Monday, March 31, 2014

Cold Steel Mini AK-47 Review by Ben Schwartz

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Ben's second review. The statements are his, such as the first one, which is a whopper.  All of the pictures that are taken with a wooden background are taken by Rhys Arithson and are used with permission.

Cold Steel makes some of the best production knives available today. They offer their customers knives that are well made, affordable, and extremely durable. It’s clear that whatever their reputation has been in the past, they are now recognized as serious, legitimate knifemakers.

And yet, at the same time, Cold Steel maintains a strong streak of ridiculousness. Pretty much everybody’s seen their Absolute Proof series of videos, in which their knives are put through odysseys of torture tests by burly men in polo shirts. Car hoods are punctured, cowboy boots are stabbed through, giant braids of rope and hanks of meat and whole pigs are hung up and cut through. In one video a horse’s skull is crushed with a great sword.

There’s nothing wrong with being proud of the products you put out, and really nothing wrong with making ridiculous videos to demonstrate the unprecedented badassery of your knives. But I bring it up because it illustrates the strange dichotomy that you find in Cold Steel: on the one hand, you have this company that’s really coming into its own: bringing in new designers, shaking up their status quo, making decisions that indicate a concern for and an understanding of the needs of a serious user of knives; on the other, you have this po-faced 80s-action-hero blowhardiness that is at least as endearing as it is absolutely ludicrous. Look at the boxes their knives come in: the font they use for their logo looks like it may’ve been optioned for some unreleased Jean-Claude Van Damme movie (Bloodsport V, anybody?), and underneath that is the ambiguous virility of the phrase “High Performance Knives.”

Carrying and using it, I am struck by how this philosophical schizophrenia manifests itself in the Mini AK-47. What we have here is an EDC knife that has been designed by a company who can’t help thinking that all knives are primarily weapons. I’ll show what I mean by that as I go through each category below, but I think it will also be clear that, despite this issue of a schism’d philosophy, the Mini AK is still, on a fundamental level, a really good knife.

Here's the product page. Here's Nutnfancy’s reviews of both the Mini and the full size AK-47. 
Here is a link to Blade HQ, where you can find the Cold Steel Mini Ak-47, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:

Blade HQ

And here’s the knife itself:

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Review Summary: Three-quarters tool, one-quarter tacticool, a mongrel of a knife that works despite its strange pedigree.

Design: 1

This is a point I vacillated on the entire time I carried the Mini AK. There’s nothing about the design that doesn’t work, in a fundamental sense. This knife gets things done. The drop-point blade is useful. The handle works. The clip works. The wave deployment works, for the most part. And that lock—well, what’s there even to say about it?

But here’s the thing: some of the decisions that Andrew Demko made when he designed the Mini AK, while not inherently bad, still aren’t right, given the size and the primary purpose of this knife. And maybe that’s something I should clarify as well: I never carry a knife for self-defense, and while I recognize how there are many people who do, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Mini AK, or any other knife of its size, is primarily a tool, an EDC knife, an object of utility—a boxcutter, letter opener, food slicer. No matter what the literature from Cold Steel tells you, nothing with a blade under three inches should ever be classed primarily as a tactical knife. It’s just as silly to classify a four-inch monstrosity as an EDC, using it to slice salami instead of tromping out into the woods with it and limbing some trees.

Look at the handle.

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Cold Steel makes knives that tell you how to grip them, which, while not ideal, is usually okay, because the way they tell you to grip them is usually pretty good. Such is the case here. When I first got the knife, I held it wrong, gripping it too far forward. Once I situated my hand lower down, with my index finger in the recess before the hump and my other three fingers beneath it, the difference was immediately noticeable: this was how this knife was meant to be held, and it feels good. However, this puts your hand way back on the knife, way back, like Espada-pistol-grip back, and you sacrifice a lot of control of, or feel for, the blade. In a self-defense situation, you want that reach, and don’t need that fine level of control that EDC tasks usually call for, but again, with a 2.75” blade, this probably won’t be anyone's first choice for a tactical knife, and so those of us who buy it for utility suffer needlessly—especially when you consider that there’s a larger version of this knife  for people who want something with a bit more "tacticality."

It might seem finnicky, but using this knife as much as I did, I can say with certainty that it makes a huge difference in the way the Mini AK deals with EDC tasks compared to something like, say, the Spyderco Air.  The design is solid, for the most part, and the control thing isn’t a fatal flaw, but when something compromises knife’s performance, every time you use it in its intended role, that’s a problem.

The blade:handle is .64, another indicator that this was designed like it was supposed to be a tactical knife. The blade:weight is much better at .86.

Fit and Finish: 2

Every product I’ve had from Cold Steel has had comparable levels of rock-solid fit and finish. Here on the Mini AK, the blade is centered, the edge was sharp, everything is tight and trim. While Cold Steel’s knives aren’t as breathtakingly luxe-feeling as the craftmanship on Spyderco’s Taichung knives, they are without a doubt comparable in the all the ways that really count, and so we can just nod our heads and move on.

I’m not going to say much about the useless Tuff-Ex coating on the blade, which everybody already knows about. It doesn’t affect performance and its so obviously paint that you could probably scrub it off with some soap and water if you really didn’t want to deal with it.

Grip: 2

While I don’t agree with the philosophy behind the handle design of the Mini AK, there’s no denying that it provides a secure grip.

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In addition to working well, it also feels great, which is something that Cold Steel sometimes has trouble with; the new Medium Voyager, for example, offers a secure grip, but one that is also cramped-feeling and uncomfortable. 

Cold Steel’s G-10, which is famously aggressive, didn’t seem to be too toothy here, although it’s certainly rougher than that of, say, the Paramilitary 2. It’s also rounded over on the areas to either side of the blade channel, which adds to the comfort level while holding it, making it secure without biting into your fingers.

Carry: 2

The Mini AK is a much slimmer knife than the Medium Voyager, and carries much better than that knife.

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It’s just on the edge of being a little wide, but as it is, it’s a totally manageable and basically hassle-free passenger in your pocket.

