Watch Review : The Omega Speedmaster X-33 Skywalker

The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch is legendary – it’s undeniably the watch with the best-known history and that is largely due to Omega’s incredible marketing machine. Omega are relentless, especially so this year with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing having just passed.

1957 saw the first Speedmaster being launched. 1959 saw the first Omega in space. 1969 saw the first commemorative edition for – according to Omega’s website – “Omega’s achievements in space”. And of course, 1969 also saw the birth of the original Moonwatch.

Almost every year since, Omega have launched a new version of the Speedmaster, a special edition, an anniversary edition or something similar.

But in 1998 they launched something very different – the Omega Speedmaster X-33. Omega called it the “Marswatch”. It’s a very different type of watch from the original Moonwatch. It’s a quartz, it’s an analogue watch with a digital display that offers astronauts features that are lightyears (pun very much intended) ahead of what even the most complex mechanical complications ever will be able to.

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I don’t think the Marswatch name caught on, but it seems to have become a popular watch for astronauts. There is a particularly impressive YouTube video showing astronaut Don Pettit replacing the crown on his X-33 in Zero G aboard the International Space Station in 2002 or 2003.

2014 saw the launch of the current X-33 Skywalker. The X-33 was built for the ESA – the European Space Agency – and is an update and upgrade from the original X-33. It was officially tested and qualified by the ESA for use in space missions.

Astronaut Jean-François Clervoy helped design some of the features of the X-33 Skywalker and holds a patent related to this. Omega offered him to name the watch and he gave it the name “Skywalker”.

Facts & Figures

  •   Movement:  Omega Calibre 5619 – thermo-compensated quartz
  •   Reference as pictured: 318.90.45.79.01.001
  •   Case & bracelet: Titanium
  •   Diameter:45MM
  •   Bezel: bi-directional, 120 clicks, ceramic with a chromium nitride scale
  •   Sapphire Crystal
  •   Endless features: UTC/GMT, 2 additional time zones, Chronograph, Timer, Mission Elapsed Time, 3 x Phase Elapsed time, 3 Alarms (super loud 80db+)
  •   List Price: 5100 Euro
  •   Water resistance: 30M / 3ATM

I have owned the watch for two weeks and I have been wearing it for these two weeks. It’s a fantastic tool watch but has its quirks.

The box is massive, very heavy and beautifully designed and crafted.

Taking the watch out of the box, you realise how light titanium really is. I have a severe nickel allergy, so I don’t wear any stainless steel and I am used to titanium watches – but this felt particularly light.

The bracelet is easy to adjust – the AD did it for me, but I had to re-adjust at home. A small screwdriver was all that was needed. There are two positions for a quick-adjust of the bracelet, but you still need a tool for this. The clasp is of the two side-button style. It feels sturdy and is easy and familiar to open and close.

The watch has an excellent finish, as you would expect from a watch in this price category. There are 4 pushers and a crown that can be pushed in and pulled out only – it has no turning feature.

Being made mostly out of Grade 2 titanium (this is pure titanium and not an alloy) the watch scratches relatively easily. After 2 weeks, the back already shows quite a few scratches from where the clasp rubs against it when not on the wrist. Titanium was probably chosen for this watch because of its lightness as well as it’s antimagnetic and hypoallergenic properties.

The X-33 Skywalker is relentlessly accurate. This is very difficult to measure at home without professional equipment, my best estimates after 2 weeks of use are that mine gains about one second per month. +12 seconds a year is what you would expect from a quality thermo-compensated quartz.

White hands over a black background make the analogue dial very legible. The legibility of the digital screen is not as good, and there are two reasons for this. First, the hands are in the way a lot of the time. Omega has a solution for this. A quick double tap on the bottom left pusher will clear the hands.

This takes a second or two and you need two free hands, so not easy to do when you are in a rush.

