Stuff

A pack of... backpacks

TL:DR I try way too many backpacks so you don’t have to

I have many bags. So many I no longer keep an inventory in a spreadsheet but use a relational database to track. For a very long time, I preferred messenger bags but at age 36 I started developing muscle spasms in the right shoulder. After a few years of off and on physical therapy, I figured out it was the asymmetric load from the shoulder bag that was causing it (even though the load was on the left shoulder). This left me no option but to switch to backpacks exclusively, despite their less than ideal looks.

There are many reviews on the web, including on YouTube, but most are influencer shills who will not disclose the flaws of the bags, or simply don’t use the evaluation copies long enough to find out. Some sites like Carryology have inherent conflicts of interest because they share ownership with a manufacturer (Bellroy), and surprise surprise, those dominate the Best Of rankings, go figure.

You can get more honest feedback on the many Reddit bag-related forums (r/backpacks, r/ManyBaggers, r/onebag) or on blogs, but it does require wading through post after post.

EDC Loadout

Here are my reviews on backpacks I have actually owned and used. But before we start, you need to know what I carry in them to assess whether my needs are congruent to yours:

  • 13″ MacBook Air
  • Sometimes a 17″ LG Gram 17 instead (running Linux, of course)
  • 12.9″ iPad Pro 2020
  • A Tech Dopp Kit
  • A full-size mirrorless camera with mid-size lens (Nikon Z7, Fuji X-T4 or Leica M10)
  • Sony WH-1000XM3 noise-cancelling headphones in their case
  • London Undercover folding umbrella (I live in rainy London now…)
  • Sometimes a Bluetooth mechanical keyboard (Keychron K7 in its fitted leather case)
  • Zeiss Victory Pocket 8×25 binoculars, or if this is a serious birdwatching tip, Swarovski NL Pure 8×42
  • a water bottle
  • a first-aid kit

Features I look for

  • Comfort
    • The quality of the straps (specially relevant for women and their distinct upper-body anatomy)
      • How well are they contoured and padded?
      • Whether they have a sternum strap or not
    • The material on the back, is it breathable, specially in warmer climes?
    • Does the weight rest in the right position on your back?
  • Quality of materials
    • Water-resistance (taped seams, AquaGuard zippers)
    • Abrasion resistance
    • Is the material too rough and will cause abrasion of your clothes, e.g. certain grades of Cordura?
    • Is it pleasant to the hand and looks good?
    • Better technical materials like Dimension Polyant X-PAC or DSM Dyneema combine strength with light weight
    • Zippers: YKK is a good choice, or higher-end brands like RiRi. No-name zippers are a warning sign
    • Quality of stitching, e.g. bar-tacking in stress points
    • Quality of hardware, e.g. metal instead of plastic, or premium hardware like Fidlock or Austri-Alpin buckles
    • Velcro is usually a bad sign, it is noisy, collects lint
  • Capacity
    • Bag makers are surprisingly bad at estimating the capacity of their bags, even though there is an official ASTM standard for this
    • Resist the temptation to overpack
  • Organization
    • Ease of access and packing using a full-clamshell design
    • Beware of excessively organized bags
      • When you don’t need all of the organization, it still adds weight and reduces the usable space in compartments.
      • Several smaller compartments are less versatile than a single larger, less organized but more flexible compartment that can take odd-sized items like a camera, full-sized headphones or shopping
      • I have never understood the point of cell phone pockets in a bag. By the time you take the bag off, open it and extract your phone, surely the call has gone to voice mail?
    • Laptop compartment
      • Is the laptop suspended? If not, and you put the backpack down on the floor abruptly, the laptop will hit the hard floor and sustain damage
      • Are there metallic zipper teeth that could scratch your laptop?