Steel: 2

I confess to having been a little biased against AUS-8A. It’s never stood out in any way to me, being generally more costly than 8Cr13MoV (with the exception of the Mini Dozier, I guess), and in the past I’ve had rust issues with it on my Medium Voyager. And when I first got the Mini AK, it continued to come across as lackluster, becoming noticeably duller after only a few days of what I would consider medium duty: cutting some cardboard, some paper and tape, some cord, and doing a little bit of whittling. It was still useable, but a little less refined than it had been out of the box. But then things got interesting, because it maintained this level of functional sharpness for the remainder of the time I carried it. I continued to do these everyday things with it, and additionally, while I didn’t slice open a horse skull with it, I did use it to cut through a book (long story, don’t ask), and it chewed, albeit slowly, through the paper, glue, and nylon cover with no noticeable dulling. I finally got outside with it and hacked away at some branches just for fun, and it worked, again slowly but without any appreciable dulling of the edge.

I’m still not in love with AUS-8A, and while I still think at this price point we deserve something a little bit better (say 154CM, probably the most underrated steel on the market in my opinion), the truth is that the steel is more than adequate, and while I can’t wholeheartedly embrace it, in this iteration, on this knife, there’s no way I can give it anything less than a two.

Blade Shape: 2

A drop-point [EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a clip point blade], and all the good that comes with that: good tip, good belly.

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Cold Steel does get a little bit exotic sometimes with their blade shapes (hi, Vaquero Voyager), but in this case they kept it simple, and it works.

Grind: 2

With a drop-point blade of this size or larger, I think that a hollow grind is really the way to go. At 2.75” and up you really notice the increased slicing performance, and this knife would really fly through material if the thumb disk/wave opener didn’t occasionally get caught up in material. But that of course has nothing to do with the grind, and so I’m giving it a two.

Deployment Method: 1

Another contested point here. I didn’t think I’d like the wave opening feature as much as I did. It really is convenient to pull the knife out of your pocket and have it ready to go. Today was the first day since I got the Mini AK that I carried something else, and the first time I pulled it out of my pocket and still had to open it, I missed the wave. I don’t think it’s necessary, and I do think it’s a little off-putting to people around you, but it is pretty cool and really useful.

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The problem is that it doesn’t work all the time. I don’t know if it’s the size of the knife, or the distance between the disk and blade or what, but I do know that about 30% of the time, when I would pull the knife out of my pocket, it would either not deploy at all or be half-deployed, which is kind of dangerous. That alone’s probably enough to dock a point, but additionally the thumb disk, if you use that to deploy the Mini AK, is pretty terrible, being neither very comfortable or fast. In the role of an EDC knife, the wave probably isn’t necessary, and if we got rid of that we could probably get rid of the thumb disk too, and have one of the big bolt thumbstuds Cold Steel uses on some of their other knives instead.

Retention Method: 2

I think Cold Steel’s due for a redesign of their clip—or rather, I think they should use the clip from the Mini Tuff Lite on every knife in their lineup; but in the meantime, this version of their “classic” curved Cold Steel clip is perfectly fine. It’s a little bit shorter and stouter than the clip on the Medium Voyager, which is one of my least favorite clips ever. And while many people complain about the clip, in combination with the G-10, shredding up their pants, I didn’t have that problem.

Yeah, the clip’s not a total winner, and I think it’s silly to have to include a totally separate clip for left-hand carry, but these are issues that don’t affect performance in any meaningful way, so I think that a two is what it has to be.

Lock: 2

The Tri-Ad lock is a lock of obscene strength. When I think about this lock I almost get why Cold Steel has their employees stab through car doors with their knives, or do brutal spine-whack tests, or attach dumbbells to the handles and let them hang there for days and days: because it’s thrilling to see something do what it’s supposed to do so phenomenally well.

I didn’t abuse the Mini AK, but I was definitely rude to it, and even after all my testing the Tri-Ad lock was no less rock-solid than when I took it out of the box. I don’t need to go on and on here about this thing. If you haven’t tried a knife with the Tri-Ad lock yet, do. It’s not just ridiculous hype. It really is a phenomenal piece of design.

Overall Score: 18 out of 20

There’s no question that there’re a few things about this knife that don’t line up with its intended purpose. The handle comes closest to being a deal breaker. Ergonomics isn’t simply whether or not something is comfortable in the hand, but also if something makes sense in the hand in relation to what we’re using it to do, and while I’m not saying that the Mini AK needs a giant half-and-half finger choil, I do think that the handle impedes it from EDC greatness. But it’s equally true that it doesn’t stop the Mini AK from being a total workhorse. The Mini AK may be an EDC knife that was designed like it was meant to be a weapon, but the good news is that there is so much utility here that despite some considerable drawbacks, when you pick up the Mini AK, you know first and foremost that what you have in your hand is a phenomenally capable tool. And after you use it, no matter how many times you see Lynn Thompson swing a great sword through two suckling pigs at once, every time you look at the box it came in and read the seemingly-hyperbolic “High Performance Knives,” you’ll know that beyond all the bluster, it’s basically true.

EDITOR'S TAKE:

I'd score the Mini AK47 slightly differently.  I agree with the overall design being a confused one and I think the score is right.  I would, however, take off a point for grip and a point for steel.  The AUS-8 is good here, but not as good as it was on the Al Mar Hawk.  In that application it was damn near perfect.  Here, I'd rather have something else.  Additionally, as Ben mentioned, the grip is just weird.  I found that it was somewhat artificial feeling, as if it was supposed ot be a good grip as opposed to actually being a good grip.  The little plateau in the middle of the handle was just awkward in so many cutting positions.  I'd give this knife a 16 out of 20. 

The Competition

Comparing this knife to the SOG Mini Aegis makes it clear just how good a knife the Mini Aegis is.  It is both bigger and lighter.  The blade on the Mini Aegis is much thinner, but it is plenty thick for EDC tasks.  I also like the much more neutral grip of the Mini Aegis.  Only two points separate the Mini Aegis on the scoring scale, but those two points are the difference between good and great.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Eros SS Video Overview

I got the Eros SS in for review from CRKT.  The written review will go up on Everyday-Carry.com but I thought it would be fun to do a video overview of the knife.  When I was testing and carrying the knife I really appreciated all of the nice touches it had, especially given its price.  But slowly I noticed that it was eerily similar to a knife I have reviewed before, the Kershaw Leek.  Both are Ken Onion knives and both represent interesting mileposts on his design journey in folders over the past ten or fifteen years.  The Eros is simply a better, cleaner design and even though I like the 14C28N steel in the Leek better than AUS-8, I'd take the Eros SS over the entry level Leek any day of the week.

