This is the first in a series of articles on gear recommendations. Sorry this took so long. I was waiting for the CoreTi (I am glad that I did) and then other things came up. The rules and the framework is laid out here. Last year's version of this series, based on price instead of size, can be found under the Special Series tab up top.
This specific article will focus on Keychain Sized Gear. I defined that in the original rules article as:
"Button cell or other super small cell lights (not including AAA or CR2 cells) small OPMTs, very small multitools, or sub 2" folders."
The idea here is that I am going to highlight standouts. I'd like to have reviewed everything, but that's just not possible, so when I don't have first hand knowledge, I will rely on reviews with similar products, internet feedback from reliable sources, analysis of the specs, and company reputation (in that order) to assess something. Any discussion of keychain gear should start with this site: http://keychainpockets.blogspot.com/ It hasn't been updated in a while, but there is a lot of useful stuff there. Additionally, if you want a broader look at keychain gear from me, there is a series I did when the site was young on all sorts of keychain items again under the Special Series tab up top.
This Recommendation is going to be a little more complex than normal because there are so many options and so many important differences between them. I am going to break the categories down into four tools: flashlights, one piece multitools, traditional multitools, and knives. I will make recommendations in each and then make an overall recommendation.
First off, a general caveat: there is not a lot of quality lights that fits in the description above. You can squint really hard and do some wishcasting and think that a Photon light from LRI is a good keychain light, but the reality is, ALL of these mass produced button cell lights suck. I really wanted to do a review of each of the three main options--the LRI Photon, the Inova light, and the E-Gear/Streamlight Nano but each one was awful, just utterly awful. I have carried each one for more than six months, some much longer, and the reality is they all stink. They do not produce a lot of light. They are all flood (like ALL flood). Worst of all, they are kind of flimsy. The batteries are a chore to change, requiring either ninja-like dexterity or a screwdriver. The light they produce is awful and sickly in tint. The batteries are hard to find. But those are all things I MIGHT be able to tolerate.
The true fatal flaw is that the batteries are almost always more expensive than the light itself. Yes, I know you can occasionally run into LR42s at Harbor Freight (which is where I found them) or a flea market, but short of that it is the hardware store or Radio Shack where they cost an arm and leg (I think they think that is a fair trade for your ear, which is where most of these cells go). I also know you can order on the internet, but shipping swamps the price savings until you get into quantities so large it is not worth it. Yes, I can get LR42s to run my Nanostream at .17 a piece, but I have to buy 400 of them. No thanks.
With the entire line of Photon lights, knockoffs, and Nanostreams relegated to the garbage, what's left? Honestly, very little. In order to find something worth our while we have to look at higher end lights. There are four main competitors here: the MBI CoreTi, the Lummi Wee, the Quantum DD, and the Peak Eiger 10180.
There used to be a lot more options, the TiFli, the Photon Fanatic La Pettite Killer, and both ModoMag lights, but they have gone out of production and are relegated to the BST boards on CPF. Here is a roundup of all the lights of this size, circa 2009-2010. It is a shame that the ModoMag lights are gone because they were, as you can see from the roundup, real screamers.
First up is the MBI CoreTi. I just got one in for review, which is why I was holding off on the revamped Recommendation series. The CoreTi is a button cell light, running on the same cells that the Photon does. But unlike the Photon and its knock offs, this is a button cell worth the work. First, the entire body is made of Titanium. It is a thin sliver of a light, making the Photon-type lights look absolutely chubby by comparison. Billed as the thinnest titanium light in the world, the CoreTi lives up to the hype, coming in at about the same thickness as three US Quarters stacked on top of each other. It is not a flamethrower by any means, as the button cell power source is a pretty big limitation, but it is adequate, equal to that of a Photon. Here is where the different electronics matter though. The CoreTi, in my initial testing, is a much nicer, cleaner beam. It produces a pretty and circular beam pattern with a nice neutral tint. The maker, MBI (famed for his 500 lumen AAA light which caused an uproar on CPF and is coming soon), markets the light as a pendant to be worn around your neck. In that capacity it would function marvelously. As a keychain light it looks nice as well. It is expensive given the competitors at around $60 but this is state of the art technology. With battery it weighs half an ounce. Ti shell, virtually weightless, and stunning--if you like Photons but want something nicer this is it.