DSPTCH Ridgepack Dyneema ★★★★★

A very light minimalist backpack with a distinctive silhouette. The large main compartment lets you organize as you see fit and is very versatile, with a laptop sleeve if you need one. A full clamshell YKK Aquaguard zipper ensures water-resistance, but it is also harder to open than conventional zippers (pro tip: fold back the rain flap that shields them to make opening it easier). One corner cut that should not have in a bag this price: the plastic hardware and using a cheap Duraflex buckle in the sternum strap instead of a Fidlock. One strange touch is the detachable clips at the top of the shoulder straps. They serve no discernible purposes and make them susceptible to twisting, and probably reduce durability. Made in the USA.

DSPTCH RND Daypack Dyneema ★★★

A larger work-oriented backpack with a separate laptop compartment and large capacity. It has the same disappointing cheap hardware as in the Ridgepack and the same shoulder strap clips. The bag does not have a full clamshell opening, that makes it harder to pack or to access contents

Able Carry Max ★★★★

A large bag for when that is called for, even if I doubt it actually has 30L capacity, seems more like the 26L GoRuck GR1. It is made of quality materials (X-PAC, but with a more abrasion-resistant Cordura bottom), and available in colors other than boring black (I have it in green, even if is more of a dark khaki).

The water bottle pocket is excellent, large enough to hold a champagne bottle, or more to the point, a large folding umbrella.

Black Ember Shadow 26L ★★★★

This bag has the same apparent capacity as my 19L Brown Buffalo, I would say it is a 20L bag, certainly not 26L. Less structured than the Citadel, with more usable space. The material is a fine-denier ballistic of some sort, not a slick coated fabric like on the Citadel. The built-in nonremovable tech organizer, somewhat reminiscent of the Peak Design Tech Pouch in its alternating pocket design, is a polarizing feature. It does obstruct the opening of the bag a bit, and the retaining strap could be secured to the flap better.

Black Ember Citadel Minimal V2 ★★★

A handsome, very organized bag, perhaps too much so. Unlike the Aer Tech Pack 2, it actually has a usable main compartment (as long as your laptop pocket is not too stuffed), and the quality of materials is better. Bonus points for the full-clamshell design and sternum strap. Very water-resistant (IPX7 rated, in fact). I still prefer the less structured Shadow.

Rofmia × Cathedral Shift Daypack V2 ★★★★★

This is a limited edition version of their Dyneema Daypack V2 in Dyneema Leather. Amazing material, but twice the price and less practical as it is heavier and less water-resistant, but the things we do for bragging rights…

Dyneema Leather has the crinkled Tyvek-like look of Dyneema. It is too thin to have the luxurious hand feel of leather, but it is certainly a kind of leather.

The bag is incredibly light, has interesting touches like a triple zipper and a collapsible internal water pocket. Sternum strap with fidlock, as could be expected for the price. It is by far my favorite EDC bag when it is not raining.

Gitzo Century Traveler Backpack ★★★

A very interesting photo backpack, a much better execution of the Peak Design EDC backpack concept in my opinion. Has some smart touches like a tripod holder designed for the Gitzo Traveler mini-tripod (hence the name), or a stash for your lens cap.

The camera section has a removable insert whose sides can be unzipped for quick access from the sides of the backpack, a better design than the Peak Design. Unfortunately it has very limited space for stuff other than the camera and laptop, which limits its usefulness as a travel or EDC bag.

Mission Workshop Spar harness VX ★★★★

Very small backpack I bought on a hot summer day where wearing my usual jacket was not an option. Can barely hold a 12″ MacBook in its laptop sleeve, a 13″ MacBook Air or 12.9″ iPad Pro is out of the question. Surprisingly comfortable straps.

Bedouin Foundry Pequod ★★★

Top-quality materials as befits the price, leather, Dyneema and Austri-Alpin Cobra paragliding buckles. There is no way this is a 30L bag, 20L at most if that. Interesting tapering shape towards the bottom. Not incredibly practical but a looker.