See what I mean here:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Brous Blades Bionic Review

I am going to say this up front--this review comes from a place of bias.  I like Jason Brous and his knives, in no small part because when I was dissatisified with how my Bionic felt in hand, Jason fixed it quick as can be.   I have no illusions about this site.  I like writing it and I assume you like reading it, but Nutnfancy, I am not.  So when I sent him an email with complaints and he fixed the problem right away I assume this is just the way he does business.  So with that out of the way, I am going to try to be as fair as I can in evaluating the Bionic.

For a long time Jason Brous's aesthetic ranged from zombie slayer to zombie killer, which is to say, big, tactical, and bold.  There are sharp lines and curves on his knives, a style he calls biomechanical.  The Silent Soldier Flipper wasn't huge and was somewhat of a departure from his serrated cleavers and the like, but it was distinctly weapon-ish.  Until the Bionic there were very, very few knives in the Brous line up that really worked as EDC blades.  General utility took a back seat to stabbiness and cool factor (and there was a lot of cool factor to go around).  With the Bionic all that is over.  This is the Brous EDC and it is a very good knife.  There are issues, but they are overwhelmed by all of the good stuff--the flipping action, the superior fit and finish, and the excellent size.  

Here is the product page.  There are a lot of different options, including a variety of handle colors and a blackout version that is a bit more money.  The base model costs $159.  The upgraded blackout model costs $179.  This is the first written review.  Here is a video review.  Here is a link where you can find the Bionic (all sales benefit the website and make the giveaways like the one with the Bionic possible):

Blade HQ

Finally here is the review sample (bought with site money from Blade HQ, to be given away, see the contest rules below):

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Here is my video overview of the Brous Bionic:



Twitter Review Summary: Pokey in all the wrong places, but once fixed, quite excellent.

Design: 1

The overall size and shape of the knife was good, but the details were severly lacking, especially out of the box.  There were four problems, all of which Jason acknowledged were part of the design, but were things he was more than willing to fix.  First the jimping around the flipper was very rough, so rough that it opened up my finger in exactly seven flips.  How do I know seven?  Because I was given a heads up on the sharp parts by other reviews and so I decided to see how long it would take.  Seven opening and closing cycles and my finger was bleeding.  Problem 1.  Additionally the flipper itself was very sharp, causing unnecessary wear.  Problem 2.  Then there was the rear of the knife, which was exceptionally pointy, painfully so.  For a tip up knife, jamming you finger into your pocket and running headlong into a point is no fun.  Problem 3.  But the worst issue was the fact that the tip of the knife was so close to the end of the handle that it would snag material on a pretty regular basis.  Problem 4.  I had Jason grind down all of the offending spots, the rear seen here,

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and the resulting knife is just better.  I confirmed with Jason that all of these issues are part of the design and so given the number of flaws and how serious they are, I had to give the overall design a zero.  Remember, this is how the knife is in theory, and with that in mind, four places that could draw blood BESIDES the blade is a problem and a big one.  Only a few tweaks though separate this 1 design from a 2 and a production version that incorporated all of the fixes Jason did for me would score much better.  The bones of this knife are superb.  The finishing design touches are not.  That equals a score of 1.
 
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Fit and Finish: 2

Jason has the tolerances REALLY dialed in on his machines.  The lock engagement is so slight, but so stable that it looks like an optical illusion.  The blade was well centered and everything just felt rock solid.  But one touch that I really noticed was just how brilliant the coloring is on the anodized handle.  Here is the knife out in nature where the blue really, really pops.

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Its a little thing, but it does matter.  Not only does the knife seem to glow in the sunlight, it is such an eye-catching color I find it hard to imagine losing this out on a hike.  It also represents a great break from the horde of boring slab-handled, black G10 knives or the cadre of titanium handled blades.  

Grip: 1 before, 2 after

All of that precision makes the jimping very sharp.  In fact, this is by far the most aggressive jimping I have seen and makes me wonder about the border between jimping and serrrations.  Around the flipper it was just too much, shredding my finger tip.  After the mods though it was fine and let the outstanding handle shape shine through.

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For all of the talk of knives "locking" in your hand, I have found that ones that really work are ones that lend you a sense of control, not confinement and here the Bionic's handle shape does just that.  It really feels like an extension of your hand and something that you have fantastic control over.  Jimping fixed, this is one of my favorite folders in hand.  Don't worry about the aluminum  scales--there is plenty of traction and the overall shape makes slippage unlikely.

Carry: 2

The aluminum scales make the knife quite light and the overall shape is significantly thinner than the Silent Soldier.  This is a knife designed around pocket carry.  The placement of the clip is also nice, avoiding the pendulum effect and keeping the knife right in place.  Thin and shapely equals a very good pocket knife.  

Steel: 2 

D2 is not just a good steel, it is a great steel.  I liked it on the HEST 2.  I liked it on the Queen Copperhead.  I liked it on the Silent Soldier Flipper.  Its hard, stays sharp, and can take a beating.  Its lack of stainless qualities are more a theoretical concern than anything else.  I cut and cut and cut with this knife and still drew forearm hair light a magnet draws metal shavings.  A side note--Jason's finish here is one of the best I have seen on a D2 blade which is notorious among makers for being hard to polish.  This isn't a mirror polish, but it is a very high shine satin finish and I like it a great deal.  

Blade Shape: 2

You know me by now.  I am a huge sucker for simple blade shapes and the Bionic's blade--a distinctive drop point or a modified wharncliffe (at some point they are the same thing)--is excellent.  There is enough belly to do some good roll cutting with and a very sharp point.  I will note that the grinding of the blade tip did nothing to impact the knife's cutting or piercing abilities.

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I also like the angle the blade sits at compared to the handle.  By moving the blade down so that it is below your hand when holding the knife, you get very clear and easy access to cutting substrate.  This is a very good utility shape.

