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Sam reviews: Vibram Fivefingers Lontra

by on Jan.08, 2013, under gear

avatarAnyone who has spent enough time in my presence to notice my shoes will know that I’m a committed user of Vibram Fivefingers (VFFs), and have been for the last three years. I am rarely found in anything else when travelling on foot. Initially I started wearing them because they allowed me to walk properly and run again after a serious foot injury. Now I wear them because normal shoes feel weird and wrong, not to mention resurrecting the problems that made me turn to barefoot living in the first place. I have KSOs for work and Bikilas for running.

The problem is, of course, that I live in a maritime climate at a similar latitude to Gothenburg, Yekaterinburg and Fort McMurray. That means that most of the year it is wet, and in the winter it is wet and cold. Outdoor pursuits that involve walking or running in VFFs are out for a large chunk of the year. My damaged foot does not tolerate being cold and wet and VFFs are neither warm nor waterproof.

Or rather, they weren’t.

December 2012 saw the long-awaited release of Vibram’s new insulated and/or waterproof models, the Lontra (and its LS variant) and the Speed XC. To say that I’d been champing at the bit to get hold of a pair is something of an understatement. I’d heard about their coming release back in September and my race season generally starts in March. Losing an entire winter’s training could have scuppered my comeback so I went as far as emailing the UK distributors of Vibram, as well as Vibram Europe and Vibram US.

I think I must have been one of the first UK residents to order a pair, direct from Italy just before Christmas. As I’ve got on so well with the Bikila and the KSO I went for the Lontra as the strap fastening and the neoprene cuff appealed. The shoes arrived on Hogmanay, and our trip down to Fife to see my parents was delayed as I refused to go without them.

They had their first outing on New Year’s Day, on a walk that took us across muddy farmland, along the beach, and back up a muddy path.

On the beach

First off, this should not be your first pair of VFFs. If you do not already own a pair, this review is of no use to you. Go and try a pair of Classics or KSOs or Treks first. Then you can come back. The reason I say this is because the laminated, water-resistant fabric is very stiff and the fit is snug. I spent 15 minutes getting these on the first time and if my toes didn’t already know what to do I think I might have failed.

If you already own a pair and the fit is on the tolerable side of small, get a size up from your usual. These are tight. The thicker material and overall stiffer shoe affects how your foot sits inside. I have quite small toes — my big toe is indeed my biggest, my little toe is tiny — and the fit is bearably small rather than comfortable. My other VFFs have a tiny gap at the end of the toes and using socks is not a problem. If you live in a very cold climate and want to wear socks then you may find the recommended size too snug for comfort.

The Lontra

You’ll notice from that image that there is a neoprene cuff and an extra loop at the front. If you try putting these on the way you put on KSOs you’ll be there for a while. The instructions are no different, but I would suggest pulling the neoprene up over the heel far enough that the rear loop is accessible and the heel is up against the main body of the shoe, then working the toes into place with the aid of the front loop, and only then pulling the heel up and settling into the heel cup. These are not shoes to use in an offroad triathlon if you want a fast T2.

On the foot

This may also not be the model for you if you have moderate to high arches. I don’t consider myself to have a particularly high instep, but as you can see from the picture the fastening strap only just reaches the fluff for the velcro. It pops off repeatedly, to the point of irritation. I don’t understand why the shoe has been designed like this, as all it would take is another inch or two of strap and it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s not as if they are worried about putting velcro on the strap — there is plenty of it, but the strap itself is too short. Out of curiosity, I decided to see how compressed the shoe got if I attached the strap near the start of the velcro. Below you can see the shoe done up this way and done up without any compression.

Compressed

Normal

Done up to give a proper foot shape, any flex pops the strap. If I do it up tightly enough for the strap to remain attached, I get painful compression over the top of the foot and my right big toe goes numb. All for the want of an inch or so of strap. It’s mind-boggling.

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Performance-wise, these more than live up to expectations. They are warm and cosy, and, although billed as water-resistant rather than water-proof, kept my feet dry through mud, shallow rockpools and even a brief foray into the sea to retrieve a ball a toddler had lost. They let in a spot of wet when I used a jet of water from a hose to wash off the mud, and I can’t complain about that.

