Friday, September 2, 2016

Gans 356 Air Grandmaster edition review

UPDATE: This is not the Air Ultimate as I originally wrote. When this review was published we had no idea the Air Ultimate was going to be a different thing from the Grandmaster, and since Taobao called it the Ultimate I did as well. Turns out, the Ultimate is an entirely different cube with modified internals and an even lighter weight. I'll have that review out soon on the SCS blog I hope.


Hey everyone! Turns out I never did get around to publishing that second review last week. Luckily, I have something very exciting and anticipated here for you all today - the Gans 356 Air. This time, though, I took it up a notch - I'm not reviewing the standard black Gans Master edition with the S springs. I'm reviewing the no holds barred, top of the line, Grandmaster edition with G series springs, 3 sticker sets, and generally just every thing Gans could throw in a box short of a bus.

And another thing, my cube is blue. Isn't that great?


Background Info

Over the past few years, Gans has built quite a reputation for making the puzzles that set the gold standard in build quality and customizability, as well as pushing the forefront of cube design. The octopus core was Gan's design, as well as squared corners, and more recently, screwed, "tensionable" feet (though they haven't been adopted by any other companies yet). All of this came at a price - their flagship cube, the 356 and its brothers, sold from between $22 to $25 depending on the edition, though luckily they've now released a $16 no-frills version of the 356S V2.

However, despite the cost, the 356 series weren't flawless. Many people complained of instability - the cubes were very springy and flexy and loved to deform in your hand. They're not fast cubes out of the box, and setting them up to be fast to suit people such as myself made the instability worse. Personally I also wasn't a fan of the heavy turning feeling, and I suspect there are plenty of others who are the same.

Gan's response to that is the Gans 356 Air. This cube is noticeably lighter than its predecessor, hence the name Air. Arguably more important, however, is Gan's claim that the Air is both faster and more stable than the 356S V2, something that, if true, could prove to make the Air a very strong cube indeed. Of course, this still comes at a price - currently the only edition available to most stores is the Master edition, which retails for generally around $26-27. Not a low number.


Box contents

Most cubes have rather simple packaging - a box, the cube, and an instruction pamplet. A few exceptions to this rule exist but outside of Gans, they mostly consist of a cube box or bag (Qiyi) or a glorified stand (Weilong GTS).


The 356 Air Grandmaster couldn't be more different, hence why this section was needed at all. Included with the cube were: 
  • The typical Gans box (if you collect 8 and sacrifice a Gans 356, you can make a giant 2x2)
  • A ginormous pamphlet showing some of the improvements and a maintenance guide of the Air, as well as a full CFOP algsheet
  • 7 of each type of spring, except the preinstalled clear springs (7 sets total)
  • Both a plastic and a metal tensioning tool?
  • 3 sticker sets, all of which are the same half-bright color scheme
  • No less than 8 logos, including the 3 gold ones in the sticker sets (that were probably designed for the 356S V2)
  • A blue cube bag
  • A serialized card bragging about the limited blue edition
It didn't come with any lube, though. I thought it might :(

You may be thinking, "how does this fit in a box?" The answer to that is it doesn't, at least not when the cube is in it. Gans shipped this to me in a larger cardboard box that had both the plastic cube box, which contained the Master edition components (a pamphlet, a sticker set, and the S series springs + metal tensioning tool) as well as the blue bag that held everything else.

The Master edition, which is the one being sold everywhere outside of China, comes with a little less stuff. I believe it includes just the S springs, a metal tensioning tool, a cube bag, and a pamphlet, but I'm not entirely sure.

Look and feel

Stickers worn from use. :P
Note: This is not the factory sticker scheme. I cut my own full bright stickers.

I was very worried when I first heard about the Air - the first prerelease picture of it showed it weighing just 59 grams on a scale, less than even the Guanlong. I hated the low weight of the Guanlong; the cube felt like it could just fold up in my hand, and I was worried that the Gans Air would be the same.

