Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hard Use EDC Knife Shoot Out

I like small EDC knives.  The Dragonfly is a speck of a blade, but its superlative design allows it to do virtually every EDC task I encounter.  But for some folks that phrase "virtually every EDC task" is not praise but an indictment.  To these folks an EDC blade should be able to do EVERY EDC task you encounter.  Going from a blade that can handle 95% of the chores you use it for to a blade that can handle 100% of the chores you use it for is not an easy thing to do.  Those last 5% of tasks have such wide and varied demands that getting a blade that can do all of them requires that you fundamentally alter what you are looking for--you need a hard use folder.

Many folks will rightly point out at this moment two things: 1) a hard use folder is an oxymoron; and 2) there are a slew of good EDC fixed blades out there.  These folks are right.  A good, small fixed blade, like the Candiru that I loved so much, or Skyline fixed blade, can handle 100% of your chores.  But it is not easily carried, even the Candiru with it is delightful sheath.  Furthermore, if you thought folders elicited a negative response, bust out a fixed blade at Target and see what looks and reactions you get.  You need a hard use folder then.  But you also want it to be eminently pocketable.

These two things, as I have found out after reviewing gear for 18 months, are not really compatible.  Sure, there are the guys that carry around bags full of stuff and the guys that insist their Extreme Ratio RAO is an EDC knife (it weighs 12 ounces!), but you don't like carrying bag or boat anchors, the number of true hard use folders that are also EDC friendly are few and far between.  This shootout is a comparison of three folders that I believe are both hard use and pocketable.  Furthermore, I believe, based on discussions online and search results, these three knives are the ones you are most likely considering if you are looking for a truly pocket-friendly hard use folder.

You might think that these are "tactical folders", but as I have been clear about for a while now, I know nothing about "tactical" stuff.  I think the word is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but even if there is a core meaning, I have no tactical experience at all.  I would also point out that these knives have blades that are shorter than those typically labeled as tactical knives.  

In this shootout I will be comparing the Spyderco Paramilitary 2, the Zero Tolerance 350, and the new Cold Steel Mini Recon 1 (reviews in the hyperlinks).   Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find all three knives, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ
 
Unfortunately I can't do a group shot because I no longer own the ZT350 and the CSMR1 and PM2 were review loaners.  Here they are one at a time though:

Spyderco Paramilitary 2 (PM2):

IMG_0003
Zero Tolerance ZT350 (ZT350):

IMG_0002

Cold Steel Mini Recon I Spearpoint (CSMR1):

IMG_0004
Methodology

The rules of the shootout are simple: I will use all of the same categories as the normal scoring system, but the products will be ranked, using a weighted rank system (like the baseball MVP voting; this prevents mere inclusion from being a huge bonus).  The best product in a given category will get 5 points, the next best 3, and the worst 1.  After that I will tally the points and then divide the points by the average price of the product.  The product that is the best value (most points per dollar) will be the winner.  There will be no ties. If there is a tie, so how, in the value calculations, I will break the type based on my own opinion of which product is better.

Scoring

Design

The ZT350 Is by far the most unusual of the three blades design-wise.  It is quite unusual looking with a flipper and a slew of curvy lines.  It is also the heaviest of these blades.  Alas, the shocking and unusual looks limit the knife's performance, as I will detail below.  It is a very good design, but up against this competition it is clearly the third best.  The other two blades, while more conventional, are, in the end, more successful in implementation.  The PM2 is absolute design dream--the extension of the Paramilitary/Military design taken to its zenith.  Here is a shot showing just how thin this blade is (thanks to the nested liners):

IMG_0007
  

It is quite big (3.44 inch blade), but incredibly light (3.75) AND incredibly tough.  There is a reason why everyone and their mother loves the PM2.  It is a capable blade that weighs just slightly more than a Delica.  The CSMR1 is similarly capable and even lighter (3 inch blade in a 3 ounce package).    

PM2: 5
CSMR1: 3
ZT350: 1

Fit and Finish

It is here where ZT's premium heritage shows.  The cutting bevel on the PM2 was sloppy and the ricasso was poorly finished.

IMG_0009

Similarly, the CSMR1's G10 was about the worst I have ever seen and the blade coating is rubbish.  The ZT350, however, was perfect--beautifully centered, perfect coating, and crisp, nicely finished handles and jimping.  The ZT is ahead of the other two by miles here.  None of the blades were fatally flawed, not at all, but the ZT350 had no production flaws at all. 

ZT350: 5
CSMR1: 3
PM2: 1

Grip

All of the curves on the blade stink, but all of the curves on the handle make for a superior knife in the hand.  I have yet to encounter another knife that surpasses the ZT350 in terms of grip (though the CRKT Eraser is its equal).  Here is the secret:



IMG_0005

Behind the rear flipper there is a HUGE cut out for your index finger.  The jimping also helps around the edges, but nothing like that choil to lock in your hand.  The PM2's choil, while quite good, is not EXACTLY as helpful as the ZT350's.  The CSMR1 lacks any sort of choil and the G10 is so rough it is painful to use.  Here the top two are close with the CSMR1 falling behind quite a bit.

ZT350: 5
PM2: 3
CSMR1: 1

Carry

The PM2, despite its very long length, is an excellent blade in the pocket.  It is relatively thin and quite light.  Additionally, the Spyderco hour glass clip gives you a bunch of options.  The CSMR1 is a bit thick, but nothing offensive.  The ZT350 however is a house.  It is really, really big.  Its wide.  Its heavy.  Its thick.  All of these make for a good hard use folder, but this is right at the limit of what I consider a true everyday carry folder (the larger CRKT Eraser was excluded for this reason--that is an even bigger and heavier knife).  

PM2: 5
CSMR1: 3
ZT350: 1

Steel

This is another category where there is distinct clumping.  The ZT350 outpaces the PM2 not because there is a difference in steel (there isn't) but because it's coating is actually effective.  It stays on and makes the great S30V steel just a smidgen better (mostly a friction thing).  The AUS-8 on the CSMR1 is one of the big drawbacks of the knife.  This same knife with a respectable steel, like 154CM would be awesome. 

ZT350: 5
PM2: 3
CSMR1: 1

Blade Shape

I am a sucker for that classic Spyderco shape.  It really does work.  The tip is thin and pointy.  There is something like a belly.  Overall it is very good.  The CSMR1 in Spearpoint is also quite an excellent blade.  It is a very sturdy shape with good belly and excellent cutting performance.  The ZT350's recurve is something I cannot tolerate.

IMG_0012

It just doesn't work.  It helps a little in cutting but it makes the knife and the very hard S30V a real chore to sharpen.  In the end that is why I got rid of the knife. 

PM2: 5
CSMR1: 3
ZT350: 1

Grind

I like the PM2's full flat grind a lot, but the cutting bevel on my review sample was, shall we say, messy.  It was like a kindergartener's finger painting.  It didn't really effect the cutting performance at all, but it did look bad.  The the ZT350's grind with the multiple facets and angles is just unnecessarily busy.  In the end, the simple lines and immaculately clean grind on the CSMR1 tops the shootout by default--it was the only one that was not self-defeating either by a lack of finish or an inherently overly complex design. 

CSMR1: 5
PM2: 3
ZT350: 1

Deployment Method

The Spyderhole on the PM2 is enormous.  With that size comes an ease of deployment like no other Spyderco I have used.  I am still partial to the thumb hole, but the flipper on the ZT350 is quite nice.  My big issue with the flipper though is that it is not smooth at all.  The detent is massively strong and the assist is an absolute necessity because of that.  I'd prefer an unassist flipper that is also smooth.  The thumb studs on the CSMR1, while clever, aren't really anything more than REALLY nice thumb studs.  And, as we all know, thumb studs stink.

IMG_0006

PM2: 5
ZT350: 3
CSMR1: 1

Retention Method

While the ZT350 is truly a pocket anchor, it's pocket clip is just about perfect--simple, not overly showy, and very, very effective.  I liked it a lot here and even more on the Skyline.  The PM2's hourglass clip is nice, but pretty standard fare.  Coupled with a nice as slim and light as the PM2, the clip seems very good, but it is really the knife and not the clip.  Falling far behind here is the CSMR1's curved clip.