Some feedback is lost as the footbed is well constructed to protect against rocks and give traction on slippy surfaces. I had no problems walking over pebbles and rocks, and felt sure-footed over mud. The fleecy liner is comfortable against bare skin — I have not worn them often enough to judge what the infamous funk is like.

All in all these shoes do what I hoped they would do in terms of letting me get out and about in the cold and wet. I am mystified by the strap design, and wish I’d known about the tight fit before I bought them. I would probably have gone for the next size up. I would also have given serious consideration to getting the LS variant, which offers more room for high arches, although I suspect I would still have chosen this model because it has the neoprene cuff. In an ideal world Vibram would offer an LS model with elastic laces and a neoprene cuff, or add a couple of inches to the strap on the Lontra.

For summer walking in the wet these will most likely be too warm and the Speed XC might be the better option.

If you feel the same way about ‘normal’ shoes as I do, then Vibram’s new water-resistant range perform brilliantly in terms of keeping out the wet and the cold. Assuming they are all like the Lontras, they are sized ever-so slightly on the small side; and the Lontras have a serious issue when it comes to the strap design. They aren’t cheap, but there’s not much to choose from when it comes to waterproof, insulated, barefoot shoes.

They are definitely a shoe for the enthusiast, and I hope Vibram will improve on the design to make them a more comfortable, forgiving winter option.

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Sam reviews: Samsung YP-U6AB MP3 player

by on Jan.15, 2011, under gear, Geekery, kit, Reviews

avatarI love music. I listen to a lot of music. My tastes are eclectic, running from Baroque through onomatopoaeic, quirky, more quirky and utterly bonkers, by way of some psytrance, big beat, a bit of metal and stuff I find hard to classify. And everything in between. New Age ambient, prog rock… I’m synaesthetic, and my synaesthesia affects my proprioception. I don’t like any specific sort of music. I like music that does things to me. Check out my Last.fm profile and you’ll get the idea.

My MP3 player is probably the one gadget I have that would cause withdrawal symptoms if I lost it. I’ve had some form of personal stereo ever since the first Sony Walkman, back in the days of audio tape. (I find it scary that there are people alive today who might not know about audio tape.) I went from tape to minidisc to flash drive, and for the past few years have received sterling service from my Sony NW-S205F. It did everything I wanted it to do, despite the clunky and incompatible-with-everything-else SonicStage software, was small and light and easy to use while working out or on the bike, and it was showerproof.

Before any cycling chums start getting their knickers in a twist: yes, I listen to music while on the bike if I’m riding alone. No, it doesn’t affect my ability to hear traffic. As far as I am concerned if you are relying on your hearing to save you from being hit by a car then you’re doing it wrong anyway. If you wish to argue about this, please go and contribute to one of the many, many threads on CC and I will proceed to ignore you there, too. I am a big girl who has tried with and without and I have performed my own risk assessment, thank you very much. You are free to disagree but not to impose.

In the past couple of months it became apparent that my very much loved MP3 player, which was bloody expensive when I got it, was suffering from terminal battery failure. Desperate, I searched the internet thinking that maybe there was a DIY method of changing the battery, because Sony support said it was uneconomical to change the battery and it was better to replace the unit, thereby missing the point entirely because they don’t do anything similar any more. The internet said no: the design is so compact and the insides so tightly packed together that battery replacement is likely to destroy the player.

So that left me needing a new one. I looked at the various Sony products because I’ve always had Sony players. Sadly, as I said, they don’t make anything resembling the NW-S205F any more. Their sports player is this weird combination headphone/headband thing, and I don’t want my ears taking the weight, thank you very much. I find it hard to believe that can possibly be comfortable when running. The alternative is the B series, which diligent research revealed to be allergic to moisture. No good for a gym bunny/recidivist cyclist like me.

Samsung YP-U6QP

I bought the black one, obviously

After hunting around a bit more I settled on the Samsung YP-U6AB (the QP is the 2GB version) on the basis that it seemed to be exactly the same in terms of function as the lamented Sony NW-S205F, but it was rectangular and didn’t have a fast charge. I could live without fast charge.