My first thought as I picked up the Air was, "did they send me a 356S V2?"

Yes, it did weigh noticeably less (though 14g more than the initial 59g), but this cube is solid. Nothing like the papery feel of the Guanlong. It in fact feels more solid than most heavier cubes like the Weilong GTS, Yuexiao, and especially the Thunderclap.

Thank god.

On the outside, it looks pretty much identical to the 356S V2, with the same shape of squared corners, rounded edge bottoms, and round center. It uses the exact same sticker template as well, and includes the same sticker scheme in the box. It also makes the same somewhat high pitched sound as the 356S V2.

Basically, in terms of look and feel it's just a lighter 356S V2.


Setup

There are a lot of options here. Gans cubes have always been known for their customizability, but the Air Grandmaster included 7 spring sets - nearly double the amount that came with the 356S V2 Master. I've now played around with every spring, which was easy since they're so fast to swap, and I've settled on the yellow one, the lightest one in the S series.

I'm the only person I know or have heard of who's tried the G series springs, which are all lighter than the S series. Let me tell you, and this is coming from someone who considers an out of the box Hualong to be moderate speed: the G series springs are fast. The fastest one, the purple one, was far faster than I've ever felt in a cube before. It was doing 450 degrees, or 5 quarter turns, with a single flick. I couldn't even come close to controlling it well enough to speedcube with. They also seem to reduce corner cutting a bit, as do the heavier springs in the S series.

Lube wise, I opted to use a moderate amount of weight 2 on both the surfaces and the feet. Lubing the core is no longer necessary, due to the plastic on plastic contact of the nuts rather than metal on plastic of springs. My lube setup made it nice and fast but still very stable and controllable.

I've since done about 400 solves in it in the 4 days I've had it. The feeling hasn't actually changed at all, so maybe this cube doesn't need break in.

Turning

I'll be honest: out of the box, this was not a great cube. It was fast and very smooth, as we'd expect, but inexplicably there was a lot of catching. I was catching often 3 or 4 times on simple algorithms such as a Jb perm. It was so bad that if it was any other cube, I would have shelved it there and then, but I had heard that the catching gets better with setup and I really wanted to main a blue cube, so I went ahead and set it up.

After setup, the catching did improve drastically. There was still more than my GTS, but it wasn't a significant difference anymore and the raw speed of the Air made up for it mostly. I think over the course of 400 solves my turning style also adjusted a bit to it so it catches even less than it did right after setup.

Turning wise, it's an inherently fast, very smooth cube. Depending on springs and lube, the speed can be anywhere from out of the box GTS level to "there's no way anyone could control this" level. 
It's just as smooth as a 356S v2, which I guess is to be expected but still kind of felt weird when I first tried it. I guess I'm used to light cubes being crunchy or clicky.

In terms of stability, boy have Gans improved so much. The cube is far less flexy and less inclined to move on its own than the S v2, and for me it's almost as stable as a Yuexiao. I don't think I know anyone who actually prefers unstable cubes, so this is a big improvement for most.


Corner Cutting

Max corner cutting: 40-52 degrees
Effective corner cutting: 36-46 degrees
Max reverse cutting: 30-38 degrees
Effective reverse cutting: 25-33 degrees degrees

Corner cutting varies a ton depending on the choice of spring. Both heavier and lighter springs tend to decrease corner cutting rather drastically, and I found that sticking with the neutral springs (stock-yellow) achieves the best results. My air full cuts with yellow springs.

Anti-pop and Anti-corner twist

Excellent on both accounts. I think the nuts are inherently tighter than springs, so anti-corner twisting is actually better than even the Weilong GTS.

Not much to say here honestly. Just a clean excellent on both accounts.


Internals

Remember how I said it has excellent anti-pop? Well, apparently it goes beyond that: the anti-pop is so good it even prevents disassembly. Just like the Weilong GTS, but even more if you can believe. We'll see why in a moment.