UCON Acrobatics Alan bag, Olive ★★

My only roll-top backpack. Made of green neoprene. Tall but slim, moderate capacity, very water-resistant, but limited organization inside. Ultimately I hardly ever use it because the roll-top design, combined with a narrow and very tall bag, makes it hard to pack.

Tumi Mission Bryant leather backpack ★★★★

This was my daily work bag for a long time. It was made by Tumi before their acquisition by Samsonite after which quality has reportedly gone downhill. Bought on sale from Vente-Privée.com. Very good quality, large capacity, but currently in storage since I moved to the UK.

Knomo Albion, brown & black ★★★★

I have both the black and brown versions of this handsome full-grain leather bag from British brand Knomo, well known for its elegant women’s laptop bags, but that also has a line for men. The design is simple with fairly limited organization, but it has ample capacity and looks good, and the price is an outright steal for the quality (I paid $100 for my first on Massdrop and £134 for the second from their Covent Garden shop). Sadly it is discontinued, but some new-old-stock is still available online.

Capra Leather Tamarao Backpack, Hunter Green ★★★

A very large but very slim leather backpack made by Colombian artisans. I got the large one in hunter green (you can never be too rich or too green is my motto), it is really more of a dark olive green, and reasonably close to the product photos on my calibrated monitor.

The bag is much sleeker than I expected, about 10cm thin. Because it is the large size, the laptop pocket fits my LG Gram 17 perfectly, admittedly it is fairly small for a 17″ laptop. I am 1m81/6′, and I wouldn’t recommend the large size for someone shorter.

The leather quality is very good, I haven’t had the time to verify its water resistance. The visible stitching looks saddle-stitched to my untrained eyes. I opted for the baggage passthrough loop. It is made of black suede like the back lining of the bag, I am not sure it is that worthwhile an option.

The straps are straight and padded with suede, very basic and not contoured to fit your body shape. I think they were designed to look good when you carry the back by the hand strap.

The interior lining is a black linen material, not the medium gray shown on their website. On the plus side, that means stains won’t show, but it also means stuff is harder to find inside, although I am not sure how much that matters in a relatively small capacity bag like this.

Something to keep in mind: the bag doesn’t have an internal frame and the leather is soft, not stiff, so you would expect it to flop if not filled or at least with large items like a laptop or large sketchbook to keep its structure. I’m not sure what the purpose of the two zippers is on the back panel, they both open on the same small compartment. I suppose you could roll a jacket or sweater and slide it in there.

GoRuck GR1 Slick 26L ★★★

GoRuck bags have an enviable reputation for durability, but the tacticool (MOLLE and morale patch velcro) are a bit much for someone whose military service is 30 years in the past. The Slick version, available from Huckberry, drops those. It is a very large bag, with MOLLE inside you can attach admin pouches or organizers to, a much better approach than velcro in my opinion, even if it does take a while to attach. The laptop section is very well protected. That said it is very crude, from the sandpaper-like Cordura material, to the very plain zipper pulls (basically paracord tied at the ends with heat-shrink tubing) and other details.

The Brown Buffalo Conceal Backpack V3 ★★★★

I have the 19L version in X-PAC. The build quality is excellent, but the design is perfectible, and an already expensive bag is made more so by the fact no laptop sleeve is included. The front side-loading compartment is awkward to load a 13″ laptop into, and the velcro inside the main compartment (to attach organizers or the laptop sleeve) is the completely wrong approach as far as I am concerned. The two deep pockets are quite good, though, large enough to hold a big water bottle or full-sized keyboard. Unfortunately after the reboot of the company, the new versions have dropped the best features and kept the questionable ones.

Aer Flight Pack 2 ★★★

I have the X-PAC version (starting to sound like a refrain?). It is a good travel bag, the bright orange lining makes it easy to find things in, the design is not stiff and cramped like the Tech Pack 2. However the convertible design (so you can use it as a briefcase) is a bad idea, that means it cannot be a full clamshell and as neither fish nor fowl the design is compromised.

