Monday, February 11, 2013

EDC Primer: How to Read My Reviews

Most of the EDC Primers I have written or I am working on are about a given topic related to products covered here.  This is a little different.  This is a primer that hopefully will help you get as much information as you can from reviews on this site.   I am going to, as best I can, lay bear how and why I give out the scores I do.  

All reviews, by their very nature, are biased.  They are the expressions, ideas, and opinions of a single person.  In the case of this site, these opinions are mine.  The preferences I have shape the scores that products receive.  I try mightily to view products in their intended use, never judging a credit card knife against a big chopper.  I also try to rely on as many facts in my opinions as possible.  This gives you a sense of how I arrived at the score I gave.  But even with this and the scoring systems, there are biases of mine that may be hidden or at least not explicitly stated.  In order to fix that problem, I am going to state them here and explain why they, on occasion, might screw with the scoring systems.

What I like and Why

I like simple, easy to use, reliable tools.  I like things with intuitive designs.  I like things with good materials and things that are built with an eye towards craftsmanship.  I am a minimalist.  I rarely carry more than the following: keys (on a coated mechanics cable), a knife, a flashlight, my iPhone, my watch, and my wallet.  This gets me through almost every single task I need to perform.  At work I add only two things--a paper calendar book and a pen.  I like a tool that is more than enough, but never too much.  That is a hard line to follow, but it is easy to find in well made products.  I really like my Festool Rotex 90 sander.  It is one hell of a tool.  It is Festool's smallest Rotex, but I have no need for a monster sander.  It has all of the features I need, all of the features I want, and none of the bulk, price, or features I don't.  It is almost a perfect example of "more than enough, but never too much."

In that vein, I have found that two Spyderco knives hit that point perfectly.  The DF2 in ZDP-189 is, in my opinion, the best production EDC knife out there.  It is small, light, and compact.  But it has a great design that easily hosts a four finger grip.  The steel is top shelf.  It works, works well, and inspires confidence in use.  But there is nothing extra or superfluous about the DF2.  It is what it is and nothing more.  Similarly in hard use knives, the Paramilitary 2 is more than enough, but never too much.  You can really rip and yank on that blade and it never budges or wobbles.  It stays put and cuts for ages between resharpening.  But it does this all at a weight that still blows my mind (3.75 ounces).  I don't have a regular need for knife the size of the PM2, but if I did, I'd own the PM2 (though the shootout winner was the Cold Steel Mini Recon 1 I think I can save a few more bucks for the just better PM2). 

The Kershaw Cryo, a knife review that has caused much disagreement (go read the comments section), is an example of the opposite of this maxim.  It is not quite enough, but more than you need.  Its smallish blade is a fine size for me, but its weight, 4.2 ounces on my scale, baffles me.  It weighs more than the Paramilitary 2 and has significantly less performance.  The steel is mediocre at best and the handle scales, which add a lot of the weight, are slick.  But it has an assisted open.  And framelock.  And a quad mounted, deep carry pocket clip.  And a thumbstud AND a flipper.  It also has a Hinderer overtravel stop.  Lots and lots of things that make for a nice bullet point list on a knife seller's website, but very few things that you actually need.  If the knife is well made and the pivot properly put together, assisted opening is unnecessary.  I like framelocks, but a well-designed and well-made linerlock is equally nice and cheaper to make (allowing the company to put money into things where more cash buys better performance, such as the blade steel).  A pocket clip that carries deep is okay, but not necessary, as is the quad mounting of that pocket clip.  You don't need two ways to open a knife, especially if the thumbstud is hard to use AND doesn't act as a blade stop.  And yes, the Hinderer overtravel is a nice feature but it is not something that is strictly necessary, especially on a knife this size.  The Cryo, then, is the epitome of the opposite of my maxim for good, well designed tools.  It lacks a few of the things you need and has a lot of features you don't.

