View all articles

Review: Casio A500WA-1

I’ve looked at all the watches ever made and I’ve come to a conclusion. There’s one that beats all of them. I present to you the Casio A500WA-1, and here’s five reasons why I think it’s the greatest cheap watch ever made.

The history

The A500 is part of Casio’s vintage collection because yes, you’re old and digital watches now count as vintage. I know it only seems like yesterday, but unfortunately that’s the cruel irony of aging: it wasn’t. The A500 first appeared in Casio’s catalogue some forty years ago as the A300, and you can imagine it absolutely blew people’s minds. It’s not exactly an Apple Watch with a full colour, high resolution OLED display, but just in the way that GoldenEye’s graphics on the N^$ looked unbelievable back in 1997, the A300 was very much at the cutting edge of technology in the 1980s.

It was the latest and greatest evolution of a technology debuted barely a decade or so before in the Pulsar, the world’s first digital watch, but instead of that watch’s battery-sapping LED technology, Casio used the liquid crystal display premiered in Seiko’s 1973 06LC. LCD technology is simple but clever. Light enters the panel from the rear, through a polarising film. This only allows light oscillating in one direction to pass through.

On the front of the panel is another polarising film, this time orientated at 90 degrees to the first film. Ordinarily, this would block the remaining polarised light from coming through at all, but that’s where the liquid crystals sandwiched in between come in. A localised charge will change the orientation of the liquid crystals in that area, which also change the polarisation of the light that’s entered. Now that light is aligned with the exit filter and emerges from the other side.

In the simplest LCD displays, those localised areas are big enough to be seen, such as one element of a single number. As the technology improved, the ability to reduce those areas improved with it, and with the addition of colour filters allowed high density pixel arrays to be created in the form of televisions.

For Casio in the 1980s, however, the game was on to provide as much fidelity and functionality as possible, and that’s where the A300 came in, sporting a full map of the world alongside the time as well—and inadvertently creating one of the coolest watch displays ever.

The design

The limitations of technology often give rise to great thinking and the best designs. As the Marvel Universe has demonstrated, simply being able to create whatever can be imagines doesn’t always work out. Passion is in problem solving, and in problem solving the digital world timer, Casio ended up with a design that has become utterly timeless.

The watch itself is simply and orderly structured exactly as you’d expect a high-tech Japanese watch to be. There’s no pandering to style or luxury beyond a coating of chrome on the cast metal case, and little bit of brushing on the steeply tapered bracelet. A thick black band around the screen gives some guidance on the use of the four buttons as well as a reminder of the brand, the watch’s key function as a world timer and the water resistance capability of the watch too.

World time—not the watch, but the very concept of keeping time across the world—was introduced as recently as 1884 as maritimer travel became more advanced. That’s when Greenwich Mean Time was established as the baseline for international time, although it wasn’t until 1931 that a wristwatch was capable of accommodating it thanks to watchmaker Louis Cottier. Patek Philiipe was one of the watchmakers that took an interest in Cottier’s creation, although he unfortunately died, and with it Patek Philippe’s world timers. It wasn’t until the year 2000—several decades after the Casio A300—that Patek Philippe brought it back.

Both Casio and Patek Philippe use the same fundamental principle. There’s home time and then there’s local time forever it’s been set. Beyond that, that two are very different, the Casio making use of its ability to—at least in a rudimentary way—hide and recall multiple pieces of data all with a single space. But the best part of the Casio is the part that takes advantage as much of how humans think as it does the LCD technology: the world time map. Casio could have simply included a text list of countries or time zones to choose from, but actually a visual guide makes using it in the real world.

The functionality

As with all Casio’s each and every use takes a little bit of refamiliarization, but generally speaking the text guidance on the bezel and just the general simplicity of the A500 makes it fool proof to use. As in, even a fool can’t break it. Three of the buttons are as per usual on a Casio digital watch, cycling through modes and adjustments—plus the comically dim but satisfyingly orange light—and then there’s a fourth button that allows quick cycling through a pre-set choice of cities.

That’s the easy bit. Once you’ve chosen those cities to make the short list—and whilst there’s a bunch, there’s not everything, so you may need to find a different city in the same time zone to choose from—it’s easy as pie to cycle through them, but it’s getting that shortlist made up that’s a bit of a pain. Without the manual—because who takes the manual for a Casio with them abroad—it took a little bit of button pushing and holding-based guesswork to figure it out, but it’s doable.

Since I was going from London to New York to Seattle and then back to New York then London over the course of a few weeks, I set those three locations—although I had to switch out Seattle for LA—and thankfully there was enough time in the seven-hour flight from London to New York to figure it out. Although there was also enough time in the three-hour queue to get out of JFK as well. Never again.

Then, between each location it was a couple of button presses at most and the time was set. But it wasn’t just that it worked. It was fun to watch the time zone change on the map, too. Which brings me to my next reason why this is the greatest cheap watch ever.

The cool factor

Everybody knows the best time to be a hotshot business suit was the 1980s, and using the Casio A500 to swap from city to city like some jet-setting financier looking to extort bad debt for another Countach is just about the most fun it’s possible to have with a watch. And that’s because this is a complication that you can actually use and make sense of in the modern world. Perhaps if Patrick Bateman had one of these instead, he might have been less agitated.

And it’s not just about channelling your inner CEO. There’s also that little part of you that still thinks GoldenEye on the N64 does actually look pretty great, and so does this. It’s rudimentary, it’s basic, but it’s still very, very cool. Switching from country to country on that little display feels like the world is literally at your fingertips, like you’re the President firing a warning shot at an opposing nation. I swear I’m not evil, but this watch makes me want to check for jobs as a supervillain.

Not to mention the fact that this level of fun comes at the price of not feeling like the jerkwad with the super expensive watch. It’s like a Skoda Superb, the ideal presidential vehicle; it’s luxurious and comfortable, but it doesn’t scream misappropriated budgets. It’s discreet, it’s under the radar and it looks like it just might have a direct radar feed into it too.

The price

But the part that takes everything cool about this watch and compounds it into hypercool is the price. All this history, design, functionality and fun come at the cost of just… £45. It’s actually currently on offer with £10 off. Can you think of another watch that can do so much, that can conjure such feeling, that looks so retro cool for less money than that? And can you think of another watch that could sit alongside tourbillons and perpetual calendars where other seasoned collectors might lean over those other watches to pick this out and have a close look? I don’t think so.

What do you think of the Casio A500 and do you think it’s the coolest cheap watch ever? What other suggestions do you have for the title?