Kata 3N1-22 Slingpack / Backpack

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: I took too long to write this.

The Long Version: There are two very real problems with online product reviews: there's no way to gauge how relevant the reviewer's experience is, and they might be a bit of a dolt.

When I was looking for information about Kata's 3N1-22 backpack, most of the comments were very positive. But there are always exceptions, and typically they would fail in the same fundamental way. My favourite example can be paraphrased as "I gave it 3 stars just because it's very narrow. I wish they made it wider, like a normal school backpack." Never mind that the largest member of the 3N1 family fits this description perfectly – it's a great illustration of the difference between reviewing the actual product and creating a wish list for something else.

Camera bags are expensive, everyone's equipment is different and the success of each combination becomes very personal. It's too easy to make a bad choice and then blame the bag for it.

Even when I bought my Kata 3N1-22, I wasn't completely sold on it. It's a very complicated bag that can switch into all manner of configurations, but at the same time it lacks a fundamental flexibility and is missing a couple of features that I like. Despite that, three things convinced me to buy it: my 11" Macbook Air fits like a glove, its narrow width doesn't block my view when I do a shoulder-check on my bike, and I've been pleased with my much larger Kata 261PL pack. Really, if it wasn't for each of those three things, I wouldn't have the 3N1-22.

I've done something a little different for writing this review. Before I bought the bag, I made a list of the things that I thought would be issues for me – sort of a pro/con list without the "pro" side. So here's what I was worried about, and what I think of it after a couple of months of use.

Not enough velcro to reposition the lower dividers. As I use the 3-in-1 to carry a lot of different gear, I find that I'm constantly butting into limits with its internal configuration. The lower two-thirds of the camera compartment is fairly accessible and can have dividers added or removed but only within a small range of permitted positions. The top third of the camera compartment is a de facto different section that runs across the middle of the bag, and is mostly accessible from either side but only with great difficulty from the front. The very top of the bag has an "other stuff" compartment with plenty of room for odds and ends; it's reached via a generous top zipper. The floor of this section can also be unzipped and folded out of the way to create a single-compartment bag.

My heaviest load has been my two Nikon SLRs, two SB600 speedlights, and my small three-lens kit of the AF-D 85/1.8 50/1.8 and 35/2. Cables and the rest went into the top compartment, and I had my little Macbook Air down the back. Alternatively, I've carried the same two bodies along with one really big lens (Sigma 180/3.5 or the Nikon 85/2.8 PC-E) and the medium-big 105/2.8VR. The D700 with a grip will squeak in, but this isn't like a Billingham or a Domke that can carry far more than you would expect. Actually, it carries a little less.

My small-camera setup has the PCM-D50 audio recorder in the middle compartment, and the lower section holds a Panasonic GH1 with the 20/1.7 attached along with the 14-140 and 7-14 Panasonic lenses. There's still room for my Zeiss Ikon and ZM 1,5/50 and 2/35, but it takes a lot of fiddling to make everything fit. For my daily commute I'll only carry one little camera with a single lens, and perhaps my small gorillapod for the audio recorder, and then that leaves enough room up the side of the bag for an umbrella and a water bottle.

Between photo outings and commuting I can easily need to rearrange the dividers a couple of times a week. I don't often miss my Think Tank Glass Taxi, which is a similar size and shape to the midsize 3N1, but I do miss its all-grippy interior that came with more partitions than an office cubicle farm. The lack of velcro positions for the camera compartment remains my biggest complaint about the bag, and the reason why I'm still occasionally disappointed by the 3N1-22.

Zippers around the top compartment can't slide past the top handle easily. This was a bit of a nuisance in the store, but as the bag has broken in the difference in the lid's flexibility around the large handle has lessened. By keeping the twin zippers on one end of their run it's fairly easy to zip past the potential hang-up, and I've become used to this quirk and it doesn't really bother me any more. What I do miss are some of the features from their newer 'Pro Light' bags, like my monster Source 261PL, such as the better zipper pulls, lighter fabric, and EVA foam.

It's too long and high for a practical sling bag, and can't be worn in front for extended periods. I tried wearing the bag as a sling pack in the store, and wasn't impressed. In over three months of actual use I've never felt the need to try carrying the bag this way; if I want a bag that's easily accessible in front of me, I'll use a traditional shoulder bag. It's not that I don't like sling bags: it's a great idea for small bags that really doesn't scale up very well. I find the 3N1-22 awkward and bulky, but I'll use my little MEC Pod for day trips on a regular basis. I will use the 3n1's side access points to get into the bag when I carry it as a backpack, though, so the design is still useful.

