Wenger Standard Issue

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: One of the best.

The Long Version: In this era of mil-spec spec-ops mall-ninja tacticool aspirational garbage it's easy to forget that the title "Swiss Army Knife" is not yet another example of marketing's language abuses. Victorinox and Wenger do actually make military-issue hardware, both historically and currently. This review is of the Wenger Standard Issue, which is the smaller Alox knife in the photo above; the other knife will have to wait a little bit for its companion review.

The Standard Issue is a 93mm metal-handled knife with a large blade, in-line awl, can opener, and bottle opener. That's remarkably like the Victorinox Pioneer, and for a very good reason. The knives issued by the Swiss Army were all made to the same specifications, despite being supplied by different companies. So the 1961 Soldier knives, and their 'civilian' variants, are all built on the 93mm Alox platform pioneered by the Pioneer. It's a rugged and versatile tool set in a minimalist work knife, so it makes perfect sense that it was in service for some thirty-five years.

Setting aside the manufacturer and its historical legacy, the only difference between the Victorinox Electrician (that I reviewed last January) and the Wenger Standard Issue is the bail on one end and the can opener on the other. And even though this is a Wenger knife, the can opener is the cuts-forward Victorinox style with the small screwdriver tip, not the sharpened hook that typifies most Wenger knives.

The 93mm Alox is my favourite style of SAK for medium-duty work tasks, being solidly built without being too large or heavy for just-in-case pocket carry. The bail on the Standard Issue makes it easy to retrieve from a watch pocket or to clip to things, and provides an immediate cue to the orientation of the knife as it's drawn, with the only downside of needing a bit more care when closing the blade.

One other distinction that marks the Soldier knives is a date stamp on the tang of the blade. Mine is marked 99, making it more than a dozen years old, and it has had at least a few years of solid use before being put away to languish in a drawer. It was rescued by a friend of mine who gave it to me, and after just a bit of work it's as smooth and sharp as my newer knives. I don't hesitate to use it for difficult tasks, carry it often, and sharpen it as needed, yet I'm sure it has another good dozen or more years to it. As nice as a new Swiss Army Knife is, old ones can be better.

last updated 31 jan 2014


Twelve South SurfacePad for iPhone

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Short-term testing only so far.

The Long Version: Despite sounding like some horror-movie hybrid of Apple and Microsoft tablets, 'SurfacePad' is actually Twelve South's name for a family of thin leather covers. The iPhone variant wraps around the phone folio-style, using an adhesive to attach to the back of the phone to keep its bulk to an absolute minimum.

Twelve South emphasizes that the SurfacePad isn't an iPhone case, and it's really not: only those looking for sleekness should consider it. The folio cover protects the screen and provides better grip on the phone, while its minimal bulk keeps it very pocketable. This is unquestionably the case that I'd want to have for a first date or while wearing a suit, but it won't compete with an Otterbox in a drop test.

The combination of leather folio and the iPhone's metal edges looks and feels fantastic. The fit of the non-case, when positioned correctly, is perfect. The front is stiff to protect the screen and the side supple enough that the volume buttons can be felt and pressed with the cover closed. Its thinness also means that there's minimal bulk when the folio is doubled back on itself, so it can actually be used when talking on the phone, which is a weakness for their BookBook. And of course its design makes it easy to quickly check the phone and put it away again, which its aesthetic and spiritual competitor, the Sena Ultraslim, isn't particularly good for.

The double-row of stitching on the back adds a tactile cue for orienting the phone, and marks where the back cover hinges outward to let the folio be used as a landscape stand. I do find that its angle of repose is a little too steep, but with more use it may become less severe. It certainly has a more relaxed angle in Twelve South's product photos, which gives me a certain faith. This stand has come in handy for me a couple of times, but I wouldn't really miss this feature if it went away.

