Friday, June 28, 2013

Kershaw Cryo Re-Review

This is my first re-review.  It came about after a firestorm of controversy prompted by comments on the original review from Thomas W, the brand manager for Kershaw Knives.  Seeing how the comment panned out I decided to respond to it via a full blow post.  You can see that post here.  After consideration I decided that I would re-review the Cryo.  My goal, after all, is to get it right, not be a big mouth.  To that end I called Thomas W and spoke to him for more than a hour.  We talked about the knife business and he gave me a mountain of information that I am still processing.  Thomas is a really intense guy and has lots and lots of experience in the business.  His willingness to talk to me was, frankly, incredible.

Over the course of the conversation and the comments and responses, Thomas's points were pretty straightforward.  First, the Cryo is a massive commercial success.  His numbers were pretty staggering.  The Cryo vastly outsold the Skyline, one of my favorite Kershaw's in the same time period and it placed in the same sales range as the Onion knives, the perennial best sellers in the Kershaw line up.  That success, he claims, has to count for something.  Second, given the price and place of origin, the Cryo is actually a very good knife.  It is an amazing value because it gives consumers Hinderer design features at bargain prices.  Third, it was a critical success, with Blade giving it an award in the 2012 show.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Cryo is not a knife aimed at the enthusiast.  Folks like us, folks that happily drop a pair Ben Franklins on a knife, are not the intended audience for the Cryo.  Seen from the perspective of that audience the Cryo is a GREAT knife.

Those arguments were enough to prompt me to re-review the Cryo.  Here is the re-review policy:

As I noted in my response to Thomas W.'s criticism of the Cryo review, found here, I have decided that I will re-review products.  If you made something I reviewed and were dissatisfied with the review, you can contact me and ask for a re-review.  This is distinct from two things.  First, if I made technical errors, like getting the steel wrong, you can contact me immediately and I will make the correction to the review AND note my mistake.  Second, periodically I go back and update the score of a product.  I do this after a year and then after five years (should I be around that long).  The purpose of the update is different from a re-review.  One issue that comes up with products like knives and flashlights is that as technology improves, scores should reflect that change.  The update does this.  A knife with S30V steel is still a good knife, but that steel is no longer cutting edge (har, har).  Over time this effect will be larger and larger until S30V steel, absent some great heat treat or grind, will merit a score lower than a 2.  The Updates capture this.

A re-review, however, is a separate review with a new testing period for an item I already reviewed.  Think of it like a brand new review.  First, I will do re-reviews at my discretion.  Second, I will do them no sooner than 6 months after the first review as this prevents a maker from coming back right away and rigging the review scoring system.  Third, I will not do a third review.  Once the review and re-review are done, that's it.  The idea is to balance two competing concerns--getting something right against a lack of finality and too much influence from makers.  This site, to the extent that it works, works because I have no financial stake in this.  I don't care if one gear company is mad at me.  I'd prefer if they weren't but my first loyalty, and since this is not for money, my ONLY loyalty is to my readers.  Getting it right is important.  Giving them a final judgment is also important.  I hope this re-review policy does that.  We'll see how it works with the Cryo and go from there.       


In the end, Thomas's arguments made me take this knife seriously and the review deadly serious.  First, once I decided to to the re-review I stopped reading the Cryo review, so that I would have as fresh a take as possible on the knife.  Second, I tallied up the score and then did the comparison stuff AFTER the text of the re-review was written.  Third, I documented a lot more of the cutting tests than I normally do (and that has rubbed off, I am going to do that in the future, when possible).  All of this care though convinced me that I didn't miss the mark by much in the original review.  In the end though, I don't think the knife is good, even in the context of a non-enthusiast knife.  It is too heavy, too slick, too awkward, and too expensive for what you get.  There are better knives from Kershaw and better knives from other companies out there.  They may lack the Hinderer design heritage, but they offer a vastly better value proposition than the Cryo.  It may be a best-selling award winner, but Twilight was too ($392 million take with two Grammy nominations).  Those two things, taken alone, are not enough to convince me I am wrong, especially after two extensive review periods.  This is a ho-hum knife on its very best day.

Here is my review sample with a good small flashlight, the Peak Eiger AAA Oveready Edition:

IMG_3877

Twitter Review Summary: Appearance over performance leads to a poor value, even for a bargain knife

Design: 0

The knife is compact, especially thin, though significantly wider than most blades this size.  The width v. thinness tradeoff is one I am very willing to make (I am, after all, smitten with quite a few Spyderco knives, including the extra wide Manix2 LW.  The overall design is overbuilt and chunky, tactical, if you will.  But there in lies the problem.  This knife's design is more about appearance than performance.  Everything, when it comes to performance, is subpar.  This is a knife that goes for a certain look and achieves that look, but at the cost of everything else.

IMG_0021

The knife's weight is simply incredible.  At 4.2 ounces this knife is just too heavy.  I have talked about this at length on the blog and the podcast, but there is absolutely no reason, none at all, for this knife to weigh as much as it does.  The ratios range from slightly below par to downright bad (.73 blade:handle, not bad; but a .65 blade:weight is craptacular for a small blade).  It is a sign of the major design flaw present in the Cryo--appearance over performance.

Original Score: 0

What Changed:

Nothing.  Still too fat.

Fit and Finish: 1

The original review sample actually had a blade that rubbed against the handle, making it more of a pair of scissors than a folding knife.  Here the new review sample is better, but still not great.  Blade centering is well, take a look:

IMG_0035

That shot exaggerates the problem, but it is indicative of an issue.  Here is the blade head on:

IMG_0033

Original Score: 0

What Changed:

Blade centering is a little better.  There is going to be variation in all knives, production or otherwise.  Given the two review samples I think it is safe to say this is not one of the better budget knives in terms of fit and finish.  The Drifters I had were better.  The Ka Bar Mini Dozier had better fit and finish.  This is not the Cryo's forte, but this model was better than the original.  

Grip: 1

Only the jimping on the blade is actually effective.  The rest of the jimping is aesthetic only, like many of the features on the Cryo.  Add to this, the super slick stainless steel handle and there is not much to hold on to here.  Even the pocket clip, sometimes an aid in holding on to a knife, like on the Spyderco Delica, for example, is not much of a help as it is very small and close to the handle scale (a good thing overall, but a weakness when it comes to grip).

Original Score: 1

What Changed:

Nothing.

Carry: 0

You know this thing is stupidly heavy, but what you can't know unless you carry the knife a lot is that it is actually a snag magnet.  The thumb studs, which do literally nothing, protrude from the body quite a bit snagging on a pocket's lip quite readily.  The whole pivot area is actually a bit snaggy--the thumb studs, the slightly overly large flipper, and the clip all make extraction surprisingly difficult.

Original Score: 0

What Changed:

I hate the way this knife carries now more than before.  Extra 0?

Steel: 1

Here are the results from some cutting tests I did with the Cryo and some other blades (taken from the SOG Bluto's review):
  1. Victorinox 1.4116: Paper: 8; Cardboard: 2; Wood: 3
  2. Kershaw 8CR13MoV: Paper: 9; Cardboard: 4; Wood: 14
  3. SOG VG-10: Paper: 30; Cardboard: 5; Wood: 15
  4. S35VN: Paper: 56+; Cardboard: 11+; Wood: 74+
That seems pretty representative of the product.  8CR13MoV can push through heavy materials, especially in a stock this think, but it is not a slicer.  This is as much do to grind as steel, but no version of this steel has been good.  Kershaw has better steel on similarly priced knives, the Leek, for example, runs the vastly superior Sandvik 14C28N.  Thomas convinced me that it is simply not possible to make the Cryo with other steel because of the country of origin (this is a Chinese made knife and the 8CR13MoV is a Chinese steel), but that is not going to persuade me to change the score.  There are good Chinese steels, 9CR13MoV for example or even CRKT's 8CR14MoV (which is ever so slightly, but consistently better).  

Original Score: 1

What Changed:

I have more evidence to suggest the steel is subpar.

Blade Shape: 2

I love the simple shape. Always have, always will.

IMG_0024

Original Score: 2

What Changed:

Still great and a reason why this knife should be overhauled and a special, limited edition should be made with improvements to materials and fit and finish.

