Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It's On Amazon: Imprint CumulusPro Commercial Grade Series 24-Inch by 36-Inch Floor Mat Review

Arguably, the most important aspect of a standing desk is not the desk itself, but what you'll be standing on.  That humble patch of real estate plays an analogous role to the office chair that can take up hundreds - or even into the thousands - of dollars from your office budget.  Standing on an unyielding surface for hours on end can be just as if not more detrimental to your health as sitting in an ill-fitting chair, so spending a little bit of money to improve your standing experience should be a matter-of-course expense.

My "standing desk" setup is merely a dresser top of suitable height paired with a LCD TV raised to a comfortable height on a wall mounted bracket system.  I lucked out in that all the components were repurposed, down to the older desktop PC that has found a new lease on life as my standing workstation.  The only piece of the puzzle that I had to purchase outright was the floor mat that I'm standing on right now, an Imprint CumulusPro.  At between $70-$100 retail, it may seem at first a little pricey for something that you'll place on the floor.  But if you've ever stood in place on a hard surface for a prolonged period of time, you'll know that a little bit of cushioning - while still providing support - can go a long way to increasing comfort.  That's where a standing mat comes in.

Image courtesy

The 24-inch by 36-inch version of the Imprint CumulusPro is made in Korea, which distinguishes it from the smaller 20-inch by 30-inch version, which is made in China.  I don't discriminate between countries of origin without cause, and in this case some that cause comes in the form of some user reports on the Wirecutter desk mat review page that indicate that some of the smaller CumulusPros exhibited a strong odor due to improper curing.  As a result, even though my floor space would have been perfectly served by 20"x30", I opted for the more expensive (and slightly oversized for my purposes) 24"x36" size from the original Korean manufacturer.

The CumulusPro feels firm and supportive when stood on, yet there is enough give beneath your heels and arches to keep your feet from getting fatigued or achy.  I use it barefoot, and find it far less taxing on my feet than the hardwood floor beneath it.  Whereas my feet would start to feel fatigued after 1-2 hours of standing work, I can easily go for extended 3-4 hour work sessions without feeling the need to get off my feet.

If you're considering a standing desk setup, a good floor mat is probably the second-most important element (with the first being the height and position of your monitor, keyboard, and mouse).  It seems hard to do any better in that department than the Imprint CumulusPro.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Service Review: Get in on Deals and Rare Finds on Massdrop

For those interested in deals on popular consumer goods or enthusiast goods that are often too esoteric to be found at mainstream retail, discovering Massdrop is to come across an unexpected cache of awesome.   Once you've gone down on your first group buy, you and your wallet had best be prepared, because with a fresh influx of new offerings each week, it's unlikely to be your last.

The principle behind Massdrop is simple: utilize the collective buying power of a large group of consumers to negotiate the best pricing on popular items, or make an otherwise unobtainable rarity available to interested buyers. The result in my case has been a bit of the former with a sizable dose of the latter.  I've gotten the odd electric kettle and Leatherman multitool for a few dollars below Amazon pricing, at the cost of having to wait for satisfaction around a week longer than Super Saver Shipping would have taken, but the true value of Massdrop's services lies in the specialty items that may only be available to the U.S. market through their group buys (at least at non-exorbitant prices). 

For me, these have fallen into primarily three categories: mechanical keyboards (and related accessories), former Kickstarter projects, and Magic: The Gathering paraphernalia.  Mechanical keyboards comprises one of the largest product categories on Massdrop.  Everything from popular models not commercially available in the U.S. like the Poker II or Leopold FC660M, to a custom-made-for-Massdrop acrylic version of the popular TeX aftermarket aluminum casing for 60% keyboards, Massdrop takes the results of suggestions and polls from its communities and liaises directly with suppliers to bring hard-to-source products to the masses.  Former Kickstarter success stories like the Ti2 Pen are also made available for those who missed out on the original campaign.  And for MTG fans, hard-to-source products like the European DeckTutor Four Card Album or Japanese KMC Perfect Fit Sleeves are available from time to time at semi-reasonable bulk prices.