No water bottle holder or external pockets. I've had to find ways to work around this one. For daily use I don't usually carry a lot of camera gear, so I can carry a water bottle and/or umbrella inside the bag instead of a long lens. When I'm on the bike I"ll have a pannier, which is great for commuting and removes the need to carry water with my camera bag when I'm out on a biking photo excursion.

Tall slim pockets on the outside of the bag would be great for their additional carrying capacity and to move potentially damp bottles away from the electronics. The catch is that it's completely counter to the design of an ambidextrous sling bag, and would take the place of the side-access panels. I've grown to appreciate those, because I use them when I just take the backpack off of one shoulder – typically to reach an umbrella or a beverage, which is exactly what I would put in an exterior pocket. What can I say? I'm conflicted, and never claimed to be consistent.

But I do unequivocally like the two small side pockets at the top of the bag; one holds my wallet and phone, while the other houses my TS3. The top Other Stuff compartment is excellent, being just big enough to tuck a DVD case across the top, with plenty of room for snacks and the other odds and ends that I carry everywhere. To me this compartment is the 'killer app' of the bag, and is what lets it be a practical day bag that also carries camera gear.

So it's fair to say that there are at least a couple of instances of my wanting the 3N1-22 to be a bag that isn't the one that Kata has made. But with all of that said, the medium-sized 3N1 – with or without the laptop compartment, as suitable – remains an easy bag to recommend. It shows all the signs of Kata's usual exceptional construction quality, and its basic layout of camera gear on the bottom and an Other Stuff compartment on the top is incredibly useful.

While the dividers don't have much flexibility in how they can be arranged, I can usually make them work, and it's nice to know that I can even pull them all out and use the bag with no internal partitions at all. In the three months that I've spent writing this review I have come to like the bag more, but nothing about it has really surprised me. It's a solid and innovative camera bag from a company with a history of doing that sort of thing.

Finally, I have to acknowledge the downside of taking so much time to learn the bag before publishing my thoughts. Almost every single one of my complaints – the biggest ones, certainly – are about to be addressed by the new 3N1-25 model from Kata. Time will tell how much better the new one will be, and in the future I may have another review to write. In the mean time, I'll continue to plug along with the soon-to-be-old "22" model, which has the distinction of being superseded within days of my finishing a three-month review. Sometimes life can be like that.

last updated 31 aug 2011


Green Clean Hi Tech Air and Vacuum Power

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Until then, Mogwai waits.

The Long Version: I was recently given a few new toys to play with. In an earlier review I tested the Green Clean lens wipes, and soon I'll take a look at a wet sensor cleaning system; now we're splitting the difference with their general dust-removal tool. Green Clean "Hi Tech Air and Vacuum Power" canisters cleverly use the Venturi effect to drive a vacuum cleaner with compressed gas; although it's no more intuitive than a propane-powered refrigerator, it really does work. While it has lots of potential uses, these cans are included in their sensor cleaning boxed kits.

The Green Clean vacuum has a real advantage over an air blower – they'll escort dust from the premises without introducing any new contaminants. It's reasonably powerful, being able to pick up grains of table salt, but it still needs to be fairly precisely targeted. This has obvious limitations, but then again there must be a reason why we don't just use our household vacuum cleaners on the insides of our SLRs.

Suction is through a flexible tube with an (optional) rigid attachment, and the air is drawn through a cylinder with a filter at the top and a collection chamber below. The filter is easily cleaned by taking it off of the nozzle and gently blowing through it – human-powered – which I needed to do after I went after some little dust bunnies. The bunnies lost, but on pain of marital discord I won't be sharing that particular video.

Alas, there's still no panacea for sensor dust: often the dirt is simply too stubborn to respond to subtle persuasion. My D700 had sat unused for most of the summer, and uncleaned since last year, so it was the obvious target for a little love. The Green Clean vacuum did take some fluff off of the sensor, but I was discouraged to see that it left most of the little specks behind. Perhaps that's because it's ragweed season, and pollen particles are sticky; perhaps it's because the self-cleaning sensors that most current cameras have will already knock off the debris that's willing to be moved. I'm not such a hard-core reviewer that I'll intentionally re-dirty my sensor, so instead I'm waiting for nature take its course.

In the winter static replaces pollen as the main dust culprit. Look for an update then – but ultimately nothing beats a wet cleaning with swabs for degunking. That's unfortunate, because I really wish a non-contact method would be enough, but it does give me a subject for another review or two. Life's a barter system.

