Thursday, March 30, 2017

Seiko Astron GPS Solar Dual Time White Dial SBXB047 (SSE047) Titanium with Ceramic Bezel Watch – Excellent timepiece with real world applications, A Review (plus Video)


After the Astron was re-launched back in 2012, I finally got myself an Astron for the collection. The delay in getting one was due to the fear factor I get with new technologies – will they actually work? Moreover, when the first batches of Astrons with the 7X Series Calibers installed were on sale, there were a number of issues highlighted by owners. Predominantly, problems surrounding the power usage and the lack of battery capacity were reported. These feedbacks from consumers prompted Seiko to redesigned the GPS module and come out with the latest 8X Series Calibers which eliminated issues that were brought out.

Before we go straight into the review, it would be good to clear up the reference codes used for this series. The Astron is a Made-In-Japan watch line. However, it is not strictly defined as a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) as it is sold globally. Nevertheless, in true Japanese manufacturing quirkiness, this series has been earmarked with the “SBXB” code when in Japan while the rest of the World has been allotted the “SSE” code. The numerical part of the overall reference code remains the same. Therefore SBXB047 is in fact the SSE047.


Under the latest 8X Series Calibers, there are three categories of watches based on complications: the Chronograph, the World-Time and the Dual-Time. As the names suggest, the first branch has a chronograph function, the second brand has a world time function while the third branch has a dual time (or GMT) function. Out of the three, I personally find I get more utility out of the dual time or GMT function than the other two options. As a frequent traveler, I am more interested to know the time at home instead of needing to know the time in other time zones (I would only find the latter useful if I conduct direct international business dealings, which I don’t). Although I do have a couple of chronograph watches, the only times I used the chronograph function was when I’m boiling half-boil eggs!

Therefore I chose to get an Astron Dual-Time. Many choices to pick from but after considering the pros and cons I decided on the SBXB047 (SSE047). From a technological aspect, all 15 models do the same thing. However, the use of different materials affects the price considerably. Since it could be my only Astron, I decided not to be too fixated on price but to go for quality and usability. Moreover, I like watches with white dial.

The SBXB047 (SSE047) is a sizable watch. It has a width of 45 mm (excluding the crown and pushers) while the lung-to-lug length is 54.3 mm. Despite all the electronics, GPS antenna and solar panel crammed inside the watch casing, its height is just 13.3 mm. Lug width is 22 mm. Made out of a special titanium alloy, ceramic and sapphire crystal, the whole package only tips the scale at just 115 gm. Water resistance is at an impressive 10 ATM or 100 meters despite not having screw-down crown and pushers. To ensure the electronics have some level of anti-magnetic protection, the casing has been designed to handle magnetic field of up to 4,800 A/m.

Its capability is what impresses me the most. It has solar power charging capability as well as overcharge prevention function and power save mode. Its GPS module can receive signals from satellites and automatically identify the correct time zone and adjust time accordingly. The same module can also show users the satellite acquisition status via a unique display function. It has a world-time function of 40 time zones. There is also a power reserve indicator, a perpetual calendar, retrograde day-display, dual-time and am/pm sub-dials. The module can also be switched either in-flight aircraft mode or automatic hand alignment function.

I won’t be explaining the various functionalities in detail in this review. It could take a very long time. Instead, I attached the manual at the end of this review if you wish to know more.



The History

There are a lot of detailed write-ups on the Seiko Astron in a number of major watch websites. Some of the notable articles are http://www.ablogtowatch.com/seiko-astron-gps-solar-dual-time-watch-review/, http://www.timelessluxwatches.com/reviews/astron-dual-time-review and https://www.ethoswatches.com/the-watch-guide/seiko-astron-gps-solar-8x-series-dual-time-review/.

Instead of regurgitating the same thing, I would recommend that you do visit the links provided earlier to read for yourself. Suffice to say, I will only highlight my personal view on the provenance and how it affects the latest evolution of the Astron.

Image taken from the Internet


The first comment I would like to make is that the Astron of today has very little in the way of linkage to the Astron of 1969. The only links I can see is the analogue display and quartz movement. Other than that, they are like night and day.

