Friday, April 18, 2014

Spyderco Smallfly Review

Audacity is one hallmark of a good designer.  They must possess a sense of confidence in their abilities that makes it possible for them to alter and modify existing, historical, and in many cases, successful designs.  Sal Glesser and the folks at Spyderco are nothing if not audacious.  Their hole opener fundamentally altered the knife design landscape for the better.  The Spyderco Smallfly, and its big brother the Spyderfly, are even more radical departures from the traditional form.  The point of this review is to figure out if those departures are, like the Spyder hole, good for the design.

Until two months ago I had very little experience with balisongs.  Since then I have had something like a crash course.  I have two--a very traditional inexpensive M-tech and the Smallfly.  I have a friend that has practiced Filipino martial arts for more than 30 years and he was kind enough to tutor me in the ways of the balisong.  And then I practiced.  I practiced whenever I could have one hand free--talking on the phone, doing menial data entry, and the like.  Packing lunches late at night was often a good time to swing the balisong around.  My two months don't make me an expert, but at this point I have reviewed enough knives to know what works.  

Here is the Spyderco Source page, there is no product page on Spyderco's site anymore.  Here is a written review.  Here is a video review.  Here is the review sample (purchased from Merrimack Knife and Tool):

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The review sample will be given away.  Because of the strict legal controls placed on the sale and distribution of balisongs, this contest is LOCAL only.  The first person to drive to Merrimack Knife and Tool on 101A in Nashua, NH (directions here) with a copy of this review, wins the Smallfly.  I wish I could open this up to other folks, but the laws regarding balisongs are so restrictive that doing so invite trouble.  

Twitter Review Summary: The Spyder-fied balisong works well and is very good for beginners

Design: 2

While the core of the knife is all balisong, the touches make it clearly a Spyderco.  Going from the BaliYo pen (which I happened to buy on a lark around Christmas--terrible pen, fun toy) to the Smallfly was not that difficult to do at all.  Going from this knife to a "real" balisong or from the BaliYo to a real balisong is an enormous leap.  I am not sure that is a good thing or a bad thing.  The knife is clearly well thought out and well designed.  I am not a balison buff so telling you how balisong it is is something I can't do, but I can tell you it works as a balisong and it is quite a good little knife.

The normal ratios are bit silly on balisongs.  The design makes the blade:handle always look odd.  Here it is .66, which is pretty atrocious for a normal folder.  The blade:weight is much better at .98.  Here is the knife next to the Zippo:

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Fit and Finish: 2

I have experienced widely differing levels of fit and finish on Spyderco's USA made blades.  My Paramilitary 2 review sample was downright rough.  This was not a unique or rare occurrence.  My Manix2 LW was, however, superb.  Here the Smallfly is more like the Manix2 LW.  The pivots are especially nice and the handle scales, though hard to photograph, look great:

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Thanks to phosphor bronze washers, the pivots, while tight, let the knife roll with grace and ease during flipping.  They are truly great pivots.  The handles are nicely chamfered and that gives the knife a completed appearance and makes rolling the handles, a crucial move in many balisong tricks, relatively easy to do.  

Grip: 2

The grip on this knife is really quite strong, much stronger than normal, traditional balisongs.  Gone are the slick handles that make tricks easy and in their place are grippier handles.  This is the first sign that this knife is not primarily a trick machine, but instead an actual user knife. 

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There is jimping on the handle and the G10 is grippy without being offensive.  The gentle scallops along the handle do well to hold your hand in place and help minimize pinching, something that happens often when you are a beginner doing tricks on a traditional balisong.

Carry: 1

There is no way around it--this knife is mediocre in the pocket.  A traditional balisong is slim and graceful.  This thing is wide and clumsy.  Second, the offset pocket clip makes the knife tend to roll when carried, much like a clipped multitool does.  Its not my favorite set up, but its not awful. 

Steel: 2

154CM is one of my favorite mid priced steels and a steel that has gotten better the more I have experience with it.  In this knife, it is positively awesome.  The grind really does take full advantage of the steel's properties and the result is a great cutter.  This is the second sign that this is designed to be a real knife and not a sideshow.

Blade Shape: 1

Wow, that's a crazy recurve: 

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Sharpening this knife might be more difficult than sharpening the Zulu or even the ZT0350, my least favorite knife to grind.  The blade shape is just not helpful.  It doesn't do anything really, and if balance was a concern, they should have opted for a simple spearpoint.  As I get older and more experienced with knives I have come to not even like the LOOK of a recurve.  Perhaps now I just see it as a sharpening chore instead of a cool, aggressive design.  