The problem is that I prefer to save monogamy for the more important things in life: phone cases don't merit long-term commitments. While I enjoy having the SurfacePad for a night out or a weekend, I have two other cases that I also like to use. While the adhesive on the SurfacePad leaves no residue and has withstood multiple detachments so far, it's still something of a commitment and I have concerns about its long-term viability. A month isn't nearly long enough to actually know anything about this, but the idea of it is enough to inhibit me from switching cases as often as I like.

Twelve South makes interesting products that are well thought through and cleverly designed, and the SurfacePad is no exception. I can recommend it to anyone who wants a slim cover that's easy to carry and pleasant to use, especially if it's going to be a long-term commitment.

last updated 24 jan 2014


A year of LensRentals

For 364 days this year, I didn’t buy a new camera.

It’s not that I didn’t want to. I misplaced my Canon S100, which I enjoyed using. And my other digital system is a Panasonic G1 with a small collection of Micro Four-Third lenses. I like the G1, but it’s over five years old, which may as well be fifty in digital sensor years. It’s time to move on.

However, for a variety of reasons, I’m having trouble deciding what should take its place. And because you can only learn so much from reading reviews online, I’ve been leaning on Lensrentals all year to get more hands-on experience with a wide variety of gear.

What follows are some brief impressions of all the toys I played with in 2013.

Before starting, I’ll fully own up to dilettantism here. A week or two is not nearly long enough to truly judge any camera or lens, particularly with how I was flitting about between brands and formats. And the smarter use of my time would be to just use the stuff I already own. But it can also be quite a bit of fun—even inspiring—to try something new or uncomfortable every now and then. And it (usually!) doesn’t hurt to know what else is out there.

This is also something of a fool’s errand as exciting new cameras are being released faster than I can try them all out without quitting my job or selling my dog.

Finally, Google overlords be damned, I’m not putting any hyphens in product names. I’ve had to look up where they go in “OM-D E-M5” or “X-Pro1” for more often than I'd prefer to admit. It’s gone too far. I’m tired of it. I’m fighting back.

Zeiss ZM C Sonnar 1.5/50

What Matthew said.

I’m having a bit of a love affair with 50mm at the moment, and this may be the most romantic 50mm lens you can buy.

I didn’t spend nearly enough time with this one.

(Although, in my heart of hearts, I think I might be more of a 2/50 Planar type of person.)

Panasonic G5

I went long about the G5 on this very site and concluded:

The G5 checks a lot of boxes but it does so without a lot of pizazz, like an above-average PowerPoint from the accounting department.

Michael Johnston recently called it “very capable but quite bland but very capable”, which is exactly right.

The newer G6 appears to address some of my nits with the G5: the EVF got an update, you can finally (I’m told) disable the toggle button on the command dial, and the camera’s updated look is snazzier – like a mini Leica S2 instead of Frankenstein’s camera. It doesn’t look so much like the bargain that it is.

If you want an EVF and the cost of an EM5, EM1, GH3, GX7 or EP5+VF4 is a bit dear, the G6 looks like a screaming deal.

Fujifilm X100S

The adulation this camera receives is mostly justified. It looks great, feels great, and the autofocus, menu system, and control layout are light years ahead of the original X100.

Image quality is astonishing. I spent a lot of time in Lightroom gobsmacked at the detail and lack of noise at ISO 6400. The 35mm equivalent f/2 lens is well matched to the sensor. It’s also more or less my ideal walk-around setup, but that’s maybe because I’ve been walking about with a Zeiss Ikon and the 2/35 Biogon for a few years.

The aperture ring has firm whole-stop clicks that feel much nicer than the mushy third-stop clicks on the 35mm XF lens I used.

As with the XPro1, fumbling between viewfinders is still a point of friction for me. I had more fun if I forced myself to use only one and lived with its limitations. I’m also certain that with more experience I’d better be able to predict when I’m about to brush up against those limitations.

I lusted after this camera so badly … right up until I tried a Ricoh GR.

