Three hands, date windows, steel cases ranging from 38.7mm to 40mm in diameter, and Arabic numeral dials. This is not your average shoot-out, as we couldn’t help but think it would make things more interesting if we took comparable watches and ratcheted up the price spectrum in $1,000 increments (roughly). What we’re looking at today is the Alpina Startimer Pilot Automatic ($1,084 USD), the Longines Spirit ($2,150 USD), and the S.U.F Helsinki 180 ($2,573.34 USD without VAT or $3,190.94 with VAT). Two came in for review, and one is a part of my personal collection, and all three are incredibly charming little field/tool/go-anywhere-do-anything/call-it-whatever-you-want watches that each have a healthy amount of appeal in their respective price brackets. This was an impromptu shoot, and a comparison that spawned from the fluke opportunity of having all three watches on hand at the same time. Sure, we could have stepped down the scale or up the scale, but this is where we landed. We’re sure plenty of you will have options, suggestions, and criticism to throw into the comments section once you hit the end of the page. Did I mention they all also have solid casebacks?

Deciding on a “Basic” Watch

Before getting into how these three watches stack up against each other, first we make the case for why something like this belongs in your collection in the first place. Let’s ignore diameter for a moment, knowing that not everyone likes a 40mm watch, the same way not everyone likes ANY particular case size. The idea behind a simple 3-hander with Arabic numerals and without a timing bezel is simple. It’s a clean look that’s more casual than a typical dress watch, but slim and simple enough to pass for “dressy”. It ticks all the requisite boxes for a day-to-night transition piece for the same reasons that Rolex-obsessed collectors and editors go on about the Explorer incessantly (and at any available opportunity). Diversity within a watch collection is great, but so is the ability to wear one watch for everything, whether you’re at home or hitting the road for a few days.

Budget—Why Spend More?

This is a touchy one as always, and one that I know I’ll take heat on—I’m ready for it. Fact is, some people sweat different details differently for others. Some will say “the cheaper option looks great, why would I spend more?” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others will say “I really like the attention paid to details X, Y, and Z on the more expensive one, so why would I spend less?” and that’s equally acceptable in my books. We’ve seen the never ending threads about the price of a watch not matching the sum of its parts based on what little information the enthusiast sect reads on the internet. We also know that this is not how the world works. Long story short, I’m going to go through the details of each of these watches, looking at a handful of key categories. We won’t touch movement finishing, as the casebacks are closed. We won’t touch movement accuracy, as I do not have appropriate measuring equipment available. Each brand has their respective accuracy specs available online, and all three watches carry warranties that will cover those matters should they arise. Instead we’re going to focus on dials, hands, case dimensions and finishing, strap choices, and other little details that will often make or break a purchasing decision.

Dials, Hands, and Dates, Oh My

Looking at the dials and hands of the 180, the Spirit, and the Startimer, it’s pretty obvious to say that one is a more traditional pilot than its two counterparts—if one follows the IWC pilot’s watch aesthetic as the operating baseline. Let’s ignore that for a moment. The first noteworthy difference at hand here is that the S.U.F is the only watch in the trio that has a printed dial; both the Longines and Alpina are fitted with applied indices filled with luminous material. To some, applied indices will always trump printing, however the execution of the S.U.F is quite flawless. Its numerals and railroad minute track are printed in a silver finish, and the white plots at each hour (including the batons at 3-6-9 and triangle at 12) are luminous. I had high hopes for the lume on both of the others, but unfortunately the Alpina falls quite short of the other two. With even a modest blast of daylight the Longines glows like a torch, and the smaller plots of the S.U.F 180 also delivers an appropriate level of legibility. Apologies for the lack of a lume shot, but trust me when I say that the Alpina was underwhelming.

From a dial finish standpoint, both the Longines and Alpina dials have a matte finish, whereas the S.U.F is glossy. That said, the black and silver/white dial variants of the 180 are offered with a matte grained finish. If we were to go apples-to-apples, the Longines dial does come across as the most elaborate, detailed, and spendy of the pack. Aside from its applied numerals, the polished silver ring located to the inside of the minute track adds an additional bit of character that immediately stands out when it catches a touch of sunlight. I could do without the addition of the five applied stars above the “chronometer” reference on the dial, though this is a historical detail that references vintage Longines models (specifically the Admiral 5 Star from the ‘70s). In contrast, the Alpina Startimer’s dial is stark, with simple utilitarian black printing throughout with black hands to match. In this white guise, the touch of red at 12 o’clock and on its seconds hand counterbalance adds a nice pop of color, as does the red tip of the seconds hand of the Longines.
Watch Hand Analog watch Arm Watch accessory

While we’re talking hands, once again we’re pretty much ranking as Longines, S.U.F, and Alpina as our one-two-three. From a quality of execution standpoint, the S.U.F and Longines are pretty much apples to apples, with the upper hand going to Longines for the added detail seen in its seconds hand. Aside from the contrasting red detail, the use of a trapezoid “lollipop” tip that matches the small trapezoid indices every 5 minutes is a slick little detail. When we get to the Alpina Startimer, those hands just fall flat. The leaflike profile isn't well suited to the rest of the dial, and if anything the amount of black on the hands seems to overpower the white dial.

Lastly, as we take a peek at the date windows, we’re on a level playing field. None of the three brands in play opted to frame the date windows of their respective references, and all opted for fairly ubiquitous date wheels. The Alpina disc is obviously stock issue, based on its appearance, and unfortunately the line weight of the numerals pales in contrast to the line weight of any of the black details found on its dial. Longines, on the other hand, went a little weird by using a faux-aged beige for its date wheel numerals, that don’t quite match the luminous application on the hands or dial. It’s not bad, but it is also a hair out of place. S.U.F, lastly, went with a black date disc to support the red dial, which looks better than white would have. With a red dial, I can’t help but think that a red date disc would be a hindrance to legibility of a standard-sized date.