Chrome Hondo Welterweight Backpack ★★

Very boxy. I now use it primarily to stow some electronics test & measurement equipment (oscilloscope, power supply).

JanSport Mono Superbreak Mystic Pine ★★★

Cheap and cheerful (literally, a bright green) but has a surprisingly good warranty. Can’t be beat for value.

Arktype Design Dashpack Green waxed canvas LE ★★★

Very slim bag that discourages overpacking. The side-access compartment is on the small side and it is hard to insert a 13″ laptop without it catching. There is some MOLLE on the bottom, but not obnoxiously so. The rear compartment is designed to be used with the bag horizontal as you swing it, but that is not how I use a bag so it works at cross-purposes. Mine is the very short-lived green limited edition, a forest green in waxed canvas, quite good-looking. Sadly, I must dock points for the lack of a sternum strap. The compression straps on the side are completely useless and obstruct access to the water bottle pockets.

Aer Tech Pack 2 (no stars)

I had the Tech Pack 2, used it for a couple of weeks then sold it. It is very heavy, very stiff, and excessive organization means you end up with a lot of tiny inflexible compartments that won’t accommodate bulkier items like a DSLR or full-sized headphones. What’s worse, the tiny opening makes it very hard to access stuff, and unlike my Flight Pack X-PAC there is no bright orange lining to make things easy to find.

Peak Design Every Day Backpack

I have the Everyday V2. It’s not a good EDC bag at all and only a middling camera bag. The mesh fabric on the side flaps does not feel right. If you like the concept of mixed camera and EDC bag the Gitzo Century Traveler backpack is a much better option, with clever design touches like a tripod carrier and lens cap stash pocket.

Timbuk2 Blue Backpack ★★

A cheap and cheerful Timbuk2 backpack, don’t remember the model and it is probably discontinued anyway. Not much to say about it.

Moleskine Green Leather classic backpack ★★

A medium-sized backpack in an olive drab leather. The interior lining is a bit floppy and doesn’t seem all that durable. The bottom of the bag is molded EVA foam and looks tacky in comparison with the rest of the design.

Moleskine Green Leather Device Bag ★★

A small, very thin bag that is part vertical briefcase and part backpack. Nice green color, but little else to recommend it.

Porsche Design Backpack ★★★

One of the first bags I got. Small, trapezoidal design, quite elegant but the materials are fairly ordinary and the leather grab handle has cracked.

Virtual Reality for the people

I have been shooting stitched panoramas for almost 20 years. I have used manual panorama heads like the Kaidan Kiwi+ and more recently the pocketPANO Compact, robotic heads like the Gigapan EPIC 100, and four successive generations of the Ricoh Theta (Theta, Theta S, Theta V, Theta Z1).

Setting up and iterating a manual head is incredibly tedious. The Gigapan makes it less so, specially when using long lenses (my standard setup is a Leica M typ 240 or M10 with a 90mm f/2 Apo-Summicron-M ASPH). The Theta series was a major breakthrough in that it could produce nearly seamless 360° panoramas with no motion artifacts or ghosting. The Z1 with its large 1″ sensor finally yields image quality that I am happy with.

The viewing situation has also improved. In the early days you needed Java applets or dubious plug-ins. Nowadays, it can all be done in HTML5 with the aid of JavaScript libraries like Panellum. The user experience is still one of scrolling an image through a rectangular viewport in browser window. The experience on mobile is a bit better because it can use the accelerometer so you scroll by panning with your phone or tablet. It’s still not a fully immersive experience.

This Friday Facebook announced a price drop for its Oculus Go VR headset, the entry-level 32GB model being at a near-impulse purchase price of $150, and of course I yielded to the impulse. I had bought the original Oculus Rift to get a sense of what the potential of VR was, but tethered to a beefy PC, it made for impressive demos but not much more.