Grind: 2

Spyderco knows how to do grinds.  They aren't as perfect as SOG's but they are very effective.  The key, one I don't understand how others have missed, is the very wide cutting bevel.  I am not a fan of spearpoint blade shapes, as they tend to make the main bevel very steep, but here, in this knife, its not much a bother.  Your very unlike to do a ton of rope cutting or other tasks where material will bunch, given the lack of a lock and the balisong form.  

Deployment Method: 2

In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the wielding of a balisong is just short of a form of ballet.  They can be deployed fast and gracefully.  Watching my friend open and close a balisong I quickly realized why they are so feared.  Nothing, not even a switchblade, matches the intimidation factor of a properly brandished balisong.  The fact that you can also deploy them discretely is a testament to the greatness of the form itself.

Here, the deployment is as good as most folding knives, even good flippers, but it is just a bit less amazing than the normal balisong (which is essentially a deployment method with a knife built around it).  The holes, shown below, can be used for deployment:

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That does not, however, make up for the fact that the blocky handles drop this down a notch in terms of balisong deployments.  This isn't the Benchmade 42 (widely regarded as one of the best production balisongs made, and now out of production).  Great for a regular knife and decent for a balisong.

Retention Method: 2

I really like the wire clip, especially this iteration of it--the high tension version. It is secure, discrete, and doesn't interfere with grip (unlike the over the top squared off version). 

Lock/Blade Safety: 0

Look, you have to understand going in that balisongs are more difficult and dangerous to deploy than other knives.  That's just a fact.  You can learn to make that danger less, but there is no question that opening a balisong takes much more hand-eye coordination than a flipper does, for example.  So that is an issue inherent to the form.  I am not willing to dock the knife a point for that, but if you are thinking about a balisong, consider this a disclaimer. 

The thing that I strongly dislike about the Smallfly is the fact that you cannot lock the blade open.  This is an issue particular to this design.  This latch locks the knife closed:

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Nothing, but your hand, prevents the knife from closing in the open position.  This means that you can't readily put the knife down during a cutting task.  The smooth pivots are great for flipping, but will move around on you if you are doing intermittent tasks.  Not good.  Furthermore, there is no good reason why the knife has to work this way.  Many untraditional balisong designs allow the latch to swing around to lock the knife in both the open and closed position.  This is really a glaring oversight in an otherwise thoughful revision of the traditional form.

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

As a knife the Smallfly is very interesting.  It is a good blade and more of a user than many balisongs out there.  In the end the changes Sal et. al. made make this knife a better user, a better cutter than most balisongs, but the omission of a locking open mechanism seems like a pretty boneheaded move.  If that problem is fixed, this knife would be about as good a user knife as the balisong form allows.

I can't do the flipping and high speed twirls that many balisong fans can do, so I am not going to pretend to evaluate that aspect of the knife.  I'd imagine there is probably some "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" going on here, but that is just a guess.  Its that kind of thinking however, that a truly great designer acknowledges and then promptly ignores.  The holes as the base of the handle do make simple, BaliYo style tricks easy, offering you another layer of tricks that a normal balisong doesn't have, but I am not sure if that matters all that much.

This is a good, unique balisong. It is a capable user.  I am not sure if the Spyderco touches are improvements to the traditional form, but they do work.  The one omission is a pretty big one, though.    





Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Spyderco Smallfly Video Overview

The full review is in the works, but until then, continuing this week's theme, here is a video overview of the Spyderco Smallfly:


Monday, April 14, 2014

The Balisong

This is the start of Balisong Week.  Not only am I going to review (and give away) the extremely hard to find Spyderco Smallfly, I am going to kick things off with an overview of this most interesting of blades.

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If you like design and you like knives you have to at least appreciate the elegance of the balisong (known in the US also as a butterfly knife).  Few things are as simple and effective as a balisong.  The lock up is as solid as you can get in a folding knife.  The deployment is so fast that it drew the ire of lawmakers when the updated the USA Switchblade Act (15 USC 1241-1245) the first time they had a chance to review and amend it.  This is a design geek's knife.

The history of balisongs is fascinating.  The name is derived, not from Benchmade, as their trademark on "Bali-Song" would have you believe, but from the Tagalog phrase "folding horn".  It is a beautiful example of a clever turn of phrase: "baling sungay" becomes "balisong" and once translated you know exactly what a baling sungay is.  There is no exact inventor, but they were very widespread in the Tagalog region of the Phillipines.  Like the Barlow, the design of balisongs is such that they can be made with substandard materials and still perform very, very well.  Typically they had brass or pot tin handles, saving the better metal, usually leaf springs, for the blade.  If the maker had a lot of the higher quality steel available, they also fashioned the stop pins and the pivots out of them to help with the flipping action and to reduce the impact of wear and practice.  Generally they came with clip point or spear point blades and almost always had a hollow grind.  