The gas canisters for the Green Clean vacuum have a threaded nozzle that I haven't seen before. It stands to reason that these cylinders are at least somewhat standardized, but I haven't found the right search terms and haven't brought one of the cans to a hardware store to show the helpful salespeople. Being able to source generic replacement cans might be cheaper than the original, but probably not; it would certainly help any travelling photographer to be able to find them locally in case the TSA doesn't have a good sense of humour. While the evidence isn't conclusive on that last point, I won't be packing these the next time that I fly.

The hazard warnings on the back of the can are pretty unambiguous. The propellant in these cans is R-134a, aka tetrafluoroethane, which – to damn with faint praise – seems to be somewhat less eco-apocalyptic than most aerosols. Like fabric softener, it's not something to rejoice in, and the less it's used the better. Even for those of us who don't think that we're massively screwing up the environment, "use only in well-ventilated areas" really should be synonymous with "use sparingly". I'm not convinced that the brand name is well suited to this particular product, to say the least.

So the problem that I have with the Green Clean vacuum is deciding when it's worth using it. It's not cheap, either financially or ecologically, so what it cleans needs to be pretty important. As a sensor cleaner it won't cause more problems and it's great on the easy stuff, but like all non-contact methods it won't remove dirt that's welded on. That happened to be most of the specks that were on my D700 and GH1 sensors, but other cameras, environments, and seasons could be very different. Regardless, I'd never skip straight to the wet cleaning without exhausting all non-invasive options first.

For mundane jobs that merely need 'pretty good' results I'll keep using my Rocket Blower. Blower bulbs are handy little things, but when I try to clean my camera sensors with one I invariably end up with what an economist would call a negative improvement. For the times when I need non-negotiable dust removal from a small and delicate area, whether it's sensor cleaning or when I'm scanning the family Kodachrome archive, the Green Clean vacuum would certainly help. I can't yet say for sure that I'll spend my own money to buy one, but I can guarantee that some day I'll be stressed out in the middle of a sensor cleaning session and really wish that I had a little vacuum cleaner handy. What can I say? C'est la vie.

Added: New York-based photographer Adam Marelli has reviewed the Green Clean vacuum under much more actively dusty conditions than I've ever faced. He also sneaks in a quick look at the sensor swabs, which is still on my to-do list. More here: Adam Marelli Photo.

The Green Clean products used in this review have been provided at no cost by the North American distributor for evaluation. However, anything that isn't consumed in the product testing is returned, and there is no financial relationship or incentive involved. But as always, the usual `thewsreviews disclaimer still applies.

last updated 31 aug 2011


Kelloggs Vector

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: This isn't a review, it's a Marketing Replacement.

The Long Version: I fell in love with Kelloggs Vector the very first time I heard an ad for it. "It's not a cereal, it's a meal replacement."

A meal replacement that you eat from a bowl, with a spoon, in milk.

A replacement for breakfast, perhaps?

Penny recently brought home a couple of free sample boxes from a fitness expo she went to. I was thrilled to see that they're still sticking with the "Meal Replacement" marketing efforts, printing that audacious slogan right on top of the photo showing cereal-like flakes in a bowl with milk. Awesome.

So after all these years of my adoration of this product, I've finally been able to actually eat some. In the morning. Instead of breakfast. And you know what? It tasted a lot like cereal.

last updated 26 aug 2011


Olympus E-300 DSLR

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Solid, but not quite a classic.

The Long Version: The E-300 is the second interchangeable-lens digital SLR from Olympus, and was the "consumer" model designed to complement the E-1. Packed with eight megapixels, it was announced in the same month as the D2x, *ist, and 7D, while the D70 and 20D were already ruling the camera-store shelves. That was tough competition then, and while the E-300 was an important addition to the Olympus E-system, it didn't exactly set the world on fire.

Time has moved on since then, and it shows. Olympus wasn't be able to claim the world's fastest auto focus for many more years, the stock 14-45 kit lens is far bigger than (and optically inferior to) their later 14-42 lenses, and the odd aesthetics of the side-mirror porro-prism body will only appear on one more camera before it disappears once again. As a final coup de grace, the inspiration for that unusual design – the half-frame Pen-F – has been reincarnated as the mirrorless E-P series that has made the entire Olympus entry-level optical SLR line obsolete.