The Oculus Go changes this completely because it is standalone (it has the guts of a midrange smartphone circa 2018) and affordable. One of the ways they kept costs down is by removing motion tracking: it can detect angular motions of your head, but not when you are walking around, but for purposes of viewing 360° panoramic stills and videos, that is not required.

One of my concerns was how deeply it would be tied to the Facebook privacy-mangling machine. My New Year’s resolution for 2019 was to delete my FB account (my 2020 resolution was to switch all my digital camera clocks to UTC and never again bother with the abomination that is Daylight Saving Time)—underpromise and overdeliver, that’s my motto… Any requirement to have a FB account would be a total deal-breaker for me.

The second concern was how much of a hassle it would be to set up and use with my own photos. Camera-makers are not known for outstanding software and Ricoh is no exception. There is an Oculus third-party app for Theta cameras, but it hasn’t been updated in ages and only lists Theta S compatibility.

I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly it went. You can avoid the FB account by using an Oculus account (I used mine from the Rift), and no additional apps are required. Just install the Android File Transfer utility if you are on a Mac, copy the files to the headset’s Pictures directory. I would recommend using subfolders because the built-in Gallery app is not smart about caching thumbnails and is very slow at regenerating the view if there are more than about 20 images or so in a folder.

The image quality is not exceptional. Mike Abrash, who worked on the ground-breaking 3D game Quake, and is now Chief Scientist at Oculus, says fully immersive VR requires resolution halfway between 4K and 8K in each eye (vs. 2.5K shared for both eyes on the Go), and is at least a decade away. The immersive nature of the Go does provide that elusive Wow! factor, however, and more than makes up for its designed-to-a-budget shortcomings. The 2560×1440 display with an apparent field of view of 100° yields 3.7MP in the FOV but spherical trigonometry calculations reveal the entire 360° sphere would require a 26MP image to cover it entirely, which is slightly more than the 23MP images the Theta Z1 delivers. Fully immersive VR requires very high resolutions!

It even handles video transparently (you do have to convert Theta videos from the native format to equirectangular projection video with Ricoh’s app, which is excruciatingly slow). Keep in mind that video sizes are large, and with a 32GB model, there are limits to how much you can store on the device. If you plan to view immersive videos, the 64GB model is highly recommended.

The Oculus Go also has a “Cast” feature that will stream what the person wearing the headset is seeing to the phone it is paired with. You can have a friend wear the headset and narrate what they are seeing, I tried this with my architect mother-in-law as I was showing her the sights in Jerusalem, much to her delight (her master’s thesis at SOAS was on the Dome of the Rock). The Go has a unique sound projector developed by Oculus that means the user doesn’t have to wear earbuds, and can hear you speak. I would recommend you change the default display sleep time from the ridiculously short 15 seconds to 3 to 5 minutes, so you can swap the headeet without losing the cast session or resetting the app. Sadly, the battery life is nothing to write home about. I would guesstimate it at 1 to 2 hours, tops.

I still need to figure how to share my 360° VR photos using WebVR so other people can view them from their own Oculus Go (or other headsets).

One essential accessory for the Z1 or another similar 360° camera is a selfie stick or similar implement, otherwise your hands will appear prominently in the final panorama. Ricoh sells three models.

The TM-1 is a very well designed tripod (rumored to be made by Velbon) with a magnetic quick-release mount. It’s easy to deploy with one click, unlike a conventional tripod, and fully extended the camera is at eye height for a natural perspective.

The TM-3 is a short telescopic stick. It’s long enough that your hands no longer appear in the picture but low-profile enoough that the TM-3 itself is invisible. It is well-made, unlike most generic Chinese selfie sticks, unlocks and locks with a simple twist, and the TS-2 case for the Z1 has an opening at the bottom so you don’t need to detach it before putting the camera back in its case, a nice touch.

The TM-2 is a longer version of the TM-3 with an unnecessary swivel head, I haven’t tried it but the swivel head would defeat the invisible factor.