Size and weight are another place I have distinct opinions.  You might like bigger gear and that's fine.  But think of this--how many times could you accomplish what you need with something smaller or lighter?  Do you need 500 lumens to light up a keyhole?  Do you need a 4 inch blade to open a box from UPS?  Or how about this: no one, if they are being rational, likes HEAVY or BIG stuff.  If they could somehow magically store a 4 inch blade in a 2 inch handle they would.  They like the capabilities of bigger and heavier gear and so they are willing to overlook the size and weight concerns.  It is a trade off they are willing to make, but it IS a trade off.  "Oh, wait a second," you might be saying, "I like stuff with a bit of heft to it. It feels solid."  That heft feeling that you like is something OTHER than heft itself.  You like that feeling of rigidity, substantiality, and solidness.  You like the fact that you can't feel the plastic knife handle flex during tough cuts.  I get that, but look carefully, its not heft itself.  It is simply the fact that in a price point under $100 it is rare to find that rigidity you are looking for WITHOUT the heft.

But it is possible.  The Small Sebenza is one hell of a knife.  It feels incredibly solid in the hand and during use, but instead of using pure, thoughtless bulk to achieve that feeling of solidness in the hand, CRK uses superior materials and design.  That rigidity and sureness is expensive and/or requires a bit of thought, but you CAN get it without the heft.  The PM2 is another example of this.  But look elsewhere, not gear, and you will see and even better example--the Shaker ladderback chair.  Here is a chair, one of the hardest things to make in woodworking, one of the most abused and stressed pieces of furniture, and after more than 100 years you can still find these gems of design and craftsmanship in perfect working order--cane seat and all.  I actually found one last summer at the Brimfield Antique Show and it is in our guest bedroom, re-caned and ready to go for another century.  That seat has all of the rigidity you will ever need and more and it weighs like 4 pounds.  Want proof?  Its been around for 100 years and still works well.  Good design and superior materials can get you that feeling you want without the heft.  Bear that in mind and don't be suckered in by the 8 ounce $50 knife that feels rigid because it is hefty, when you can skip a few lunches out (and their accompanying calories) and get the same performance or more in a 3 ounce knife that costs $100. 

Keep searching until you find the smallest, lightest thing you can use to accomplish your tasks comfortably and stop there.  And if you disagree with this, build that in to your consideration of my review scores.  I like smaller stuff.  I like good design, good craftsmanship, and superior materials.  Its not cheap, but it is cheaper than the upgrade treadmill.  A $50 knife that is good but not great and leads you to buy the original $100 blade you really wanted is more expensive than just dropping the $100 at the beginning.  If you prefer bigger stuff, think about the ladderback chair, and if you still want big stuff consider that when reading a review of mine and give big stuff a one or two point bump. 

My Benchmarks

You'll be surprised at how many times you can get what you need done with a 2 1/4 inch blade (like on the DF2), or 30 lumens (the low on the Aeon), or one of seven tools (like on the Skeletool or SAK Cadet).  Unless I am testing something, you'll find that probably 90-95% of the time I am carrying one or more of these tools.  They are the core of my EDC rotation, the things I go back to and my benchmarks for utility.  Few things, even very expensive things, are better than these four tools.  The Sebenza is great, but it doesn't really do anything the DF2 can't.  These four items are probably the epitome of "more than enough, but never too much."  Comparing stuff to these four benchmarks is quite a challenge. 

Want to know when I fell in love with the DF2?  Here is a photo:

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We had ordered a new grill and it came in this massive box.  My son was 1 1/2 at the time and wanted to play inside.  He also wanted holes to look out of, but the cardboard was insanely thick, like 3/8 of an inch.  Nonetheless I had my DF2 in ZDP-189 on me and I thought "what the hell".  I planned on cutting a little, stopping, and then getting a bigger, tougher knife, maybe a box cutter, to finish the job.  Two windows, two doors, and a chimney later, I was still able to shave with my DF2.  The handle is perfectly shaped, the hole is fantastic and the steel, oh the steel.  I love it.  For the money, for the weight, or for the size there is nothing better out there in the production world and few things in the custom world better.  At some point I am going to get up the courage to just call it like it is--this is the best all around knife available.  I am not that courageous or experienced yet, but the time is coming soon.  

