Thursday, December 5, 2013

Readily Available Benchmarks

Over the almost three years I have been writing reviews, I have come to an understanding about the quality of the gear in the market right now.  It is very, very high.  Custom makers are putting out insane stuff.  High end production gear is equally great.  And even budget stuff is quite good.  The question that I try to answer in a review, in addition to the score, is how good a product is compared to is competition.  Until now, that competition has been vaguely defined.  From now on I am going to compare a given product to a "readily available benchmark".

The readily available benchmark idea came from another passion of mine--advanced baseball statistics. Over the years, folks with more math skills than me have figured out ways to quantify contributions players make to a winning cause.  Various metrics have been used, but right now, most analysis focuses on the statistic WAR, which stands for Wins Above Replacement.  It is a measurement of a players total contribution (offense, defense, and pitching) to a team's winning.  It essentially answers the question: how many wins did this player contribute to his team's total when compared to a readily available replacement?  Its that last part that is helpful in explaining what I mean by "readily available benchmark."

In baseball parlance "replacement level" is pretty atrocious.  It basically means a freely available player, someone that could, in theory, play in the majors but isn't or is in the majors but sitting on a bench.  Its basically the old "AAAA" player.  In terms of gear, "readily available benchmark" is actually quite high quality.  We are, as I have said many times and in many places, in a Golden Age of Gear.  As a result, the stuff that is readily available is not bad at all.  

"Readily available" means that you could buy this item for a reasonable amount of money without having to resort to an internet-only store or forums boards.  I want this item to be something that you could get in your car and go buy right now, regardless of where you live and what stores are around you.  I want this item to be essentially the smart choice among the options you have at places like Wal-Mart, Home Depot/Lowes, or a local sporting goods chain.  For people that live around a specialty knife store, your lucky.  Most folks don't.  For the rest of us, a readily available knife means going to one of those four places and getting the best they have.  Readily available can vary from place to place, but the items I have chosen are things I can find around me pretty easily.   

I want to emphasize readily available for two reasons.  One, it is probably as close as I can get to universally available, meaning that everyone has access to it.  Second, it seems to be a fair way of eliminating pie-in-the-sky, super rare, internet only products.  Its frustrating to hear about all of this great gear and not have it be something you can buy.  I get that.  This is an attempt avoid that problem.

On other aspect of "readily available" is that the item has to conform to as many legal standards as possible.  Autos are awesome, but they won't be handy to use as a benchmark because they can't be purchased or carried in a lot of places.  For this reason the Kershaw Skyline, probably my favorite readily available knife here where I live is off the list.  At more than 3 inches in blade length the Skyline is technically illegal in many jurisdictions.    

"Benchmark" means that I am not simply picking the most readily available product, which would probably be some kind of rebranded, unknown origin piece of junk.  There are some really horrible lights out there.  Really horrible.  Things like the big bin of lights you see at Home Depot/Lowes on Black Friday.  I don't mean to use those as points of comparison.  They are horrible and a comparison to them would be useless.  I also don't want to use famous, mainstream products.  They are, by in large, just slightly less horrible than the bin-o-lights lights.  Mag lights are garbage.  They are quite expensive for what you get and what you get isn't impressive at all.  When your core design and technology is: 1) 30 years old; and 2) designed to ensure you make a profit not to be a good tool there are going to be problems.  And I assume I don't need to go in to detail about the raging trash fire of product design and safety that is Gerber, right?

With that laid out here are the "readily available benchmarks" for the various product categories (note: they will change over time, as appropriate, and they are US only):

Knife: SOG Aegis Mini (score: 17 out of 20, 1 off in Steel for AUS8, 1 off in Grind for a paper thin grind on the tip, and 1 off for a wobbly pocket clip in Retention Method).

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I admit it.  I missed this one.  After reviewing it for AllOutdoor and using it after the review, I am convinced this is a very good to great production folder.  Its not flashy.  Its not blinged out.  But it is a damn good knife.  3 inches of blade, good clip, excellent shape in the pocket and the hand, and all of this in a 2 ounce package.  I know this might sound like heresay from me, but this thing blows the Delica out of the water (got to go back and fix the score).  I know I have said I don't like assists and I still don't, but in this package it really works well.   This knife is available at my local Wal-Mart.  