The battle of the Tech Dopp kits

Most travelers pack toiletry bags, known in the US as Dopp kits, to organize their toiletries and prevent them from leaking into their luggage. We need much the same to hold the vast assortment of chargers, cables, dongles and other technological paraphernalia required to function in this day and age. Sadly, the state of quality design in tech dopp kits is sorely lacking at the moment.

My daily loadout includes:

When traveling I add:

  • Apple USB Type-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (the latest version with 4Kp60 and HDR support)
  • Onkyo DP-X1 high-resolution audio player
  • 4-port Anker USB charger
  • 3 USB-A to Lightning cables (one for my iPhone, one for my iPad, one for my wife). The USB-A connectors add a surprising amount of bulk, I wish Anker would make a charger with some sort of built-in octopus cable and cable management.
  • 2 USB-A to micro-USB cables
  • 20,000 mAh Mophie Powerstation XXL USB-C Power Delivery battery pack (can be used to charge the MacBook or iPad Pro or expand their battery life). Much lighter and convenient than the Anker 26,800 mAh lead ingot it replaced.
  • Ricoh Theta Z1 360° panoramic camera and TM-3 stick
  • Novoflex Mikrostativ mini-tripod
  • spare batteries for whatever camera I packed
  • Watson travel camera battery charger and whatever interchangeable battery plates are needed
  • Samsung T3 256GB USB SSD
  • a 18650 flashlight (BLF FW3A or Zebralight SC600FcIV+) and Olight USB-powered 18650 battery charger

Muji hanging toiletry kit

I used this around 2008 when I got the first-generation MacBook Air, to hold its charger and the Sanho Hyperdrive, an early battery pack that had a MagSafe connector until Apple sicced their lawyers at them. It has room for the two and the video dongles, not much else.

Waterfield Design gear pouches

Waterfield Designs was one of the first companies to make iPod cases, and they later added a larger pouch to accommodate an iPod and a bunch of other accessories. They have padded neoprene pockets and are very well made, but the padding adds a tremenoud amount of bulks, and they are also quite large.

Unfortunately they seem to have discontinued these pouches and replaced them with new ones in waxed canvas and leather that might arguably look a little better, but are less practical.

Bond Travel Gear EDC organizer Escapade gear pouch

On paper this is an interesting option. Unfortunately it is quite stiff, which makes it hard to pack, and overengineered with too many small pockets that reduce the effective carrying capacity because there is too much stitching, webbing, zippers, padding and other organizational overhead for the actual contents.

Eagle Creek Etools Organizer Pro

This bag is quite large, it can hold a 10.5″ iPad Pro. The fabric is thin and pliant, and the pockets large. This is a much better option for me as I can put larger items like battery packs, calculators, music players and so on. If it were ever slightly larger, it would also be a great bag to carry necessities on a flight so you don’t have to rummage for them in the overhead bin.

Update (2019-10-17):

It seems this pouch has been discontinued, but it is still readily available as new-old-stock with the usual retailers.

Triple Aught Design OP10

This tacticool pouch replete with mil-spec MOLLE attachments is better designed than the Bond, but still too small and with too many pockets and loops to maximize utility. It’s best used for those who want to carry an assortment of long thin objects like knives, tools, flashlights or cables. I would guesstimate the number of mall ninjas to operators owning this pouch is 10:1.

Incase Nylon accessory organizer

This organizer is recommended by The Wirecutter in their 2019 roundup. The fabric is thin and more flexible than overengineered ones in Cordura or ballistic nylon, which helps keep bulk down and increases the pockets' carrying capacity. The assortment of pockets is very well designed, at least for my needs, and it’s near ideal for a flight (it won’t hold an iPad, though).

Conclusions

The Eagle Creek is the best option. It doesn’t add too much weight and maximizes carrying capacity to space. No one has yet solved the problem of organizing cables so they don’t devolve into a gordian knot, however.