I was lucky enough to have a friend that studied Filipino fighting techniques centered around the balisong.  He saw me playing with my Spyderco BaliYo (good toy, terrible, terrible pen) and told me it was time to take the training wheels off.  He was wrong--a few minutes into practicing with a real knife my slashed knuckles proved I was more uncoordinated than he thought.  But the time he spent with me showing me how to open and close the balisong was not only a good deal of fun, it was illuminating.  He has used a balisong for so long and made so many of his own that he knows the design inside and out and his information has helped me appreciate what makes a good balisong good.  

First, you want very loose pivots.  Even those with a bit of blade play are fine, so long as it is forced out when the knife is fully deployed.  Second, you want handles that don't quite meet on their own.  They should only meet when you put pressure on them, and that means they should have a bit of flex to them.  Third, the stop pins need to strike the handles in just the right place.  If they don't the whole knife doesn't work.  Finally and most importantly you want handles that are rounded over to allow for smooth, fluid flipping.



All of this pretty basic stuff, especially for people that have been using and flipping balisongs for a long time, but it was all new to me. 

The takeaway, besides the centrality of flipping to the balisong design, is the fact that like the Barlow and the AK-47, this is a tool and a weapon that can be made to work very, very well with substandard materials and relatively low-tech manufacturing methods.  The amount of blade play shocked me, but my friend insisted that was actual a GOOD thing.  And he was dead on.  The rounded over handles look cheap, as if they are cut from rods (which is probably true of authentic lower budget Filipino designs), but again that form factor actually works best.  In the end I realized that the balisong is not just a triumph of good design (which it is), but it is also a triumph of great production.  Everything is in service to performance, and you can achieve performance with very basic and rudimentary materials.  

If its legal where you live and you haven't tried out a balisong, it is probably worth a try.  You can find absolutely suitable designs for around $30.  They will be more than enough to get you started.  One pro-tip from Mr. Uncoordinated--tape off the cutting edge until you get the flipping down pat.  Or at least that's what my knuckles told me to tell you.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tom Bihn Cadet Review Update

After reviewing the Founder's Briefcase recently I decided it was time to update the Cadet review.  Instead of appending a paragraph to the original, I thought I'd do a post on it for a few reasons.  First, I think the update is needs more detail than a paragraph can hold.  Second, I think the Cadet is such a good product that I want to highlight it for readers.  If you need a briefcase start here.  Third, I have a video showing how I use the Cadet and I thought it warranted its own post.

First, here is the video of how I use the Cadet and how I have it configured.


The Cadet is not just a good briefcase, it is my most important work tool.  It makes it possible for me to be a better lawyer and that is worth quite a bit.  It also happens to still look awesome more than two years later, but that's just a very nice bonus.

The Cadet makes me a better lawyer because I can carry less but do more.  The law is, and always will be, an enterprise intimately tied to geography.  In part because of our system of federalism and in part because of the size of the United States, all law is local.  When a big celebrity or wealthy person gets in trouble away from home, their fancy lawyers usually hire the very best local person to handle the case because they know the judges and the laws better than even the fancy lawyer does.  This means that lawyers drive a lot.  I never drive all that far; this isn't long haul trucking, but I do drive a lot.

Two things that I dinged the Cadet on in the original review were Ease of Packing and Straps.

My criticism of the packing ability of the bag centered around the fact that the zipper mouth was small.  I have come to learn that large zipper mouths are, in fact, more of a hassle.  They are prone to unzipping at inopportune times and falling open.  Not only can this NOT happen with the Cadet's zipper, I have come to realize that this thing packs very well.  This is part of the problem with reviewing bags.  There is so much going on, unlike with a knife or a flashlight, that these benefits are hard to see in a short timeframe.  Additionally because I am not a pack rat, but a user, I needed to try a lot more bags before I realized just how ingenious the Bihn Cadet's smaller zipper mouth really was.

Upgrade 1 point.

The second thing I didn't like was how grippy the Absolute strap was.  I was worried that it would take my sports jacket off my shoulder.  That concern was completely unfounded and, in fact, I have come to appreciate the fact that the bag just stays put.  Constantly jerking the bag back into place is bad for you.  It puts a lot of stress on your back and shoulder.  I never do that now.  I am convinced.  The strap here, like the famous Red Oxx strap, is the way to go.  Stay put please.

Upgrade 1 point.

In the two plus years I have had the bag, it has served me incredibly well.  It looks more professional than a messenger bag, but not as stuffy as a hard side briefcase.  It has handled use and abuse exceedingly well, looking virtually new after lots of travel and lots of snow.  I have no hestitation in saying this is the perfect briefcase.  If you need a laptop, it can carry that too, though perhaps not as well as the Founder's Briefcase (though it is close).  But the age of the laptop is ending and in that more mobile, more flexible age, the Cadet rules.