Three times.  That is how many times I have changed the batteries on my Muyshondt Aeon.  It is out of production and we are waiting on the Mark II, but there is no light that I have carried more than this little gem.  In two and half years of pretty regular use I have changed the batteries three times.  The light is a simple statement--utility, performance, and diminutive size:

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There is only one weakness to the light and the Mark II is going to fix that.  30 lumens, the low here, is actually quite a bit of light.  It will steal your night vision.  But if you overlook that one small thing, this is flashlight perfection.  Insane runtimes, very decent output on high, and stupid simple UI.  If anything is as good as the DF2 in the flashlight world this is it.  Until the Mark II...

Nothing is really ever going to match the sleek beauty of the SAK Alox Cadet.  Here it is in its resplendent Swiss glory:

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This is the one tool I think everyone, man, woman, and careful kid, should own.  It does so, so much in a package that is so, so small.  The blade is a perfect size and the handles are incredibly sturdy.  Go look at the pocket dump thread on USN.  You'll see lots of kilobuck blades and then somewhere next to the MokuTi handles an unassuming SAK Alox Cadet.  There is a reason why--this thing does just about everything you will need in an urban/suburban setting.  There are lots of SAKs and other multi-blade knives out there.  None is better than the Alox Cadet.  The steel will dull decades before ZDP-189 but it takes only seconds to get it back to a razor edge.  In a true utility tool that is a tradeoff I am happy to make.  Here is the final bit of praise for the Cadet--Victorinox's fit and finish rivals that of the top end premium production companies and this thing costs well under $30.  Cadillac fit and finish at Hyundai prices.  How can you complain about that?

When you make a tool a handy as the Leatherman it is hard to improve on the design.  Look at the Leatherman lineup and you will see three generations.  The original PS generation with lots of size and tool variations.  The Wave/Charge generation which is very similar, but with external tools.  Then the third generation, the Skeletool generation.  Here is the bone taut design:

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There is nothing wasted here, not a single tenth of an ounce.  They focused on the true core of the multitool and got this thing down to less than 5 ounces.  You get quite a few tools, all of which work very, very well in this tiny package.  And this thing is no safe queen.  I have used to cut wire, drywall, cardboard, carpet, linoleum, tree branches, plastic, pine, cherry, oak, maple, birch, thread, rope nylon rope, and a bunch of other things.  On massive home improvements (taking my office down to the studs and rebuilding it) or massive woodworking projections (my entertainment center) this guy has been in my pocket.  It saves me those annoying extra steps to get the pliers over and over again.  If you want a multitool but don't want something that carries like a bag of flour in your pocket or on your belt, get the Skeletool (and get the CX while your at it, the better blade steel, not the silly carbon fiber accents, make it worth the extra dough).

Bags are little different.  They represent very use specific items.  I like, but do not love, the Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon II.  If you need a general purpose, small backpack, this is one very good options.  The Bihn Synapse though is a simply superior design, but I don't use backpacks enough to say which is clearly better.  For a briefcase and computer bag, something I use much more frequently, the more than enough, but never too much philosophy is best seen in the Bihn Cadet (that would be an awesome cross promotion a Cadet in the Cadet).  This is a bag I hesitated in buying because I thought it was too small.  A year and some months later I can tell you it is plenty big.  Again, I got something as small and light as I felt comfortable with (actually a little less than what I was comfortable with) and it worked out perfectly fine.  The Cadet is quite frankly more than a benchmark, though it is that too.  It was the end of a long search that took me years through law school and eight years of work.  I guess its a benchmark, but for me it is more like finding that "x marks the spot" point.  This is the treasure chest, and when fully loaded with Bihn accessories, it is a joy to carry and use.    