First there was the issue with the shop losing my order, then replacing my order with one for the multimedia version (yeah, that’ll do well in the rain), then, once all that had been sorted out, sending it using an ancient, asthmatic camel that took a route via Klatchistan. I can only imagine that’s why it took so damn long to arrive.

But get here it did. Yesterday.

As the Sony had sickened to the point of me taking my old minidisc to work yesterday, you can imagine that I was impatient to get going with it. So impatient, in fact, that the lack of any form of carrying case (the Sony had come with a special armband that I have worn so much in the intervening years it has practically left a groove on my arm) only made me a little bit ranty. The software that shipped with the device wouldn’t work on the machine on which we keep most of the music. This did not fill me with joy and happiness. However, the product information indicated that it was compatible with Windows Media Player 11 and that transferring music was an easy drag and drop affair.

Now, say what you like about Sony’s compatibility and their godsawful ATRAC format, the SonicStage software did one thing very, very well: it managed music and playlists and transferred them to the player without me having to think about it. Create playlist, save playlist, drag it to player, done.

First of all I spent more time that I’d intended creating a new playlist in WMP. I meant to chuck a few songs on and get going but there were some I needed to have and then I had to make sure that they had compatible songs around them and appropriate spacing… You know how it is. Well. You probably don’t. So I was as impatient as an unruly sackperson waiting for an even more unruly sackperson to catch up by the time the device was charged, I had swapped across to the other machine and bullied Vista into network sharing properly so I had access to our whole catalogue and then constructed the aforementioned playlist.

I did the drag and drop thing, safely removed hardware as directed in the user manual, then fired up the new toy. I boggled at the small wiggly thing that appeared on the display along with the demand I choose one. What was this? An adoption centre for imps? I picked the one that looked most aggravated and fumbled giving it a name. DID NOT MATTER. NEED MUSIC. NEED PORTABLE MUSIC. GIVE ME MY PORTABLE MUSIC.

Noes!!!! The playlist hadn’t worked! All the songs were there, but they were arranged ALPHABETICALLY. What noxious effluvium of a mastitic ungulate from the nether regions of Beelzebub’s bowels was this? This is 2011! MP3 players are no longer the stupid, simple mass storage devices of old. I wanted a portable soundscape generator, not a flash drive!

I tried installing the software that came with it. It crashed my machine, leaving me with the horrible decision to switch everything off manually to get it unfrozen, even though the U6 had the “Do not disconnect while transferring” warning on it (which was a lie, because I wasn’t transferring anything).

My wrath was mighty.

With a grim determination that could only end up in the MP3 player doing what I wanted it to or someone dying a vicious and brutal death, I rebooted my computer and hit the internet. A seven stage iteration of search terms later I had learned about MSC and MTP and also that the Samsung U6 is one of the very few players on the market that’s still MSC. I spat the dummy at that point and was about to go into full-on berserker mode, but then I found this thread on anythingbutipod. Only the Korean release is purely MSC. In Europe the U6 can be switched to MTP. Once I’d found that I hunted down the instructions to do so because, guess what, it’s not in the user manual.

Success! With MTP enabled the U6 accepts drag and drop playlists from WMP with barely a shrug of the shoulder.

Sound quality seems good enough, although I’m using the Phillips headphones that I had already rather than the nasty-looking things that came with it. It’s not as user-friendly as the old Sony and I doubt I’ll ever use the sports function (I didn’t use it on the Sony, after all) — I only wanted a sports model because they tend to be more robust. The decision tree is more along the lines of Frood‘s creative than the play-all/play-album/play-playlist options on my old Sony. I’m not fussed about playing by genre, artist or whatever. The only option I’d ever want other than album or playlist is bpm. There’s a user-assignable button on it, although I have no idea what I might use it for. I’m sure I’ll think of something.

It’s a subtle, understated little thing in the black option, about half again as long as my thumb. The metal finish gives it a reassuringly robust feel. Now that it’s doing what I want I’m pleased with my purchase, especially as I got a 4GB player for less than half the price I paid for my previous 2GB one. Around forty of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal, I’d say.