The Lummi Wee, like all Lummi lights looks gorgeous, both in pictures and on the specification page.
They wallop you with a wall of photons, especially for a light of their size. They also have ingenious lanyard attachments. But the problem with these lights is that they are Lummi lights. I recently received information that Lummi is STILL not doing well at getting orders out. Here is a summary of my experience and note the most recent comment is not that old.
Next up is the light that I am currently enamored with, the Quantum DD.
I wrote a review of this light you can find here. It was the second product I received for review that got a perfect score and boy does it deserve it. It is as small as a Wee, with nicer styling in my opinion. Plus it has a nice charger and infinite variable output. This is everything the Wee is, plus more. And here is the really awesome part--it is actually available. You don't have the roll the dice with a scam artist to get it. There are two outlets for the light and both had them in stock as of the end of September. Plus, unlike the Wee, they are actually affordable clocking in at $60.
In the final light I'd consider is the Peak Eiger 10180. The Eiger comes in a ton of battery sizes, mainly the AAA size, but a few retailers, like the always awesome Oveready, have them in 10180. It can be equipped with a QTC insert giving it infinite variable brightness light the Quantum DD. The head is also compatiable with the larger AAA body, something that makes the Peak line extra appealing to the super flashlight nerd. Legoing lights together is, I am convinced, half of the reason why flashlight nerds love them so much.
Recommendation: Quantum DD or MBI CoreTi
The three "full featured" lights are all very nice, but I wouldn't get a Lummi. I just don't trust that my money will actually buy something. I think the Eiger looks nice, but the Quantum DD is one of my favorite consumer products ever. The issue is for a lot of folks a light this complex is just a hassle on a keychain. I, myself, do not carry mine on a keychain. Instead I have a crappy Inova Microlight. If the MBI CoreTi were mine to keep and I didn't have to worry about beating up the beautiful finish, it would be my hands down choice.
Price No Object Recommendation: Same
There aren't any really killer high end lights here. I guess you can drop some dough on a custom ano job for your Quantum DD. Here is a 38DD with a great one:
Budget Recommendation: Inova Microlight
If I were forced to choose one of the budget lights, I would probably opt for the Inova Microlight. Here is a good thread from CPF, note the date though. No one takes these lights seriously, nor should they--they all suck.
There are a billion and one OPMTs out there to choose from. One issue is that so many of these tools are really similar to a lot of other tools. So many folks have some sort of pry tool for your keychain. It leads me to believe three things: 1) these pry bars are easy and cheap to make; 2) people are buying them; and 3) they are paying much more than they should be for such a simple thing.
Peter Atwood, you might have heard of him, he makes a few trinkets. JDR makes a few. A dozen or so other folks make them. Here is an overview that is about 18 months old, but is still a good resource. I like the Jared Price Toucan (here is an excellent guest review of the custom version). I'd like to try the Boker production version (I generally avoid Boker products, but this is a single piece of steel, how much can they screw that up?) just to see how it stacks up. I really like the TT PockeTTools Chopper (product page and my review). I also think that Atwood has a number of pieces that work well, they are just prohibitively hard to come by.
These approaches are all great, but the one tool I actually carry, the one that has stayed on my keychain the longest and the one I like the best is the Gerber Shard. For around six bucks you can't go wrong. I simply the love the tool complement and the overall shape of the Shard. The fact that you get all of the normal OPMT stuff AND a Phillips driver is a huge bonus.
One big shake up here in the past 12 months--Leatherman acquired Pocket Tools X, which made its name producing the trowel sized Piranha. Now they have been bought out, I'd imagine the Leatherman team remaking the product line. Watch that space for new stuff.