Grind: 1

The stock is thick, as this is supposed to look like a tactical, overbuilt knife, so the grind needs to be very clean and deep to make this thing a cutter.  It is neither.  The grind is quite sloppy:

IMG_0025

Furthermore, as the cutting tests indicate, it is not very deep.  The stock retains a huge amount of the it's thickness.  Blah.

Original Score: 2

What Changed:

Sloppier grind is one thing, but cutting tests proved that this grind was not great for slicing and in a blade this small, really what are the chances you will be doing chopping?  Not great, but certainly less than the chance you will be performing slicing cuts. 

Deployment Method: 1

The flipper is a pull style flipper, and it is a little too bit for what it is, but I like it enough.  If that were the only problem, the Cryo would get a 2 here.  Its not.  The thumb studs do nothing at all.  It is all but impossible to deploy the knife with the thumb studs.  Instead, they simply snag on about 1/3 of the things they encounter. Good flipper - terrible thumbstuds = score of 1.  Kershaw, GET RID OF THE THUMB STUDS.

IMG_0032

Original Score: 1

What Changed:

Hated the thumb studs then and now.  TERRIBLE.

Retention Method: 2

This is one awesome pocket clip.  I love the design and the clean lines.  It works well, even if it doesn't help with grip and makes extraction difficult.  Both of those flaws are because of the knife's design, not the pocket clip itself.

IMG_0036


Original Score: 1

What Changed:

I realized that the problems with the clip aren't the clip's fault.  This is a great clip, among the best available for production knives under $100.  

Lock: 2

Frame lock.  Fine.  I got used to the narrow lock disengagement point.  It is a good iteration of a budget frame lock with good lock stability and easy engagement and disengagement.

Original Score: 1

What Changed:

I don't like the lock disengagement part of the lock bar, but it is not that big a deal.  The rest of the lock is quite good, especially for a budget frame lock. 

Overall Score: 11 out of 20

Two points.  I was wrong, I'll admit it.  But I wasn't that far off.  This is not the knife people think it is.  The most important feature of the Cryo is seen in that last photo, that little label letting you know it is a "Hinderer Design."  That is its most important feature.

There are better knives regardless of your point of comparison.  For the money and materials the Zing SS is just better--lighter with a bigger blade and same handle size.  As a budget knife, the Drifter, which is about 1/2 as much, is significantly a better value.  For the size there are a dozen knives better (the 2.75 inch to 3 inch market is PRETTY crowded).  For the weight, you get a Manix2 LW and 1.4 ounces to use on a flashlight AND more than a half inch of blade length.  If you want a budget Hinderer, this is it...oh wait, that is not even true.  There is a budget Hinderer from Gerber, the Hinderer CLS, and a few from Kershaw as well.  There is literally no comparison you can make where the Cryo comes out on top.

And there in lies the problem with virtually all of the arguments Thomas made.  This is not an enthusiast's knife.  This is not a budget knife (it retails for around $40).  This is not a Hinderer knife.  This is not a hard use knife.  This is not a big knife.  This is not a lightweight knife.  This is just not a good knife.  Period.  It looks good, yes it does, but it does not perform well.  No amount of argument or reviewing will change those facts, hence basically the same opinion.    

Having just reviewed the Pilot Vanishing Point where every single detail is in service to the writing performance, it is discouraging to go back and look at this knife where virtually nothing promotes the cutting experience.  This is a knife built around a look and not an edge, instead of the other way around. 

Thomas, I am sorry if this is not what you would have wanted, but I just can't shake the notion that this knife is not all it could be.  A G10 version (heck make it a liner lock) would cut weight and make this knife better.  A USA Made G10 version with Sandvik 14C28N and no thumb stud that weighed around 3 ounces would be a friggin' stud.  I'd pay $60 for that knife easily.  I am fairly certain a lot of other people would too.

The current version of the Cryo just isn't that good. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Top 10 Most Wanted

We are all on the hunt for that one thing that will make our EDC perfect.  I am also on the hunt for interesting stuff to review.  To that end, here is some stuff I'd like to get my hands on, if for no other reason than to tell you it is great or it is garbage.  It is also quite fun to see what other people want and like in terms of gear.

If you have one of these and want to part with it, feel free to contact me at:

anthonysculimbrene at comcast dot net (in the usual format)

1.  Spyderco Jess Horn Lightweight in ZDP-189

No, no, not THAT Jess Horn, this one:



Through Spyderco's own brand of voodoo and magic, they made a blade with the same steel as the DFII but added an extra inch in length for only a half an ounce.  This is very much like an Al Mar with a thumb hole and my favorite steel.  That is a lot of things I like in one blade and the reason why this is my #1. I handled an AUS-8/Micarta one recently and it is quite nice, but the ZDP-189 and the FRN handle are so cool and light (yes, I actually LIKE FRN).

2.  Mac's Custom XML EDC (Aluminum preferred)

One of the best values in the custom light world, a Mac Custom, is something I desperately want to review.  This is a great light and the output is truly insane.  The one thing that has stayed my hand after many visits to Mac's site is the really way too bright low.  I want a single digit low.  It does take an unusual battery, but that is okay, I have a charger that can handle just about anything.    

3. Pilot Vanishing Point Black Carbonesque/Rhodium

Dowdy's VP convinced that this is one of the best pens out there for a reasonable (semi-reasonable) price.  I love the Stealth Fight Matte Black, but the Carbonesque version would go so well with the DF2 Nishijin CF that I couldn't pass it up.  This is my next purchase, almost for sure, even with the $140 price tag.  


Image Courtesy of Goulet Pens.

The design is genius, with a capless fountain pen, an amazingly smooth nib even in fine, and a pocket clip that works well and HELPS with grip. 
 
4.  Surefire Titan T1A, gen 2 (90 lumens emitter)

This sucker is really expensive on a per lumen basis, but haven't you always wanted to try it out?  It looks so sleek and simple, a graceful light in a line up of bruisers.  And while Surefire has claimed it was making some less "tacticool" lights, like the Aegis and Isis, those lights seem to be nothing other than more Surefire vaporware.  The dead simple UI and the fact that every Surefire I have ever had punches above its weight makes me really, really want this light. 

5. Parker 51

The Lamy Safari has persuaded me that fountain pens are the way to go and so I am now on the lookout for the Platonic Ideal of Fountain Pens, the Parker 51.  There are more expensive fountain pens and more refined ones, but none have the history or lineage of the Parker 51 (though MB fans might claim the Meisterstuck does).  It is a hooded fountain pen and I really love the looks:


6. Victorianox Midnight Manager

Not everything on the list is a high end, high dollar item.  Some of these things are inexpensive, I just haven't got around to getting them.  The Victorinox Midnight Manager just might be the perfect TSA legal EDC item.   The light is not great, the pen is too small, but it does have everything you reasonably need in a package weighing roughly an ounce.  Not too shabby.  I probably don't need this in trade, buying it will be pretty easy.
 
7. Buck Mayo TNT

Mayos are so hard to get.  I think I could save up for one, but they just don't come on the market that often, especially in a configuration I want, and I don't think Aaron would give me his, so this might be it for a while.  The Buck Mayo TNT has always intrigued me.  I handled one about two years ago, a close out for $90 at a knife store and I wish I would have bought it.  I didn't and I have regretted it ever since.

8. Southard Downing:

So many customs are just prohibitively large, that they are automatically off my radar.  I can drool over them, but few make me reach for my wallet.  The Downing doesn't just make me reach for my wallet, it makes me calculate how much plasma I can sell before I compromise my health.   I love the size, the deployment method, and the slight negative angle to the blade.  This is officially my Grail blade:



Picture courtesy of Brad's site.

9. Kershaw Tilt (yes, it has its own fan site, the sign of a truly great knife):

Okay, so I do like SOME big knives.  I wrote a little love letter to the Tilt awhile ago and since then, the little part of my wanter that is obsessed with the Tilt has only grown. 

10. Lummi Raw Al:

I am not giving this product any link love because of Rob's reputation and my experience with him.  He is slightly more despised than a Barbary Pirate, but boy is this a cool looking and awesome performing light.