Grind: 2 

Jason's grinds, like the rest of the fit and finish on the knife, are really spectacular.  This knife is clean and the grind lines are very sharp, even when they are curved. The cutting bevel is very wide allowing for good slicing and the hollow grind is both aesthetically pleasing and very functional.  I also like that the cutting edge can be sharpened entirely thanks to a true choil at the ricasso.

Deployment Method: 1 before, 2 after 

The knife always fires like a rocket, it just so happens that before the mod, it also burned you like one.  Both the flipper itself and the jimping on the area where your finger landed, were super rough.  Not like Cold Steel G10 rough, but like serrations on a Kershaw rough (har, har).  I am not sure what the purpose is in having the jimping be that rough because after the mod it still works very well.  Here is the grind Jason did on the knife:

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Post mod, you get the amazing action of a Brous flipper with the comfort of a normal pocket knife.  Post mod, this is one of the best production flippers out there, hanging quite comfortably with the ZT0560 both in terms of speed and ease of deployment.  

Retention Method: 2 

Simplest is often best, both with blade shapes and pocket clips.  Here Jason nails it.  No horseshit, just a simple and wonderful pocket clip.  Its blasted so it is very discrete and it is well placed.  This is a tip up only affair, but if that is not a problem this is a great clip. 

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Lock: 2

Oh my god!  Its ONLY a liner lock!  Like many of the points of debate around the knife world, I think the difference between the liner lock and the frame lock in terms of performance is negligible, especially in an EDC role.  Here the liner lock engages early and easy.  It is very stable with zero blade play.  Finally, its easy to disengage.  I would note that the aluminum scale behind the liner lock is a bit thin and sharp, but its not a big deal.  

Overall Score: 17 out of 20 before, 19 out of 20 after

Once the flaws of my model were fixed, the superiority of Jason's machining and construction became apparent.  This is a very good pocket knife.  With some evolution, it could join knives like the Delica, the Mini Grip, and the Skyline in the patheon of great EDC blades.  It is a bit nicer than those knives, with better machining and finish and one of the best flippers available for under $200.  As it ships now, there are some issues, but how bad depends on your preferences.  I did not like knife when it arrived, in part because I could see just how great it was, but for the four issues I outlined above.  This is definitely a knife to handle before you buy it.  If you can tolerate the insanely aggressive jimping around the flipper and the pointy flipper, your good to go.  If not, buy the knife with the idea that it needs to be modded.  The knife is a very good value and a sign of Brous moving into a more mainstream market.  The big dogs need to be worried.  His designs are unique, his prices are competitive, and his machining is better than pretty much everyone elses (ZT and better Benchmades are in the same league).  This isn't a perfect knife, but as it is now, it is a very good one.

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Compared to the SOG Mini Aegis, this is a truly superior knife with a better design, better fit and finish and an overall more robust feel for only an ounce more.  But, as shipped, the Bionic is no where near as user friendly.  So for that reason, I'd take the less fancy but more comfortable Mini Aegis, out of the box (or tube in this case).  Compared to the Boinic I now have, I'd DEFINITELY take the Bionic.  Without the harsh edges, this is a damn fine knife and significantly better than the Aegis as its superior design, materials, and construction are now in service to something that is actually comfortable to use. 

Contest Rules

If you want this wonderful, pocket and hand friendly tweaked version of the Brous Bionic all you have to do is leave a review of the podcast, Gear Geeks Live on iTunes. Once we reach 50 reviews, I will choose one at random and that person will win the Brous Bionic review sample.  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Trolling for Hate: Stop Fetishizing the Flipper

We all love flippers.  They have taken the knife world by storm, but in the end I think that we have lost focus on what really matters.  Its a way to open your knife--that's it.  It doesn't make the knife cut better or stay sharp longer.  It may be fun to fidget with, but I think for lots of folks the flipper is more important than the blade.  This obsession with secondary details reminds me of those Mercedes Benz commercials that focused on the quality of their doors.  It was telling that those commercials came during a time when many in the automotive press thought that MB was in a fallow period design-wise.

The other thing that makes me worried about fetishizing flippers is that they always fall into that "ineffable" quality discussion, that thing that people love to rave about but can't really explain.  This brings to mind the Wittgenstein notion about language--namely that if something can't be reduced to language, it is, in the end, nonsense.  They will tell you its something you "just have to experience".  I get that.  I do.  But that can't be the beginning and end of the analysis.  If it is, then it is just a matter of faith or opinion and not reason.  Its also something that is easy to sell because it is hard to prove--the perfect place for scammers to operate and folks that are subject to a heavy dose of post purchase rationalization to exist. 

Finally, for all the talk of silk and effortlessness, flippers on customs aren't generally speaking, better than those found on good production knives.  Heresy, I know.  Sure there are elite customs that have truly superior flipping action.  I have handled a few of them ::cough::Q36::cough::.  But in reality some of the best flippers I have handled were production models.  Here's what I am talking about:



Its still just a way to open a knife.  If it does that well, I am happy.  The rest of the minutiae is really just about knife masturbation.  That's a perfectly good reason to own a knife, but I am not sure how much its worth. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Bellroy Card Sleeve Review

I am and have been on a journey over the last few years to shrink what I carry but still retain or improve its effectiveness.  To that end, I scoured the Earth before finding my beloved Blade Key.  I am obsessed with the Dragonfly II.  I love my tiny little Muyshondt Aeon, Mark II.  Everything I like is about making what I carry smaller, more effective, and higher quality.  But in that five or six year quest I have been stuck on my wallet.  I needed a few things that just didn't exist.  So I had a Big Skinny wallet, with its Power Rangers material, as my only wallet.  It worked.  It just wasn't amazing.

I have found amazing.

How good is the Bellroy Card Sleeve?  It is the first product I have ever bought from the website.  You see, when samples come in, they always get earmarked for giveaways.  I do not keep anything for myself, unless I have paid for it with my own money.  But when I got the Card Sleeve I was so taken I realized that I just had to buy it.  So I earmarked my own money for the site, including the cost of shipping, plus a little more.  The first product I have ever done that with, ever.  I was waiting for it to happen eventually and when the Card Sleeve arrived at my house I knew it was the one within about 20 minutes of opening the package.  Its...fucking...awesome.