I never understood why sailors loved the ship they served on so much.  It was an object.  But I have come to feel a small bit of that towards the Cadet.  This bag has been with me through many trials, literal and figurative.  It is a well-design tool and it has made me better at my job.  You can't really ask for more from a bag than that.

This is the perfect small briefcase.    

Overall Score: 20 out of 20, PERFECT.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tom Bihn Founder's Briefcase Review

I am a lawyer, so I kinda have a thing for briefcases.  Like farmers and tractors, lawyers and briefcases go together.  They are called briefcases for a reason--you used to be able to store an entire file or brief in the case.  Briefcases have since moved beyond that original meaning, but their utility has never waned.  In the age of the laptop, the briefcase form factor was easily modernized by the inclusion of a padded sleeve to protect the precious computing cargo inside.  But the age of the laptop is over and still so many briefcases come with the obligatory and now virtually unneeded laptop sleeve.  These briefcases also usually have a 3 side zipper to allow for easy extraction of a laptop.  As normally constructed, the modern laptop briefcase is, well, a real hunk of junk if you don't carry a laptop.  This is the main reason I switched to the Tom Bihn Cadet, dropping the enormous Tumi bag loaded with vestigial features as handy as your tailbone. 

When Darcy from Tom Bihn contacted me about reviewing the Founder's Briefcase with its 3 side zipper and padded laptop sleeve I was a little worried.  It shared too many features with that monster of a bag I used to have.  I agreed nonetheless and I am glad I did.  My preconceptions weren't totally wrong, but I was surprised at just how good this bag was.  It proved to me, yet again, that Tumi stuff is overpriced junk with all of the design sophistication of the Subaru Baja (sorry Baja fans). 

Wanting to make sure I wasn't crazy I lent the bag to a fellow lawyer to get her take on it.  She used it for a week and then reported back.  Here is her take:

I was impressed by how much it could hold. I was able to fit many more files than I expected. It has lots of pockets – but my favorite one was the zipper pocket on the top edge inside the main pocket.

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It was perfect for easy access to my pens, phone, keys, ID etc because I was able to reach into it while walking and carrying the bag on my shoulder. The thorough padding makes it seem like a very durable laptop bag, although I didn’t try my laptop in it. My one complaint is that this particular bag can really only by worn messenger style (NOTE: see more on this below). When I wore it on just one shoulder it would constantly slip off. As a professional woman I generally don’t find messenger bags to be flattering. When I was wearing it over my winter coat it wasn’t an issue, but I never wore it messenger style when I was just wearing a suit coat because I just don’t find it comfortable or attractive.  I also dislike them in general because when I’m feeling uncoordinated it can be less than a graceful maneuver to get them off, which tends to look less than professional in front of clients. So that’s personal preference, but in general it was a great bag and seemed very durable.

Here is the product page.  Here is a video on the bag.  Here is a review of the bag.  Here is the review sample (already returned to Tom Bihn):

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For purposes of this review I carried my wife's Mac Book Pro and my iPad for two days each.  I don't have a laptop anymore, so I had to borrow one.

Twitter Review Summary: If you still need a laptop briefcase, stop looking...this is it.

Design: 1

If you accept that this is a laptop briefcase, you'd be pleased with how it works.  The entire bag is very slim, given that it contains essentially a double padded interior.  I liked the overall slim size and I liked the placement of the shoulder straps, which are situated diagonally over the 3-side zipper (as opposed to being anchored to the sides of the bag, which is impossible because of the zipper).  The grab handles are placed well and the overall appearance is very clean, with echoes of the klettersack thanks to the diamond patches.  There are a lot of things I like about the bag--little touches that are part and parcel of the Tom Bihn product design--but I'll address each of those in the appropriate category below.  Suffice to say, this is a very good bag.

The one major problem that I have with the Founder's Briefcase is the lack of a true external pen pouch.  I have become addicted to being able to grab a pen without opening the main compartment.  It is especially difficult with a 3-side zipper.  You can always carry a pen outside your bag, of course, but there is always something you need at the last minute.

The bag's size is quite manageable.  Here it is in comparison to my Cadet:

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As you can see it is about the same size as the Cadet and the Cadet is, itself, a svelte model.  Here it is in comparison to a standard 8 1/2 x 11 notepad:

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Fit and finish: 2

By now, I have come to realize that I could just write: Tom Bihn standard fit and finish and be done, but for the uninitiated I'll give you a bit more detail.