The second reason is the limited contrast of the screen. The type of LCD screen used is easy to read outside in sunlight or in a well-lit room. Mood lighting at a restaurant or generally outside near dawn or dusk, it can be difficult to read. Omega’s solution to this is a backlight that’s activated by a single tap of the bottom left pusher. The backlight stays on for about 5 seconds and makes it easy to read the dial in low-light conditions. The backlight is not very bright, I believe there are two reasons for this: battery life and not killing night vision. Astronauts don’t want to be blinded by a torch-like backlight when working in a dark environment.

A strange quirk here: The second’s hand stops when the backlight is on and jumps the missed seconds when the backlight switches off. This is probably also battery related.

The lume on the hands and the markers is average, but very long lasting. It’s strong enough to check the time in the middle of the night, but if your eyes are not used to the dark, it will take you a few seconds to read the time. Again, I believe that’s designed for space use where not killing night vision is important.

The alarm is very loud as the ESA required 80+ db. To achieve this, Omega had to build in a hollow resonance chamber. The watch has two backs, separated by a millimetre or two. There are several approximately 1mm high and 1 cm wide windows that let out the alarm sound. This does make the watch rather thick at 15mm. Whatever Omega did really works. It’s the loudest alarm I have heard on a watch, by a wide margin. You won’t sleep through it.

Then there is the water resistance: It’s quoted as 30M. There are several forum posts claiming that it’s really 50M for water ingress, but over 3ATM of pressure the internal, very thin case back would start to buckle and the pressure could possibly damage the movement. I have absolutely no proof for this, other than unreliable forum rumours. I am not taking it for a swim anyway. Omega makes plenty of divers much better suited for this.

The best way to understand the X-33’s feature set is to see it in action, so here a video that shows how I set it up when taking a flight from Brussels to Dublin:

The first thing you do when setting up the Skywalker is to set UTC / GMT. That’s the refence time for ESA mission staff and the general global reference time as well as military time and Zulu time. The additional time zones are called T1 and T2 and are set in relation to UTC in 15-minute increments. You are of course free to use UTC time as any other reference time zone, but it will be displayed as UTC and T1 and T2 are always set in reference to whatever you set as UTC.

The analogue hands will always show T1.

Another thing to note for American readers (I believe this is only relevant to the US and maybe Canada?): The date displays as DD.MM.YY. This is not configurable.

(Editors Note : But is of course correct just like using SI units! and of course Lego)

The chronograph and the timer functions need no major explanation, other than that they can run for a ridiculously long time – the chronograph can run for 100 hours and the timer can count down up to 100 days. Well to be accurate 1/100th of a second less than that for the chrono and 1 second less than that for the timer.

Mission Elapsed Time (MET) is designed to count down to the exact moment of rocket lift-off and then count up from there – when setting up launch time you can use UTC, T1 or T2 as a refence point. So this is the “T minus …” you hear off in movies.

Phase Elapsed Time (PE1 and PE2) work the same way but in addition to UTC, T1, and T2, you can also set it in reference MET. So for example “3 days 2 hours and 15 minutes after lift-off (when MET is set for) you ignite the braking sequence of your space shuttle. Or more realistically you want to be at the airport 90 minutes before your flight. If PE1 or PE2 is set relative to MET and you change MET, the former will automatically adjust to the new reference time.

The alarms are quite sophisticated: You can set them to go off every day or on a specific day. When setting the alarm, you can also leave some fields blank. If you for example leave the day and month blank and set the year to 2019 and the time to 7am, the alarm will ring for the rest of the year only at 7am, then switch itself off. If you set the alarm and only set the minutes and seconds to 00, the alarm will go off every hour. You can also have it only go off on a specific day of the week, so for example only on Fridays. I have no idea when these features would be used. What would have been interesting is to have the ability to set it to go off on weekdays but not on the weekend, but that’s not an option.

The three alarms, the three-phase elapsed times and the timer have different alarm tones so you can auditorily keep them separate.

