Saturday, December 21, 2019

Watch Review : Fortis Flieger Professional 704.21.11 L.01

Today I'm going to discuss my daily driver watch : the Fortis "Flieger Professional".  While not perfect (is anything?) it is certainly a cracker of a watch and well worth looking at in detail. There is a lot to appreciate in a watch that at first glace seems perhaps a bit plain.

This review has been a long time in coming, as I have been thinking about it for ages. In some ways I have felt a little indecisive about some of the features of the watch, so I wanted to see how a longer term experience played out. An example of this is the mixed finish in the band, with the high polished centre links. My preference is for an all-brushed look, and the high polish is "a bit fancy" for me, but what was it like in the real world? Well, read on.

Stepping back a fraction, let's start by discussing the brand. Fortis on the whole seems to fly under the radar of the watch world. This is a great shame as they have a long history and very decent model line-up. I will confess that a lot of their models do not appeal to me, they are too chunky, thick and complicated on the whole for my tastes.

Where does Fortis fit in? Well, it depends on your perspective, but it is generally agreed that they are a low to mid tier Swiss brand, or makers of a "Basic luxury Swiss watch". The prices usually have four digits. Things are generally made well, with ETA Swiss movements, sapphire crystal and decent if not high quality control.

It is a bit hard to categorise the watch accurately. There is that "Flieger" in the name, and it does have the fairly classic A-dial design with the triangle and two pips at 12 o'clock. So, it is a flieger, right? Well, hang on a minute. I would argue that it looks a lot like a field watch, and isn't large like a typical flieger at 40mm. And then it goes to 100m and the strap has a divers extension. It has in some conditions a somewhat dress air about it. So, which is it now? In the end it really does have some elements of a flieger, diver, sports, field and even dress watch. That may sound like a hot mess, but it is actually a good thing.

An acid test for any watch in my collection is if I can easily, quickly and intuitively answer this question when looking at it - "what is the time?". That might seem like a no-brainer when it comes to watches, but honestly there are a lot of designs on the market where this is significantly harder than others. Most people would summarise this simply as "legibility", but it is a subtle variant of that - the primary purpose of the watch over all other features. This is also perhaps why I am yet to own a chronograph, as the dial gets so crowded with subdials that telling the time becomes a challenge.

Anyway, back to the Fortis! With the arabic numerals around the dial (except 12 for the traditional flieger triangle + pips, and the 3 for the day/date aperture), it is trivial to see what hour it is. Next is the minutes, and the track there has smaller white markers every 5 minutes to assist with this.

One other important thing about telling the time is knowing your hour hand from the minute hand with absolute certainty. The hands here are mat black framed and lume filled. The hour hand is just-right (IMHO) length, just hitting the hour markers, and wider. The minute hand is longer and goes all the way out to the minute track. The second hand, for what it is worth, is a shock of orange and is easy to look at or ignore depending on if you need it or not. One subtle feature I enjoy is the fact that all three hands are matt black near the center of the dial, so there is no visual clutter there.

Overall the dial and handset work extremely well together and it gets a gigantic big tick for visual clarity. Note that I am not into military 24-hour time and so I am very happy not to have this on the dial. Some people may miss that if it is part of their life is to reference time in this way, but I have no need for it.

 In the car, what's the time? Fri 11th, 4:25

The dial itself is black, a deep slightly glossy black. There is a sort of sunburst to it, but it is very subtle and perhaps more of a sheen than an official spec sheet point. Where the pips for hour markers are there is a circular track of engraved lines, much like the groves in a record, except circular rather than a spiral. This is where the "Swiss Made" text is located around the six pip. This track provides a visual break to the sections of the dial, and quite a lot of again subtle interest. The more you look here, the more you see. The applied indices are lumed, and are even framed in black, which really is a fine and premium finish and give the dial a lot of depth and character. The lume is fairly good too, often glowing when I come inside from being in the sun.

The minute track around the outer edge of the dial is perhaps the plainest feature of the watch, in simple white (not lumed) and just markers for each minute. As an aside, I have owned watches with sub-minute markers and I always wondered what the point of these were, particularly when you have a second hand to read the sub minute time much more accurately. Anyway, the way it is here is my preference, although I also like the old fashioned "railroad" track too.

For the numerals for the seconds there is the "flipping" of the text between 15 and 20, and then again at 40 and 45. As the numerals are center aligned, this is the most common way of handling the issue. If you don't do this, then the 30 at 6 o'clock ends up upside down, and most people don't like that. I am not like most people though and I think this is the right way. I used to be a bit more passionate about this issue, but now I've softened my opinion after owning this watch. I appreciate the legibility does trump the aesthetic purity of the non-flipped numerals.

The text on the dial is really minimal, and all printed crisply in white. There is "Fortis" at 12, and AUTOMATIC at 6, and that's it. There seems to be a trend, seen easily in dive watches like the Rolex Submariner, where 3 or 4 lines of text at 6 o'clock are standard fare and denote some sort of luxury credentials. I am not a fan of this trend at all, and so again the Fortis wins with my preference on how things should be in a watch, it is another tick from me, even if a small one.

The dial has at 3 o'clock the day/date window, framed in a thin white box. The wheels are color matched (white text on black background) and blend in nicely with the rest of the dial. Sometimes it seems like the disks might have a slightly different black/matte than the main dial, but it is pretty damn near the same. I could now spend a long time going over why I love having the day and date at 3 o'clock, but I feel like I've covered that ground already. So, I'll just leave it at that - I love having the day and date on this watch and I think it is a stand out feature. Good luck finding another watch with this set of specs, look and the day complication.

On top of the dial is the glass, so let me talk about that for a minute. It is, as you would hope and expect, sapphire crystal. It sits slightly proud of the polished bezel, perhaps by a single mil or so. One of the few slip ups with this watch are with the AR coating, which is of the purple variety and works very well. The problem is that the glass is coated top and bottom, which means it can scratch off ... in theory. In practice I have had this watch for, gosh, is it a few years now? And in that time it has not scratched. Well, I just looked at the surface very carefully with a 10x loupe and could see under this magnification that indeed there were some faint scratches, and even wear at the very edge of the glass. But with the naked eye? You don't see anything.

 Action shot! Underwater...

One other quirk with the crystal is that in some angles of direct (sun)light, there are some internal reflections and a number of concentric light circles are seen on the glass. This only happens occasionally and I think is caused by light getting into the edge of the crystal and causing issues from there. Despite this, in normal use the glass and AR coating are very effective and the glass just disappears from view.  There is a glow from the inner vertical edge of the steel case, and this plays off the groove ring of the dial. It is all fairly fascinating to look at!

Next I want to move onto the case. There is a mix of finishes, with the top fixed bezel being polished, the mid case is brushed, and the screw in caseback is polished again. The brushing is horizontal on the sides and actually vertical between the lugs. This is only something an owner of the watch would notice really, but there you are. There are no bevelled edges on the lugs but they are elegantly curved at the sides and meet the case in a pleasing way.

The crown is unguarded, which looks right on this watch. It is a fairly chunky and knurled, signed and easy to operate. It is just push/pull, not screw-down, so you get the convenience of that and still have 100m water resistance, which is nice. The crown sits quite low down on the watch, when you look at it side on, but it does not dig into the wrist, although I wear my watches "above the bone". If you are all gansta and wear a super loose watch then it might be a problem and dig in.

There is a sapphire (I believe) window in the caseback enabling you to see the moment. I like this from the perspective that I sometime take it off to show people if we are talking about watches and I want to show them an automatic movement. It is surprising perhaps how many people have never seen one, and I am happy to gently educate when it is right to do so. However, the glass window is fairly small and the movement is really not all that special to look at, so it is not a huge advantage in this case. If they really want to see a nice movement I get out my pocket watch and take the back off that - the movement is open to the air and is even more impressive at over 100 years old, but that it another story for another time.

So I think I've covered the head of the watch now. It is a subjective thing, of course, but I find it a very attractive and neat package overall. It is well built, compact and functional.

Moving now on to the bracelet. This has a fairly bad rap online, when I was doing some research before purchasing the watch I read some describe it as "cheap, thin and rattly", which sounds fairly horrible. While I don't think it is perfect, by any stretch, it is a lot better than that. The links are slender, compared to some chunky watches, but in no way cheap or flimsy. There is a little rattle when taking the watch on or off, but none when wearing it. I actually like the sound it makes when I take it off and put it on. There are actually a bunch of positive things to say about the bracelet now that I think about it.

