Analog vs Digital Watches: What is the Difference

analog vs digital watches

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Analog vs Digital Watches

The most obvious difference in comparing analog vs digital watches is the interface of the dial.

Analog watches display the time with rotating hands which point to hour and minute markers on the dial showing the time of day. The hands move as time passes, powered by either quartz movements (using a battery) or mechanical movements.

Watches with digital displays show the time using digits (hence the name “digital”) in an LED or LCD screen display, and are always watches with quartz movements.

Analog watches can be either battery or mechanical watches.

Digital watches always use a battery (quartz) movement.

CASIO STANDARD DIGITAL WATCH WITH LED-LIGHT F-91W-1JF

The type of watch you choose will depend on your personal preferences, tastes, budget and needs. 

Below we list the differences and the pro’s and con’s of each watch type in more detail

The First Digital Watch

The first digital watch was produced in 1972 by the Hamilton Watch Company, and Electro-Data. It was called the Pulsar Time Computer and LED prototype and it retailed for over $1,200 (approximately $12,000 in today’s money!).

To give you an idea of how cutting-edge these digital timepieces were at the time, in 1973 James Bond (actor Roger Moore) wore a Hamilton Pulsar P2 2900 LED digital watch in the Bond film “Live and Let Die” .

Indeed, Hamilton have re-introduced this model for the modern market – you can see it as it made our 29 Best Digital Watches list.

Pulsar Time Computer early digital watch
“Vintage Pulsar Date-Command Digital Quartz Watch (Powered), Model 3100, Red LED Display, Stainless Steel Case & Bracelet, Made In USA, Circa 1975” by Joe Haupt on Flickr is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By the end of the 1970’s though, as more and more manufacturer’s brought out their own design of a digital watch, this price had dropped considerably and they could be easily purchased for under $10 a piece by the end of the decade. 

Casio, who you may recognise for making so many good digital watches today – including the G-Shock – introduced their first digital watch in 1974 and it was called the CasioTron.

Casiotron digital watch
CasioTron on Ebay

Analog vs Digital Watches: A Look at Types of Movement

Mechanical Watches

Traditional watches were not battery-powered watches at all but were mechanical analog timepieces.

They were made of high-quality materials using tiny cogs and wheels. A lot of work went into designing and creating these watches. 

In order to give the mainspring in the movement of the watch enough power for it to keep the hands rotating, showing the passage of time, mechanical watches needed to be wound up each day.

This was done by hand by turning the button on the side of the watch.

Automatic Watches

Mechanical watches later progressed to be powered kinetically (by movement) rather than needing manual winding. These automatic watches were powered by moving your wrist – the movement stored energy in the mainspring. This meant winding the watch up by hand became a thing of the past.

Most mechanical watches these days are automatic.

Many features were later added to mechanical watches including the perpetual calendar (invented by Rolex) and other watch complications.

The New Kid on the Block: A Quartz Battery Movement

But in 1957 a different type of watch movement was invented – one that was powered by a battery and needed no winding or moving to power it. This was called a quartz crystal movement.

Instead the power in the battery kept the movement going, 24/7.

The first commercial battery powered watch was the Hamilton 500. Hamilton were leading the way again!

These made watches much more cost-effective.

A battery-powered watch could be mass-produced and many new watch manufacturers sprung up making affordable analog watches.

The main downside is that a quartz watch battery life does eventually expire and so will need replacing over time as the battery eventually drains of energy.

This normally happens every few years in your average analog watch, although it does depend if the watch has a lot of features or not, which will mean it drains the battery quicker than one with less features (or complications). 

There is still a large market for traditional, mechanical watches and watch collectors love their Swiss watch brand watches. They admire and appreciate the wonderful workmanship that goes into these incredible pieces of engineering.

It is here that brand name matters and owning a Rolex, for example, is seen as a status symbol and something that many desire for a long time before they own one – if they ever do. 

An analog watch, therefore, can have a mechanical or a quartz movement. 

Digital watches, however, only have one type of movement – a battery, quartz movement which powers all the electrical components within the watch. Newer solar powered digital watches mean the batteries can last a very long time.

LCD and LED Displays

LCD stands for Liquid Crystal Display and is a screen on which liquid crystal is arranged to form numbers, letters and symbols. Hence a LCD display is made up of “a series of digits”, like pipes or how you may have laid down matchsticks flat to form a number.

If you press on a LCD display screen you can normally distort the liquid crystal display underneath the surface of the screen which shows that the display suspended in liquid crystal can be “interrupted”.