This is a list of stuff I am interested in, broken down by category:

Lights

Olight S10 Baton Ti
HDS Rotary R1S (flat tail cap)
Spy005 with updated emitter

Knives

William Henry E6-9 (koa wood inlay) EDC
AG Russell Acies2
AG Russell Skorpion Small
Spyderco Gayle Bradley Air
Spyderco Southard
Spyderco Forester
Zero Tolerance ZT 556
Emerson Micro Commander
Lone Wolf Paul Executive
Ray Laconico Mini Jasmine

Other

Saddleback Leather ID Wallet  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Pilot Vanishing Point Review

Do you remember reading comic books as a kid (or an adult) and waiting with anxiety for the cross over?  It was when Batman teamed up with Superman or Wolverine teamed up with Spiderman.  Well, a few weeks ago I had this idea that I would contact my internet friend and super nice guy, Brad Dowdy, THE Pen Addict, and see if he would like to do a cross over review.  I'd review his luxe fountain pen of choice, the Pilot Vanishing Point, and he'd review one of my favorite knives, the Chris Reeve Sebenza.  It was a good chance for both of us to dip our toes into the high end of another hobby without having to drop a wad of cash.  Brad, ever the good sport, agreed and a mail swap later, the coolest pen on the planet arrived with a handwritten (of course) note from Brad himself.   Unfortunately, after this swap, I AM going to drop a wad of cash on my on Vanishing Point, but hey at least I got to test drive one first.

The Pilot Vanishing Point is a fountain pen.  That means it will not write on concrete or under water.  It is, well, a bit fragile.  But it is also a retractable pen, meaning that it is a bit more durable and convenient than the normal fountain pen.  This is my first fountain pen review, but my second fountain pen I have used extensively (I have been using the Lamy Safari for months now).  In many ways this is the ideal EDC pen.  The writing experience is truly supernal and yet the pen remains incredibly convenient.  If you are someone that places an emphasis on the pen part of "EDC pen" then this is definitely something you should consider when buying your next writing instrument.  If you are a person that emphasizes the EDC part of "EDC pen" well, then, you might be disappointed.  This is not the County Comm Embassy pen.  But in my testing, which took place over about two weeks of regular use, the Vanishing Point held up extremely well, better than the Safari does.  This is no wuss pen, no desk pen.  This is a real world, use everyday pen that just happens to write like the ink is angel's tears, the nib is unicorn horn, and the paper is glass.  Smooth and effortless do not BEGIN to describe this pen's writing experience.  

Here is the Vanishing Point's product page.  There are about a dozen variations with different barrels.  It comes in four nib sizes, Broad, Medium, Fine, and Extra-Fine, all Japanese sizes (generally smaller than German nibs, so a Japanese Medium is a German Fine).  Here is Brad's review.  Here is a video review.  You can buy the Vanishing Point through Amazon and all of the proceeds benefit the site by using this link:



Finally, here is Brad's Matte Black Vanishing Point, my review sample:

IMG_0009

Twitter Review Summary: Capless Convenience and Unparalleled Writing Performance

Design: 2

There are other retractable fountain pens out there, the Lamy Dialog for example, but none are as svelte or a graceful in the hand or as appealing to the eye as the Vanishing Point.  This is a master class in pen design, from the shape of the grip area, to the outside the box thinking on the clip, to the subtle lines of the pen barrel--every single detail, ever bit of minutiae has been tailored to a superior writing experience.

Here is the magic of the pen: the gliding nib that hides in the pen:

IMG_0017

Brad's pen came with a Fine nib, two steps down from the Medium German nib on my Lamy and I was a little scared, but after using this the superior nib design has convinced me that even if the needle point sizes, this is a great writing instrument.

Clever, graceful, and gorgeous.  This is everything I like about good design, all in one pen. 

Fit and Finish: 2

The Lamy Safari is a good writing pen, it just isn't the most solid or finest fitting pen on the planet.  The nib sweats like a whore in church and the threading is merely meh.  But on the Vanishing Point there was never any ink sweat on the nib and the knock depressed and clicked down with shotgun rack-like authority.  The pen threaded well and there was no real rattle either when the nib is in or out.  I would compare this to the fit and finish on a McGizmo flashlight and that is saying a lot.

Carry: 2

In an amazing feat of engineering this is a solid pen, but not a heavy one.  Additionally the clip is conservative in appearance, but very effective. 

IMG_0012

Finally, the clip is in the reverse position from most pens resulting in a nib up configuration in your pocket, giving you one small bit of security from a leaking nib.   Overall, the pen worked well in my pocket, sliding in and out easily and not really being a hassle at all.  It also absorbed hits from other pocket companions with ease.  This is a really solid tool. 

Appearance: 2

The clip's unusually positioning is a hint at just how different this pen is in design, but in terms of appearance it is actually quite classic (other than clip placement).  The pen is very understated in the Matte finish, but when the metal is chromed out, the clip looks amazing against the body.  Flashier finishes make this one hell of a looker, but the Matte is there if you don't want to draw attention to yourself.  Good looking no matter the finish.  I myself will probably drop dough on the Carbonesque finish, though saving up for the Raden is pretty tempting.

Durability: 2

I was genuinely surprised at how well this thing held up.  I was paranoid because this was not just a review sample but a friend's favorite.  I emailed Brad about carry and the like and he assured me this was a tough cookie.  My two weeks showed that was the case.  I said it before, this is no wuss pen.  This goes back to the solid feel.  The metal body and the heavy knock paired with the turtle nib make this about as durable a fountain pen as you can get.  Still, it is a fountain pen.  Comparing it to something like the TuffWriter is simply not fair--like comparing a car to a tank in terms of durability.  But if you are willing to accept the limitations on durability necessitated by the fountain pen form, this is one tough hombre compared to the wilting lilies found elsewhere in the fountain pen. 

Writing Performance/Refill: 2

Oh my god.  OH MY GOD.  Writing with this pen for the first time was a revelation, like Saul on the Road to Damascus revelation.  I thought the Lamy wrote nice, and it does, but this is in a different class altogether.  I had no idea something like this was even possible in a pen.  Writing is effortless and the results are beautiful:

IMG_0008

There are so few times in life when something is this much better than the competition.  I haven't used a four figure pen, but I have used $300 and $400 pens and this is their peer.  This is one hell of a pen and if you have never used a fountain pen before it will blow your mind.  It will take some getting used to.  You need to use like 1/1000th the pressure, but once you do get over the hump, it is insane.  My hands have cramped less.  I can write for ages.  Over and over again I stunned at how a good pen makes my handwriting better and makes handwriting FUN.  This pen made writing a joy.

The page feel, how much feedback and feel for the paper you get from the pen, is insane.  Normally pens this smooth reduce page feel by using viscous, lubricated inks, resulting in a "skates on ice" feel, smooth and almost slippery, or an oil slick feel.  Here you get neither, just fluid grace.  But you can still feel the page, the texture of the paper, meaning you have control and precision in a way that no other pen I have used provides. This is the benchmark for page feel. 

Balance/In Hand Feel: 2

The fountain pen portion of the pen was probably very heavy--the nib, bladder, and ink cartridge seem like they would weigh a good bit, plus the retractable nib mechanism can't be all that light.  But instead of just letting that bog the pen down, Pilot put some weight in the back end as well.  The knock feels heavy and the overall weightiness of the pen is very balanced.  I said this before, but it bears repeating: this is a solid, but not all that heavy pen.  It is not as heavy as the TuffWriters and it is more balanced than the Lamy Safari (which is both a featherweight and kind of flimsy in the hand).  Ingenious work by Pilot here, as this is great pen to write with and rarely causes fatigue.  Hours of note taking never slowed down thanks to both the sublime writing experience and the gymnast-like balance.  

Grip: 2

There are a lot of ways to deal with design issues.  For reasons related to the type of pen, it was probably best that the overall design be oriented tip up in your pocket, but that meant that Pilot would have to put the clip on the "wrong" end of the pen.  But genius does not see a limitation--it sees only a challenge.  Here, Pilot's "challenge" gives rise to one of the most comfortable pen grips I have ever used.  I have a very conventional grip, as you can see:

IMG_0029


but the clip orients my hand and fingers quite nicely.  In fact, after going back to other pens, I sorely missed the clip.  I love the grip of this pen and the fact that it was borne out of a design problem but became a design asset is a testament to just how smart the Pilot engineers and product designers are.    If you have an unconventional grip, this may be an issue, but probably not.  