The two-tone thing is interesting. As I said earlier, I would generally rather a fully brushed but this has grown on me a lot. For a start, in many lighting conditions and angles it looks like the same finish. If it was two-tone it would really stand out, but as it is silver/silver, you don't often see it, and when you do it adds interest rather than annoyance. I was also thinking initially that it would scratch but despite a lot of wear it is still fairly unblemished. There are plenty of micro scratches, but the brushed outer sections still look brushed, and the polished inner link still look polished. Overall it has worn really well.

The clasp, however, has taken a bit more of a beating and it shows. It is very compact a clasp actually, and low profile, but it is the thing that contacts when you rest you arm on a surface. Here is a question for you though - do you bite your nails? If you do, then the clasp is going to frustrate you no end, as it is not a push button deployment. Instead, there is a pressure fit fold over security clasp (high polish, with the Fortis logo, nice looking) which really needs a fairly healthy finger nail to use. Then the clasp opens, again, with a pressure fit. Whenever there is pressure fit systems the question is how MUCH pressure is needed, too much or too little is a problem. In my example they have got this pressure value pretty much just right, so it works. It is these subtle tactile things that do differentiate a
well made vs cheaply made watch. The butterfly section is milled but undecorated.

I would certainly recommend the bracelet over the standard strap BUT it does kind of depend on the price. When I bought the watch the bracelet option was actually fairly expensive thing to go for, adding perhaps $300 AUD to the total price. You can get a whole watch for that. So it does depend on your budget. There are pros and cons, but overall the bracelet is good without being great. It does suit the watch, and overall makes it an elegant package rather than the more rugged or utilitarian end of the spectrum. To me this is good, as it shifts it gently more into the every-day wear that I use this watch for.

This model is discontinued now, but you may be able to find new-old stock about still. The closest replacement watch, which I have not tried on, is probably the Fortis Aeromaster Old Radium, model Reference 655.10.28. I quite like this too, although I'm not sure of the thickness of the watch. Some of the Fortis watches are quite thick, which I am not fond of, so it is one of those specs I pay attention to myself. It is a different look, with the angled rehort, tan markers and missing minute numerals. But it is clean and nice too in my opinion, worth looking into.

Final thoughts. I've rambled on about various elements of this watch for long enough. If you have read this all so far, well done for you perseverance. I can summarize how I feel about this watch overall fairly easily - I wear it almost every day and it gives me a lot of pleasure to do so. When choosing a watch to wear I have to force myself to pick something else. It doesn't make the best dress watch, but it can hold its own. It doesn't make a diver watch, but it can go in the pool without concern. When I need to know the time, date or day, it can tell me without fuss. When I am driving and my arm is in front of my, I catch myself admiring various elements of the design. It is a watch that keeps on giving, the initial impressions might be of a plain watch, but there is honestly a lot there. I think this watch is really overall unappreciated in the watch community, and I think that is a bit of a shame as it really is worthy of more attention. If you are looking for a one-watch collection, this could well fill that role. A fairly easy recommend, if the few minor points don't bother you like they don't bother me.

  • Perfectly legible and usable as a daily watch
  • Attractive dial and indices. Minimal printing
  • Thin and very comfortable to wear
  • Day and Date complication, colour matched wheels
  • Swiss movement and well built
  • Compact clasp with 4 micro adjusts and divers extension

  • Not applied logo on the dial, but is crisply printed
  • Top (outer) coat of AR on sapphire glass can scratch
  • Some fairly rarely seen internal reflections on glass in some light conditions (I call the "onion effect")
  • Movement not very decorated or pretty
  • Brushed surfaces a little blingy, perhaps
  • Clasp needs finger nails to use

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Best Games of 2019

Hmmmm. There was no Best Games of 2018, oh well.  It is the first year I've missed since 2012.

But oh man, another year almost down so that means it is time to press the pause button and give thought to the best games of the year. In a way, this is easy for me this year. I've known for most of the year which game was going to take the gong in this prestigious event (that's a joke by the way). This year I'm just going to get straight to the point and blurt out the winner, which is...

Winner Best Game 2019 : Minecraft

Minecraft! Minecraft? Seriously? After all this time? Well, yes. It is perhaps the best value gaming experience ever, and somehow Microsoft have yet to stuff it up, which is a minor miracle. What I have been playing though is not the vanilla game, but instead heavily modified versions of the game. Modded minecraft takes it to the next level, or even several levels, of difficulty compared to vanilla. It also adds a huge amount of variety and challenge, something the game needs when you have played it for the many thousands of hours like I have.

If you have played modded minecraft before the immediate question is - which modpack? There is a very healthy community of modders who give, for free, wonderful themed mod packs. I use the Twitch launcher which, once you get the RAM settings sorted, makes the experience of playing mod packs easy. I have played quite a number of them this year, and want to give a micro-review of each in the order I played them.

One thing they all have in common are questing systems.  These are a great idea as they generally lead you though the various mods and give you pointers on how to play. You also get rewards and a sense of progress. The questing system gives you a reason to play, which can sometimes be an issue for a seasoned Minecraft player.

I watched the youtuber GamesForKicks play some of this and the more I watched the more I wanted to play too. The start of the game sets the tone for this one - you are stuck in small spherical cave in and more or less have nothing but a torch. At the time this seemed like a fresh take on the restricted start, when compared to all of the skyblock variants. Some people find this claustrophobic, and it is a little, but it is fine really after not long at all. I also liked the idea of inverse building - normally you are adding blocks but in this it is all about taking them away. I enjoyed my playthoughs on this a lot. I think I did a few because I was not happy with my base layout or progress.

Where things started to fall over a bit was in the unlimited resource generation method chosen by the pack - chickens. You breed them up to being 10/10/10 and that is a bit of a chore, and then you have unlimited supply of resource x, whatever flavour that chicken is. I think it was this pack were I cut my teeth on a number of other mods I have not played before, like refined storage. Again, the questing system, discord and a bit of googling makes all this possible to get a handle on fairly quickly.

Forever Stranded
The Yogscast started playing this and as I watched I wanted to play too. This one is really quite hard in the start but you have a pre-build base in the form of your crashed shuttle-like ship, in the desert. This pack has a heat/cold mechanic along with the food, and getting resources initially is quite a grind. The mobs in this hit pretty hard too, and the sand can build up to allow them to climb over walls. Overall this is pretty hard pack, and just getting to the point of certain safety and enough food is a major milestone. Unfortunately, that is about as far as I played as it seemed to be the point of the pack to me. There is a lot more you can do, of course, but I didn't get drawn to it and about the time my interest was waning there was a new release...

Stoneblock 2
Feed the Beast released an updated Stoneblock 2, and as I had enjoyed Stoneblock so much I was bound to love Stoneblock 2 even more, right? Well, not so much as it turned out. It was OK, but I felt like I have "been there, done that". Again, I seem to enjoy the early game of just surviving an setting up the base, but once I'm comfortable continuing just seems to be a bit of a grind. By now too I was becoming more aware of the individual components of the mod packs, which ones I liked and which ones I didn't so much. For me it turns out I am not so fond of magic based mods, they just seem arbitrary and not always logical. I started looking for something different and found it in ...

Talk about a rough start and a change of scene. You start out suffocating from a lack of oxygen on a small space station. Fortunately you have a single tree that .... errr... grows in the vacuum outside without issue and provides oxygen. Yeah, well, accept that and move on. A space based theme seemed like a welcome stark change from the claustrophobic caves, and I enjoyed this pack a lot. There comes a time when you have to take a leap of faith and jump off the station. You have to watch your oxygen tanks, and the base power. You slowly build up resources and capabilities. Eventually you can build a ship and fly away to another planet, my first time with using any kind space travel, and it was fun to land again on Earth, which is of the destroyed cities variety. This was cool because you had to set up again, another piece of the early game cake I love so much. Then, you go to the moon and guess what, you have to set up there too, this time without oxygen so you have to bring all the gear to make that (that you got given it in the first base). And so it goes, with more an more space travel in the quests - but I more or less stopped there as I felt that I had achieved what I had wanted to. This modpack relies quite heavily on some machines that no other pack really use, compressing things rather than smelting them. I also discovered I really like having a jetpack. The developer was really cool too, and was often on the chat in Discord. Overall I had a lot of fun with this pack but the internet was abuzz about a new version of a kitchen sink pack, and I stopped playing briefly (I thought) to check it out...