Flashlight: Fenix PD22 (score: 15 out of 20; 1 off in UI for the unnecessary 2-button clicky; 1 off in Beam Quality for a terrible tint, 2 off in Carry for a friction fit clip and overall fat body tube, and 1 off in Hands Free for no tailstanding).

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The best readily available light is significantly less competitive than the best readily available knife.  This is understandable because the group of people willing to pay a premium for a good light is still much smaller than those willing to pay a premium for a good flashlight.  The PD22 is decent.  It is a good nightstand light.  The UI is okay.  The performance is decent (aside from the horrendous tint).  I like it.  Its just not as compelling as the Mini Aegis is, comparatively speaking.  This light is available at my local REI.  

Multitool: Leatherman Wingman (score: 17 out of 20; 1 off in Fit and Finish for slop in the handles; 2 off in Materials for the steel choice of 420HC and the thin, stamped (as opposed to cast) handles; very similar to the Sidekick with better tool selection).

Leatherman dominates the multitool market.  It dominates the high end (nothing compares to the Charge TTi, nothing).  It dominates the middle (the Skeletool slays all comers). And as of two years ago it curb stomped its low end competitors with the Wingman.  The Wingman has a better tool selection than the similarly priced Sidekick, opting for a set of scissors over a saw.  All of this for around $25 is insane.  Again, we are living in the Golden Age of Gear.  The only real drawback is the blade steel and the weight.  Other than that, the Wingman is a budget Wave, probably the most beloved of all Leatherman tools.  This multitool is available at my local Home Depot, Lowes, Sears, and Wal Mart.  

OPMT: Nite Ize DoohicKey (score: 17 out of 20; 1 off in Retention Method for an inability to lay flat against other keys, 2 off in Tool Selection for the lack of a Phillips driver and no snag edge).

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I thought about the Shard, but it is not as widely available.  I cannot find one near me in the sporting goods or outdoor stores and so it is the DoohicKey.  This is a new release and unlike a lot of gilded lily products from Nite Ize, this thing works and works well.  It is understated and minimal and I like it a great deal.  Plus it is $5.  This one piece multitool is available at my local Home Depot, Lowes, and EMS sporting goods store.

Pen: Zebra F-701 with Fisher Refill Mod (score: 16 out of 20; 2 off in Appearance for a stultifyingly boring shape, 1 off for balance/in hand feel for a barrel that seems too thin for its weight, and 1 off for deployment method because you have to make a mod to get the pen to accept a very basic and widely used cartridge and even then the clicky doesn't work flawlessly).

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There is a little bit of work that needs to be done before you have a very decent pen, but the work is simple.  You can do with a knife and a paper clip, if necessary.  The total price is around $10 for the pen and the refill and it is easily worth it.  This set up crushes the Fisher Bullet Pen, getting rid of the terrible cap and using more durable and scratch-resistant materials.  I like it a lot.   This pen is available at my local Target, Wal Mart, and Staples.  The Fisher refill is available at my local Staples.      

Water Bottle: Wide Mouth Insulated Klean Kanteen (score: 11 out of 20; 1 off in Carry for the slick bottle and no lash point, 1 off in Grip for the same reasons, 1 off in Drink Quality/Mouth for the awful array of options for caps or the metal tasting lip, 1 off in Materials for chintzy plastic caps, 1 off in Insulation for middle of the road temperature holding times, 2 off in Durability for the dentastic 18/8 stainless steel used, 2 off in Leak Proof, as every cap, standard or aftermarket leaks like a screen door underwater)

Probably the worst of the readily available benchmarks compared to the other products.  The Kleen Kanteen is so ho-hum and so bad that people think all water bottles, necessarily, stink.  The Square proved to me that there is a TON of work to be done in terms of product design in the water bottle market.  It is so superior to the Klean Kanteen in every way but one (insulation) that I know we will see better soon.  Folks this is not the iPhone of water bottles, its the Discman of water bottles--the most common low ebb product before the product class was completely revolutionized.  This bottle is available at my local Dick's Sporting Goods, REI, and EMS.  It is sometimes available at my local LL Bean store.     