Joining a group buy on Massdrop does have a minor learning curve.  Those used to lightning fast fulfillment from Amazon or eBay may balk at the lead up times most drops require, especially for customized products that begin manufacturing after the drop has ended.  Bottom line, if you need something fast and can get it elsewhere, you probably should.  Pricing for widely available items may not always be a deal as well, as several mainstream products offered by Massdrop have failed to undercut the extremely competitive pricing offered by big online retailers like Amazon, once you've factored in Massdrop's somewhat inconsistent shipping costs.  Those shipping costs are particularly problematic if you're outside the U.S., as they can become prohibitively expensive, or may even preclude shipping to your country.  Some made-for-Massdrop products have had some QC issues, but Massdrop has generally been very proactive in resolving them when they arise.  

In the end, for deal seekers or niche enthusiasts looking to source some rarer finds, Massdrop opens up a world of opportunities that might otherwise not be available to you.  Your wallet may not be happy, but odds are once you've joined in on a drop, it probably won't be your last.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Mechanical Keyboard Review: Cooler Master CM Storm Novatouch

While it looks like any of a legion of mechanical keyboards on the market today, Cooler Master's Novatouch is a landmark keyboard in several respects.  It is the first keyboard available in U.S. retail stores to use Topre's electrostatic capacitive key switches, and the first 'board anywhere to offer those switches with Cherry MX compatible stems.  That compatibility opens up typists who prefer Topre switches to a world of key cap customization previously reserved for fans of Cherry MX switches.

My Novatouch customized with two tones of blue ABS doubleshot key caps, and translucent space bar & escape key.

Beyond its unique key switch offering, the Novatouch is a bare-bones tenkeyless 'board, so minimalist that it doesn't even include LED indicators for Caps or Scroll Lock.  If you're a fan of the numpad or LEDs - functional or decorative - this may be a downside, but if you're a minimalist who prefers the typing experience of Topre switches over the various flavors of Cherry MXs, this may very well be the keyboard you've been waiting for.  The 45g-weighted keys feel slightly heavier than feather-light Cherry MX Reds, and provide a tactile "thock" that seems like a cross between the clacking of a trusty IBM buckling spring and the crumpling rubber feel of ordinary membrane keyboards.  For those who like their keys with a light touch, responsiveness, and definite tactility, it's hard to top Topre, and Cooler Master has a quality and versatile offering in the Novatouch.

Cooler Master's decision to go with a micro USB connector is inline with the widespread use of the connector for smartphones, and feels as equally robust as the mini USB connector used in previous CM Storm keyboards.  The keyboard itself feels more solidly constructed than previous CMs like the Rapid, placing the build quality roughly on par with Topre's own Realforce series and Leopold's FC660C, and arguably more robust than the legendary Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2.

While its $200 MSRP may place it squarely in the gaming and keyboard enthusiast bracket, it's actually a rather fair value proposition when compared with other Topre switch keyboard models from Topre itself (the Realforce series), Leopold (FC660C), and Fujitsu (the Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2, or HHKB Pro 2, for short).  If you're a Topre fan who has been chomping at the bit for a chance to tap into the plethora of customization options available for Cherry MX 'boards, the Novatouch is your dream come true.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Goods to Buy Returns this November!

GtB will return with fortnightly blog posts every other Wednesday starting November 5th.

There's a whole lot on the way, so stay tuned!

Monday, October 14, 2013

It's On Amazon: Sony MDR-1RBT Premium Bluetooth Over-The-Head Headphone Review

Although I chose the V-MODA M-100 headphones as my primary set, featuring it in a review about a year ago, I continued to be on the lookout for an equally solid set of Bluetooth headphones, I prefer to use wireless headsets with my tablet and smartphone.  My previous Bluetooth headphones, the Sony DR-BT50, featured superb battery life but middling audio quality and an on-the-ear style as opposed to the over-the-ear which I prefer.  I came across the MDR-1RBT in my search to update the DR-BT50s, and though it's priced in M-100 territory, it checked off several key features that made me think it'd be worth the investment.