Barrel: 2

Barrels are sometimes an afterthought and other times a canvas for decoration, but here, like with everything on the Vanishing Point, the barrel is designed to promote the writing experience.  There are no weird rings or drop offs, not sharp edges or places to get hung up on.  The barrel is perfectly sized.  It is smooth and rounded.  It falls in the cradle between your finger and thumb comfortably and never, ever causes complaints.  I genuinely like the simple design and on higher end models, like the Raden, the simple barrel does work as a canvas for ornamentation.  In the Matte version, it is just steathly goodness.

Deployment Method/Cap: 2

The fact that the pen retracts is its big feature, but it does it so well, you might forget just how hard it is to make a fountain pen that does this.  The knock is so solid and smooth.  It also requires a good deal of force and has a good deal of travel to it, meaning you are very unlikely to accidentally push the nib out the front.  Additionally, there is a small door that closes, sealing the nib inside the barrel to prevent it from accidentally drying out.  

IMG_0035


Additionally, there is a small door that closes, sealing the nib inside the barrel to prevent it from accidentally drying out.  Overall, this is incredibly impressive given how rare it is and how hard it is to use.   

Overall Score: 20 out of 20

This is a really great pen.  GREAT, GREAT, GREAT.  Go check the gushing reviews on Amazon.  There is nothing but good stuff.  I'd give it a perfect, but I know so little about fountain pens I am uncomfortable doing so.  That said, I can easily see this as a Perfect score winner in the 1 year update.  This is a design that is both unusual and incredible, a paradigm shift (to employ the only phrase more overused than "tactical") in pens.  Every single thing is focused on the writing experience and that experience is second to none.  The fact that a host of special changes were made to accommodate the pen's retractable nib, but it only makes the pen BETTER is incredible.   This is an amazing experience and if you are looking for something that can handle day to day use but writes better than a Fisher insert or anything else for that matter, look no further--the Vanishing Point is for you.  If your not willing to deal with the hassle of a fountain pen, there are other pens out there, but if you can tolerate a little messiness you are rewarded with an angelic writing experience. 


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Strider PT CC Pocket Clip

The review is coming, but I don't think it is a huge spoiler to say that I am enthralled with the Strider PT CC.  For all of the folks on the internet complaining about fit and finish I don't know what to say other than this--this knife is superb.  It is in the same class as the Sebenza and the Al Mar Hawk Ultralight.

I like it a lot, but I do miss a pocket clip, especially during these hot months where stuff at the bottom of your short's pocket bangs you in the leg when you run (and I run a lot given I have a 3 year old). So I started the quest to find a pocket clip.  But you know what?  No one makes one.  I contacted Strider to no avail.  I know they tried to make one but it wouldn't stay put.  I contacted STR, the famous aftermarket clip maker on Bladeforums to no avail.  I scoured the internet and found nothing. 
 
What I wanted wasn't straightforward, and I get that, but there was NOTHING out there.  Then a coworker told me about her brother in law that did machining and gadget stuff and that he was local. Thrilled about the idea of supporting a local machinist, I reached out to him.  You can find his stuff here.   
 
The idea for the clip is to preserve all of the cool, sleek lines of your PT CC.  So after talking to Raven Workshop, the clip will attach by passing through the lanyard hole.  I have few ideas of how to do this, but Raven Workshop are the experts and I'll leave it to them.  The idea is that by passing through the lanyard hole you can remove the clip without leaving unsightly holes drilled into the lustrous, smooth handle scales of your Strider gem.  Raven Workshop has the exact specifications of the lanyard hole from the maker, so that is what they will be using.  
 
The purpose of this post is, like with the Aeon, to gather interested parties.  Like with the Aeon, I am not selling anything.  I am not making anything.  I do not have any affiliation with Raven Workshop.  All I am doing is telling you about it.  I am going to have a clip made, whether no one is interested or 30 people are interested, but the more people we get the cheaper it will be.  Think of it like this: I did the leg work to find this thing that I think a lot of Strider owners will be interested in and now I am telling you about it.  That's it.  Not selling.  Not making.  I just found something you might like.    
 
If you are interested, post in the comments below and stay tuned.  It looks like there will be a prototype by late July early August and once that is done we will have an idea about price, look, and design.  If you like what you see in July or August you can then contact Raven Workshop and we will see how many folks we get.  I asked for a deep carry clip that is very close to handle with a very simple look.  I also asked that it be made out of Ti, but besides that and the lanyard hole attachment point, that is all I know.
 
Commenting below represents no commitment whatsoever.  All it does is help Raven Workshop ballpark the number of clips to make.  Once we have the proto with price, then you can contact Raven Workshop yourself and make a commitment.  
 
Who's interested?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Spyderco Manix2 Lightweight Review

I am the first to admit that I have a strong bias against big blades. I have never found them to be all that useful, or more accurately--sufficiently more useful to justify the extra size and weight. Why bother, especially if self-defense is not a concern, with carrying a 6 or 8 ounce knife when all or virtually all of your tasks can be handled by a 2 ounce knife? It was a dilemma that meant that I hardly ever carry a big folder. If I want to do something heavy duty I have a few fixed blades I fall back on making the big folder the "neither foul nor fair" knife. It was something, because of the inherent increases in size and weight, that I had no interest in carrying.

This doesn't mean that I fail to see the non-self-defense advantages of a large blade. There are benefits in terms of increased grip, more blade length for better reach and more distribution of wear, and in terms of ease of deployment. But I am not about to "pay" 4-6 more ounces to get those things. My favorite big knife, the Paramilitary 2, tipped the scales at 3.75 ounces, just about the limit of what I like to carry. There is a reason it is and was one of my favorite blades. But it has been displaced. With basically the same blade length (3.44 inches v. 3.37 inches), the Manix2 Lightweight (M2LW) is almost a full ounce lighter. There are certainly differences in the steels, but I happen to like BD-1 a lot. Oh, and it also happens to be about $30 cheaper than the PM2. The M2LW is, in my opinion, the best option on the market for a large folding knife.

Here is the product page. The knife usually costs around $80. Note, however, that Spyderco's listed weight of 3.0 ounces is HIGH. My scale, borrowed from my wife's state of the art lab, lists the M2LW at 2.92 ounces. There are four variants--blue translucent FRCP with and without a partially serrated edge and black FCP with and without a partially serrated edge.  I strongly prefer the look of the translucent blue version, but I had the black one as a review sample. Here is a video review from Nutnfancy.  He kinda liked it too. Here is a written review.   Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Manix2 LW and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

Finally, here is the review sample:

IMG_0034

Twitter Review Summary:  Big blade size, small blade weight=Large EDC perfection.

Design: 2

This was the "Innovative Knife" of the year at the 2010 Blade Show for good reason. Through the use of cutting edge design and materials, Spyderco has managed to make a large blade that weighs as much as a small one. It is the very epitome of what I like in gear--getting something for nothing. The overall shape of the knife is quite pleasing in the hand, choil is very pronounced and gives you excellent control in the event that you are doing detail tasks with such a large blade. The blade size itself is perfect. It is substantially larger than the Delica/Mini Grip class of knives but doesn't reach the never useful behemoth category of silly knives like the SOG Fatcat and the Cold Steel Espada (see? I can pick on other stupidly large knives too).

All of this is well and good, but here is the kicker--the M2LW is an entirely Made in the USA product. The steel is from a US company, Carpenter, and the knife is made and finished in Golden Colorado. This is truly stunning when you figure that usually you get USA made plus cutting edge design at a staggering price. Here all of this home grown innovation is yours for well under $100. Thanks Spyderco.