One last feature is the power-saving mode. Pulling out the crown puts the watch into power-saving mode and moves the hands to the 12 positions. This is also how you sync the hands should they ever get out of sync (which happens quite a bit for quartz watches), by simply pushing the corresponding pusher until all the hands are perfectly aligned at 12.

Conclusion

The objective review:

Construction and finishing are excellent. The button action feels quality and robust. There is a positive, satisfying click. I have pressed in the crown button while bending my wrist involuntarily a few times, but luckily that just takes you to the next menu. It doesn’t start or stop any timers or countdowns or change any settings.

The X-33 Skywalker tells the time very accurately. Three time zones and three alarms are great features for those that travel a lot and the loud alarm makes it a great replacement or backup for the alarm on the phone – something I believe will become more and more important as experts keep telling us not to bring our mobile phones into our bedrooms. Bezel action is a 6/10. Lume a 5/10. It’s not a well-known watch, so don’t get it if you want your watch to be noticed. But it’s a great conversation starter amongst us watch people. It’s expensive for quartz. It’s very versatile if you stay away from the water. I probably wouldn’t wear it for a wedding or similarly formal affair, but I have no problem wearing it to the office.

Objective conclusion: there are better looking quartz watches out there with multiple time zones and chrono, timer and alarm features for a lot less money.

But since when are watch purchases at this level an objective decision?

The subjective review:

Yes, it’s quartz and we all love mechanical watches. Yes, it is complicated. Yes, it has features that you will probably never use. Yes, it’s not always easy to read. Yes, it’s overengineered for us non-astronauts.

But those are exactly the reasons why I like it. Every annoying quirk I found – the low intensity backlight, the mediocre lume, the easily scratched grade 2 titanium case, the limited water resistance – is not an oversight or sloppiness on Omega’s part but is there by design and necessity. These are integral features of the watch.

It’s a great, well-executed piece. Being part of the Speedmaster range, it has real heritage and it also has real R&D behind it. It’s as much a real tool watch as you can find today. It has not been “dumbed down” for the general public and it makes no compromises nor excuses – and that makes the X-33 Skywalker special.

Wearing a watch that is actually used in space for more than just telling time feels special. Its features were designed by an astronaut, it’s certified by a space agency and has an actual use in space.

At first glance, it very different from the original Moonwatch. But the more I think about it, the more I realise it’s very similar. Astronauts today still wear the Moonwatch – but for nostalgic reasons. Today it’s the X-33 Skywalker that is the ultimate tool watch for those lucky enough to have every kid’s (and many adult’s) ultimate dream job. Just like the original Moonwatch was for astronauts of the Apollo missions 50 years go.

The subjective conclusion: Take my money already.

A quick note to finish: I was very impressed by Omega’s customer service. I contacted them early July asking about the X-33, explaining about my nickel allergy. Over 3 weeks there were a few emails back and forth and they agreed to change the screws that fix the back to the watch with custom titanium screws. The original screws were 316L stainless steel – I would have had a reaction to them after a few hours. They sent me a letter that I hand in when the watch goes in for a battery change or a service to make sure the service center staff don’t replace any of those screws. And they did this for no additional cost and let me negotiate the price with the AD in Dublin, who were also very accommodating. It took 4 weeks from me agreeing to buy the watch to the AD receiving it.

For any other nickel allergy sufferers: the bracelet buckle pin is bolted through the titanium buckle. This is the only other piece of steel that touches the skin, but since it is not visible when the watch is being worn. I decided to buy the watch on the bracelet anyway and put a tiny amount of clear nail varnish on that spot to stop direct skin contact.

Omega made me aware of this during my email conversation with them and initially recommended I buy the solar impulse limited edition of this watch, which comes on a NATO strap and for which they have a titanium buckle. Since I didn’t like the colours of the limited edition, they suggested one of the NATO straps that have canvas or leather keepers and order the titanium buckle separately. They send me the reference number for that buckle: 025TIZ00640. I didn’t explain my nail varnish solution to them, I am sure they would have been horrified 🙂

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