For about 5 years now I’ve been carrying around the best recent TechEd bag; the messenger style bag from 2005. It served me well as it could easily carry 2 laptop’s, plus loads of additional tech gear; iPad, multiple external hard drives, cables, etc. My only dislike of the bag was that the strap never seemed that sturdy, and I occasionally had issues where the clip would reverse itself, making it very easy for the strap to come loose without me noticing.
Unfortunately this past week the metal clip part of the strap decided to completely break, which left my bag tumbling to the ground, 2 laptops and all. Thankfully there was enough padding that neither were damaged, but since they are both MacBook Pro’s, the aluminum has a decorative dent on the corner now. This led me to do some research on options that were available, of which many roads pointed to the Tom Bihn bags.
I had heard about the Brain Bag for many years (originally from .NET Rocks), and have nearly purchased one in the past, but I just could justify spending the money. Never thinking $140 for a bag to protect $5,000+ in equipment was probably worth it, until this most recent close call.
Since I was coming from a messenger style bag, I decided to stick with the same style bag and selected the Empire Builder “briefcase”, the Absolute Shoulder Strap, 2 Brain Cells and a medium sized Cordura Organizer Pouch.
My biggest concern with the Empire Builder was whether or not it would hold both of my MacBooks (13” unibody MacBook Pro and 15” unibody MacBook Pro). Well, Tom Bihn had posted a video to YouTube showing exactly how accommodating this bag is, so that answered that question.
Tom Bihn Empire Builder with 2 Laptops
The American made feature, that leads to the high price of the bags, is nice, but what’s even better is the quality of the product that you receive. This is the first bag I have ever owned that has no sign of loose stitches or threads… anywhere! Typically “out of the box” there are a few here or there that simply show the lack of craftsmanship, even on backpacks I’ve paid close to $200 for. This quite simply is the highest quality bag I have ever held in my hand.
Beyond the craftsmanship the quality of materials appear to be excellent. Shoulder strap clips are much stronger than my TechEd bag, zippers are high quality, and materials are top notch. Even small details like the handles leave you feeling as though they are part of the backbone of the bag, not some added afterthought of an attachment that could break at any moment.
The bag has many different compartments and features, but rather than reinvent the wheel, Tom Bihn once again has posted a video showing off all the features of the bag:
Inside the bag, the Brain Cells are excellent protection for your laptops. They definitely add extra bulk, but coming from someone who just pictured 2 cracked screens as his bag fell to the cement floor, that extra padding is now well worth it in my view. The Brain Cells are hard sided with quite a bit of padding on the “bottom” (the bottom changes depending on if your order the horizontal or vertical cells). They pretty much protect your laptop from any direction, from drops, or from stabs from other hard objects in your bag. You can, if you want, order the Brain Cells for use on their own. Each cell has its own handles, and place for a shoulder strap. If you’re at a conference or such you can easily pull the cell out of your larger bag and carry just the cell around with you during the day.
The Absolute Shoulder Strap is probably overpriced, but I do agree with most of the reviews that I have read, namely it is the most comfortable shoulder strap I have ever had on a bag, especially when carrying 2 laptops at a time. The neoprene padding feels exactly as you’d expect, and is worlds better than any of the sliding foam pads you normally experience with most bags.
Back on the overall bag, my only gripe is the “forced” modularity when ordering. I love that you can order Brain Cells that fit your laptop, and additional pouches for organization, but wow the price adds up extremely fast. I realize that the quality is a big reason you are paying top dollar, but it would be nice to at least include a single Brain Cell or such as part of the price of the bag. Without that you are buying a bag that offers virtually no protection for your laptop. I realize that not everyone is buying the bag for use with a laptop, so even if there were package deals, where buying a bag plus a brain cell saves you $30, would be a perfect compromise.
Overall if you are in the market for a bag, and carry lots of expensive equipment with you, I’d highly recommend looking into Tom Bihn as an option. Pricing isn’t cheap, but you are definitely getting the quality you would expect from this price range.