Monday, November 14, 2011

Leatherman Sidekick Review

I have owned both Gerber and Leatherman multitools, as well as a few generic Black Friday specials.  Generally the quality of the Gerber tools ranks right up there with the worst of the Black Friday specials.  The designs and fit and finish are appalling.  But they still sell.  And the reason why is that prior to the release of the Wingman and the Sidekick the cheapest Leatherman tools were still twice the price of the cheapest Gerber tools.

It never made sense to me because we are talking about a relatively inexpensive item.  The cost of the headaches and pinched fingers associated with using a Gerber was far higher than the $20 price difference.  I could forego three lunches at Subway for the upgrade.  But crap that looks like nice stuff but sells for half the price sells well.  Gerber had the name brand cheap multitool niche all to itself.

Then Leatherman decided to get into the game with two new tools, I covered here.  Leatherman was kind enough to send a tool to review (thanks to Juli in the marketing department).  I wanted a Wingman to test out the new clam shell cutter, but all they had were Sidekicks.  Never one to pass up a piece of gear to review I said yes and the goods were shipped out.  

By coincidence we were hit with a very rare October snowstorm that dumped two feet of snow on the ground just days after the Sidekick arrived.  I was able to test it doing some of the clean up from that storm.  I also used it to install a lamppost and doing two weekends worth of fall chores.  In all I got to see the tool in its full range.  The lamppost allowed me to test the pliers and wirestrippers, as well as both screw drivers.  The fall chores were perfect for the knife and the pliers.  And finally, the clean up allowed me to test the saw and serrated edge.  There was no real test for the can opener as I think we have reached the point where the can opener is to modern multitools what the corkscrew is to SAKs--a vestige of a long gone problem infrequently encountered.  It does work okay as a clam shell cutter, one of the two tools the Sidekick lacks compared to the Wingman.     

Here is the product page.  Here is a good street price.  Here is a video review.  Here is a written review.  Here are the Amazon reviews.  It received an average of 4.67 stars out of 5 with 3 reviews.  The package comes with a leather sleeve and a carabiner with a bottle opener.  Here is the sample version of the Sidekick, sent to me by Leatherman for review:


IMG_0005

Before I get to my review, here is my multitool scoring system with an explanation of each criteria and the 0-2 score. 

Design: 2

The overall look of the Sidekick is very reminiscent of the Wave/Charge series, with a few cues taken from the Skeletool (holes in the frame to lighten the weight, asymmetric handles, and the shape of the blade).  Unlike the Skeletool, however, this design is not a lightweight, coming in at 7 ounces.  The curve of the handle is nice especially when the pliers are deployed.  The push through slots (see below) are a nice idea and do exactly what they are supposed to do.  Of course, the externally accessible tools are always a plus, especially when they are your most frequently used tools (the knife and saw, in this case).  The tool was designed by an in-house engineer at Leatherman named Peter Parker.  Overall, Mr. Parker did very well, especially when you consider that he did not pick the tools to be included, but instead took a list given to him by marketing and had to figure out how to include everything the test groups wanted.  It is not Skeletool-level inspired, but really good nonetheless.     

IMG_0006

Fit and Finish: 2

Okay there is a little blade play when the knife is deployed.  That is it.  Otherwise, all of the tools are well made, the handles are comfy, and everything is sufficiently beefy and solid.  The locks for the knife and saw work well.  I am really surprised at just how nice everything is, I was expecting a few stiff pivots or burred tools, especially given the price, but there is nothing like that.  Again, the only knock, and it is a small one, is the tiny bit of up and down blade play on the knife. 

Theme: 2

According to Mr. Parker the Sidekick was designed as an outdoors multitool, especially when compared to the more urbanized Wingman.  The other possible theme was the role of a backup multitool, one you could stash in a survival kit while you carried your primary multitool with you as an EDC.  Overall, the Sidekick hits the mark on both accounts.  The saw does work and having it as one of the two primary tools really places the emphasis on outdoors preparedness.  My only small concern in the role of an outdoors multitool is its weight.  This guy is a beefy wad of steel.  As a backup multitool weight is not much of a concern.  