First, it's an over-the-ear design with plenty of room inside its earcups.  This was important as the M-100s' cups are at the borderline of too small for my ears, resulting in some discomfort during longer listening sessions.  I'll be picking up and reviewing the newly released XL earcups for the M-100 shortly, but for my next Bluetooth headphones I wanted to be sure that the cups would provide for adequate comfort.  The MDR-1RBT cups don't disappoint, with plenty of space and angled drivers that provide additional room for your earlobes and better position the speakers for audio fidelity.

Second, I've always wondered whether it was possible to add a regular 2.5" audio input jack to a Bluetooth set, allowing it to be used as a traditional headphone when Bluetooth isn't available or in a contingency where its own battery has run down.  The MDR-1RBT says "yes."

Third, it charges via micro USB port, like many of the other portable devices I own (e.g., HTC One, Nexus 7, Amazon Kindle Keyboard, etc.), meaning they can all share chargers when and if the need arises.  The battery life appears as good if not better than the DR-BT50, and the audio quality over Bluetooth is very solid.  On the wire, it comes in second to the punchier sound of the M-100, but unless and until the latter's XL earpads solve its sizing issues, the MDR-1RBT wins in the comfort department.

All in all, the MDR-1RBT is a solid contender for the only pair of headphones you'd ever need, as it basically does it all and checks all of the boxes in fine fashion.  In fact, its solid performance has left me a bit torn between keeping the M-100 for its sound and the sweet custom ear shields I designed for it, or adhering to my minimalist consumer aesthetic and sending it off to eBay, retaining the MDR-1RBT as my "only" pair of headphones.  I've decided to give the M-100 a chance to redeem itself with the XL earpads and the finally released gaming microphone attachment, the results of which will feature in an upcoming review.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Every Day Carry (EDC): October 2013

My EDC Roster (as of October 7, 2013)

Cellphone:  HTC One (Verizon)

With the One finally available on Verizon and my Thunderbolt growing slower and slower (taking almost a minute to actually make a call after the "call" button is pressed), I decided to bite the bullet and upgrade.  Solid construction with a lightning-fast 1.7 Ghz Quad-Core processor, incredible battery life, and fantastic 1920 by 1080 screen.

Flashlight:  Titanium Innovations IlluminaTi CA1 LED Flashlight

I'm a firm believer in carrying a small flashlight on your keychain, as it can be a lifesaver whenever light suddenly becomes a precious commodity (which can happen more often and unexpectedly that you'd think).  This titanium LED light runs on a single AAA and has high and low settings.

Keychain:  Pickpocket Alpha, by Pangea Designs

An elegant solution to keeping your keychain secure yet easily accessible, as well as keeping its contents both organized and separated. 

Pen:  PicoPen, by TEC Accessories

I always try to keep a pen at hand (even when paper or other writing surfaces may not be), and the most compact and efficient solution I've found is the PicoPen.  It's the perfect size for my (admittedly small) hand, and fits well on a keychain.  My only gripe is that the pen is attached by magnetic fastener, which can be a problem if you also keep sensitive electronics on your keychain, or if the notion of it sticking to other steel-based items on your chain irks you.  Pairing it with the titanium Pickpocket mentioned above, however, solves both problems.

USB Flash Drive:  SanDisk Cruzer Fit CZ33 32GB USB Flash Drive (SDCZ33-032G-B35)

Incredibly small and inexpensive, there's no reason not to keep vital files on a USB drive like this on your keychain as an extra layer of backup on top of whatever cloud service you might fancy.  Having a USB drive handy for file transfers is another thing that, once you've gotten used to it, you may find that you can't live without.

Wallet:  Big Skinny Taxicat (Olive Drab)

The one weakness of the Slimmy line of slim wallets by Koyono is that they don't have a coin pouch.  The Taxicat by Big Skinny eliminates that weakness in a form factor that isn't that much thicker, thanks to its ultra-thin nylon construction.