IMG_0020

Not only is it ugly and forces you to use it in a specific way, it is not swappable.  There is no reason for this now in an age of refined pocket clip designs.  

ZT350: 5
PM2: 3
CSMR1: 1

Lock

Both the ZT350 and the PM2 are tough.  They are really, really tough.  I like the locks on both of them, the compression lock just a little more than the stout liner lock on the ZT350, but in the end, the Tri-Ad lock outdistances both of them by a significant margin.  I am not sure if it is REALLY all that much stronger.  I don't have any way to scientifically measure it and I am sure in that regard all are strong enough.  The two big advantages of the Tri-Ad lock is first it operates exactly like a lock you already use (it is really a modified lockback); and it FEELS more solid.  As stout as the locks were on the PM2 and the ZT350 I was hesitant to do full on batonning with them.  With the CSMR1 I had trouble putting it in that role and having confidence that it would succeed.  And boy did it ever.  This is, in my mind, perhaps the best lock on the market and in this knife it makes it unbelievably tough. 

CSMR1: 5
PM2: 3
ZT350: 1

Total Points:

PM2: 36
ZT350: 28
CSMR1: 26

Value Calculations

Prices at BladeHQ as of 12/26/12:

PM2: $119
ZT350: $140
CSMR1: $67.50

Points per dollar:

PM2: .30 points for every dollar you spend
ZT350: .20 points for every dollar you spend
CSMR1: .39 points for every dollar you spend

Conclusion 

I was worried about the shootout's scores going in, as I was worried that the CSMR1 would not be adequately represented stacking up against knives that are twice the price or more, but as you can see, it worked out perfectly.  The CSMR1 is, without question, the best value here.  It hangs with the big boys quite nicely in every area except for steel.  The G10 is obnoxious, but it wears over time and isn't the biggest drawback in the world.  Additionally, the raw scores conform to my initial impressions.  The PM2, price no object, is clearly the best knife here and the difference between the ZT350 and the CSMR1, price no object, is negligible.  I have yet to do a shootout with scores that synch up this well to my initial impressions, so I feel very confident that this is the right result.  All of these knives are good blades.  The PM2 is an excellent overall blade, one of the best, but it is not quite the buy that the CSMR1 is.  That knife is just awesome.  If Cold Steel used better steel, it just might be the best production blade under $100.

As a side note, only the Spearpoint version would rank this high.  I hate Tanto grinds and the clip point, while better, is still not as utilitarian as the good ole spear point.  This is a great knife and one of the reasons why I think Cold Steel had probably the best year of any gear company other than TAD.  If you have Christmas money to spend and are looking for a hard use EDC knife, try the CSMR1.

One other knife that I think falls into this category that I did not have a chance to review is the full sized Benchmade Griptilian.  It is a big knife, with decent steel, and a great lock.  I also like the thumb hole version.  Its clip is an issue, as you know from the Benchmade Mini Grip review, and it is quite pricey for what you get (around $100-$105, though you might hit one cheap before Benchmade catches the retailer going below their suggested price).  It might slot in between the CSMR1 and the PM2, had it been included.  This is, of course, just a guess as I have never had a chance to spend a good deal of quality time with the knife.   

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Up Next: SM 100

We all imagine the perfect blade steel.  It would be as hard and hold an edge as long as M4 or ZDP-189.  It would be very durable and chip resistant like Busse's INFI steel.  It would be highly corrosion resistant like H1.  Nothing can do all of these things though.  Blade steel, the old maxim goes, is about trade offs.

At a certain price, however, this is no longer true.

There is a metal out there (note I did not write STEEL; this material lacks iron, the necessary element that makes steel steel) that does all of this.  It was invented in the 1960s by the Navel Ordinance Laboratory and has only recently become "cheap enough" to be used in cutlery blades.  I say "cheap enough" because even now it is fabulously expensive.

The specs are pretty amazing: HRc between 64-66, virtually corrosion (not just rust) proof, and not simple durable, but it can return to its original shape from any position with a bit of heat.  That sounds like a blade steel out of science fiction, but it is not.  It is a material known by many names (with slight differences between each).  The material is made of nickel and titanium called Nitinol.  There are other formulations of nickel titanium in additional to Nitinol, but Nitinol also known as Nitinol 60 is the formulation used in cutlery.  Nitinol 60 is being sold in cutlery markets by Summit Materials as "SM 100."

Nitinol 60 (which stands for NIckel TItanium Naval Ordinance Laboratory) was invented by William Buehler and Fredrick Wang in 1962.  It was developed in the Navy's lab to be rust proof, non magnetic, and most importantly, highly resistant to bending and stress.  Here is an amazing demonstration of the unique stress resistance of Nitinol, a property called superelasticity:


You heard him correctly, it will do this many hundreds of times.  Nickel titanium, which includes Nitinol 60/SM 100, is the more resistant to stress than any other known metal.

Originally it was used in disarming devices, bearings, and medical stints implanted in the body.  It was very strong, very light, and corrosion proof (according to NASA) making it a PERFECT material for implants in the body.  Eventually concerns about the nickel content have moved Nitinol into other areas, cutlery for example.

Here is a SM 100 Terry McGinnis Custom (image courtesy of Summit Materials):


The gold/bronze color is a consequence of heat treating the metal and you can work it back to silver or leave it.  I personally really like the look of the blade in gold/bronze.  It would make an awesome pairing with some Lightning Strike Carbon Fiber. 

The overall combination of attributes makes Nitinol 60/SM 100 pretty much the ideal blade steel.  It seems to break the rule about having to balance toughness, rust resistance, and hardness.  There have been a few people that think that 66 HRc automatically makes for a chippy blade, but there is so little of it out there that it is hard to say for certain.  Then you realize that there is another drawback, one that does not chart so well on the steel attribute triangle--price.  SM 100 is insanely expensive.  I went to price out a SM 100 blade, 2.5 inch flipper and it was around $900.  The SnG that Strider did in SM 100 sold for around $2,000.  At that price, it may as well be gold.

Right now SM 100 is a material only a few makers use.  Strider did a very small run of blades in SM 100.  Terry McGinnis, as you can see above, did a run with the material.  Ferrum Forge, a small custom maker, also uses SM 100.  His rates are a much more realistic than those of both Strider and McGinnis, but his reputation is just starting to spread.  He even has a small SM 100 Ti framelock folder up right now for $600, a shocking bargain, especially when you start to price out blades made of this stuff.  One particularly inspired design Elliot made in SM 100 was a folding fillet knife.  Something as lean and as flexible as a fillet knife is perhaps the ideal application for a superelastic metal.

I'd love to see one of the big three (Spyderco, Benchmade, and Kershaw) do a blade in SM 100.  A ZT flipper made of the stuff would absolutely rock and I can see folks going nuts over an Spyderco Mule in SM 100.  Either way, this stuff is the next big thing in blade steels.  Hell it is so cutting edge it is not even a steel.      

Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012 Gear Awards

I wanted to do this last year, but I did not have enough information to do it then.  Now I have a little bigger database and I thought it would be fun.  I am only going to hand out awards for NEW stuff.  New is hard to define, so I will use a loose definition.  I also want to highlight as many products as I can, so I am not going to repeat winners (for example, the overall product is barred from winning its product category).  The measure here is not quality, as there are things on this list I have not reviewed, but, instead impact, as broadly defined as I can make it.  Here is what I want to know: which new pieces of gear had the biggest impact on gear enthusiasts this year? 

This is my list.  These are my opinions.  Feel free to disagree.

Overall Best New Product of the Year: Triple Aught Design Production Dauntless

This was a close call between the Quantum DD and the Production Dauntless, but in the end, the tie breaker between two well-designed products is the insane amount of hype (that was lived up to) surrounding the Dauntless.  The production run, according to various sources, was 158 pieces.  All were at least $300.  All sold out in about 10 minutes.  That is an infusion of cash so fast and large that it would transform most gear companies.  For a company as small as TAD, it had to be a watershed moment.