Project Ozone 3
This pack is really big, and takes a log time to even start up, about 4 minutes on my PC. There are a number of start options but I took the suggested "Garden of glass" which is more-or-less a skyblocks scenario, which I had not played for a while now. There is something to be said for creating everything from nothing, or almost nothing. This pack has a number of quality of life additions so that often the grind element can be bypassed and you can get to the fun bits, eg vein-mining. There become quite a lot of dimensions to explore - Hunting Dimension, Deep dark (good to go to fairly early for resources), Twilight forest, Erebus (first time for me for this one, think land of the bugs) etc. There were a few mods I didn't like so much in this - Embers, Lordcraft and Pneumaticraft to name a few. But I played through them fairly quickly and moved on to the stuff I did like more. I built a mob farm and storage systems to deal with all the loot. The infinite resources from this comes mainly in the form of Mob farms and Mystical Agriculture crops, and I collected almost every seed there is, which is quite a feat (chore?). In this pack I played a fair way into it, reaching some of the late game content of extended crafting and Draconic Evolution, which starts to get a bit silly after a while. I also did most of the armours, which is also a massive grind. So, I gave this modpack a great go, and got fairly powerful by the end, both in terms of my base and also gear. It's a top tier pack, worth playing for sure, and is fairly beginner friendly. The RAK reward system is a really gamble, and adds some spice. You do want to save up for the swords though.
At one point a "John Cena" creeper blew up a fairly huge hole in my base, and JUST missed destroying my AE2 hard disks. I am diligent with backups (before every play session) but did not ragequit because all my stuff was OK, so I played on and rebuilt. You end up with hundreds of thousands of ingots, diamonds etc. It is a lot of working on base power, layout and storage systems and then a bit of exploring.

Sevtech Ages
At this point I was feeling pretty cocky, and wanted to try something a bit more challenging and could go the distance, and I tried Sevtech. Boy, is this a contrast to PO3. You spend hours and hours playing before you can even get to a crafting table. The low-tech start of the game I actually didn't find all that great. I also dislike having such crap storage systems like open chests that only hold a few things each. I played to the start of the third "age" and gave up. This pack beat me, in the sense I couldn't be bothered carrying on. I had survived, and was in the process of building a large base building, but it just all seemed to hard. I have seen others play through this modpack and it is a fairly serious grind at times. I certainly would NOT recommend this as a first pack to try. If you can make it all the way through the ages in Sevtech, my hat comes off to you.

Omni Factory
I read about this online somewhere and it sounded intriguing. It had some "expert pack" like qualities, which means it was fairly hard, but promised to be like a factorio in minecraft. At this point I was fairly sure I didn't like any magic based packs, and this modpack didn't have any in it. Further, combat was not important and even could be played in peaceful mode. I chose a start in the ruined cities environment and I think that this is the best choice (perhaps the sparse cities is even better). I started in a river bed next to a road, and I followed this a short way to a large building, which was to become my base... once I cleared it out. For a pack that claimed combat was not important, clearing out a building when you hardly have any resources is a lot more challenging than you might think. It is worth it though - the building makes a good base and there is a lot of loot. You want to find the boots which allow you to have no fall damage. Once you get a safe space, and a bit of food going, you can start to work on the quests and the factory. You need power and you need machines to make parts, so that you can make more and better machines. This is a road that goes a LONG way, and I had a great time with it, some of the best minecraft gaming I've ever had, and that is saying something. Every step forward feels like a real achievement, because it is.
One thing I really like are the HUGE vein ore deposits, so mining is not really something you have to worry too much about. If you can find a vein, you are more or less set for life as you can hammer a 3x3 strip into it and get a few stacks of it in no time. Later you get vertical diggers and other things which make ore collection less and less manual. This does not use refined storage but AE2, which is different but you get used to it. Pretty soon you have a huge number of machines linked together via power lines and item and fluid pipes, and it is all working away. When AE2 gets going you can start to order the system to automatically make things for you, creating all of the components from raw materials and assembling them. This is just as well as by this point you are starting to go a bit crazy with some of the micro crafting of crap like screws.
I'm a big fan of this modpack, and I have started over a few times just to play it more. One major problem it has is that eventually the game starts to lag with all the machines working at once. It is somewhat immersion breaking to have to make design decisions of your base to minimise lag. As a new pack, there are also some minor bugs and balancing tweaks needed. As of writing this the version is 1.2.1, and there is rumour of a version 1.3, but the developer may have either fallen ill or lost interest in the project. He seemed to be distracted too by a "Kappa" version of the game, that is, a super hard variant. I don't think it needs it myself, it is plenty hard enough as it is. You can spend hours tinkering in your base and not even step outside, my save files were tiny as I have explored very little. The ultimate goal of this modpack is to make the creative tanks so that you can re-do your base and then make create drawers. At that point you are effectively playing in creative mode, being able to make infinite amounts of anything. I never got to this, the furthest I got to was LuV power.

Dungeons, Dragons and Space Shuttles
This is the pack I'm currently playing. It is a fairly massive pack again and fairly hard in places, and a greater emphasis on exploration. Some things take a fair time to craft, and the Nether is fairly brutal. A fairly good mix of mods, and some I'm getting into that I've never bothered with before, like Pams Harvestcraft for cooking. Mobs hit fairly hard (especially skeletons) and I always seem to be out of gold. There are a fair number of interesting buildings and creatures that are not in any other mods I've played. I'm not sure how far I'll go with it and I'm perhaps half way through all the quests, but it is a lot of fun so far.
One thing I have done to make my life bearable is to claim the chunks around my base so creepers don't grief when they explode. Also, I tend to adjust the Blood Moon mod so that I can sleep through it, because honestly, I don't enjoy it. I'm trying to play this game without making a mob grinder of any sort, but I'm starting to think that I might need one, particularly for gold. There are some magic mods in this and so far they have been bearable.

And more!
You'd think the above list was enough, but I've actually played more still.
  • R.A.D Rougue-like adventures and Dungeons. A bit too run and gun for me, but still fun.
  • Glacial Awakenings. Start buried in ice. Once you get the surface, it is an snow world
  • DigSite. Fixed map with a lot of story and hand crafted locations
So you can see just how many hours of entertainment this game still gives me, each and every week. With these modpacks it is like playing whole new games over again, with the familiar framework of the minecraft world. I still think it is all incredibly cool.

Runner up 2019 : Noita

This was the surprise game of the year. This little game has some things about it that I really, really love and wish was in more games. For a start, it launches really fast, like in seconds. The soundtrack is amazing. The game is being honed and balanced with each update, and is still early access and quite beta, but is very playable and takes considerable skill (and some luck) to succeed. What I like about it too is that there is no hand holding. You develop your own techniques for the challenges you face. Initially you are likely to try and kill all the enemies you meet, for example, but this will likely wear down your health and the choice of running is often wiser. This is where a lot of the satisfaction in the game comes from - discovering how to play it well.

The game has an overall vibe which is kind of unlike anything else. Yes, the stand out feature here is the per-pixel particle simulation, and it does have effects you can take advantage of, but it is only a part of the gameplay. Much of the game is spent searching for new wands and traits to enable you to face the deeper levels with some hope of surviving. It does get hard quickly, if you are stuck with your starter wands on the third level you are pretty much toast. I will admit that despite dying about 65 times (it keeps count), so that's how many games I've played, I'm yet to "win" the game. That may seem hopeless and dreadful, and perhaps it is but I don't care at all. I am generally improving each time I play and get a little (or a lot) further. Deaths can be varied and fairly entertaining in themselves, and usually you learn something - even if it is "don't do that again!".

However, the reason this game has not won this year is that I can see that it has limited playability. You restart each game in exactly the same place, and it does get old fairly fast. Each game lasts about 10 minutes, perhaps more and perhaps a lot less. But it has a bad case of ground hog day. If they can add a decent amount of variety to the start, then this game will be elevated to another level. I am not aware of any plans to do so at this point, it is just a thought I have. Please don't get me wrong, even with this gripe/limitation the game is an absolute blast to play and an easy recommend to try out.

Best Mobile Game 2019

There is none this year, as far as I'm concerned they all suck. Even PvZ has taken a turn for the worse in recent updates with intrusive ads and that is crap. I have not exactly been looking at all the games, but have not come across any worth mentioning. Booo.....

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Keyboard review : IBM Model M Keyboard

Note : This review was written way back in 2004. It is still relevant today, and perhaps even more amazing is that I am still using the SAME keyboard to type this. Yes, they really do last.

Many moons ago..

