My son has requested a soft shell jacket as a gift. He seeks something similar to his Columbia shell with internal fleece jackets (3-in-1) of his youth. I think he wants the shell and doesn't care if it zips into a liner. Your suggestions?
Cedar Rapids, MI
A soft shell would be very different from his Columbia. I had one of those too, a 3-in-1 jacket with the zip-out fleece liner. Very useful piece (and they still do make 3-in-1s).
Soft shells are very useful pieces but difficult to define. Some are sort of a light, wind- and water-resistant fleece-like material. Others are more of a soft waterproof fabric, sometimes with a fuzzy lining for a little bit of insulation.
I prefer the former category. Those soft shells are designed as "80 percent" pieces—jackets that will suffice in 80 percent of the conditions one is apt to encounter. The waterproof ones...well, they're just another hard shell and I'm not sure I see the point.
Anyway, styles and prices are all over the map. A good, basic soft shell would be something like REI's Neo Jacket ($109), which gives you a clean, urban look in a jacket that's great for hiking or biking on chilly days. It'll fend off pretty stiff winds, as well as light rain and snow.
At the high end you have Arc'Teyrx's Gamma MX, which sells for a rather dear $325 (hooded version: $379). It uses Polartec Powershield fabric, which in my view is the ideal soft shell material. It offers what I would regard as "midweight" insulation, along with tremendous wind-resistance and very good water-shedding characteristics. It's very surprising what a jacket like this can do on a cold day, when thrown over a wool long-sleeve T. You can ski, bike, run, hike, or just wander around town, and the weather will mostly just bounce off. Plus it breathes well.
An interesting hybrid is the Outdoor Research Alibi ($260). It places waterproof material across the shoulders and tops of the arms, then deploys a softer, more breathable soft shell fabric around the torso and underarms, which really makes a lot of sense; rain is most apt to penetrate around arms and shoulders, but it's more breathable in the mid-body where you generate the most heat and want to get rid of it. Has a hood, too, as well as sleeve gaiters to keep out moisture. Very nice.
Hope that helps!