A Guide to Rugged Solar and Kinetic Watches

By: Li Wang

Featured | Guides | 04.15.2014

Photo credit:

Of course there’s nothing like a finely tuned auto and the sense that your watch is powered purely from the motion you provide. Well, stop romanticizing watches for a moment. You need at least one watch in your collection that is purely fun and functional. Many of the best solar or kinetic quartz watches today can be had for under $500 and can provide around 20 years or more of service-free watch enjoyment.

If I’m going to have a true “beater” watch then I’m going to grab a solar or kinetic watch.

To simplify, solar (or what Citizen brands as Eco-Drive) uses natural or artificial light to charge the battery. Just don’t stick it in your drawer and leave it there. That’s all.

Kinetic watches (invented by Seiko) contain a large rotor that charges the battery with the movement of the wearer. Note: It’s well documented that early Seiko kinetics contained a capacitor/battery that had issues. Modern kinetic owners are reporting solid performance, but I must warn readers that kinetic batteries are weakened when they are completely drained. That said, kinetic watches generally have a six-month power reserve, so simply wearing your watch is the simplest solution.

Of course there are some folks who will want to debate the merits of these alternatively powered watches, but this article is meant for those who want an inexpensive, accurate grab-and-go that can take on rugged activities. Planning on bodysurfing Waimea or motorcycling through Vietnam or maybe taking the kids to the local playground? Then read on for some superb solar or kinetic beater suggestions. Besides who doesn’t need an excuse to buy a new watch to experience?


In this realm, I stick with the three Japanese manufacturers who specialize in this technology: Seiko, Citizen, and Casio.

You can’t really discuss tough solar watches without mentioning Casio G-Shocks. Of course, some people will not come close to a plastic digital watch, but I think they are missing out on some feature-packed fun that is impossible to destroy.

For the best value, the GW-6900 is a solar watched that also synchs with the atomic clock via radio signals from Fort Collins, Colorado (if you are in the United States). Most of the time you will have the exact time. This watch can be found new for around $80 and features world time, stopwatch, countdown timers and it’s based off of the DW-6900 design, the best selling G-Shock module of all time. The teenagers in your life will give you mad props.


For the exact opposite of value, but for true excessive watch nerd pleasure, I’ll introduce the Japan-only GW-5000, which is a modern tribute to the very first G-Shock model, the DW5000, which came to market in 1983. The $325 GW-5000 looks like any $40 “square” G you can buy at Wal-Mart, and that’s its beauty. Only the wearer knows it has a metal case, a DLC’d screwdown caseback, solar and atomic features and a softer resin case and band. Is it overpriced? Of course. Is it awesome in its ridiculousness? Of course. Non-watch people will think you are an idiot for paying over $300 for a plain G-Shock that you have to order from Japan. But that’s why they are non-watch people.


There are a variety of solar/atomic G-Shocks to choose from and I can’t cover them all. But if you figure that you want tons of features if you are entering G-Shock territory, check out the Rangeman series for about $300. These watches can tell you altitude, barometric pressure and direction in addition to the normal range of G-Shock utilities. It’s on the big side, but some people like that.



But if you are strictly an analog watch wearer, check out the Seiko SKA371 or its ion-plated variant the SKA427. These modern kinetic divers are nicknamed the BFK (Big Freakin Kinetic) on watch forums and pretty much live up to their monikers. These ISO-rated divers have a lot great attributes for a sub-$300 watch: killer bezel action, high quality bracelet and astounding durability and accuracy. This watch is perfect as a summer beach watch and its 20mm flat edged lugs (with drilled-through lug holes) make swaps for rubber or nylon really easy. Some don’t like the skeleton hands, but I think they are unique and are a subtle nod that this watch is a bit different. Its 43mm case size is not even considered huge by modern standards.


If you prefer something smaller and lighter in a diver, go for the titanium and solar powered SBDN001/003. This is a Japan only model has a 39mm case and is very light on the wrist so if you strap on a NATO you will barely notice this watch is on, great for swimming or paddleboarding. For about $360 you can grab a titanium, ISO-rated 200 meter diver watch that is part of Seiko’s higher end Prospex line.


Lately, all I’ve been wearing is Seiko’s Sportura Kinetic GMT watch, the SUN015. It comes with a screwdown crown, sapphire glass, ceramic bezel insert, true independently adjustable hour hand, solid-end-link bracelet and dead-on quartz accuracy. I use it to keep in synch with my colleagues in Europe. This watch can be had for less than $500 if you shop patiently.


