> Now that the new Houdini is significantly less breathable, what's the NEW de facto recommendation for a wind shirt?
I've been testing the Westcomb Crest Hoody as a replacement for the Houdini and it seems like an ideal substitute. It breathes better than the 2013 version and just as well as the 2012 one, with an excellent hood and velcro cuffs.
Pertex Equilibrium is stretchy, lightweight, more wicking, and more breathable than the 2013 Houdini's tightly woven silicone-treated fabric.
The one downside is that if you bushwhack a lot it might develop pulls since the weave isn't as fine and tight.
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To OP, I'd argue that cheap wind shirts do work just fine. I've used a lot of various wind shirts out of curiosity and interest in the overall state of the market and any wind shirt will do exactly as advertised by cutting down on the wind blowing around you. They will perform, and they will do the primary job of keeping you comfortable.
However, I think that if you do have the budget to pay a little extra for a nicer wind shirt (or a nicer any-piece-of-clothing) then there are a lot of valid reasons to do so.
First of all, the trim is usually better (neater, smaller, nicer to deal with) on a more expensive wind shirt -- there's usually less flaps, cuff material, better elastic cinching mechanisms -- and secondly, the fit is usually better. A slimmer fit that doesn't restrict your movement comes from more complicated tailoring or patterning. Most cheaper garments are cut to a boxy pattern that restricts arm movement, particularly forward or upwards if worn too slim and flaps around a ton if worn too baggy. Better garments can fit close without restricting movement and may still yet allow layering. Finally, and possibly most important, is that the fabric itself can be (but not necessarily) better.
Patagonia for instance uses a very light 10D nylon on their latest revision of Houdini (the new, less breathable 2013 model which I use and still recommend) that is actually silicone impregnated. That means that it absorbs less water, has permanent water resistance lasting the life of the garment, and is slick enough to slip on over and under other layers with ease. That slickness also seems to add to its durability, since it experiences less abrasion… surprising for such a gossamer thin piece of gear. That's not a fabric you'll see on other, cheaper products, since most cheaper windbreakers simply use calendared nylon or nylon with a light PU coat.