Friday, February 28, 2014

Hogue EX-01 4" Auto Review

It has been years since I had a knife store close to me.  When I grew up in Ohio, it was no big deal, but now, living in Massachusetts, it is a rarity.  So much of what makes a knife great is how it feels in your hand and in your pocket.  You can't figure that out over the internet, now matter how hard I have tried.  So when Josh and Jeremiah opened up Merrimack Knife and Tool less than 5 minutes from my office, I was both delighted and a bit afraid.  Well, I wasn't afraid, my wallet was.  About once a month I will skip lunch and go to Merrimack Knife and Tool, and their stock is always impressive.

Jeremiah listens to the podcast and he heard Andrew and I talking about moving outside our comfort zones with gear, so when I asked if they had anything cool in Jeremiah pulled out the Hogue EX01 4" Auto.  It is a HUGE blade.  Its an auto.  And neither of these things are generally in my wheelhouse.  But with both Andrew and Dan singing the praises of Hogue's stuff, I decided to check it out.  

Here is the product page. The EX-01 costs around $215. Here is a written and video review by Edge Observer.   You can go to Merrimack Knife and Tool to see the EX-01 and a huge selection of other knives.   Here is my review sample (loaned to be my MKT and returned already):

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Twitter Review Summary: Solid fundamentals with a small issue related to the auto

Design: 2

All of Hogue's knives are designed by Allen Elishewitz.  Allen is a well known custom knife maker and has worked with a number of the biggest names in blades before designing stuff for Hogue.  He has a number of designs in the current CRKT catalog as well as a number of out of production blades for them.  He has also worked with Benchmade and produced what I think is his best design--the Ares.  Sometimes Allen's line get a little busy for my tastes, such as the odd stepped thumb studs found on some of his CRKT designs, but the EX-01 follows the Ares in its simplicity.  The knife looks clean and the overall size of the blade, despite being 4 inches long, doesn't feel all that huge.  This is largely because of the placement of the pivot pin, which is very close to the end of the handle.  The aluminum is slick but the shape of the handle is just right, making sure the blade stays put.

There are two things I am not a fan of--the pivot area and the secondary lock.  The pivot area is extra busy, not unlike the pivot area on the Benchmade Emissary.

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Its not as bad as the Emissary, so I am going to leave the score as a two, but it is something to note. Second, I am not sure why there is a secondary lock on this blade.  The amount of travel needed to fire the blade is large and I never had any issues with accidental deployment.  Again, like with the Emissary, I feel like the secondary lock's main role is a psychological one as opposed to an actual functional one.  Getting rid of the lock would also clean up the pivot area.  

The knife's ratios aren't too bad. The blade:handle is .82.  This is very competitive, especially among larger knives.  The blade:weight is .71, which is less impressive, but something that is not surprising given the size of the blade.

Fit and Finish: 2

I was convinced that I was going to be able introduce blade play into the EX-01.  First, its an auto and there is almost always a bit of slop in the blade to allow the spring mechanism to work (none here out out of the box).  Second because it was a big knife I planned on using it for big knife tasks.  One of my son's favorite things to do is grab sticks for use in fighting imaginary bad guys or breaking up ice on the surface of water (well in the winter time that is what he does).  So I decided to chop up a few sticks so they were a manageable size for him and in doing so I thought I'd be able introduce some blade play.  These were frozen, rock hard sticks.  After some serious whacking, chopping, and twisting I had nothing like blade play.

Everything about the knife was immaculately finished.  Hogue's fit and finish is on par with companies like Benchmade, which is quite impressive.  Their start as a grip maker for firearms no doubt helps with the precision manufacturing of their knives--they are used to the finnicky demands of gear folks.  Every edge, every cut, and every grind was clean, thoughtful, and well done.  All of this leads to a knife that is remarkable in the hand and more durable than one would expect with both an auto and a button lock.

Grip: 1

The shape of the grip is fine.  In fact, with gloves on the knife stays put quite well.  Its only when you take the gloves off that you discover a problem.  You might be able to deduce what it is from this picture:

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After years of using G10 knives, an all aluminum knife, like an all titanium knife is quite cold and slick when it is cold outside.  Unlike some other all-metal handled knives, the Hogue's finish is slick, so its not a stay-putish like the Sebenza.  Additionally because this is a larger, harder use folder than say the tiny Spyderco Tencho, there needs to be more grip than slick aluminum affords.  I am not opposed to aluminum or all-metal handles on principle, but like everything else they need to be appropriate for the intended use.  Its not a big deal, but just enough to make me score this a 1.  If I had a more graduated scale I might score this as a 1.5, but I don't so there you have it.  

Carry: 2

Its hard difficult to stress how nicely this knife carries.  For a 4 inch knife it is very, very slim and secure thanks to an excellently placed and shaped pocket clip.  This is one place where the slick and light aluminum helps.

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Note just how far down the clip goes.  That prevents a lot of the pendulum feel that you get with big knives.  Comparing this to the ZT0560, the difference is night and day and this knife is actually bigger than the ZT0560.

Steel: 2

I don't like coated blades, but this one was okay.  It held up to some serious chopping.  The more I do with 154CM the more I like it and the more I understand why Emerson is so infatuated with it.  There is a lot that it does well and very little it does poorly.  This particular blade was very nice--sharp, held an edge for a long time, and yielded positive results from stropping. 

My experience with 154CM is also an excellent example of the danger of small sample sizes.  When I first started the blog my onlly experience with 154CM was on a Benchmade Sequel and my Skeletool CX.  The Sequel rusted like crazy.  I literally could not keep it clean.  And the Skeletool's blade, especially inside the thumb hole, would occasionally get rusty.  From those two experiences I swore off the steel and that was a mistake.  Now, three years later, I have much more experience with 154CM and I am certain that the Sequel was a lemon.  The Skeletool's issues are largely due to what I use that blade for--rough, beater work--more so than the steel.  In the end, after years of close analysis, I can say without reservation that 154CM is a superior steel.  

Blade Shape: 2

A simple blade shape is a thing of beauty:

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A lot of Allen's designs are a big out there when it comes to blade shape and though I have not used them, they make me a little worried.  Even in the Hogue line there are some exotic blade shapes.  Now I will admit that the Zulu has taught me to use before I judge, but no matter what, I am drawn to simple shapes and this blade is just elegant.

The belly is quite nice for roll cuts and the straight portion is very long allowing for excellent slicing and stable, easy push cuts (such as debarking a limb).  The swedge at top is unsharpened but accomplishes its task--making for good piercing--with ease.  This is a great blade shape.

Grind: 2

A simple very shallow hollow (or possibly flat) grind that makes chopping easy.  Hogue did nothing crazy here.  I will note that the cutting bezel is a bit skinny, making the knife a better chopper than slicer, but such is to be expected with a hard use auto of this size.  The EX-01 isn't going to run with the Dragonfly or the Air in terms of slicing ability, but it is better than the slicing capacities of the PT CC, which also has that "high durability" thin cutting bevel.  I realize it is a tradeoff and in this role, Hogue made the right choice.  If this were purely an EDC knife, I'd prefer more of a slicer.

Deployment Method: 0

Okay so if you go watch the overview video (embedded above) you will see the only real flaw this knife has--the coil spring is not tuned correctly and it is not uncommon for the blade to be shot out of the handle and not lock in position because it bounces off the stop pin.  I have never seen this before, on any knife, either an auto or an assist, so it was pretty startling.  It is a perfect example of why autos are simply unnecessary in this day and age.  I'd much rather this knife be a flipper than an auto--less parts, less complication.  

While I feel confident that the score of zero is correct, I will say that the deployment is not a total failure.  It will work 85% of the time and most of the time simply moving the knife will carry the blade in the locked position, but the whole idea of an auto is that it deploys 100% of the time.  If the auto can't do that then it failed at is job, hence the 0.

Retention Method: 2

The broad spoon clip is great.  It locks the knife in your pocket AND it is doesn't interfere with your grip at all both because it is remarkably low profile and it is made of very thin steel.

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I will note that despite its very low profile Hogue managed to get the tension and upturn at the tip just right because you can slide this knife in and out of the pocket without looking or helping it along.  Great clip, even if its not terribly discrete.

Lock: 2

This knife cured me of my fears of button locks.  As my first button lock review I am happy to say that the lock worked flawlessly.  Having seen the mechanism up close I am confident that it will not fail and that Hogue's machining capabilities are right there with anyone in the cutlery business, maybe save KAI USA.  The design is both ingenious and easy to use.  You can close the knife without putting your fingers in the blade path and that is a big deal.  Look for more button locks in the future.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

I liked the EX-01 a lot.  As a hard use knife, it was great.  It was surprisingly cooperative in the pocket and the simple grind and blade shape made it a superior cutting tool.  If you absolutely need your knife to deploy every single time, check the EX-01 unit you have before you buy it if you can.  I may have gotten something of a lemon.  The auto mechanism's problems aren't really a big deal if you don't need guaranteed 100% deployment and for a weekend hiker like myself its not a big deal at all.  But if you are an EMT/Mil/LEO person be aware of that.  In gloved hands the knife is truly amazing.  In non-gloved hands the slick and cold aluminum may be an issue.  Those two things aside this is an outstanding knife.  If this were a G10 flipper it would score higher.   

