Why You Should Avoid Digital Watches With Negative Displays

Digital watches featuring light text on dark screens are popular. But buyer beware.

gshock watch with negative lcd screen

A digital watch can be a great choice for a number of reasons. They're often more accurate and functionally superior to traditional, analog watches — and today, they're even appreciated by watch collectors and can offer some captivatingly funky and retro-futuristic designs. Throw in a dark screen with light text and they look even more sleek and serious.

But let me stop you right there. That light-on-dark screen, known as a "negative display" is highly popular for its stylishness but it's also a feature you should avoid in digital watches. Here's why.

Legibility, Legibility, Legibility

It's hard to overstate the importance of legibility in watches and how it affects the sense of quality and longterm enjoyment you'll get from these often expensive purchases. It's a basic tenet that's as important in digital watches as it is for those with traditional dials — and negative displays are objectively harder to read than positive (dark-on-light) ones.

This isn't always clear when you see official product images where lighting is ideal and contrast is sufficient, or perhaps even when you see watches under the bright lights of a retail environment — they might appear perfectly legible. When you wear them through your daily life, however, the story changes. You'll find yourself holding your arm up and twisting your wrist to get the angle and light just right to simply read the time.

Some negative displays are better than others

It's true that not all digital displays are created equal. Some might offer larger text and perhaps brighter contrast as well as optional backlights, improving legibility. Look for this type of feature if you absolutely must have a negative display. Nixon, for example, is well known for making watches for surfers, and in the outdoors with the likes of direct sunlight, these can very well be reasonably useable, even when they're negative.

It's not that negative displays are impossible to read, but positive displays will always be more legible — and legibility is a prime, basic factor you should consider in any watch.

gshock watch with negative lcd screen
gshock watch with negative lcd screen

So, why do watchmakers offer negative displays?

It's simply because they think they'll sell — and, they're right. Many people simply consider watches fashion accessories, and brands will cater to them even if it means offering a product that's inferior at the thing it's actually designed to do.

Sacrificing functionality for fashion is fine for folks who are primarily looking to accessorize their outfit, as we all have phones to check the time. But people who are looking for a flash but functional timepiece can get caught in the crossfire without knowing exactly what they're signing up for. And, I'd argue, strapping an item to your body that doesn't even do its simple job well doesn't look very "cool."

I wouldn't disparage anyone who owns a digital watch with a negative display and enjoys it, but I'll always urge consumers to choose the more legible option. And I'd urge watchmakers to consider the relationship consumers can develop with a well-made and well-designed watch, and to look beyond a "cool style" that blurs the line between something designed to be functional, and a bracelet that happens to show the time.

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