The ratios are, as you can imagine, strong with this one. The blade:weight is a delicious 1.15 (3.37/2.92). The blade:handle is .72 (3.37/4.66). Obviously neither is the record holder as the Al Mar Hawk's numbers (2.81 and .84 respectively) seem as untouchable as Cy Young's win record, but no other big knife is even close on blade:weight. Some, like the PM2 and the Cold Steel Mini Recon 1, are right with the M2LW on blade:handle. Here is the M2LW with the Zippo and in my meat hooks:

IMG_0044

Meat hook shot:

IMG_0048

Again, this is a big but not ludicrous knife (LUDICROUS SPEED!).

Fit and Finish: 2

The level of polish on the BD-1 is impressive and it gives the entire knife a clean, well finished feel. The detent on the ball bearing lock is excellent, holding the knife closed, but easy enough to overcome and flick the knife open with one hand and no wrist action. This is a sign that the knife has been built and assembled with extreme care. I also like the edges on the FRCP handle. The jimping, though nothing like the jimping on the regular Manix, is plenty good enough. The thumb hole is nicely finished as well. Very, very good.

Grip: 2

The texture pattern on FRCP handle is very good and the finger choils are awesome:

IMG_0030

The jimping while not crazy is more than fine. It is really the pronounced choil that makes this thing a hand magnet. The width of the handle is an issue for small hands, but for average hands or larger it is fine. This is a WIDE knife, both in the hand and in the pocket.  I can hear people moaning right now.

"The handles flex under stress." Yep.

"They feel cheap." Well, that is a matter of opinion, but fine whatever.

"They don't give me confidence in the knife." Nope.

I never once felt like the knife would fail. If you are using folders for those kinds of tasks you asking for trouble. They make fixed blades for a reason and this knife felt fine doing any task I would do with a folder.

Carry: 2

This is a wide knife, but a total featherweight. It is also equipped with the always excellent Spyderco wire clip and the placement of the clip is JUST right. I like the fact that the clip is not deep carry here because deep carry seems to impact the knife's stability in the pocket, especially on big knives (see ZT560 review for more). None of the curves or cuts are a problem and the handle scales are all very nicely finished. I could see someone giving this knife a less than perfect score for its weight, but no big knife I have used has carried quite as easily as the M2LW. It also happens to be quite thin for a knife this size. Excellent.

Steel: 2

And here is where there might be some controversy. BD-1 is a new steel from Carpenter. It hardens to 58-60 on the Rockwell C scale and has done well on the total card cut (TCC) test used by CATRA, scoring a 570. For more TCC numbers, though not BD-1, see here. That places it ahead of Spyderco's version of S30V and right around the benchmark for independent tests of S30V. It performed better than both VG-10 and 154CM. For more on the CATRA machine and TCC numbers, check out Episode 9 of Gear Geeks Live or stay tuned, I am writing a piece on them to be posted soon.

BD-1's reputation is a little weird. Some see it as an American update to 440C. Others think it functions like Gin-1. Cliff Stamp placed it some where near ATS-34. Here is a thread with Sal's responses about the steel. He points out that it is a steel that wears well but is not impossible to sharpen like some of the new super hard steels like M390 and M4.

My experience with the steel confirms most of what was said in Sal's comments. It is a very fine grain steel that handled push cuts well. Compared to the Elmax on the ZT560 I was testing at the same time, it seemed sharper out of the box (which is probably a function of Spyderco's sharpening and not the steel), but did not hang in there as long as the Elmax. It push cut paper and cardboard with ease, but dulled quickly when forced to cut wood during whittling. The good news was that touching it up was easy. A charged strop was sufficient most of the time. My experience is that BD-1 is very similar to VG-10 in terms of sharpness and edge holding, maybe a smidgeon better. It was easier to sharpen than S30V and much easier than ZDP-189. It did not retain a high sharpness edge as long as Elmax or ZDP-189.

This is a subjective call here. I liked the combination of traits here, especially on a large EDC knife, but I could see why people would want Elmax or S35VN. If you are adverse to sharpening then give the BD-1 a 1 instead of a 2. If you feel comfortable touching up your blades you will be very pleased with the sharpness you can get.

Blade Shape: 2

No weird angles or beeps or borks along the cutting edge. No recurves or other impossible to sharpen lines. Just the leaf shaped blade we all know and love:

IMG_0029

Thank you. Also, I like the thumb ramp quite a bit.

Grind: 2

The classic, full flat ground leaf shaped blade that Spyderco uses is well suited to this knife. I love the simplicity and the full flat grind gives this wide beefy knife a good approach to cutting material. It is a surprisingly good slicer for the size of the blade. Simple is best.

Deployment Method: 2

Like the PM2, the M2LW sports a positively massive thumb hole, one that is so big you can easily open the knife with no wrist action at all. Gloved hands still find the thumb hole with ease and it is well cut, sharp enough to grab but not so sharp as to slice. Perfecto.

Retention Method: 2

Perhaps it was added as a measure of modest weight savings, but whatever the reason I love the wire clip. This is a more sturdy wire clip, more like the one seen on the Dragonfly 2 than the Techno or the Caly 3.

IMG_0031

I don't mind at all that it is not deep carry. It works well and actually aids in grip.

Lock: 2

The ball bearing lock has been loved or hated for a while. After poor performance on the useless and ridiculous spine whack test, it was redone and on the M2LW, there is a metal plate above the ball bearing. The lock works very well. It is easy to engage and disengage. I have found that it is both strong and stable. It does not seem to attract gunk and there is only one spring, a benefit over the more parts intensive Axis lock. Also, your fingers never pass through the blade path and it is fully ambidextrous. I love lock a great deal, second only to the compression lock and even then it is basically a toss up.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20, PERFECT


This is it. This is my new favorite large blade. The finish is better than the PM2, the weight is better, and the price is quite nice. If you are in the market for a larger folder, this is a no brainer. It is all USA made too. I'll make it easy, here is the Blade HQ link again:

Blade HQ

This is the first large blade I truly enjoy carrying and it works incredibly well. I like the steel a good deal too. There is really nothing I don't like.  It even photographs well:

IMG_4121

Update: Well, unfortunately, the march of time has robbed this version of the Manix of its elite classification.  It is hard to have this listed as perfect, when there are versions that weigh the same and cost a pittance more that run S110V steel.  That version is $113 and this is $93.  And hell, there is a Maxamet version coming.  In short, this is still a great knife, but not the cream of the crop anymore.  The BD-1 steel, while very sharpener friendly, is not S110V.  When the steel you compare to is S30V, then BD-1 is probably a 2.  When S110V is the comparison, BD-1 is not a 2, its a 1.

New Score: 19 out of 20, no longer perfect.   

Friday, June 14, 2013

Zero Tolerance ZT560 Review

The bleeding edge for gear is getting awfully crowded.  Super steels seems to drop out of foundries like leaves from a tree in October.  Innovative locks and deployment methods abound.  Designs and features that were cutting edge even two years ago are now common place even on the most inexpensive piece of gear.  In short, we are living in a golden age and few knives typify that golden age better than the Zero Tolerance ZT560.

The ZT560 is part of the Hinderer wave of designs that joined the Onion/Strider collabs as part of the Zero Tolerance line.  These Hinderer designs were all references or homages to Hinderer's own line of custom or mid tech knives, the XM series.  Known for their interesting blade shapes and ultra robust designs, the XM series was translated into a number of different KAI USA products, but none were as high end as the ZT560.  Rumor has it that Hinderer himself was spotted with a ZT 560 on his hip at the 2012 Blade Show.  It could have been a great bit of product placement for gear geeks or it could simply be that this is, like his own knives, one hell of a blade.

Here is the product page for the ZT560.  The tan G10 version is called the ZT561.  Both versions come in around $260.  Here is a guest review from my site that was submitted as part of the McGizmo giveaway.  Tom gave the knife an 18/20.  Here is another written review from Andrew at the Edge Observer (technically of the ZT561).  Here is a video review from Nutnfancy.  This review sample was sent to me by one of the site's two sponsors, E2 Field Gear.  You can purchase the ZT560 from E2 Field Gear and get a discount of 8% using the coupon code "Commentary" and the sales benefit the site and its giveaways.  Finally, here is the review sample:

IMG_0039

Twitter Review Summary: Badass Behemoth: Big in the Pocket, Lock Problem Solved.