Recommendation: Gerber Shard
Its $6. It is back in production. It is the only OPMT listed here that has a full Phillips driver (its brother the Artifact does as well, but that is the worst product I have reviewed yet). This thing is simple, elegant, and really works. The coating is garbage, but you can live with that. Its perfectly sized, weighs a nice amount, and has a large lanyard attachment point for any kind of hook up. BUY THIS THING. Seriously. Its so cheaping shipping is probably more than the tool itself.
Price No Object Recommendation: Custom JDR Toucan
At a price point between $75 and $80, these aren't the most expensive OPMTs. That would be some variant of the Atwood Mini Son of Prything, which I have seen for $500 in their most pimpy configuration. Still, if price were no object I'd avoid them. The squared off cutting edge looks like it would make it difficult to use the other features. The Toucan, on the other hand, looks like it is just about perfect. I don't necessarily need a cutting edge on my OMPT, but in this case, I'll take it. I love the taco style kydex sheath too. Good idea for Boker to license the design.
Special Mention: TT PockeTTools Chopper
In my opinion, this is the state of the art design. Too bad it appears to be out of production. That is a kick in the nuts. Either way, this little tool has a combination of features that isn't found anywhere else (well, maybe one of Pocket Tool X tools). The S30V steel is thicker than a phone book and the snag edge works great. Go track one down, you won't be sorry. Originally priced at $20-$30, I have a feeling these are going to fetch a pretty penny in the secondary market, given their utility. GRAB NOW.
If we move away from OPMTs we get a host of options in the keychain multitool arena. Unfortunately the vast majority of them are total and complete garbage. The Gerber line is populated with a series of also-ran stinkers. The previously reviewed Gerber Dime is really the only thing worth looking at. The Leatherman keychain line has a few good ones, but nothing that holds a candle to the Style PS or the Squirt PS4. Both have the magic formula of tools: pliers and scissors in the same tool. The Style PS, review coming, is a very unusual tool in that it has no blade. This makes it total travel safe. This combined with one of the lights above makes a really handy uber tiny set up that you can take literally anywhere. Despite the growls from the people behind me in line, this did pass TSA review in October 2012 after a close peek and explanation that it did not have a blade. As for the old standby Leatherman, the Micra--skip it. It is awful.
Recommendation: Gerber Dime
All three recommendations come down to either the Dime or the Squirt PS4. I'd opt for the Dime exclusively because of the clamshell cutter. This is the multitool that lives in my car. Fit and finish on my actual tool is pretty good, but there are complaints that it is poorly assembled. At this price point and with Gerber, every tool is a crap shoot. If you get a good Dime though, it is an excellent overall design. If you don't want to roll the dice, go for the PS4.
Travel Recommendation: Leatherman Style PS
The tool is probably your only legitimate choice. It looks like a miniature Skeletool, but is not anywhere near as solid. I like the design and it is something of a necessity given strict TSA requirements.
In this category you are looking at some seriously tiny blades. Here is a good thread from EDCF with a listing of quite a few of them. The problem with the vast majority of blades this size is that they either are hard to open or have crappy steel or both. If you include SAKs, the selection is a lot bigger. AG Russell also makes quite a few nice blades in this range, like the 3" Lockback. I haven't tried any, but they look good, many have VG-10 blade steel, well above part for this market segment. They don't have one handed opening, but I am not sure its necessary here. Spyderco makes a few slip joints, but I don't like the Bug series all that much (though the Grasshopper seems nicely sized). The real stars are the Ladybug, the Manbug, and the Jester. The Ladybug in ZDP-189 is probably the best knife you can get in this size, in terms of the steel (the Manbug is also available in ZDP-189), but the Jester has superior ergonomics. The "nose horn" on the Jester cradles the index finger perfectly making it an excellent precision cutter. It has a lesser steel (VG-10) but again in this market segment that is above par. The Benchmade Benchmite is a nice thin blade, but it has "migrated" over to the Harley Davidson line in an effort to give semi-truth to Benchmade's all USA made claim. Regardless of their product line shenanigans, its still a great knife and it has a pocket clip now, as they market it as a money clip knife. It uses AUS-8 steel, which is okay in this application. The SOG Micron is an interesting option, as are the Boker Biscuits (the Subcom series, called the biscuits on forum boards because of either their square shape or their delicious taste, I am not sure). There is also the Boker Nano, but that is probably a bit big for legitimate keychain carry.
