Thursday, September 29, 2011

Issues with my scoring system

I am sure that in reading the reviews here you wondered to yourself why exactly I decided to the scoring system as a I did.  Well, here is a brief explanation for some of the more common issues that I could think of.  I am sure there other questions, but these seemed to be the most likely ones.  

Why do you need a scoring system in the first place?

I find that a scoring system helps organize and delineate a person's needs and wants. I made a scoring sheet for purchasing a house and we are pretty happy. I did it with each car purchase. It is a way of taking different things, looking at them closely, and figuring out not only what works but also what you want. My hope is that the criteria I have chosen are things that people are universally interested in and that the scoring system is both informative and intuitive. If it is both interesting and useful, then the scoring system has accomplished its intended purpose.

One of the things that really changed the way people view wine was the advent of Robert Parker's very systematic scoring system.  It gave people a standard language to reference and allowed people to compare different wines from different places quickly and easily.  I have no illusions that the scoring system I have is going to be like that, but it is a start.  Someone else, someone with more knowledge, more gear, and better writing skills will come along and take another crack at this thing and give gear folks a standard nomenclature.  I'll keep trying in the meantime. 

Where did the idea of giving stuff scores based on specific attributes come from?

It was a shameless rip off of the old GamePro scoring systems, combined with the CPFreviews.com scoring system.   One thing that really gave me the idea was, in my super nerdiness I created a checklist of features for the flashlight I was looking for to replace my old Lumapower LM303.  I discovered that checklist in a folder on my computer and viola...    

Why 20 points?

There were a lot of ways to do this.  I could have used a 1-10 scale or a "letter grade" scale, or even the Metacritic 1-100 scale.  There are two different problems. 

With a low number of possible scores, a 1-10 system or even a letter grade system leaves too few scores.  You tend to get a lot of clumping.  There are many, many things that would get an 8, 9, or 10, but there would be a lot of variation in the score.  For example, in a 1-10 scale the it would be hard to given a great blade like the Delica something less than an 9 or a 10, but it is not in the same league, in my opinion, as the Sebenza, which would be a 10.

Then there is the problem at the other end.  In the 100 point scale there is just not that much differentiation between a 99 and 100.  With so many scores the difference between one point is too slight to even verbalize.  It becomes more of a feel thing or arbitrary.  20 points seems to be the happy medium--enough scores to make a difference and not so many scores that a few points is meaningless.

Is an item that score a 20/20 perfect?

No. Claiming an object is perfect, whether it is a car, a cathedral, or a pocket knife, is really hard to do. For me, the DFII ZDP-189 is pretty close to the PERFECT EDC knife, but I know tons of people who laugh at the tiny blade. I can defend this assertion, but again it is an opinion. It got a 20/20. So did the Muyshondt Aeon, the McGizmo Haiku, and the Small Sebenza. Of those, I think that all are excellent, but there are things I would do differently if I were the head designer (Aeon: scalloped or stippled bezel like on the G2X Pro; Haiku: shorten by 1/4 of an inch; Small Sebenza: flipper instead of thumb stud). They all work well and all deserve the score of 20/20, but still there are things I'd do differently. With the DFII ZDP-189 though, there is nothing I'd change. After a few months of carry, I can't really think of anything I'd do differently. So a 20/20 COULD be a perfect score, but not necessarily.

A score of 20/20 simply means that the item is very well done in all aspects.  

How do you decide what to review?

Thus far I have reviewed only those things that I have purchased with my own money, except for the Dark Sucks MC-18B, which was sent to me my Dark Sucks himself. I bought the Skyline, the Serac S3, and the Dragonfly II ZDP-189 for review, though I had planned on buying the DF II any way. I do, like I am sure most of you, a lot of research before I buy something, so the stuff that I am looking at has already passed through a filter of sorts.

Why are the scores, on average, higher than the average score of 10/20?

For the reason just mentioned, I have already filtered the stuff I am going buy so the very low scoring items, things that would score a 1-5 have already, hopefully, been eliminated by my pre-purchase research. Since all of the items I have reviewed are things I have bought (with one exception) that means that I am going to start out, naturally, with a high score (otherwise I would not have bought the item in the first place). That said, stuff still slips through that does very poorly, such as the Arc6 (6/20)and the Kershaw Scallion (8/20).

Why is there no consideration for price?

Here is a bit about why I don't mention price. It all goes back to this idea of performance v. value. I am not sure what you, as a buyer are looking for. I don't know what you want to do with a given item. Is it going to be a daily use tool or a shelf queen? Are you one of those people that can't handle lithium cells or liner locks? Do you have a limited gear purchasing budget? All of these are considerations that I can't know and thus determining value and mentioning price in terms of its impact on a given item's score are things I don't do.

If you really want a value score, divide the price by the score. For example, the Spyderco Tenacious got an 11. It costs about $30. Value: 2.72. Compare that to the Sebenza. It got a score of 20, but costs $330. Value: 16.5. The closer to zero, the better the value (imagine a light getting a score of 20 and being $20: it would have a value of 1, meaning for every dollar you spent you got 1 point of performance).

But here are two problems with this simple math.

First, value is not simply getting more. Sometimes there are things you just need and without it, the item is worthless.  Other times additional features are just useless to a given user. For me, a knife I can't open with one hand is worthless. No score will tell me that and thus, as a value proposition, comparing the score to the price doesn't matter. I can imagine a lot of people have features like that, features, if absent, are deal breakers, and so the idea of dividing price by the score can't tell you if something is a good value because it may have a very low ratio of price to performance and still not do the one thing you want.

Another thing is that, for me, the scale is not just one point equals slightly better. Because there so many different attributes I am looking at on a given item, the chance that the thing gets a perfect score is low. Significantly lower than the chance that it has only one or two minor drawbacks. We live in an age of pretty darn good gear, so lots of stuff will be in the 12-17 range. This means, again, that value is difficult to quantify. If, as I have planned it, a score of 20 is exceedingly rare, then simply dividing the price by the score is not fair. A score of 20 is not, in my mind, simply one point better than a 19. It represents an exceedingly uncommon confluence of factors and should be seen as significantly better than a score in the 12-17 range and more than just slightly better than a 19.

Why is there no score rating how well a knife cuts?

I had originally planned on making an criteria related to cutting performance, but after a while I realized that this did not make sense. First, when we say that a knife cuts well we are actually looking at four very different things. A knife can be good at taking very fine cuts, i.e. slicing. It can be good at detail work, like picking splinters or cutting out newspaper articles. It can also be good at hacking work, like whittling. Finally, a knife could be good at stabbing tasks. All of these are things that we can be referencing when we say that a knife is good at cutting. But since there are so many different types of cutting, I prefer to explain a blade's cutting performance in different ways. Generally a knife's cutting performance is defined by three things: 1) the blade shape; 2) the blade grind; and 3) the steel. Each of these is an criteria I score and so if you really want to know if a knife is good at cutting and which kind of cutting it is good at, look at the score for each of these three criteria.

What is the difference between "Carry" and "Retention Method" in the Knife Scoring System?

Carry means how the item feels in the pocket.  Does it weigh you down?  Does it clog the pocket opening?  Does it bang around a lot?  Does it pinch, poke, or protrude?  Retention method is bound up with carry, in that usually we are talking about a pocket clip, but it could be a nice lanyard or even a sheath.  I  separated the two because they are really different things.  For example, the Leafstorm carries very well, but it has a terrible retention method, in part because the clip is oddly placed on the knife.

