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Tick Tock Tech

Ready for a new twist on the wrist? These smart watches offer much more than just another pretty face.

I'm as enthusiastic about fine watches as any man. Show me a luxury timepiece, its mechanical movement lovingly carved from beechwood-aged adamantium by 200-year-old Swiss craftsmen, and I am suitably agog. Yet a quiet, insistent voice echoes in the dim recesses of my mind, asking, "What can it do that an ordinary watch can't?" (That voice sounds a lot like my wife's, strangely enough.) The answer, of course, which I would never speak aloud in her presence, is that a watch that costs as much as a car will incite envy in lesser testosterone-based mortals, helping me stand that much taller, and feel a lot less bald.

In reality, though, it's the watches with some distinctive technological allure that are likely to ding my credit card, and it really doesn't take much of a financial hit to acquire something indisputably cool. The price not only plummets, but the possible features (or complications, as they are called in the quality chronometry field) expand. While a separate stopwatch and a phases-of-the-moon dial are expensive additions in the analog world, digital timepieces can carry on board such conveniences as thermometers, altimeters, clinometers and navigational equipment for very little money. And they are usually more accurate.

Something in the Air
If you are a stickler for precise timekeeping, for instance, for as little as 70 bucks you can keep an electronic ear open for the atomic-clock signal broadcast from Fort Collins, Colorado. Under its own brand name, Casio (www.casio.com) offers over a dozen diverse styles with an automatic time synchronization feature, as well as nearly two dozen in its more upscale Oceanus line (www.oceanus-us.com). The Oceanus model, which runs $475, is solar-powered (room lighting is perfectly adequate to keep it charged), dual-time-enabled and handles up to five daily alarm settings.

Microsoft, no stranger to ambitious projects, took the concept further when it cobbled together a nationwide wireless network to pump information via its Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT) to timepieces made by select watchmakers. While they met with a less-than-stellar reception when launched at the end of 2003, SPOT watches have improved substantially, with slighter weight and depth, improved radio reception and increased battery life.

So what kinds of info do they beam to your wrist? For starters: time synchronization, as well as news blurbs, sports scores, stock prices and weather conditions. Another plus is a variety of watch face designs you can toggle between. But one of the more intriguing services is Outlook calendar synchronization: after you install a piece of software on your PC, the system sends reminders of your upcoming Outlook appointments to your wristwatch. You also get the option to receive brief text messages via the MSN Messenger service on your watch but, given the occasional gaps in coverage on the low-power network, I wouldn't rely on this for mission-critical communication.

Is any of this life-changing technology? Of course not, but it is a fun diversion. The watches (from Suunto, Fossil and Tissot) are appealingly masculine-looking, and prices for several models have dropped like a stone. Select SPOT watches from Fossil (www.fossil.com) are available online for just $59, with a free 12-month subscription to the basic wireless service. The Abacus Smart Watch 2006 model (www.abacuswatches.com, $179) comes with a battery charger that connects magnetically instead of clipping on, a very slick solution. As for wireless subscription plans, the basic service costs $39.95 a year, while the premium plan (which adds the Outlook calendar synchronization and MSN Messenger reception) goes for $59.95.

Watch Your Workout
While my idea of a good workout is a series of elbow bends at the local pub, even I'm impressed with the fitness features in today's watches.

Garmin's Forerunner 305 (www.garmin.com, $377) is a formidable training companion for runners, scrupulously monitoring and recording their every move so the information can be uploaded to a computer for detailed analysis, complete with charts. (I gather serious foot-pounding devotees love charts.) Despite its small size and light weight (just 2.7 ounces), the Forerunner carries a sophisticated and highly sensitive GPS receiver, which lets the unit track location and figure the distance run. The GPS capability also points toward waypoints in courses and even finds a return route to the starting point for lost runners. The 305 comes complete with a wireless heart rate monitor that straps across the chest. Unlike some monitors I've tried, this one is flexible, comfortable, and synchs up easily with the wrist unit to monitor target heart rate training and assess stress afterward. Garmin offers two accessories for indoor exercise: the Foot Pod ($100), which attaches to a running shoe, and the GSC-10 sensor ($60), for a bicycle. Each transmits performance data wirelessly to the watch when GPS readings aren't practical. Recorded data also link with the provided Training Center software (PC or Mac) along with two Web-based training systems, one of which can even display routes, using Google Maps.

Just for Swingers
In the movie Tin Cup, Kevin Costner's character insists that "sex and golf are the two things you can enjoy even if you're not good at them," but I still figure improving your performance in either arena is worth the effort. And while some women might find it arousing to fondle your Rolex, a watch that actually monitors your golf swing is probably a better bet for functionally improving your game.

The Suunto G6 looks and feels as if it's merely a comfortable watch, but housed inside it are three very sensitive accelerometers that track four key elements of your golf swing: tempo, rhythm, backswing length and speed. You wear the watch during practice, taking note of which combination of those stats gives you the best performance, and then strive to replicate that combo consistently. There's even a consistency-index readout to help track your progress. If you spring for the Suunto G6 Pro model ($499 versus $399 for the watch alone), you get a cable and Golf Manager software that lets you connect the watch to your PC and download your performance info for analysis. You can also upload information about the courses you play into the watch for easy reference as you stroll the fairway. In fact, you can dispense with a scorecard altogether, keep track of your foursome's progress right on the watch while you play, and download those results to your computer too.