First there are no stitch or seam errors.  All of the seams and joints between sheets of fabric are clean, even, and without stray threads.  All of the straps are equally nice in their construction, with no stray threads or uneven stitching (which can result in awkward straps and carry).  The piping around the bag is nice and even as well, creating a consistent and even appearance.  The zippers are nicely integrated into the bag and very smooth.  

Carry: 2

This is a very nice bag on your shoulder and in your hand.  Its not as nice as the Cadet, but there's no way to make it as nice to carry and still be able to hold a laptop.  I would note that the grab handles aren't as beefy as those on the Cadet and THAT is something that has nothing to do with this bag being a laptop bag.

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The diagonal placement of the strap works better when the bag the is carried sash-style (or bandolier-style if you prefer the manly descriptor).  Regular shoulder carry works too, but not as well.  There is a tendency for the bag to hang funny.  I think that the base model shoulder strap has something to do with that, as the Bihn Absolute strap has me spoiled.

 
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Materials: 2

All of the materials are quite nice--tough, smooth to the touch, and pleasing to the eye.  I wouldn't put much stock in the parapack material.  Its nice and all, but it just didn't move the needle for me.  It is certainly not worth a premium.  Perhaps to pack rats the difference is huge, but to me, a regular carrier and user, I don't think it is worth the price increase (the Founder's Briefcase, 800 cu. in., is almost $50 than the Cadet, 825 cu. in.).   Here are the two fabrics in macro next to each other (Cadet on the left and Founder's Briefcase on the right):

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Accessibility: 1

Okay, there is only so many concessions you can make before they start effecting performance.  The need (or tradition) for a laptop bag to upzip on three sides is silly.  It really does hamper accessibility.  So many times I wanted to open the bag just a bit, but a tug on the shoulder strap would cause the zipper to run a bit.  I was always worried that the bag would just flop open (it can't, of course, because of the strap placement), but the concern was there.  That alone is not the only problem.

Again, I strongly dislike the pen pockets on the interior of the bag.

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They work, as does the cord pocket, but they are annoying to get to as you have to basically spill the bag open.

A note for Tom Bihn: there are some people that need to be able to take things in and out of their bags discretely.  As an attorney I try very hard to not disrupt court proceedings and a 3-side zipper makes that hard when I need to reach into my bag and grab something.  The Cadet, on the other hand, does well zipped open and sitting by my side.  Not everyone that carries a briefcase is a airplane traveling business man that can sprawl out when doing a Powerpoint presentation.  For that guy, this bag is AWESOME.  For the rest of us, I'd rather have a smaller zipper. 

Ease of Packing: 2

Okay, if there is one benefit to the 3-side zipper this is it.  Opening this thing for packing is like filleting a fish--everything is right there.  It is very easy and the padding on both sides protects stuff quite well.  

Pockets/Organization: 1

With a laptop comes a mouse, a power cord, a presentation pen, or whatever.  Perhaps this is why there are a ton of small pocket EVERYWHERE on the interior of the Founder's Briefcase.

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They are all, as usual for Tom Bihn, well done.  But the inability to access crucial (non-business card) sized stuff when the bag is closed is an annoyance.

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

As usual, Bihn uses YKK zippers.

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They are smooth and relatively quiet.  They are not rain guarded like those on the Cadet, but they are very nice nonetheless. They never got bound up and they were incredibly easy to open, even with one hand.  GREAT.  As always.

Straps and belts: 2

Its hard to give the Founder's Briefcase a 2 here as it is not as good as the Cadet, but I think this is more likely to be the Willie Mays Hall of Fame problem than an indication of an inferior product.  Sure, the straps are inferior to the Cadet decked out with the Absolute strap, but then again so is everything else I have ever test, touched or seen.  The reality is this bag's straps are very, very good.  Lightyears ahead of the Tumi crap that is out there.  

Modularity/expansion: 2

Clip points, pockets, accessories galore--that's what you get with every Bihn bag and the Founder's Briefcase is no different.  Not much you can say really.  Marvel at the forethought and modularity of theBihn system as a whole--few bag companies are this good.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Founder's Briwefcase is very, very good.  AS far as laptop briefcases go, its as good as you will find.  It is a bit pricier than others, and it might be the fabric that makes it so, but its still much less than a Tumi of equivalent size.  I know I use Tumi as a touchstone  lot when it comes to bags and it is, in part, because they make so many different designs, and, in part, because they are so widely available and well-regarded.  The Founder's Briefcase, however, has proven to me that Tumi bags are from a different age, an age when the Internet didn't exist as it does today.  Now, businesses cna make great stuff and get it out to people quicker, faster, and cheaper.  The Founder's Briefcase proves that.  