Design: 2

Even if you have carried big knives before, trust me when I tell you that you have not carried a knife like this.  The large size, generous flipper, and ultra smooth KVT bearing-based pivot makes this knife feel incredible in the hand.  Even slow and lazy flips drop the blade out with silken grace.  Once the lock kicks in you get a sense that you are holding something massive.  It feels more like a sword than a pocket knife because this is one HUMONGOUS knife.  It is big.  It is big even for a knife with a 3.75 inch blade.  And with the flipper all of that size and mass flies out of the handle with incredible speed and authority.

On paper this knife has a dream list of features: bearing pivot, titanium frame lock, flipper, high end steel, over the top, deep carry pocket clip, four way positionable clip, great blade shape, and 3D convex handle scales.  This is truly a blank check blade design.  The designer basically got to use the best of everything.  And unlike in other designs, all of these features play incredibly well together.  If you want an uber premium production blade and want to be big enough to behead a buffalo (or thereabouts), this is it.

The ratios are decent.  The blade:handle is .75 (3.75/5).  The blade:weight is .65 (3.75/5.8).  Both are well short of the record holder, the Al Mar Ultralight, but given the overall size and purpose of this blade as a pinnacle production hard use folder you knew there would be some trade offs.  Here is a shot of the knife in hand:

IMG_0041

Here is the knife minus my hairy arms:

IMG_0040

Fit and Finish: 2

The fit and finish on my review sample was flawless.  Nothing was poorly done.  The blade was perfectly centered.  The handles were meticulously finished.  The jimping was perfectly cut.  This is the apotheosis of American manufacturing skill, bringing together cutting edge technology, a relentless attention to detail, and a sterling design.  I have not handled a production knife that was superior in finish to this one, though the Al Mar and the Sebenza are clearly its equals and the Strider PT CC I am testing now could be in the same league.  There is a reason why KAI USA has won best overall knife for ages now at the annual Blade Show awards.

Grip: 2

The jimping is excellent, the handle shape is very good, the convex scales are awesome, the flipper and choil are nice, and the texturing from the CNC milling is outstanding.  There is nothing that makes this knife difficult to grip.  It makes a compelling case for big knives in general, but even accouting for the grip benefits inherent in the form, this is an excellent knife in the hand in virtually every position.

Carry: 1

KAI USA deserves a lot of credit for trying to make a beast carry like a button, but it is simply not possible.  Even with significant weight cutting efforts including milling of both the liner and the titanium lock side, the ZT560 is simply too big.  The guest review indicated that the clip, while good as a clip, impacted carry, and I think that is correct.  Using an over the top, deep carry clip here makes for a really challenging task--keeping all of that weight, especially the heavy pivot, from swinging around in your pocket like a pendulum.  Comparing it to the slightly smaller PM2 or the still under review Manix2 LW, this knife feels like your carrying a can of soda in your pocket.  Compared to an equally large and even heavier CRKT Eraser (which is also a flipper design), I think the deep carry clip is the culprit here.  The more traditional clip on the Eraser made for better carry.

Steel: 2 

I was unable to put this knife through the normal cut test of paper, cardboard and wood because I had some real cutting tasks to do and by the time I was finished, the blade was dull.  In addition to normal cutting tasks, opening packages and the like, I had two high volume tasks that really pushed the steel.  First, I cut down some branches and whittled them into roasting sticks for a fire. After that I cut up a very large amount of cardboard to make...well...a flamethrowing dragon.  My son's third birthday was during the testing period and someone is three only once, so after some serious cutting (like a couple of hours) I finally made a version of the dragon's head I liked out of cardboard and attached it my weed killing torch (it totally worked, BTW).  See:


These two less than serious cutting tasks were, nonetheless, very high volume and somewhat arduous.  The roasting sticks involved a good deal of chopping, both of green wood (mostly pine) and dry wood, and lots of whittling.  Overall I made something like 15-20 sticks.  Again, not the most punishing test, not like batonning, but a good test of the lock's stability and the blade's shock resistance and edge retention.  The cardboard was again not the most punishing thing in the world, but very high in volume.   

During both cutting tests the Elmax steel held up well.  The roasting sticks posed no problems whatsoever.  Even after chomping through sticky pine, the blade, once cleaned, was still shaving sharp (I will never have all my arm hair on my left arm at this pace of testing).   When I switched to cutting cardboard the Elmax did well for the first hour.  Towards the end of multiple dragon head prototypes, it started to slow down in push cuts.  I needed to do some sawing instead of just using down ward force.  In the end, the Elmax lost its edge and was no longer shaving sharp.  

Given the amount of cutting I did, even the relatively light tasks the Elmax was put through, I am confident that this steel warrants its reputation.  I am also confident that cardboard deserves its reputation as a superb testing medium and blade duller extraordinarie. 

Blade Shape: 2 

Some folks complained that the ZT560 didn't get the Spanto tip that the Hinderer made famous, but after using the ZT560 I can honestly say that I am more the satisfied with the ZT560's clip point blade.
IMG_0038

It just works and is Exhibit 329 in the case for simple blade shapes.  I also like the swedge taken out of the top, that much steel gone will certainly save some weight.  

Grind: 2 

A nice, clean grind with an impeccable cutting bevel make the ZT560 a dream even with its thick blade stock.  Straight push cuts through what seemed like a metric ton of heavy duty cardboard were, well, not easy, but as easy as you could expect given the material and the blade size.  Like with the rest of the knife, the grind is superb.  

Deployment Method: 2 

The flipper is a "pull" flipper and an amazing fluid one.

IMG_0033

This is my first knife with a bearing pivot and I can say that it is addictively smooth.  Only the Eraser approaches the level of smoothness in a flipper.  You need nothing more than mildly strong pull with your finger and the blade lops out of the handle.  A strong pull or a wrist flick sends the blade out with blinding speed.  It seems clear to me, having used a knife this big, that a bearing pivot is the final nail in the coffin of the need for an automatic knife.  You can do anything you need to do now without an auto, provided the knife is designed well. 

Retention Method: 2 

While I love the clip itself, I don't like its positioning.

IMG_0037

That is more of a design and carry issue, as the clip itself is great--clean and well-designed.  I'd love to see this become the standard ZT clip or even better, the standard KAI USA clip.  It is really great. 

Lock: 2 

Aaron had issues with the lock.  See here:

After extensive use and actual attempts to recreate what happened with Aaron's ZT561 I could not duplicate it.  Be aware of the issue, but it seems to have been fixed, at least on newer ZT560s.

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

If you want cutting edge cutlery and you need it to be large, this has got to be a top choice.  I am unable to decide which I like better, this or the PM2. The PM2 carries better, but this deploys cleaner.  Both are amazing knives.  I like the Elmax steel a lot and that might be the tie breaker, if I were forced to choose (of course, sprint run PM2s are a different issue).  This is a great knife, really great, and an impressive exemplar of just how great gear is right now.  We are living in a golden age of gear and the ZT560 is proof of that.

CORRECTION:  This is not my first knife with a bearing pivot, obviously some of the CRKT blades have a bearing pivot as well.  It is my first knife with a KVT pivot.  The difference is that the IKBS pivot uses loose bearings in a channel or race around the pivot while the KVT system uses caged bearings.  Both are quite smooth.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

TuffWriter Ultimate Clicky Titanium Review

Let's be honest--titanium is to gear geeks what carbon fiber monocoques are to car guys.  Sure, they have actual, practical benefits, but the real allure is the look itself.  Titanium flashlights are, well, obscenely addictive, as are titanium framelocks.  So when Jack at TuffWriter dropped the news that the Ultimate Clicky was being made even more ultimate via an entirely titanium barrel, I was excited.  When he contacted me and asked if I would take a look, I was downright giddy.

You know the format by now, but I am going to break with tradition and show you a lustworthy pic:

IMG_0011

On top is the Ultimate Titanium Clicky and on the bottom is my well used Aluminum version.  Yes, it is as gorgeous in person as it is in the picture, actually a bit more so.  Here is the Kickstarter page for the Ultimate Titanium Clicky (UTC).  The polished version costs $175.  You have only a few days left. Here is the product page for the Aluminum version.  Here is my review of the Aluminum version, pre-scoring system.  