Chronological Obfuscation
Ordinarily you want a timepiece you can read with nothing more than a quick flick of the wrist. But sometimes in the game of technological one-upmanship, wearing a watch that reveals its secrets only to its owner can be a winning move.

My favorite source for stylish, intentionally cryptic timepieces is Tokyo, but you needn't hop a flight to get your hands on the latest creations from the Akihabara district. The Web site www.tokyoflash.com offers an array of strange and wonderful watches, ordinarily unavailable outside Japan. A few of them are easy to read, even while they make unique design statements. The Retrofit model ($129.57), for example, provides a straightforward digital readout of time and date on an extremely bright LED display, and doubles as a guaranteed conversation starter with its unique, angled display in an artfully modern gunmetal gray case with integrated bracelet.

The specialty of the house at Tokyoflash, though, is a look so futuristic that it renders watches indecipherable to someone who hasn't skimmed the manual (which owing to its impeccable English is much easier to read than the watches). One striking example is the Retsu, made by Saishin ($103.48). This lightweight, compact model presents an industrial-style grooved face with just a single line of numbered LED lights along the right edge. When you press the watch's single button, the LEDs light up in an upward stream several times—first to indicate the hour, then to show 10-minute increments, then again to show the minute digit. At 7:15, for example, the band of lights would first light up to the 7 position, then to the 1 and finally to the 5, in rapid succession. It takes a little getting used to, but after a day of pressing and digesting you'll have it down.

A slightly easier-to-read (though still compellingly bizarre) model is the larger 100100101 (yes, that's the name of the watch), at $112.17. The top row of LEDs is straightforward enough: labeled MTWTFSS, they indicate the day of the week. Then, when you move down to the multiple rows of colored LEDs across the watch's broad face, things get a little trickier. When you press the button, a number of red, green and yellow LEDs light up from the top to the bottom of the display. How do you know what time it is? The red LEDs indicate the hour, green indicates 10-minute increments and yellow reveals the final digit (during the two-digit hours the very first LED light is yellow, so you know if it's 10, 11 or 12 o'clock). At first you'll find yourself counting LEDs every time you read the time, but after a few hours you start recognizing patterns at a glance and hoping that your friends have noticed your apparently psychic ability to tell time from a seemingly random light show.

The watch selection at Tokyoflash changes frequently, with many models available only in limited runs. While they ship direct from Japan, I've found the service fast and completely reliable.

My final tribute to the joys of chronological obfuscation relies on the language your computer speaks when it's not trying to communicate with slow-witted humans: binary code. At the most basic level, computers are really just a series of on and off switches—when the switch is on, that represents a value of 1, and when the switch is off, that's a 0. Put a couple million of those switches together, with a lot of ingenious software on top of it, and you get a machine capable of processing numbers, words, pictures and so on with extraordinary speed and accuracy. But, at heart, it's all on and off switches. Binary code is the way you string together 1s and 0s to represent bigger numbers. Reading from right to left, our decimal (10-based) number system has the ones column, the 10s column, the 100s column and so on. The binary (two-based) system works similarly, except since 1 is the highest digital value, you jump columns a lot faster. Reading from left to right, the columns are valued 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and so on, which makes for some long numbers. The digits "10" in binary have a value of 2, "101" equals 5 (4+1) and "1011" equals 11 (8+2+1).

Who cares? Funky-watch fans, of course, They can now buy a timepiece that smugly displays the current time as a binary readout. When the time is 10:23, for example, a binary LED watch displays 1010 for the hour and 10111 for the minutes. I've seen binary watches from several different sources, but my favorite is the Square LED Binary Watch ($139.99) sold by Think Geek (www.thinkgeek.com). Unlike many binary watches, the LED rows on this model are labeled with small but clear numerals—reading the patterns becomes second nature with use, but having the printed values right there makes the learning process much easier. Beyond that practical advantage, this is one handsome watch, a solidly crafted black and silver rectangle that's substantial without being bulky. (It fits comfortably under a long sleeved shirt cuff, a test many tech-centric watches fail.)

Entertainment to Go
Apple doesn't make wristwatches (at least not yet), but several other companies have embraced the idea of building digital music player/timepiece combos. Most of these are more interesting in theory than in practice. Plugging a set of headphones or pair of ear buds into an MP3 watch while seated on a train or plane is reasonably comfortable. Listening to your wrist-based music library while walking, though, requires a zombie-like stiff-armed gait (though if you stick your music-bearing hand in your pocket and have a long enough headphone wire, you can get away with it). One MP3 watch is more workable, thanks to a unique feature—a built-in FM transmitter. As well as working with headphones, the Thanko FMP3 can send a signal to your car radio, which plays it through the stereo system while you drive. Just tune the car stereo to a preset frequency and your personal musical selection comes through loud and clear. (It also works fine with table radios or home stereos, of course.) Another interesting feature is the ability to record audio right onto the watch via its built-in microphone. Use it to capture your brilliant insights in voice memos while on the go, or record entire meetings surreptitiously. (There's enough memory for hours of recording time.) And whether you want to load your favorite music onto the watch or transfer your own recordings to a PC, all that's required is a simple USB connection—the watch shows up on your computer (Windows or Mac) as a removable drive, and you drag and drop files back and forth.