It was a watershed moment for gear geeks too.  For the first time people had a semi-realistic chance of getting their hands on a Dauntless.  These blades, with their muted tones and classic design flourishes, push just about every single button us gear geeks have.  The choil, the over the top, deep carry pocket clip, the fullers, the smooth glassy pivot, Ti frame lock--everything about the Dauntless screams lusty goodness.  Those lucky enough to get their grubby mitts on the blades were delighted.  Here is a You Tube video demonstrating just why these knives lived up to their hype.


Secondary market prices also attest to this being the most important EDC gear release of the year.  Prices for Production Dauntlesses are hitting Custom Dauntless prices on ebay, even with knowledge that another release lurks around the corner.  The TAD brand has been so carefully and meticulously managed and the Dauntless craving has been so perfectly fed that when unleashed on the knowledgeable gear buying public, nothing matched the wave of money or desire this year.

Runner Up: Quantum DD

Best Piece of Production Gear:  Steve Ku Quantum DD

IMG_0025

Steve Ku's lights have reached a pretty rarified space in the custom flashlight world.  His Ti upgrade to the LiteFlux AAA light is one of the most expensive and hard to find customs on the secondary market.  Prices of over a $1,000 aren't uncommon.  His upgrades to the Nitecore EX10 is also a very sought after item.  Steve has decided to focus on his own designs and push the upper limit on lumens outputs for very small lights.  First there was the 38DD.  Then a slightly larger light, one I own, the 40DD.  Both were custom gems and now fetch much more their price on the secondary market.  Both also happen to be tritium laden, technology gems.  Alas, their brief custom runs have long since passed.

Every flashlight fan that remembers the axiom of flashlight design (small size, long runtime, high output: choose two) was stunned when Steve released a production version of the 40DD, the Quantum DD.  It was essentially the 40DD in a more polished and complete package.  He designed included an excellent USB charger and a 10180 cell in the production.  The overall package is a stunner, a great light at a great price that you should buy as soon as you can.  Once they are gone I think finding them anywhere near their retail price will be impossible.

Runner Up: ZT 56X (see below)

Best Piece of Custom Gear: Jake Hoback A-10

This would be the Aeon Mark II, but it is scheduled for a mid to late January release now, so we have to look elsewhere.

Maybe it is the circles I run in but everyone seems to be talking about a new knife maker named Jake Hoback, a guy that has a great aesthetic and the machining chops to support it.  He make some really beefy and gorgeous flipper folders that all run on his own bearing pivot design.  Jake Hoback's A-10 is the knife.  Here is a quick TuffThumbz peek:

 

The knife received rave reviews from literally everyone that handled one.  Aaron seemed more than stoked to receive his.  The ergos and materials are one thing, but the stone acid wash is something completely and totally amazing.  It is stonewashing turned up to 1000.  Here is a shot of the rough and tumble tank (or in this case, tank killer) from Knife Thursday (photo by shuttersandtriggers):



Runner Up: Any knife from GTC

Best New Knife:  ZT 56X

How good is the ZT 560 and 561?  So good that more than one person confirmed seeing Rick Hinderer wearing one at BLADE this year.  That is pretty amazing.  ZT has been on a roll recently, and the RJ Martin blade coming out next year looks awesome.  The ZT 56X (560 and 561, they are virtually identical other than handle color) has a list of feature bullet points that make every knife knut lust for this blade, from the steel, to the designer, to the gunner grip on the Ti, to the KVT bearing pivot.  This is a dream knife embodied in a production blade.  The price is not that bad either, considering what you get for the money.  It is a big knife, but the liner is skeletonized lightening it up considerably.

Honestly how much better is a real Hinderer?  5% better?  1%?  Not at all (no XM model has Elmax steel or a bearing pivot as an option)?  I don't want to pick a fight, but really these knives stack up to their custom progenitors quite well.  If you factor in cost, I am not sure there is a rational way to argue that the XM is a better blade.  I'd still take an XM over a ZT 56X but only for exclusivity reasons.  Just sayin'.

Runner Up: CRKT Eraser

Best New Light: Zebralight SC52

This was a bumper crop for flashlights this year.  The S10 Baton from Olight looked awesome.  The selector ring only lights from Sunwayman and JetBeam were great.  But, in the end, Zebralight took the crown, doing so at the very last minute as the SC52 was released in the second half of December.  But what a release it is.  It is, of course, a compact light with a nice built in pocket clip.  It can, of course, convert to a headlamp (as most if not all Zebralights do).  But it is the amazing output and runtimes that you get from this light that set it apart from the crowd.  280 ANSI lumens on high with rechargeable AAs and .01 lumens on low for THREE MONTHS.  It is official--there is now no real performance gap between good AA lights and CR123a lights.  Yes I know the best and competitive outputs require rechargeables for the AA lights to be competitive, but even on primaries this new generation of AA lights can do everything you need them to do.  If I were to start over, this would be my first flashlight, no questions asked. 

Runner Up: Sunwayman M11R Mr. Elfin

Best New Multitool: Gerber Dime

This was not much of a competition.  There were a few new large Leatherman multitools like the Rebar.  There were also a few new Gerber multitools, one with a tripod even (ugh...).  But the Dime steals the show with ease.

IMG_0033

The runner up, the Leatherman OHT, is really running behind.  The Dime is an amazing package for $20, a true 21st century multitool with a package cutter that works and a bottle opener because, well, everything has to have a bottle opener, right?

Runner Up: Leatherman OHT

Best New Bag: Tom Bihn Dyneema Synapse

In a market as crowded as the backpack market is with two dozen Camelback releases a year and a huge slew of MOLLE covered Maxped clones, this little bag beats them all.  The Dyneema shot through the regular nylon makes the Synapse lighter than a feather and tough as nails.

IMG_3115

The pockets and organization are sublime.  But its real genius move is how well it works loaded and on your back.  Thanks to a balanced pocket design with a spine composed of your water bottle, the Synapse works like a dream.  Its pricier than a Maxped clone but nothing like a Kifaru or a GoRuck, both of which are as modular or more so, but traditional in their designs.  High tech fabric + brilliant design=bag of the year.

Runner Up: GORUCK Echo

Best New Value: Cold Steel Mini Tuff Lite

Cold Steel's addiction to giant blades, even with their change over to more practical designs, still skews their line up to less utility designs.  Then, bang, they release the Mini Tuff Lite (how funny that the Mini version was released first).

IMG_0034

This is a great little high utility blade.  This is a great small EDC blade.  This is a great budget knife.  This is...okay...a great knife.  Only the ricasso is a stumbling block and that is not really a big deal at all.  The steel is decent, for the money, the blade shape is good, and the knife feels superb in hand.  The clip is good and the size is quite pleasant.  If you are looking for a beater utility blade, look no further.  You might just realize, once the hammering stops and the smoke clears, that your Mini Tuff Lite is giggling at your attempt to break it or its impervious lock. 

Runner Up: Olight i-3 EOS

Best Accessory: Prometheus Pocket Clip

The best accessories make the main product better than it was before, but the truly elite gear is something that seems like it should have been included in the first place.  The Prometheus Pocket Clip is the best flashlight clip on the planet, bar none.

IMG_0026

It is better than my old favorite, the McGizmo clip, because it is just as secure and can be added and removed from a light without tools.  It is simply, unquestionably the best design out there.  Its so good that absent a few tritium inserts I can't think of a way to make it better.  The titantium is very flexible and smooth cut with a perfect amount of tension.  Let me put it bluntly: if you own a light compatible with this clip buy it. 

Runner Up: Skinth Sheathes

Best Gear Related Website: Edge Observer

Andrew's slick, machine-precise videos and ethereal stick-in-your-brain music are icing on the cake.  The real treat is his amazing knowledge of blades, pronounciation of Japanese words, and an abundance of photographic genius.  It may not be purely new, but I think that most of us found Andrew this year and are glad we did.  Even the Canadian accent is cool, eh.

