Given that I was born in 1986, much of my context for the 1980s is based on the remnants that bled into the early ’90s. And while my birth year instilled in me a deep love for Timex, I know that it’s impossible to discuss ’80s watches without paying respects to a true hero of the watch world – a post-Quartz Crisis love letter to the future of wrist-born technology. The Casio Databank.
This watch is where we first saw a rampant progression of tech that was disconnected from the idea of traditional watchmaking. Sure, a Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar or even the Oysterquartz of the same era would represent an incredible amount of technology, but quartz changed the culture code for watches – and Casio was willing to experiment thanks to a mindset squarely outside the traditional watchmaking perspective.
The Databank represents the primordial movements of the smartwatch. While Casio designers were not alone in cramming additional features into then-cutting-edge digital watches, they brought this futurism to the masses. Today, we take an Apple Watch, a Garmin, or even a Fitbit for granted as a modern expression of a watch. The Databank did it first, expanding our perceptions not only of what a watch could do – but also of what a watch could be.
While the 1980s have not historically been known for abiding aesthetic taste (in many ways, the opposite is true), a few characteristic ’80s watch designs manage to endure. This is one. It’s not that the Databank design was so good that it simply became its own thing (a factor I’d more likely attribute to G-Shock), but rather that it’s been around long enough to be popular all over again, for the opposite reason it became popular in the first place.
The nerdy pocket-protector vibe has only grown more fitting as technology has subsumed all of our lives. These days, tech seldom feels aligned with the jocks vs. nerds rivalry common to the pop culture of my childhood. If anything, wearing a calculator watch in 2021 is a gesture rooted in retro style and a specific disconnect from our modern relationship with gadgetry. The proto smartwatch now feels like an antidote to them.
For the purpose of this three-decade-in-the-making hands-on, I picked a modern iteration of the simplest Casio Databank I could find, the CA53W-1. Think bare-bones, black resin, no backlight. Technically, it’s not even a true Databank as this specific model won’t let you store anything. But you do get to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
Let’s Start At The Beginning
In 1980, less than a decade after getting into the watch game, Casio launched its first calculator watch, the C-80. Given its success, the brand followed up in 1984 with the Databank Telememo CD-40. These watches helped put Casio on the map and sold some six million units within the first five years of its release.
Casio would iterate ad nauseam with its calculator watches, including “walking dictionaries,” alphanumeric text input, phone numbers, voice memos, scientific calculations, email address storage, increasing memory for recall, and even touch screens. My fav? The DBC-63 – it has a backlit keyboard and screen! Night maths.
While it would be tempting to see the CA53W-1 as the Motorola Startac of watches, when I look at a Casio Databank, it always makes me think of a rather specific thing: Blackberry phones. In fact, from their earliest devices (the 850 of 1999), the look is very similar – a smallish screen and a keyboard all wrapped in soulless black plastic. Though the aesthetic similarities are general, and eventually, fleeting, I do think the broader context is fitting. Blackberry made the device before the smartphone really took off. We had carphones, then Blackberries, then true modern smartphones. We also had mechanical watches, then Databanks, and then smartwatches.
Lucky for Casio, the Databank would prove to have a much longer tail than the Blackberry. The Databank’s progression from modernity to obsolescence (and back) may have challenged the usefulness of those extra features, but the piece remains roughly as appealing as ever. And I haven’t even gotten to the price.
The Value Meal of Watches
This brings me, at an admittedly lumbering pace, to the Casio Databank CA53W-1. I have never owned a Databank and have always been curious, if for no reason other than that inexpensive Casios offer a truly remarkable amount of charm for the money. (I remain a huge fan of their inexpensive world timer, the A500, and let’s not forget this Reddit-darling that Jack covered a couple of years back).
Weighing in at a scant 24g, the CA53W-1 is 34mm wide, 42mm long, and 8mm thick. The resin case has 50 meters of water resistance, drilled lugs, and a steel caseback. The strap is made of smooth but undeniably cheap-feeling black resin and the tiny screen supports two lines of text along with a variety of small symbols and markers. If you’re willing to spend almost four times as much, you can get a true Databank (one that can store data for later recall) in still inexpensive models like the DBC-611 (with gold tone!). I myself was satisfied with the CA53W-1, which I purchased at a price that transcends “reasonable” and goes right on up to “unbelievable.”
It’s not every day that I get to ask Nick if I can buy a watch for review, but I certainly had a better chance at scoring that sweet expense-account approval when the watch cost…just over $ 18.
So what did I get for the price of a hot date at McDonalds? A bit of resin, a truly tiny keyboard, and a dream.
Functionality for this model is established by Casio’s module 3208, and the CA53W-1 could not be much easier to use unless I had child-sized fingers. The screen is sharp and bright, and a single navigation button protruding from the right side of the case allows you to cycle through time, calculator, alarm, a second time zone, and a chronograph.
Several function-specific controls are layered into the keyboard, and if you want to adjust any settings, you can initiate the setup via a flush fingernail button also on the right case side. Using the calculator is not hard, but it is painfully slow. Perhaps the ’80s were a slower era, but this is not the calculator for doing your taxes. This is a lightweight, working-class digital watch that happens to also feature a calculator – not a calculator with a watch.
For this model, the calculator buttons are set on a glass-like plate on the front of the watch. This combination of a glossy black surface beset with several tiny rubberized buttons ensures no shortage of dust collection, but fingerprints were less prevalent than I expected.
Real-world use? It’s going to be limited. But I did dig through the reviews posted on a certain popular online retailer, and I found several reports from proud owners who claimed to have used their CA53W-1 to calculate a tip at a restaurant, or even to keep a tally of their grocery cart while shopping. Clever.
At the end of the day, the CA53W-1 is essentially a new-vintage digital watch that is deeply – almost spiritually – connected to the 1980s. That history is the wellspring of its charm, and it’s why this watch still exists despite its many idiosyncrasies. As a modern watch, the CA53W-1 has lost little of that original appeal. Yes, the concept is outdated, but the same could be said for other icons of the watch world. And you can’t get any of them for $ 20.