Image quality is a tough one to compare to the contemporary market. It's unfair to pick a current SLR or its successor MILF (mirrorless interchangeable lens format, naturally) camera that's had an extra six years of Moore's Law on its side. It's tempting to put the camera and 14-45mm lens up against the typical advanced compact camera, which are still more expensive than a used E-300 kit; the older Oly comes out quite well in that comparison. The E-300 may only go to iso400 without amplification, but it captures raw images and doesn't lock up in the process. Sure, it's huge, but it's a real SLR even if it is dated and slow. That still counts for something, right?

LCD size is like tree rings for digital cameras. The E-300's back is not exactly dominated by its 1.8" display, which packs 135,000 pixels into a device that gives a reasonable approximation of what the photograph looks like. According to my math, that actually gives a greater pixel density than the Nikon D80's 2.5" screen, and exceeds many current digicams as well. The menu system really doesn't suffer from the smaller-than-contemporary screen size; it shows fewer options at a time, but everything is there and organized as well as they can be. I continue to not understand the icon that represents the auto-focus confirmation beep, but perhaps that's just me.

The counterpoint to the small display is a luxurious amount of room for controls, and although the buttons themselves are small they're well spaced. The camera back also has a generous thumb rest, which couples with the bizarre ridge on the hand grip to provide a very solid hold on the camera. While some of the ergonomics are dated, the E-300 remains an easy camera to use and learn.

Anyone who already has an E-300 will know enough to either use it or retire it according to their personal preferences. Frankly, it's nowhere near the evergreen status of the E-1, which remains one of the most sublime digital cameras ever built. But the weather-sealed build of the E-1 demands good lenses, while the more pedestrian E-300 does not. When it comes time to pay the credit-card bills that can be a real advantage.

Now selling used for less than a Nikon D40, the E-300 has suffered a little more than most from the ravages of depreciation. So conversely, today it's something of a bargain for an SLR. That makes the E-300 an excellent camera for a beginning photographer who wants to get started without picking a side in the perpetual Canon v. Nikon battle. It may not be a great camera, but it is a good one and it's an excellent value. Sometimes that's enough.

last updated 26 aug 2011


Green Clean Lens Cleaner

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Sometimes reusable isn't better.

The Long Version: I'm hardly an influential and famous reviewer, so when the North American distributor of the European "Green Clean" brand offered to let me try out some products that are just arriving on this continent, I couldn't skip the chance. This is the first review of three; over the next week or so I'll also be looking at their sensor swabs and a neat dust-removal method. But first up is their Green Clean Lens Cleaner.

There's a huge range of accepted methods for lens cleaning. Some photographers are meticulous to the point of wearing cotton gloves, while others will just wipe a visibly soiled lens on the back of their tie. (I exaggerate, of course – when was the last time a photographer wore a tie?) I admit that I fall somewhere toward the casual side of the spectrum; I usually just breathe on the lens to fog it and then give it a wipe with a handy micro-fibre cloth. Following Keith's review, I did pick up some Zeiss pre-moistened lens wipes. They've served me well, but when they're fresh I found that they would leave streaks that would still need to be removed with a dry cloth, possibly introducing new problems and negating the scratch-preventing benefit of the disposable wipe. The Green Clean Lens Cleaner solves that problem by combining a disposable wet and dry soft tissue in each packet.

To give it a bit of a test I took my Nikon 35mm f/2D lens and liberally flicked water drops all over the front element. As this hack job of a before-and-after photo shows, the Green Clean wipes weren't challenged by this at all; I also cleaned my eyeglasses at the same time, which is a great way to discover streaking. No problem.

I hadn't really expected such a simple task to stump the lens wipes, so I had another nefarious plan in progress. I took a glass of warm water and added sea salt until it was decidedly unpleasant to taste, and then did a number on three budget UV filters that I had lying around. They are Hoyas in 55 and 95mm, and a non-name "Topaz" filter in 82mm. Here's what they looked like after I was done spritzing them:

Of course, if your filter or front element has this much salt-water sprayed on it then your camera probably has bigger problems than a lens wipe can solve, but no matter: I wanted a torture test. I set these filters out to dry and harden under the gentle breeze of the air conditioner for a few days, and then tried my different cleaning methods on each one.

For the 55mm I used my typical huff-and-hanky cleaning method, and I wasn't at all surprised to see that it left a lot of the salt behind. Perhaps this is better than nothing, but probably not better enough to make any substantial difference. These before-and-after photos are actually quite flattering: all I really managed to do was average the salt out and send a perfectly good microfiber cloth off to the washing machine before its time.