These are all of the questions I can think of, myself.  If you have any, let me know in the comments and I will try to respond to them. 


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Multitool Scoring System

Multitools are, quite simply, the most useful piece of gear you will carry other than a credit card and a smartphone, and those two can't change a tire or work in the backwoods of rural America (no matter what Luke Wilson says about cellphone coverage). This scoring system has been the bane of my existence, or a puzzle I couldn't figure out, for about three months now. The problem is that multitools have so many uses, so much utility, different designs, and features, that one scoring system is difficult to apply to every tool. Under the category of multitool I will be looking at balisong-type plier multitools (Leatherman, SOG Multitools, and Swiss Tools), Gerber's slide-style multitools, the classically styled Swiss Army Knife, and One Piece Multitools like the famous and coveted Atwood tools.

Things like the DPx Hest, which has a bottle opener and a oxygen wrench on a knife are not covered. That would fall under the Folding Knife Scoring System. In some cases the difference between a knife and a multitool is pretty much arbitrary. Is the Tool Logic Light/Knife combo a multitool? I dunno. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. Also, I have ignored, on purpose, the credit card toolkits. I have never seen or handled one that was anything other than pure junk.

Here are the previous efforts at systematic scoring:

How can you evaluate something like a Leatherman Charge:



using the same scale as an Atwood Keyton?



Well, after much deliberation, I think I have the scoring system down.

Here it is:

Again, I am using the simple 0=fail; 1=adequate; 2=excellent scale and applying it to ten criteria. The criteria are as follows.

Design

This is the same criteria used in all of my reviews. Basically, it is an assessment of how the product would look on paper.

Fit and Finish

Also, a borrowed criteria, how the thing looks in practice, how all the parts fit together and all of the final touches are executed.

Purpose

This is a new criteria, one specifically designed for the challenges of assessing multitools. With flashlights or folding knives the purpose is really simple (i.e. light stuff up or cut stuff, respectively). But with an MT, the tools come together, hopefully, in a cohesive way that evinces an intended use or purpose. Every multitool is or should be designed for a specific function.

Some, like the Leatherman Supertool or the Swiss Spirit Road Tour are designed as true tool box replacements. They have massive tools on a massive frame designed to offer you a ton of utility in a single package without much compromise. Others, like the Leatherman Juice or Skeletool, are designed to have a few of the essential tools in an easy to carry frame. The Leatherman MUT, seen here:



is a great example of a multitool with a clear theme. It is designed for gun and rifle maintenance. With a One Piece Multitool (OPMT) the purpose is generally different than that of a full sized tool. Most are designed to ride on a keychain or laynard and get you out of small jams. They are not designed as tool box replacements or even for everyday use EDC jobs. They have very limited functions, basically a few "on the go" type tasks and, of course, a bottle opener, because everything needs a bottle opener, right?

Under this criteria the product will be examined in terms of how well it serves in its intended role.

For example, in my opinion, though this is not a consensus by any means, the Skeletool is a superior EDC MT to the Juice for a few reasons. First, it has a pocket clip. Second, the knife on the Skeletool has an opening hole as opposed to a nail knick. Finally, it has less "throw in" tools, i.e. things that round out a checklist but are rarely used. So in role, the Skeletool would score better than the Juice.

Grip

How the tool feels in your hand when you are using it. This is similar to the criteria from the Flashlight and Folding Knife scoring system.

Carry

How the tool feels when you are carrying it but not using it. Again a borrowed criteria from the Flashlight and Folding Knife scoring system.

Materials

Similar to the criteria in the Folding Knife system relating to steels. The materials in the tool have a large impact on performance and carry. The theme or purpose of the tool dictates what kind of materials are ideal.

Deployment/Accessibility

Multitool design really had taken leaps forward since the advent of the original Leatherman, the PST (Personal Survival Tool). The tools are now accessible from the outside (meaning with the pliers not deployed). Various makers have solved the "clumping" issue that plagued many tools. Finally, in the area of OPMT, some designs are better than others at giving clearance to different tools. All of these will factor into this criteria.

Retention Method

Borrowed from the Folding Knife Scoring System, this criteria evaluates how the multitool is stored on one's person when not in use. Generally it is a clip or a lanyard ring of some sort, but many larger MTs have sheathes.

Tool Selection

There are few tools that every MT should have. I can't think of a reason not to have a screwdriver of some sort. I can see why designers would leave off an edge on a OPMT, but if you have any storage capacity at all, an MT should have a blade on it as well. It seems like SAKs get you tantalizingly close to a perfect tool complement in a couple of models, but screw things up with a random corkscrew or the like. The purpose of the tool will often times delineate what tools should be on the MT.

Tool Performance

I love the Victorinox Phillips screwdriver, but I prefer the Leatherman pliers. I also really like the Leatherman one handed opening blades, especially the one on the Skeletool. Few, if any MTs have a perfect selection of perfectly executed tools, but this criteria is an attempt to capture the average performance level of all of the tools on the product.

First up, the Leatherman Skeletool CX.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Mini Grip Lock and Steel Update

Well, I am working on a review of the Spyderco Benchmade, aka the Mini Grip 555hg. I had been down on Benchmade because I had a bad experience both with the Axis lock and the 154CM steel they used.

I had a first gen Axis lock knife and the lock bar was sloppy. I could easily twist it in the slot so that the one side was all the way up front and the other side was all the way back. The Omega Springs have been fixed and the bar travels almost perfectly perpendicular to the travel path the entire time even with pressure on one side only. Problem #1: Fixed.

Second, I had a knife with Benchmade's 154CM, the Sequel, and it freckled like crazy. It was a RUST MAGNET. But I can report that three or four years later the 154CM seems to be doing much better. I have left the knife out on a shelf in the bathroom when I shower. No rust. Then yesterday I peeled apples for my son and left the juices on there. About five hours later I cleaned them off. The blade was sticky but not rusty.

Maybe I got a bum version of both the Axis lock and the 154CM steel before or maybe both are improved. Either way, I am very pleased so far.

Review coming soon.

Guaranteed best Warranties

Good warranties are not sexy.  They won't get you a booth review from Nutnfancy for his hundred thousand or so subscribers to see.  They won't get mentioned in a review.  But they are one of the reasons people become loyal to a company.  Recently I had the unfortunate need to use two different warranties and both companies came through with flying colors.

As I described here, I bought a Pathfinder Softshell Hoodie from LL Bean.  I got it at the outlet store, which was a mistake as it is not supposed to be there yet (I found this out later on).  I got mine for $85.  New it was $125.  Well, it didn't fit right.  But LL Bean has the best return policy in the universe: return anything at any time for any reason for an exchange or money back.  Can't get simpler or better than that, right?  Well it did.  See, the Pathfinder hoodie was newly redesigned.  Take a peak, I love it (simple, well-designed, no Mall Ninja issues):

 
As such, it should not have been in the outlet yet.  Nonetheless it was.  I called LL Bean to return it for a larger size and asked if I'd have to pay the difference between the outlet price and the new price.  After a great Live Chat session with a customer service person, I had a new Pathfinder hoodie on its way for no additional charge.  Amazing, right?

