The year 2015 is shaping up to be the “Year of the Smartwatch,” as Apple releases their long-awaited watch this month, Pebble Time just raised over twenty million dollars in a record-destroying Kickstarter campaign, and it seems that nearly every week we learn about a new Android Wear watch—even Huawei is getting in on the game.
But I’m not here today to review any of these fancy new wearables. I’m here to review a device that long precedes the current popularity of “wearables.” Decades before the elusive $200 “Microsoft Band,” Microsoft partnered with Timex to develop the world’s first smartwatch: the Timex Datalink.
Released in 1994, the Timex Datalink was the first watch to synchronize personal data from a computer. Yes, I have one, and that’s my wrist pictured above.
I got my Datalink brand new in 1995, when Microsoft was offering them as a mail-in bonus with the purchase of Microsoft Office 95. As in, I actually cut out the UPC “proof of purchase” from our boxed copy of Office 95 and physically mailed it in with a rebate form. Six to eight weeks later my Timex Datalink arrived.
Here’s a quick rundown of all the features packed into this not-so-modern technological marvel:
- Stores up to 150 phone numbers (hence the “150” in the model name)
- Synchronize contacts, appointments, and to-do lists directly from your computer
- Five separate daily alarms
- Twelve loadable “WristApps” like stopwatch, countdown timer, and a golf scorekeeper.
- 10 Selectable chime/beep sound effects
- 11.2mm thick, 42mm diameter, and weighs 114g (with my after-market metal link band)
- Three-row LCD, bottom row is an 8-character dot-matrix display
- Three year battery life on a single replaceable CR2025 3V battery
- Takes a licking and keeps on ticking
The watch receives all of this data from the PC wirelessly. Of course, the Datalink doesn’t use Bluetooth. Although Bluetooth was invented the same year the Datalink was released, the first devices to use the now-ubiquitous wireless protocol were not released until 2000. The Datalink’s wireless technology really has to be seen to be believed. Check out this vintage TV commercial:
You heard that right. The Datalink PC app transmits everything to the watch by rapidly flashing a series of barcodes on your computer’s screen. It’s like some crazy engineer’s hack, but instead of posting it on Reddit, Timex and Microsoft released it as a serious commercial product. And the really crazy thing is that it actually works… or rather, it used to work.
It turns out there are some downsides to lugging around technology old enough to legally enjoy a stiff drink. You may have noticed in the video above that the 1994 monitor is a bit… thicker than the flat panels we’re used to using today. Unfortunately if you haven’t upgraded your smartwatch since 1994, you haven’t been able to upgrade your monitor, either. It turns out that crazy engineer’s data transmission hack only works with CRT monitors. Oh, and the Datalink software will only run on a 32-bit Windows PC. Luckily I’m enough of a computer geek that I still happen both of these ingredients lying around so I can still use my Datalink.
Sure, the Timex Datalink doesn’t send me alerts from my phone, count my steps, track my sleep, or run apps from Amazon, Redfin, Uber, or… well, anyone, as it turns out. But as the earliest entry into the Smartwatch race, pre-dating the rest of the market by well over a decade, it’s actually pretty impressive. It’s even got the current field thoroughly beaten in at least one category: battery life.
Timex hasn’t sold the Datalink since the late 1990s, but you can pick one up for $70-$115 on eBay. Just remember to budget a little extra for the CRT and an old 32-bit PC.