I used a Zeiss wipe on the 82mm filter. The alcohol-moistened tissue did a good job of removing the salt, to the point where the filter looked mostly clean. However, a closer inspection and a different angle shows a lot of streaking and salt residue left behind.

The results from a single Zeiss wipe might have been enough to keep shooting without visible smudging of the photos, but I'd really want a second cleaning with another Zeiss wipe before I'd trust that filter with any important images. Since my year-old wipes can still leave streaks even when the lens isn't salt-encrusted, a third step to polish the lens with a microfiber cloth would probably also be needed.

The photo above is the before-and-after for the 95mm filter, which I cleaned with the Green Clean wet and dry wipes. The process is absolutely simple: open and wipe with the wet cloth, discard; open and wipe with the dry cloth, discard. For those who belong to the "You'll shoot your eye out!" school of lens scratch prevention, having a clean single-use tissue for each step is a tremendous coup.

The drying step makes a huge difference to the result: no streaking and no residual salt. In fact, I used the same wet and dry wipes to clean the residue from both of the other filters, with equally good results even though the 'dry' one was pretty damp by the end of it. I was prepared to be forgiving if the Green Clean couldn't handle this challenge, but I was impressed.

I'm going to continue using one of my ever-present microfiber cloths for light routine cleaning of my eyeglasses, camera lenses, and watches. My remaining stock of Zeiss tissues will spend the rest of their days cleaning the screen on my phone and serving as impromptu wet-naps. But for getting rid of smudges, oils, or any sort of residue from my optics, I'll definitely be buying a box of the Green Clean wet/dry wipes as soon as they hit the market.

This review introduces the "Review Sample" tag to mark that this isn't a product that the reviewer has personally purchased. The Green Clean products used in this review have been provided at no cost by the North American distributor for evaluation. However, anything that isn't consumed in the product testing is returned, and there is no financial relationship or incentive involved. But as always, the usual `thewsreviews disclaimer still applies.

last updated 22 aug 2011


Panasonic's TS3 Floating Strap and Silicone Skin

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: The best gets even better accessorized.

The Long Version: English is full of three-word phrases that have special meaning and significance, but few are more touching than "Free With Purchase". Panasonic Canada has taken it upon themselves to release a silicone skin and floating strap for the TS3, and for a while was even giving it out for free to people who had already bought the camera. How cool is that?

Officially called the "DMW-TS3 Kit", there's almost no information about this accessory bundle online, and what little there is all seems to be from Canada. Sorry, rest of the world – but perhaps there's something better scheduled for you.

The silicone skin is that translucent milky-white that makes me wish I had never heard Ray Beschizza say the phrase 'the colour of semen'. Otherwise it's very nicely made, fitting the camera perfectly with crisp cut-outs for the controls, LCD, and lens. The material adds tremendously to the grippiness of the camera and takes it even farther by putting circular depressions across the hand grip.

The floating strap is fabric-covered neoprene that's orange on the outside and blue on the inside, nicely complimenting the most popular camera colours. (If you bought their dirty-lipstick-red colour, well, what did you expect?) When the camera hits the water the strap is plainly visible and stands about an inch above the surface, making it easy to grab. It doesn't tighten down the way the string wrist strap does, but it fits my average-sized wrist snugly and the broad band keeps it in place.

Naturally, there are a couple more things that need to be said. The silicone skin blocks the camera's battery and card slot, which should help to keep sand way from the locking mechanism, but it needs to be pulled aside for access. It also traps water beneath it, so it needs to be completely removed if the camera has been immersed. The grippiness of the silicone also makes it more difficult to put in a case or a pocket, so even though it adds shock and scratch protection, I may not use it most of the time.

The floating strap, which stays wet for a really remarkably long time, is too big to pass through the skin's little cutout for the attachment point. Instead it uses a quick-release clip on its tether; if the standard strap used the same clip life would be easier, but instead the strings need to be unlooped from the camera the hard way. It's tough to casually switch back and forth, but the floater is certainly worth putting on before getting into the canoe. The other alternative is to daisy-chain the floating strap to the original one, which is what I'll do when I just want to throw the camera into the pool.