However, and this is a big however, I am not sure why you would buy this over the Cadet.  You can get the cache and store a laptop or a tablet in the Cadet.  and you can remove all of that stuff quickly.  The Cadet is not as good a laptop briefcase as the Founders Briefcase is, but its not that much worse, and it makes a vastly better normal briefcase.  Plus buying the bigger Cadet will save you money. With the cache and the Absolute strap included its still $25 cheaper. 

Here is the real problem though--is there really a market for this bag?  Who carries a big, bulky laptop anymore?  I have long ago stopped looking for or even following laptops in favor of my iPhone and an iPad with a good bluetooth keyboard.  Even those that still need a full function laptop, carry smaller ones.  In part because of the Mac aesthetic and in part because of the increased computing power of these non-laptop devices the laptop itself is just not that useful.  Go look at the displays at your local eletronics store (which, is, itself a vestige of a bygone era).  Note how few laptops are there.  Go to the Apple Store.  Note how frew laptops are there. This is a bag made for ten years ago.  Its a very good bag if you need all of the laptop bells and whistles, but I am not sure how many people there are that fall into this camp.

If you need a full function laptop bag there is a LOT of junk out there.  There are good designs, but they tend to be uber expensive.  My Tumi was more than twice the price of the Founder's Briefcase, even though it was no where near as nice.  If you are a road warrior or someone that still carries a laptop on a regular basis, this is the best design I have seen.  For those that don't go for the Cadet.  Its amazing (and a score update on the Cadet is coming). 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spyderco Chaparral Overview

This little gem is a knife I have overlooked.  I hope to rectify that with this video and an upcoming review on Everyday-Carry.com (with a give away to boot).  Placed in the product line as something of a mini-Sage, the Chaparral excels in the EDC role.  Its thin, well made, with high end materials, and a great slicing blade.  There is very little to complain about here.  It does have a very similar overall size and shape to my much beloved Strider PT CC, and it comes in at a 1/3 the price, so that's a good deal.

Here you go:


Monday, March 31, 2014

Cold Steel Mini AK-47 Review

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Ben's second review. The statements are his, such as the first one, which is a whopper.  All of the pictures that are taken with a wooden background are taken by Rhys Arithson and are used with permission.

Cold Steel makes some of the best production knives available today. They offer their customers knives that are well made, affordable, and extremely durable. It’s clear that whatever their reputation has been in the past, they are now recognized as serious, legitimate knifemakers.

And yet, at the same time, Cold Steel maintains a strong streak of ridiculousness. Pretty much everybody’s seen their Absolute Proof series of videos, in which their knives are put through odysseys of torture tests by burly men in polo shirts. Car hoods are punctured, cowboy boots are stabbed through, giant braids of rope and hanks of meat and whole pigs are hung up and cut through. In one video a horse’s skull is crushed with a great sword.

There’s nothing wrong with being proud of the products you put out, and really nothing wrong with making ridiculous videos to demonstrate the unprecedented badassery of your knives. But I bring it up because it illustrates the strange dichotomy that you find in Cold Steel: on the one hand, you have this company that’s really coming into its own: bringing in new designers, shaking up their status quo, making decisions that indicate a concern for and an understanding of the needs of a serious user of knives; on the other, you have this po-faced 80s-action-hero blowhardiness that is at least as endearing as it is absolutely ludicrous. Look at the boxes their knives come in: the font they use for their logo looks like it may’ve been optioned for some unreleased Jean-Claude Van Damme movie (Bloodsport V, anybody?), and underneath that is the ambiguous virility of the phrase “High Performance Knives.”

Carrying and using it, I am struck by how this philosophical schizophrenia manifests itself in the Mini AK-47. What we have here is an EDC knife that has been designed by a company who can’t help thinking that all knives are primarily weapons. I’ll show what I mean by that as I go through each category below, but I think it will also be clear that, despite this issue of a schism’d philosophy, the Mini AK is still, on a fundamental level, a really good knife.

Here's the product page. Here's Nutnfancy’s reviews of both the Mini and the full size AK-47. 
Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Cold Steel Mini Ak-47, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

And here’s the knife itself:

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Review Summary: Three-quarters tool, one-quarter tacticool, a mongrel of a knife that works despite its strange pedigree.

Design: 1

This is a point I vacillated on the entire time I carried the Mini AK. There’s nothing about the design that doesn’t work, in a fundamental sense. This knife gets things done. The drop-point blade is useful. The handle works. The clip works. The wave deployment works, for the most part. And that lock—well, what’s there even to say about it?