Citizen has become the player in solar with its Eco-Drive technology. By most accounts, reliability reports with Eco-Drive watches have been stellar. Citizen offers Eco-Drive across a wide variety of styles, but I’ll stick with the rugged theme here.


The Promaster BN0101-58E is just simply a solid, no-fuss diver. There’s not much to say besides that it’s the perfect solar watch (with a nice orange minute hand) for people who prefer more conservative looking automatics. It’s another under $400 steal that comes with a bracelet with expandable clasp and rubber strap.


On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Ecozilla, the nickname for the Citizen BJ8051-05E. Generally, this watch can be purchased new for under $300 and it is a true behemoth with, ahem, distinctive looks. It proudly sits tall and its bezel rotates with your whole hand and works well with diving gloves on. This watch is built for pure function. It’s easy to read and has a proprietary rubber strap system that won’t fail. Certainly, it’s not a watch for those who prefer more subtle designs. If you want to trick it out with other straps, aftermarket adapters are available.


So, have you picked out your solar or kinetic watch to add to your collection? These are watches that you can buy, set and forget about. It’s just good to have something in your rotation that fulfills those needs. Besides, don’t you need an atomic G to set all your automatics against?

by Li Wang

  • http://URL Jim

    Great read. More Japanese watch articles in the future would be nice!

  • http://URL Bastian

    Great article. But the GW-6900 doesn’t sync via satellite. It uses normal radio signals from Fort Collins(if located in the USA) just like any “atomic watch”.

    • http://URL Li Wang

      You’re absolutely right, Bastian. I got the Fort Collins part right, but it’s not satellite. It’s radio signals.

  • http://URL Bjorn

    Great choices and I totally agree, everyone needs one (or 5?) tough watches in the box.

    Two other very popular watches to consider:
    The G-Shock DW5600 – the look of the 5000, Atomic and Solar, but less than 1/2 price.
    The Seiko SSC chrono series. Great watches that can be dressed up or down for around $200. Chrono to boot.

  • http://URL Chris

    I own both Citizen models and a pepsi bezel BFK. All fantastic watches, the BFK especially. The only downside to kinetics is that if you have a large rotation, it’s hard to own more than one, due to having to wear it frequently to keep it charged.,

  • http://URL Kevin K

    what’s the power reserve like on the Seiko SKA371? once it dies, does it start up pretty quickly like autos do?

    • http://URL Michael

      I have one. The power reserve is massive. I haven’t worn it in at least six months and it’s still ticking away in my closet.

  • http://URL Marcos

    Great article. Many times we watch fanatics forget how good the so-called “beater” watches have become.(i.e. quality, looks, style)

  • http://marathonswimmers.org/blogs/ironmike/ IronMike

    What if you’re not in the U.S.? Will the Casio not sync at all?

    • http://URL Li Wang

      Good question, IronMIke. Atomic G-Shock models generally synch to 5 or 6 locations around the world.

  • http://URL David Smith

    I am wearing the citizen BN0101-58E right now. It’s just plain excellent.

  • silkhead

    I own a Citizen Eco drive and it holds a valued spot in my lineup of watches

  • Jimbob

    I own two Citizen eco drives and one Casio Tough Solar (G Shock) – I only own solar watches and have for years. The Citizen’s are outstanding and would happily own more. But I am hugely disappointed with the Casio. Within 3 years the watch failed (high charge to dead after 4 days in a hotel safe – it should have a 7 month reserve). Casio stated it had not been maintained (charged) properly – despite living on a window sill in good light and being worn infrequently (i.e. not covered). The watch failed again a year later – with the same response from Casio (I asked them to tell me what else I should do to maintain it ‘properly’ – there was nothing). It has now failed again. I don’t mean to contradict the article (which is great otherwise), but there seem to be various reports of the poor quality/robustness of the Casio charging system. I can attest to the frustration of experiencing it and the downright rude attitude from Casio service. I’ve had enough of Casio and will never own another.

    • GreenMonstah

      for $50, you can’t expect top notch quality.

      • Jimbob

        Who said anything about $50? You may be able to get them for that – but G Shock’s sell for up to and around $1000 – so that’s a big assumption. Mine was about $500 – and yes – I do expect a reasonable level of quality for that (and a decent level of customer service).