One of the most asked questions is about watch movements, specifically about automatic vs quartz movement.
Most people new to horology (or things about watches) usually were asking this question as they were selecting their first watch.
While to most people, a watch is just a watch, this is not necessarily true. There’s a lot of going on inside the small timekeeping device that we use and in most cases, a watch is not equal to another watch based on it’s design and function.
In fact, there’s about 20 types of watches out there! But for this article, I’m going to focus solely on the automatic vs quartz movement.
Which One Is Better? Automatic Or Quartz Movement?
I’d like to steer clear from stating which one is the better watch as I believe this varies from person to person. I’m owning both types of watches and I can say both have its strong and weak points.
While most people know that automatic watch is more expensive (hence can be perceived to be more exclusive) than quartz watches, there’s a lot more going on behind it rather than just the price.
As you’ll soon learn, a more expensive automatic watch is not necessarily the best for everyone as it will depends on your circumstances and intended use of the watch.
For example, if you’re a sporty guy and wears your watch to all of your outdoor activities, I highly recommend one of the sporty quartz watches (e.g Casio G-Shocks, etc) as it’s more durable than an automatic watch.
But if you’re not so active and would like to wear a watch for a formal event, then an automatic watch would serve you well.
Because of this, I’m going to list down the advantages and disadvantages of both automatic and quartz watch movements below so that you’ll have a better understanding and can choose the correct watch for you.
Automatic Vs Quartz Movement Comparison At A Glance:
Advantages Of Automatic Watches
Disadvantages Of Automatic Watches
Advantages Of Quartz Watches
Disadvantages Of Quartz Watches
Advantages Of Automatic Watches
1- Unique Characteristics of Automatic Movement
The first thing that most people will realize about automatic watch is how it’s unique and not your normal watch.
Growing up, a clock or watch is something that I’ve usually seen around me. There were many clocks hanged on the wall around my house, and almost every adult near me wear a watch.
All of these clocks and watches have one thing in common: they run using batteries and as I soon learned, there was a quartz mechanism inside them that keep track of time.
I can say that this had shaped my perception of what a watch is – a typical electronic driven apparatus, just like everything around me.
It was not until I’ve grown into an adult that I was exposed to the world of automatic watches.
The more I learned about it, the more I’m fascinated about how tiny mechanical parts can actually move and keep time on its own, all without the need to use batteries.
For someone that was raised in the advent of electronic items, automatic watch is something that I’m very astonished and am very fond of.
I like how it’s different than the other electronic apparatus around us.
Not to mention my passion for anything mechanical does make it look more attractive to me.
For a start, just think about what’s lying in our home or office. Almost all of the useful gadgets that we use utilize some form of electronics such as TV, laptops, phones, cars, etc.
Which is why automatic watch is a very unique item in which it does something useful (tell time) without the need of any electronics inside it.
And such a novel property (it’s strange how times have changed. Prior to the 80s, the quartz watch WAS the novel item) just seem more attractive and pleasing to be used rather than the typical quartz watch nowadays.
2- Does Not Need A Battery To Function
The next advantage of automatic watch is it does not need a battery to function.
Due to its mechanical nature free from electronics, automatic watch works by utilizing the movement of small parts in it to keep track of time.
And the source of the movement comes from the mainspring inside it.
This mainspring stores potential energy and is gradually releasing it, thus moving the gears it’s connected to get the watch running.
Initially, mechanical watch needs to be manually wound, that is tightening the mainspring need to be done manually (kinda like spring loaded car toys) to keep it tightened and full of potential energy.
Then, the watch evolved by an addition of weighted rotor on its back that will move around whenever the owner’s wrist is moving.
The rotor is connected to the mainspring and any movement of the rotor will tightened the mainspring.
The ability to “automatically” tightened the mainspring is the reason why automatic watch is called “automatic”.
So if you don’t prefer surprises when your watch drop dead suddenly due to dead battery, then the automatic watch can be a good option for you.
