druidh, I've got a set of XTR ones (2nd gen) somewhere which I'll sell you - email me if interested. Only ditched them cos I sold the frame.
Still use XT ones on my Cove, they're brilliant. I've always run them with a normal mech, IMO they actually work better that way than with rapid rise.
Obviously they only work with 9sp. Shimano were just ahead of the game a bit, it's a fantastic way of shifting but coming from a roadie background I was already familiar with the roadie STIs so these were very intuitive. Shame they didn't catch on.
How is the reach compared to a normal brake lever?
Is braking and gear changing at the same time OK?
How reliable are they?
Reach = adjustable
Fine although it's easier pressing the lever down while pulling it to the bar - on my way with a top-normal mech it shifts to a lower gear which is what you want when slowing down
Very - never had any problems with mine.