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Here is the product page.  It costs $54.95.  They sell four colors, coco (brown), black, cognac (maroon), and blue steel (Zoolander's choice).  Here is a good Reddit review with a nice conversation after.  Here is a video review.  Here is the review of a slightly larger Bellroy wallet, the Note Sleeve, I did a while ago.Here is a link to the Card Sleeve from Amazon (with sales benefiting the site):



Finally here is the review sample, sent to me by Bellroy (that I now own):

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Twitter Review Summary: For those that use cash sparingly, this is wallet perfection.

The Bellroy Card Sleeve is a super small wallet.  It is designed as either a tiny minimalist wallet or as a business card holder.  To that end the construction and design is exceptionally bare.  For example, there is no liner of any kind.  This wallet is basically leather and stiching, that's it.  Here is the wallet with the Bellroy tab in use (and a few showy bills) so you can get a sense of scale:

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The overall design is clever.  For example, the angle at which the exterior card slots are cut allows you to show an ID without removing it from your wallet, all the while doing away with the cheap and often dirty plastic ID windows.  There is, of course, the Bellroy pull tab, which, as usual, works quite well.  

The fit and finish on the Card Sleeve is really impressive.  I have seen stitching this clean, even, and nice before--it was on the seat in a Mercedes.  Really, honestly, the leather, the stitching, and the embossing are second to none--peerless at this price point.  You can, of course, find nicer wallets as wallets are one of those items for which there is no upper limit.  Dumb rich people will buy just about anything.  Compared to brands available at local stores and in the same price range, the Bellroy is vastly superior.  Any number of offensively overpriced Tumi wallets pale in comparison to the Card Sleeve.  Only my friend's Pickett wallet was better than the Bellroy and it wasn't so much better as to embarass the Card Sleeve.  

Leather wallets end up being a thing of great personal connection.  They wear in and develop a fit as unique as their owner and the Bellroy has already started to show that weathered, authentic, lived-in look.  But unlike so many other leather wallets, this one is thin.  SUPER DUPER thin.  

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That's 8 cards, a few bills, and an ID (and yes, I got that $100 just for the review, I never carry more than a few dollars on me--cash is so inconvenient).  Its small enough and thin enough, even when packed, to be a front pocket wallet or even a shirt pocket wallet.

There are a few drawbacks, all necessitated by the wallet's size.  First, you really have no idea how much cash you have just by looking.  Because this isn't a billfold, the cash is not as accessible either.  In fact, none of the items, even the outside cards, aren't as accessible as they would be in a billfold.  Finally, because of the stacking and sliding, the cards might wear more quickly over time.  I have not had any problems with cracking or breaking, but I could see how this would scratch your cards early.  
All of these concerns are more theoretical problems, problems that exist only if you decide to use this wallet in a way that the design steers you away from.  This isn't the perfect wallet.  But if you use it as a minimalist wallet with infrequent cash use, it is one of the best designs I have ever seen.  This is the first product review sample I brought outright.  That should say it all.  This is a great wallet for minimalists. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Comparing the Spyderco Driver Clipitool to the Victorinox Alox Cadet

Well, they finally came out and I thought it would be fun to compare the Spyderco Driver Clipitool to its clear competitor, the all-time classic EDC the Victorinox Alox Cadet.  Here you go:




You can find both at Amazon.

Here is the Clipitool:



Here is the Alox Cadet:



As usual, sales benefit the site.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Trolling For Hate: Bad Justifications and Buying Cheap Stuff

I listen to about a dozen podcasts of various topics (new favorite: 99% Invisible by Roman Mars). On three separate podcasts there were similar issues about expensive tools and gear. On Wood Talk #168  Mark, Matt, and Shannon did a single topic show on expensive tools. On the Knife Journal Ep.27 Podcast Kyle Ver Steeg had an eloquent and hilarious rant about Mora knives. And then on the Pen Addict #94 Brad had a little commentary on the sad state of mainstream pens. All of these sentiments pointed to one thing--a general preference for nicer stuff. All of this got the wheels whirring and here is my take.

In gear, Nutnfancy is THE big voice. His opinion shifts markets and alters product designs. But he focuses very heavily on the low to mid end of the market. Few non-gun items he reviews are more than $100. A vanishingly small number cost more than $400. That means that the universe of items is under $400. But those of us that have been interested in gear for a while know that there is virtually no limit to what you can spend. Jim Skelton and his YouTube channel are populated by multi-kilobuck knives.

It’s at this point in the discussion most people say: to each his own. And I agree with that to a certain extent, but I want to push back a little. That idea, if taken literally, is kinda dumb. There are certain purchasing decisions that are just irrational, and "to each his own" is the mantra of the mindless.

Let's start with a simple example. You go to Store A and they have the Cold Steel Mini AK47 for sale for $99.99.

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You go to Store B and they have the knife on sale for $59.99. Clearly, to each his own doesn't work here. Buying from Store A, all other things being equal, is just stupid. We all see that. But really there is a lot of this going on.

I started this site so there was a systematic scored evaluation of the gear I like. I find it helpful. Just like I found it helpful reading reviews written by Robert Parker, of Wine Advocate fame, critical product evaluations are, in essence, about distinguishing good stuff from bad. Why bother reading any of this if "to each his own" is all that matters?

Let's take another example, perhaps a bit more challenging one. Let's compare the G10 Drifter to the SS Drifter. These two knives, when critically evaluated, are similar, but the G10 model is better. Yes, I wrote it. The G10 model is just better. Why? The differences are simple: the G10 is lighter and grippier; the SS has a satin blade and a framelock. In real EDC use the difference between a liner lock and a frame lock on the Drifter is meaningless. If there is additional strength found in the framelock, it’s never going to matter in real world use. Second, the satin blade is nicer, as coated blades look crappy over time, but in a $20 knife, WHO CARES? What does matter are things like weight and grip. On a daily basis, these things are places where the G10 model bests the SS model and on a daily basis these things matter.

But if "to each his own" is the mantra, we can throw reason out the door in favor of baseless preferences. And if we are willing to do that, why stop there? Why not do everything based solely on preference? Why look at specs at all? Why look at prices at all?