In the meantime, to disassemble it I had to undo a center. This would be a good time to show the GES system.



 The GES nut is a 2-part nut, the bottom colored part fitting around the top clear hexagonal part. The internal spring in between them pushes them apart, creating the springiness.

It's not meant to be tensioned per se. Generally we adjust the height of the screw to create tighter or looser tensions. Gans seems to recommend that instead we should simply always keep the top of the nut flush with the core arm, and instead just swap nuts for different levels of springiness.

There are both upsides and downsides to this, honestly. The upside is that springiness, or how much force a cube needs to flex, can easily be changed. The downside is that overall tightness, or how much a cube can be flexed at all, is completely locked in, and the setting that the nuts lock the tightness at is a bit too tight for me.

However, another upside is that they're just so easy to swap. I can perform a full spring change in 2 minutes or so, whereas the older 356s often took me 2 minutes per side because of the finicky nut and spring.

Unfortunately, GES springs do not work on the 356S v2. I tried. The shaft on the centers of the 356S v2 that wrap around the core arm is too wide and too tall, and the GES springs don't fit.
Air on left, 356S V2 on right.

 Very similar looking internal designs. The centers now have 8 notches to facilitate removal of the caps, and for some reason the octopus core is now made of clear plastic.

I did find that the caps aren't quite as secure as they were on the 356S V2 - they're not about to fall out like the CX3, but I sometimes feel myself accidentally pushing a cap back in during a solve. It must jar loose pretty easily.

Note: The Air also uses separate locking feet, which is also primary on every other version. It's only blue on the blue cube.


The obvious big difference is the extra torpedo, which IMO wasn't actually needed since the 356 did very very well in anti-pop without it. This is what made disassembling it so hard.

There's a small difference that might not be visible on camera: the Air uses more typical caps rather than the curved half-edge pieces that the 356S v2 uses. This should make for prettier illusion cubes.




Oddly enough I haven't seen a single detailed picture of the "Lube-Storing-Notch" anywhere online (Gan's own picture is covered by red). Here it is. It's a small hole maybe 2-3mm deep.

Does it work? Well, the thing is, I don't see and can't imagine it accumulating much lube if you lube the friction surfaces like most people do. Maybe if you injected lube directly into it, it would be better, but the way I lube my cubes I don't see it having much of an effect.



The main difference here is that instead of the 9 concentric grooves of the 356S v2, the Air only has one groove. I heard that reducing the depth of the grooves between the 356S and the 356S v2 improved the stability, so maybe removing the grooves altogether contributed more.

So overall? It's still a very similar design to the earlier 356's. Several small modifications here and there, some good, some not quite useful.

Conclusions

Objective score: 9/10
Great cube overall. Fast and very customizable speed, corner cutting is great (if set up right), and anti-pop and anti-corner twist are top notch.

The problem, and the reason I took off a point, is that it's too catchy out of the box and even after being set up is still a pretty catchy cube. For beginners who may not know how to set up a cube or people who just don't like setting up cubes in general, this isn't a great choice.

Subjective score: 7.5/10
It's one of the only cubes I've felt that's fast enough for me out of the box. Solving on it is easy and comfortable because of how effortlessly it turns, and my algs flow faster than ever.

Unfortunately, it's still not quite my favorite because of the catchiness, as well as its excessive smoothness. Once again, the feel is something I tolerate rather than enjoy.

You should buy this cube if:
  • You like fast, smooth, and/or Airy cubes
  • You like setting up and customizing cubes
  • You can afford the rather hefty price tag
You should not buy this cube if:
  • You don't like setting up cubes, since out of the box this cube is one of the catchiest modern cubes I've used
  • $26 is a bit too much for you

Thanks for reading! I have two new cubes coming soon, the Valk 3 and (surprisingly) the Fangyuan, and I'm excited to review both. Might also review the Qiyi SQ1 at some point. Stay tuned for them!

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