The Case of the Cases—Where The True Differences Shine

As noted in our intro, these watches run pretty close to one another in diameter, but can you tell which is which based on the imagery provided? The Longines and Alpina both measure 40mm across, and the S.U.F is 38.7mm. While the diameter difference is nominal, the HUGE differences lie in the design of the lugs of each of these cases, as well as in their respective case thicknesses. Let’s go through the specs first. The S.U.F Helsinki 180 has a 20mm lug width, and measures 46.4mm from lug to lug, and 8.9mm thick. The Longines Spirit has 21mm lugs, it’s 49.6mm lug to lug, and 12.5mm thick. Lastly the Alpina Startimer Pilot has 20mm lugs, and measures 48.5mm lug to lug, and 10.25mm thick. The Longines Spirit is hands-down the most “misleading” 40mm watch of the pack, as those long, flat, burly lugs occupy a ton of real estate, almost disproportionately in contrast to its compact dial aperture. The Alpina’s case is the most traditional in dimensions for the category, I’d argue, wearing as one comes to expect from the 40mm diameter category after years of trying on/testing/reviewing watches for a living. In contrast, the compact S.U.F is downright svelte—a huge part of its charm.

Two of three (the Alpina and Longines) use screw-down crowns to achieve 100m (or 10 ATM, or 10 Bar) of water resistance, whereas the S.U.F 180 relies on gaskets to get the job done. None of the watches have a “bad” crown, per se, though I did find the gasket position in the Alpina crown to create some unwarranted drag when screwing the crown down to the point of feeling like it’s on the verge of cross threading. I also found its conical crown shape to be the most prone of the three to dig into my wrist from time to time. Though not nearly as bad as some other offenders I’ve experienced over the years (my Ming was notoriously bad for this), it’s still a point worth noting.

When it comes to case finishing, the three watches very much run in line with their respective price brackets. The Alpina feels very “off the production line”, in that there is not a lot of fine or detailed work in its case design whatsoever, and rather it airs on the side of utility. Minor polished bevels flare out from the case flanks to the tip of its lugs, but there’s nothing dramatic going on otherwise. The Longines is more refined with consistent beveling from end to end, however the machined edges on the inside of the lugs provide clear insight into its mass-produced status. This again is not so much a critique but rather an expression of what we’ve come to expect from any of the big players in this $2k automatic price category. From stem to stern the case of the S.U.F 180 is a different animal. A polished concave curve bezel with crisp edges steps down into the flanks of the case. Lug beveling is faint but consistent. Its lugs mate into the tight edges of the case barrel. The brushing of the case is also far more refined and consistent than that of its counterparts, as the image above clearly reveals. It’s all these details—these minor and to some inconsequential details—that sets the S.U.F apart by a fair margin.

Fits and Straps

I’ll do my best to be a bit less long-winded with this category, as it’s a pretty simple one to rattle off. When talking straps, The Alpina isn’t bad but clearly needs a good amount of break-in time that couldn’t be accomplished over the course of a 2 or 3 week review rotation. The Longines strap on the other hand felt rather well broken in from day one, and it also came on a factory bracelet that I found made the watch feel obnoxiously disproportionate (too much metal, not enough dial). The S.U.F strap I can’t fairly speak to, as the straps that mine is equipped with are not the standard calfskin leather that the new watch would deliver with. It’s pin buckles all around for this trio, and I’m not complaining about that either (a personal choice, but deployant clasps are seldom good these days as far as I’m concerned, unless you’re shopping in a higher price bracket).

On the wrist, as someone with a 6 and ¾ inch wrist, the Alpina and S.U.F are winners, and the Longines is chunkier than I would like it to be. If you’re one of countless folks on here with larger wrists, the Longines is a great fit, but it’s the least adaptable for those of you that consider yourselves to have more slender wrists. There’s also the matter of versatility to consider, and to be fair none of the options are perfect. The S.U.F’s compact dimensions are bound to trigger some psychologically, in that a watch this slender isn’t suited for day-to-day use and abuse. Meanwhile the visual heft of the Longines Spirit is almost overbearing, to the point that sneaking it under a cuff might be a bit iffy. It’s better than doing so with a Submariner or IWC Big Pilot, mind you, but it’s still not ideal.

The Guts and Closing Thoughts

Three different watches, and three different calibers all stand before us. The Alpina is powered by the Alpina AL-525, which is a rebranded Sellita SW200 with a power reserve of 38h. The Longines is the highest spec movement on paper, with a Chronometer-certified ETA-based caliber L888.4. This movement bumps its beat rate down to 3.5 Hz or 25,000 vibrations per hour (compared to the 4 Hz or 28,800 VPH of the two other movements seen here) in order to achieve a longer 72h power reserve. The S.U.F on the other hand uses the less common and more expensive Soprod A10 caliber, which is generally more nicely finished, uses a Glucydur antimagnetic balance, and delivers a power reserve of 42 hours. As we mentioned, we cannot speak to the finishing of any of the above calibers due to the closed nature of the casebacks.

At the end of the day, these three watches are equal parts similar and vastly different from one another—each of which align relatively well in their respective price brackets without being overpriced or a huge bargain for what they deliver. I’ve already spoken with my dollar, having purchased the S.U.F 180. This was done prior to the other models launching, but even with the other contenders in the ring, I wouldn’t change my mind.

What about you? Which of this trio tickles your fancy and why? All of them? None of them? Let’s hear why in the comments below.

See More of the Alpina Startimer Pilot

See More of the Longines Spirit

See More of the S.U.F Helsinki 180