But here’s the thing: some of the decisions that Andrew Demko made when he designed the Mini AK, while not inherently bad, still aren’t right, given the size and the primary purpose of this knife. And maybe that’s something I should clarify as well: I never carry a knife for self-defense, and while I recognize how there are many people who do, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Mini AK, or any other knife of its size, is primarily a tool, an EDC knife, an object of utility—a boxcutter, letter opener, food slicer. No matter what the literature from Cold Steel tells you, nothing with a blade under three inches should ever be classed primarily as a tactical knife. It’s just as silly to classify a four-inch monstrosity as an EDC, using it to slice salami instead of tromping out into the woods with it and limbing some trees.

Look at the handle.

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Cold Steel makes knives that tell you how to grip them, which, while not ideal, is usually okay, because the way they tell you to grip them is usually pretty good. Such is the case here. When I first got the knife, I held it wrong, gripping it too far forward. Once I situated my hand lower down, with my index finger in the recess before the hump and my other three fingers beneath it, the difference was immediately noticeable: this was how this knife was meant to be held, and it feels good. However, this puts your hand way back on the knife, way back, like Espada-pistol-grip back, and you sacrifice a lot of control of, or feel for, the blade. In a self-defense situation, you want that reach, and don’t need that fine level of control that EDC tasks usually call for, but again, with a 2.75” blade, this probably won’t be anyone's first choice for a tactical knife, and so those of us who buy it for utility suffer needlessly—especially when you consider that there’s a larger version of this knife  for people who want something with a bit more "tacticality."

It might seem finnicky, but using this knife as much as I did, I can say with certainty that it makes a huge difference in the way the Mini AK deals with EDC tasks compared to something like, say, the Spyderco Air.  The design is solid, for the most part, and the control thing isn’t a fatal flaw, but when something compromises knife’s performance, every time you use it in its intended role, that’s a problem.

The blade:handle is .64, another indicator that this was designed like it was supposed to be a tactical knife. The blade:weight is much better at .86.

Fit and Finish: 2

Every product I’ve had from Cold Steel has had comparable levels of rock-solid fit and finish. Here on the Mini AK, the blade is centered, the edge was sharp, everything is tight and trim. While Cold Steel’s knives aren’t as breathtakingly luxe-feeling as the craftmanship on Spyderco’s Taichung knives, they are without a doubt comparable in the all the ways that really count, and so we can just nod our heads and move on.

I’m not going to say much about the useless Tuff-Ex coating on the blade, which everybody already knows about. It doesn’t affect performance and its so obviously paint that you could probably scrub it off with some soap and water if you really didn’t want to deal with it.

Grip: 2

While I don’t agree with the philosophy behind the handle design of the Mini AK, there’s no denying that it provides a secure grip.

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In addition to working well, it also feels great, which is something that Cold Steel sometimes has trouble with; the new Medium Voyager, for example, offers a secure grip, but one that is also cramped-feeling and uncomfortable. 

Cold Steel’s G-10, which is famously aggressive, didn’t seem to be too toothy here, although it’s certainly rougher than that of, say, the Paramilitary 2. It’s also rounded over on the areas to either side of the blade channel, which adds to the comfort level while holding it, making it secure without biting into your fingers.

Carry: 2

The Mini AK is a much slimmer knife than the Medium Voyager, and carries much better than that knife.

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It’s just on the edge of being a little wide, but as it is, it’s a totally manageable and basically hassle-free passenger in your pocket.

Steel: 2

I confess to having been a little biased against AUS-8A. It’s never stood out in any way to me, being generally more costly than 8Cr13MoV (with the exception of the Mini Dozier, I guess), and in the past I’ve had rust issues with it on my Medium Voyager. And when I first got the Mini AK, it continued to come across as lackluster, becoming noticeably duller after only a few days of what I would consider medium duty: cutting some cardboard, some paper and tape, some cord, and doing a little bit of whittling. It was still useable, but a little less refined than it had been out of the box. But then things got interesting, because it maintained this level of functional sharpness for the remainder of the time I carried it. I continued to do these everyday things with it, and additionally, while I didn’t slice open a horse skull with it, I did use it to cut through a book (long story, don’t ask), and it chewed, albeit slowly, through the paper, glue, and nylon cover with no noticeable dulling. I finally got outside with it and hacked away at some branches just for fun, and it worked, again slowly but without any appreciable dulling of the edge.

I’m still not in love with AUS-8A, and while I still think at this price point we deserve something a little bit better (say 154CM, probably the most underrated steel on the market in my opinion), the truth is that the steel is more than adequate, and while I can’t wholeheartedly embrace it, in this iteration, on this knife, there’s no way I can give it anything less than a two.

Blade Shape: 2

A drop-point [EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a clip point blade], and all the good that comes with that: good tip, good belly.