There are too many different kinds of packs to select one and have it been the readily available benchmark for all packs.  After all, my briefcase and backpack do VERY different things.

That's a pretty darn good EDC.  I'd never carry both the folder and the multitool, but I would carry everything else at once, with the DoohicKey landing on the keychain.  It is a testament to how good gear is right now that the readily available benchmarks are so incredibly high performing.

Going forward I am going to make sure to tell you how the product stacks up against the readily available benchmark in its product category.    

13 comments:

  1. group of people willing to pay a premium for a good light is still much smaller than those willing to pay a premium for a good KNIFE

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  2. "I know this might sound like heresay from me, but this thing blows the Delica out of the water"... You're violating the 1st of the 10 knife Commandments: "Thou Shalt put no other sub 3" folders above Delica." You're treading on sacred ground. May Sal have mercy on you, my beloved gear brother ;)

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  3. I noticed that you also reviewed the SOG Mini Vulcan, how would this knife compare to the Mini Aegis and rate on your 20 point scale?

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    1. The Mini Vulcan is significantly more money than the Mini Aegis, but it too is a good knife. I'd have to sit down and figure out the score, but it is probably in the 15-17 range, off the top of my head.

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    2. I've used my Nalgene for ages and I've never noticed a funny taste, but I have heard that comment from others. I guess, too, I've not had a need for an insulated bottle so it doesn't really factor into my carry choices, but I can see why it would be a beneficial thing. Thanks for the clarification, Tony!

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  4. Have you tried an FFG Delica yet?

    The last one I bought I got to handpick (KNIVES IN PERSON WHOO). It came with an even, visibly deep edge bevel that Spyderco seems to have deliberately laid back to less than 30 degrees inclusive. Oh man does that thing cut.

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    1. Yep. In fact I have a ZDP-189 FFG Delica right now. I bought it just to figure out if it was better than I remember. The Delica is a good knife, but the ergos are off a little and the handle is just wastefully too long. It cuts well, but carries like a much bigger blade for no reason.

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  5. I'm curious why you would go with the Klean Kanteen vs a Nalgene. The Nalgene costs roughly $10 and is available at walmart, target, and many other stores around here [Texas]. I guess you did say it was the lowest of the low, but for the price one could do better.

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    1. Two reasons: 1) I think insulation is all but a requirement for a good bottle; and 2) tritan makes the water taste funny, especially with a wide mouth design.

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  6. A 0 for Carry on the PD22 might be too harsh. I've got the PD30 (same diameter, same clip, longer two-cell body) and while the clip is meh, it is quite secure and the light body doesn't strike me as too bulky. Personally I'd give it a 1.

    I'd like to similarly nitpick your 1 pt deduction for Beam Quality -- but I can't. I had to go through two PD30s to get the one I kept, because the first one had, yep, a lousy green tint. (#2 is nice, a snowy cool white.)

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  7. Don't want to start a "why-didn't-you" pile-on, but I am a bit suprised about why you didn't put the Dragonfly as the representative knife. Too small? Too expensive? Not readily available? Just curoous since you really seem to like the knife.

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  8. I have a Zebra F-701 modded with Fisher space pen refill. I wanted to share a technique I have not seen anyone mention and it makes operation a lot smother. Take some 400 grit sanpaper followed by 000 steel wool to the refill near the nib. There is a little bump on the refill that hangs up when clicking. Sand off in 3min, polish with wool and it is better than new.

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  9. I'm shocked that the Doohikey is more available in your area than the Gerber Shard. I've found the Shard in the local Sports Authority and Dick's Sporting Goods, along with all the other Gerber stuff they sell.

    Even more shocking is the ZERO you give to the Zebra F-701 in Appearance! *Sob!* You monster! ...Seriously though, I love the clean look and textured knurling of the F701 (especially if you do the common mod of swapping the F402 clip and cap), and I've received compliments from people who've seen and/or borrowed the pen. I would've bet money that it would appeal to your somewhat-minimalist aesthetic, so I was genuinely surprised that you didn't like the look.

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