Then there is the epic saga of my G2X Pro.  It is an amazing light, a great buy for the performance, but the initial run, sold at $65, had some issues.  A hard knock would bump it from low to high.  Then there was a bit of level flash.  When you went from low to high, it was supposed to be two clicks (one for on, one more for high), but sometimes you'd need three and you'd get a bit of high before it fell down to low on that second click.  I called last year and they sent me a new tailcap, free.  That didn't work, so I sent it in.  That didn't work either.  This time I called and sent it in and two weeks later I got a brand new, still in the packaging with new batteries and everything G2X Pro.  That initial run clearly had something wrong with it, as evidence by all of the complaints on the internet, my experience, and the slightly secret price increase to $95.  That is the way a warranty is supposed to work.

Great show from two great companies.  I have always been a Surefire fanboy, but this just cements that fact.  LL Bean was never my favorite, but I am starting to come around.  And that return policy, well, I don't know how to make it better. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

High End AA Lights

I could go on and on about the inferiority of AA batteries.  But, alas, there are some people that insist the Ford Mustang is better than the Ferrari 458 Italia and similarly people stick by AA batteries.  If you are one of those folks you have plenty of options in the Fenix, 4sevens, JetBeam world of the lights, but sparingly few in the upper echelon of flashlights.  Custom makers prefer the best of the best, either high maH batteries like CR123a or CR2, or even more specialized, a rechargeable cell, like the 18650.  Simply put, AA batteries do not offer the performance that attracts the attention of custom makers.  That said, if you scour the web you will find a small handful of lights that use only AA batteries, offer decent performance (given the power source), and still have the fit, finish, and unique look of a custom light.  Here are some of the choices out there:


Steve Ku Volere AA: Probably the nicest AA light in the world.  Here is the product announcement page.  Here is a good review with some sweet pictures.  The form factor is awfully nice, as are the custom touches, like the preinstalled optional tritium locator on the clicky.  The all Ti construction also screams custom.  They are, of course, all sold out.  You have to scan the forums for one being sold.  That said, they rarely, if ever come up for sale.  It has pretty much every feature you could want from a flashlight and still has an AA body.  Here is the Ti beauty:

 
 
DST TLR Titanium: This is also a custom AA light, sold mainly through CPF.  Here is the original thread.  Here is a review.  The high is a really impressive 220 lumens and like the Volere, the clip is preinstalled.  The form factor, again, is nice considering the power source.  It is not as refined as the Volere, lacking the scalloped bezel and the tritium insert, but it is still a very, very nice custom light.  The price is quite reasonable too, or it was when the light was released, $139.  Again, this a matter of scouring the boards for a used version. 

Xeno Cube E11 V7: This light has been around for a while.  It is not a custom light, but a high end production light from a Chinese company.  Here is the product page.  Here is a review of a slightly older version of the light.  The light sells for around $80.  Here is a good street price (love Blade HQ, BTW, great selection, real time inventory, and fast shipping).  The light has a heavily tweaked XP-G emitter and hits an impressive 220 lumens on high.  The square body offers a break from the horde of round, knurled tubes.  Finally, it comes with a nice looking leather sheath.  I am not a fan of sheathes, especially when you can get a light with a pocket clip, but this one is not a chintzy looking sheath.
 
Surefire E2L AA Outdoorsman: For years people clamored for an AA light from Surefire.  For many of the reasons I detest AA batteries they resisted.  Last year, finally, they caved in and made the EL2 AA.  Here is the product page.  Here is a video overview.  It has a high of 80 lumens (noting, of course, that Surefire's 80 lumens seem a lot like a no name brand's 150 lumens). It also has that world renowned Surefire feel and quality.  Still it is a big light and even at 80 "Surefire" lumens it is not the brightest thing in the world.

Photon Fanatic Ti AA: A true custom, one of a kind light from Fred Pilson, aka Photon Fanatic.  Here is the product page.  There are no reviews because there is only one of these lights.  Fred's stuff is aesthetically beyond any other maker's lights.  McGizmo and Cool Fall make great lights, bleeding edge designs, but no one comes closer to make a flashlight a work of art than Fred.  I linked to this to show you what is possible in terms of a bespoke, true custom light.   While your on his site take a look at the Indian Princess.  What a jaw dropper.
 
Arc Mania Maxlite III: The myth and rumor, a light of tantalizing performance from a well know custom maker.  This is line of high performance AA lights, all called Maxlite.  the most recent version is the Maxlite III.  ArcMania had a fight with folks over at CPF and so find refuge on an even more obscure forum, Custom Light Forum.  The design of the Maxlite Extreme is really quite amazing.  The body itself is a masterpiece of utilitarian design, with a built in cigar hold finger ring.  The bezel is scalloped and the body, in my mind, comes pretty close to the perfect shape for a flashlight.  Take a peak (it is the middle light, between a McGizmo Lunasol 27 on the top and a Cool Fall Spy 005 on the bottom):


 There were no more than 35 made according to the original sales thread.  They were $250 at the time and their exquisite form factor and high performance, custom electronics means they are very, very rarely on the B/S/T boards.  Arc Mania may or may not be working on an update and that light, according to rumor, may hit 450 lumens with an AA rechargeable cell (using a three emitter array like on the Mac TriEDC).  Again, at this point it is just rumor.  But if you can find an original there are tons of mods out there for this classic.

Tranquility Base Key-Lux AA: Another super limited run custom.  Here is an image:

 
Made by Tranquility Base over on CPF, this is, like the Maxlite, is a light that has come and gone.  If you can find them they are on B/S/T boards and they are likely to have an out of date emitter.  That said, these classic bodies allow for mods and many people do that work.  Here is a review of the Key-Lux AA.  Note that the AA head works on a N-battery body as well.

The pickin's are slim in the high end AA flashlight market niche.  Only the Xeno Cube and Surefire are still readily available.  But if you can, it may be worth tracking down some of these incredibly obscure lights.  Their design and form factor blow away just about everything else out today and someone can surely upgrade the emitter for you. 
 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quick hit on a good deal

It has been a while, but I finally bought another Benchmade, this time opting for the Spyderco Benchmade, i.e. the Mini Grip 555hg.  It is an excellent knife and a full review is coming.  But the reason I post is because of where I got it.  I have no affiliation with any site out there, but when I see a good deal, I feel obligated to pass it on.

I got my Mini Grip at Outfitter Country.  The price was SIGNIFICANTLY below Benchmade's mandatory uniform pricing of $80.75 (which is what the price is virtually everywhere, even ebay).  I got my NEW 555hg for $63.00, and with shipping the total was $66.06.  Quite the steal.  I am sure Benchmade will hunt them down and either force them to jack up the price or cut off their supply, but get them while you can.  At this price, the knife is real bargain.  Shipping was quick too.  This was my first purchase there and it went very smoothly.  I can't vouch for them all of the time, but in my one small sample, I was very pleased.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Branespload Interview

In what I hope is a series, below is an email interview I did with Bernard aka branespload, the creator of Everyday-Carry.com (which if you don't visit often, you should, though I can't imagine how you found this site without finding his). Here it is:

Q: Current EDC Knife/Light Combo?

A: My light is fairly constant and is the one part of my EDC I haven't upgraded in a long time -- the 4sevens Quark 123 Ti R5:



I jumped on it when 4sevens was announcing the first production light to use the XP-G R5, in titanium, for less than a hundred dollars. It has served me very well and despite buying other lights, none have come close to replacing this one. On the other hand, my knives tend to rotate. Recently, I've been carrying the SanRenMu 704 a lot as a beater knife when I do some simple gardening or to rip through boxes and such. It's gotten a bit dull, so I always go back to my trusty dyed LeafStorm (brainsploded's picture, BTW):



The s30v holds an edge pretty well.