I have to say that I'm really happy with the strap and case, and it's worth checking with your local camera store to see if they're offering it as well. Do be warned, though, that some stores would rather sell these accessory kits for $30 each. I can't blame them, and it's a good kit – the floating strap is the best I've seen – but I really was handed mine for free just because I'd already bought the matching camera. Naturally, Panasonic's website makes no mention of any special offer for present or future owners of the TS3; I'll add more detailed information if I can get it.

updated december 2011:  not everything that I write can withstand the test of time. When I wrote this Panasonic was providing this for free from a few special retailers, but unfortunately that program has come to an end. I can still say that this is the best floating strap that I've seen, and very good silicone skin, but whether that's worth the $30 that these kits now retail for is a personal matter. I'd probably have bought it, just to have the dedicated accessories, but they do have their specific niche.

last updated 15 dec 2011


Filzer I-Tool MT4

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Finally, a stellar bike tool that isn't riding a fixie.

The Long Version: Filzer's classic I-Tool is one of those little things that has been done right. It's a simple tool with five hex drivers with a T25 torx, slot, and philips screwdrivers. These eight tools fold flat into a package that's comfortably under 3" long, about 1" wide, and one-quarter of an inch thick. It's so small that it can be carried anywhere, and it's so easy to use that I'll often reach for it instead of a dedicated hex wrench set. It can do almost anything I need.

The bits don't lock in place, and their short size makes that an advantage. I have no problem putting plenty of leverage on the tool at ninety degrees and then smoothly reversing the tool for another crank, or bringing it straight up to quickly move a loose bolt. Naturally that doesn't work so well with the screwdriver bits, but the basic theory is still good.

The "Skin-E1 I-Tool" isn't perfect – aside from the name, which thankfully doesn't appear anywhere on the item, the Philips screwdriver suffers from being a #1 instead of the more common #2 size. It's a necessary concession to the form factor, and a #1 size is better than nothing, but it's the only thing that has disappointed me when I've tried to do quick tune-ups on my bike.

Of course such a little tool can't do everything, and this MT4 model – yes, it has a code in addition to the horrid name – is just about the simplest one that Filzer makes. It's a natural to combine with another tool, either a small pliers-based multitool or a more complex bike tool kit. I carry both of those in my pannier as well, but I reach for the little I-Tool first.

last updated 17 aug 2011


Ikea E12 5W Fluorescent Lamp

Bad Bulbs
Four out of six dead Ikea E12 fluorescent bulbs.

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 0 out of 5
Yeah, but: Don't waste your money.

The Long Version:  I purchase six Ikea E12 fluorescent bulbs from the the Orlando Ikea store in March of this year. According to the advertisement as well as the fine print on the side of the box they came in, they were supposed to have a nominal lifetime of 10,000 hours.

How long is 10,000 hours? If you were to power them for six hours/day, seven days/week, then you would get 1,667 days of illumination. That's a bit more than 4 1/2 years. I would have loved to have gotten even half of that lifespan. Instead, four of the six I purchased, or 2/3rds, are now dead and sitting in the recycling bin for pickup later this week.

This is not the first problem I've had with Ikea electrical and electronic equipment. Earlier in February I tried to return a pair of larger fluorescent bulbs that didn't last 30 days. We were told in no uncertain terms at the Ikea return desk that they would neither give us back our money nor exchange them for a new working pair (the later is what we wanted anyway). In addition I've got an Ikea floor lamp that won't turn on any more. What really stick in my craw are all the Ikea branded AA and AAA rechargeable battery kits I purchased last Christmas for all my electronic devices and that have also gone into the recycling bin. All, and I repeat all, would work for a time, then one day start to overheat during a recharge and then stop carrying a charge at all.

I've never had a series of problems like this with other brands of bulbs, batteries, and small electrical devices from other stores like I've had with Ikea products. I pay a premium for these devices in part because they're supposed to have a long operating life measured in years, not weeks or months at the most. I don't know if Ikea hit a bad batch, changed suppliers, or what. But these were all purchased over a period of time from November 2010 to March 2011, which tells me the problem is systemic, at least at the Orlando store. The combination of poor quality and poor customer service is a loyalty killer. I've purchased my last items at Ikea. For those of you who haven't, caveat emptor.

last updated 16 aug 2011

Streamlight Stylus Pro

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: WAS 4 out of 5--Now a big fat zero.
Yeah, but: No More Cheap Flashlights For Me?

The Long Version:I'm a sound engineer for rock and country bands so most of my work happens in dark nightclubs and their parking lots.
A flashlight is mandatory, and being able to see into dark corners or under seating carries the added bonus of finding cash, jewelry, and even microphones left behind by previous acts.
I carry at least two lamps, with another pair in my truck.