ASIDE

Hogue, if you read this, please, take note that you need to make a knife with a blade at or under 3 inches.  A blade that is under 3 inches is very broadly acceptable (of course, check your local laws).  To have NO knives in your line up that comply with legal restrictions in some states is just a bad business decision.  You leave your customers with an unsolvable dilemma: either not carry your knife or do so and break the law.  This is a poor business decision and something that needs to be remedied immediately.  I believe you are the only major knife brand sold in the US that has NO knives in their product line at or under 3 inches.  That is a real problem.

END ASIDE

The Competition

Obviously the Hogue is a bigger and more sunstantial knife than the benchmark blade, the SOG Mini Aegis.  But for a weekend hiker and EDC person like myself, the extra size, heft, and full auto don't matter.  The better blade steel is a plus, but I am not sure which I would choose.  If I were going to really depend on the knife like EMS/Mil/LEOs do, the Hogue would automatically win.    

Monday, February 24, 2014

Why the Gear Industry is Awesome

This is a tale of two customer service adventures. Like cities, it was the best of times and the worst of times. One involves a return of a knife to Brous Blades. The other involves a return of a product to an online-only clothing company. This isn't designed to bash a company, but demonstrate just how amazing our slicing the marketplace really is.

The Best Of Times

When Jim Skelton previewed the Brous Bionic on his YouTube channel, I was pumped. I have been looking for a small, mid-priced flipper for a long time. Like my obsession with knives the size of the Dragonfly, this is my next great hunt. I have tried quite a few, including the good but flawed Surefire Jekyll, the totally meh Benchmade 300SN, and the good, but slightly too big Spyderco Domino. So as you can see, the Bionic could have very well been the knife I am hunting.

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When the Bionic came I was thrilled. Its surprisingly light. The flipping action was a smooth as silk, as is the case on most Brous knives I have handled. Even the normally hard to polish D2 looked good. And the coloring of the handle's anondization was outstanding.

But there were a few negative points. They were actually points. First the flipper was quite pokey. It wasn't a big deal, but it was not as rounded and finger-friendly as it should be. Second, the jimping on the handle right where your finger lands after flipping open the knife was especially sharp. So sharp, in fact, that it drew blood after exactly seven flips open and closed (I counted aware right away that it could pose a problem). Third, the two points at the end of the handle opposite the pivot were unpleasantly sharp. Fourth, the tip of the blade was so close to the end of the handle that it was snagging fabric and, on occasion, the tip of my finger.

All of this was not good. The knife is relatively inexpensive, but at $159 its not a throwaway import blade. The insert in the Bionic's tube provided Jason's email account (or one of his email accounts, I'd hope he has other), so I emailed him. I sent him a picture of my finger and less than 48 hours later I had an email from Brous instructing me to send the knife back and a promise that he'd fix it. That was it. No offers for a refund or some long convoluted set of return instructions. "Send it to me. I got your back." When you have a problem, even one as minor as a pokey pocket knife, that's what you want to hear.

The Worst of Times

I browse the Internet. I am sure you do as well. And on occasion you see something that makes you excited. You think: "Geez this is so amazing. I am glad the Internet exists so that I could find this thing." It might be the Pebble or a grocery delivery service or a way to renew prescriptions automatically. Its something you have been wanting for a while and you finally found it. In my case I have a particular article of clothing that I have always wanted a nicer version of, but for reasons that have a lot to do with the exporting of clothing manufacturing, this particular article of clothing, in a nicer form, did not exist.

This isn't a piece of clothing that Triple Aught Design has had the opportunity to upgrade or improve. This isn't some high tech wonder garment made of SPACE FIBER 3000. This isn't a Savile Row suit. Its a pretty basic thing that I wanted a nicer version of--that's it. But there was nothing out there until I stumbled across this garment. BANG. I wanted it. But it was about three weeks from Christmas, so I asked for it as a gift instead. Christmas arrived and so did the garment. It was exceedingly nice. Great in fact. But it was sized for, um, smaller people. I am not a Greek God, I got myself a little 36 year old flab, but I am not fat. Nor am I an NBA center. I am 5'10", 180 pounds. This garment wouldn't have fit me, despite being called a large, if I were five inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter. I get a little tightness around the belly, but the arms were the real issue. They were comically short and this is before the shirt went through the wash.

No problem, I thought, I can send it back. The box it came in even included a return mailer. So a few days after Christmas I bundled everything up and sent it back with a request for the next size up. A few days go by. Then a few weeks. Nothing. So I send an email to the company asking what's up. They get back to me with an automated email response telling me someone will respond shortly. I'd prefer a real person, but whatever. Then I did get a response from a real person, telling me that they had received nothing from me. That was strange. They asked if I had some product number or order number. I told them: a) I got it as a gift so I don't have the ordering information and b) as per their instructions I packaged everything up for a return. They looked into the matter and came back a few days later telling me, oh by the way, we don't handle our own returns and they still hadn't received anything.

This struck me as incredibly odd. Why would a company, especially a clothing company that sells stuff ONLY on the Internet, not handle their returns? Surely they have had people order the wrong size or color before. My wife gets stuff from Boden all the time and their return policies are flawless and the process is simple. I have ordered and returned stuff from LL Bean with equal easy. Contracting out your returns is, quite literally, contracting our your customer service. It was annoying but I chalked it to them being a new, small company.

Then they told me they don't do exchanges, just refunds. WAIT, WHAT!??!?! Yeah, they sell clothes and if you get the wrong size they won't send you a replacement. I checked their website, which has a large and prominent section on their return policy, and nowhere was that mentioned. Some digging through an FAQ (why, pray tell, do you need an FAQ for returns? LL Bean's policy is one sentence: Return anything at anytime for a refund or exchange.) and sure enough in the fine print it says they don't do exchanges, just refunds. Okay, that is super annoying, especially because if a person gets a refund they can just buy the thing that actual need, so why go through the process of a refund instead of an exchange (I know why, to boost sales numbers, but still)? They then told me the refund goes to the gift giver, not to me. Stupid, I get it, but whatever. So I ask if I can just use the refund to purchase the next size up, essentially making it an exchange. Oh no, sorry you can't do that, I am told. Now, its on. This is total fucking horseshit. I ask why and I am told they don't have any in stock. I ask for a different color. Nope, out of stock too. I ask for a slightly different version. Out of stock. I ask to get something different and I will throw in cash. Sorry, not possible. Finally, after some rather serious and upset emails (I am, in case you don't know, a very low key person in real life, I NEVER get serious outside my job), they agreed to do an exchange. They tell me the next size up should be available sometime in February.

Well, February came and almost went when a package arrived from the company. I was sort of amazed and realized I was going to have to pull this post....until I opened the bag and was nearly choked to death by a chemical smell akin the malodorous fumes of a meth lab. The item I was shipped was either used to wipe down vats at said meth lab or it was used, "deordorized" and then sent to me. Closer inspection showed me a couple of things that indicated that this item was used. Look, I love used clothes. I love the feel of a broken in pair of jeans or a comfy jacket. I just don't like having people pay for new stuff and getting used stuff instead. With their incredibly small stock, I would imagine that they just give returned items a quick spray repackage them and send them to people on their waiting list for garments. BAD MOJO.

This company has spent a kazillion dollars on advertising. They have really nice product placements. They have a hi-rez campaign with excellent video and photos. They have quaint making-of videos. They have an awesome logo and actually nice products. They were featured in large newspapers and big shill websites (another reason you should never trust shill websites, as if the copious amount of Gerber stuff on their isn't warning enough), all of which praised their products and their Made in the USA story. But in the end, its about the customer and here, this darling of the internet, the emblem of the new craft movement in the USA, farms out their customer service, makes exchanges impossible, has no stock, and has a terrible process for returning their items. All of the slick HDR pics and praise from business cognescenti cannot help this company. Absent changes, and assuming this experience is representative, they will be gone before my 18-month desk calendar is. This is simply not how you do business, especially now when stores like Nordstrom and LL Bean exist in the same space with vastly superior customer service.