Grip: 2

Check out the slight curve to the Sidekick's handle:

IMG_0014

That one slight touch makes a big difference.  Its not a new idea.  The curve and asymmetrical handles were found on the Skeletool and before that the Victorinox Spirit, but seeing them on a budget design is a first for Leatherman.  That combined with the spring loaded pliers means this is one of the easiest mutlitools to use and hold on to. 

Carry: 1

The only knock I have here is with the weight.  The tool is really heavy.  When I switch from the feather-light Skeletool to this, I notice and so does my belt.  It is not a big problem, and I am not sure how to fix it given the need for a certain amount of bulk (i.e. the pliers head).  

Materials: 2

The knife blade is made of 420HC steel.  If this were a knife and not a multitool I'd give it a 0.  But here is the thing--in its intended role, as an outdoor tool or a backup the 420HC works well.  It is soft and tough meaning that it can be banged around without much fear of chipping or breaking.  It can also be field sharpened.  Finally, because it is so low in carbon content it is very rust resistant making it an excellent "set and forget" backup tool.  I sent an email to Mr. Parker about his steel choice and his answer was persuasive.  The 420HC they use is their own blend and heat treat.  It is the steel they use on almost all multitools and twenty years of use has proven that the steel works.  It is also the material used on the rest of the tool as well.  Good materials are more than just the latest high tech stuff, they should be suited to the tool and here they are.     

Deployment/Accessibility: 2

Clumping (where all the tools on a single pivot deploy at once) can be a problem, but the access slot on the reverse side of the handle along with the little nail hook on the top side of the tool makes access much better.  Here is a shot of the access hole:

IMG_0013

Access to the external tools is nice, as the oval thumb holes work well.  I did find that deploying the saw required me to flip the tool upside down, because I am right handed.  I would imagine lefties need to do the same for the knife.  

Retention Method: 2

An excellent pocket clip.  Perhaps the wider clip means less rolling in the pocket, like what happens on the Skeletool.  The clip is simple and removeable:

IMG_0012

Tool Selection: 0

Okay we get to the heart of the Sidekick.  The tool selection is okay.  There are some really essential pieces, the knife and the drivers, but there are two wasted tools and a missing one.  First, I don't know why we still need a can opener.  It can be used as a clam shell cutter as I mentioned above, but really, it is a total waste.  I guess multitool orthodoxy says you have to have one.  Then there is the serrated blade.  I am not sure you need both a serrated blade and a saw even though they do two different things.  A good sharp plain edge knife will do fine with rope and the saw can handle wood and plastic much better than the serrated blade can.  It is a wasted tool even on an outdoors multitool.  I also lament the lack of scissors.  Scissors are so generally useful that there has to be a REALLY good reason not to include them.  Their absence, given the serrated blade's inclusion, is especially painful.  Two wasted tools and one essential missing gives you a zero.   

IMG_0009

Tool Performance: 2

There are two great tools on the Sidekick: the spring loaded pliers and the Phillips driver.  Here are the pliers (held closed by me):

IMG_0017

It is not an exaggeration to say that these are the best pliers ever used in a Leatherman multitool.  They are finely tapered, ground at the tip to clamp tight, and spring loaded.  The spring loaded feature allows the tool to be ready at a moment's notice, always open always ready to grab something.  The Phillips driver is also nice, a beefy though still 2D version:

IMG_0018

The saw works well, as do the rest of the tools, even the entirely unnecessary serrated blade.  Great tool performance even if tool selection leaves something to be desired. 

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

I worked on this review for a long time.  I used the Sidekick extensively.  And in the end I think 17 is exactly right.  This is a very good multitool.  The pliers are the best on any multitool.  But the tool selection is wanting.  I like the outdoors theme and I like the saw, but two unnecessary tools and no scissors holds this guy back from multitool supremacy.

And that is saying a lot, given the price.  At around $30 this is a great tool for first time users or casual users.  It is a great competitor for the junky Gerbers in the same price range.  The extras are kind of bland, though the carabiner is interesting and a neat platform for a different kind of multitool (how about a keychain carabiner where the carabiner is the chain AND the tools?).  As a gift to a newbie or your guy who is suit bound most of the time, this is an excellent buy.