Q: What is your one grail item?

A: Just one grail item is hard to narrow down -- I used to pine for a Sinn EZM-1:


Really though, my true grail item would be a knife or flashlight that I could personally design. It would probably be a flashlight since I know a bit more about them and what I'd want out of one. These days the market for EDC lights is huge, but it's so hard to find something that perfectly fits your needs. My 4sevens comes close, but isn't neutral. Zebralights come close in size, UI, etc, but they're not exactly grail-worthy.

Q: What is the one thing you carry that you'd like to upgrade and why?

A: More recently, my in ear monitors, Shure SE530 have been dying on me. I'd want to get them upgraded to a custom molded IEM, so I'll probably get them reshelled. In second place would be my GoBag/BOB materials -- I would totally overhaul my backpack and its carry system to be more organized, streamlined and diversified. Getting stuck in Boston during Irene sort of opened my eyes to how poorly I prepared that kit.

Q: Thumbhole, flipper, or thumbstud?

A: Of the three, I like using my thumb over my index finger, so flipper gets last place. I've used many thumbstud knives, from Boker, Al Mar, Benchmade and SRM but I have to say I prefer what I know best -- the Spyder Hole. I feel like I have more control when my thumb fits into something rather than tries to keep contact on top of it, like with a thumbstud. I feel like I can open knives with thumbholes either by flicking it for fast deployment or slowly and more controlled around people who are less than comfortable with knives.

Q: What is the best EDC product released this calendar year?

A: This is tough for me -- to be honest I haven't been able to keep track of everything coming out this year, especially since I haven't had the chance to upgrade anything or purchase new kit. I'd need to wait til the end of this year to answer that one, sorry!

Q: What are your five favorite EDC sites?

A: I hope sites can include forums, because I am a firm believer in forums as a platform for expanding knowledge. It's a place for knowledgable, enthusiastic and friendly people to share ideas and exchange opinions. This is the best way to keep up to date, gather some perspective and learn in ways that supplement your actual everyday experiences. With that said, I must give shoutouts to my top 3 -- EDCForums, CandlePowerForums, and BladeForums. Really though, those are the big three for me, I rarely need to go beyond those three to get the information I'm looking for. With that said, I'm glad to see some other EDC blogs starting up. You're doing a great job with your reviews at Everyday Commentary (editor: aw shucks...thanks) and Keychain Pockets deserves a shoutout as well.


Q: What are your five favorite YouTube reviewers?

A: I like cutlerylover, even though he's posting videos of his weightloss recipes these days. I also enjoy watching JohnWayneColt45, thecajunblaze, solosknifereviews, and stschmalhaus. Special shoutout to kenthenoob's channel, he's a friend who got me into knives when I was exclusively interested in flashlights way back then.

Q: Sal Glesser (founder of Spyderco) calls and says to you "What old Spyderco should we remake with ZDP-189 steel and CF handle slabs?". What is your answer?

A: Hmm, I hope there isn't a wrong answer to this. I personally like gentleman's folders with a bit of modern/tech flare, so I'd say the C34



or Goddard Jr. This is off the top of my head though…

NOTE: They DID make a Jess Horn II with ZDP-189 steel.  See here (it is the 2006 sprint run version of the Jess Horn lightweight, aka C38PBRG, there were only 1200 made). 

Q: How do you carry data with you? USB drive, cloud, some other method?

A: I have a Lacie iamakey 8GB on my keychain always, and I usually have my laptop and a WD 2.5" portable external in my bag with me. I also have dropbox on my phone but I don't use that as often.

Q: What item do you carry/wear that has the most sentimental value?

A: I hate to sound like I have no soul or something but my carry at the moment is streamlined to cut out unnecessary stuff -- I used to keep a bunch of photos, movie stubs etc in my wallet before 'discovering' EDC so now everything is pretty minimal and utilitarian. I would have to say my car keys. There aren't any trinkets attached to them, but the keys themselves remind me of a lot of great times I had in high school when I hung out with friends or drove my little brother around. Other than that, my dad gave me his balisong from his childhood in Batangas, Philippines, which could be considered balisong central. I just can't carry it, unfortunately.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Lumapower Incendio V3+ Upgrade XM-L Review

I feel like I have been working towards this review since I started writing this blog. This light sort of embodies a lot of what I hope to promote with this blog: the triumph of good design, the willingness to listen to the customer, the importance of small details, and a good price.

The Incendio is a light with a history. The first model was released in 2008. Since then it has been upgraded six times and there was an all stainless steel special edition. Over time (three years!) the clip has been replaced, going from a wire clip to a washer style clip. The threads have been upgraded to Acme style threads, which makes cross threading much more difficult. The clicky has been upgraded and the light can now tailstand. The anodizing has been upgraded as well, from HA II to HA II+ (whatever that is) to HA III. Over all this tweaking and upgrading, the emitter has changed over and over again, bumping up the lumens count until, with the XM-L version, it now hits 550 emitter lumens using an RCR123a (neutral, 500 on warm white). Also, there are bevy of accessories now. The kit includes a power pack extender, a lanyard, and a "throw" head. The XM-L version came with a pretty standard fare holster and a nice diffuser tip. In reality, with all of these upgrades and all of these helpful accessories, the Incendio has become more of a platform for constant upgrading than a mere flashlight.

Here is the product page for the non XM-L version (there is no product page, as of yet, for the XM-L version).  Here is an excellent review (part 1 and part 2) of the non-XM-L version.  Here is a good street price.  Because of all the models and upgrades the Amazon reviews and scores are useless.  Here is my Incendio XM-L:


IMG_0008

Also, I had some help doing the product testing for this light, my 15 month old son LOVES this light when the diffuser is on:

IMG_0682

Design: 2

The constant refinement of this light has left one thing intact--the almost perfect form factor.  Somewhere between the size of a Mini Quark 123 and a full sized Quark 123, this light is probably the smallest light out there with a forward clicky.  The body tube has the magic length to diameter ratio that makes holding and using the light with one hand a breeze.  The clip is very good, the stainless steel tail is nice and the clicky is very responsive.  Nothing flashy or crazy, just very functional.  The turbo head and alternative power source are nice bonus, as is the diffuser tip which really works and looks like a baby-size lightsaber (hence the picture above). 

Fit and Finish: 1

Two things.  First, the o-rings are not most substantial, one of which has already frayed from screwing the head on and off to insert a battery.  Second, the spring that holds the battery in place is a little weak.  Dropping the light hard on the ground (thanks to my product tester above) can switch the light from one output to the next or even turn it off.  It is rare, but possible.  Ricky from Lumapower said this is normal.  I'd like beefier springs and o-rings.  But these are minor points, really.  The rest of the light's fit and finish is nice.  The HA is good.  The emitter is well centered.  The edges are chamfered, except for the tail ring, which is very smooth and flat for tailstanding. Here is a look at the head of the light:

IMG_0004

Grip: 2

There are some knurled portions to the body tube and they are grippy.  The tube also has to flat faces for the logo and they aid in grip, as does the clip.  But again it is the magic ratio of length to diameter that matters and the Incendio hits it right on.