I have been around computers for a long time. How long? Well, when I was 15, I used an Apple ][ at school back in the early 80's. Yes, back then having TWO floppy drives was a luxury as it meant less disk swapping to boot the beast. These were real bendable floppies mind, not the modern fancy hard 1.44MB ones. I'm a nostalgic kinda guy sometimes - I still have a working ][e in the garage somewhere. My first computer was a tape drive based Tandy TRS-80. I had a lot of fun programming that to do silly text adventures in basic.

I also knew someone who worked at IBM, and I played with one of the first IBM PC's, and a thing called the PC portable. This was a "portable" not a "laptop", unless you wanted to become a paraplegic in a hurry. You see, it weighed quite a bit, and more or less took a full grown man to move it.

Then I used a whole swag of PC's and macs. Fast forward to today and I estimate I have touched perhaps a few thousand computers. Consider that I spent time as a computer consultant supporting offices with 50 computers at a time, and this doesn't seem so crazy. Over that time computers have changed.. a lot. Initially, they were super expensive and made to last. The IBM cases were so strong that it was quite possible to stand on one with no ill effect. Other components too were often over engineered. Then things changed. It was all about volume and cheap prices. Quality dropped, compromises were made and durable parts were substituted for cheap parts. Hold that thought.

I distinctly remember playing a text based adventure game called "Nethack" on one of the original IBM PC's. This software came from the mainframe world and amazingly, can still be played today! If you have never tried this gem, I suggest you give it a go. It certainly won't give your graphics card a workout (or your CPU either), but it has a charm and depth that is undeniable. Certainly as a spotty 14 year old, it was very addictive and enjoyable. I recall moving about the maze, using my imagination as to what was happening on screen, to the soft clicking sound of the keyboard.

The clicking what?

The clicking keyboard. Every key press could be heard, twice in fact. The down press is louder than the key up, but there was a sound involved with typing. There was also a feel, a feel I got used to and liked. All of this is due to the fact that early keyboard were made with springs under the keys. As you pressed the key, the spring compressed slightly, then buckled (which made the sound and also produced the key press). When the finger lifted up, the spring unbuckled with another slight sound as it snapped into place. You don't see the springs of course, but you do feel and hear them. These keyboards were amazingly durable, with each key taking rated for an estimated 25 million key presses.

Sadly, these keyboards were not made forever. You see, they cost too much, and to be honest, some people didn't like the noise. A cheaper way was found, which involved a plastic dome bubble. These bubbles were pushed in by a spike on the underside of the key. When the top and bottom of the bubble made contact, the key was "pressed". Sheets of keyboard bubbles could be made very cheaply. The feel of these keyboards are completely different however. "Squishy" is a word that comes to mind. For those that noticed, it was a giant step backwards. Not many people did notice however, as most people were new to computers. Besides, the mouse was the big thing at that time, the keyboard was oh-so 70's. Even IBM gave up making the sprung keyboards before long.

So...what? Can you get to the point please?!

Patience!! The other day I was reading Daniel Rutters excellent web site, Dan's Data. I enjoy his sense of humour and also trust his judgement. If you have never checked out his site, I suggest you do. One day, when I am flush, I will give him some money for his efforts as well. He deserves it. Anyway, he was reviewing a fancy-scmancy new light up keyboard, and I read his article with passing interest. The more I read, the more I thought about the humble keyboard, and an idea started to grow in my head. I remembered in a flash the old keyboards of oh-so-many years ago, and how much I liked their feel. The penny dropped that these keyboards were so well made and durable, they can still be used today, and that I wanted to get one. I knew I would lose the "multimedia" trimmings, and the windows key, but I was ok with that.

SO I hit Ebay... no luck. But good old Google turned up some interesting things. Most notable was the growing feeling that I had just discovered a quiet underground movement of keyboard fanatics. I was not alone, and perhaps even a little slow off the mark. This web site, is a shrine to the IBM Model M keyboard, and has a run-down of all the models and dates. It also has an extensive buyers guide, so I felt I was hot on the trail! I did note that the keyboards they had for sale were all in the US, and were quite a bit more than I wanted to pay (about US$50 each plus US$70 shipping - ouch!). These old keyboards are rather heavy you see, so to send one half way around the world costs real money.

I did more research. It turns out that Dan had already fairly comprehensively covered these old keyboards as well, in a dedicated article on the IBM model M's. What his article is a bit short on, is how to get one of these boards in Australia other than paying through the nose, like he did it seems. But the more I read, the more I knew I wanted one - it started really becoming a quest. I told my wife about all this, and I was not surprised to be called a "geek" in no uncertain terms. To get excited about a keyboard is not normal, apparently. I don't get upset in the slightest about her teasing, I'm quite used to it by now!

So, did you find one?

No, not one. I recently discovered a second hand PC dealer in Crows Nest, EziPC (Edit : no longer in business). A very soft spoken and genuinely nice guy by the name of Charles runs the place, which can be loosely described as a basement full to the brim of old computer gear. Some in racks, some stacked on top of each other on the floor. I thought he might have one, so I sent him an email. But I couldn't wait for a reply, so I called him and arranged to go there after hours that same day. To my great pleasure, we found a whole big box of Model M's, mostly model 1391401's - just what I was looking for. Some had a few keycaps missing, so I decided to take, wait for it... six!

Charles didn't know about the value of these keyboards, and to be honest was happy to give them to me for free based on past business. I wasn't happy about that though, so I did pay him for them. I also told him that I thought they were worth quite a bit, to the right person. I figured this information may be worth something to him as well, even though I was effectively burning my bridges. When I got home I discovered that I had 4 model 1391401 boards, one of which was older that the others and had the black and white logo. The other two of the six were Lexmark made models, which are still good but not quite as good (seemed ok to me, but I bow to greater knowledge on this topic). So I took the missing keycaps from these two Lexmark keyboards and made 4 perfect boards in total. Woohoo!!

When I got home...

Of course, I tell my wife that I have just bought 6 keyboards and she looks at me like I'm some kind of madman, which perhaps I am. I then proceed to rip all the keycaps off one of the boards (I started to do this with a screwdriver, but actually, you can just pull them all off with your fingers. You might need a tool to prize the bigger keys off though). I don't think this helped me looking less mad - I mean, why buy 6 keyboards if you are hell bent on destroying them? I was not destroying them of course, besides, they are indestructible. I was simply started cleaning them.

A clean keyboard is a happy keyboard!

You see, these keyboard were 12 to 15 years old! They had been used by more than a few people previously, and I did not like the keyboard plague that was before me. Everyone knows that a used keyboard is dirtier than a toilet seat. I wanted the new old look, and I was prepared to clean each key to get it. Took about half an hour per keyboard. I also cleaned the keyboard itself, and removed the crap that had fallen into the keyboard with a vacuum cleaner. A bit of spray'n'wipe later and I can pass these off as almost new. One keyboard had clear evidence of a coffee spill incident in it's past. This was near the space bar key, and I it was very sluggish as a result. It is a testament to the durability of these 'boards that after cleaning the residue away it worked like new. Honestly, these will be still working when my fingers have long since cramped up.

So you are happy, right?

Well, yes I am! I now have 4 mint IBM 1391401 keyboards, including one rare old one. They all work a charm, and are a pleasure to use. I have even taken one to work and intend to use it with my laptop in place of my logitech wireless keyboard I'm using at the moment. Except I can't just yet. Why not? Well, you see, these are PS/2 keyboards, and my laptop doesn't have any PS/2 ports. The PS/2 port is slowly disappearing in favour of the much more user friendly (but not actually as responsive) USB port. I am not concerned though, as I have a AU$15 USB->PS/2 adaptor on order from my local super cheap and nasty computer store. This little widget plugs into any USB port and gives you a PS/2 keyboard and mouse port to play with. So these keyboards can now live on until the USB port standard dies. Which I figure is not any time soon.

But does that mean they are perfect? They are without doubt superior to other keyboards in terms of key press feel. I think this is the most important thing, so the rest doesn't matter so much. They are also clearly more durable. On the negative side of the coin, they are noisy, big and heavy. They don't have any fancy keys such as the windows key (Ctrl-Esc does the same thing by the way) or any multimedia things like volume control or one button email/internet. I have had a few keyboards with these extra keys and I can count on one hand the number of times I've used them. The only things I have found remotely useful have been the volume controls and mute button. Still, a decent pair of speakers will have a volume control on them, so if they are within arms reach there is no problem. My laptop also has a volume control on it. It's also wired, and wireless is flavour of the month. Bah humbug I say.