Let's look at something else, something that is not a comparison between two objects but a "favored" design element in knives--finger scallops like those found on the Benchmade 300SN.

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These are not just ugly, they are empirically poor designs. First, because of the shape of the grip that uses finger scallops you are forced to hold the knife in a specific way--the product dictates how you use it, a major no-no in the world of design (aside from the design of safety equipment). Finger scallops have ZERO affordance. But this is not just a snooty design complaint. If you listen to Episode 29 of the Knife Journal Podcast, you'll hear Kyle, a HAND SURGEON, talk about how the muscles of the hand work. Basically as you make a fist, your hand muscles pull your fingers together--the stronger the fist, the tighter your fingers. This means that the idea of finger scallop grips actually counteracts how your hand works when you are really trying to hold on. It’s like a pair of opaque glasses--a self-defeating design. Finger scallops are lazy design. They make something "feel" and "look" ergonomic. But they are neither actually ergonomic nor are they good design. They suck. But people like them because they look cool. Finger scallops on knife handles are the knife world equivalent of the CAPS LOCK button--completely useless, but still around because of tradition. I don't care if Randalls have finger scallops--they DO NOT WORK. Get rid of them.

Oh but we can't have logic or reason invade the world of preference because "to each his own."

And then there are the people that complain about my take on the Cryo. They point out how well it sells, how it’s a great value for what you get, and how it’s pretty darn cheap. Compared to knives of yesteryear it is a huge value, they say. And it is true. But this is Brad's point about the G2. The G2 is a very good pen historically speaking. But compared to what's out there now, it’s nothing special. The G2, compared to the current best in class, is merely adequate. The Cyro is similarly adequate (though the G10 version has me excited again). It’s not bad. No way. Compared to the knives 50 years ago it is a stunning achievement. But compared to what's out there now, it’s just not that big a deal. Why buy adequate when you can buy great (the Zing SS)? Why buy adequate when you can buy great for LESS (the G10 Drifter)? You know the comparison between the Cryo and the Zing SS--same materials, same price, better blade:handle and better blade:weight. The numbers show it--the Zing is just better. But it is not a Hinderer design and that's the difference. It is a difference based on preference not fact. In the end, the Cryo is beloved because a group of people that like the Hinderer look and style can get a bit of the magic for $39.95. It’s a good knife, historically speaking. It is a great seller. But in the modern marketplace it is no where near great.

But if "to each his own" is our motto, the Cryo is GREAT (because everything is GREAT) and the state of the art is never advanced. The Case Copperlock begot the Spyderco Worker which begot the Benchmade Mini Grip which begot the Kershaw Skyline...and so on.

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If we don't demand the best, we won't get the best. Today’s adequate is yesterday's state of the art, but if we settle for adequate we'll never get tomorrow's state of the art.

Any enthusiast really likes something because they are drawn to what makes that particular thing interesting, great, or unique. And the minute we throw out quality because of preference, we have no business really evaluating anything at all. If it is all preference, then who cares if you spend $40 more for the same thing, or buy an inherently inferior knife, or a design feature that actually does the opposite of what its designed to do? Critical analysis serves all of us. It makes us focus on stuff that matters and it pushes the state of the art forward. Settling for a Mora instead of a Bark River is something you are free to do, but don't pretend like it is a purely rational choice. If you can afford good stuff then always, always buy it. If you can't, save up. Don't buy something lesser and pretend it’s not or worse yet heap scorn on those that do buy better stuff and do so for good and rational reasons.

"To each his own" is a cop out. It is a form of self-delusion and anti-rational thinking. There are pieces of gear that are just better than others. At the top there is a great deal of preference, but comparing the top to the bottom is pretty easy to do. Good tools are worth buying, if you can afford them. Even if that means saving instead of indulging your impulse buy something new every paycheck. I waited a year to buy my XM-18 and I am glad I did. It was worth it to me (if for no other reason than the ability to use and review it for the site), even if its not a price-justified expense compared to say, the Sebenza.  But there is a small amount of irrationality there.  I have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  The difference between it and a Sebenza is small, but the difference between it and the Cryo isn't.

Good tools are great fun.  Bashing people for spending a lot of money is great fun.  But at some point rationality has to play a role--a Mora is not as good as a Bark River.  No amount of "to each his own" can make up the difference, unless all rationality is thrown out.  And that point, who cares what you buy or why?  In fact, who cares if you spend twice as much for the same thing?  Its a slippery slope and one that ends in silliness. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

San Ren Mu 605 Review

Until now I have been reticient to dive into the world of ultra-budget knives.  The wildly varying fit and finish and the lack of a real warranty (or one that makes it worthwhile to exchange an $8 knife) means that you are essentially gambling.  Its not a lot of money, but it is frustrating throwing about $8-$15.

But the throwaway factor was only one reason I didn't want to dip my toe in the world of ultra-budget. The other was a concern for supporting companies that steal intellectual property.  San Ren Mu's Sebenza clone is a message board lightning rod, eliciting fiery opinions from both sides.  But the clone is not, per se, a theft of intellectual property and there is no indication that San Ren Mu is engaging in true theft like Kevin Johns is, so I decided it was time.

The first ultra-budget knife I am going to review is a knife that has received good reviews AND is unique.  Too many San Ren Mu knives were just clones of more expensive knives.  But the 605 is really a new design by San Ren Mu and, here is a bit of a spoiler, it is a great little blade.  My 605 happened to have immaculate fit and finish, but some quick looks around the Internet show that I got lucky.  And that is the reason these ultra-budget knives are so frustrating.  If they came together well, great.  If not, you threw away your money.    

Here is the product page. The San Ren Mu costs $9.95. Here is a written review. Here is a video review. Here is a link to Amazon where you can find the San Ren Mu 605, and all proceeds benefit the site when you purchase things through this link:



Here is my review sample (purchased with my own money):

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Here is my video overview:


Twitter Review Summary: F&F lottery aside, one of the best small knives available.