Runner Up: Practically Everyday 

Worst New Product:  Kershaw Cryo

There is no knife I have despised more than this one over the past year.  It was something I was practically doing flips for and it turned out to be utter and complete garbage.  How do you know it is garbage?  Whenever someone defends it, they always mention the price.  For example, "oh this a great knife for $30." I want a great knife.  Not a great knife for $30.  And, by the way, it is not a great knife for $30.  Here is the thing that makes the Cryo so painful--the bones of a good or even great blade are there, Kershaw just cheaped out.  This is a cash in plain and simple, as bad as the mid-90s CKRT version of the Sebenza.  That knife was so bad that Chris Reeve backed out of the agreement and refused to let them release it.  The Cryo is that bad.  It is heavy, slick, has crappy steel, is wide, has an ineffective and problematic thumbstud, and has mid-80s Hyundai level fit and finish.  This is a piece of junk, with a bullet list of features and a big name designer.  It's true purpose is not as a cutting tool, but as a prying device.  It pries money out of our wallet in exchange for crap. 

Runner Up: Nothing was even close...  

Best Year by a Gear Company: Cold Steel

TAD would win, not just for their release of the production Dauntless, but also for their steady stream of great custom knives, but I don't want to repeat winners, so this category was wide open.  Spyderco's year was good, but not great by Spyderco standards.  A large number of the most wanted blades are not being released until next year (Ti Delica....).  Benchmade seemed to be going to a million different directions at once, issuing tiny 2.38 inch blades with MIM injected backspacers among other touches right next to beasts like the Adamas.  Kershaw, other than the ZT line of knives, seems to have fallen into a rut of bead blasted blades and black handles.  ZT looks to have a good 2013, but they really only released one new product this year, albeit a superb one in the ZT56X series.  That alone puts them in the running.  On the flashlight front, 47s product line seems unchanged from last year, with all of the money going to the new fancy site, which is nice, but not a new flashlight.  JetBeam had a great year, releasing a ton of nice and innovative lights, but their habit of pirating other's hardwork bars me from giving them positive recognition.

In the end it came down to three companies--CRKT, Olight, and Cold Steel.  All three released not just new products, but entirely new product lines and they were very well received.

CRKT's year was marked by the release of a number of new, very good blades.  The Eraser is an amazing knife.  The Foresight is equally impressive.  These knives marked what is hopefully the continued upward ascent of the company, a move that started with the release last year of the IKBS-equipped blades and Ken Onion designs.  They also hinted at, in the more obscure parts of their catalog, the use of better steel (there is an auto version of the M16 that has 154CM steel).  If this was a question of the best two years, CRKT would win hands down.  In the end, too much of their innovation happened last year, but be certain--they are on the rise.  A classically styled 3 inch Ti framelock flipper with IKBS and 154CM steel would sell like hotcakes and really put CRKT in the upper echelons of the production world.

Olight's new stuff was definitely more concentrated than the two-year run CRKT has had.  The Baton series of lights along side the updated i-series gave Olight an impressive 1-2 punch in the EDC light arena.  I really liked a lot of what they did this year and their lights are on my "to-review" list.  The S10 Baton seems to be universally beloved and the magnet in the tail is a great new feature that I hope becomes standard in coming years--yet another hands free way to use a light is always welcome.

In the end, though, Cold Steel released so many new, so many updated and so many very good products that it was hard to ignore them.  Its not so much that Olight stunk, they didn't; they just happened to break out new gear the same year that Cold Steel essentially reinvented itself.

Once the proud home of Mall Ninjas and fatheletes (Lynn Thompson used that term in an interview, I am not smart enough or mean enough to coin it myself), since the addition of Andrew Demko's lock Cold Steel has been hammering home runs with virtually every release.  2011 was the year the Tri-Ad lock debuted but it came on such ridiculous blades like the Rajah and the Espada XL that only the two aforementioned groups knew of its benefits.  This year the lock spread to virtually the entire product line.  They released what has to be their smallest folder in the Mini Tuff Lite and it was an excellent blade.  They made a slightly larger version, the Tuff Lite, and it was an excellent blade.  They reinvented the Voyager line, giving folks a pretty economical way to get the Tri-Ad lock on a full sized knife.  They added the lock to the AK-47 and Lawman series, both series of knives made better for the addition.  But it was the reconstituted Recon line that really sold me both on the lock and on Cold Steel's transformation.  The Cold Steel Recon 1 Mini Spear Point is an amazing hard use knife.  At three inches and three ounces, it carries like a Delica and cuts like an axe.  In the end, the addition of the Demko designed lock and the new, lighter, smaller blades made Cold Steel a real competitor in the low and middle priced production knife market.  Of course they did release insane knives like the Hold Out XL, but Mall Ninjas and fatheletes need knives too, right?  If they keep pushing the new designs with the amazing lock and they upgrade their steel Cold Steel, like CRKT, will be a force to be reckoned with.

All of this is a sign that the recent boom in EDC gear is going well.  The market is expanding and there is real competition.  The top three companies in terms of design and quality remained the same--Spyderco, Benchmade, and Kershaw, but the second tier of makers have all but closed the gap.  If Buck, Cold Steel, and CRKT make concerted efforts to upgrade their steel, target the 3 inch and under class of products, and produce things people want to buy like flippers and Ti framelocks, the second tier will disappear and we will have six strong and competitive companies making cutting tools for us.

Runner Up: Olight

Thanks for reading and argue away in the comments.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kershaw Skyline Fixed Blade Review

First there was the iPod.  Then there was the iPod Mini.  Then there was the iPod Shuffle.  Then things really started to change--the iPhone, the iPad, the iPad Mini.  Iteration is a sign of success.  A company wouldn't bother making lots of variations of a product unless that product was successful.  When it comes to folders, few knives hit that perfect point between value and performance like the Kershaw Skyline.  There is a tremendous amount of agreement across the forums and amongst reviewers--the Skyline is beloved.  There is a Damascus version, a digi cam version, a black and tan Guinness beer like version, and one of the knife forums even has a limited edition S30V Skyline.  Now Kershaw extends the Skyline further and releases a fixed blade version.  Same excellent, value priced steel.  Same great ergos.  Same excellent grind.  Same perfect Goldilocks size.  All without the lock.  It is, simply put, a versatile and amazing fixed blade.  There are some drawbacks, but given the price, they shouldn't stay your hand at all.  Go buy this knife.  Even if you're not a fixed blade person, go buy it.  You'll be surprised at how often you use it.

Here is the product page with all of the specs (this is one reason why I link to the product page, because listing specs is friggin' boring).   There is no official product page from Kershaw because this knife started out as a special edition for Caleba's and Blade HQ and Knifecenter each got a special shipment.  There is no written review for the Skyline Fixed Blade yet (the hyperlink in the first paragraph is to my review of the folding version of the Skyline).  Here is a video review, from Nutnfancy, no less (he is representing the loss leader Black Friday price, it is slightly more now).  Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Kershaw Skyline Fixed Blade, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is my review sample of the Skyline Fixed Blade:

IMG_0038

Because this is only the second scored fixed blade review I have done, here is a refresher on the fixed blade scoring system.

Design: 2

The original folding Skyline was an amazing design--one of the lightest, cheapest flippers on the market.  Despite the flash of a flipper the rest of the knife was pretty straightforward, a blessing when compared to the bizarre lines of many knives on the market.  The "in the hand" experience of the folding Skyline was really quite great.  All of that is carried over to the fixed blade version.  It is a testament to Tommie Lucas's basic sketch.  The overall form factor is genius.
 
The fixed blade Skyline, like its folding brethren is a featherweight, clocking in at 2.8 ounces without the sheath.  The blade:weight is 1.12, a great number.  Here is a size comparison to the standard Zippo lighter (which comes in handy more often as a size reference than a lighter):

IMG_0036

You need to bear in mind that while being a fixed blade, this isn't a chopper like, say, the RD-7.  It is meant to be an EDC fixed blade knife.  I used it as such over a period of three week and it worked well, with one exception, that I will spell out below.  All of this was aided by the wonderful flow of the handle and the blade's light weight.  

Fit and Finish:  2

The original folder version was bead blasted, but the fixed blade is stonewashed and the difference is quite nice.  I much, much prefer stonewashing as it hides wear well and it does not open up the grains of the steel like beadblasting does.  Instead it gives the blade a beautiful and useful finish.  The handle scales were perfectly grippy, not too much like Cold Steel's G10, but more than the nominal traction seen on other knives.  This locks in the hand without ripping off the finger tips.  Even the sheath, which is an abomination in design, is nicely finished.  