Also, and this has taken a little use to find out - the keys are angled slightly differently to modern keyboards. They are more, well, upright. I feel that I have to be a little more "above" the keyboard to be in the right position, and there is no palm rest of any kind (although you can add your own easily enough).

I think some of these issues could be solved if I could get my hands on a model 1395300, which is basically the same mechanism but in a much smaller enclosure. This would eliminate the size and weight problem anyway. I am still on the lookout for one of these! They were made in smaller quantities, so they are a harder find. So.. it's not over yet.

You may be wondering why I have bothered to write a long description of all this. The answer is twofold. The first reason is that I genuinely believe these keyboards are special, and everyone ought to know about them (although that means it's harder for me to find them... but I have 4 so I can't see myself EVER needing more... unless they are all stolen..). The other reason to type all this is exactly that - a good excuse to type something. You see, you enjoy it with one of these keyboards!!

I draw the analogy to cars. This keyboard is like a 20 year old Cadillac. It's big, it's not as fancy as the modern cars or as sleek, but has a special something that is just magic and the ride is super smooth. It's not for everyone, but I know it's for me. I was going to say that they just don't make them like this any more, but that's not exactly true. There is a company that still make sprung keyboards. I like the *look* of the IBM's better (the lock light panel is nicer IMHO) but the mechanics are the same. Check 'em out here. I think it's more fun to find an old one in a bargain bin somewhere, but of course it's your call.

And no, I don't have any spare so don't ask. I'm keeping mine. Forever.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Keyboard review : K-Type (with Halo True switches!)

Carelessly placed in a way where anyone walking by could take it, my long awaited K-Type keyboard arrived from Massdrop. Fortunately I was first to notice it laying there next to my mailbox, and I quickly took it inside an unboxed it. I have used it to type this review.

So...what's it like then? Well, read on!

KType vs the Model M

I need to start off by explaining a little of my personal keyboard preferences, as we all seem to be different in this regard, if the key switch industry is any guide on this. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to tell you which keyboards I have been using for the last, oh, 10 or more years. At work I use an IBM Model M with the famous original clicky keys. At home I use an ... IBM Model M. You may see a pattern there. So yes, I come from a world of extremely noisy buckling springs and keyboards you could possibly land a small aircraft on. I wrote a review of the keyboard once, but that was back in the day before blogger and it is in raw HTML and the web site that hosted it is long since dead. I might dig it up an put it on here just for kicks (done!)... but I'm being distracted! This is not about the Model M, the best keyboard ever, it is about the K-Type! Is this the new best-est keyboard ever?

Even still, I needed to get that off my chest, and some of you may be wondering how the keyboard switches feel compared to the buckling springs. Well, they are not the same, so there is that, but I will talk more on that point in a bit. I was drawn to the k-type mainly because of these new switches. I have tried all of the modern cherry switches and the blues come closest but none really feel like, or are as good as, the buckling springs. This is totally my opinion, you understand, and yours may be completely different...and wrong! Haha.

Halo Switches

The K-Type could be ordered with a number of switches installed, and a key feature of the keyboard is that the switches can even be easily changed. Reading more about this I came across some fairly fascinating (to me) charts showing the pressure graphs needed to actuate and release the keys of various key switch types. Included in the chart were all the cherry switches and the topre and buckling spring and some others. I would embed the image, but it seems to be on an insecure site so it complains here on blogger, but you can see it by clicking here.

The guys over at the input club were developing a new kind of switch, which in theory had the best characteristics of all the switches they ever found. They had two new versions, the Halo True and Halo Clears. The pressure chart for the Halo Trues looked interesting to me in that there was a dip in the chart like a soft "click" that the buckling springs have, and then a gentle ramp so that bottoming the keys out was not harsh. I'm not a heavy handed typist anyway, some people really bash away at the keys but I am more gentle so the bottoming out issue is not that critical - but it is part of the key switch experience for sure. The long term effect of a hard landing on your keys is fatigue and possibly joint pain, so it is good to get it right. The activation force is less at 60g vs 70g for the M, and the "click" overall is less pronounced.

I read all the marketing materials and early prototype reviews I could, but it was too new and nobody really compared the new Halo switches directly to buckling springs, or even to the Cherrys in any great detail. So, in a fairly uncharacteristic move I just went out on a limb and ordered the keyboard from Massdrop, my first ever purchase from them. I was one of around 3000 in the drop, a pretty big one I understand, and my keyboard is serial number 968 for what it is worth. It was not cheap, at $217 USD, but it's not like I buy keyboards often. Despite my love for the Model M I wanted to play with some modern features like n-key rollover and backlighting/underlighting and a native USB-C connection and the smaller form factor. I'm still not sure I can live without the numeric keypad, but it sure makes a hell of a difference to the size of the keyboard - it is tiny compared to the M, and allows the mouse to sit closer to you.

Massdrop vs Input Club

There was/is some, um, "controversy" between the Input Club and Massdrop over the ownership of these new Halo switches during development. It looked like it might get ugly but the boards were still shipped on time, in fact a few days early. I'm not really going to comment on the whole deal other than it is a bit sad to watch from the outside and it may mean that you will not be able to buy another K-Type any time soon, or possibly even these switches. We shall see how things pan out. It may be that the Input Club actually develop a different switch and the Halo switch ends up a footnote in keyboard history - in which case I am probably lucky to pick one up when I did. Massdrop currently has around 1700 requests for this product (people who missed the drop), so that is I would have thought enough to go a second one but they have not done so yet - so what does that tell us? Perhaps they are waiting to see how this batch goes, and the reviews, before committing further, but that is all complete guesswork on my part. Moving on.

Packaging and Quality control

The packaging it comes in is nice enough, in a kind-of Apple style. I don't really care about packaging myself, after all in a few moments it is put aside. It came with a fairly usable key puller which has a hidden Phillips head screwdriver in the handle, or perhaps that is like the top of a keyswitch? I'm not really sure what it is! It also came with a switch puller, which is a simple folded piece of metal with hooks on the end. If you ever do take the switches out of the keyboard, it is a very good idea to use this tool and there is also a specific technique to it. There is the USB-C cable included, with the older standard rectangle USB end to plug it into your computer. This is white plastic, and is fine without being anything special really and it is not terribly long. It could easily be replaced if you care.

My example of the keyboard is pretty impressive, I have to say. Solid. I like the look overall myself, it is clean without being too flashy. With the backlighting options and ability to change key caps you can make it look any way you want, more or less. However, a co-worker took one look at it and said "it's ugly, eh!" so opinions do vary. I don't think she liked the exposed key look, or perhaps it was the silver base, she didn't say.

Reading some of the comments of those who got their boards though, it seems that the QA on the manufacture was all over the shop. People have been complaining of duplicate keycaps, non functioning keys, repeated keys, missing magnets, unstable boards, dents/scratches and other issues. More issues that I think you should have in a short run of product. Checking my board over I could see that I had all the right keys, and they all worked as expected and no dents or scratches. The only oddity I had was that some of the keys looked like they had some red marks on them - ink or nail polish or lipstick or ...blood perhaps? I don't know what really, and it gave me an excuse to use the new caps puller to get them off and wash them. The red stuff mostly came off, but there is a small trace of it still there. You can see it on the "( 9" and "{ [" key. Click on the picture to see more detail.

Edit 2017-11-10 : Hmmm. Last night I noticed for SURE that it was dropping letters. I saw this when I was signing off on an email, and typing my name. Instead of "Saul", I got "Sul", yet I typed the "a" - four key presses. I opened up notepad and typed my name many times, and yes, it was dropping letters at random, notably vowels, sometimes the "u" went instead of the "a". It was worse when done quickly, but sometimes even dropped the letters when typing reasonably slowly. I read of someone else who had this issue so I flashed the keyboard once more, making minor tweaks to the colours (kill the yellow and make it all blue) and the problem was then resolved. However, I had flashed the board not long ago and this behaviour is quite alarming. The sole purpose of the keyboard is to capture key presses and if it can't do this reliably then it is simply junk. If this happens frequently it will be the end of this keyboard. I wonder if pulling the USB out and resetting the board may have fixed it too, if it happens again I will try that. Right now, on typing this, I have not had any mistakes, but the letters are sometimes lagging the typing - which may be Blogger or the PC and not the keyboard. Anyway, in hindsight, I wonder if the high number of "mistakes" I was having was due to the keyboard actually dropping letters, although mostly I have been having transposition errors (letters in the wrong places) so it is probably still just me...