If you disagree with my assessment about size and want something a bit higher end, then you should probably opt for a custom Curtiss Nano over the production model. The CCT from Three Sisters Forge is another extra small custom offering as well. I also really like the Cali-legal (sub 2 inch blade) Protech Sprint. It is a beautiful little auto and if you can legally carry it it makes a nice luxe option. Few companies, if any, can match the glorious build quality of Al Mar and the SLB is no exception. I like my SpyFox, seen here (with my Steve Ku DD and Custom SAK Rambler):
It is a little fancy for keychain carry and lacks a lanyard hole, but it is a very good looking, well made knife, tiny as it may be.
In terms of SAKs there are bunch of options. Bernard over at everyday-carry really likes the SAK Manager. It is basically a Rambler with a pen and a small LED light. Not a bad combination at all for keychain carry. I'd still take my custom SAK (seen above) over it, but seeing as Aaron has been less than a stand up fellow, it may be one of a kind. The Rambler itself is a bit cheaper but lacks the pen and light. The SAK Money Clip is a poor man's version of the custom Rambler, you can use the money clip as the pocket clip, but it lacks the driver and bottle opener features.
Recommendation: Spyderco Jester
I know, I know, the steel isn't as good as its counterparts, but I have a logic to my reasoning. First, in a knife this small you are not going to be doing killer tasks, usually opening packages and the like, so steel isn't THAT important. Second, on knives this small you want to have a good grip and that is exceptionally hard to do with this tiny amount of real estate, so if you can get a knife that is both small and great in the hand, like the Jester, you have to take it, even if other knives have better steel.
Budget Recommendation: Boker Subcom
I am reluctant to recommend anything from Boker as I have found their fit and finish to be lacking (as has TuffThumbz, someone I really trust in terms of his knowledge about blades). That said, virtually everyone that owns one of these has seemed to like it and have no performance complaints. I like that Chad Los Banos, its designer, is active on forums, especially my home forum of EDCF. I also like that this little design is so non threatening. The deep finger choil also helps with cutting.
High End Recommendation: Custom Nano
The Curtiss pviot and overtravel mechanism are genius. I'd love to get a review sample of the Nano to try it out. I'd also like a CCT as well, but both are hard to get. Either way, they get rave reviews online.
I would recommend my custom Rambler, but too many people got stiffed by Aaron for me to do so. It is, however, absolutely sublime. Someone needs to be Aaron's business manager and let that guy just work on blades because as bad as he is at running a business he is that good at making custom stuff. That said, avoid him until things work out.
Overall Recommendation: Gerber Shard and Quantum DD or MBI CoreTi
The Chopper does so much in such a small package that it is hard to ignore. Unfortunately it is out of production. If it weren't it would be the first choice. The Shard is a great substitute though. At six dollars it is hard to go wrong. Yes there are fancier options out there, but none that work better. They are fancier for the sake of being fancier.
The Quantum DD or the CoreTi are also excellent choices--well made designs that do two totally different things. The learning curve and barrier to entry on the Quantum DD is a bit higher than the uber simple CoreTi, but it can do more things. If you are looking for dead simple, the choice is clear. If you are looking for something a bit more full featured, go for the Quantum DD. Neither will disappoint.
None of the knives in this category are all that great, just a bit too small. The multitools even at this tiny size are too big for me to carry on my keychain. I want it to be a slim as possible. I know a lot of people that do carry multitools on their keychain, but that's a personal preference.
A word to the wise: carrying either light on your keychain with the Shard (and keys) is likely to mar the beautiful finishes on these lights. Be prepared for that and you'll be fine.