3- Sweeping Second Hand
Above video: Comparison of second hands for quartz and automatic watches
Another thing that makes automatic watch unique is its sweeping second hand which is courtesy of its fast-beating mechanical timekeeping mechanism.
Unlike a quartz movement that mostly “tick” at every second, all automatic watch has this fluid and beautiful sweep to its second hand – which is very beautiful to look at.
One thing that I want to note here is that not all automatic watches are the same. Some of the cheapest/entry-level automatic watches only has 6 beats per second movement, which means its second hand actually is moving as fast as 6 times per second and thus creating the sweeping action.
Most Swiss watches, however, has an 8 beats per second movement which while seems faster on figure but it does not have any appreciable aesthetic advantage to a human eye.
But there’s also the hi-beat movements (with 16 beats per second and higher) that gives a very fluid sweeping second hand action but these watches come at much higher prices. True enough, you get what you paid for, especially in the world of watches =)
Above video: A good comparison between watches with different second hand beat rate
Disadvantages Of Automatic Watches
1- More Expensive Than Quartz Watch
I bet you’ve seen this one coming. Automatic watch is notoriously more expensive than quartz watch and this can be attributed to the higher part count in it compared to the relatively easy to construct quartz movement.
Not only that, most automatic watch uses stainless steel for most of the mechanical parts including its casing, though Swatch Sistem51 is one of the major brands that released an automatic in plastic casing.
In comparison, the cheapest quartz watch can be made almost entirely by cheap plastic and mass production, making it inexpensive to make.
But still, there’s a lot of choices for inexpensive automatic watches out there (see my list of the great automatic watches under $200) that you can choose from.
For anyone new to automatic watch, I strongly recommend to test the waters first with these inexpensive automatics before you commit your hard earned money with more expensive ones.
2- Low Power Reserve
While automatic watch doesn’t need battery to function, the power reserve capacity in its mainspring is still limited – 36 hours to 50 hours kind of limited.
And frankly, this is one of the biggest drawbacks with automatic watch that many people are not aware of.
The troublesome is not in the low power reserve itself, it’s actually in the need to reset the time, day and date every time you pick the watch up to be used after it drops dead.
While it’s a very cool item that runs on mechanical parts, the lack of power reserve can make it a bit annoying especially if you’re someone who have many watches and plan to wear a different one every day.
There do, however, some watchmakers that produced movements that can last longer such as the Powermatic 80 from ETA (such as the Tissot PRC200 here) that can lasts up to 80 hours with full power reserve.
But what if your automatic watch only has the typical 38-50 hours power reserve?
My advice is don’t change your watch every day and instead wears it for a few days before changing to another one.
That way, you’ll be able to reduce the amount of time spent on resetting the watch from everyday to once every few days.
Trust me, this is one of my best practices that really changed my life for the better when dealing with many watches =)
3- Much Lower Accuracy
Automatic watch has much lower accuracy compared to quartz watch – there I’ve said it. 10 to 25 seconds gain or loss time per day is the norm for automatic watch. In comparison, quartz watch only gain or lose that much time in a month!
While on paper the difference is very big, there’s NOT much issue in terms of practical day-to-day use.
Speaking from my personal experience, most automatic watches will deviate maximum a few minutes in a week in which you’ll only have to adjust the time on weekly basis – which to me is not that big of a deal.
But if you’re really stricken for accuracy, there’s also the Chronometer, a type of automatic watch that’s designed, tested and certified to only deviate maximum 6 seconds per day.
Considered as the best in terms of accuracy, the Chronometer is usually sold at higher prices compared to normal automatic watches due to the higher quality materials used and the additional cost to get it tested and certified.
4- Typically Bigger and Heavier
What do you get when the inside of the watch contains actual metal? A heavy piece of steel. And that’s the case with automatic watch.
Compared to quartz watch, the inside of automatic watch is more complicated and full of mechanical parts which are mostly made of metal.