Lighting & Software

When you first plug it in the LED's are in a rainbow animation, which is great for seeing that all of them are working properly but not great after a while as it is distracting to type on. And here is were there is a bit of a rough edge to all this as the software to control the keyboard to its full extent is not quite ready yet. The way you modify the keyboard lighting and functions is quite complicated, not for someone inexperienced with computers, and shows the enthusiast market the keyboard is really for. Flashing the K-Type is needed to stop the rainbow effect, and this is done by a fairly long series of steps which you can read about by following the link if you are interested. It helps to have a second keyboard plugged into your computer too. You need to download drivers, install software, open ZIP files, move files, push pins in holes blah, blah, blah. No single step is hard, but I got confused at one point about whether I should have the keyboard in flash mode or not (it did need to be) by pressing a pin into a little hole on the underside of the keyboard. Overall, once you get used to the process it is actually not too bad, but like I said, it is mostly made for enthusiasts.(Edit 2017-11-10 You can put the keyboard in flash mode using the key sequence Fn-ESC, which is handy. However, I'm not sure why the software can't do this for you when you ask it to flash the keyboard?)

So, the software is currently quite bleeding edge, but is getting better at a rapid pace by the developers at the Input Club. You can actually configure the keyboard using the online web based designer, or a local app to your PC/Mac/Linux box. Setting up the colours can be fun for a while, and I'm using the very colourful layout below at the moment but I will probably change it further. Using the function keys with + and - you can adjust the brightness all the way down to off. There are animations too, like when you press the keys, or the wave, but these seem somewhat limited at the moment and quite gimmicky. I don't have any animations on. You can set the colour for each key, and brightness by choosing a darker version of the same colour (I will admit it took me a moment to realise this!). I'm not sure yet how many layers of animations you can put on this. I'm not 100% sure of the limits to any of this yet, and if you can do things like have the caps lock key go a different colour if activated. If you turn the backlighting completely off the see through sections actually invert to show the dark behind and are still visible. I counted 17 levels of brightness using the Fn +/- keys. I have mine set around the middle brightness, and with the colour choice some of the keys appear a bit faint in the photo.

Key Caps

For some unexplained reason, the key caps have a strong texture on them, like 800 or 400 grit sandpaper. I think I read somewhere that it was an antibacterial coating, but don't quote me on that. It certainly affects how the keys feel on your fingertips and arguably improves the grip - your fingers are not going to slip off in a hurry. I don't actually mind it, but it is worth noting as it is unusual. Keyboards do get grimy over time, and I'm curious to see how long this looks good, or if it will turn out to be a chore to keep it looking nice, or if this wears off and becomes shiny. Due to the open design, and removable key caps, it should be easy to keep clean at least.

Another thing to point out is that the text on the keyboards is top justified, which means the shift version of the key is on the left. See the number row to get what I mean by this. The reason for this, rather than the normal stacked vertical arrangement, is due to the underlying light-pipe. The light from the switch LEDs is on the top part of the keyswitch, so all the clear see-through sections have to be there too. At first I thought this text layout was weird, but you get used to it very quickly. The graphics on the tab, caps lock, shift, scroll lock keys are a bit funky though.

Typing Experience

So getting back to the most important point - what are these new Halo True switches actually like to type on? The short answer is : pretty darn good. There is a key resistance which is quite pleasant, and a positive feel when a key is pressed. Coming from a model M, it is not a revelation, it is simply "nice enough" and perhaps less springy. If you have come from a rubber dome world of disposable "normal" keyboards, this will be a huge step up. If you have come from another mechanical cherry switch, it will probably just feel subtly different. The keys are firm at rest, but in getting them to actuate is actually not hard. The bottom out is smooth and not unpleasant. Where it does perhaps feel a bit different to a cherry switch is when the key is released, this also has a feel which is hard to describe but is tactile, like they go back into place by themselves in a neat way.

I've been typing this review on the keyboard and I have noticed that I have made probably more mistakes than I would have if I had been using my Model M. I think though that almost any new keyboard will do that to you, and it isn't extreme but is noticeable. None of the keys are in stupid places or strange shapes, everything is where it is supposed to be.

The keys do not all have the same feel though, despite all having the same keyswitch. I never quite got what some were saying about stabilisers, but now I know what they are talking about. The larger keys on the keyboard need more than just the switch under them to keep them stable when you hit them off center. Without stabilisers they would wobble all over the place. The keys affected by this are : Backspace, Enter, Left and Right Shift and of course the space bar. The space bar is ok in this case, thank god, as you use it A LOT. It is more the other keys that have an issue - and that is that they sound, and feel, rattly and tinny metallic when you press them, particularly if done quickly. Because I am a klutz, I most notice this with the backspace key. If you change your mind and want to erase a whole word you might press that key several times in a row. Then you really notice the problem - it doesn't sound or feel like the letter keys.

It is possible to fix this rattly key problem by putting in different "plate mounted" stabilisers (like genuine cherry ones), or installing some fix like grease/tape/something else - I don't know. As stock this is a noticeable area where the key feel (on these specific keys) is not quite right at all. That isn't the switches fault per say, it is the hardware around the larger keys causing this issue. I read a comment that possibly the wrong gauge of wire was used in the stabiliser by accident, but this could just be a rumour. There are a lot of serious modders who got this keyboard so I'm interested to see what they come up with as a solution. So far, the consensus seems to be that 1) They suck and 2) You should replace them with genuine cherry stabilisers asap. The keys I'm talking about work, they just don't feel and sound as good as the rest. It's a nit pick really, but on the other hand this is the stuff that serious keyboard users care about - and this is a serious keyboard users keyboard.

The sound of the keys is not exactly quiet either, if you were hoping for or expecting that. It is quieter than the Model M, but not by much - and besides, what isn't quieter than a model M? If anything it is just a different kind of sound. I am actually using it in a noisy server room environment at work, and so compared to the ambient sound it is not an issue, but if I was in a quiet office or at home the sound might travel and be more noticeable. Your mileage may vary with this, some people are very sensitive. Like I keep saying, I've used a model M for so long I just don't hear it any more, like someone living next to a train line perhaps!

So to wrap this up, what do I think about this keyboard? Well, the acid test for me is if it will stay on my desk or if the model M will muscle its way back. I've only given it a few days so far, so I'm not actually sure yet. I need more time with it to decide. I have missed the numeric keypad a few times to be honest - I went to type in a mobile number and my hand floated over where it used to be. I will update this review in a while if this situation changes, or there is anything else I particularly discover about the keyboard I've not already mentioned above.

So far I've enjoyed using it a lot, and while that lasts it's earning its place on my desk.

Edit 2018-03-22 : Well, I gave it a good six months but in the end I caved. I'm back on the Model M and it feels like coming home. The M is so consistent and solid, and I just type better with it. Make of that what you will!

  • Compact, attractive design (in my opinion!)
  • New, unique and interesting keyswitches : Halo True
  • Designed to be easy to mod
  • Nothing quite like it
  • Very good lighting effects
  • Maybe a new cult classic...?

  • Some very random and quite serious quality issues reported
  • Currently not available to purchase
  • Was pretty expensive (but not so much for an enthusiasts board)
  • Keys with stabilisers rattle (Shift, Caps lock, Enter, Backspace)
  • Software used to configure fairly convoluted (but improving)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Knife review : Bestech "Grampus" BG02C

My infatuation with folding "pocket" knives has taken a back seat for a while, so there have not been many new knives to review. I've been rocking the Ontario RAT 2, which is the smaller version of the RAT 1, with the pocket clip removed as my EDC for about 2 years. It is a great small-ish knife, probably won't scare anyone too much if you use it, and it's rounded design means it can be in your pocket and it is highly unlikely to cause problems. About the only issue I've had with the knife, and it is one that is fairly easily fixed, is that I've had to sharpen it every now and then because the steel is only ok. There is a rumour that the Rat 2 will come out in D2 soon, but so far it is AUS-8.

Earlier in the year I went to the Sydney knife show, which was a blast. Although I enjoyed my time there, I didn't see anything that immediately made me want to buy it. Probably the most interesting folding knife to me was the "We" range of knives, although I considered them to be pretty overpriced. A few weeks later, I looked through their range and found one I liked, and it was one of the cheapest they sell too - the 703 model which I got with the green handle. I seem to like either black handle or green handle knives, and don't ask me why because I don't know. Anyway, as I was checking out my order from New Bee knives (who I would recommend if you are in Australia), I spotted the Bestech BG02C on sale there too and added it to my order, and I am VERY glad I did.