Twitterable Review Summary: Gorgeous, indestructible, heavy clicky made of Ti...yummmm  

Design: 2

I loved the Al version because it was one of the few really hard use, durable pens that didn't have a cap.  This version is exactly the same, with an insanely smooth clicky.  The size is quite nice, though this is a hefty pen, even heftier than the Al version.  Here is the UTC next to the Zippo:

IMG_0040

It is not quite a steel barreled Montblanc beast, but it is pretty beefy.  The more I used the UTC and the Al version the more I came to really, really like the simple o-ring grip.  It has even started to appeal to me on an aesthetic level.  It is an elegant solution that offers superior grip when compared to knurled, checked, or cross-hatched grips on other hard use pens. 

All of this praise of its refined and beautiful design ignores the fact that this thing is a beast.  The demo videos on TuffWriter's website are pretty insane, the pen equivalent of Cold Steel's blue jeans snuff films.  But the reality is, if you are like me, you will never use this pen to stab someone or hammer through a 2x4.  During real world use, lots and lots of travel, lots and lots of different hands, and a real beating in my briefcase, this pen just laughed.  I have been using the Al version much longer and it is practically like new other than the cool buffed sheen the bead blasted aluminum has developed.

Fit and Finish: 2

Simply put, there is nothing like it in the tactical pen/hard use pen market.  It syncs together like magnetized pieces.  There is no cross threading or rough edges.  The pen barrel is so closely sized that is seems like you create a vacuum when you drop the refill in.  There is no wobble or wiggle.  No clicking or knocking when everything is assembled an amazing feat for clicky pen. 

Carry: 1

The heft of the pen comes with two costs.  This is one of them.  The Al version is a thunk in the pocket at 1.66 ounces.  The UTC is even heavier at 2.1 ounces.  This is a heavy pen.  It is a virtually indestructible pen, but a heavy one.  

Appearance: 2

I didn't like the 1950s ray gun aesthetic originally, but it has grown on me.  Add to that a layer of refinement thanks to the gleaming polish on the titanium and...well...this is a handsome pen.  

IMG_0035

I think the Alpha is probably a little bit prettier, but this bests the Render K and many of the other bland, machinist aesthetic Kickstarter pens.  Plus, this one is built like a tank.  I am not sure if any other KS pen could hang in there in a torture test.

Durability: 2

Shut up.  Seriously?  I'd give it a 3 or maybe a 4 if I could.  I feel like, in a pinch, a sniper could use this thing as a bullet, shoot it through a cinder block wall, take out the "target", and then write out a messy check.  Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration.   Maybe.

Writing Performance/Refill: 2

Jack and TuffWriter chose the right format--Parker refills.  You can get Fisher refills for it (it comes with a black one).  You can get Paker gels or my favorite (thanks Brad) the Moleskine gel refill.  Schmidt makes a host of nice refills in the EasyFlow line.  The sheer variety means that you will find something that will suit your needs.   

Balance/In Hand Feel: 1

Phew...what a work out.  I went from testing the all plastic featherweight Lamy Safari to testing this beast.  Yowza.  As with the Al version, the pen is very well balanced, it is just heavy.  As I mentioned before there are costs to having a nigh invincible pen and this is the second one.  A long hearing or a deposition just about did me in, but for a hour or so of note taking or the occasional use, the weight is okay and the balance is actually quite good.  

Grip: 2

I mentioned this above but it worth repeating: this actually a very comfortable grip.  The o-rings are simple, but they have a little give and some tactile feedback.  

IMG_0037

I also think they look nice, an echo of the touches on the barrel itself.

Barrel: 2

Oh man, this is where the UTC smokes the Al version.  I simply cannot get over how cool the polished Ti looks.  It feels great in your hand, smooth and well-worn.  I can only imagine what will happen once it acquires the "Sebenza patina" that knife knuts know and love.  This is a beautiful pen, especially among the hard use pens available, many of which are hideous when it comes to the barrels.  Even with the raygun aesthetic, I am smitten.  Its titanium.  I am addict, what can I say?   The barrel also scores well because it is balanced and just the right size.  Some of these hard use pens have ENORMOUS and awkward barrels, handling something like a sheet of drywall being carried by one person.  Not here.  Jack did a great job with the barrel on the Al version and the UTC is even better, because, stop me if you heard this, its titanium.

Deployment Method/Cap: 2

Clickies are very complex, given their task.  They are difficult to machine, especially in metal, which is why you see so few of them among the hard use pen set.  So to have a clicky and have it be a superb version, well...its amazing.  And this is a superior clicky.  It operates quietly, if not silently, and unlike the Al version, this one has been perfect.  Every once in a while the Al version will misfire, nothing big, but noticeable.  Here, you get a silky action and a bright gleaming knock.    

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Overall Score: 18 out of 20

Until the Ultimate Titanium Clicky you had a choice among small batch and Kickstarter pens--you could get a stylish pen, like the Render K (which doesn't allow for the cap to post, which I find incredibly annoying) or you could get a tough pen, like the Embassy Pen from County Comm.  The original Al version gets you part of the way there, but the Ultimate Titanium Clicky gives you the best of both.  If you have the Al version, you probably don't NEED the UTC, but if you don't or you are looking to bling out your Instagram EDC pics completing the all Ti EDC trio of a McGizmo and a Hinderer XM-18, well, then Mr. Snooty, you have no choice but to get this pen.  To put it another way, if the Al version was the pen equivalent of the production version of the Paramilitary 2--an effective tool with brutish durability, the UTC is a Sprint PM2.  This is a special pen.  And though it costs a lot, there is not really anything else like it.  The list of good looking, insanely durable, clicky pens is a list of one. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Tom Bihn Synapse 25 Review

The Bihn Synapse in Dyneema was a great little bag.  But it is probably too small for more than one person or more than one day.  The problem is that going from the Synapse to a larger bag resulted in something MUCH larger, probably too large.  Recognizing a space to be filled, Tom Bihn released the Synapse 25.  It has all of the great features of the original, plus the Dyneema fabric, plus just enough size to make it the ideal backpack.  The short summary of this review is simple: this is the benchmark backpack on the market today.  There are special purpose packs, like Kifaru, that may be more capable, or high end packs that have a few more doodads and features, but nothing bests the Bihn in terms of all around performance and versatility.  The Synapse 25 is the perfect backpack.

The testing period for bags and packs is long.  It is hard to get a meaningful amount of information from merely a few days.  With a knife or a light you can play with it for an hour or so and get a good handle on what it does and how well it does it, but with a pack, it is a different story.  You can put it on and where it around the house (and be a weirdo, yes, I am a weirdo), but only real life use can tell you how good a pack is.  The Synapse 25 was my go to pack for about a month and half (thanks Darcy!) and it did not let me down once.  In that month and half it came on quite a few day hikes (5 or 6 mile trail loops) where it did well. It also was a bag I used at work (for a change of clothes and hauling books/iPad).  It did very well there too.  Finally, during a series of short day trips it worked as a general pack and did that exceptionally well.  Any role you press it into, the Synapse 25 will excel.

Here is the product page.  The Synapse 25 is $170 and available only through Tom Bihn.  Here is my review of the original Synapse.  Here is a written and video review of the Synapse 25.  Here is the review sample sent to me by Tom Bihn:

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Twitterable Review Summary: Best General Purpose Backpack Available 

Design: 2

There are ton of options on the market now.  Go Ruck makes some pretty amazing and pricey bags.  Kifaru, a specialist brand of almost bespoke bags, has a few offers.  Tumi has a few nice carry options all of which include the Tumi Tax.  TAD Gear makes some very nice packs.  Camelbak and Maxpedition are still doing there thing.  But none of these brands, not one, makes a bag as well designed and a broadly useful as the Synapse 25.  It is essentially the Synapse with all of the problems I had fixed (though, to be fair there were only two issues).