Dynamism sells two versions of the Thanko watch: a 512-megabyte model that goes for $149 and holds over eight hours of high-quality MP3s and a 1-gigabyte model for $199. The company scours Asia and the rest of the world for unusual electronic products unavailable in the United States—ranging from laptops and mobile phones to robotic toys—then updates the goods with English-language software and manuals, as needed, and sells them direct over the Web. Any gadget lover will enjoy perusing the company's Web site (www.dynamism.com).

Another distinctly entertaining watch available from Think Geek also plays back MP3s via earphones and offers built-in voice recording, but the simply named Video Watch with OLED Screen goes a big step further: it boasts a brilliant, full-color 1.5-inch screen that displays photos and even video clips. The screen uses OLED technology (much brighter than traditional LEDs), so photos and videos look impressively sharp and clear. Fair warning: you do need a certain amount of nerd Zen to make the most of the device. The "English" manual was written by someone with only a passing knowledge of the language, and both stills and videos must be converted into obscure file formats using supplied software before they can be transferred to the watch. For best results with photos, I found it helps to crop your picture from its original rectangular shape to a square, using whatever image-editing program you own, before sending it to the watch—otherwise, black bars fill in the area of the screen not taken up by the rectangular image, and the result is less impressive than a full-face image. Squaring off your video is beyond the ability of most consumers, but as long as the original footage was shot reasonably close up, you'll still get results that will astound your friends when your kid's birthday party video starts playing on your watch. Two models, with 1-gigabyte ($100) and 2-gigabyte ($130) capacities, are available at www.thinkgeek.com.

Geek Chic
Odds are you know about those convenient USB flash drives—roughly the size of a small pack of gum, they plug into a computer port and serve as a removable disk drive that lets you carry huge amounts of data from place to place in a durable, eminently pocketable gizmo. Considering the topic of this article, I expect you know where I'm going here: a watch with a built-in USB drive.

I experimented with a pair of USB watches from Edge Tech's DiskGO line, a "dress" style with a white face, metal case and bracelet, and a black-and-silver model with a plastic band. For pure practicality I preferred the less expensive black model—it has a built-in USB cable that stashes neatly in the grooved watchband and extends whenever you need it. The ritzier steel version requires you to carry a separate cable, though it is a standard mini-USB type, so you could potentially keep one cable at the office and one at home to streamline your off-premises transportation of sensitive business documents. The USB drive functions are identical on both models, including the option to use provided software to password-protect some or all of the stored information. The plastic-banded model, in memory capacities ranging from 256 megabytes to 1 gigabyte ($50—$90), and the steel dress watch, which ranges from 256 megabytes to 2 gigabytes ($60—$120), are available from www.edgetechcorp.com.

If even that isn't nerdy enough for you, I have a classic addition to any would-be wonk's wrist wardrobe: the ever-popular calculator watch. In this case, though, Casio has done some serious streamlining with a combination of features with real appeal. The EDB610 DataBank model is slim and comfortable, with a two-color display, nice, clear readout and a wealth of functions beyond your basic eight-digit calculator. You can stuff the watch's memory with up to 50 text entries (e-mail addresses, Internet passwords, Web site URLs, movies you want to rent, whatever) plus 300 name-and-phone-number listings. The watch functions are first-rate, too, particularly a world-time feature that lets you hop from city to city, across the country and around the world, with just a single button press. The EDB610 is available with a plastic band or metal bracelet ($70 and $80, respectively) at retail, or you can order direct at www.casio.com.

Leaning to Luxury
Up to now, I've kept my promise and stuck with watches that sell at meat-and-potatoes prices. For dessert, though, let's flirt with luxury in the form of the TAG Heuer Monaco Sixty Nine, a unique timepiece that combines a traditional manual-winding mechanical movement with analog display on one side, then flips to reveal an ultraprecise quartz-driven digital timer accurate to 1/1000th of a second. The watch features a cleverly designed pivoting hinge. When you pull straight up on the sides of the watch, the hinge rises just high enough to rotate the face 180 degrees, then folds flat and snaps in place when you press straight down. In a matter of seconds, you can transform your watch from an elegant dress model to a serious digital chronometer catering to the racing crowd (appropriate, given TAG's long association with Formula One racing), featuring lap-time memory and best lap calculation. Sure it costs $6,900, but when you consider that you're essentially getting two watches for the price of one...no, it's still expensive, though you'll certainly enjoy more than twice the "wow" factor you'd experience showing off two more conventional luxury watches.

Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor who writes regularly on technology issues.