Handle Design: 2

The handle design is excellent for a fixed blade EDC.  There is not enough of a back end to lock your hand in place for it to be a chopper, but that is not what this knife is supposed to be.  The handle makes stabbing and piercing cuts easy:

IMG_3068

plus the handle makes it nice and easy to do slicing, roll cuts, and generally cutting tasks, such as...wait for it...:

IMG_3064

cutting the cheese (OH YES!  I DID IT.  After 336 posts, many about knives, I finally made the cutting the cheese joke! YES!).  Seriously though, in utility tasks that you'd use a fixed blade EDC knife for, the handle of the Skyline Fixed Blade is great.  

Steel: 2

As I said in the Steel Selection series, Sandvik 14C28N is Manny Pacquiao of steels.  For the money I can't think of a better value.  It is priced at or below the cost of something like AUS8 or VG10 and I have found it to be simply superior to those steels.  It sharpens well.  It takes impacts well.  It holds an edge.  It never rusts.  All of these make it an excellent steel in the role of a fixed blade EDC knife.  If your looking for a chopper, again something this knife ISN'T, you'd want something a bit tougher, but in role it is excellent.

Blade Shape:  2

I mentioned this above and it holds true for both versions of the knife--this is a great and simple blade shape.  Nice acute and useful point and plenty of belly.  In an age of weirdo multifaceted grinds and utterly useless recurves, this is simple proof that a straightforward approach works and works well.

Grind: 2

In the folding version I dinged the knife a point for the grind.  It was sloppy and the cutting bevel was uneven.  Additionally, the grind took away a lot of the tip and its strength.  Here both problems have been addressed.  First, the grind is much cleaner, something I would imagine comes from refinements to the production of the Skyline over its long tenure (long relatively speaking).  Second, because the stock of the steel is much thicker, even with an aggressive tip, it is still adequately strong.  Here is a shot of the knife dropped into an oak stump (I did this repeatedly):

IMG_3105

I pulled it out with a prying motion and the tip was absolutely unblemished.  Great job and nice touch.  

Sheath Carry:  0

If this knife has an Achilles heel, and it does, it is the abhorrent sheath. Here it is:

IMG_0037

Problems abound and it is clear this is where they saved money in making the Skyline Fixed Blade.  It is simply a single piece of leather cut and folded with a spine of harder leather in between.  The white contrast stitching is even but instantly became dirty.  Here is the fundamental problem: the sheath makes this svelte slicer a positively mammoth thing to carry.  It has very few carry options as the belt loop is really just a piece of the sheath bent backwards.  Even the best leather sheath has problems--they hold water, they are poor in cold conditions, and they are bulky, but this is a shitty leather sheath.  It doesn't even seemed to be mated to the knife.  It seems like a sheath designed for knife, as opposed to this knife.  If it were not incredibly easy to replace, I would have given the knife overall lower marks, but the number of aftermarket sheathes and even affordable custom kydex sheathes available means this is a minor stumbling block.  Think of this knife as costing $40 bucks--the knife plus a replacement sheath.  Even then it is still a screaming good deal.  I find it hard to believe that this sheath was cheaper than the infinitely superior but no less plain nylon sheath on the ESEE Candiru, my current benchmark EDC fixed blade knife. 

Sheath Accessibility: 1

The one thing this sheath does is hold the knife in position.  It fits tight, too tight in fact, but that is necessitated by the material.  The shape memory that leather builds over time means that if it didn't start out over tight, the blade would fall out in a year or two.  Even with this caveat, the sheath doesn't afford great accessibility.  With a kydex sheath, for example, the handle is usually protruding from the top, meaning that when you grab the knife, you can do so with your whole hand.  Here the awkward belt loop makes it just a bit harder to grab the knife and pull it out.  Additionally the fact that belt loop is HIGHER than the handle means that it does not rest well on your belt, especially when you go to extract the knife.  This is a strictly two handed affair even when the knife is lashed around a belt.  It works, but not well.  Blah...

Useability: 2

When I talk about useability I mean how well does the knife do work.  Does it cause fatigue?  Is it well balanced?  Is it hard to use?  Here, when used as an EDC knife, the Skyline flourishes.  The letterboxed blade tang worried me.  I thought it might cause fatigue.  But it didn't.  It was just proud of the handle, enough to see it and make a nice design statement, but not so proud that it made it difficult to use.  Additionally the balance of the blade was perfect, hitting right around the finger choil, or just a bit ahead of that position making cutting nice and easy.

Durability: 2

I did a lot of different work with the knife clearing brush, cutting small limbs from trees, cutting the...um...cheese, chopping up candles for firestarters.  It worked with the grace you'd expect from the elegant lines it has.  I liked everything about it.  It is not, as I have said before, a chopper, but if you need a fixed blade that can handle the dirt and grime that would kill the pivot on a fixed blade, this is an excellent choice.  I especially appreciated the wear resistance and edge holding of the 14C28N steel.  The extra thickness on the blade stock when compared to the folder makes a big difference.  The knife never flexed or creaked.  It soaked up hard and filthy use (the sap from tree lines coupled with the hard wax from candles was a true bitch to get off) and the stonewashed finish looked only slightly worse for wear.  Only batonning marked the knife blade permanently, but that usually happens when doing that task.  

Overall score: 17 out of 20

Kershaw has a winner here.  It is a perfect extension of the Skyline line and an excellent all around performer as an EDC fixed blade knife.  It is not big enough to handle chopping tasks, but as a yard work knife it is a bitchin' tool.  The sheath is shit, but that can be replaced easily and customized when you do so, so I don't think it is all that big a deal.  I also thing this is an interesting competitor to the ESEE EDC knives, the Candiru and the Izula.  Both are really excellent designs and as a package coupled with the sheath the Candiru is better, but the steel here is more advanced than even the best heat treated 1095.  With a better sheath the Skyline would definitely give those two knives a run for their money.    

Monday, December 17, 2012

EDC Mailbag: Tough Steel and Strong Clips

I get probably an email a day with EDC related questions and so often the questions are very good.  So good and helpful in fact I want to share them with other people.  So I have decided that once a month I will take a few of the best questions and answer them in a post.  I am not doing this because I think I have some kind of special knowledge or authority, but simply because its fun.  I'll research the question and give the best answer I can.  As always, feel free to chime in in the comments.  I learn so much from readers that often times I feel like I am getting information downloaded into my brain like on the Matrix.

So here goes the first edition of EDC Mailbag.

Question #1: Rank the Steel

Anthony,

I'm looking at getting a custom Bechmade Mini-Griptillian and I'm wondering what your opinion is on each of the available options for blade steel. I've seen that you rate S30V and D2 as 2 point steels and 154CM as a 1 point steel. Where would you rate N680, and which steel would you recommend for a Benchmade Mini-Griptillian (probably with the hollow-ground sheepsfoot blade)?

Thanks,
Danny

This is a great question for two reasons.  First, it lets me explain a little bit about the scoring system and second it brings up a topic that I find endlessly fascinating, which is the variability in the quality of 154CM steel versus other steels.

Danny is looking at purchasing a custom Mini Grip from Benchmade.  Here is the one and only Everyday Commentary Custom Mini Grip, in possession of Joeseph Wain, who designed the logo in the previous logo contest:

IMG_0009

It is not necessarily a full custom knife, but more like a knife that where you choose the parts.  It is a great service and I did an overview here.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Not only is the knife itself a great design, but the materials are top notch, and the customer service, as you can see in that post, is amazing.

This gets me to the next point.  The rating system looks at the product as a whole.  It also looks at the intended purpose or likely use for a product.  So a knife that is used in a chopping role can use a non-stainless steel because they tend to be more impact resistant and less likely to chip.  In a folding knife the same steel would not fair as well in the scoring system, so use is important.  Second, some steels on some knives perform much better than the same steel on a different knife.  The AUS8 on the Al Mar Hawk is an amazing slicing steel.  On the Cold Steel Mini Recon I it is barely at par.  Both the steel's batch, heat treatment, and blade geometry all impact a steel's performance so asking which steel is better in the abstract is virtually a meaningless question.  See the Special Series tab above for the Steel Selection series of articles.