Fujifilm XPro1 & Fujinon XF 35mm f/1.4

I wrote a longer review of this pair. I'd call it tough but fair.

I would like to give the XE line a try; with only an electronic viewfinder my suspicion is that the XE will be slightly easier to use—if slightly less fun without the optical viewfinder, also.

Olympus OMD EM5

I understand why people adore this camera.

It’s a lot of camera packed into a tiny space. The pictures online can mislead you into thinking it’s the same size as any other DSLR, but hold one for yourself and you’ll probably be as astonished as I was.

The specs are great. The pictures are wonderful. The new stabilization system is a miracle worker. You can customize nearly every aspect of its operation. Everything is super responsive, with a “yessir!anythingyouwantsir!” zippiness. It’s built like a fine precision instrument: quality and choice of materials is top-notch everywhere.

Again, I totally understand why people love the little thing.

But …

(here come the emails)

… together with our oversize brains, our hands have kept us humans on top of the food chain for two million years. So it is with some alarm that I report that our hands have a new enemy: the OMD EM5.

I could not get comfortable holding it. I don’t mean it like “well the corner pokes a little” (it does) but rather much worse: it outright hurts to hold it for longer than a minute. I didn’t find the textured area on the front sufficiently grippy, the thumb rest forces your hand into a cramped position, and it’s an awkward reach to both command dials, especially the rear one. The angles are just all wrong for my hands.

(Your mileage on this will vary, but I was relieved to find out that I’m not the only one that feels this way.)

The HLD6 add-on grip helps some. But if you determine that you’ll need the grip, you might as well buy an EM1. You’ll even get a bigger, more awesome viewfinder as a bonus.

All this to say: definitely spend a decent chunk of time holding an EM5 (or any camera!) before you drop a grand on one.

Panasonic GX7

My initial impression is that this is the current Micro4/3 sweet spot in balancing handling, advanced features, customizability, performance, image quality, size, and price.

I still want to take the GH3, EM1, and maybe a G6 for a spin, but unless they really impress me I think the GX7 will be the next system camera I buy.

Pentax K5 & 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited

I wasn’t sure such a camera existed: the K5 has all the physical controls I want in exactly the place I want them.

This includes the Pentax-specific “Green”/“*” button, which powers the ridiculously named but seriously powerful Hyper-Program and Hyper-Manual modes. Lemme tell ya: every semi-serious photographer should take those modes for a spin. Hyper-Program is your basic Program mode but with instant access to Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, no mode dial required; Hyper-Manual gives you the stability and predictability of full Manual mode but with vastly less needle-chasing. Either might totally change how you shoot. I can’t believe other brands haven’t copied these.

The camera is solid, heavy, and reassuring for those times when you need a bigger dick to swing around. But it’s still a soft touch: the shutter and mirror are shockingly quiet for a DSLR.

As for the 35mm Macro, no one makes DSLR lenses like the Pentax Limiteds anymore. It backs up the forged good looks with excellent image quality and almost no flaws. It even has a built-in hood, which is handy. Shame it’s not weather-sealed to match the camera.

This mostly confirms my suspicion that Pentax makes the only APS-C DSLRs worth looking at.

Ricoh GV2 28mm viewfinder

It’s tiny! But I had difficulty seeing the entire frame with glasses on. So it’s not very fun.

Also you’re missing out on the toy-camera good looks of the larger GV1 viewfinder.


Ricoh GR

Matthew’s recent ongoing praise is not even a little out of line: The GR is the smartest, best thought-out digital camera I’ve ever used. It treats an advanced photographer with respect instead of ambivalence or (too often!) hostility. Because I haven't used any of the GR's predecessors, I'm so astonished at the design and usability that the huge image quality packed into a tiny box is almost the least impressive thing about it.

A major flaw is that I don’t think I see well with a 28mm-equivalent lens. I could learn.

In fact, I better: I ordered one for keeps on New Years Eve and it showed up yesterday.