Conclusion

Every company, every object made by man can have flaws. The flaws are not how you judge a company or a product or even a man. Its how he (or it, in the case of a company) responds to those flaws that matters. And in our little part of the huge capitalist marketplace, our people, gear geeks--knife knuts and flashaholics--tend to be good people. When stuff goes wrong, they have your back. These two stories illustrate a world of difference. Brous puts his email in the package (I feel like that guy in Tommy Boy asking for a guarantee on the box). He responds quickly and personally to an issue. And his response is: I'll take care of it, send it to me and it will get fixed. This other company, from outside our little enclave of gear, is all flash and no substance. They literally farm out their customer service. That shows how much they care about us, the customer.

The gear business is still relatively small, but it has been, in my experience, uniformly superior to other parts of the economy. AG Russell has personally responded to my questions. Thomas W came on my podcast. Jason Brous responded to my email. That is customer service. And here is the killer thing about Brous--I am fairly certain he has no idea I run this site or the podcast or even who I am. I never told him (not that it would matter, after all I am just a paper pushing lawyer that likes to go outside and play with cool shit). He's just that decent of a guy.

Maybe it is the fact that the gear business has roots in small town America. Maybe it is the fact that the people selling this stuff know we rely on it and want us to feel like we can rely on them. Maybe it is the fact that the gear folks know intuitively what a Wharton MBA tells big companies--customer servicce sells. Whatever it is, this slice of the market is filled with pretty decent people. Sure there are exceptions and sure you can have a bad experience with anyone, but I have had very good dealings with just about everyone I have met and talked to. And that is, as my experience with the other company has shown, incredibly rare these days.

Friday, February 21, 2014

ArmyTek Viking Review

Ben was kind enough to help out with a review of the Armytek Partner and both Ben and I shared the same opinion--it was a decidedly outdated light.  But having handled more than my fair share of flashlights since I launched this site I could see that there were good bones.  Armytek was on to something with the light.  There were touches that demonstrated a concern for the right things and features that exhibited a much better than average build quality.  

In many ways Armytek is a brand that has developed almost independent of other brands.  They are design and built in Canada.  Their line is made up of light that are very different from the mainstream.  These aren't badge swaps or rebrands.  They have a different approach to anondizing, resulting in a thick, almost chalky feel that is truly impressively tough.  They have a focus on beam quality that seems absent from many brands.  They had a diffusing film on the lens of the Partner, a weird way to smooth out a beam, but the fact that it was there was an indication they were worried about the right parts of a flashlight.  The clickies feel different from other clickies.  Over and over again there were small things that made both the Viking and the Partner stand out from the crowd.  

The Viking is a much better light than the Partner, even when you compare them not to each other but to similar lights.  I have reviewed a few 18650 lights and the Viking does a few things better than any of them.  There are some small dings, but overall the Viking is a sweet, sweet light.  In particular I am blown away by the beam.  This light that cuts through the darkness like a sword through fog.  Its probably too big to be an EDC light, but there are other reasons to own a flashlight.  

Here is the product page. The ArmyTek Viking costs around $90. Here is a written review. Here is a video review. Here is a link to Amazon where you can find the Viking (sales benefit the site):



Finally, here is the review sample sent to me by Armytek (to be given away):

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Twitter Review Summary: Bleeding edge emitter and very good beam for an excellent 18650 light

Design: 2

This is a fat light.  The head is positively huge, especially for the overall size.  But it doesn't stray into the insane territory.  If the beam weren't so good it wouldn't be worth the trade off, but here, it is good enough to make up for the bulk.  The grip ring, a first for lights I have reviewed, is helpful.  More on that later.

The light can run on an 18650 OR 2xCR123as and that flexibility is greatly appreciated.  Its a touch that shows that Armytek has planned things out and that this not another me too design.  So often with 18650 lights, the manufacturer assumes a degree of flashlight nerdiness, such that the end line user is expected to have an 18650 cell, a charger, and no need for emergency power from readily available primary cells.  Not here.  The light doesn't come with an 18650 cell, which is kind of a bummer, but the fact that it can use primaries makes up for it.  And really, if you are buying a light this expensive, just spring for the 18650 as well.  Note this is different from the FourSevens MMX-U review in that that light REQUIRED a specific cell that was both not readily available and not supplied with the light.  

Here is a shot compared to the ubiquitous Mini Mag.

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The stats are good, this is a screamer when it comes to lumens.  The total lumens output is found on high at 161,600 (the specs have the light running at 1010 lumens for 160 minutes).  The lumens:weight is 136.49.  The total lumens output is by far the best number I have ever seen.  I am not sure if that is because how bright the light is or how the lumens are calculated.

Fit and Finish: 2 

The Partner was not a poorly made light, it was just boring and out of date.  The Viking is neither of those.  This is a very, very well made torch, sitting in the same league as the nicer Surefires.  That is a huge compliment, but it is well-deserved.  It is a stoutly build--the chalky anodizing is good, the threads are smooth and tight.  The clicky is quite nice.  The reflector is a great smooth reflector (resulting in a superlative beam).  The emitter is well centered.  There is absolutely nothing to complain about here.

Grip: 2

The grip ring is the first I have used and it is quite excellent.  It really locks the hand in place and gives you a great deal of control.  I don't like the spongy rubber it is made of and the grip ring can move around a bit, but overall it is nice.  

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Even without the grip ring the Viking is a very good like in the hand, thanks to a just-the-right-size body tube.  I like the whole set up a great deal.  But all of this grippiness comes at a cost...

Carry: 0

Either in the sheath that it comes with or the pocket clip that it comes with, the Viking is a nightmare to carry.  The rubber grip ring is unmanageable and the the head it just enormous.  The end result is there is no real way to carry this light without a pack or bag.  The sheath, as most free sheathes are, is pretty atrocious.  This makes me wonder just how Leatherman is able to make not just good, but truly spectacular sheathes, when no one else has--from high end production knife companies to high end flashlight companies like Armytek.  I'd be more upset about the Viking's poor carry if it weren't for the fact that this is not REALLY anyone's idea of an EDC light.  Even though it is about medium sized form an 18650 light, this is really a thrower for pack or bag carry.  

Output: 2

There are four output modes, from the full 1010 lumens down to a twinkly 8 lumens and two other levels in between.  The spacing is good and the high is plenty bright, but, as is usual, it is the low that makes the light so appealing.  A good low can do a lot of things and make a light significantly more useful than it otherwise would be.  For all of the flexibility with the outputs, their utility is hampered by a convoluted UI. 

Runtime: 2

As with most lights that have an 18650 cell and a single digit low, the runtimes here are more than acceptable.  If you dig a little though you might notice that the Viking's runtimes are really incredible on high.  In fact, the Armytek Viking has the best runtimes for a high over 800 lumens I have ever seen.  According to the specs, the Viking can run at FULL max for 160 minutes.  Most lights, like the TX25C2 or the SC600 Mk. II drop down after a few minutes of "max burst" to their true max level.  According to the specs for the Viking, this doesn't happen.  I have run it on high for about twenty minutes with no noticeable loss of output so it just might be true.  If so, this is so much better than other lights in the class, that the Viking, on paper, is a huge standout.  If someone out there with an integrating sphere and computer programs tells me that the light drops down after a while I wouldn't be surprised, but based on the specs and my own eyes, Armytek's claims just might be right.  

Beam Type: 2

And now we get to the heart of what makes this light so unique.  There are dedicated throwers out there and there are lights that try to do throw by constricting the beam pattern (Surefire), but the Viking is a light that does not resort to bulbous mushroom heads but still has real and legitimate distance in the beam.  The Viking easily hit the far end of the football field around my house, with more than a few feet to spare.  But suffice to say, this is a true thrower and in that role it is very good.  The head is big and makes the light somewhat awkward to carry, but it is nothing like the specialized heads on other lights.  Because the Viking can strike that balance, its awarded a 2.  

Beam Quality: 2

Like the decision to go for a thrower, despite the relatively small head, the quality of the beam on the Viking is superb.  There are no artifacts, rings, or spots.  While not a Hi CRI light, the review sample had a pleasant tint.  Finally there a smooth and useful transition from the hotspot to the spill.  Its easy to look at the light, what it can do in the dark, and see this is a well above average beam.  Excellent job. 

UI: 1

For all of the wonderful outputs and the great spacing between them, the UI on the Viking is a bit convoluted.  It uses both a twist of the head and a click.  Its not bad, it is just requires a bit of forethought and precision, something you would prefer not to have in a flashlight UI.  The problem comes with getting to the low lumens modes.  With the head tightened all the way, the light is "locked" into a "tactical" mode where the press of the clicky produces the max output.  A second press will do nothing.  But if you loosen the head "1/8" of a turn (yes, the instructions specify 1/8 of a turn) the light drops into a more user friendly mode where clicky presses will get you lower lumens counts.  The idea that the light is locked in to a tactical mode is somewhat misleading because you have to check the head tightness to make sure its locked in, the very definition of something not being locked it.  Second, the need for both a twist and a press to get into the more useful modes is unnecessary.  The UI on the EagleTac TX25C2 is just better.  In fact a straight clicky or twisty UI would be better.  Combining the two in this bifurcated UI kind of way is not ideal.  It works, but it is not ideal.  