154CM is one of the most challenging steels to review.  I have had three knives with this steel and each had radically different performances.  The Benchmade Sequel's 154CM speckled like a red head on the beach.  It was quite awful.  The same formulation on my Skeletool CX has served me much better.  It still rusts, but in crevices and obscure places.  But on the Mini Grip the 154CM still was incredible.  It held and edge, took abuse, and still cut like a laser.  It was also quite pleasant to sharpen.  So on top of all of the other considerations I mentioned above and in the Steel Selection series, 154CM seems to have more variability than most formulations.  I think in the Mini Grip, you have nothing to worry about.  In that knife, in my experience, it is an excellent steel and therefore one that earns a 2 of 2 in my scoring system.

N680 is a steel I have no experience with, but it is a variation of N690, a steel I have on my Fox Cutlery Spyfox.  In that blade the N690 steel is quite excellent.  I can only assume that the two steels, both Bohler Uddeholm products function similarly.  N series steels are BU's conventionally forged (as opposed to powder metal) cutlery steel.  N680 has a carbon percentage of .54 while N690 has a carbon percentage of 1.08.  The additional carbon is offset by other chemicals in greater amounts.  The N690 hardens to a higher level than N680 (60-62 HRc v. 56-58 HRc).  The N690 steel compares quite favorably both chemically and in my experience to VG10 steel.  The N680 is more like AUS8 in its chemical composition, but experientially I have no information.

I would certainly take the 154CM steel over the N680 if prices were equal, but in the case of the custom Mini Grip, the N680 is a premium price, so the difference there is clear.  I am not sure about whether I would take D2 over 154CM.  That is a closer call that depends on what you are going to be doing with the knife.  If you cut boxes all day the abrasion resistance of the D2 will be your best choice.  If you have more normal EDC tasks, opt for the more rust resistant 154CM.  That said, I would definitely take the fourth option in the custom Mini Grip menu, the S30V steel, over all three other choices.  It is one of my favorite all around steels and for $20 more it is a no-brainer.  154CM can be good.  S30V is ALWAYS good.  In fact, the Bos-treated S30V steel on my TuffThumbz Advantage is still razor sharp after three months of use and I haven't touched it up yet.  So final ranking (price considered, normal EDC tasks):

1. S30V
2. 154CM
3. D2
4. N680

That is a long winded answer to a good question.  I hope it helps.

Question #2: Gym Shorts Carry

Tony,

I have a friend who is looking for a small EDC knife, and I think the OD-2 might be the perfect knife for him.  He's an engineer type, so I expect the cam will be a winner with him.  Here's the question.  My friend likes to wear athletic sweat pants all the time, which have really thin pockets.  As a result, a heavy knife is a no-no, and he needs a really tight clip to hold the knife on the thin fabric.  He's tried a Tenacious, a Native, a DF 1, and the only thing that stays in his pocket is a POS Gerber Evo Jr.. Would the OD-2 hold his pocket, as I won't get it for him as a Christmas gift unless it will. (I bought him the Tenacious and the Native).

The Idaho Gunslinger

If you read this site regularly you'll know I like small knives.  In particular, after finding the DFII in ZDP-189, I searched high and low for a slim knife with the same blade length.  I ran through quite a few knives in this quest--the Buck Small Vantage, SOG Flash I, the SOG Twitch II, the Kershaw OD-2, the Benchmade Aphid, and the Al Mar Hawk.  In terms of weight they all work, except the steel sandwich that is the Twitch II.  That's out.  Next, only a few have tight enough clips for this application.  The Vantage's clip is one of my favorites but it is not super tight.  Additionally there is not much texture on the Vantage's handle scale, so it is out.  The Flash I's clip is a good design but poor in execution.  I found it to be flimsy.  Additionally, it too did not hold the knife tight.  Gone.  The Al Mar has no clip, so gone.  This leaves the Benchmade Aphid and the Kershaw OD-2.  In my experience both are excellent blades.  I like the assist on the Aphid, despite normally not liking assists at all.  But the clip is small, even for a knife as diminutive as the Aphid.  So, that, by process of elimination, leaves the OD-2.  Its clip is a no-fuss, no-muss design.

IMG_0020

It is actually quite long, taking up a substantial portion of the body of the knife.  It is also sufficiently tight.  The handle scales are a bit slick, but it should work in this application.

All that said, I think the DFII's wire clip is just superior.  It would also work in this application and the texture on the handle scale would make it an extra bit clingy.  I know this is not answering the question directly, but if I had a universal of options, the DFII would be #1.  However, if you are asking if the OD-2 would work here the answer is yes.   

If you have a question you can send it to me at anthonysculimbrene at comcast dot net in the normal format.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Housekeeping and End of Year Updates

I am always trying to improve this site to make it easier to read and to provide better information.  I have a lot of fun doing this and my hope is that you have a lot of fun reading this site.  The more readers, the more reviews, the better I get at doing reviews, and so on.  That said, I have some questions that I need to pose to you because I am at a point where I need some advice about what to do next.

Haiku Giveaway

It seems like years ago that I announced the contest and that the promise of a Haiku has been hanging over my head for a decade, but the reality is it has been less than a year and we have made it.  The site's revenue cache is at $425 right now.  That means that the McGizmo Haiku can be purchased probably within the month.  In fact, this is a little ahead of schedule, but that is not a bad thing.  I am going to hold open the contest until the end of March, but get your reviews in.  If you sent me one and think I should have published it by now, drop me another email.  Also, if you want to make sure they get published, write them in a format that needs as little work as possible.  I like Typepad with links to pictures and products in parentheses.  But this all leads to one question: do you want a McGizmo Haiku with a regular or Hi CRI emitter?  I am going to put a poll on the right hand side of the page.  Vote there.

Website Nip Tuck

Second, I am thinking about having a professional spruce up the page.  The site works well and is easy to navigate, but some sites out there look gorgeous.  This would obviously cost money and I would have to use the revenue for the site to pay for it.  That means the next few hundred dollars would go to that instead of a big giveaway.  I will, of course, still give away review samples (give aways are coming).  Does this seem like a worthwhile investment or should I just keep the page as it is?  Also, anyone have experience with Squarespace?  They seem to have a good reputation and I absolutely hate Google Analytics, so they might be an option.  Post in the comments below.

Article Releases

Third, I am trying to pin down the article publishing pattern.  Ideally, I'd like to get two articles out a week, one a review and one something else.  The reviews take a lot of time and effort, so spacing them out a bit prevents me from getting jammed up.  Having eight or nine products to review at once is both challenging and slows down the process.  I am not complaining, I just want to have new content more often.  So here is my idea: I will publish one article on Monday or Tuesday and then a review-type article (a review, a shootout, or a recommendation series) on Friday or Saturday.  I'd like to give you something to read on the weekend, when you can take some time and maybe follow a few links all while sipping your coffee.  Does this sound like a good idea?

As a corollary to that, I am working on the Recommendation Series for this year.  My idea is to publish the first one right before Christmas and then march through them all.  I know that most gear folks buy their own stuff, so a pre-Christmas series, while helpful, is probably not as helpful as a post-Christmas series, you know when you have all of that gift money to spend.  Our tastes are so specific and exacting its hard to really have others buy for us, so my hope is that by doing it this way, I can help you make decisions at a time when you actually have money to spend.

Lastly, I am working on a few projects.  One is an end of the year awards post.  It has been fun to write and I have been working on it since October.  Look for that just before New Years.  Second, I am almost finished with the long ago promised Recommendation Series update.  You'll see why I was holding off on it when it is released, but that will be coming also before the end of the year.  Next, I am working on securing a few very coveted items for review.  I am in talks with a couple of different folks, makers of high quality gear.  If I can actually get some of this stuff, I think you'll really enjoy those reviews.  Suffice to say, if this works out, I think you'll be really surprised and will enjoy the content.

Thanks  

Finally, thanks.  The Haiku giveaway is my way of saying thanks in real terms, but it also needs to be written.  I am approaching my 1 millionth view.  In 18 months, that is a pretty impressive number, at least to me.  I know there are big and better sites out there, but this is a hobby and while I have put a ton of time in, I have no money or virtually no money in.  This place is all about the content.  I started it because there was no one doing written systematic reviews on the Internet.  I wanted to make a site that I would enjoy reading, hoping that a few of you were like me and might enjoy reading it too. Lots of people have helped to make this site great.