Pocket Tanks

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Simple is as simple does.

The Long Version: I don't normally enjoy losing. My favourite computer games are all single-player turn-based strategy games in which I can overcome minor obstacles on my way to eventual victory. Call me simple, but these games can keep me amused and entertained for decades.

Pocket Tanks (iTunes free/deluxe) has a combination of quirky gameplay, unpredictability, and humour that actually makes it almost as much fun to lose as it is to win. I used to play it on my old Mac computers, but now I have it on my iPad, and play it daily.

Pocket Tanks is a fairly simple 2D artillery game. Two tanks, with very limited movement, lob munitions back and forth at each other. But yet beneath that simple concept lies strategy, humour, and dare I say it, Art.

I usually choose a single-player game. The difficulty level of the CPU opponent can be set from 1 to 10. Higher levels have better aim and sometimes make better decisions, but my biggest predictor of success is simply how much attention I pay to what happens in the game.

The weapons are, well, a little unconventional. I'll look at a few in more detail later, but I need to note upfront that I've bought a lot of the expansion packs. They're $1 for 15 new weapons, and considering their entertainment value, are an excellent way to keep the game engaging for hours and hours.

Do people still say "terraforming"? Pocket Tanks was first released in 2001; fortunately it hasn't had the charm modernized out of it, and stays true to its original look.

The entire playing area is contained in one screen. There are four types of landscape: hill, valley, cliff, and flats. I prefer to have the terrain chosen randomly for each game.

Wind is another possible variable. It can be zero or vary by game, volley, or change with each shot. The CPU opponent – do people still say CPU? – won't be thrown off by it, but it adds variety for us humans.

Your tank has four controls to work with. Pocket Tanks is a shooting game, not a maneuvering one, so this keeps gameplay straightforward.

Munitions that leave the left and right edge of the screen are out of play, while munitions that leave through the top can arc back in again. Parking your tank against the edge of the screen gives a tactical advantage, but is seriously uncool. Don't do it.

I usually set my firing angle first and change it only when absolutely necessary. I like being at 75 degrees, since that will clear almost any terrain, but will go higher or lower depending on the wind.

Sometimes it's better to fire in a straight line instead of ballistically, and standard touch-screen control gestures can be used to manipulate the display for precise aim.

Power levels are what I usually adjust to fine-tune my aim. Explosion kick and shifting terrain means small tweaks from shot to shot, plus some munitions do better when they're fired long or short.

Finally I'll select the weapon to use. For the first volley I like things like Tracers which show exactly how I need to adjust my aim, or something that's guided or has a decent a blast radius as I dial in the range. More precise hits come later.

Weapons that need line-of-sight, like the freeze ray or laser, should be used as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Clear shots don't often last for many rounds.

While Pocket Tanks is a simple game, there are a lot of little things that make a difference. It's best to use the Super Star when there's a lot of terrain under your opponent, and choosing where it hits can extend how long it's able to cause damage.

Some weapons don't cause any damage at all, but create dirt piles, craters, walls, or surfaces that change how other munitions behave. The Funnel in particular concentrates splash damage, which can be devastating.

The Plasma Orb is one of those things that makes Pocket Tanks so much fun. It lifts and encases the tank, assuming that the shot hits, and does damage exactly the way it should. And now the tank is locked in, so that's a problem to solve.

Some munitions can travel through obstacles, and others will blow them up. Others will do neither, but sometimes there's no choice but to take a bad shot. The good news is that it's imposible to go below a zero score.

Being buried isn't always a bad thing. I like to hold on to weapons that can fire through obstacles, letting me stay covered and protected from most weapons. That way my opponent needs to waste their explosives digging me out instead of having to inflict more damage by doing it myself.

Not that taking damage is any guarantee of moving enough dirt to excavate oneself. There are specialty digger munitions designed for these occasions.