UPDATE: Just got an email from batteryjunction.com.  All Leatherman are 10% off through 11/22/11 with the code LEATHERMAN10.

20 comments:

  1. Great review... One comment however about can openers. If you travel, especially to third world countries, can and bottle openers are important. Was recently in Nicaragua, and one could die there without a good bottle opener. :)

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  2. Nicely done! I'm in the process of abusing mine for a review as well. Cheers mate!

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  3. Three wasted tools? Or just lack of experience?
    • Can opener: If you even needed to open a canned food item without making a serious mess, especially in the field, you'd know why it is there.
    Also makes for great ferrocerium rod strikers. Not to mention the wire stripper there that comes in handy for a lot of emergency repairs. Better to use that than dulling your knife blades.
    Can openers also make decent awl; hole pokers for liquid containers, hobo stove making, and many other tasks. Only one's mind is limited, not the tool.

    • Serrated blade is great for cutting fast. Can strip a tarp, canvas, sand bags, rope, rubber, material, etc. quick without ruining your main blade.
    Though to put down a serrated blade for outdoors use yet complain of missing scissors is redundant. Scissors are a perk, yet if that small pivot breaks you'll be wishing for a serrated blade - to save dulling your straight blade.

    • Not having scissors is the third wasted tool, or did you just lose your train of thought there?


    • Wasted tools and one essential missing gives you a zero? The review was okay till adding that, which will have to give it a 0 for lack of thought and experience.

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  4. (Thanks for the profundity, Anonymous: "the can opener is not limited, only your mind." Deep, man.)

    This is a good review that I had looked forward to seeing here. You're right about corkscrews, of course, yet there's still a sentimental appeal to that wine-red Leatherman Juice C2 with its corkscrew and cap lifter. I dunno, it just says "car camping in the Willamette Valley" to me.

    (The REAL reason corkscrews on MTs are passe is that more and more quality winemakers are moving to screw tops.)

    Maybe you can talk Leatherman into sending you a Wingman for T&E now? In addition to the clamshell cutter, I'd be interested to see what you make of the Wingman's scissors. They look big, but also kinda cheap, in the closeups I've seen.

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  5. Re: three wasted tools

    Lots of people have had trouble counting to three recently, not just me. Actually, I had missed the typo in the editing process. I have since corrected it.

    Re: can opener

    I stand by what I said. It is just not useful enough to include on a multitool. Other than the out of country thing, which I will have to defer to others on, I can't see why you'd need one. Very little food, especially hiking/camping food is carried in cans anymore. If you have a stocked cabin that is one place you might see it. I guess if you car camp and just dump your house into your car and then dump your car into a tent you can handle the weight a can of food represents.

    I get that a lot of folks including the buyers of the Sidekick probably car camp and for those folks the can opener might be useful. But even then, a lot of soup and canned food products now have soda can style, pull ring openers. Making the can opener useless even to the target market.

    A multitool is essentially a question--what X number of tools are the most important to you doing a given task? There is no task I can think of where a can opener is in the top 15 tools, unless that task is a Spaghetti-Os cook off.

    The fact that the uses you listed all have nothing to do with opening cans is an indication that the age of the can opener is coming to an end. An awl is a limited tool too, but it has its uses. Anything can be used multiple ways and I appreciate the creativity, but I still can't see why you'd PREFER a can opener instead of something else more useful, like the things you listed--a wire stripper or an awl. I did note that it works okay as a clam shell cutter.

    Here is what I would swap in and out. Can opener goes in favor of PS4 style mini scissors. The serrated edge goes in favor of a safety belt cutter. It works just as well on most rope and rubber tubing, but it can also help with rigging and harnesses.

    The tool is a very good tool and blows away the competition at the same price point, but the tool selection is not ideal. The Skeletool proved to me that the can opener is a vestige of multitool orthodoxy and not really an essential item.