I'm a bit reluctant to post these photos, as they are genuinely terrible, but I'm hoping that it will give you some idea about these three knives. It is an overcast day today and there is no natural light, so the shadows are nasty - I apologize. I also had to use a slightly weird angle to avoid the shadow from the camera itself. If you want to see better images, please look online for each knife. Note that I have taken the pocket clip off the Rat and BG02C, but left it on the We 703 for now. And yes, the We knife does have a blackened blade, that is not a shadow. You can click on the images to see larger versions.

(left) Rat 2, We 703, BG02C (right)

(top) BG02C, We 703, Rat 2 (bottom)

(left) Rat 2, BG02C, We 703 (right)

Both the We and Bestech knives are flipper designs in D2 steel for the blade, both came perfectly centered. Within a few minutes of handling both knives I knew which one I preferred : the Bestech BG02C! The We 703 is not a bad knife, but my example has the following issues : it is not as easy to deploy, the liner lock is sometimes very early in lockup, the liner is sometimes a bit stiff to unlock, the blade to handle weight ratio is heavy on the blade side and feels unbalanced,  resting it on a table it is a bit harder to get it to sit with the blade upright (when closed). It is also a fraction longer than the BG02C, and they are on the upper limit of size I'm comfortable with anyway so in this case it is not a good thing. In its favour the We knife does have a more traditional drop point blade shape, and more pronounced hollow grind, and hidden liners. Perhaps if I had not ordered the BG02C I would have been happier with the 703, as I would not have had it to compare to.

This is not really a review of the We 703, so I'll stop talking about it now, but I think it is interesting as it is a knife at twice the price of the BG02C. In this light, the BG02C certainly stands out as fantastic value.

I want to talk for a minute about flipper vs thumb stud deployment. I would have said that I'm not really a flipper kind-of-guy, but this knife has opened my eyes to this style. I generally like the thumb stud as you have control over the deployment at all stages, and there is nothing sticking out of the back of the knife when closed. What I mean by the former comment is that is that with a thumb stud you can choose to open the blade fast (with a flick) or slow, by pushing with your thumb in an arc. In contrast, a flipper is an all-or-nothing kind of deal in terms of deployment. Once you press the button, it flies out, ready or not. The BG02C deploys smoothly, consistently, and has a good lockup. One handed opening and closing is possible in seconds, and with little practice you can do this with complete confidence. In fact, this is a big reason why I love this knife - it has a great "play" factor where you can spend time just opening and closing it. If you love knives, you will do this! It sounds great doing it too. There is a really satisfying "click" to it.

The flipper tab on the BG02C is rounded and smooth. It is very comfortable to deploy with a "light-switch" motion. When deployed the flipper tab forms a serious thumb guard - there is no risk of your hand sliding up the knife onto the blade. There is also some (just enough!) gimping on the back of the blade for this purpose too, to give your thumb a place to grip the back of the blade as you hold it. The other benefit of the flipper design is that once deployed the blade is clear to cut through things for its whole length, there are no thumb studs getting in the way to catch on anything.

The liner is also fairly thick steel and is cut smooth, which in my eyes is good. It is thicker than the steel in the Rat 2, and certainly feels really solid. Some liner locks are stiff and overly textured and bite back when you use them, hurting your thumb. The BG02C is not one of those. There is still plenty of purchase on the liner lock to know you have it under control, it is just proud, perfectly done really. Looking inside the knife, for those who care, the liner is skeletonized to reduce weight. There is about 1/3 solid back spacer, with the rest flow through.

One element to the knife, and is kind of a mixed blessing, is the lanyard hole/glass breaker at the end of the handle. This is an extension of the back spacer, and is quite a serious spike without actually being cutting sharp. To me, this immediately gives the knife a specific purpose - as a car knife. That is, to keep this in the glove box or side pocket and use in an accident or emergency. Car windows are remarkably resistant to breaking, but will shatter if hit by something shaped more or less exactly like this. It might take a few hits, I'm not sure, and I'm not about to go and try it. To be honest it is fairly unlikely you will need this, and I wonder if it would be better off without it, but it is what it is. The problem is, if this knife is lurking in your pocket there is a fair chance you will come into contact with the glass breaker when trying to get it out.

This brings me to another point. The finish on this knife is fantastic in general, in my hands it all feels right in terms of action. One thing I did feel the need to do, though, is go over it with some fine (400 then 800 grit) sandpaper to smooth out some slightly sharp edges from the factory. The glass breaker was one of those places, as I'd stuck my hand in my pocket to get the knife out and for a split second I thought it had deployed and my had was in contact with the blade. In fact, I'd just pushed my hand on the glass breaker instead, but it goes to show how sharp those corners felt to start with. After the 5 minute sandpaper treatment it is certainly not a problem, and you'd get the same point with enough wear over time I suppose.

The pocket clip is tip up only, but has holes for both sides. This is irrelevant to me in that I take the pocket clip off any knife I use. I find they generally makes the knife feel terrible in the hand, and once you are used to a free floating knife in your pocket there is no going back. Anyway, one quirk I discovered, and it is the kind of thing you will likely only do by owning the knife, is that the scales have an indentation for the pocket clip (at the screw end) on the side it is shipped with it on, but not the other side. This indentation breaks up the pattern of the knife on the scales with the pocket clip removed, and that is a bit unfortunate, but it is a minor point really. It is also a place where a bit of fine sandpaper will smooth out the edges.

So it seems I'm talking now about the handle scales, so lets keep going with that. The G10 is nicely done and has this beaded scoop pattern in lines on it. It is kind of hard to describe, best to go back and look the picture. In person it feels pretty nice, and has plenty of grip without being too aggressive. With the thick liner and G10 scale, the handle of the knife does end up being quite thick though. I don't mind this myself, to me it feels solid and reassuring in the hand, but for others it may be an issue. If it is, the Rat 2 is the knife for you, as this is quite thin in comparison.

The knife is held together with small torx screws. The main pivot however has torx on one side, and on the other is a strange proprietary two pronged flathead design that most people will not have a tool for - and it is not included in the package, so that is a bit of a bummer. I have not had to adjust or take apart my knife so it has not been a problem so far, but it's worth noting as a potential con of the design. I actually have a set of strange security bits at work so I think I could get past it anyway - maybe.

I realize I've spent all this time talking about this knife and have yet to really talk about the blade and its ability to cut! I'm actually not sure how to accurately describe the blade shape - a modified drop point maybe? When I first deployed the blade my reaction was "ok, that's a bit different" and I stared at it for a while. The design gives it a fairly thick spine, and this extends quite a long way to the tip, making it stronger and thicker. This means that this knife isn't ideal for applications where thin pointy tips are needed - for those a knife like Kershaw Leek is the right thing. For everyday jobs though, like cutting tape to get into boxes, and then cutting the box to put it in the recycling, the BG02C does it all without a problem. It came shaving sharp out of the box and the benefit of the D2 steel is that it is likely to stay that way for a long time. It feels like it could handle quite heavy duty work, it is stocky and solid, this is not a delicate knife.

Overall I have been very pleasantly surprised by the Bestech "Grampus" BG02C (to use its full name!). I like it enough to consider it a serious contender to knock the Rat 2 our of rotation for my EDC blade, which now feels a bit lightweight. The only thing holding this back, and I'm seeing if I can live with it, is the glass breaker. If this is too uncomfortable in the pocket then the knife will end up in the car, displacing the Rat 1 that is there at the moment. Either way, it is a great knife and I'm very glad I own it, it is a total pleasure to use. Highly recommended!

  • Flawless deployment feel and liner lock implementation
  • Well built, solid design
  • Comfortable ergonomics (for the most part)
  • Fantastic value for a D2 steel based knife
  • Attractive blade and knife overall
  • Fun to play with - open and close it all day long
  • Glass breaker reduces pocket ergonomics
  • Pocket clip indentation on the G10 is on one side of the knife only
  • Pivot screw proprietary design and tool not included
  • Handle may be a bit thick for some
  • A quick sandpaper treatment helps smooth some sharp factory edges
  • May be imposing/threatening to non-knife people

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Best Games of 2017

So in what is now a pretty strong tradition, I'm going to say what I think was the best game of the year. It's a bit early this year, as the year is not really over yet, but I'm pretty sure I know the outcome so I'm going to do it now anyway. It was a bit of a journey though, and there are a few points I want to make, so settle in and hopefully enjoy the post.

