I’ve been hauling around my 17" Powerbook in my old leather Twin-O-Case (click "images") bag since I got it. That bag is pretty beefy, but with a patent date of 1929, it lacks some real protection for a laptop. It’s really made more for files and papers than protecting electronica. The bottom of the bag has no padding whatsoever and I always winced whenever I put it down a little too hard. Fortunately the Powerbook has some special sauce that protects the harddrive when dropped.
Anyway, I’d been looking around for a bag that’ll carry my laptop, assorted files and papers, some reading material and other miscellaneous jive. Basically something that could serve as my travelling office. Most computer bags have enough space for the computer, but little else. Not to mention zero style points. Somewhere along the line, I ran into references to Tom Bihn’s stuff. They make their stuff just up the road from me, in Washington state and outsource production to shops in other states when needed. I haven’t been to one of their stores and the only bags I have are the two I mentioned, but judging from their website and other reviews, all their gear is as well made as these. I say gear because that’s really what it feels like: high quality outdoor gear. Here in the Pacific Northwest, where Gore-Tex jackets are everyday apparel, this kind of bag fits right in.
Both bags have some really good features–particularly the Empire Builder. Some are obvious, others are just little things that make the "bag experience" a little easier to take.
Empire Builder features:
- Well-padded handles that fall toward the zipper instead of away from it. Some bags have floppy handles that require you to scratch around for them when you pick up the bag, or take it off your shoulder. The handles on this bag are *right there*, no searching.
- Ballistic cloth construction. Bombproof.
- Water resistant zippers. Very nice touch and there’s no need for a zipper flap.
- 1,700 cubic inches of storage. There’s a cavernous main zippered compartment; an "always open" newspaper pocket on the back; the front flap has two zippered pockets and one that looks perfect for airline tickets; under the flap is another zippered pocket and another deep storage space; also under the flap are seven pockets for pens, business cards, misc junk.
- Three file seperators. The main compartment comes standard with three plastic file folder dividers. Sounds goofy, but they really do make my file folders easier to access.
The Brain Cell is a minimalist bag–just enough for the laptop and a file folder. However, it does sport some nice features:
- It clips firmly to the inside of the Empire Builder and doesn’t move around
- Very snuggly interior for the laptop, and the computer doesn’t actually rest on the bottom of the bag–it’s actually suspended slightly above the padded floor.
- Mesh pockets on the front for storing all the randowm ethernet cables, power cables and iPod cables that are always cluttering the bottom of my other bag.
- Metal D-rings on the sides for attaching a shoulder strap.
No complaints about the Brain Cell. It does the job it’s designed to do. No real complaints about the Empire Builder either, but there are two improvements that I think could be made. First, I found myself immediately wishing that the main compartment zippers had zipper pulls attached to them to make them easier to find and pull. I’ll be adding these on my own, but it’d be nice to have standard. Second, there are two metal attachment points for a shoulder strap–one on the front and one on the back. I’d be nice to have four attachment points–it’d make the shoulder strap attachment totally configurable and would offer some backup if one point ripped out (unlikely).
Is it for you?
This is a big bag. I’m 6’4" tall and it feels big to me–like a small suitcase. If you’re relatively small in stature, you might not dig the sheer size of this bag. And irrespective of your size, this bag can get heavy. It’s got so much space that you can pack a LOT of stuff in it. If you don’t need to haul much stuff around, this might be too much bag for you. I’m no road warrior, but I do a lot of shuttling between two offices, plus my house and an occasional third campus. My laptop is my only computer, so it goes with me everywhere. I also tend to need access to several physical files in both places, plus miscellaneous reading, pens, etc, so I pack the thing pretty full. It’s perfect for that kind of use. If you don’t move much stuff around, but you still want something bombproof, you’re probably better off with one of Tom Bihn’s smaller bags.