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  6. I agree...Gerber's overall quality has PLUMMETED even further since Fiskars bought them in 1989! Long live Leatherman!
    -ARL @ SB&T

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  7. Nice review Tony - and interesting comments! I am not sure where I stand on the whole can opener issue. Personally, it's something I'd like to have - and hopefully never need to use (because I'm assuming I would only need it for some sort of emergency scenario). If it does double duty as a bottle opener then it can ride in my pocket all day. However, I'd rather not argue those finer points.

    I will say that overall this sounds like a really intriguing tool for the money. I have never been a big fan of Gerber knives or tools so to find something this high quality directly competing w/ Gerber is very cool. Interesting to hear Mr. Parker's take on 420HC as well.

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  8. I know you haven't received one yet, but how would you rate the tool selection on the Wingman? One? Two? Still zero?

    As for the functionality of can openers, I agree that punching cans open is really not that common a task anymore. However, can openers also work as bottle openers, and as a college student, having a bottle opener around is a must!

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  9. I don't know, really. I like the clam shell cutter and the scissors. I'd probably say a 2, but I am not sure without having the whole package before me.

    If you are going to make a multitool I think you need to include the following regardless of theme or purpose:

    Pliers
    Knife
    Phillips Driver
    Flathead Driver
    Scissors

    Once you have those essentials, you can go in a bunch of directions and be good. I'd say that the PS4 does the best of any MT in getting the basics right. It is tiny and thus limited but it is really a nice selection of always useful tools.

    Think about what your going to do with the tool and then go from there, instead of the other way--buy the tool and find uses for it.

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    Replies
    1. What do you need to cut with those little scissors that you cant cut with your knife?

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  10. Is there any play to yours when closed? I tried the sidekick, exchanged it for the wingman, and both have quite a bit of play when closed. it's kind of awkward when you pull a screwdriver out and it's contorting in your hand.
    Anomalies?

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  11. I was EXTRA rough with mine, using the saw blade to cut down limbs from a tree. This was not an easy task and I was afraid of play. Fortunately there was none to speak of really.

    That said, with this low a price I am not TOTALLY shocked that happened. Did you try playing around with the torx pivot screws?

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  12. Hmm, it's actually all relatively tight but I'll pull out my torx set and test it out. Again, it's only when it's closed, there's some odd wobble between the two handles. It's not a huge deal, but I'm really surprised since I've had 4-5 leathermans and while I'd had some break, that was more of a materials / wear and tear issue. Never ever had any wonky craftsmanship. The blade itself has no play, which is good.

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  13. Nice review. I have a Sidekick coming in tomorrow and I'm eager to try it out. I think these multitools are a great bang for your buck.

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  14. These are great looking tools. I love my Gerber Knives that O bought online. I also have a collection of buck knives which I consider as one of my favorites. These multitools will surely have a multipurpose functionality.

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  15. Tx for the review. Just ordered one and im looking forward to get it. The Sidekick shall be the final element of my multi "multi tool" set: Leatherman Sidekick, Leatherman Style CS (outsanding scissors and micro blade), Victorinox Climber. With these i get the full range of tools i need.
    On the side and for those who want it all, Victorinox has a great $1000 plus "pocket knife" with all the available tools. Its just for show as you cant possibly use it in any practical way but its good for self defense as a brick ;) GR

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  16. Just got one today. Very love it. The reason I bought it over wingman is that it does not have a pair of scissors and has a can openner. I live in a place where a can openner is still used to open a can.

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  17. Probably the best tool for the money that Leatherman has made. Forget church scissors, this is a mans tool. Buy a micro if you really need to trim your nails. The file on this one is marginal to use, it is too short, but will file woods and plastics, not metals. Great tool especially if you can pick one up for 20 bucks. I do not know about the leather shealth though, cut the gromments off and use it for a wallet

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  18. A great tool. And YES I need a can opener, because food bought in other countries is stil in the old fashioned cans.
    I do not need scissors if I have a knife. This small scissors are anyway not very usefull.

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  19. Multi tool without can opener its not a multitool, its a pliers with blade and file, nothing more,

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