diameter of a human hair. Each of these microcapsules contains negatively charged white particles and positively charged black particles. These are held within a translucent fluid. When a negative electric field is applied to the microcapsule the white particles move to top of the display, effectively making that “dot” white. A positive electric field applied to the microcapsule obviously has the opposite effect and turns it black.
This sounds simple in principal but the cleverness and sophistication lies within the control of the 300 dpi (dots per square inch). The drawback to this aesthetically pleasing display technology is the slow refresh rate. It does take a bit of getting used to. Basically, you learn to wait about a couple of seconds after pressing one of the buttons before pressing the next. It’s only a mild inconvenience and never gets as annoying as a slow touch screen where you activate something accidentally because where you pressed the screen wasn’t actually the icon you wanted because it hadn’t updated yet. With the EPD nothing happens if you press the buttons too quickly so you never activate the wrong option. Interestingly, I timed myself navigating from the time display to the Alarm display, setting an alarm and then returning to the main time display. It took 1 minute and 12 seconds. Make of that what you will. Apparently, the EPD has the ability to perform at the speeds required but it would be ruinous to power consumption.
The slow refresh rate is the reason there is no stopwatch or countdown functions on this digital watch. These are usually givens on a digital watch, of course. However, let us not forget that this is only a digital watch due to the time display Seiko have chosen. They could have easily chosen an analogue time display with the display resolution on offer. A seconds hand would have been impossible at this juncture, of course, due to the aforementioned refresh rate.
This avante garde gadgetry would be meaningless if the watch display itself was an aesthetic mess. Joy of joys, then, because it looks gorgeous. Each numeral is now highly detailed as only a 300dpi display can achieve and this even includes the fully scripted date with letter and numbers only 1mm²in size. (This is nearly twice as detailed as a smartphone display which is currently about 160ppi!)
The black and white monochromatic display may seem a little archaic in today’s world of 65536 colours that current high end smartphones can display, but this is not the point. E-readers are meant to replicate the experience of reading a book. They really do look very similar in this regard. The Seiko EPD benefits from this type of display due to its warm and natural appearance that never becomes fatiguing. I love its subtlety. Keeping the smartphone as an analogy the EPD screen is also visible at the most acute of angles, which is a further benefit over the standard digital watch displays.
The Seiko EPD gains its accuracy from the world’s atomic clocks via radio signals that are received automatically twice a day. The radio signal can also be received manually at any point by the user.
This, in effect, gives the Seiko EPD an accuracy of +/- 1 second in every 100,000 years! If you are not within the receiving areas for the radio signal the S770 movement is still accurate to within 15 seconds a month. The time transmitted is UTC (Universal Time, Coordinated) so the Seiko EPD has a function that allows the user to select when it is Daylight Savings Time. The four current transmitters are DCF77 located in Mainflingen in Germany, MSF in Anthorm in England, WWVB in Denver in USA, JJY40 in Fukushima in Japan and JJY60 in Northern Kyusyu in Japan. These have a range of about 1000km so you may be able to receive signals in some parts of neighbouring countries. I’ve no idea if there are plans to increase this coverage in the future, but it does seem a little remiss to me.
The Seiko EPD gains all of its power from natural light (not necessarily direct sun light). Therefore, there is never any need to change a battery. When the watch has not been exposed to sunlight for one hour it goes into Power Save mode. Simply press any button or expose it to sunlight again and it will wake up. If it does not see sunlight for 24 hours it will go into sleep mode. In each of these modes the time and date are maintained but automatic radio reception is dormant. The power reserve is 9 months in normal mode and 41 months in sleep mode. The EPD cannot be overcharged so don’t worry about it receiving too much sun, not that I have to anyway living here in the UK. Incidentally, “Power Save” and “Sleep Mode” are displayed on the screen of the Seiko EPD during the aforementioned modes. Due to the way the EPD works this does not use any power to do this. It is the changing of the display only that uses power.
The Seiko EPD is operated using five buttons. These are indicated below:
Due to the nature of the display the Seiko EPD has 5 different highly detailed time display modes. The first is a high resolution font highlighting the time, day and date in black with a white background. Display number 3 is the negative of this. Display number 2 is a cool retro time only style with white numbers on a black and grey background. There again Display 4 is the negative of this. Display 5 is very unique and playful in that it presents the hour using playing cards. The minute is shown in the corner of the screen normally. I guess this more of a technology demonstration than for any practical way to tell the time but I still really like it.
Additionally, the time can be displayed as hours, minutes and seconds for one minute by pressing the Back Button during any of the above time displays.
Upon pressing the function button the above displays can be chosen one at a time in sequence by then pressing the left option button. Pressing the right option button takes you to the Info screen. In addition to the time and date this highlights whether DST has been selected, how many alarms are active, which time zone has been selected and the last date the time reference signal was automatically received.
Pressing the Function button twice takes you to the Menu screen with the options to enter the World Time, Alarm, Radio Wave and Settings screens.