Hands Free: 1

The Viking doesn't roll, but it can't tailstand.  Also, given the size and weight of the head there's no way you put this thing in your teeth. 

Overall Score: 16 out of 20

While it "only" scores a 16, that is in part because of the limitations of this scoring system (or any scoring system for that matter).  The runtime on high, the output on high, the beam quality and its ability to light up targets far away is really remarkable.  The runtime, the beam type and beam quality could have earned a 3, but doing so would break the scoring system.  Since the review is really a combination of text and score I can explain that easily.  But keep that in mind when comparing 18650 lights to each other.  Again, this isn't the most EDC friendly light in the world, with its bulbous head, chalky anondizing, and rubber grip ring, but for a thrower, you'd be hard pressed to find anything better of equivalent size.

The Competition

Against the FourSevens MMR-X, the Viking is better on runtime on high by a large margin, but the UI on the MMR-X is better.  The Viking is not really in the same class as the TX25C2 and the SC 600 Mk. II as they are basically EDC lights that squeeze in a bigger battery and the Viking is a true mid sized light.  I'd probably take the MMR-X over the Viking for general use, but if you need throw, the Viking is the way to go.  Compared to the Fenix, well there is no real comparison.  The lights are just too different.  This is an interesting entry in the flashlight market and definitely a sign that Armytek knows what they are doing.

Correction and Update:

Some of the comments below indicated that Armytek is not made in Canada, despite their website being festooned with the Canadian flag.  I reached out to my contact at Armytek and here is the conversation:

Dear Armytek,

Some of my readers have questioned the origins of the Armytek lights.  They claim that the lights are made and designed overseas, but I have nothing to confirm this.  Any insights?

Thanks.
 

Tony

And Armytek's response:

Dear Tony,

The flashlights are designed by a team of Canadian and European engineers in Canada. But they are assembled in China - it's true. We have our own manufacture in China where the lights are ONLY assembled from the components imported from the USA and Japan. The reason for a such location choice is simple - we want to make compatible prices for our products so that our customers pay for the technology and parameters not for the "made in Canada" label. I think you understand that it's cheaper to assemble the products there (such company as Apple even has factories in China =))
So to make it clear - the lights are not designed overseas. And it can't be told that they are made in China because all the electronic and light components are imported there. But it's true that the flashlights are assembled in China - we have our own 6-floor factory there =)

I hope I've answered your question =)    


I hope this clarifies the point.  The lights are not made in Canada, but designed there.  The parts aren't made in China, but are assembled there.  I think if you did digging you'd find that a lot of companies in and out of the gear world do something like this.  I am not condoning or condemning it, just pointing out the reality of the situation.  Regardless of country of origin, I liked the Armytek Viking quite a bit.    

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Business Side of Gear: Intellectual Property, Part II

The response to the first part of this series was good.  I appreciate the feedback over email and on Twitter.  I am also thrilled that there weren't too many errors in the content itself.  So let's look at the other IP white meat: trademarks.  Again, this isn't legal advice.  I am not an IP lawyer.  In fact, very little of my legal training went into writing these articles.  None in fact.  It was basically stuff cobbled together from Google, the USPTO, and Wikipedia.  

Trademarks

Trademarks are different than patents. Patents are intended to protect inventions. Trademarks are designed to protect a company's identity. You trademark items that are associated with your brand, like your logo, your slogan, or other distinctive characteristics of a  company. You can also trademark other things that are distinctively associated with a brand. Burberry had a trademark on a pattern of plaid while NBC has a trademark on the three tone sound, called the NBC chimes ("N...B...C" or even more abstractly, three descending notes). The key with trademarks is that they are established by using them. They are protected to the extent that they are used. Once they fall out of use, they are unprotected. For example, if you trace the lineage of Ka-Bar back far enough you will find that the company (not called Ka-Bar then) used a trademark "Tidoute" for their knives. When the original company that owned the facilities where Ka-Bar is now closed down, that trademark fell out of use. It remained dormant until Great Eastern Cutlery started using it again. The trademark switched from one company to another because it was in use, out of use, and then in use again.

Additionally, if a trademark is so widely synonymous with a product or class of products, it can lose its protection. For example, Kleenex is a trademark on the verge of losing protection, also known as genericide (a pormanteau of generic and suicide), because it is synonymous with tissues. Trademarks do not expire and they can be licensed (like Lucas licensing Star Wars to toy companies).  Finally, trademarks can be geographically specific AND industry specific.  It may not be infringement for two companies to call themselves the same thing (or similar sound things) if they are in different industries, like Lexus cars and Lexis legal research services, or if they are in different parts of the country.

The story on the Internet, though there is little documentation to support this (even when you search under Sal's real name Louis S. Glesser; I search both the Patent and Trademark Office for any combination of the following: Sal Glesser, Louis Glesser, Louis S. Glesser, Eric Glesser, Gail Glesser, Spyderco, Spyderco Knives, Opening Hole, Deployment Hole, Byrd, Byrd Knives, Comet, Comet Hole, and Spyderco Hole and I got nothing, except for the Bali-Yo patent; remember though that a trademark need not be registered to be protected, so finding nothing doesn't mean that there is no trademark, just that it is not a registered one), is that Spyderco had a patent for the hole opener and then filed for a trademark once the patent expired.

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It is certainly the case that within the knife industry, the hole is treated like it is subject to a trademark, as many custom makers license the hole (rumor is that the licensing fee is donated to a Denver childrens hospital because Sal is da man). For that reason, I'll assume the story is right without being able to find the documentation to support it. The Spyderco trademark is the hole as a method of opening. Their site indicates that there is a lot of associated features that go along with this, but this is somewhat unique, as trademarks are designed to protect brand identifiers and not inventions, though I think at this point the opening hole is both.

Counterfeits, Clones, and Homages

All of this background leads us to the meat of the issue--counterfeits, clones, and homages. 

Before we get to that there is a rule of thumb that seems important to mention--a piece of intellectual property is valuable only to the extent that you can defend it in court. If you are small company, like Spyderco, all of the patents and trademarks in the world won't help you if you can't afford to fight the big guys in court. Take the Spyderco hole for example. There are a number of legal arguments you could make attacking the trademark. You could claim that because other holes are used as opening devices, the hole is not uniquely associated with Spyderco. You could point to the fact that a few Spyderco knives don't even have a hole (the Jess Horn for example). You could also claim that the hole as a trademark is really just an improper extension of the patent that expired. I am not sure the merits of any of these arguments, but as a lay person I can see them being something big companies could say in litigation with Spyderco and if Spyderco doesn't have the money to fight those fights, even if they are the "rightful" holder in the minds of knife knuts around the world, they lose. IP is valuable only to the extent you can protect it. The proof of this is just how aggressive and litigious Mag Light is. They have engaged in legal action with many companies for things as insignificant as wording around the flashlight bezel. But they win and they sue because they have the money to protect their IP.

Let's get one thing out of the way, right away. You cannot sue someone for making a knife that looks like yours unless they copied something that you patented or something you have trademarked. The fact that the San Ren Mu 704 LOOKS like the Sebenza is not enough. It may be a clone but clones, absent infringement, are legal. The problem with a lot of stuff out there is that it doesn't merely LOOK like the item, it claims to be the item.  That is a counterfeit. A Kevin Johns Hinderer often has Hinderer's logo on it, which is trademarked, and the Hinderer Overtravel Stop, which is patented.  Here is the REAL DEAL:

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Both things constitute a violation of intellectual property rights. But there are two problems associated with enforcing the rights--first, Hinderer is a small company and the deep pockets principle comes into play; second, it is hard to enforce IP rights internationally. As such the Kevin Johns stuff does appear to violate Hinderer's IP rights, but there is little that can be done about it. Additionally, it is important to distinguish between stuff that infringes on IP rights and stuff that is contraband. The Kevin Johns stuff, so long as it comports with local knife laws, is not contraband--that is it is not a crime merely to possess it. I found that lots of people don't know the difference between civil and criminal actions and most IP issues are civil in nature, especially possessing counterfeit products (counterfeit money or government documents is an entirely different matter).  It may be a crime to sell it, as there are laws that criminalize trademark infringement, but it is not a crime to possess it, simply because it is a true counterfeit.

And so we get to the distinctions that matter. Kevin Johns Hinderers are counterfeit--they look like the real thing and claim to be the real thing, but aren't and are not licensed copies. The San Ren Mu 704 is totally different. It is a clone (or rip off) of the Sebenza, but does not claim to be the real thing. Absent some infringement, it is perfectly legal to make and sell. It may be distasteful, but law and morality are two different things (for good reasons--you don't want my morality to govern your actions anymore than I want yours to govern mine).