Design: 2

Like the much more expensive Spyderco Dragonfly design, the 605 incorporates a half and half finger choil that allows for a full four finger grip, despite the knife's overall tiny dimensions.  The blade shape is an excellent utility drop point and the pocket clip is good.  In short, despite its size and price tag the 605's design checklist is impressive.  This thing does a ton of things right.  I even like the splash of color on the handle instead of the normal, boring black G10.  This is an instance in which a company uses the knife design checklist, but because of a few things, creates a product that is more than the sum of its parts.  Hell, the knife even flicks open with insane and impressive speed.  Virtually everything about the 605's design was a pleasant surprise.  

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One small complaint for some might be the fact that the small blade is actually even smaller in terms of cutting length thanks to a very large finger choil.  I never really registered this complaint as I'd always trade control for blade length, but I have seen it leveled against Striders and Spydercos in the past and it would apply here if you are of that mentality.

Here is a size comparison between the San Ren Mu 605 and the standard Zippo:

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The blade:handle is .76 (2.25 inch blade with a 2.95 inch handle, the product page specs are wrong, in a good way).  The blade:weight is 1.56, getting very close to the Al Mar Hawk territory.  This is a great little knife by the numbers.

Fit and Finish: 2

On MY 605, there is not a single fit and finish flaw.  None.  No blade play, no overkill lock up, no blade centering issues.  Nothing.  But this is the trick with all of these ultra-budget knives.  From model to model the fit and finish can vary considerably.  If you get a good one, its easily on par with the best Chinese knives from Kershaw or Spyderco.  If not, well the fit and finish can be pretty awful.  I'd like to hear from folks, so comment below if you have had negative experiences.  

Grip: 2

As I mentioned above, I love finger choils (especially ones like this one that allow you to sharpen the knife all the way to the end of the cutting edge), and this one is great.  The two finger choils are very well done and given the size of the knife, give you ample control over everything you'd do with a knife of this size.  Again, no complaints whatsoever. 

Carry: 2

And here is where we get to something that is not just good, but truly great.  The 605 is small.  Much smaller than it looks, even compared to the Zippo.  So it can fall into a jeans coin pocket with no problem, but it also comes with a very well positioned clip.

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Because of the lack of a hump for a thumb hole, the overall size and shape of the 605 is perfectly slim. It just melts into the pocket--vanishing until you need it.  It might be the best carry knife I have ever used, understanding, of course, that smaller knives always carry better.  It carries better than even my beloved Dragonfly 2.  Really only the Small Sebenza 21 is clearly superior in this regard.  And that's great company for a $10 knife. 

Steel: 1

I am still not sold on 8Cr13MoV.  It is much better than I thought it was, especially after busting down the edge on my AG Russell Barlow and rebuilding it entirely.  It can get razor sharp and it is easy as pie to sharpen, but man I'd like a little more edge retention.  Also, if you are going the 8Cr route be sure to skip a beat blast.  That opens up the already rust-loving pores of the steel even more.  In this shiny satin rendition its actually quite good.  Not great, but good. 

Blade Shape: 2

No screwing around, just a simple perfect drop point blade.  I like it a lot.  Its clean and easy to manuever.  It doesn't get junked up with tape or residue from cutting.  There is a good amount of belly. Really, nothing has better demonstrated Occam's Razor for Gear better than the drop point and the drop point here is awesome.  

Grind: 2

I like the full flat grind, especially on a knife this small.  In bigger blades I prefer the slicing ability a hollow grind affords, but on this scale the difference would be negligible.  I will tell you that the grind is kind of weird in that there is a bend right around the 1/3 mark of the blade (counting from the tip towards the pivot).  It looks like a cheap and easy way to thin out the point for piercing, functioning much like a swedge does.  Its appearance is odd, but has no impact on performance.  

Deployment Method: 2  

Oh baby.  A drop of nano oil on the pivot and this thing became a rocket.  It flicks out with telepathic ease.   The thumb stud is well textured and the approach is nice and clear thanks to a cut out that doubles as a finger choil in the open position.  I was shocked at just how good the pivot is on this knife.  Its also worth pointing out that the distance between the pivot and the thumbstud is just right, giving you a great deal of torque or leverage when opening the knife.  

Retention Method: 2 

The 605's small clip is just about perfect.  Its amazingly simple and very polite.  The 605 proves a point and the clip does it the best--simplest is best.  

Lock: 2

If you were worried about the fit and finish of the 605, this is probably the reason why, but in all honesty, it was absolutely fine.  If you poke around on the forums you'll see lots of complaints about the liner lock going too far over to the other side.  I am not sure how much I would rely on complaints about fit and finish on forums, as they are hard to show or verify, but I can see how their could be an issue.  The lock engages and disengages with ease.  There is no rocking when in the locked position and there is a very good detent.  

Overall Score: 19 out of 20

The 605 isn't just a good knife--its a great one.  Its tiny, it falls well into the hand, it hides in the pocket, and it cuts very well.  For about $9 you can't go wrong.  Even if you get one with shitty fit and finish, its not like its unusable and the knife was only $9 after all.  If you get one that has good fit and finish its as close to a $9 Dragonfly as you'll find.  Even with ZERO warranty, or a price that makes shipping a faulty item back silly, I have no problem recommending you try the San Ren Mu 605.  Stop fretting about all of the non-performance related issues with San Ren Mu knives and try this out.  

The Competition

The Mini Aegis and the 605 are in different categories, the 605 is really small, so a direct comparison is hard.  No doubt the Aegis can do all kinds of tasks the 605 can't handle.  Cutting pepperoni would be impossible unless it was the diameter of a Slim Jim, but for a package opener I like the 605 better than the Mini Aegis.   Among other small cheap knives, I llike this much, much better than the Kershaw OD-2.  Its not as taut or elegant as the Benchmade Aphid, a criminally underrated knife, but its close.  Given the price difference, its hard to justify hunting down the Aphid when the 605 is out there.  Both are or were overseas made knives, so that's a draw too.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Seiko SNZG15J1 Review by Andrew

Editor's Note: First, I won't be interrupting this review as often as I did Ben's first review, as a nod to the feedback in the comments.  Second, Andrew and I have been going back and forth about a 20 point scale for watches and this is, as he writes, a beta.  Please drop some input on the effectiveness of the scale here in the comments.