Note that these things did not all get a perfect score (the Cadet and the Skeletool got 17/20 and 19/20 respectively).  Sometimes there is no perfect product.  I'd like better steel on the Alox and pointier pliers on the Skeletool, but there is nothing out there that I have found that does what these two tools do better.  And also note that there are perfect products I left out, such as the Leatherman PS4 or the Gerber Dime.  These products, while the best in their respective class, are not ideal options for me.  I want a little more in terms of heft to my screwdrivers and pliers.  Again, these work for me, they might not work for you.  I also thought long and hard about including the Gerber Shard in this group, but I am still not convinced that OPMTs are essential.  I like having one and the Shard is probably my favorite, but I am not sure you need one, especially if you have a Cadet in your pocket.  And bringing back my original point all four tools are more than enough to get 99.9% of tasks done but never too much for you to carry, buy, or use.

Conclusion

I hope this helps you in reading my reviews.  You'll know why I score things the way I do.  If something weighs more than it needs or has useless features, you know it will not score a perfect score.  You know I prefer smaller tools.  You now know how I balance out cutting edge technology and design versus price.  I like custom stuff, I do.  But there are some gems in the production world too and many, like the DF2 and the Cadet are well less than $100.  If you want to know what gear to start out with, these four pieces are an excellent place to start.  And if you can't find the Aeon because it is out of production, there are few options.  First, the Peak Eiger is a decent light in its stock formulation.  If you really want to go nuts, the Oveready Edition of the Eiger is one hell of a light and there are aftermarket clips available that turn it into a truly great EDC light.  I also think the Mini series from 47s is decent, though they offer nothing like the Aeon's runtime.  Finally, I think the Zebralight SC52 is a great all around performer, but the UI is much more daunting than that found on the Aeon.  In short, the Aeon has no readily available equivalent, but the DF2, the Cadet, and the Skeletool are all readily available.  And as always, here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the most of this stuff, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

9 comments:

  1. The real question is, will we see a moonglow Native 5 review coming soon in support of your favorite forum?
    IG

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  2. I find agreement with some of the item reviewed and conflict with others. I think that is why the site is good for me.

    Main Blade Skyline
    Tool SAK Scientist
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    Watch Gshock

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  3. I like your posts where you discuss if something is good or not, but most of all I appreciate the roundups like this one, which say, "of all the tools in the world, what's the best practical choice?" I've been carrying the Victorinox Classic and the Photon (which I know you dislike) on and off for 10 years and hundreds of days of backpacking, and tho I've experimented with other gear from time to time, those are the EDC tools I keep coming back to, with the right balance (for me) of cost (I lose these things) + size + utility. (The old Photons had to be replaced annually, the new Freedom is going a lot better so far.) Anyhow thanks again for your perspective and research. I keep waiting for a dedicated blade to make sense in my daily life---you have me wanting to try out the Dragonfly 2 :)

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  4. So.....are y'all gonna be selling that Aeon when your Mark II comes in? Just a thought.

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  5. Why do you recommend the Cadet as 1 of 4 tools everyone should carry? If you have the DF2 and the Skeletool, what purpose does the Cadet serve?

    Personally, I carry the Leatherman e302, which I'm replacing with the C33T (wish you'd review it), and the Peak Eiger, and they cover 99.999% of anything I ever need to do (except the rare time I wish I had pliers, for which I have a Leatherman in the car).

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    1. I'd never carry all four of these items at once. I usually only carry a light and a knife or multitool. The Cadet is very people friendly and a good pocket friend if you don't need a locking blade.

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    2. Gotcha. Thanks for the reply, and I'm not trying to argue with you, just find out more info.

      I guess I just wonder what the point of the Cadet is? Or in what scenario would YOU take the Cadet instead of the knife/light or tool/light? Or is it just a recommendation for someone who isn't going to spend the money on a knife or tool, so at least they have something?

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    3. It carries so nicely, I take it whenever I have smaller tasks. If I am going to a family function or setting up AV equipment at work where there is a need for a blade and some driving ability I'll take it. Also if I know I will be around non knife people, I'll take it. No one objects to the SAK form factor.

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    4. Cool. Thanks for the info and the great site.

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