Then there are the homages. The Scott Cook Lochsa is an homage to the Sebenza, albeit a much upgraded one. It looks like the original, but not exactly like it and does not claim to be the original. This is not only wholly legal, but it actually one of the ways art and design propagates.

Interesting IP in the Gear World

There are a bunch of IP rights in the gear world that are interesting. Here is my take on some of them:

Emerson Wave: The patent runs out sometime between now and 2017. After that it will be interesting to see what happens. Hopefully Ernie has a plan and perhaps he will follow in Spyderco's footsteps and parlay the patent into a trademark if he hasn't done so already. I would imagine that the expiration of the patent is, perhaps, one of the reasons why we are seeing the Emerson/KAI collaborations in 2014 (which is the earliest the patents could expire). Note also how the Demko patent on the "waveable" thumb plate seems to be very close to the actual Emerson patent.   Both are patented though.

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Case Sodbuster: Of all of the IP in the gear world this is, without question, the most dubious from a legal perspective. Case trademarked the name "sodbuster" but apparently the Trademark office was asleep at the switch and ignored the facts. First, the sodbuster pattern is old. It did not originate with Case, neither the pattern nor the name. The Eye Brand of Germany is likely the original user of the name "sodbuster". Nor did it ever fall out of use. Sodbusters of various brands have been made almost continuously for at least 80 years. But for whatever reason, the Trademark Office granted Case's application and now no one can say they make a Sodbuster other than Case.

Kit Carson Flipper: Well there is no way to trademark the flipper and there is probably no way to go back and patent it, but this the perfect example of what happens when an invention is released into the wild without intellectual property protections--nothing bad happens for the consumer (though I would imagine Kit would like the royalties from everyone and their mother copying his idea). I wish Kit Carson would get more money and recognition for his design, but in reality the average gear geek has benefited from the fact that the flipper wasn't patented. This is a perfect case study in why intellectual properties aren't necessarily all a good thing. Its complicated. On the one hand inventors get credit and profit from their inventions. On the other, those inventions can get stuck with one company and that company uses the exclusivity a patent or trademark creates to charge way more than the product is really worth. This says nothing for the patent troll battles that clog up the courts and stifle innovation.

Stan Wilson Bolster Flipper: Take a peek. This is the coolest thing I have seen in knives in years. Run, do not walk to the patent office, Mr. Wilson. Copy cats are looming in the offing, once they can figure out how you did this.

If you are an inventor and want to secure your property rights, there are lots of folks, IP lawyers, that can help you. There are also organizations that will buy your patents. There are organizations that will take a percentage of profits from your patent in exchange for providing defense of the patent in court. There are law firms that specialize in patent applications and different firms that specialize in patent litigation. There are similar firms for trademarks, copy rights, and trade secrets.

Hopefully this information will give you some perspective on the gear we love and how big money and big business will try to exploit IP rights as our little corner of the market goes from mom and pop to global corporations. Let's hope that the Spydercos of the world survive and benefit from the ingenuity while at the same time great innovations get into the marketplace naturally and cheaply, like the Carson flipper.

If you are interested in more looks at the business side of gear, let me know, either in the comments or by email (everydaycommentary at gmail dot com, in the usual format).  

Friday, February 14, 2014

Tanos Mini Systainer Review

If you like gear you tend to fall into two camps--the guy that leaves his knife out in the snow for a season or the guy that cleans his knife after ever cut it makes, even in paper.  No matter how fussy you are though there comes a point in your gear purchasing that you realize that it is time to seriously consider how you store and transport those items.  Right now I am using a very cheap mini mechanic's chest.  It works well, but comes in second to a toilet in terms of transportability.  I like it, but it also lacks something in terms of expansion.  It basically is what it is and there is no way to make it hold more stuff, short of buying another chest.  Those two big problems led me to keep searching.

In addition to using and playing around with gear I also like to do woodworking.  There is only so long you can go in your woodworking before you run into Festool.  Simply put, there are no better tools at any price.  If Festool makes it, its the best there is.  My love affair with black and green started with a sander called the Rotex 90.  Then I developed a full scale disease, buying the vac, the jigsaw, and the CSX drill.  I am always dreaming of more Festool stuff, and I have had my eye on the MFT-3 for about two years now.  I am slow to pull the trigger and I like to save up (hence the year wait for an XM-18), so it will be a while.  In the meantime I can enjoy the benefits of 96% dust collection and modularity that rivals Lego (oh and I love Lego...not Legos...Lego).  But its not just the tools that are modular, the cases are as well.  In fact, the cases are a huge part of the Festool system.  They latch together with each other.  They have dimensions that work with tools (for example, the height of a medium systainer is the perfect height to be a bed extension for the Kapex Miter Saw).  And they are incredibly sturdy.

About two years ago I found out that the systainer tool case system was not limited to just Festool, but that another company made them and customized them for Festool.  That company is called Tanos.  In turn Tanos is imported in the US by Woodcraft, a woodworking tool store.  I reached out to Woodcraft and they sent me two sample Mini T-Loc Systainers, with foam inserts.

Here is the product page.  The Mini T-Loc Systainer (hereinafter "the Mini") runs a very affordable $25.  Foam inserts are cheap--between $3 and $5 for the various inserts compatible with the Mini version.  Here is a review of the T-Loc cases (as they are used on Festool gear, but they work exactly the same on the Tanos models, just different colors and contents).  Here is my video overview of the Mini:



Here is the review sample Woodcraft sent me:


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On top of the Mini is the Spyderco Zulu for size reference.  I was feeling very European that day--I called soccer football, or even snootier futbol a couple of times.

The Mini is made of relatively thick ABS plastic and they are not airtight or watertight.  The Mini is not designed to compete with the Pelican cases or Otter boxes out there.  It is meant for, originally, tool and part storage.  Think of them as the modern day version of the modular Gerstner chests--a bit more techy and a lot lighter.

The trick with the Mini T-Loc comes from this:P1020757

That is a shot of the T-Loc.  It works quite well and quite elegantly.  When you are using only one container there are two positions for the T-Loc: the T position (locked) and the upside down T position (unlocked).  In the T position (seen in the picture above on the top container) the case is locked.  In the upside down T position, the case is unlocked.

All of this changes when you add another container to the mix.  The T has three positions and when you have more than one case, each of the three positions do something different.  You can have a container locked, a container latched (connected to another container), or locked AND latched.  In the photo above, the bottom container is unlocked, but latched to the top container.  That is, you can open the bottom container and still have the two containers connected together and have the top container locked closed.  That's pretty ingenious, but it gets even better.


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Now the bottom container is both locked and latched to the top container.  With this arrangement you can have an infinite number of Mini T-Loc Systainers connected together in a single, locked stack.  Furthermore you can open any one container without having to remove the containers on top of it or removing it from the stack.  This flexibility is really nice, especially when you have a few Systainers (like I do in my workshop).  They do eventually become top heavy, but with the Minis, this would take quite a few.

I tried the pick and pluck foam and it worked very well.  It kept everything in place, secure, and rattle free.  It also looked very organized and clean:

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I found it hard to squeeze in more than five knives and if you have a knife significantly bigger than the XM-18, you would need to change its orientation.  For flashlights, the pick and pluck foam didn't work as well.  It still kept them secure, but they were harder to retrieve.  The Mini is pretty deep, and tiny lights like my 40DD and the Aeon Mk. II got lost, even when I stood them up instead of laying them down.  Bigger lights did much better.

I did try the Mini without the pick and pluck foam and it was fine.  The gear would rattle when moved, but with the egg crate on the bottom they stayed put when stationary and were relatively well protected, just nothing compared to the pick and pluck foam set up.

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The egg crates (as well as the foam on the top) are also an accessory and are sold separately for a very reasonable price of between $3-$6.

Everything was incredibly well made.  The foam inserts were cut clean and fit snug.  The Minis themsevles closed easily and locked together snuggly.  They are also durable.  I could comfortably and easily stand on the Mini without creaking or cracking.  I don't think they are anything like an Otter Box/Pelican Box, but again, these are Gerstner chest replacements, not bulletproof containers.  In that role, they are easily as good as a Gerstner chest.

In terms of portability they are amazing.  They have built in handles.

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The handles are free swinging, but lay flat for latching containers together.  The hinges are flush with the box too and are durable as well.  Literally every possible detail has been thought out on these containers both in terms of design and in terms of fit and finish.

The Minis are, as I mentioned before, infinitely stackable.  They are not, however, compatible with the larger T-Loc systainers or the older non-T-Loc systainers.  There is also a MAXI systainer that is not compatible with the rest of the line (though they are compatible with other MAXI-sized units).  Once you ignore the top and the bottom, ever other systainer is compatible with each other, even T-Loc and non-T-Loc (though you cannot do the lock AND latch thing between the two different kinds of systainers).