As I wrote in the Synapse review, the design is flawless.  The water bottle pocket on the pack's spine is a stroke of genius and the foundation for what makes this a superior design.  But here, unlike on the original Synapse, you can stow two water bottles with zero loss of balance.  All of the well-placed and well-designed pockets on the original Synapse are here, but slightly bigger.  And there in lies the improvement.  The original Synapse is an excellent one person, one day bag.  It would work for a school bag, but if you wanted to haul a change of clothes and pair of shoes plus a laptop or tablet, you were out of luck.  Understanding that limitation for the old bag was important, but here there are no such limitations.  This is still a small-ish bag compared to some of the absolutely cavernous designs out there (some of the LL Bean bags are so big they seemed to be designed for encyclopedia salesman and certainly not for anyone that has a...you know...portable computing device).  Here is a shot of the Synapse 25 next to a standard 8 1/2 x 11 sketch pad.


Here is the Synapse 25 next to my Pygmy Falcon II.  The 25 is probably in direct competition with the normal Falcon, but I don't own one of those so this is the comparison shot you get (and yes, I do really like the Talon Hooks in my pegboard).

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But this is not simply a bigger bag than the Synapse.  The 25's size means that the main pocket is actually much more useful.  Even with the Cache inside, I could still pack a change of clothes, a tablet, shoes, a water bottle, and more.  The kangaroo style pouch inside the main compartment is, instead of a nuisance, very useful.  In the original it took up too much space and made packing the main compartment a drag.  Now, with the additional space, the pouch does what it is supposed to do--provide a little separation between things in the main compartment--without ever getting in your way.  Also, I love the rail system for the Cache.  It is amazingly handy and I don't even fly that much.

Fit and finish: 2

In terms of execution, there is nothing lacking on the 25.  It is, like all of the Bihn products I have used, immaculate.  Bihn's craftspeople are top notch.  Really though, the thing that stuns me is how much less this bag costs than a comparable Tumi bag.  Let's assume that they are the same caliber of materials (which they aren't, Bihn's Dyneema is better than anything Tumi has).  Let's assume they are the same exemplary design (they are not, not by a mile).  And let's assume they have the same level of finish polish (which, to be fair, they do).  The Tumi bags I have had were close to $400.  This is $170.  And it is made entirely in the USA (the Dyneema fabric is imported).  How is this possible?  How on earth can the old, "retail" brands survive?  It seems to me they are still in business because their customers don't know better.  That will not last.  That cannot be a good business model.  Eventually old executives will be replaced by folks that know how to use the Internet.  When that happens, well, goodbye Tumi.  Or at least the overpriced, overstuffed Tumi we know and sort of dislike.  Simply put, this level of refinement is amazing.  And for the price, well, there is nothing I can think of that comes close.  $170 is pricey compared to the junk Targus bags from Staples and Target, but this is light years ahead of those things.  Compared to a peer, like Tumi, this bag is a positive steal.  Or is that steel.  After all, Dyneema (the white grids) is stronger than steel on a weight basis. 

Carry: 2

More space, same gymnast-on-the-beam like balance.  I mentioned this in the original Synapse review and it is worth repeating because of how great an idea it was--placing the water bottle pocket in the middle of the pack allows for great weight distribution and balance.  Here the water bottle pocket is in the same place, but just bigger.  The tight dimensions keep the two water bottles nice and snug meaning that even with the extra size and weight they don't slosh around.  

The shoulder straps are plenty comfortable and the sternum strap, is, of course, very nice.  The back is padded and covered in large ventilating mesh.  All in all, the rigging holding the pack to your body is excellent.  When you combine these features with the great balance, you get a pack that stick with you on long day hikes, even over difficult terrain AND a pack that does well being toted around on a very busy, living-out-of-your car for a few days trip.

Materials: 2

The Dyneema grid reinforces the thinnish nylon making the bag lighter and stronger than it would be otherwise.  I also happen to love the modern look the grid provides.  Suffice to say, based on the information from the original Synapse review (including that awesome strength test video), Dyneema is the pinnacle of materials for packs right now.  The rest of the bag is great too--nice straps and thick well distributed padding where needed.  Even the zipper pulls are extra slick.

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One small, very small point--I don't like the grab strap, seen above.  I know it doest' matter and I know the one on the bag is plenty strong and durable, but man I really like the handles on the Cadet--they give you some hand filling substance to hold on to.  Again, the grab strap is perfectly fine.  It looks good, it will hold forever, but it is a small tactile thing.  It probably would add some extra weight and would definitely bonk you in the back or the neck when your on vigorous hikes, so come to think about it, maybe a bulkier grab strap wouldn't get all that nice.  

Accessibility: 2

Here is where the 25 improves over its smaller brother.  With more space and larger compartments, the pounch in the main pocket is now useful and not a packing obstacle.  Even when the Cache is loaded, like here:

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You can still get to everything in the main compartment easily.  I also like the fact that the pen organizers are on the sides, allowing you to sling the bag over one shoulder and rotate it forward, giving you quick access to small stuff.

Ease of Packing: 2

Bihn stuff, at least the original Synapse and the Cadet, always seemed to have small or somehow constricted openings.  Lots of use has shown me this is more a psychological problem than an actual one, as packing both was easy, but here the bags large size makes it very easy to jam stuff in.

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The opening is wide enought to really get everything you'd want in the pack, but not so wide that the bag feels like it flops open, like on the Pymgy Falcon.  I know some folks like the flop open bag for lay flat packing, but I'd prefer a little something to keep the pack from just cleaving in two when I open it on my back.  The 25 hits that in between perfectly--easy to pack without fear of just flopping open when it is on your back. 

Pockets/Organization: 2

Hiking with the 25 showed me that the pockets here are very good at weight distribution.  But I kind of expected that given the water bottle pocket's positioning.

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What took me by surprise was how Tom Bihn balanced the additional size with making pockets that don't feel like they ate your stuff.  One my main problems with big packs, like the LL Bean monster my wife has had since high school and still thinks is great, is that the extra size means the pockets are cavernous and you lose stuff in them.  Don't even think about dropping a Space Pen in that bag's pen organizer.  It would disappear forever.  But Bihn's design mastery means that the pockets here are big, but not gaping mouthes ready to eat your flash drives, change, and half sized writing tools.  

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

I love the Bihn zippers with their little rain guards.  I love zipper pulls.  I like the sternum strap snaps.  The strap adjustment buckles are excellent.  Everything is simply top notch.

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Lots of companies do this stuff well.  They make really durable snaps, zippers, and buckles.  But what puts Bihn's stuff in a different category is that his stuff is great and durable, but it is also light and quiet.  No one wants to announce their slightly late presence at a meeting with a bag that makes them sound like they are doing jumping jacks while wearing chain mail, and with the 25 you won't.  Strong, durable, light and quiet.  Done, done, done, and done.  

Straps and belts: 2

Some bags, like the Kifaru and the Maxpedition, look they are made of nothing but straps.  I get why they are made that way and I am sure they are useful, but I am not a private defense contractor nor do I want to look like one.  Straps and MOLLE are not my prefered design aesthetic.  Here, the straps are less abundant, but no less useful or hardy.

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I especially like the thin, but padded shoulder straps.  On cheaper bags, these straps are made comfortable by heap gobs of gel, foam rubber, or other substances into or on the strap making them cushy and gushy but annoyingly thick.  Here you get just as much comfort with singnificantly less bulk. Great all around.

Modularity/expansion: 2

Equipped with lots of connection points for the myriad of useful Bihn pouches and accessories, the 25 is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of expansion and modularity.  Kifaru fans rave about their pack's versatility and I can't comment until I try one, but man do I love the Bihn expansion system.  There is virtually no end to the combinations and mixes and matches that can be done with various pouches, sleeves, straps and containers.  I have found the key strap and two small pouches to be very, very useful.  I also like the Cache quite a bit.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20, PERFECT


The original Dyneema Synapse was very good.  Great design, clean look, and bleeding edge materials.  But it was a little too small for general use.  As a day pack for hiking or school it was fine, but for carrying stuff for three people it was just too tiny.  The small size also meant that the pouch in the main pocket took up valuable real estate.  With the 25 Bihn fixed all of the problems (the one or two the original had) and made what has to be considered among the best general use backpacks ever made.  I love this pack.  It is more than deserving of the Everyday Commentary Seal of Perfection.  This is the best pack or bag I have ever used.