The second comment is about the technology. The original Astron does not take input from external sources. A remarkable watch in its heydays but a "dumb" watch by today's standard. The new Astron takes a lot of input from external sources such as light to give it power, satellite signals to find its location and get the correct time and timezone.

The third comment is on development. To me, the new Astron is another branch of the evolution tree for smart watches. Samsung Gear and Apple iWatch chose to still be dependent on mobile devices for a lot of their applications whereas Seiko have decided to keep it strictly standalone. With expansion and development of miniaturization technologies, it wouldn’t be long before mobile telecommunication devices can be fitted inside the casing of a wristwatch. As it stands now, I tend to approve Seiko Astron being touted as a smart watch but not for the Gear or iWatch. In my book, a smart watch has to be able to stand on its own without needing support from any other devices.



The Un-Boxing

The packaging for the Seiko Astron is rather elaborate. The packaging comes in three sections.

 

The first section is a protective white transportation sleeve that is not supposed to be given to the purchaser. The purpose of the sleeve is to ensure that the main cardboard box which protects the main watch-box is pristine at the point of delivery to the dealership. Note the explicit instructions by Seiko to the dealers printed prominently on the top of the white sleeve. To give a relative size perspective of the packaging, the overall dimensions are 14.5 cm by 13.5 cm by 11.5 cm.




The second section is the black cardboard box that holds the main watch-box as well as the manual and guarantee documentations. It has similar dimensions as before. It has the words “SEIKO” and “ASTRON” printed in silver at the top of the box. Inside this box are two segments allocated to the main watch-box and the documentations.



The third section is the main watch-box. Also in black, it has the dimensions of 14.5 cm by 13 cm by 11.5 cm. Right along the center of the sides, the watch-box is recessed slightly with a background painted in glossy black. It has the words “SEIKO” printed in silver at the top as well as the front side of the box. The word “ASTRON” is only printed at the top. The watch-box is hinged at the back.



Flipping the top you will see the SBXB047 (SSE047) resting on a black pillow at the center of the watch-box. Interestingly, the inner surface is hard plastic and the center slot is round (including the pillow). Surprisingly, the inner part is devoid of any graphic or text.


The Watch

The SBXB047 (SSE047) is made out of hardened titanium and black ceramic. Coupled with the DiaShield protective layer on the titanium surface as well as the Zaratsu method of polishing (this is the method used by grand blade smiths in Japan when polishing Samurai swords), this Astron is one of the most beautiful timepieces you can find anywhere. The scratch-resistant coating element incorporated into the watch maintains the quality of polishing beyond the normal wear-and-tear expected from typical watches.



The dial is white. It is protected by a flat sapphire crystal with super-clear glass coating. Under this, there are four distinct levels on the dial that gives it a rich depth of view.

The first level from the top is a thin platform surrounding the peripheral of the dial which hosts a series of number and markers. These are primarily the UTC time zones but also double up as the indicator of the number of satellites the watch has locked on when the GPS mode is engaged.

The second level from the top is a sloping chapter ring with minute and hourly markers. While the minute markers are printed on the chapter ring, the hour markers are part of tabs that form from the bottommost level of the dial. These tabs have a white base with the top surface topped with polished beveled grey metallic pieces. At the outer end of these metallic pieces are reflective dots painted with Seiko’s proprietary LumiBrite luminous paint. There are also two additional markings, a “Y” near the 2 o’clock position and a “N” near the 4 o’clock position. When the GPS mode is engaged, the final process will be to indicate to the user whether the procedure of a success (Y) or not (N). More about this later.

The third level from the top is a straight wall that adds more depth to the watch.

The fourth and final level from the top is where all the magic resides. This Astron has six servos that control 8 hands and a date disk. On the left and right of the dial are two split sub-dials. A full sub-dial at 6 o’clock and a micro sub-dial at 4 o’clock. A date aperture is also located at the 4 o’clock position.



The main watch hands are individually unique and do not appear to follow a general design philosophy. The hours hand has an arrow tip designed and painted with LumiBrite. The minutes hand is more like a long sword also painted with LumiBrite while the seconds hand is a thin black needle shaped with a triangle counter balance painted with LumiBrite. Despite the different styles, they don’t look out of place.