I heartily recommend the T-Loc Systainer as a way of organizing, storing, and transporting your gear.  They are relatively inexpensive compared to similarly sized wood chests like Gerstner stuff and compared to the bullet proof boxes (and really I am not sure just how useful that bulletproofness is outside of taking gear into hostile environments).  They are also modular in a way that no other storage system is.  They are clean looking, well built, and precision made.  If you have a small collection or want to just try them out, go for a Mini.  When I switch I'll probably get a bigger T-Loc or maybe even a drawer systainer.

But if you have a knife collection that is too big or too nice for a drawer, consider the Mini.  If you are a custom maker or a dealer and go to shows, the T-Loc systainer system is the way to travel.  They even make a dolly for systainers (there is also a wheeled base).   You could roll into the Gathering or Blade with a quarter million dollars in customs and not break a sweat and you could avoid opening 500 small zippered knife cases.

The T-Loc Systainer is truly 21st century storage and the Mini is an affordable way to test the waters.  Go take a peek.  The organization freak in you will be blissfully happy.       

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Business Side of Gear: Intellectual Property, Part I

Gear fascinates us for many reasons, but one major reason I like it is because I am fascinated by the process of design and invention. There are lots of aspects of gear that overlap with intellectual property. This is a primer on intellectual property (also known as "IP law") as it applies to gear. Note that while I am a lawyer, I am not an IP lawyer. I have never done an IP case. The information I am providing here is not legal advice, but just an overview of principles that shape the gear we love.  There are a lot of readers of this site that are attorneys and I am sure some are IP lawyers.  If I make a mistake here I sure, and I would hope, that they'd correct me.

In part, I am writing this because there are few things that the average gear geek understands less than IP law. Search for any IP related topic in gear and you will find an million mistakes. The Internet's reliability is suspect to begin with, but the amount of errors in the gear world relating to IP is higher than average.  Notions that someone's design was "stolen" or that some secret steel is actually just a name slapped on stuff we all know about leads to a lot of fights on forums and a huge amount of simply provably false information.

The genesis for this article was a segment on the Knife Journal Podcast with Jim Nowka and Kyle Ver Steeg.  Jim is one of the most knowledgeable folks in the world about knives and the business of knives and this area of the business is so convoluted and so full of incorrect information that an expert like Jim has a difficult time figuring out what is right and wrong.  If its about knives and Jim doesn't know, well, geez...I am not sure anyone would.  I tried to find the answer to a lot of questions that segment raised on the Internet and I struck out completely.  Unsatisfied, I decided to do research and put up the results of that research in the hopes that this would start a discussion that would provide better answers than what's out there now.  Like I said, if its a question about knives and Jim doesn't have the answer, then the answer isn't out there.  Hopefully, now, part of the answer IS out there.      

The Big Picture

The Founding Fathers recognized the importance of protecting inventions and rewarding inventors. The foundation of all US intellectual property law is found in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

This is one of the many Enumerated Powers of Congress, a list of powers specifically given to Congress. All Congressional action, all authority for Congress to pass laws stems from one of the Enumerated Powers or the special catch all clause, called the Necessary and Proper Clause. The placement of the so-called Patent and Copyright Clause is indicative of its importance to the Founding Fathers--it was placed in the Constitution proper, as opposed to the Amendments, and in the very first Article. Comparatively speaking, things like Freedom of Speech and the Right to Bear Arms, were significantly less important. In fact the Amendments were not part of the original Constitution at all, but part of a bargain struck with the people and the States. They were included to grease the skids and get the Constitution accepted by all thirteen states.

From that one phrase in the Constitution we get four primary forms of intellectual property: patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets (though trade secrets work almost entirely differently than the other forms of IP). Copyrights have no applicability to gear, as they are designed to safeguard written or performed works, like books and music. Gear companies have a ton of copyrights but they protect things like the company's website or catalog. Trade secrets have limited applicability to gear. Trade secrets are a form of intellectual property that safeguards things like "secret recipes." Additionally, unlike other forms of intellectual property, trade secrets are protected by law only to the extent that the holder of the trade secret makes efforts to keep it secret. If Dr. Pepper's secret formula was posted on the Internet by Dr. Pepper, it would lose its trade secret protection.

This leaves patents and trademarks. Patents are significantly more complex than trademarks. They offer much greater protection and enforceability. Going along with those additional safeguards is a much higher bar (in theory) to get a patent. Trademarks basically have to be used in commerce and then they are protected. Registering a trademark merely makes it easier to prove it was used in commerce, but offers no additional protection. Trademarks are designated by a tiny "TM" (for trademark), an "SM" (for service mark) or "R" (for registered trademark) near the trademarked item, usually a slogan, name or logo.

Patents

In the US a patent is granted based on a four-part test. In order to patent something an invention must be: 1) patentable; 2) new; 3) non-obvious; and 4) useful.

Patentable simply means that the item being patentable is not something like an idea, though processes and computer code can be patentable. You cannot patent, for example, good will.  You also cannot patent a name.  For example, Spyderco and INFI steel may be trademarks, but they can never be patents.  Patents protect processes, physical and non-physical inventions.  A non-physical invention could be something like genetic code for genetically modified crops or computer software.

New means that the item is not like something already on the market. For example, you can't patent the 2014 Subaru Legacy. Its not that different from the 2013 model. That said, there are huge exploits that get around this newness requirement.  Drug companies will often develop a drug in two ways: first in a regular pill and then in a pill that slowly dissolves over time, so-called Extended Release (XR) versions. Even though the chemicals are all but identical, the XR version has been, traditionally, "new" for patent purposes.

The third part of the test is that the item must be non-obvious. In European patent law, the item must display an "inventive" step. As you can imagine, this is the place where most patent fights happen. Non-obviousness, ironically, is a concept that is not obvious. The best example of non-obviousness is one used in law school classes on intellectual property. Suppose that there is a company out there making baseballs. On their first product they put markers on the surface of the ball to correspond to your fingers. If you place your fingers on the right markers and throw the ball, its a curveball. The ball is designed to teach you how to throw that pitch. That first ball, the first one with markers, is likely non-obvious (assuming there is nothing like it on the market), it is both new and non-obvious in a way that, say, a neon orange baseball is not. But if they then released another ball with different markers that helps teach you a slider, that one is not non-obvious. It is a simple and obvious extension of a previous concept. Again, I am not sure how the XR drugs aren't blocked by this element as well. There is some overlap between new and non-obvious. Simply put, all non-obvious inventions are new, but not all new inventions are non-obvious. In gear terms, the Umnumzaan is new, but in light of the Sebenza, it is not non-obvious. The Sebenza, when it was first made, was both new, and the development of the framelock is a non-obvious invention when compared to other locks on the market.

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The last part of the test is that the item be useful. The patent office will not approve a patent for a Rube Goldberg machine, though if you read only a few patents you will realize that the threshold for "useful" is very low and in fact, almost always purely hypothetical. Most patents are awarded in chemistry, computer technology, and biology where blue sky research makes an amazing discovery and the patent application lists a bunch of hypothetical uses; in gear its a bit different, but gear makes up a very small percentage of patents.

Patents last for 20 years. They used to be awarded to the "first to invent", but in 2011 that system was changed to the "first inventor to file." This was designed to eliminate lots of contentious cases that turned on when something was invented. It is now a race to the patent office. Though a patent lasts for 20 years, the application process is slow. From submission, there is an 18 month waiting period which can be extended. In essence a patent lasts 17-18 years.

Patent applications are a very specialized form of legal writing with rules that strike me as being as silly and convoluted as European heraldry rules. My wife, who is a scientist, has a few patents and even she was unable to decipher exactly what the patent meant, despite the fact that she is both a college professor and the inventor of the thing being patented. The key problem is obvious once you think about the purpose of filing a patent (to enforce a patent in a legal dispute). You want the patent to be a specific as possible, so as to get awarded a patent, but as general as possible to make as widely enforceable as possible. These competing goals lead to things like this:

A folding knife that is self opening when removed from a container such as a holster or pocket. The knife includes a handle and a knife blade with the blade hinged to the handle for folding from an extended, use, position to a stored position in a slot in the handle. A pin is formed on the knife blade adjacent to the hinged end, extending away from the blade when the blade is folded. When the knife is pulled from a container, the pin will snag the container just before the knife is fully removed, causing the blade to unfold to the use position. Preferably, the pin is hook-shaped with an end extending along the blade towards the blade tip. A releasable locking arrangement to lock the blade against folding while in use and for releasing the blade when desired for folding is preferably included.

Anyone recognize what this is?