The winner last year was 7 Days to Die, and rightly so - great game which I am still playing. As an early access game, like so many I seem to gravitate towards, there was a period where a new version was coming up. I had been playing Alpha 15 (A15), and the talk was all on A16 on the excellent forums. The new version sounded great - particularly in terms of the world generation and points of interest. There was a time when I felt I had played A15 enough and was waiting for A16 to be released. You don't want to invest in an old version when you know you will have to restart in the new one. I really wanted to get back into 7D2D in A16, but the cycle was such that there really was room to play something else for a while, so I did.

Oxygen Not Included (ie ONI)
The game I chose first was ONI, by the same people who wrote the game "Don't Starve", which is a pretty good game in itself. ONI is a 2D colony simulator, set inside a large rocky world.  The animations of the characters (Called "Dupes") are spectacular, with very cute and realistic touches. It is a lot of fun to watch them go about the tasks you have set them. You don't tend to specify a single dupe to do work, but instead do things like mark a section of rock to dig, and they will do it when they can. You can stop time at any point to get these commands sorted out. There is research and progression into various equipment types which allow your base to grow more and more complicated. There are some tricks to enabling it, but it is more or less possible to have a self sustaining colony, and this has certainly become easier with later versions. At one point it was only really possible by having everyone vomit all the time and collect it up and use it as a water source - yuck! Not my idea of fun.

Your mind gets involved quite quickly with solving immediate needs, and then onto efficient base design. You have to keep your dupes happy or else they stop doing what you ask them to do and do something bad instead, like eat all the food or destroy something important. With the use of massage tables, it is fairly easy to do this, although it can be tough at times. If you make a serious boo-boo you can even kill a dupe, like walling them in by accident or letting them run out of air. So yes, as the name suggests this game makes you not only keep track of food and water and heat and electricity and other things, but also the air they breathe! This is the name of the game, after all - the oxygen is not included. There are handy overlays which show how things are going for each resource type, which is clever. One amazing part to this game, in my opinion, is the fluid dynamics modeling - you can see water flow and gasses mix and then eventually separate into layers. CO2 is heavy, while helium is light. There is some very clever programming behind this game.

I was having a lot of fun with this game, but after a while you more or less develop an optimal plan for your base and understand the best progression. A new world only gives minor variations on this, and there was not end-goal to speak of other than try and stop everyone from dying - which they might eventually as resources get so far from your base and you might even hit the un-passable walls at the world edge.

The developers are really great, and a new version was coming out. I'd played a good 150 hours at this point. The versions are somewhat themed, and they were working on a new germ/sickness model which presented a new kind of threat to deal with. This didn't actually appeal to me too much, it seemed more like a hassle than anything. Anyway, I got caught in a similar issue as 7D2D, which was being between versions, so again I looked for a new game to play to pass a bit of time, and then I fell into ...

In a great many ways, Rimworld is similar to ONI. As I was writing the above, I was surprised by how close some of the mechanics sound alike between the games. They are both colony simulators, and while Rimworld is a top-down more than a side-view like ONI, they both give you a god-like world view. You can set priorities, and tag things to be done - like plant crops or build structures.  Like ONI again, you are building a base but also keeping a close eye on the happiness of your pawns (not dupes in Rimworld!).

There are some fairly significant differences between the two though. For example, Rimworld does not have particularly good animations (unlike ONI), things just float around without legs. The graphics are clean but not amazing - but there is something very special about this game anyway. Don't get put off buy that. Unlike something like the text only Dwarf Fortress, which it is sometimes compared to, you can certainly see what is going on. The graphics are more of an art style than anything. Once you have passed the first few days in game, things start to ramp up. There are raids which lead to combat, and other events and disasters you need to deal with while trying to manage all the needs of your colony.

I have played Rimworld now for 300 hours, actually just a bit more than my total for 7D2D. That is a fair number, and mostly on A17. It is so easy to do "just one more thing" with this game, and discover that hours and hours have passed. It can be a bit stressful at times, but much of the gameplay is quite relaxed and you can pause at any time with the spacebar.

Oh, and a special mention to the music in this game, which is sensational. I turned it off after a while, because I like to listen to my own, and it's hard to have any music play for 300 hours, but it is seriously good still. You find yourself humming the themesongs during your day when you are not playing the game, the music is that good. It is a curious mix of space-western, which might not appear to be appealing, but it fits the game and sets the mood so well.

My first few colonies were disasters. I recall one where I was trying to hunt a Muffalo, which is a fictitious beast like a white hairy buffalo I guess. They drop meat and fur, which is all very good. The problem was that it got mad at me for attacking it, and ALL the Muffalo in the area started attacking my pawn, who was also fairly near my base. These guys are pretty tough, and I tried to fend them off with my other pawns but this was a tactical error. Before long everyone was dead or dying. Lesson learnt : never attack a pack of animals unless you are prepared to take them ALL on. And this is part of the Rimworld experience : it can be unexpectedly brutal.

Next game I got a bit further in my colony and made a caravan for the first time and set off for a nearby town. I didn't calculate it right, and they ran out of food along the way. I tried to make camp but they were not prepared, got attacked and one got kidnapped.

Failure IS an option, and sometimes it can seem unfair. The thing is, if you play carefully and creatively, there is almost always a way to deal with the threats and to prosper. This is of course another way of say : "git gud". I started playing the slightly harder scenario where you start off as a single person, and go from there. If that person died, I considered it the end of the game.

A strange thing happens as you play Rimworld - you start to care about the little people in your colony. There are typically not very many of them, my largest had 12 or so, but they can get larger than that if you really develop things. You know them by name. In battle they can get hurt, sometimes pretty badly and hilariously specifically (ie a damaged middle left toe). Healing them is an option, with a variety of medicine options (some good, some not so good), but for serious wounds you may need to go to operations with prosthetics or even bionics. And this is where having a pawn who is skilled in medicine helps. It might mean the difference between life and death in a hospital bed if the doctor knows what they are doing, in real life and in this game. There are other skills, and matching the right person for the job is one of the things you need to do.

Sometimes your pawns have relationships - like they are family members. They might learn to hate each other, and even start a fight and hurt each other. Or they might go the other way and fall in love, and then need a double bed to sleep together. If all goes well, they may marry too. You don't really play the game to make this happen, it is just something like many other events that might happen as you play.

There is an end goal, and I've done it once only - to build a space ship and leave the planet with at least 4? of your colonists. I took them all in my case, but had to leave behind the pets, which was a bit sad but, oh well. You get to see the credits when you do this, but can actually keep playing afterwards if you want to.

I tend to like the early game, where you are setting up a base and defenses.  Note that Rimworld is mod friendly and if there is something that bugs you about the game, there is a fair chance there is a mod to fix it. I like to play mostly vanilla, but there are some things that a mod makes sense to use.

Recently there has been a new version of Rimworld come out, alpha 18 (A18). This adds quite a bit of new stuff to the game, and most of it I think is an improvement. However, one problem is that it breaks most mods for now, until they are updated for this version, so it is back to pure vanilla again. Research seems to be quite a bit slower in this game, and also the end game of building the ship also seems more drawn out.There is a hint of some other possible end game scenarios too, but I'm not sure of the details of that.

And so, the winner for 2017 is....

Yeah, Rimworld, by a mile.

There is a depth to this game which is astonishing. Pretty much every decision you make has consequences, and things can go pear shaped very quickly. In some ways, the game shines the most when things do go badly - it tells a story of your colony which might end up being a warning tale to others. An example of this might be an ex-lover who was jilted and so just before the wedding went crazy and destroyed the main electrical generator - and then there was a raid so the turrets all powered down and allowed the raiders to come in and kill everyone. I made that up, but it is the kind of thing that does actually happen. You can reload from an old save when such disasters happen, but I tend not to. To me, this is the story telling element of the game, and it is the end of the story and time to start a new one.

Note that the difficulty settings of the game are quite easy to tweak, so for a new player you can make it a lot less challenging and more of a base building game. At the other end of the scale you can plant your colonist on an ice sheet with freezing temps and no resources and they are lucky to live out a week. Yes, there are several biome types around the globe, and you can choose to live or travel to them. These biomes have their own flora and fauna, and trying them all out give different challenges all of its own. You may start in a mountainous region and make a base dug deep inside, or a desert with simple wooden huts out in the open. It's all up to you.

Anyway, I'm not going to go on any more about this game other than say it has given me a great deal of pleasure in 2017 and I would recommend it highly.