Colortrac SmartLF Scan review

TL:DR summary

Pros:

  • Scans very large documents
  • Easy to use
  • Packs away in a convenient carrying case

Cons:

  • So-so color fidelity
  • Hard to feed artwork straight
  • Dust and debris can easily get on the platen, ruining scans
  • Relatively expensive for home use

Review

One thing you do not lack for when your child enters preschool is artwork. They generate prodigious amounts of it, with gusto, and they are often large format pieces on 16×24″ paper (roughly ISO A2). The question is, what do you do with the torrent?

I decided I would scan them, then file them in Ito-Ya Art Profolios, and possibly make annual photobooks for the grandparents. This brings up the logistical challenge of digitizing such large pieces. Most flatbed scanners are limited to 8.5×14″ (US Legal) format. Some like the Epson Expression 11000XL and 12000XL can scan 11×17″ (A3), as can the Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 book scanner, but that is not fully adequate either. One option would be to fold the artwork up, scan portions then stitch them together in AutoPanoGiga or Photoshop, but that would be extremely cumbersome, specially when you have to do a couple per day. I do not have access to a color copier at my office, and most of these are only A3 anyway.

I purchased a Kaiser RS2 XA copy stand (cheaper to get it direct from Europe on eBay than from the usual suspects like B&H) and got a local framing shop to cut me a scrap of anti-reflective Museum Glass. This goes up to 16×20″ for the price of a midrange flatbed scanner, but it is tricky to set up lights so they don’t induce reflections (no AR coating is perfect), perfectly aligning the camera with the baseboard plane is difficult (I had to shim it using a cut-up credit card), and this still doesn’t solve the problem of the truly large 16×24″ artwork (stands able to handle larger formats are extremely expensive and very bulky).

I then started looking at large-format scanners like those made by Contex or Océ. They are used by architecture firms to scan blueprints and the like, but they are also extremely large, and cost $3000-5000 for entry-level models, along with onerous DRM-encumbered software that requires license dongles and more often than not will not run on a Mac. They are also quite bulky, specially if you get the optional stands.

That is why I was pleasantly surprised to learn British company Colortrac makes a model called the SmartLF Scan! (I will henceforth omit the over-the-top exclamation mark). It is self-contained (can scan to internal memory or a USB stick, although it will also work with a computer over USB or Ethernet, Windows-only, unfortunately), available in 24″ or 36″ wide versions, is very compact compared to its peers, and is even supplied with a nifty custom-fitted wheeled hard case. The price of $2,000 ($2,500 for the 36″ version), while steep for home use, is well within the range of enthusiast photo equipment. I sold a few unused cameras to release funds for one.

Once unpacked, the scanner is surprisingly light. It is quite wide, obviously, to be able to ingest a 24″ wide document (see the CD jewel case in the photo above for scale). There is a LCD control panel and a serviceable keypad-based (not touch) UI. The power supply is of the obnoxious wall-wart type. I wish they used text rather than inscrutable icons in the UI—it is much more informative and usable to see a menu entry for 400dpi resolution rather than checkerboard icons with various pitches.

After selecting your settings (or saving them as defaults), you load paper by feeding it from the front, face up. It is quite hard to feed large-format paper straight, and this is compounded by the lack of guides. On the other hand it is hard to see how Colortrac could have fitted photocopier-style guide rails in such a compact design, and they would be likely to break.

The scanner is simplex, not duplex, unsurprisingly at that price point. The sensor is on top of the feed, which helps control dust and debris sticking to it, but when scanning painted artwork, there will inevitably be crumbs of paint that will detach and stick to the sensor platen. This manifests itself as long dark vertical lines spoiling subsequent scans, something I occasionally also see on my Fujitsu ScanSnap document scanner. Cleaning the Colortrac is way easier than on the ScanSnap, as unfolding rear legs and releasing front catches opens it wide, and a few passes with optical cleaning wipes (I use Zeiss’ single-use ones) will do the trick.