Thanks to my patient wife and my ever-willing-to-destroy-stuff son.  Thanks also to the makers and manufacturers of gear, you have all been very gracious, especially Leatherman, CRKT, 47s, Sunwayman, and Tom Bihn.  Thanks to small makers like Oveready, Prometheus Flashlights, TT PockeTTools, and Steve Ku.  A special shout out to Enrique Muyshondt for making the Mark II.  Thanks also to Blade HQ.  Their review samples have been tremendously helpful in getting new reviews out as soon as possible.  Thanks to the guys over on reddit that send tons of page views my way via a few different EDC threads.  Thanks for other EDC reviewers, Aaron, Dan, and Andrew, in particular.  Thanks to my "home" forum, EDCF, and the guys and gals over there for being the smartest, nicest, least jackass-y people on the Internet.  Thanks mostly to you for reading.  Lots of you have been here since the beginning and I am grateful for the views but more so for the knowledge you send me.  I learn more from you than I could ever send your way.  Often times I feel like I am simply telling all of you what one of you told me. 

If you keep reading, I'll keep writing.

Get those reviews in and vote for whichever Haiku you want.  After all, it is free.  Who else gives away a $450 flashlight for FREE?  Yes I know Cajun Blaze gave away a Sebenza, but this is about $100 more... 
 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nitecore EA4 Pioneer

Whump, snap.  


That was the sound of the EA4 Pioneer turning on and then my head snapping around to find the Sun-like hotspot.

"Oh I am fine with my 11 year old incan Surefire E2E.  I have no real need for more lumens. 35 works for most tasks."

Yep.  Sure does.  But deep down inside, even the most steadfast quality over quantity person gets there heads turned every once in a while by some insanely high lumens count.  Today was that day for me.

There have been quite a few of these super high lumens, soda-can sized lights in recent months.  47s has some, Nitecore released one, and Fenix has a few.  All of them, thus far, have run on less common batteries.  Some want you to feed them 18650s.  Others can run on a large number of CR123a lights.  None of these soda can photon cannons have used common batteries.

Until now.

The Nitecore EA4 Pioneer has some awesome specs, another sign that the gap between CR123a and AA batteries has narrowed to the point of insignificance.  It produces 860 lumens using 4 AA batteries and will run for 1 hour and 45 minutes.  That, folks, is a soda can photon cannon if I have ever seen one.  Awesomely awesome specs though usually carry a wallet vomit price tag.  But again the Nitecore EA4 is a surprise.  Retail it sells for around $70 at BatteryJunction.com 

This light is not without concerns.

First there is the whole Sysmax-JetBeam-Nitecore-Nite Eye sketchy IP pirate thing.  For more see here and here.  

Then there are more practical concerns--like the lack of a truly useful low.  In a light like this I'd like to see a 1 or 2 lumen mode that could run for a month.  That would rock just as much as a 860 lumen high does.  47s has proven to me the value of a moonlight mode and I am going to be looking for it in future purchases.

Here the low is a not so helpful 65 lumens.  Yikes!  There goes my night vision.  I am not sure how big a deal this is as you don't really use these kinds of lights for trips to the john in the middle of the night, but still as a portable room illumination device a 1 or 2 lumen low with 30-40 days of runtime would be very helpful in real world uses.  Imagine how helpful that would be for folks stranded without power after a storm.  You could punch the high to signal to rescue folks and then use the medium for tasks and the low for illumination inside.  That said, this is a ton of light.    

Things just got interesting, very interesting in the soda can flashlight market.  Might be time to take a look. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Tom Bihn Dyneema Synapse Review

I got a review sample of the Tom Bihn Cadet early this year and it was the first, and so far only, product that I reviewed and then purchased (I sent back the review copy and then purchased another, paying shipping, not just for integrity reasons, but also because I wanted different colors).  That review is due for an update because, like all good creative things, the design of the Cadet is something that takes time to truly and deeply appreciate.

Knowing this I took my time with the Synapse.  I am no longer in the "bookbag" phase of my life, but I still appreciate a good backpack.  I really like the old stand by, my Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon II, but it is about as staid of a design as you can get.  The Synapse is distinctly less tactical in appearance--appropriate for those still in the "bookbag" phase of life as well as those who are looking for something to lug stuff around in after they finished school.  The Synapse was already a great design, but Bihn likes to outdo the competition, even when the competition is himself and here he really hit a home run with the fabric.

The bag is made out of a new high tech fabric called Dyneema and no review would thorough without a quick look at this amazing material.  Dyneema is a UHMW (ultra high molecular weight) fiber developed by a Dutch company DMS.  It is very light and strong.  VERY STRONG.  How strong you ask?

  

Now the Bihn Synapse is obviously not made of 3/8" Dyneema rope, but that is a pretty compelling strength comparison.  Its abrasion resistance is pretty impressive too.  In studies Dyneema gloves outperformed amarids (like Kevlar) in terms of abrasion resistance and leather in cut resistance.  That is pretty impressive.  Having been with the bag for about 45 days I can tell you this is the material your future favorite bag ever will be made from.

The big deal in the case of the Dyneema here is that it offers equal or slightly superior strength and durability to regular nylon with much, much less weight.  Bihn and a few other companies have been using Dyneema as bag liner material, that stuff being 200 denier Dyneema.  The entire shell is made of 400 denier (tougher and slightly bulkier) Dyneema.  This is, to my knowledge, the first use of 400 denier Dyneema and the first bag made with mostly Dyneema both on the interior and exterior of the bag.  The result is a bag that is as tough as the PFII with significantly less weight.

Here is the product page for the Synapse.  Here is a review of the original, non-Dyneema Synapse.  Here is a video review of the Synpase (yes, he really needs a wind sock).  And here is my review sample:

IMG_0013

Design: 2

One of the tricks of good design is a narrow focus.  Making things that work well in lots of situations, without trade off, is impossible.  Good design is often the result of choosing to make things that work well in specific cases.  The Synapse is a great example of this.  It is a small bag.  You need to be prepared for that.  Here is a size comparison between the Synapse and the PFII:

IMG_0011

The Synapse is a bag for one person.  So if you are okay with that, then this bag has to be at the top of your list.

Despite it is distinctly non-tactical appearance it held up every bit as well as the PFII did in hikes.  This is, in part, thanks the to incredible abrasion resistance of the Dyneema fabric.  My wife and I took our son on a hike around Waldon Pond (yes, that Waldon Pond) and took the bag with us.  The car's temp gauge read 29 degrees, but the wind whipping off the water gave us the sense that it was roughly zero.  It was a quick hike, especially given that we had a two year old walking with us.  The terrain is super accessible, but we did push the bag.  It got wet. It got pulled and scrapped, in some places on fence material, and it showed no wear whatsoever.  Here is the bag on my wife's back:

IMG_3103

She is very small. She'll tell you she is 5'1 1/2", but that is pretty generous and anyone that still includes half inches in their listed height as an adult is, almost as a rule, short.  Again, this is a small bag.

Small as it is, it is impeccably laid out.  It has just enough room for one large water bottle, in my case a 20 ounce insulated Kleen Kanteen.  It has a pocket for keys and pens, a fleece lined pocket for a smart phone.  A pocket at the very bottom for easy access to items when the bag is being carried.  Finally it has three pockets or compartments towards the top of the bag--the main compartment, a pocket inside the main compartment, and a very shallow pocket at the very top of bag.  There is an abundance of organization and the alignment of the pockets through the center of the bag, both helps with balance and gives Synapse a spine of sorts.  It is an ingenious design that makes the bag easier to use and more comfortable to carry--no worried of a water bottle making you feel lopsided when hiking or trucking through an airport.

As usual with a Bihn bag, this is a design jewel.     

Fit and finish: 2

You can't really appreciate a bag's fit and finish in a short time, which is why this review took so long.  But I can tell you that there is nothing I would improve here.  The stitching is immaculate, the details are wonderful (and so bountiful you will be discovering Tom's good ideas weeks after purchase), and the entire bag looks taut and even (because it is).  Even with its elfin size, the Synapse looks professional.  I lugged to a few bar conferences and everyone commented positively on it is appearance.  This, in a profession still dominated by the old school brief case.