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Cold Steel does get a little bit exotic sometimes with their blade shapes (hi, Vaquero Voyager), but in this case they kept it simple, and it works.

Grind: 2

With a drop-point blade of this size or larger, I think that a hollow grind is really the way to go. At 2.75” and up you really notice the increased slicing performance, and this knife would really fly through material if the thumb disk/wave opener didn’t occasionally get caught up in material. But that of course has nothing to do with the grind, and so I’m giving it a two.

Deployment Method: 1

Another contested point here. I didn’t think I’d like the wave opening feature as much as I did. It really is convenient to pull the knife out of your pocket and have it ready to go. Today was the first day since I got the Mini AK that I carried something else, and the first time I pulled it out of my pocket and still had to open it, I missed the wave. I don’t think it’s necessary, and I do think it’s a little off-putting to people around you, but it is pretty cool and really useful.

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The problem is that it doesn’t work all the time. I don’t know if it’s the size of the knife, or the distance between the disk and blade or what, but I do know that about 30% of the time, when I would pull the knife out of my pocket, it would either not deploy at all or be half-deployed, which is kind of dangerous. That alone’s probably enough to dock a point, but additionally the thumb disk, if you use that to deploy the Mini AK, is pretty terrible, being neither very comfortable or fast. In the role of an EDC knife, the wave probably isn’t necessary, and if we got rid of that we could probably get rid of the thumb disk too, and have one of the big bolt thumbstuds Cold Steel uses on some of their other knives instead.

Retention Method: 2

I think Cold Steel’s due for a redesign of their clip—or rather, I think they should use the clip from the Mini Tuff Lite on every knife in their lineup; but in the meantime, this version of their “classic” curved Cold Steel clip is perfectly fine. It’s a little bit shorter and stouter than the clip on the Medium Voyager, which is one of my least favorite clips ever. And while many people complain about the clip, in combination with the G-10, shredding up their pants, I didn’t have that problem.

Yeah, the clip’s not a total winner, and I think it’s silly to have to include a totally separate clip for left-hand carry, but these are issues that don’t affect performance in any meaningful way, so I think that a two is what it has to be.

Lock: 2

The Tri-Ad lock is a lock of obscene strength. When I think about this lock I almost get why Cold Steel has their employees stab through car doors with their knives, or do brutal spine-whack tests, or attach dumbbells to the handles and let them hang there for days and days: because it’s thrilling to see something do what it’s supposed to do so phenomenally well.

I didn’t abuse the Mini AK, but I was definitely rude to it, and even after all my testing the Tri-Ad lock was no less rock-solid than when I took it out of the box. I don’t need to go on and on here about this thing. If you haven’t tried a knife with the Tri-Ad lock yet, do. It’s not just ridiculous hype. It really is a phenomenal piece of design.

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

There’s no question that there’re a few things about this knife that don’t line up with its intended purpose. The handle comes closest to being a deal breaker. Ergonomics isn’t simply whether or not something is comfortable in the hand, but also if something makes sense in the hand in relation to what we’re using it to do, and while I’m not saying that the Mini AK needs a giant half-and-half finger choil, I do think that the handle impedes it from EDC greatness. But it’s equally true that it doesn’t stop the Mini AK from being a total workhorse. The Mini AK may be an EDC knife that was designed like it was meant to be a weapon, but the good news is that there is so much utility here that despite some considerable drawbacks, when you pick up the Mini AK, you know first and foremost that what you have in your hand is a phenomenally capable tool. And after you use it, no matter how many times you see Lynn Thompson swing a great sword through two suckling pigs at once, every time you look at the box it came in and read the seemingly-hyperbolic “High Performance Knives,” you’ll know that beyond all the bluster, it’s basically true.

EDITOR'S TAKE:

I'd score the Mini AK47 slightly differently.  I agree with the overall design being a confused one and I think the score is right.  I would, however, take off a point for grip and a point for steel.  The AUS-8 is good here, but not as good as it was on the Al Mar Hawk.  In that application it was damn near perfect.  Here, I'd rather have something else.  Additionally, as Ben mentioned, the grip is just weird.  I found that it was somewhat artificial feeling, as if it was supposed ot be a good grip as opposed to actually being a good grip.  The little plateau in the middle of the handle was just awkward in so many cutting positions.  I'd give this knife a 16 out of 20. 

The Competition

Comparing this knife to the SOG Mini Aegis makes it clear just how good a knife the Mini Aegis is.  It is both bigger and lighter.  The blade on the Mini Aegis is much thinner, but it is plenty thick for EDC tasks.  I also like the much more neutral grip of the Mini Aegis.  Only two points separate the Mini Aegis on the scoring scale, but those two points are the difference between good and great.