The World Time screen highlights the city of the second time zone selected on a detailed globe. The 32 separate time zones (even those only 15 minutes apart) can all be selected using the options buttons to either go backwards or forwards. I love this display and it is one of the main reminders of what is capable with this active matrix technology on this scale. I often set the second time zone to London (I live in the UK) and used this as my normal time display.
Three Alarms can be employed. These can be individually set to go off once or daily. The Alarm is suitably loud.
The Radio Wave screen is where the Atomic Time Signal can be manually received, which is useful if the watch has been in dark storage for awhile. The time signal takes only a couple of minutes to receive in my experience. There is also a “Record” option. This shows when the automatic signal was last received.
In Settings the options include Home City & DST, where you can set your home time zone and turn the Daylight Savings on or off, Adjust Time, for those users outside the Atomic Time signal reception areas, Home <-> Local, which allows you to switch between your home time zone and that of the second time zone you have chosen in World Time and Alarm Test, which speaks for itself.
Additional details worth mentioning are the more-than-adequate 100m water resistance, the twin LEDs for night time viewing (which should come with a health warning due to their intensity), the scratch proof sapphire glass, the surgical grade stainless steel employed by Seiko and the low weight to size ratio, which makes the Seiko EPD very comfortable to wear.
I love the schizophrenic nature of this watch:
On the one hand (wrist?) the Seiko EPD is totally autonomous. The power, the date and the timekeeping are never a concern for the owner. This is something I’ve not been used to with my love of mechanical timepieces and my previous aversion to digital watches. I was frequently having to reset them after the power reserve had run down, change the date at the end of the month and even having to periodically adjust the time, even if they didn’t run the mainspring down due to the non-munificent accuracy(?) of +4/-3 seconds a day regulation on even the best mechanical watches. This latter point is of course mute with my exceptional Spring Drive pair (+2 seconds/month for one and -3 seconds/months for the other!).
On the other hand the Seiko EPD is very tactile and engaging when you choose it to be. The display can be changed to suit the mood, a plethora of information can be displayed, the atomic clock time can be received at will from the radio stations that transmit such information, etc, etc.
The Seiko EPD is, however, far from perfect:
The watch is made in China. I don’t have anything against the Chinese. In fact I think they are a wonderful race of human beings. However, one of the charms of Seiko is that they are a Manufacture and I would have liked to have seen this watch produced in Japan. I must stress, however, that the Calibre S770 movement utilised within is made entirely by Seiko...as is the case....as is the bracelet....as is the glass....etc, etc.
The screen update is very slow if you are used to the functionality of a smartphone, tablet or even a standard digital watch. It’s never torturous but it doesn’t reflect the high end technological nature of the rest of the watch. Also, I would have liked to have seen more options for the displays. I do really like the standard time display with its crisp clear high resolution numerals and letters, the retro display and the unique deck of cards display. Having the opportunity to flip to a negative version of the former two really does make a difference as well. However, I think the opportunity to really go to town on these high res displays was missed. The playing card screen, radio signal update screen and second timezone screen are all testament to this. Perhaps this will be addressed in a future version once the market for this anomalous creation has been determined.
The lack of stopwatch and countdown timer (due to the screen refresh rate issues commented on earlier) may cause some to gripe or wonder what is the point. They may even infer that this £1250 (July 2012) watch is ridiculous. I think they may be right but this is one of the reasons I love the Seiko EPD. There’s a certain indulgence about having something so extraneous and superfluous. We could debate until we’re blue in the face about whether this groundbreaking timepiece is worth the asking price. On the face of it a £1250 digital watch does seem incongruous from a normally sensible Japanese company. However, you have to metaphorically approach this watch from so many new angles simply because it is exceptionally unique and such a brave statement from the company that wreaked havoc on the Swiss industry in the 1970s when they brought out the first quartz watches. The Seiko EPD can be thought of as a celebration of technology. It can also be heralded as a very clever autonomous timepiece. It took incredible imagination to conjure up the Seiko EPD. The very least we can do is reciprocate. I’m not sure this watch could have been even considered for development by any other Manufacture other than Seiko. Their loyal fraternity of fans are a fairly receptive collective. Those in the know realise that Seiko are as about as high end as you can get outside of Geneva. I urge you to check out the Grande Seiko lines and, even more impressive, the Credor collection of haute hologorie (can we apply this French language moniker to a Japanese company? I certainly think so). Seiko are the possibly the only brand with the heritage, technical know-how, courage and incredible record of being the instigators of, and investors in, new technology that has become the benchmark. There is nothing circumspect about Seiko and they are one of my favourite brands because of this.
The satellite signal can only currently be received in four places. This should not be a deal breaker for anyone interested in the unique character of the Seiko EPD but it is one of the main strings to its bow that is currently not available to the vast majority of the world.
As a closing statement I just want to say that I would not go as far as to say that the Seiko EPD has led me to have an epiphany but I do love it and that is something I thought I would never say about a digital watch. However, I feel justified in my sudden change of heart by re-affirming my claim that this is, by far, the best digital watch in the world available today.
All words and images by Rick Atkins, unless otherwise stated. This article may not be reproduced in part or whole without the permission of the author.