Timex Sport Ironman Midsize Digital Watch with LCD Dial Digital Display and Black Resin Strap T5K523SU
Armitron Sport Sport Watch 40/8475BRGP

LED means Light Emitting Diode and is a light source powered by a battery much like a neon light. The numbers, letters and symbols are lit up against a black dial – usually when you press a button on the side of the watch.  There aren’t many digital watches that use an LED display because display wouldn’t be able to stay on all the time as it would drain the battery very quickly. Many Smart Watches use LED back lights to illuminate the digits from behind and some digital watches use this display, too.

The disadvantages of LCD displays is that they can only be read in the light and won’t show up in the dark. To counter this many manufacturers have incorporated back lights into their digital LCD display watches.

The advantages of LCD is that it uses very little power and a battery in an LCD display watch will last many years.

The advantages of an LED digital watch is that it will glow when you press the button and you will be able to read the screen even in the dark.

However, a disadvantage is that they do need a lot of power to operate so often need regular recharging, much more so than an LCD digital watch. 

The Cost of Analog vs Digital Watches

Digital wristwatches can support a great many features without the need to push the cost of the watch up too much.

Conversley, the more features (called complications) that are added to even an average analog watch the more costly it becomes. This is because there are no moving parts in a digital watch compared to many moving parts in an analog timepieces.

If the analog watch is powered by a mechanical movement there are even more moving parts that are involved.

Many digital watches have plastic cases (and some have plastic straps too) and can be very cheap. 

The Aesthetics of Digital vs Analog Watches

Almost all digital watches have a black or grey screen and the numbers are displayed as digits so they all look fairly similar.

An analog watch has a dial marked with hours and minutes (sometimes just the 12, 3, 6 and 9 hour positions are marked) and an hour and minute hand (which are different lengths) at a minimum will sweep around the dial of an analog device as the time passes. Some analog watches also have a second hand.

The hands on an analog can jump forward every second, minute or hour or they can “sweep”, where the hands move in tiny increments appearing to move continuously around the dial. 

One of the joys of a mechanical watch is the sweeping movement of the hands on the analog display.

Quite a few digital watches mimic the layout of an analog clocks face and use LCD hour and minute hands to display the time on the digital screen.

Some, like the Casio G Shock below, incorporate an analog and digital dial.

Casio Men Analog-Digital Quartz Watch with Resin Strap .List

Many Smart watches offer the option to change the layout of the watch interface to one that you desire. This does offer creativity in the design but only by way of the LCD display. 

An analog has more classic style and is more aesthetically pleasing to look at.

Analog watches are more suitable for formal occasions than a digital watch.

Many owners of an analog watch fall in love with the design and colour of the dial, indeed it’s often an important factor in choosing the watch in the first place.

The style of the watch’s hands, the way the buttons feel when you press them, the way the hands move around the dial, including sub dials if the watch is a Chronograph timepiece all contribute the the style that suits the wearer’s tastes.  

Even the design of the indices on an analog watch face is a thing of beauty on its own – there are many different indices on a watch dial Roman numerals, Baton indices, Round indices, Diamond markers and so on. 

Reading a Digital vs an Analog Watch

Mobile phones, tablets and computers have a LED digital time display and, therefore, children (who are now brought up interacting with screens from an early age) are able to read the time easily and quickly from a digital display. 

The same can’t be said for reading an analog watch. Many children have to learn how to tell the time on an analog watch. Even in the “old days” when screens, tables and mobile phones weren’t around, a childs “first” watch was often designed to help them learn to tell the time by displaying the minutes past the hour with numbers up to 30 at the six position and minutes to the hour from the six position to 12. 

Tikkers Boy's Analogue Analog Quartz Watch with Silicone Strap ATK1040

Whilst it used to be almost imperative that a child learn to tell the time via an analogue watch, this doesn’t seem to be the case now. Indeed, if you search for children’s watches you will find a lot of digital watches displayed.

For those who are visually impaired or who need reading glasses, a digital can be a good choice as they are easier to read. 

Many of our customers who are finding their eyesight failing a little, even with glasses, desire a clear easy-to-read analog watch is top on their list of priorities when choosing a watch.

Indeed, some watch companies even have “easy readers” available with nice clear, crisp black numbers against a white or silver dial. 

Conversely, analog clocks can be easier and quicker to read than a digital clock.

Who Wears a Digital Watch?

Many sporty people like the functions a digital watch can give. A digital watch is great for wearing on a run or during day-to-day activities.