Carry: 2

Not as thin as a AAA light or as small as the beloved Aeon, the Incendio is still a tiny light.  The clip is a little too proud from the body, but it is not too bad.  It can ride in the coin pocket of jeans fully submerged.  I like that carry as it keeps the pocket clip from snagging.  The clip itself is a washer style clip that simply is held down my the screw on tail ring.  It is an elegant and tool free design.  The clip has been snagged and bent and repositioned already and it did so with no real problem.  

Output: 2

Okay, bleed edge emitter, check.  High end rechargeables, check.  550 emitter lumens, check (467 OTF lumens, 550x.85).  Single cell, thumb sized light, with all of this?  AMAZING.  With normal cells, it is still a nice 200 lumens.  But with this performance, you are in the custom echelon before you find anything close in a single cell light, non-weirdo battery, light.  Mac Custom's Tri EDC can hit this, but very few other lights can without resorting to larger and/or more specialized cells.  Behold, this is the pinnacle of performance.  And given emitter technology it will remain so for about ten minutes or about the time it takes you to read this post.  Still, for now, it is the best and it will get good enough for a long, long time.  The low is a little bright, given the upper end, but it is still dim enough.  I'd love to see an industry wide moonlight low of 1 lumen on all lights, but I think that is wishful thinking.      

Runtime: 2

Runtimes are, given the bleeding edge emitter, great for all four output modes.  Again, the high is a "theoretical" continuous runtime, as you need a potholder after about five minutes at 550 lumens, but still it does seem to last a very, very long time.  In low, around 10 lumens, the runtime is just insane.  

Beam Type: 2

This is a PURE flood.  It can throw a bit because of the output, but it is clearly not designed for that purpose.  As a flood, it is very good, with a nice hotspot and useful spill.  The XM-L was designed to have a broader throw than other emitters and this coupled with the shallowest of reflectors leads to a wall of light.  

Beam Quality: 1

I chose the neutral emitter on purpose, ignoring the "dimmer" 525 lumen warm emitter.  I wanted as many lumens as I could get and was willing to sacrifice beam quality to get it.  The emitter is quite purple, terribly so, in fact, but there are no rings or shadows.  

UI: 2

Great UI.  Using a clicky you get low, medium, high, and blast.  You can click on and off to switch or you can switch using half presses.  Very nice.  It also has mode memory for the last mode.  You can lock in a mode for tactical use by selecting that mode and doing four half presses.  You can unlock it by doing another four half presses.  Not a bad idea, but unnecessary in my opinion in an EDC light.   

Hands Free: 2

One of the major renovations with the Incendio was how the tail cap looked and worked.  It has reached a stage in its evolution where it is just about perfect.  The clicky has a GITD cover.  It is responsive and at the bottom of a dished out stainless steel ring.  Here is a picture:

IMG_0006

The ring screws into place tightening the washer portion of the clip into place.  The clip itself is tight but not so tight it can't rotate.  That bothers some, but not me.  I'd definitely make that trade for tool free replacement.  

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

This is a watershed light.  It, in my opinion, breaks Quickbeam's Flashlight Axiom: Small Size, Runtime, Brightness: Pick Two.  You get all three here.  

After years it has been refined to the point where it belongs in nearly everyone's collection or if you are not a flashlight collector--house.  This could easily replace all of the lights a non-flashaholic has and at $60 it is a great buy.  For a collector looking for a new light, this is an absolute steal.  This much refinement plus a bleeding edge emitter means that right now this is right at the cross hairs of price and performance (i.e. value).  The V3+ Upgrade was on the Top 10 Values in Gear list, and this light has a newer, brighter emitter and yet remained the same price. 

There is a ton of competition out there in the single cell 123a market niche, but nothing is this bright, this small, and with this many good accessories (the turbo head is on my list of purchases).  If you are looking for a good light for under $100 this is it.  It is not as good as a custom light, but its performance is pretty close.  You lose out on things like perfect fit and finish, but you gain about $100 in your pocket, at a minimum.  

Never buy a light for an emitter because they will always be outdated.  And here, while you get a nice emitter, you also get a subtly refined design.  All of the touches add up to one hell of a light and a testament to what happens when a company listens to customer feedback.  

All of this jibber jabber can be summed up this way: 

Go buy it.  Get the warm.  You won't be sorry.   

Saturday, September 17, 2011

CRKT McGinnis Tuition Review

It's 1951 and you go to the store for some milk. You see next to the cash register a small box and in the box a series of packages. On the packages are images of baseball and players in that overexposed color tinting. You buy a package and rip it open. Inside you find what could nominally be called gum in a flat, sheet-like stick. It is pink and unappetizing. You see behind it a series of cardboard cards with images and names. One of them is:

Willie Mays

Behind the name is this image:


It's Willie Mays's rookie card (and yes it is "Mays's", I checked because I didn't know for sure).

In some respects the CRKT Tuition and Summa are like that Willie Mays rookie card--the first entry for a young, incredibly talented person. In this case the talent is Gerry McGinnis. At the time, according to his site, he was in college when he designed the custom knives that became the production Tuition and Summa. CRKT has since picked up three other knives he designed and made them production models: the Notorious, the Shrimp, and the Premonition. Here is Gerry's CRKT page.

Here is the Tuition's page. Here is a good street price. Here is a video review. Here is a very good written review. Here is the Amazon reviews page for it. It has a score of 4 stars out of 5 with 3 reviews. Just to break up the normal pattern, here is a BEAUTIFUL custom version:



And here is my Tuition:

IMG_0020


Design: 2

There is something very animalistic about the Tuition, as if it were made of bone and muscle and claw. It looks, in profile, like a Sperm Whale, perhaps the greatest non-human apex predator of all time, but then you put it to use in your hand and you realize that this is a very pretty work knife. It is hard to classify this knife in traditional terms. It is too bulky to be a constant companion EDC knife, not dressy enough to be a gentleman's knife, not stout enough to be a tactical blade, but if you ignore trying to categorize it and just use it you realize just how inspired the young McGinnis is at making knives. Everything works, there are no excess pieces or parts, and it fits well in your hand.

Fit and Finish: 2

Well, I had mentioned it before, but it is clear to me now, having carried the Tuition for a while, that CRKT has really stepped up their game. The fit and finish on the Tuition is excellent. For a $30 knife I am simply stunned. The detent is perfect, the pivot is smooth, the handles are beautifully sculpted. It is not merely that they didn't make any mistakes, they have actually added luxurious touches like two toned Micarta handles. The green is really subtle so I had to make some seriously harsh lighting to get it to come out on camera:

IMG_0013


Same shot without the harsh lighting:

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I didn't expect that at this price level. Check out how good the centering is, something that almost always correlates with more expensive knives:

IMG_0015

Grip: 2

This is a pudgy knife, fat and wide but short. Still all of the curves work to accentuate the knife in your hand and during use. The flipper works well as a hand guard. There is a nice finger choil. The Wharncliffe blade all but begs for harder uses and tasks, and the curves of the handle make that possible and even comfortable. The handle scales are convex and their three dimensionality works well. One small, small knock--the handle shape does not promote a comfortable reverse grip.

Carry: 0

As I said, this is a pudgy knife. It is also a staggeringly heavy knife for its size. It weighs 3.4 ounces and that seems awfully generous. It also not the most graceful knife at getting in and out of pocket. The clip is not too weird, but the whole package together is a bear in the pocket. The flipper seems to be too big and too sharply jimped (is that a word? Nutnfancy says it is...).