Not only that, some automatic watches with functions like chronographs (or stop watch) will need to be bigger to fit in all the extra parts in the movement.
For example, a chronograph watch (such as the Victorinox Infantry Vintage ) with ETA Valjoux 7750 movement has a huge 15 mm thickness!
You can surely imagine how big and heavy the watch will be! In comparison, as quartz watch uses electronics, it’s more compact in size resulting in a smaller and lighter watch.
5- Need To Be Serviced Once Every Few Years
Another thing that many people don’t really know is that automatic watch needs to be serviced once every few years.
While it does not need a battery, the components and oils inside it still need to be maintained, just like any other mechanical items such as cars.
In terms of the maintenance interval, it really depends on the manufacturer standard and will vary from one brand to the other.
I personally use 5 years interval for my watches as I’m rotating them after a few days. If you’re using the same automatic watch every day, then the wear and tear will be greater and you might want to increase your maintenance interval in this case.
Where to get it serviced? You can either service it at the authorized service center of the brand (costlier and longer time) or get it done at your local watchmaker that you trust (cheaper and faster).
Advantages Of Quartz Watches
1- It Just Works!
Coming into quartz watch, the first and finest quality of it is it just works. After more than 40 years in production, quartz watch right now is in a mature stage.
I mean, you could get a very cheap $1 quartz watch from Alibaba or anywhere, popped in a battery and it will just work! (though the durability and longevity of such cheap watch is in question).
With automatic movement, there’s still a chance that something will be a problem – you could accidentally magnetize it, or dropped it too hard until its internal parts are messed up etc.
Not to say that quartz watch doesn’t have such problems but it will take a lot more to mess up a quartz watch compared to an automatic.
2- Much Cheaper To Buy
Another great advantage of quartz watch is it’s very affordable. You can get a very cheap China-Made watch for just a few bucks.
Heck, almost all the watches and clocks that we see around us are quartz-based watches.
While the automatic watch is more labor and parts intensive, quartz watch has been mass produced for years right now.
Parts and labour are very cheap per unit of quartz watch making it very affordable for everyone.
3- Very Accurate
In terms of accuracy, quartz watch tramples over the automatic watch with its highly accurate movement.
Quartz watch will only gain or lose a few seconds in a month – a very respectable figure and much better than automatic movement. With this kind of accuracy, chances are you only need to adjust its time whenever you’re changing the battery.
How can it achieve such feat? Thanks to the quartz mineral that vibrates at 32768 Hz (or 32768 times in a second). An electronic chip inside the watch then uses this vibration signal to determine 1 second.
This is one of the reason why quartz watch is so accurate – that is even if the quartz mineral is off by a few vibrations per second, it’s still not that significant to make the timekeeping inaccurate.
Another factor is the precision in mass manufacturing of the quartz and electronic chips. The advancement in industrial technology make it possible to churn out the exact same quartzs and chips, just like what the watchmaker designed it originally.
The high accuracy of quartz watch is one of the main selling points of quartz watch when it was invented in the 70s that almost swept all automatic watch brands out of business.
In that time, the inaccuracies and vast inconsistency between each automatic watches make syncing time between people hard to be done.
Just imagine how the society back then had to function when almost all of them had watches/clocks that showed different time.
Nowadays it’s expected that everyone complies to any scheduled time – all thanks to the advancement in watches that we’ve had right now.
4- Slim And Light
While automatic watch need to be bulky to house its numerous parts (especially the automatic rotor that take almost a few milimeters, quartz watch can be made in a very thin and small footprint, often found on women’s watch.
I mean, these kind of small watches are impossible to be made with the current automatic watch technology.
While the higher end watches can have somewhat smaller casing, entry-level automatic watches are still quite bulky.
So if you’re after a sleek and thin watch, quartz movement is the one for you.
5- Can Have Multiple Functions
One of the things that make quartz watch a very good tool to own is it can have multiple functions inside it.
For example, chronographs, second time-zone, GMT, and alarm are the functions that you can get on a still affordable quartz watch.