Carry: 2

I loved the positioning of the shoulder straps and with adjustment (which is easy) so did my wife, who is approximately 9 1/2 inches shorter than me. That is a good sign.  An even better sign? When this bag is loaded it actually feels slightly better on the back than when it is not.  Stuffed to the gills, and you can really stuff it despite the size, this thing is in its element.  So many bag just feel plain unwieldy when you get to the final few items.  Not here.

IMG_3055

Honestly, I think it is because of the careful attention to detail in the lay out of the bag.  The balance from the left to right is so spot on that it never really swayed me off course whether I was running the trails of Walden Pond to find rocks for my son to chuck or weaving through a stream of shoppers at a huge local mall on the busiest day of the year.  Yes, I know it is a small bag, but it can hold a lot of stuff and feels great doing so. 

Materials: 2

BEST FABRIC EVER.  Seriously, this stuff wears better than Condura and weighs fractions less.  I loved it.  Bihn's normal top shelf sourcing of zippers, straps, and fastners rounds out the truly best in class Synapse.  You will be hard pressed to find a more high-tech bag anywhere.

Accessibility: 2

In the weeks I had the bag there was one thing that proved to me that it was a superior and highly accessible design.  We went shopping and I used it as a diaper bag/toy bag for my son.  I stuffed a Kleen Kanteen in the center pouch full of his juice.  I crammed some toy trucks into the bottom pouch.  I dropped some Gold Fish in a bag in the shallow topmost pouch.  Throughout the day, despite the busy environment and sometimes crowded confines of the mall, we were able to get our son what he wanted when he needed it.  I even popped out a snack while on the extra crowded elevator when the bag was fastened to our stroller.  THAT is accessibility.  

Ease of Packing: 2

It may not seem like an easy bag to pack, but if you know what each pocket is designed for, this thing, as I said above, can get stuffed to the gills.  At some point I had spread out everything that was going into the bag on the island in the center of the kitchen.  I started putting stuff in and it kept going in with ease.  More and more stuff loaded into the bag and yet the bag never felt unbalanced.  Then I finished and I realized I had MORE room.  It may not be the most intuitive bag to pack, but I was shocked at just how much it held.  Any more and I would have sworn it was sent to me by Mary Poppins. 

Pockets/Organization: 1

There are a ton of pockets on the Synapse.  Most are expertly designed.  Many aren't 100% intuitive to pack, but once you figure them out they are superb.  There is one that is, however, not so great.  It is the only flaw on the entire bag and one that just doesn't make sense with the Bihn design aesthetic of everything with a purpose and purpose for everything.  It is this pouch inside the main compartment:

IMG_0034

It is really too big to carry small things and I imagine that it fits well with the Bihn Cache (an e-device sheath that works with all Bihn bags) but without the Cache it is just a loose and sloppy mess, stealing away usefulness from the main pouch.  And it if is designed for the Cache where are the rails like in the Cadet?  It is not a big deal, but again, it is an oddity on an bag that is otherwise just about perfect.

Speaking of perfect, here is a down-the-gullet shot of the bottle compartment.

IMG_0046

Wedged between the two side pouches that hold small stuff like pens and phones, the bottle compartment is perhaps the very best part of the Synapse design.  I cannot stress how amazingly balanced this bag is on your back and this is the reason why.  Water, by volume, is quite heavy, so putting that heavy item in the dead center of the bag gives it a weighed feel that I have not seen on any backpack I have ever used (being a student for 27 years and a gadget guy I have had more than my fair share of bags). 

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

The buckles and snaps are very nice.  They work well and are smooth to the touched, even if they are snug against your body.  But snaps and buckles are like runtimes on flashlights--you only noticed them when they stink because they are so uniformly excellent now.  The real stunner on Bihn bags, Synapse included is this:

IMG_0014

The Bihn zipper is completely and utterly superb.  It is weird to focus on such a small detail, but it is clear, given how well they work, that I am not the first person to do so.  One problem with zippers, especially ones with metal pulls, is that they are noisy.  Not here.  Another problem is that they do not do a very good job at keeping out moisture.  Again, the seal here, prevents that.  Finally zippers, with all their parts, tend to be finnicky.  Again, look elsewhere as I had no problem either here or with my Cadet's zipper (that is identical in design).  These are the best in the business (though Goruck's pulls run a close second).  In all, there is nothing to complain about and nothing done better anywhere else. 

Straps and belts: 2

I mentioned this above, but it bears restating here--this bag works for just about any size person.  Here is a shot of the straps:

IMG_0043

I really like the overall layout of the straps--the shoulder straps work well with the waist and chest strap.  The back pad is also quite nice.  Its not just that the bag works on folks of different sizes it also switches quickly.  It took me less than three minutes, all while jogging behind my son who was running the paths of Walden Pond, to switch the bag from my wife's preferences to mine.  That is the true sign of a great design.

One small bad thing, though not enough to effect the overall rating--the handle loop feels cheap.  It is simple a single strap running across the top.  I would have much preferred the rolled straps like handle loops for the Cadet.  They give you a sense grabbing something substantial without the need for leather handles (which fall apart over time).  Again, the handle loop works fine, it just feels cheap.

Modularity/expansion: 2

Owners of Bihn bags know that it is the accessories that send Tom's designs into the stratosphere.  There are small delrin loops stitched into the bag's main pockets that allow for you to clip on small accessory pouches.  I decked my Cadet out with two different padded pouches (one for my portable hard drive and the other for my iPhone cables) and it has made a huge difference.  The pouches themselves are quite nice and the ability to mix and match and hook them just about everywhere is what separates Bihn bags from others.  Bihn bags are great on their own--no doubt; but to squeeze every last drop of utility out of them you need to view them as a system.  Additionally, all of the pouches, because the attachment points are so simple, can be switched from one bag to another.  I easily switched the wire iPhone pouch from my Cadet into the Synapse.  In addition to pouches, there are tethers, like this one for your keys: 

IMG_0039

There are also flashlights and other accessories too.  Start with the pouches though, especially the padded ones.  They are great for electronics.  Viewed as a system, I honestly believe that Bihn bags are superior to almost every other bag out there--the Cadet easily crushes my old Tumi bag that was twice or three times the price.  Likewise, when viewed as a system, the Synapse dominates the competition.  Only a Kifaru bag seems to be in the same league and I'd never pronounce a winner without testing the Kifaru bag.  But then again Kifaru bags are at least twice the price of this bag.  If modularity and expansion are important to you, then this is a great option.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

The only drawback, the only ding that was meaningful is the sloppy interior pouch in the main compartment.  If it had the rails for a Cache like the Cadet does, the Dyneema Synapse would be a perfect day pack.  Once you accept its size, the Synapse will not disappoint you.  It is poised and balanced on the back, capable in a vast array of situations--from school to diaper bag to day pack for hiking--it can do it all and does it with style.  The "spine" created by the alignment of the heaviest parts of the bag evince a level of design and forethought that frankly blows the competition out of the water.  Its no longer enough to simply make your bags ridiculously tough by using thick Condura and then topping it off with a few cute features.  The Dyneema Synapse rethinks the day pack entirely and its owners are better of for it.

Do you need it in Dyneema?  Probably not, but the price difference isn't that great.  I'd definitely go for it if I could.  It feels better against the skin.  It is substantially lighter.  Finally, in my experience, it offered the same or better strength, wear, and abrasion resistance than Condura.  You might not NEED it, but you don't NEED a titanium flashlight either.  Either bag would be great, but the Dyneema seems just a slight bit cooler.

If you are looking for a bookbag, a day pack, or even a diaper bag that you can use for something else later, look no further.  The fact that it was made here in the USA by a small company doing things the right way makes the Synapse an even easier purchase.  

One last shot (for Darcy).  This the Dyneema Synapse undergoing its toughest challenge ever, a diaper bag loaded with toys to entertain a two year old on the busiest shopping day of the year when he is going to meet the Big Guy:

IMG_3050

As usual, the Synpase did great.