Didn't you know? Digital watches are cool now. First, in the 1970s, they were futuristic and expensive, then they became emblematic of inexpensive watches, then they were worn ironically...and finally they've reached a nostalgic status that's seen vintage models thoughtfully reissued and gobbled up even by snooty collectors. Digital watches certainly can be cool.
The Short List
Benefits of Going Digital
Most of all, digital watches are highly practical: First, a digital display is instantaneous and objectively easier to read than analog hands. Second, fewer moving parts means fewer opportunities for wear and damage from shocks, making them naturally robust. Last is that many digital watches can, of course, be very inexpensive — but, we hasten to remind you, simply having a digital display or quartz movement doesn't mean a watch isn't made with care, quality materials or even craftsmanship.
What "Digital" Actually Means
The word "digital" can have two meanings: one which refers to the manner of displaying information and the other which refers to a type of technology. Since both can apply to watches, a little clarification is in order: When referring to display, digital means that the information is displayed as changing numbers which are read directly. The opposite is analog, in which hands point to numbers along a scale. (Watches that combine analog and digital displays are called ana-digi.) That's simple enough.
On the other hand, "digital" also refers to technology that uses zeros and ones to represent information that's conveyed via integrated circuits. For example, the Apple Watch uses fully digital technology but offers “faces” which display the time in a traditional analog format.
Most modern watches with digital displays also use quartz movements, so that's what we're focusing on here (see this piece for smartwatches). Just be aware that there are many examples of analog watches with electronic technology (quartz, batteries, integrated circuits) inside. Those with digital displays that are powered by traditional, spring-powered mechanics are relatively rare and often high-end today (see the Yema Digidisc for an affordable example), but were popular in the 1960s and well worth exploring as vintage collectibles.
What to Look for in a Digital Watch
Like any watch, you want something durable, comfortable, easy to use and visually interesting. There are, however, a few points to consider that apply specifically to digital watches.
Most digital watches use LCD displays, and those with dark text on light backgrounds are the most legible — and legibility is important for longterm watch enjoyment. Negative displays (light on dark) "look cool," but take our word for it that they undermine the very purpose of a watch by being difficult to read. You've been warned.
Lastly, some digital watches offer supplemental technology which allows the batteries to be recharged by exposure to light (solar charging), and this feature adds significant value and is worth seeking out.
The Best Digital Watches You Can Buy in 2021
Since debuting 1983, G-Shock has been the gold standard in indestructible, function-first plastic watches. Though it's since been joined by multitudes of fashion-focused models, one particular G-Shock series still embodies these values and the original design: the 5600. It's tough, affordable, light, comfortable, fun, unpretentious and kind of a perfect overall watch. When equipped with a positive display and Tough Solar, and the G-Shock 5600 (whether it begins with G-, GW-, GWX- DWE-, etc.) can't be recommended highly enough. (For an alternative G-Shock classic, look for the same features in a 6900 series model.)
If the plastic G-Shock 5600 is the ultimate practical watch, the more recent versions that have been rendered in steel have a more serious presence. They've also got Tough Solar and all the premium traits you want, including scratch-resistant sapphire crystal (as found on luxury watches), radio synching for better accuracy and bluetooth connection. A steel bracelet even mimics the look of the original resin band. With the iconic look but a more luxurious feel, this is a digital watch with appeal to dedicated watch enthusiasts, though it remains reasonably affordable. For real fans wanting a further step up, try the higher-end models in titanium.
If you just want a great throwback digital watch experience for everyday wear, the Casio World Time is worth checking out. For a paltry sum, it offers one hell of a lot of watch. While the ultra basic but iconic F-91W is even cheaper, the World Time is better sized for modern tastes and has some extra features. It's reasonably durable for its price, too — but if you break it you won't be too sad and can easily replace it
Yes, it's another Casio, but the Japanese brand clearly owns the digital watch space — and this a calculator watch! No, it's the calculator watch. Once it was nerdy but now it's cool, as long as you've got the personality to pull it off — plus, you can do calculations on it quicker than reaching for your phone. There are also multiple models offering different designs, colors, materials and price points.
Timex's T80 collection is meant as a homage to the brand's first digital watches. It's stylistically and functionally similar to some Casio designs but it wears boldly and also features the brand's own Indiglo illumination. The collection includes a range of finishes, colors, bracelet options and even a Timex x Pac-Man edition for that extra shot of '80s flair.
Whereas many of Casio's digital watches have been continuously in production since the '80s without any apparent sense of irony, Timex reached back into its archives to reissue a model with a little tongue-in-cheek nostalgic appeal. We like the resurrected Q Timex line for being proudly quartz, and the Digital LCA offers a throwback look with some nice details.
With an interesting history and modern watches that draw upon it in all the right ways, Yema is one of our favorite makers of tool watches and even their own in-house-designed mechanical movements. They also, however, make a reissue of their first LED watch from the 1970s as a "tribute to the historic quartz crisis" — it's appropriately funky and shows another side of the French brand's history and personality.
Although the Nixon Regulus has a negative display, it remains reasonably legible thanks to a large screen and bold font. It comes in several different case finishes and feels a bit retro and a bit modern at the same time — and not too similar to Casio's oft-imitated design. It also has 100m of water resistance and is genuinely made to take a beating.
As offbeat as the Bulova Computron looks from a modern perspective, there was a time when many brands were making watches of this style, and Bulova among them. It might be considered a type of "driver's watch" because the digital display is situated on the side in order to face the wearer when his or her hands are on a steering wheel. With a steel case available in different finishes, this is one funky watch for today's wrists, but one with some history too.
The Seiko x Giugiaro Design watches have been some of the most offbeat, interesting watches the Japanese brand has made — and that's saying something. The Speed Master (no relation to Omega) is one of the most overlooked and forgotten models, but it's known to have been worn by the legendary driver Ayrton Senna (better known for his relationship with TAG Heuer) — hence the tilted dial for driving (similar in purpose to the Computron above). Seiko did a faithful reissue a couple years ago as a limited edition which can still be found online with a little digging.
Upon its debut in 1970, the Hamilton Pulsar Time Computer was the first digital LED watch, and it was positively space-age. It's now returned to the brand's catalog as a retro reissue, and renamed the "PSR." What's coolest about it is that it's so nicely executed, with a brushed finish and solid construction — and it's well sized, too, at 40.8mm wide. While screens of early LED watches like the Pulsar remained dark (kinda like the first generations of the Apple Watch) until illuminated by the push of a button, the new PSR remains constantly on and can be further lit up in the same manner as the original Pulsars.