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What about now?

Its the patent for the Emerson Wave. Until you get to the word "snag" you'd probably have no idea what this patent abstract is referencing. And this is the "simple" part of the patent application.

Patents can be enforced through litigation or through licensing. For many, litigation is merely involuntary licensing, a cost of doing business in an increasingly "patentable" world. In a license the patent holder agrees to allow a non-patent holder to make or produce the patented item. The non-patent holder pays a fee and the patent holder agrees to not sue. In litigation, a party is sued by the patent holder for developing or using the patented item without permission. And here is the key detail--a patent can be enforced even if the infringement is unknowing. That is, suppose to parties both invent item X entirely independent of each other. Party One goes to the patent office and gets a patent. Party Two doesn't and just goes on their merry way. Years later Party One finds out that Party Two is using (read: selling) the patented item. Party Two cannot claim they created the item independently of Party One. Nor can they claim they reverse engineered the item. Infringement, knowing or otherwise, is still a violation of the patent. And this is why patent protection is so strong. Any use without authorization is subject to suit and damages. The damages can be huge. Look at the suit between Apple and Samsung. In addition to a massive amount of money, Apple secured an injunction, or a court order, that barred Samsung from selling is products that infringed on Apple's patents. Damages and injunctions are tremendously powerful weapons in commerce and one of the reasons why patent cases dominate the high damage awards in modern litigation.

Here is where patents touch on gear. You can patent something like the Emerson Wave, but you can't patent a knife. You can't patent, for example, the Sebenza, but you could patent the frame lock, or Reeve Integral Lock (Chris Reeve did not do so, so far I can find). The Spyderco hole was, according to sources on the Internet, patented. I searched the Patent Office and found only the patent for the Bali-Yo pen. The patent would have expired by now if it was filed for when the C01 Worker was released in 1981. There are also signs that the Spyderco hole is trademarked, but again, a search of the trademark office turns up nothing (again, remember trademarks do not need to be registered for protection).

You can search patents through Google or on the USPTO (US Patent and Trademark Office) website, which is quite good.  Hopefully this gives you a better idea of what a patent is and more importantly what can be patented.  You can't get a patent for a name, like INFI steel, but if the steel meets the four part test above and no one else has a patent or patent pending (that's where that phrase comes from), then the formula CAN be patented.   

Friday, February 7, 2014

Orbita Lighthouse Review

There are some products that have a backstory that you can't avoid. I try as best I can to evaluate the product independent of that baggage, but like the Strider PT, there are things about how the Orbita Lighthouse was made that I can't skip over. Doing so would be a disservice to you, even if the information is not strictly related to how the light performs. So here is the backstory.

 Orbita is a luxury goods maker that started in the watch business. The make a series of watchwinders, devices that help keep mechanical watches running even when they are not on a wearer's body where the movement of the body keeps the watch wound. These watchwinders vary in size and cost, from a single watch unit that costs very little money to a closet sized design that keeps dozens of watches running that costs $50,000. Their site shows off these designs and includes impressive pictures and videos of their amazing craftsmanship. In particular, as a woodworker, I am jealous of how nice the lacquer finishes are on these beautiful boxes. Other pluses include the fact that Orbita is a US company and the stuff is all made here in the US.

A few years ago, seeing the potential for their luxury brand to expand, Orbita released a line of what they called "luxury flashlights". Now for the mainstream public that term probably sounds a bit odd, but for those of us that love flashlights, it was a phrase that made perfect sense. A McGizmo, for all of its flawless performance, is, in the final analysis, a luxury good. They released a few different designs each with different materials used in the flashlight's barrel. The Lighthouse was the model that seemed most interesting to me, so when I asked them for a review sample, that's what I asked for. I received an email from a real person and within days the package had arrived.

During the shipping period I started doing research on the light. There was a review, found here, on Layman's Guide to Flashlights (an excellent site, BTW) and he seemed to like it and the review had very little negative information in it. After reading that review I was pumped for the light. But I kept digging, as I always do when researching new products, and I found a few threads on the Orbita on CPF. There is no mistaking the fact that the Orbita Lighthouse bears a striking similarity to the Lumencraft GatLight. The materials are different--the GatLight was made of pure titanium while the Orbita is made of stainless steel and there are models that have a "sleeve" of other material around the main body of the light. Additionally, the GatLight had a rotating dial on the rear of the light that adjusted output, while the Orbita has a straightforward clicky. Finally, the GatLight had one central emitter, while the Orbita has both the central emitter, and a ring of LEDs that both give it its name and allow for wide dispersal of light when using the light in a tailstand.

 The reason I kept researching was because I wanted to know about the origin of the Lighthouse's design. Was it an explicit continuation of the GatLight? Was it a licensed version? Was it just a happy coincidence that the two lights shared a look? Lumencraft stopped making lights a few years ago, so maybe, I thought, Orbita bought their design and/or remaining stock and did some mods. Oh no, its nothing like that. If you read this thread (starting at post #21) and this thread, you will quickly discover that Lumencraft and Orbita are at war with each other, or were at war with each other. You see, just like in the knife world where the pernicious Kevin Johns copies every successful blade design, there is a company out there willing to rip off any successful light design. Have you seen the Niteye Zip20 that looks like the Spy 007? Careful tracking by CPFers revealed that there was, in fact, a rip off version of the GatLight. Furthermore, the Lighthouse and this ripoff shared all of the traits that make the Lighthouse different from the GatLight--the lesser materials, the clicky, and the ring of LEDs. The similarities between the ripoff light, which cost around $30 and the Lighthouse (which cost around $250) were way too close. As you can see from the threads there was a back and forth between Lumencraft's representative and Orbita's representative.

As usual, I am simply going to give you the information and let you decide who is right. I contacted Orbita after I found this information and I sent them a link and asked for an explanation. They insisted that the Lighthouse is NOT that Chinese ripoff, that it is made entirely in the US, and that there are differences in the guts between the Chinese ripoff and the Lighthouse. Here is the exact email exchange:

I wrote:

Dear Orbita,

And I found this:

http://dx.com/p/xg-v3-cree-xp-g-4-mode-350-lumen-white-led-flashlight-with-8
x-f5-led-colorful-light-1-18650-55005?Utm_rid=72454787&Utm_sid=1&Utm_source=
affiliate&Utm_medium=dealextreme

What's the connection between this light and the Lighthouse?  It seems to
have a lot of the same touches, even down to the GITD o-rings. 

I just want to make sure I get everything correct for the review.


Tony

They replied:

Hi Anthony,

Here are the differences:

Our Model:  XP-GQ5 LED
Our Modes: 6
Voltage:  3.7V      2600mAh
Lens:  Sapphire Crystal
Runtime:  2-3 hours on HI
Lithium Battery:  Included with ours

Our Flashlights are turned, finished and assembled in the USA. There are
always cheaply made Chinese knockoffs which look alike but are poor quality
and do not carry any warranty.

We offer Flashlight Sets which include (2) Rechargeable batteries, 110VAC
Charging Station and Leather Carrying Holster, Lantern Base and Black Gift
Box.

Let me know if you have any further questions.


I have no way of confirming or denying any of this. This is what Orbita told me and I have no reason to doubt it. It is possible they have an independently made light that just happens to look like the Chinese ripoff.   That said, this is not the only Orbita light that looks like a Chinese ripoff. Here is the Orbita Slimline.  Here is the Fandyfire XG-V5.  Here is Dave's review of the Slimline on Layman's Guide.  Bottom line: I just don't know. That's all of the information I could find and in the end it is just a bunch of people hurling accusations at a company on the internet. Whether those accusations are true is beyond my ability to determine, but you should at least know about them going into this review.

In summary, I cannot determine if the Lighthouse is:

1. An homage to the Gatlight made here in the USA.
2. A Chinese ripoff of the Gatlight with some "value added" touches.
3. An entirely USA made product.

I have asked the manufacturer and they have indicated that it is #3, but there is just too much out there to ignore.  You now have all of that information, gathered in one spot and you can hopefully make your own decision.  With that out of the way, I am going to evaluate the product separate and apart from this origins controversy.  One last thing, there is nothing about the GatLight, so far as I am aware, that is patented or trademarked.  Absent one of those things copies are perfectly legal, if somewhat distasteful.  Additionally, the Ultrafire copies are NOT purporting to be the real thing like the Kevin Johns Hinderer which even go so far as to have Hinderer's name on the knife.  

Here is the product page. The CF version costs $235 for the basic, light only package and $295 for the whole kit, which includes a nice lanyard, a good charger, a spare 18650 battery, and a reflector/tailstand dish.  There are various options for body tube sleeves including wood, carbon fiber or plain stainless steel rods.  Here is a written review. Here is a video overview.  The light is only available from the Orbita site or specialty retailers.   You can also purchase it from Amazon (sales benefit the site):

ORBITA Carbon Fiber Lighthouse Flashlight Set, includes Rechargeable Batteries and Italian Leather Case

Finally, here is my review sample (provided by Orbita and to be given away):

P1010568

Review Summary: Big, bulky, and quirky with a heaping of controversy on the side.