But, really, I shouldn’t have to spend an evening becoming even more of a geek than I am already in order to do something as simple as transfer a playlist. The device should come in MTP mode from the factory, but, failing that, at the bare minimum this should be discussed in the supplied user manual. Samsung, I like your hardware but you need to do some serious work on ease of use.

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Gear review – Finis PT paddles

by on May.04, 2010, under gear, kit, training

avatarI have argued on numerous occasions that I am not a geek. Except, let’s be honest, it’s a lie. OK, so I don’t go into orgasmic quivers over the latest mobile phone OS, and the iPad release left me utterly cold. The thought of playing Arkham Asylum in 3D doesn’t give me goosebumps and I can turn off The Gadget Show as easily as I can turn off Iron Chef.

And yet, at the same time, I spent about half an hour obsessively comparing saddle-mounted hydration systems only last week and I have a shelf full of books that go into painfully anal detail about everything from wheel building to running technique.

I confess. It’s way past time. I’m a sports geek.

Not a nerd, not the sort of person who can recite which teams won what in which league in which year from the relative safety and comfort of an anorak: the sort of geek who makes it her business to know the latest thought on technique and performance and kit and gets excited about training aids that other people can’t even identify at first glance.

(I also like computer games, and I don’t mean Nintendogs. I mean The Darkness, Wolverine, Bioshock… you know. All those girlie games.)

So it will come as little surprise to those of you who understand the performance sports geek mentality to hear that I like my swim training aids. Of course I have the everyone-has-those pullbuoy and kickboard, but I also have other things, things that most people wouldn’t recognise. I own a pair of fist gloves. How geeky is that?

The latest toy to take my fancy was a set of the Finis PT paddles. PT stands for “Perfect Technique” and the aim is rather similar to the fist gloves: they are designed to force the swimmer to learn to use his entire body rather than just his hand for propulsion:

PT Paddles are shaped to deflect water around your hand, effectively removing the hands from the swimming equation. By removing the hand as a paddle, swimmers have to find other methods of generating propulsion.

Because your hand can no longer ‘grip’ the water, your body will need to adjust your stroke. The elbow is positioned higher, the hips roll a little further, and the forearm is activated earlier, allowing you to catch and pull yourself through the water.

Wearing the PT Paddles overtime increases your body awareness and muscle memory. Then when you swim normally without the paddles, you will feel stronger and faster in the water.

Finis PT paddles

I thought I’d take to them like a duck to water (ahem), being a veteran user of the fistgloves. What I wasn’t expecting was for them to be buoyant, nor the effect of the additional weight. While fistgloves are not too dissimilar from simply making a fist when swimming, and make your hand slip through the water with alarming lack of resistance, the PT paddles somehow manage to keep the feel of arm speed through the stroke the same while still removing the hand from the propulsive effort. They are also an additional weight to carry through the recovery part of the stroke.

I didn’t find them as tiring as the fistgloves, which makes me think that I’m floundering less in the water and making better forward progress, despite the feeling that I’m not. That in turn tells me that the PT paddles are more about feel and I think that might work for swimmers who can’t cope with the loss of propulsion that comes from fistgloves. They might, indeed, be a worthy intermediate step for someone training on his own, without the benefit of coaching, who wants to try some of these more advanced techniques without resorting to fins.

In terms of construction they are fairly soft, so you might get away with them at the local pool, especially as they seem to be contained within the area of the hand. Adjusting the straps is a bit fiddly, even more so than normal swimming paddles, and it took quite some time to get them to the point where I felt they were workable. Comfortable is still some way off. They are certainly more robust than fistgloves (I’m on my third pair). Of course they are also good for anyone who has a latex allergy.

For what you get they are expensive, and I’m not sure they are worth the price. On the other hand, fistgloves are almost a tenner and are as fragile as a fragile thing called Little Miss Fragile from Fragiledonia, so if you’re as tough on gear as I am and want to try teaching yourself to use more than your hands for propulsion, give them a go. Or take a couple of squash balls into the pool with you — just don’t let go.

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