Steel: 1

It is 8CR14MoV. It has, in my experience, proven to be a very good steel. It is better, in terms of rust resistance specifically, than the steel used on the similarly priced Spyderco Tenacious. Nothing spectacular, like ZDP-189 or the like, but still pretty good and very good for a $30 knife.

Blade Shape: 2

If you don't like Wharncliffe blades, this is not your knife. I am not a huge fan, as the lack of belly means a lot of wear and tear on the tip. They are very sturdy and make excellent marking knives for woodworking, but it is not as generally useful as a good clip point blade (as always see the nav bar on the right for more about blade shapes). That said, this is a very good Wharncliffe blade. The front swedge is strange, stealing a bit of the strength away from the tip of the knife and thus depriving the Wharncliffe of much of its benefit, but it does work and I have never had the tip break off even when I was using it as a marking knife on tough wood (white oak, in cross grain applications).

Grind: 2

Color me surprised. Again, the craftsmanship here is really unexpected, both for the brand and the price. The model I have has a half serrated blade, which I usually dislike, but I had to try out the Veff serrations. They are fantastic. Here is a picture:

IMG_0016


They are steeply angled serrations, like the rake on the teeth of a circular saw and thus hit the material at an aggressive angle to promote cutting. Having tried all sorts of very serration patterns, I can say these are the best I have used. Serrations seem to fall into one of two categories: sharp and fragile (i.e. Cold Steel's serrations) and gentle and durable kind. Kershaw's are very durable, but not much more aggressive than the straight edge itself. Cold Steel's are needle-like, but break like tooth picks. The Veff serrations are both durable and very aggressive. They represent, in my mind, a major innovation, the best serrations I have seen. The knife's straight edge grind is also very decent. Not SOG great, but definitely on par with Spyderco's average grinds (i.e. non-custom collaborations or sprint runs).

Deployment Method: 1

The flipper shoots out the knife very fast and smooth, but it is a little too big. The angle of the flipper is decent, too, but the jimping is extra, extra sharp and on the flipper it is not really necessary.

Retention Method: 1

The clip is fine. Nothing great, nothing bad. When combined with the already bulky handle though it makes the knife a bit of a fatty in the pocket.

Lock: 2

The liner lock is a well executed liner lock. The detent is well balanced, keeping the blade in the handle until just the right amount of force is placed on the flipper.

Overall Score: 15out of 20

The design is quite nice. It is not a home run, but there are definitely signs of real talent in this knife, something like Willie Mays's good, but not great rookie season. McGinnis is going to make a great all-time knife. Maybe he already has. Maybe it is one of his other CRKT designs or one of his customs. You don't make a knife this smooth on your first few tries without having unquestionable talent. Add to that some really nice fit and finish on the part of CRKT and this is an interesting knife. I am not sure I would have gone with a Wharncliffe blade, but even with that bit of a handicap, this is good, fun knife. In its price range I would definitely opt for a Buck Vantage of some sort or a Dragonfly, but this is not a bad choice.

By the way, I got this knife on the day I found out I was having a kid. So this knife, with its safer than average tip, is going into storage. It seems like a pretty good first knife.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Atwood Video Reviews

Your drooling over that latest, super sweet, super limited edition Atwood, but you'd like to see how big it is.  You'd like to see how it stacks up.  What's a gadget geek to do?  Go to YouTube.  

Browsing around YouTube I found a pretty darn good channel for reviews of Atwood Tools (among other things).  Once there are a few more videos I will drop it on the nav bar to the right.  Until then, take a look at Tonester's (a super nice fellow EDCFer) videos found here:

Tonester's Channel

Also, he is running a contest for his 50th subscriber.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Blog Update

When I started this blog I really had a few specific goals in mind.  One of them was average number of page views.  I hit that target (thanks everyone!).  So now I want to sort of lay out what's next and why I am doing this. 

First, I hope that this is fun. It has been fun for me to write and research these posts. I hope they are fun for you to read. Once it is not fun, it is over.  If you aren't enjoying it, I am not going to write it. 

Second, I hope that I get good, real world information to people. One of the things that I like to do is research. I love looking through all of my options before I spend money. I generate a TON of data before each and every purchase.  I have to make my limited fun money stretch as far as humanly possible.  So I have stacks and stacks of information.  I thought it might be fun to share that information and that is what started this blog.  My hope is that this blog will serve as a jumping off point for your research, that my efforts help your efforts. I hope that I bring people new and exciting information, that I collect good information, and my reviews and review process are helpful. The idea is that when you want to buy a piece of gear, a light or knife or pack, that you come here and first see if I reviewed it. Second, if I didn't see if someone I have in the nav bar on the right did. Finally, if that doesn't work, go to the specific forum, again in the nav bar, and poke around.

Third, I would eventually like to have more products submitted for review.  Hopefully, if there is enough traffic, production companies will send stuff. Custom makers have already contacted me and one (Dark Sucks) sent me a product to review and two others are in the works. I would like to have more production stuff to go along with the higher end custom items. Ultimately, I would love it if Spyderco submitted an item for review. I love Spyderco's products (though I think I can keep a good critical distance, see Leafstorm review) and I had asked before but they get so many requests that they couldn't help. Eventually, if the blog gets big enough, hopefully they will change their minds.   By the way, if you sell or make something (even if you work for a production company) you'd like reviewed, contact me and we can make arrangements.  My email is below. 

Fourth, I'd like to do a BIG giveaway. This is the plan: using all of the adsense revenue, I'd like to run a contest and then give away a custom Benchmade Mini Griptillian. For the contest, I'd ask people to submit jpeg files that contain a logo for the blog, something snazzy that incorporates the name of the blog. The best logo, as chosen by me, would win. The winner would receive a custom Benchmade Mini Grip. Benchmade has a custom service for the Mini Grip (and full sized Grip), which is why I chose the Mini Grip (that and it is a very nice EDC knife), and you can choose all sorts of options. What I would like to do is create a "Midnight" Mini Grip--all-black everything (screws, pocket clip, blade, Axis bolts) with S30V blade steel, then put the blog's logo (the winning logo) on one side and the year on the other (though the winner could choose not to do this, as well as choosing all of the other options). The custom Mini Grip costs a pretty penny, around $125 with all of the options I want, so it might be a while. There is about $24 in the adsense box right now. Once it hits $125 I will take it out and buy the Mini Grip for the giveaway.  An announcement for the contest will come later, once we get close to the right number.

Finally, I am working on a project that I will call The List.  The idea is to create a master list of high quality, small scale gear makers for people to use as a reference.  There are a lot of one- or two-person shops out there making awesome stuff.  A lot of them, like Inkleaf Leather, have decided to pursue their craftsmen dreams.  Maybe it is because the economy stinks and they lost their job.  Maybe it is because they are just tired of the rat race.  Whatever it is, if I can help promote those good, high quality products, it is a win for everyone--for the small time maker, for the person looking for quality gear, and for the economy as a whole.  If the folks in Washingston don't want to help us and are too busy to do what's right instead of what gets them elected, we will help ourselves.  The List is still under construction, but if you have a name you'd like to send, even if it is your own, here is my contact:

anthonysculimbreneNOTSPAM@comcast.net (remove the obvious part)

I am looking for:

1) Small production or custom makers
2) EDC or related gear
3) Stuff made in the US (as the majority of readership is in the US)

One of other things that I wanted to do, which I think I have already done, is make the blog more reader friendly.  There is an option for mobile users as well as a revamped and tinkered with template (thanks for the suggestions).  I will always be trying to make this more reader friendly.  That's the point, after all--readers.  