For a couple of years my main beam was this Mini MagLite (shown for comparison with the new Streamlight) which features a Nite Ize LED and tail button conversion kit.
It was okay, but over time reliability suffered.
I replaced it with a Smith & Wesson 2xAA LED unit that had 2 buttons so you could choose between 3 white LEDs or three blue ones.
The blue circuit lost it's rubber button after a few months, then something else went seriously wrong inside and the batteries overheated and exploded.
Not cool.

My next two lights were cheap, and they both failed when dropped.

In June I was walking around Academy and spotted the Streamlight Stylus Pro.
The price was right, and I knew the company's reputation was solid among the cops who provide security for my venues, so it went on my birthday wish list.
Unfortunately, the 4 closest Academy stores were either sold out or had discontinued the product, but my ever-clever lady used a smartphone app to scan the UPC code on the peg and found that Bass Pro Shops stocked a nice selection of their products.

Just under $30 (of her money) later and I was ready to blow out the candles--literally.
(Sorry. Lame photographer joke.)

It came with a spare rubber switch cover and a pair of Duracell AAA batteries, plus a cheap nylon holster I'll never use.
What I like best is that it fits my back pocket (next to my wallet) better than anything else I've tried, and since the clip is where it is, accidental triggering is a thing of the past.
I got tired of strangers telling me my butt was lit up.

Speaking of light:
All I can say is that this thing is louder than I ever dreamed a triple-A penlight could be.
Just astounding brightness.

According to the packaging a battery life of 6.5 hours is to be expected, and that's fine with me. I've used it for five shows so far, as well as the usual around the house duties, plus a bunch of random "play" time, and it's still a blinding and flicker-free piece of quality gear that I can easily recommend with a clear conscience.

I'm still going to buy cheap junk lights for backup duty and loaning to stupid musicians who really should have their own, but from this day forward there will always be a high quality torch in my back pocket.
I have seen the light, and it were good.


After almost 4 months of great service, my Streamlight Sylus Pro fell out of my pocket and landed on our driveway--a distance of only 3 feet.
And now it's dead.

If a $30 flashlight can't survive a mere 3 foot fall, it's crap.
I'll never buy another Streamlight product.


GSI 1L Dukjug

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's great if you like tape.

The Long Version: This is my first post-mortem review: I accidentally destroyed my 1L Dukjug yesterday. I've had the stainless version for two years, and it's been my bottle of choice when my three smaller Kleen Kanteen containers aren't big enough. I haven't actually been a huge fan of it; the threading around the mouth makes it prone to dripping, and I eventually took off the string that tethers the lid to the bottle. The idea of having a water bottle that is designed to take a few wraps of duct/gaffer tape around it is clever, but not something that I used. I did appreciate the wide-mouth design, since it made it easy to add ice cubes, which is vital for a bottle that I'd mostly use in the summer.

So yesterday I was planning on a long day out in the sun, so I filled the 1L jug with water, tossed in a few ice cubes, and then tucked it in the freezer for a few minutes. And then I decided not to go out after all. The bottle froze solid, splitting along its base – but at least I can confirm that it's made of good-quality steel.

One of the best things I can say about a product is that I'd replace it with an identical one in the event of a tragedy. In this case, even though the Dukjug isn't very expensive, I'm going to be looking for something else. I have my eye on the 40oz Kleen Kanteen, but time will tell.

last updated 14 aug 2011


Spyderco Native C41BK

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: This review may cost me money.*

The Long Version: Of all of the knives that I own, there are two that emerge as strong favourites any time I need to do actual work. One is the 3" clip-point Voyager, and the other is the Spyderco Native.

The Native has an unusual leaf-shaped blade; some will call it "spear point" but only one side is sharpened. The cutting surface is about 2.5 inches long with a continuous curve, and there's a finger choil toward its base. Coupled with the short but broad handle the knife has an exceptional grip for my average-male-sized hand, and the patented round hole in the blade makes for a natural hold when choking up for fine work. When closed the gentle curve of both the handle and the rear of the blade makes it easy on the pocket. The metal clip is strong enough, and can be mounted on either side of the handle at the butt-end of the knife. The plastic handle is textured on both sides.

When coupled with the unsexy but reliable lockback mechanism, the end result is a very solid and serviceable knife. The curve of the broad blade gives it tremendous cutting power for its size, while the false edge gives it a fine point. Most of my work is breaking tape and boxes, and the belly of the Native works even better than the secondary point of a "Tanto" blade design. The extremely aggressive serrations are part of that, but I might be willing to trade my fully-serrated model for a 50/50 split edge. Perhaps I'll just buy a second plain-edge model and be done with it.*

There's only thing that I've changed on my knife. The square-cut thumb rest on the top of the blade is fairly agressive, so I took a Dremel to mine and rounded off the sides a bit. It makes the knife a little more pleasant to hold. Aside from that, I'll touch up the plain edge of the CPMS30V blade with a diamond stone occasionally, and have used one of Spyderco's ceramic serration sharpeners a couple of times over the past eight years. Otherwise the knife has been completely maintenance-free.

