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It Seems the Raison d'Etre for Today's Sport Watches Is Seeing How Many Gizmos Can Fit on Your Wrist


Blame it on Dick Tracy.

If you can't figure out whether that sport watch you have your eye on is the one with the brain wave monitor or the one that slices, dices and chops or the one that can display the time in a dozen parallel dimensions simultaneously, send your nasty letters to the comics page. Because ever since Dick Tracy went high-tech and started foiling crooks with the two-way wrist radio, Americans have had a love affair with gimmicky watches.

The maturing of the computer chip threw us, though. A bit more than 20 years ago, a simple LED (light-emitting diode) digital display was enough to dazzle us. But today we can buy watches with more function displays than a Lear Jet cockpit. Sport watches have become, essentially, tiny computers.

These functions look and sound terrific at the sales display. But what do they actually do? And why?

First, a few of the more common functions:

* Water resistance. Many sport watches indicate the depth at which the watch can withstand water pressure (commonly, 100 meters).

* Shock resistance. If you're both active and rough.

* An alarm and a periodic chime or beep that can be set on the hour.

* A stopwatch, sometimes referred to as a chronograph.

* A lap timer. This can time individual laps and give total elapsed time for all laps, otherwise known as "split times." This is useful in running or cycling races for timing distance splits, or at auto races for timing laps.

* A countdown timer. Can be used as anything from an egg timer (counts down to zero and beeps) to a reminder to keep a certain running pace (counts down to zero, beeps and starts counting down again).

* A light. To illuminate the face in the dark.

* Time programs. These can include 24-hour (or military) time displays, a second time zone display, day, date and calendar.

The two companies that are perhaps the biggest manufacturers of sport watches, Timex and Casio, have used these features, in various combinations, in a broad variety of timepieces. The general rule of thumb is, the more features, the higher the price. The basic models are still relatively inexpensive, however, beginning in the $20 to $30 range.

Things can get substantially sexier, however:

* Timex's Ironman Triathlon series (the best-selling sport watch in the world, says the company) has recently been re-engineered to include one model with a data transfer function. Point the watch's face at a computer screen (the computer must be running Microsoft Windows programs, including a specific Timex program that comes with the watch) and the watch's light sensor reads a set of flashing light bars, which can communicate up to 70 entries of appointments, phone numbers and other data to the watch. Certain specific sport applications can also be downloaded; for instance, specific timing functions for soccer, basketball and football. The watch sells for about $130.

* Memo functions. Some Timex sport watches allow the wearer to program in 10 memos, each composed of three, eight-character "pages."

As advanced as this sounds, it's good to remember that the sport watches of today have a common antecedent in the diver's watch.

At the least, said Todd Hansen, assistant manager of Pacific Wilderness, a diving shop in Orange, a diver's watch should include a rotating bezel "for keeping your dive time in case your instruments were to go out on you." Also, he said, the watch should be rated at a depth greater than 100 feet if it will be used for scuba diving.

"There are some newer ones out there that actually act as a dive computer," Hansen said. "They're nice to have but not everybody can afford one"--usually more than $300. The features, he said, can include time, water temperature, depth, a bottom timer, a dive number indicator "and with some you can even download this data into a computer."

For data-loving landlubbers, Casio has weighed in with its Workout line. The most complex of these watches features all the usual functions, plus a pacer signal and a feature that allows wearers to program in their weight, pace, age and stride, and determine from this their exercise time, calorie consumption, distance traveled and number of steps taken.

All this functionality can be intimidating or beautiful in its own way. In general, sport watches continue to be thick, blocky and bristling with little buttons and various displays. Style arbiters even sniped at President Clinton for wearing a Timex Ironman Triathalon with his business suit. But many of the newer models are being dressed up with bright color bands and iridescent casings and faces.

The ne plus ultra of sport watches, however, may be those that include a heart rate function. One of the best-known manufacturers of these devices is Polar, said Jay Nelson, a sales associate at A Snail's Pace Running Shop in Fountain Valley.

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