Many weapons do different amounts of damage depending on how they're used. Popcorn and Burnt Popcorn do splash damage, and are best in confined places where the chain reactions can continue. There's also the Hot Potato, which does best after a couple of bounces.

Quad Missiles need room to expand and find their target. Other weapons need space to bounce, dig, or hover. UFOs have even been known to crash into mountainsides.

The Paddle Ball does exactly what it sounds like, with particularly amusing results, but how it lands affects its effectiveness.

The Chaos Grenade is in a category all on its own, and frequently manages to do no damage at all to its target while dramatically rearranging the map.

Torpedoes can fly through the air or tunnel through terrain, and will hit tanks that are buried. This creates a large crater with water for extra damage.

These are very useful weapons because they can be launched even when the tank is buried without self-inflicted damage, and pack a lot of power.

The tunnels that torpedoes create remain open, giving a chance to use line-of-sight weapons.

Cannon balls can also roll down tunnels, as can some of the 'bot' weapons.

The Bouncy Shelter can be effective against opponents with bad aim, but against ones with good aim they're just self-inflicted Funnels.

Avalanche, Napalm and Nitrogen all do much more damage to a tank that's in a depression than to one that's on top of a peak.

Properly placed, an Island can be confounding.

Potholes does a lot of damage across a large area, making it ideal as a ranging shot or against a lightly buried opponent.

A number of weapons will also scramble the fire-control settings. This never makes the CPU opponent more likely to miss a shot, but will punish people who aren't paying attention.

After ten shots each the game is over.

If I beat my opponent by more than 500 points I reward myself by spending $1 on a new weapon expansion pack.

Other games have closer scores, and of course ties are possible as well.

Playing again uses the same opponent level and colour, but generates a new terrain layout and weapons selection. Saying no returns you to the main screen.

Love the 2001-2013 copyright dates. Pocket Tanks predates the iPod by three years; playing it on an iPad means using it on a platform radically different from what was possible when it first came out. The game is a perfect fit for the iPad, but while it's playable on the iPhone, it suffers on the small screen.

The options screen is where you go to turn off the music.
(I probably should have opened with this image.)

The game settings include the amount of kick from explosions and how large the craters will be, which I prefer to keep low for the sake of easier aiming. Wind speeds and variability can make the game much more difficult for people, but don't hinder the CPU opponents.

Weapons Selection lets specific weapons to be included or excluded from play. Sadly there's no way to create sets or groupings that the game will remember, which would really, really improve long-term playability and provide additional interest.

The expansion packs are available an in-game purchase. This is a way to turn a cheap game into an expensive one, but their occasional addition will spark things up.

After buying an expansion pack I'll use the Target Practice mode to see what the new toys do. This infinite play mode gives each tank unlimited movement and access to all of the weapons.

Two-player mode is the traditional hotseat method, while wifi lobby allows two players connected to the same Wi-Fi network to play on different devices.

Online play is an interesting option, but there's a lot of waiting involved. I'll often have several games on the go at once, but even still, I'll often have plenty of time to check twitter or read a book between rounds. This means that I usually forget how I need to adjust my aim from shot to shot.

There's a replay option to see what happened, including the ability to step back through several volleys, but it doesn't show what settings were used. Each player has access to their own expansion pack weapons, so expect to have a few unfamiliar munitions thrown your way.

Playing against human opponents is very different from the CPU, but there's no ability to communicate with your opponent.

I name my single-player tank "Howie" – short for Howitzer – but wasn't quick enough to snag it as an online name. So I play as HowieDewing, and feel free to add me as a friend for future matches.

Quirky, clever, and fundamentally simple, Pocket Tanks is a classic artillery game that has stood the test of time. It's easy to play badly and hard to play perfectly, but getting things wrong is a big part of the fun. I genuinely don't mind losing, even though winning still has its charm.

last updated 3 jan 2014

contact me...

You can click here for Matthew's e-mail address.