Thinking to get the same functions on an automatic?
It can be downright impossible as such automatic watch will cost millions to own – and you can’t even use it everyday!
Seriously, this is one of the main reasons why I will never say that any watch (automatic or quartz, or solar etc.) is THE best watch to own.
I’m a firm believer that everyone has different needs based on his/her circumstances and preferences.
So if your work or hobby revolves around having a watch that can do a lot of things (stopwatch, alarm, checking another time-zone, etc.) than just showing time, then a multi-functional quartz watch is the best for you.
But if you don’t really care about these functions (because you already have your mobile phone, for example), then automatic watch might still be a great choice.
In the end, the choice of what watch to use should be based on your needs as well as personal preference.
Disadvantages Of Quartz Watches
1- Need Battery To Operate
Ever had your watch died on you because of dead battery? I have. And yes it’s not a really pleasant feeling.
Imagine that you’re very busy to prepare for the day and suddenly you notice that your watch is showing the wrong time.
Upon closer inspection, you found out that it’s not ticking and you’ve suffered another case of dead battery.
While quartz watch is good and all, it’s still an electronic item and runs on electric energy which is supplied by a small battery cell inside it.
While it does not cost too much to change the battery, the trouble of having your quartz watch suddenly die on you is no joke either.
Fortunately, some watches have a built-in function to show low-battery life through a 2-second skipping second hand.
What will happen when the battery is low is the usually 1-second ticking of the hand will be changed to 2-seconds ticking.
This is an indication to its owner that the battery is low and you ought to get it changed as soon as possible.
In addition, most quartz watches with digital display do have battery level indicator which really makes it much easier.
Don’t even want to change your battery? You can also opt for a solar watch (recharged by exposure to light) and kinetic watch (recharged by wrist movement).
Both are some of the advancement in the vanilla quartz watch currently available in the market right now.
2- Generally Considered Less Exclusive And Less Aesthetically Pleasing Than Automatic Watch
From a purely technical point of view, quartz watch triumphs over automatic watch. It’s cheaper, more accurate, lighter and can have multiple functions.
But if we’re looking from an aesthetic lens, things are not really that straight forward, and often, automatic watch is generally considered to be more pleasing than a quartz.
I love checking out watches either in shops or online, and usually the best looking watches will have automatic movement in it.
Quartz watches are more widely used with very small watches and also utility/sporty type of watches which uses its superior compact and multi-functional characteristics.
But when it comes to beautiful dressy watches, most of the watch that I’ve seen (at least for men’s watches) have automatic movement in it.
I can only theorize that since automatic watch was threaten by the rapid rise of quartz watch, automatic watchmakers need to differentiate their product and brought it to a higher-class segment to stay afloat.
The way they did this is by designing their watches to be beautiful timepieces, something that can entice people to pay more and overlook its technical disadvantages.
Watch this video to know the summary of this post
Conclusion: So Which One Should You Pick? Automatic Or Quartz Movement?
I hope this short summary of automatic vs quartz movement will be beneficial and open your eyes on the advantages and disadvantages of both types of movements.
From this, you can make a comparison on what you need and want, rather than just following blindly what other people say or recommend.
One thing to keep in mind is there is no one watch that fits all (though I think a bracelet stainless steel watch is very close to that..).
Which is why it’s generally acceptable to own few watches so that you’ll have the perfect watch for the situation.
And if you’re in a tight spot and can’t decide on which watch to buy, drop me a comment and I’ll help you out =)
Thanks for reading and Cheers!
2 thoughts on “Automatic Vs Quartz Movement – Which Watch Is The Right One For You?”
I’ve always though that automatic watch is better because it’s more expensive but it seems that there’s more to it than just price. It seems to me that automatic watch is more like a jewellery rather than a tool watch right?
Hi Rick. In general, I tend to agree with you even though there are automatic watches made to be tool watches (the Seiko SKX comes to mind).