By the manufacturer’s own admission, the scanner is designed to scan technical drawings, not art. It uses a linear contact image sensor (CIS) like lower-end flatbed scanners and document scanners, unlike the higher-fidelity charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors used in higher-end graphics arts and photo scanners. The light source is a row of point light LEDs that casts relatively harsh shadows on the paper. They do make CCD scanners for graphics arts, but they start at $10,000… Contex makes an A2 flatbed CCD scanner, the HD iFlex, but it costs $6,700 (at Jet.com of all places), their iQ Quattro 2490 at $4,500 is the most viable step-up (it uses a CIS, but offers 16-bit color, AdobeRGB and beyond gamut, calibration and magnetic paper guides).

The scanner’s resolution is 600dpi. Scanning 16×24″ originals at that resolution yields a 138MP file that is nearly a gigabyte in size. The 400dpi setting yields a much more reasonable 200MB or so, and compressing them further using tiffcp with zip compression (not an option on the scanner) yields 130-140MB files.

Unfortunately, I ended up returning it. There was a 1cm scratch in the glass platen, which manifested itself as streaks. It takes quite a bit to scratch glass (I don’t think it was Lexan or similar), and I wasn’t scanning sandpaper, so it must have been a factory defect or a customer return. When I looked at the color fidelity of the scans, I was not inclined to order a replacement, and got a Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 from Japan instead from an Amazon third-party reseller (25% savings over the US price, even if you usually forgo a US warranty on grey-market imports).

Avoiding counterfeit goods on Amazon: mission impossible?

I mentioned previously that I seldom shop for electronics on Amazon.com any more, preferring B&H Photo whenever possible. I now have another reason: avoiding counterfeit goods.

My company boardroom is in an electromagnetic war zone—dozens of competing WiFi access points combined with electronic interference from the US-101 highway just outside make WiFi reception tenuous at best, and unusable more often than not. To work around this, we set up a wired Ethernet switch, and since most of our staff use MacBook Airs, Apple USB Ethernet adapters purchased from Amazon. When I side-graded from my 15″ Retina MacBook Pro to a much more portable 12″ Retina MacBook, I wasn’t able to connect using the dongle, and the name of the device was interspersed with Chinese characters. At first I thought it was an issue with my Satechi USB-C hub, but I experienced the same problems via a genuine Apple USB-C multiport adapter as well.

Eventually I figured out the Ethernet dongles were counterfeit. The packaging, while very similar to Apple’s, was just a tiny bit off, like amateurish margins between the Apple logo and the edges of the card. On the dongles themselves, the side regulatory disclosures sticker was inset, not flush with the body of the adapter.

Counterfeiting is a major problem. By some accounts, one third of all Sandisk memory cards worldwide are counterfeits. In some cases like chargers or batteries, your equipment could be at risk, or even your very life. The counterfeit adapters we purchased from Amazon did not come from Amazon themselves but from a third-party merchant participating in the Amazon marketplace. To Amazon’s credit, we returned them for a prompt, no questions asked refund even though we bought them over six months ago, but it is hard to believe Amazon is unaware of the problem rather than willfully turning a blind eye to it.

My first reaction was to tell our Office Manager to make sure to buy only from Amazon rather than third-party merchants (pro tip: including “amazon” in your Amazon search terms will do that in most cases). Unfortunately, that may not be enough. Amazon has a “fulfilled by Amazon” program for merchants where you ship your goods to them, and they handle warehousing and fulfillment. These “fulfilled by Amazon” items are also more attractive to Prime members. One option Amazon offers is Stickerless, commingled inventory where the items you send are put into a common bin. Amazon still has the ability to trace the provenance of the item through its inventory management, but for purposes of order fulfillment they will be handled just like Amazon’s own stock. Some categories like groceries and beauty products are excluded, but electronics are not.

The implications are huge: even if the vendor is Amazon itself, you cannot be sure that the item is not counterfeit. All the more reason to buy only from trustworthy, single-vendor sites like B&H, even if shipping is a bit slower.