That's where this blog is right now.  Hopefully, the contest can be sooner rather than later, it all depends on the adsense revenue.  The List is coming, I just need more information.  All suggestions for improvements, reviews, links, whatever, are, as always, welcome.  That sentence had six commas and eleven words.  SWEET.

Monday, September 12, 2011

SOG Twitch II Review

In my SOG Flash I review I noted that the Flash I was desperately in need of an update. In particular, I lamented over the lack of a flipper. Though the Twitch I, II, and XL aren't updates per se, they are very similar to the Flash series, but with a flipper in addition to the thumbstuds.

Here is the product page. Here is a good street price. Here is Nutnfancy's review. Here is a written review. Here are the Amazon reviews. It received a score of 4.39 stars out of 5 with 38 reviews. There is a smaller Twitch, the Twitch I, and a larger Twitch, the Twitch XL.  Finally there is a very small money clip variant called the Blink.  Using Goldilocks logic I picked the Twitch II (it also had the same dimensions, roughly, of my Buck Vantage Small).  Here is my Twitch II, which I purchased at the Bass Pro Shop for $49.95 (knives in person YIPEEE!):

IMG_0021


Design: 2

This knife, like the Buck Vantage Small, is just about the perfect size and shape for EDC use. The very thin handle slabs and thin blade make this knife extremely slim.  The flipper is sized and positioned well.  I don't like the exposed tang corner at the rear of the blade in the closed position, but surprisingly it doesn't snag.  A few things I don't like about the design that ARE problems: 1) the SAT coiled spring pivot (more on this below); and 2) the weight.  I am not sure why SOG felt the need to give this knife, with its aluminum handle slabs, full metal liners.  The result is that this small-ish knife tips the scales at a beefy 2.6 ounces, more than the larger Spyderco Delica 4 (2.5 ounces).  The blade:handle is a very decent: .76. 

Fit and Finish: 1

The SOG SAT coiled spring pivot is a busted design.  It caused blade play, very minor as it is, in all directions--up, down, and side to side.  I tried to tighten it and play with the pivot, but just like with the Flash I, it never went away entirely until the blade just seized up and wouldn't come out.  In this particular design I think the combination of the SAT pivot AND the lockback gives rise to a significant amount of up and down blade play.  It is certainly tactile blade play (i.e. you can feel it in your fingers).  It is also audible (you can here it clicking).  It is not, however, visible (at which point, I think the knife is not safe).  Other than this issue, the lockback spring was a little too tight when I first got the knife.  All other areas of the knife, the polish on the blade and the matte texture of the handles, for example, were outstanding.  

Grip: 2

This is a tiny little blade with curves and catches in the right place.  Here is a picture of the knife open:

IMG_0027


There is a bit of a curve on the top of the handle that works well for the thumb in close, high pressure work.  The flipper also acts as a finger guard to prevent the hand from slipping forward.  There is a bit of jimping on the flipper as well and more on the lockback release and the blade lock towards the rear of the blade on the spine. The matte finish of the aluminum handle slab is just right--not too gritty, but not too slick either.  The knife is small so I wouldn't go hacking down trees and it is not as grippy in the hand as say, the perfect Spyderco Dragonfly II, but it is pretty darn good.  

Carry: 1

The thumbstuds are very sharply cut and extend well beyond the handle slabs.  This makes them easy to use, but also ensures that they snag your pocket.  I also think, given the well executed flipper, that they are unnecessary.  So I dock it a lot for that flaw.  But, the tiny blade and perfect size, plus a decent pocket clip means that this is a nice to carry knife.  0+1=1 I guess in this case.  

Steel: 0

Cryo freeze it, forge it on the Sun, I don't care, AUS8 is still a crappy steel.  Yes, it does get sharp and yes, it is easy to sharpen, but it just doesn't hold an edge.  After 10 days of MILD EDC tasks--packages, boxes, and odds and ends, I had to go to the Sharpmaker with the Twitch II.  I gave a few passes and it was as good as new, but AUS8 is just below par, especially on a $45-50 knife.  And if you use it after having carried a knife with ZDP-189 for steel it is almost like going back to knapped flint for blade steel.  At this point I don't really see the difference between this steel and Buck's 420HC in terms of performance.  

Blade Shape: 2

If there is one reason to carry this knife, aside from its pleasing size and shape, it is the blade shape.  An elegant, full flat grind, drop point blade with a nice flipper/guard at the ricasso is just too wonderful.  It slices well.  It hacks well.  And, unlike the Spyderco leaf-shape, it does not take up too much room in the pocket.  I love this blade shape.  Love it.  Now with a decent steel, say M390 or ZDP-189, this would be an awesome little blade. 

Grind: 2

Oh joy of joys, the SOG grind.  SOG's grinds, in my opinion, are simply superior to all other production knife company's grinds.  It is not until you hit the $300 mark that you find equally nice grinds.  The secondary grind is very wide allowing for a steep angle and easy sharpening.  The lines and edges are beautifully even and smartly tapered (when they should be).   This is what SOG does best and it shows on the Twitch II.  

Deployment Method: 2

I don't normally like assisted opening on EDC blades, but this is so fast and easy to use that...I guess...fine, it is okay.  It is not necessary, but does work very well.  It is also kind of addicting.  The flipper makes all the difference in the world because what is addicting here is fiddly on the Flash I.  

Retention Method: 1

The clip is very middle of the road.  It is too wide (promoting snagging) and a little too stiff.  But it works.  I would have liked to see a bayonet-style clip like on the Flash I or a tip attaching clip like on the Vantage (God knows its possible, what with the steel sandwich look at the end of the knife, there are a few spacer slabs that could have done double duty).   

Lock: 1

The lockback lock bar is VERY tight.  I can't figure out why either.  Perhaps the extra tightness compensates for the blade play using force to reduce wiggle when precision fitting parts can't.  It is really annoying, but has gotten better.  

Overall Score: 14 out of 20

This is a better knife than the Flash I.  It is a very good size and shape.  The blade is wonderful, but the knife is a little heavy and the fit and finish could be better.  Still, if you are looking for a mid-priced, mid-sized pocket knife you could do a lot worse than the Twitch II.  You could also do better: say a Delica, or a Dragonfly, or a Buck Vantage Small Pro.  With tighter tolerances on the lock and blade and better steel (come on, at least VG10), this could be an all-time great.  As it is, it is above par and fun to carry, but nothing approaching a classic.  A Sebenza with a flipper done in this size is probably my dream knife.  Chris Reeve, did you hear that?  Seriously, how about a flipper?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tumi Alpha T-Pass Expandable Laptop Briefcase Review

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I now understand why sailors call boats and ships "she".  After a while, after some object has been so crucial to your daily work that you come to know it by merely touching it, you develop an affinity for it.  And so "she" doesn't seem quite so weird.  

While I am not about to call my briefcase "she", I still really like my Tumi Large Expandable Organizer Laptop Briefcase (from now on: Tumi Briefcase).  Tumi makes high-ish end luggage.  There are, of course, no limits on the price you can pay for luggage, but for the average person, like me, Tumi represents an upper limit.  They make tons of nice luggage, but it is their bags and packs that concern me here.  I would equate them to something like the William Henry of the bag and pack world.  I have owned two Tumi items, an out of production laptop backpack (which was very nice in law school) and the Tumi Briefcase that I have now.  The Tumi Briefcase is nothing short of a warhorse.  