The Seiko 5 Sports SNZG15J1 represents a good balance of real quality and reasonable price (“SNZG15” for short in this article). It is a simple three-handed watch, with a day and date complication. These functions are powered by Seiko’s in-house 7S36 automatic movement, which is a reliable but unremarkable automatic movement. The unpretentious military field watch design is a great EDC choice, with easily readable hourly Arabic markers on the dial.

Here is Crown & Buckle’s video review of this watch on a bracelet (Model designation SNZG13).  Here is their written review. Here is my video review of this watch on a nylon strap (SNZG15, J1 version which is made in Japan).  Here is the watch itself:

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Because the wristwatch has many complications, or secondary levels of instrumentality, developing a scoring system which encompasses all watches risks inadequacy. Consider the scoring in this watch review as beta testing for now.

Design: 2

The field watch design featured in the Seiko SNZG15 came into prominence during the 20th century world wars. Simple timekeeping and reliability are the purpose of the field watch, with rugged movements and instrument-like dial design. The SNZG15 makes no innovations on this concept but executes it well in a modern size (42mm case, 12mm thickness, 22mm lug width). For the simple watch it is, it does what it does well.

Provenance: 1

This category is admittedly problematic, as provenance can refer to the history of a specific watch (ex. this Daytona was owned by Eric Clapton, etc.). For our purposes, this category will encompass the legacy of the model or family of the watch generally speaking.  The SNZG15 is part of the Seiko 5 family.  Here is a great overview from Seiko on their “5” family of watches, and here is Gear Patrol’s article on Seiko 5.

The SNZG15 embodies the daily-wear, sports-watch approach of the 5 Sports family. The Seiko 5 family has been around for decades and while there is a huge variety in the line, the core concepts of a reliable movement, durable case, and useful day/date complication (and price as discussed below) are the reasons for their sustained popularity. The set of features of the 5 family has long been recognized in the watch community. On the other hand, it is not historic in the way an Omega Speedmaster Professional (for example) is indisputably considered. 

Fit and Finish (Case/Dial): 2

The 42mm case and crown is bead-blasted which makes the watch appear smaller and follows the military-themed design. The bezel is fixed and is part of the case. The crown seats well in its small indentation in the case. That said, it appears somewhat small given the proportions of the case. The threaded display caseback is more of a novelty for first-time mechanical watch owners as the movement shown is very plain with just the watch’s technical information stamped on the movement.

The dial, chapter ring and day/date wheels are printed flawlessly with crisp typography and good details (military time, minute/seconds indices) for a watch in this price range. The applied “5” Shield is attractive to my eyes. Seiko’s proprietary Lumbrite lume is an industry standard, but on this model it is just applied to the hands and prominent chapter ring surrounding the dial. The lume application is applied evenly on the watch reviewed. The Hardlex crystal is better quality than comparable mineral crystals. Fit and finish overall are easily as good as many $500 Swiss field watches. Some collectors maintain that Japanese Seikos (as is the watch in this review, indicated by the J1 designation) are better than those made in Malaysia and China. I have failed to see a difference when comparing entry-level Seikos. 

Fit and Finish (Strap/Bracelet): 1

Frankly, the SNZG15’s nylon strap is pretty uncomfortable until it is broken in and is probably too thin for the watch. The strap holes are reinforced with a stitched vinyl piece. The buckle is stainless steel and is bead-blasted to match the case. It does fit my 7” wrist without any issues. Fortunately there are many aftermarket options given the watch’s 22mm lug size.

Movement: 1

The automatic 23 jewel Seiko 7s26c has a beat rate of 21600 BPH, which means that the seconds hand has a nice but not entirely fluid sweeping motion and lacks the distinct ticking of a quartz watch. The power reserve is about 40 hours IRL, and the accuracy of the 7s26 is not great at -20 seconds a day/+ 40 seconds a day.

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The movement can be tuned to be more accurate of course. The timekeeping is likely the result of mechanized assembly and broad tolerances; the movement is completely lacking ornamentation. This is a fairly rare example of a mechanical movement which may never need service (although regularly maintaining it is always recommended). Lore abounds on the internet as for this last claim.

Functionality: 1

Functionality refers to how this watch achieves its intended design objectives. It is a simple timekeeping watch and it does this well. It has decent water resistance and could probably be worn swimming but no more than that. As the lack of a handwinding option and the average power reserve in the movement suggests, it is meant for regular wear. If it is not regularly worn, it will need to be stored on a watch winder or it will need to be reset when worn again. This may be considered an imperfection from a collector’s perspective as the inevitable resetting can be pretty uninspiring.

Wearabilty: 1

The watch wears smaller than many 42mm watches thanks to the rounded fixed bezel and well-proportioned lug width.

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The caseback protrudes from the back of the case. This coupled with the thin nylon strap causes the watch to flop a bit on my 7” flat-topped wrists, but not more than a dive watch in this size. It is a casual watch and is too big in my opinion for formal wear.

Durability: 2

The SNZG15 is probably as durable as any mechanical watch on the market. There are many stories on forums of Seiko 5 watches of similar configuration being worn in military conflicts and for many decades without any attention to servicing the watch. It does lack extreme water resistance, a threaded crown, or magnetic shielding, all features found on higher-end sports watches. 

Purpose: 1

This scoring category is included because some of the watches which I will be reviewing will be highly multifunctional. From an EDC perspective, I want some way to give extra points to watches that are highly multifunctional. Watches like this will establish a baseline.

Appearance: 2

Another category possibly bordering on the subjective, this watch has no egregious aesthetic flaws and is a handsome if somewhat plain watch.

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It could easily be mistaken by a non-watch person as a Timex, but the field watch design is venerable to collectors.

Overall Score: 14 out of 20

The SNZG15 is an understated and well-executed entry-level automatic watch. The movement is unrefined and it can only serve simple timekeeping-related purposes, but does so adequately. The handsome overall appearance and wearable size means that it won’t be totally forgotten amidst the higher level watches which inevitably will land on your doorstep as your interest grows in mechanical timepieces. Seiko is a well-regarded watch manufacture and this is a very solid choice in this price range. Few watches indeed would score above a 10/20 at a $100 price point.