Watch:  Marathon TSAR (Tritium Search and Rescue) on U.S. Great Seal Bracelet

The newest of five watches that I use in rotation, this rugged diver watch fills in the rough-and-tumble role where its 300-meter water resistance, quartz accuracy, and always-illuminated tritium-marked dial and hands come in handy.  Requisitioned for U.S. and Canadian government use, this watch is the true benchmark for military-spec timekeeping.  The matching bracelet is sold separately, but it really makes the watch with its solid links and endlinks.  The U.S. Great Seal version adds nice symmetry to the "U.S. Government" printed on the dial. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

It's (Er, It Was) On Amazon: Amazon Warehouse Deals, CamelCamelCamel, and the $170 Sony NEX-F3

This week's "It's On Amazon post" is a little different from those that came before, mainly because it focuses not so much on the specific product - the Sony NEX-F3 - but rather on the elements that came together to make it such an unheard of deal.

The Sony NEX-F3 is Sony's now-discontinued (in favor of the NEX-3N) entry-level mirrorless camera.  It retailed for $600 back when it arrived in early 2012, and was hailed as a solid bargain (though some reviewers believed that the generation-older NEX-C3, at the same price, was a better deal still), but often goes for around $350 refurbished or in great used condition.  I was shopping around Amazon and Adorama for a cheap entry-level digital camera that would allow me to step down from the FujiFilm X100 that I purchased last year, which was both a little more and a little less than I needed.  I was considering the Nikon D3100 refurbished from Adorama for $350, but waited a bit too long and by the time I was ready to pull the trigger they were out of stock.  I expanded my search to include mirrorless models and came across a single used Sony NEX-F3 for $171.01, less than half the usual price.  While that sometimes happens when the unit in question is in questionable condition or from an unknown third-party seller, this NEX-F3 was in "Very Good" condition and being sold by Amazon Warehouse Deals itself.

Half convinced that it was an error that Amazon would catch mid-processing, I quickly snapped it up and waited for it to ship.  When it did, I ventured to, a price tracking resource that allows you to see price trends on Amazon - sometimes going back for years.  Its NEX-F3 tracking page revealed that my purchase was just a dollar above the all-time lowest price for a used model on Amazon (which most likely means that I would have saved a dollar on the same camera had I purchased it on September 5th rather than September 8th).

As with everything else I've purchased from Warehouse Deals, the camera and its accessories were immaculate.  I had a very hard time discerning what signs of wear, if any, had led Amazon's condition grading department to classify the camera as "Very Good" rather than "Like New."  Putting the camera through its paces - including a shot-for-shot head-to-head with the X100 - left me with a very favorable impression.  If the X100 is a street photography specialist, the NEX-F3 is a strong all-arounder for a casual photographer and sometimes videographer.  And at $170, it's a bargain that simply can't be beat on today's digital camera marketplace.

I'm still not sure why this particular pre-loved NEX-F3 ended up on Warehouse Deals at such a discounted price, or whether a deal like this will come about again in the near future.  But I think that we can take away several lessons from this noteworthy shopping anecdote that will help to put us in a position to be ready when it ever happens again to a product we're interested in.

1) Always shop around.  If I hadn't jumped from Adorama to Amazon, I would never have come across the NEX-F3 deal.  Moreover, if I hadn't been looking around for pricing cues, I wouldn't have realized just how much of a bargain the NEX-F3 was at a sub-$200 price point.

2) Use price tracking websites to evaluate how much of a deal you're getting.  This applies specifically to Amazon purchases, but if you're anything like me, those tend to make up a substantial proportion of online expenditures.  Websites like allow you to put price reductions that look like a good deal on their own into the proper perspective.

3) If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is . . . but sometimes it's the real deal.  While it's probably best in most instances to stick to the rule of thumb that warns against going after deals that seem almost too good, there are some rare instances where it may actually be worth taking the plunge.  Where the seller is a trusted and dependable source like Amazon (or its Warehouse Deals) with a fantastic return policy, the risk of a deal being too good to be true is largely mitigated.  If you stick to reliable sources and only spend what you can afford to spend - not to mention only buy what will actually give you marginal utility, as opposed to deal hunting for deal hunting's sake - then there's no reason you shouldn't take the plunge when the opportunity arises.