I have only one complaint about the Native, and it really has nothing to do with the knife. Prominently stamped on the blade is "Golden Colorado USA Earth". While the all-embracing wholism is a nice change from the Manly Man atitude and weaponized lawn implements of Cold Steel and their ilk, the last time I felt the need to specify my planet as part of my address I was in kindergarden. Sure, Spyderco is proud that the Native is made in America from American steel – hence, I hope, the name – but their enthusiasm is too easily mockable. There's a lot to be said for understatement.

updated 12 aug 2011: *sure enough, I've talked myself into a new plain-edge knife. It's not a Native, but it is a Spyderco. My review of it is here.

last updated 12 aug 2011


Ilford XP2 Super

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: All I did was take pictures…

The Long Version: I suppose the question has to be: "Why bother?" In this age of digital photography, why bother with film at all? In a time when computer processing allows infinite adjustability as colour turns into monochrome, why bother with black and white film? And if I'm going to the trouble of using an anachronistic medium, why bother stopping half-way there? Why not just go all the way to the classic silver films like Tri-X?

Ilford XP2 Super – hereafter simply "XP2" – is a modern monochrome film that's built with the same dye-based technology as colour negative film. This means that it can be processed in the chromogenic C-41 chemistry that's used by every mini-lab in the world. The only other black and white film that can do that is Kodak's 400CN; internet wisdom has it that the Kodak film is better for prints straight from the minilab, while the Ilford film is better for everything else. I've never used the Kodak, and I've never done lab prints, so I can't really comment on that.

Traditional B&W film needs to be processed in different chemistry from colour negatives. While that's relatively easy to do at home with a minimum of equipment and space, commercial processing is rarely available and really misses the point. There's a whole sub-set of photographers who relish the craftsmanship and care that can customize the development of each roll for the very best results. As with any bastion of photographic tradition, hand-processed silver B&W photography has a huge range of slightly different options, each with their own advantages, disadvantages, and mythos to learn.

Me, I'm a digital photographer, even though I mostly use film. I scan the developed negatives and post-process them in Lightroom, just like any camera raw file. I have great respect for traditions and appreciate the craft, but have no desire to partake in it myself.

XP2 is the perfect companion for digital photography. Developed XP2 has no silver grains to cause aliasing problems when it's scanned, and it's tremendously tolerant of overexposure. Traditional B&W film has grain in the highlights, which is exaggerated by overexposure; chromogenic film has its grain in the shadows, so excessive exposure actually reduces the grain, along with a bit of sharpness. This gives it a different look from silver films, more akin to digital images, but with the exceptionally long tones that remain a solid advantage for those of us who don't need instant gratification.

I use XP2 in both 135 (35mm) and 120 formats, and there's no remarkable difference between the two except for the usual improvements in detail and tone that the larger negatives offer. I typically use it at iso320 in my small-format cameras, although I've recently been exposing it at 250 with good results. My medium-format machines don't have built-in meters, and I'll occasionally run them as much as a stop hotter. With its forgiving exposure latitude combined with the complete absence of white balance issues, using XP2 is by far the easiest thing I can do with a camera.

The only downside to working with a lot of monochrome film is that it' so monotonous in postprocessing; there's nothing bleaker than spending days facing a Lightroom catalog that's screen after screen of relentlessly grey thumbnails. After a half-dozen rolls I find myself longing for the smoothness of Portra or the punch of Ektar, so there's no way that I can commit to just using XP2 no matter how much I like it. But photos in black and white look great in singles and fantastic in a series, which makes it all worthwhile.

So why do I bother with XP2? I like it, it's easy, and it looks good. That's more than enough for me.

last updated 5 aug 2011


Elsewhere on the Web: Buying Cameras

The Long Version: Bill Beebe has been kind enough to let me post a few articles about buying cameras on his own site. Part One is about buying that first "serious" camera, while Part Two – really, part one-and-a-half – looks at building it into a system. The final instalment, which is possibly my favourite, is what I go through when I'm tempted to buy something new. I'm not famous for my impulse control, but I think it works out okay.

Of course, I could be wrong.

last updated 4 dec 2010

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