I have been a lawyer for eight years and in that time I have done more than a dozen jury trials, probably 100-200 bench trials, and easily more than a 1,000 contested hearings.  In every one of the proceedings, full of files and law books, my Tumi has been by my side.  It has been with me when I have lost heartbreaking trials or when I have won ecstatic victories.  There is nothing I carry or own that I have used more than my Tumi bag.  I feel confident that this review will reflect just about as much use and abuse as this bag could take in eight years time.  And the cool thing is that even now, after torrential downpours and brutal winters, it still looks pretty nice.  It also works beautifully.

Here is the product page.  Here is an all leather version.  Here is a street price, note I did not say GOOD street price because there is great price uniformity.  Here are the Amazon reviews (it has a 5 out of 5 stars with 3 reviews).  Here is a review of a similar, but smaller bag from Tumi.  Here is a video overview.  There are no REAL video reviews out there as the one that is out there is clearly a shill and I am not linking to it. Here is my Tumi Briefcase (with my regular EDC):

IMG_0034

Note that my Tumi Briefcase is an older model.  All of the changes are superficial except for one, which will be noted and discussed below.

Design: 2

Here is the bag facing you:



 The bag has two main compartments with a thin "notepad" pocket on the front of each of the main zippered compartments (it is behind the handle in the picture above).  There is a gear and gadget compartment up front and it is divided into two pockets, one that is wider and another that is taller.  There are additional pockets on and in each of these compartments.  There are grommets for pass through of fluids at the bottom of the two exterior pockets and another grommet at the top of the wide exterior pocket for a headphone out.  Between the two main compartments is a zippered gusset.  When the gusset is unzippered the main compartments become larger.  One main compartment is for a laptop and included a laptop sleeve.  The other has three built in dividers for organization. 

When I carried a laptop, this was a perfect bag, minus the dividers.  Now that I don't it is simply too big.  The evolution of the smartphone and in particular the advent of good legal search engines on the iPhone (yes, I mean Fastcase, Lexis and Westlaw stink) means that this bag is now a relic for me.  If you carry a laptop though this is a superb bag for you.  The tall exterior pocket is perfect for an AC adapter and cords.  The other exterior pocket is great for pens, pencils, change, and business cards.  I carry gloves and a face mask for visiting extremely ill people (even sick people get lawyers) in the taller pocket.  I still hate the dividers as they are not useful at all, but aren't much of a problem.   

It no longer suits my needs as well, but that is not the bag's fault.  I have just changed how I do what I do.  For a laptop case, this thing is really well designed.

As a sidenote, the bag is rugged looking but still nice and classy enough for even the most formal settings (try: State Supreme Court).  Much more refined looking than a Maxped bag, but not as sissified as a more traditional briefcase.  

Fit and finish: 2

Tumi's nylon is insanely tough.  Nothing has withstood the abuses this thing has taken in the eight years I have been a lawyer, nothing.  But the Tumi nylon shrugs off everything from spilled water to dirt to the winter apocalypse with grace and ease.  The zippers are in-house Tumi designs and they are great.  I have never had a misthreading of the zipper and they start very easily.   The straps are nylon with leather hand grips and they are nice.  I would prefer no leather as it wears much more obviously than the ripstop nylon, but, what can you do.

Carry: 2 (with new shoulder strap); 1 (with old strap)

Okay, so here is the non-superficial update.  The old Tumi shoulder strap was merely okay.  It had a snap shackle and it came off every once in a while.  Now, with the new locking snap shackles it is IMPOSSIBLE to inadvertently unhook the strap.  The new strap is also seatbelt weave instead of the bulkier ripstop nylon weave.  Both are tough, but the seatbelt weave snags less.  The original strap's pad stinks, but the new strap is much better.  As a sidenote the new strap is not that expensive and the upgrade is total worth it if you have the old one.  This is my third strap (original, aftermarket, and new strap) and the longest lasting.

The bag, when fully loaded is really big.  As a result, the strap needs to be really wide and nice.  Fortunately, this strap is.  Carry is very, very nice, but not as nice, of course, as a backpack.  Still if you have to carry a briefcase and a laptop, this is your bag.  

Materials: 2

The ripstop nylon is unbeatable.  The seatbelt weave strap is great.  The zipper in proprietary (though it looks and works like others) and is really nice.  I don't like the leather hand grips, but again that is a preference.  Nothing on the bag is cheap or chintzy.  

Accessibility: 2

When carried accessibility is very good.  When zipped open and stationary, this thing is like a bookcase.  It is perfect.  There is nothing I could or would change about how this bag opens up and how you get your stuff.

Ease of Packing: 2

With three side zippers on the main compartments packing is easy.  Using the tall exterior pocket for things other than cables is a bit of a pain, but still it is okay. 

Pockets/Organization: 2

Again, with the exit of the laptop, the bag and its compartments are too big for me, but it is still a nice bag.  Organization is excellent as are the size of the pockets.  I hate the dividers but they are easily worked around. 

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2 (with new strap); 0 (with old strap)

The zippers are smooth, the snaps and buckles are great.  The locking snap shackle design is crazy nice.  Truly ingenious industrial design.

Straps and belts: 2 (with new strap); 1 (with old strap)

Again, the hand grips stink, but that is such a small point.  Wide comfy straps really help with a bag this big.  Great job.  

Modularity/expansion: 2

The T-Pass allows for a lot of compatibility, opening up stacked carry with luggage.  The shoulder strap is wide enough for a phone pouch sold by Tumi.   The laptop sleeve is removeable.  About as modular as you can get in briefcases.

Overall Score:  20 out of 20 with new strap; 16 out of 20 with old strap

If you carry a laptop this is the best briefcase I have ever seen and I have been looking for more than a decade now (since law school).  Tumi stuff is bombproof and looks nice.  It is easy to pack and surprisingly easy to carry.  I really, really like the bag. It is not cheap, at $395, but it is worth every penny.

One Year Update: 15 out of 20

-2 on Design; -1 on Snaps/buckles/zippers; -2 Straps and Belts

So much of what made this bag great has been done better on much cheaper bags, like the Tom Bihn Cadet and the Red Oxx Metro.  Those two bags are much less than half the price and they are lighter, smaller, and better laid out.  The Tumi seems designed for or by the business traveler of the late 90s.  Its massive internal compartment is great for carrying a behemoth of a laptop AND files, something just isn't necessary anymore.  With the advent of the iPad and good smartphones, this design, especially this size of a bag, is not needed or helpful.  The snaps and buckles are okay, but again they are bulky.  They simply do not need to be this robust or all blacked out.  The Bihn combination of good Delrin connectors and nice metal, when needed, makes a huge difference in weight and noise with no impact on durability.  The cliched leather shoulder strap, even with its suede backing, is not even in the same league as the Red Oxx Claw.  It looks crappy in a few years and has no where near the staying power.  For the money you can't do better but that is because only "old" companies are producing stuff in this price range.  Drop the price $200 and you will find a wealth of better options.  This is the most radical change in an update I have done but it is because this market is vastly superior to where it was 18 or 24 months ago.  We have crossed over from laptop briefcases to bags that recognize the change in gear and dispense with the useless extra size and weight.