With all the advanced features, a digital watch is often the choice for athletes.  

Digital watches were popular in the 1970s and therefore those who love the retro-look have found wearing a digital a good choice. Indeed a few revivals of the older 1970’s look-alike digital watches have made a comeback recently.

Casio GWM5610-1 Men's G-Shock Black Resin Multi-Band Atomic Digital Alarm Watch

The styles of digital watches are mostly casual in nature, hence a digital is often a casual watch you wouldn’t wear with a suit or to a formal occasion.

Having said that, most Smart watches can now be considered a digital watch and these are moreacceptable to wear with smarter dress and more formal occasions. 

But nothing quite beats a fabulous mechanical or quartz analog Swiss watch in looks and it’s often the classic design that leads the way in the style awards.

The Cost of a Analog vs Digital Watches

Digital watches can be very cheap. Often made of plastic they can be bought cheaply enough to almost be consumable. 

Conversely, you can also get many really well made, robust models that have great features with a price-point to match.

Analog watches are full of moving parts. Even battery operated (quartz) watches still have to power the moving hands, and the more complications the watch has the more it will drive the price up as they are more costly to develop and test 

The Features of Digital vs Analog Watches

Function and features seem to be the name of the game with most digital watches and they often have a great many complex features that an analog watch just won’t have. 

Most digital watches have a stop-watch, a compass, a countdown timer, they can count to milliseconds and you can even set up alarms and reminders including birthday reminders.

Whilst analog watches do have features incorporated into them, known as complications, these add cost with each complication added.

Adding a time zones, for instance, means adding another sub dial to the analog watch dial, making a big difference to the appearance (and cost) of the watch.

The Choice Available in Analog vs Digital Watches

The market for digital watches is much smaller than with analogs. This means that watch companies don’t put as many resources into the design of new digital watches and this leads to less choice. 

Some companies, like Casio, lead the way in being known more as a digital watch brand.

Many people who wear a digital watch are active types and like all the extra features you get for your money. 

The Longevity of a Digital vs an Analog Watch

As many digital watches are made of plastic this is subject to perishing. The components in a digital watch can be sensitive to conditions such as extreme heat or cold. 

On the other hand, a digital watch has less moving parts than an analog watch. Moving parts are always going to be more prone to experiencing problems or hiccoughs.

Very cheap digital watches can be made with poor quality components which may not last. 

This is not always the case though and the Casio G-Shock is a hugely popular and extremely robust watch that offers a wealth of features, good looks and is hard to beat in ruggedness and durability. It has been known as the “world’s toughest watch”.

Which are More Accurate – Analog or Digital Watches?

On the whole, a digital watch shouldn’t be any more accurate than an analog watch if they are both run by a quartz electronic movement.

You may think the digital is more accurate than an analog watch due to the precise digital display – which could include the time to the seconds.  With an analog watch you may read the time but not to the degree of accuracy as you would if you’d read the digital display.

Accurate timekeeping, of course, means reading the time properly which is probably easier to do with a digital. 

Mechanical watches are known to have a deviation of less than + or – 10 seconds a day. 

Is a Smart Watch a Digital Watch?

Smart Watch, Fitness Tracker 1.69" Touch Screen Fitness Watch with Heart Rate Sleep Monitor, Step Counter Smart Watch for Men Women Activity Trackers IP68 Waterproof Smartwatch Sports for iOS Android

Whilst a Smart watch, such as an Apple watch, uses a digital display, it operates like a mini computer on your wrist and connects wirelessly to an App on your phone. From there it can perform many calculations based on your input such as the distance you have traveled that day via how many steps you have walked, your heart rate, sleep pattern and so on. 

A digital watch, whilst having many great features, can only tell you the time, function as a stop watch, hold alarms and reminders.  It cannot give you stats calculations based on your personal details such as your stride length, like a Smart watch can. 

So, whilst the display on a Smart watch looks like a digital display and it uses digital technology, a Smart watch, compared to a digital, is a different beast altogether as it’s almost a whole computer system on your wrist. 

Digital Watches Today

Digital watches have come a long way since 1972 when the first one was introduced and are altogether a different quality of watch many of which are a high quality .

Most come with advanced features that would be extremely pricey in an analog watch. They are even available with a look-alike analog watch faces.

We regularly get asked for more digital watches in our jewellers. Sometimes the choice isn’t as great as you have with an analog watch.

Which you prefer is entirely a personal choice and many people have both, which they wear for different situations.

Which do you prefer, and why?

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