The 12 hour sub-dial placed at 6 o’clock is the second time zone that will allow you to read your home time. The split sub-dial at 9 o’clock includes a signal reception result indication (1-4 satellites locked in), a power reserve indicator and a Daylight Saving Time (DST) function. The multiple days of the week are displayed in a retrograde split sub-dial at 2 o’clock. The AM/PM indicator for the second time zone is rather small. The use of two shades of white for the may not have been wise as it get swamped by the already white surface of the watch dial. An aperture that can change colour would have been a better choice. Meanwhile, adjacent to the AM/PM indicator is the perpetual date display window that has a date wheel with a white background.



All hands on the sub-dials as well as the AM/PM indicator are painted solid black.

There are five lines of text on the dial. The words “SEIKO”, “GPS”, and “SOLAR” are on the upper half of the dial while the words “ASTRON” and “JAPAN” plus manufacturing codes are on the lower half of the dial. All uses varying degrees of fonts and sizes.

Under all this is the solar panel that converts light energy to power the watch and for the battery.

Although the dial is surprisingly clean from clutter, older users may find it slightly difficult to read. With perfect eyesight it should very easy to read. Nevertheless, the three-dimensional look of the dial does help to make it readable from a distance.


The Bezel

The bezel is made out of ultra-scratch resistant ceramic. Coloured in black, on it are time zone abbreviations in white which can be useful for calculating time differences. Nevertheless, I feel it is rather redundant since the Astron is a GPS watch and finding the current time zone is a simple task by just a push of a button.





The Casing

The crown and the two pushers are located on the right of the casing. The crown is a simple push-down design with gear-tooth barrel to facilitate grip. On the top surface is a domed ceramic piece in black. Meanwhile, the pushers are rectangle in shape with curved corners. There are supporting sleeves that comes out partially from the casing that gives users the impression that the pusher is telescopic.



The lugs are short and curved downwards to ensure snug fitting to the wrist. There are no pass-through lug holes to facilitate quick strap changes.

Designed using Seiko's COMFOTEX concept, the bracelet is composed of individually designed links and are therefore tapered perfectly to the wrist for maximum comfort. Each link on the bracelet is made out of five polished and brushed pieces. The clasp has a push button lock and sand blasted with the “SEIKO” brand. The clasp has two micro adjustment points.




The case-back is a solid screw-down unit. On the center is the logo of Seiko’s Astron series.

The case construction gives it a 100 meter water resistance capability as well as a magnetic-resistant to 4,800 A/m.

The use of titanium and ceramic makes a major difference in its wearing comfort. Being light at just 115 gm allows wearers to have the watch on all day long without feeling any discomfort. Although I am comfortable with heavier watches, it does get tiring after hours on the wrist. With the Astron, you can wear it the whole night.

The DiaShield protection is also a Godsend. Let’s face it, trying to keep a watch pristine while travelling is extremely difficult. Was in Europe and the Middle East for the last week or so and the number of times the watch made contact with the luggage as well as other things (especially within the confines of a long haul passenger jet!) was too numerous to note. Gratefully, not a scratch was registered.


The Movement


Seiko’s GPS calibrated Astron collection was first launched in 2012, with the caliber 7X. In 2014, the second-generation caliber 8X, which added a chronograph, was introduced. In 2015, the Astron line gained a third movement, the caliber 8X53 which is powering this particular Astron Dual-Time. This caliber features atomic timekeeping precision, without the reliance on radio signals from one of the 6 international atomic clocks (which have a limited range of 2000 miles) that fades the further you are from the radio tower. It is also has a Perpetual Calendar function set until the year 2100.

The watch has built-in data for 40 different time zones and changing from zone to zone is easy, as the seconds indicator hand re-positions itself as a time zone selector using either the UTC plus or minus scale, or the reference city scale when in time zone selection mode.

The watch is solar powered. The solar panel is below the dial while the GPS module is located in a ring between the dial and the bezel. In case the watch cannot connect with any satellite, Astron works with +/-15 seconds per month accuracy.

The internal battery has a power reserve equivalent to approximately 6 months of running time in complete darkness. When the power save mode is engaged, the watch can run approximately 2 years.