Design: 1

The original GatLights were pretty, oh yes they were.  The Lighthouse is similarly good looking, especially with the sleeve of material around the body tube.  The presentation is simply unrivaled.  The box it came in had a perfect piano finish.  The accessories were also nicely done, especially the leather holster (see below).  No question it is pretty, regardless of origin.  

P1010588

But, and this is a big deal, its not the most practically light in the world, even for a "luxury light."  I don't think anyone would confuse my Mk. II Aeon for a cheapy Duracell light, but it is very practical.  Here you get a tube of substantial size and girth with nothing to aid in carry or grip.  That's one big hit.  The ring of LEDs are hard to pin down.  Sometimes I think they are nice and then I realize that a good ceiling bounce (aiming the light at the white ceiling which will disperse and bounce back a good portion of the light) does basically the same thing without the sickly tint of the secondary LEDs.  That's a draw.  So you get good marks for beauty and packaging (not that packaging matters much), bad marks for its form factor, and a draw on the secondary LEDs.  That's a 1. 

The performance numbers aren't good, in part because this light has a middle of road high for an 18650 light and because this thing is built like a traffic barrier.  Here is the light next to the size reference Zippo.

P1010606

The total lumens output is found on...well...no where.  The high is listed at 350 lumens, but there is no listed runtime for the high or any other mode.  In short, we are guessing here.  Runtime is a pretty crucial stat and to not include it at all is a sign of serious problems, either with the item itself or with marketing.  The lumens:weight is 42, nothing like even big lights I have reviewed (the MMX-R is 163).  The total weight of the light is listed at 7 ounces, but with the battery my model hits 8.32 ounces.

Fit and Finish: 2

Whether it is made in the US or in China, the Lighthouse is really quite marvelous in its fit and finish, especially the body tube sleeve and the holster.  Here is a shot of the immaculately stitched leather holster:

P1010591

After pawing the light for over two months the only ding I could find is one of the secondary LEDs is slightly misaligned or crooked.  The emitter was centered, the clicky was crisp, the threads were clean, smooth, and even.  

Grip: 2

For all of its chubby dimensions, the Lighthouse is actually very nice in the hand.  The carbon fiber is a little slick, but nothing offensive at all.  I quite liked it.

P1010582

The dimensions and ratios were very good.  One thing that you should be aware of is the texture of the carbon fiber.  Its somewhere between the slick feel of the Caly 3 and the basket weave of the Sage 1.  It is very high gloss, but has a bit of grip or "scale" to it, kind of like fish scales.  A normal ice pick grip is about all your are going to get out of this thing because the very large diameter makes a cigar grip impossible unless you have the hands of an NBA center.

Carry: 0

At over half a pound and with a portly size, this thing is not easy to carry in the pocket.  The sheath, as gorgeously well made as it is, is also pretty cumbersome and very dorky (all sheathes are dorky, but this one, with its ostentatious presentation is a bit more so).  The light also lacks a pocket clip, making it an overall poor light to lug around.  If you want to try to simulate what its like to carry around take a piece of 1 1/4 inch diameter PVC, fill it with sand, seal the ends, and drop it in your pack or pocket.  That's the Lighthouse.  I guess this is inability to carry the light easily is one of those things, like a desk pen, that makes it "luxury", but that's sort of ridiculous, in light of stuff like the Haiku (or any McGizmo light).

Output: 1

We have no idea what the low is.  We have no idea how long any mode lasts.  The product literature claims that the output on high is 350 lumens, but we don't know if it is direct drive or regulated (its got to be regulated, right?).  There are just too many unknowns for me to be definitive on anything other than this--350 lumens on high is below par for an 18650 light nowadays.  The TX25C2 his 1100 lumens out the front, its medium is basically equal to the Lighthouse's high.  The same goes for a comparison between the Zebralight SC600 Mk. II or the FourSevens MMX-R and the Lighthouse.  Additionally, the Lighthouse has no medium, but a bunch of weird extra outputs.  The "defensive" strobe is not hidden.  Its right there after the low.  Then there are the two modes that use the secondary LEDs--a candle mode that produces the sickest tint I have ever seen, and a beacon mode where the secondary LEDs light up one at a time in sequence.  All of this is just bad. 

Nonetheless I can't give a light that produces 350 lumens and has a low anything worse than a 1.  Its a close call hear, given the other modes, the lack of hidden modes, and no data on anything other than the high, but all of that impacts our ability to assess the light compared to the competition, but it does not alter the fact that if you lost power, for example, the Lighthouse would still be pretty useful.

Runtime: 0 

Without any data and no information about whether the light is regulated or not, I can't accurately assess runtimes.  It may be great.  It may be terrible, but not having this information out there is a huge problem.  People use lights in emergencies, like when the power goes out, and not giving them information on runtime means they are less likely to use a light.  They have a harder time depending on the light and in the end, that is why we EDC a light.  If this data surfaces I am willing to revisit this portion of the review, but for now, it gets a zero.

Beam Type: 2 

You get both throw and flood here, even if neither is great.  The ability to choose is a huge plus.  I am not sure of the practicality of the secondary LEDs but simply by virtue of choice, this light gets a 2. 

P1010569

Lots of the new Fenix offerings for 2014 have primary and secondary LEDs to allow for both a flood and a throw beam and many customs do as well (the Lunasol 20, the Lunasol 27, and the Spy Tri-V).  This unqiue feature is something worth exploring if you are a light manufacturer.  Given how few lights actually have this set up, its hard for me to compare and contrast the systems to tell you which is better, but again options = better score.

Beam Quality: 1

The main beam is quite nice with very few artifacts and a pleasant enough tint. 

P1010572

The ding here comes from the secondary LEDs which are not just bad, but quite awful.  First, there placement makes for weird and disorienting shadows when the light is used as a candle.  Second, the tint of these cheap bin LEDs is horrendous.  The tint is somewhere between sallow and gangrenous.  Its just awful.   

UI: 0

This light has 6 output modes, but no medium.  How did that happen?  Additionally the disorienting modes are not hidden so you have to cycle through them to go from low to high.  There is no mode memory either so you can't set up the UI for the next time you turn the light on.  Finally, it uses an plain old clicky.   The clicky alone is probably worth a 1, but the combination of a clicky, no medium, and no hidden strobe modes means the UI on the Lighthouse scores a 0. 

Hands Free: 1

There is absolutely nothing to prevent this light from rolling away.  I guess they assume that since it is a "luxury" light they don't need to worry about how it will handle work tasks.  But then they include the tailstanding dish:

P1010592

The dish works well, but it is kind of a design crutch.  No one will carry it around with them, its just too awkward.  The light should be able to tailstand on its own, but I guess this is an okay fix.  This is BARELY a 1.  I debated whether or not to give it a 0, but since it can, in theory, tailstand without the dish, I decided to keep it as a 1.  

Overall Score: 10 of 20

For all of the controversy about the Lighthouse's origins, the light itself is pretty bad.  Its bulky, not terribly bright given the battery, not terribly user friendly, and its expensive.  It is nice looking.  It does feel well made.  But its just not a light I can recommend, either for EDC use or other purposes.  The notion that a luxury item do not need to concern itself with practicality is absurd, unless its a piece of artwork.  In my mind there should never be a piece of gear that is purely a Veblen good.  Even the nicest Ron Lake folder can still cut things.  But here, there is almost zero eye towards use.

The packaging is superb.  No question about that and while I'd never up a score for packaging alone, it is impressive.  Additionally the accessories are nice.  The two 18650 batteries are good reputable batteries (from Ultrafire, the company that made the GatLight knock off some believe the Lighthouse to be, another piece of incriminating evidence).  The charger is nice.  Even the holster is amazing.  The dish is pretty dumb, but everything else is decent.  None of this, however, adds up to a light worth the staggering retail price (truly staggering if this is just an upscale version of the Ultrafire, as that sold for under $30 on Deal Extreme at one point).

I'd love to see Orbita take some of its machining know how and make its own light.  There are plenty of good light designers out there they could collaborate with--a Prometheus Orbita collab would be killer.  But the Lighthouse is just not a good light, regardless of provenance.   

The Competition

The Fenix PD22 is nowhere near as beautiful, but it is significantly more useful and not appreciably dimmer.  If these were the only two lights in the world, I'd never choose the Lighthouse.  Compared to other 18650 lights, like the Eagletac TX25C2 and the FourSevens MMX-R there is no question this light is inferior.  It may be pretty, but that's it.