To control the various complications on the watch requires you to manipulate the crown and the two pushers. The crown has three settings – travel, position 1 and position 2. For more information on how to use them, please refer to the operational manual attached at the end of this article.



The Price

This particular model I got has a MSRP of RM9,010 in Malaysia (including tax). In Japan, the MSRP is YEN220,000 (with tax). Using 16 March 2017 as a reference date for the exchange rate; it is cheaper in Japan (YEN220,000=RM8,609). I was able to get it for RM7,200 which is equivalent to a 16.4% discount if in Japan.




The Wearing Experience

Two things struck you when you wear the watch for the first time. The first is size. The size is just nice. Anything smaller and the information contained on the dial would be too small to discern. The second is weight. I actually don’t feel that I am wearing any watch, even when I am wearing the Astron.

I had the chance to wear the watch to the Middle East and Europe for the whole of last week and I am impressed with its functionality. The time zone change via GPS is quick and easy. You can be in a cosmopolitan city with full signal coverage or in the middle of a desert without any signal coverage, the Astron gets the time right all the time. As an added bonus, while I was in Europe, the DST came into effect on 26 March 2017 which allowed me to also use the function to great effect.

The biggest utility that one gets from this watch is the freedom to get the exact time without the need to have a mobile phone with a working internet network. If you have access to the sky, you can get the exact time anywhere on the globe. This independence from a device as well as mobile network is liberating especially when travelling. Generally, not many people have the resources to use the international roaming function on their phones. Unless somewhere along the area of journey there is at least one free WIFI hotspot, it would be close to impossible to get the exact time (Another way is to use radio waves to get exact timing. However, this option is limited as there are only a handful of radio transmitters around the world with limited coverage that transmit only UTC timings). With the GPS module, you can be in the middle of an ocean and still get the correct timing with the correct time zone. It is truly an amazing technology.

Interestingly, I have been getting a couple of comments from people wondering whether I was wearing the new Rolex Daytona Ceramic. Although there is a passing resemblance to the white dial version of the Rolex, I don’t think it was intentional. Here are some photos of the watch on my wrist.



One major flaw in the concept that I see is the high entry point for ownership. Due to the technology and the special care of manufacturing (plus the materials used), this watch is at a price point that is high for most Seiko enthusiasts. There are two schools of thought about this. The first is to keep the technology under the premium sector. The second is to make the technology mainstream and affordable. At the moment it may not be possible to reduce much the cost of the GPS technology. However, substituting the materials used is definitely possible. For example the price of a Casio G-Shock Gravity Master Hybrid GPS Black/Blue GPW-1000-1A is approximately USD658 or RM2,906 @ 28 March 2017 via Amazon.com. Using this as a possible benchmark and assuming the GPS module to be consistent between the two models, the substitution effect of the plastic resin construction vis-à-vis the all titanium and ceramic construction with DiaShield protection and Zaratsu polishing is approximately RM4,294. Although material substitution is a sure way of keeping price down, would Seiko go down this path? Observing the Company’s product philosophy, I seriously doubt it. As it stands, the only series using resin as a material are some of the Seiko’s Prospex running watches. Nevertheless, any middle ground in pricing would be welcomed by the consumers.



Overall, an excellent timepiece with real world applications. It has to be said that this watch personify accurate timekeeping without compromise.



The Seiko Astron Dual Time 8X Caliber Series

The range for the Seiko Astron Dual Time series is extensive. At the time of writing this report, there are nine models made out of titanium as the core metal and six models made out of stainless steel as the core metal. These watches comes either with bracelets, leather or silicone straps.

The titanium models are, from left to right: SBXB041 (SSE041), SBXB043 (SSE043), SBXB045 (SSE045), SBXB047 (SSE047), SBXB049 (SSE049), SBXB061 (SSE061), SBXB063 (SSE063), SBXB073 (SSE073) and SBXB075 (SSE075)



The stainless steel models are, from left to right: SBXB051 (SSE051), SBXB053 (SSE053), SBXB055 (SSE055), SBXB077 (SSE077), SBXB079 (SSE079) and SBXB107 (SSE107)




The Manuals

Handy (short) manual for the 8X53 Caliber:




Full manual for the 8X53 Caliber:








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