Archive Reviews

Review: Tom Bihn - The Brain Bag & it's Amazing Friends

The Scenario:

Laptop bags have evolved over the last 5 or 6 years. No longer are they unattractive, plain, and only for business folks. I remember going to a Comp USA to find a good bag for my now antiquated 9 lb. Toshiba laptop. I looked all over, up and down the aisles, and every bag looked the same. You had two choices -- black or dark black. Boring!! If you were really wanting to pay the price, you could opt the extra $75 for a 'leather' version - in black, of course.
the whole package

In our house we have 4 laptops. We don't carry all of them with us every day, but the Macs always come with us when we make a trip. I checked all of my local outlets, and just couldn't find a bag to suit my needs. I looked online and found some very stylish bags, but it's very hard to tell what is stylish -- and rugged. That is when I found Tom Bihn bags. If you don't know the story behind Tom Bihn, you should check it out. He has been designing bags for over 20 years, and being an avid outdoorsman, I had a feeling his bags would meet my rugged criteria. Another deciding factor for me is that he must be a aficionado for quality designs, since it seems he is a Powerbook user, and soon to be Macbook owner.

My main goal was to have one bag, and safely be able to transport two laptops -- a 12 inch & 14 inch iBook, carry my nest of cables, magazines, my camera, battery charger, etc.

Well, I found some bags on Tom Bihns site, and chatted with the Tom Bihn Rep, Darcy, and she quickly helped me figure out what I needed. We went with the Brain Bag, Brain Cell, Monolith, Snake Charmer, & Freudian slip. Wow.. that's a lot of stuff, just to meet these needs -- but hey, can you really put a price on comfort & safety for your Mac?

The Arrival:
When the bags arrived, they were shipped in a large box. I opened the box up, and all I saw was the Brain Bag. My first thought was whether or not they forgot the other items? Well, upon further inspection, I opened the Brain Bag, and ALL of the stuff was in the Brain bag. So, my fears of not having everything fit inside the brain bag, were quickly assuaged.
brain bag

Hard side sleeves - meet the Monolith & The Brain Cell:
The Monolith was sized to fit the 12 inch iBook. the Brain Cell snugly fit my 14 inch iBook. Each came in a particular size to fit that particular computer. These laptop sleeves are hard sided and the insides are cradled in 8mm thich soft foam padding. Inside, the laptop hangs suspended in a 4mm hard corregated plastic insert. This insert protects the the front, back, and bottom. Side protection is achieved by a dense cross-linked closed-cell polythylene foam.

Continuing to impress me, on the top of the Monolith, your laptop is additionally protected by flaps that overlap the top, right below the zipper -- it offers protection, and keeps the zipper from scratching it. The Brain Cell offers similar protection, but the flaps have velcro, and eliminate the zipper.

These bags can be used in any backpack, if they are used in the correct position. You should use the Monolith in a vertical position, and if you have a horizontal need, choose the Brain cell.

If you want to use these bags with a Brain Bag, then you get a couple extra features too. On the back of the Monolith and Brain Cell, there are two loops you can put clips through that are built into the Brain Bag. Also, each bag has a handle, so ostensibly, you can just tote these by themselves. You have no room for a power supply or other accessories, but if you just want to tote your laptop inside for a bit, without dragging in your whole backpack, this a great feature. Both items come in a variety of colors & sizes, and will nicely complement any bag you put them in.

Hello, I'm The Brain Bag - the ultimate backpack:
brainbag

This is the grand daddy of the backpacks - it looks tough. On the front of the bag, there are 3 zippered pockets, and a mesh front pocket. The mesh pocket could be used for a water bottle, small notebook, snack bars, etc. The inside zippered pockets offer space for pencils, screwdrivers, ID badges, etc. On the front top of the bag, there is a zippered pocket that has a built in 'clip', you could hook your keys to, or throw in your wallet for extra protection.

Also, on the front were two lash straps. I had no clue what to use them for, until I read the description on the web site. An umbrella, duh!. Why didn't I think of that?

There are two main compartments, each which feature the clips to 'suspend' your Monolith or Brain Cell. These compartments are not padded, and I wouldn't recommend a laptop be carried in them, unless you are going to use some sort of laptop sleeve. When I was testing the Monolith & Brain Cell, I found it somewhat difficult to get the clips in place to secure the Monolith & Brain Cell inside the main compartments. In fact, after trying the second or third time of moving the bags in and out, I decided to give up altogether.

With the clips being black, and the inside material is dark, it makes it difficult to line them up just right to hook into the sleeves. I would like to see some brighter fabric on the inside of the bags to help with this problem, and also make it easier to find loose items that make their way to the bottom. Regardless, there are many ways to utilize these clips. The first way is to just leave the Monolith or Brain Cell clipped in, and just remove the laptop from within the bag. Alternately, you can forego the clips, and just pull the Monolith or Brain Cell out of the main compartment, and tote it with you on a short run. The point is, there are many options on how to utilize this. I may make the extra effort to clip them in, if I was going on a flight or a long trip.
tombihn components

Calling Dr. Freud:
Also, within the main compartment, I expected to see some type of pockets, but came up empty. This is why I need the Freudian Slip. It is a dual sided insert that allows you to put file folders, papers, magazines, etc on one side, and the other side has more organization pockets. These are larger, and you can fit an iPod, cell phone, and more. The bottom half has dual mesh holders, so you can add in some accessories there too, that you want to be able to identify visually.

At first, I thought, why didn't they just build this in? But then, as I was looking for something in the bag, I pulled out the slip. Then it hit me. I no longer have to hunt through the bag for the papers I need to do my nightly reports. I can simply pull the Freudian slip out, put it on the desk, and when I am done, slip it back into the bag. Ingenious!

Outside affairs:

The outer components are very well crafted. The zippers are extremely large, so you never have to worry about not being able to find one. The adjustable shoulder straps are very comfortable and adequately padded for my tastes. The waist strap is 2 inches thick, and comes with an appropriately oversized clip, that the biggest or smallest hands can easily latch or release. With the back trouble people have these days (especially teens - since they have to cart around so many books for school) I think the waist strap is necessary in every backpack made today. One more nice feature are the side compression straps, so you can cinch in the bag to balance the load. This compacts the bag, and makes it less bulky.

When you have the backpack on, it is bulky, but a nice fit. I expected bulk.. I mean, hey, I do have two laptops plus a bunch of other stuff in here.
This thing is made for packing it in, and it does just that. Against your back, you have some Dri-Lex Aero-Spacer mesh, and is padded with 3/8 inch closed cell foam. It certainly makes for a nice breathable experience if you are going on a hike, across campus, or waiting in line at the airport. Afraid of rain? No worries, the insides are treated to be water resistant, and the exterior is treated with a water-repellent finish.
Trick this bag out with a variety of colors, and you will have heads turning on the trails.
brain bag - rear

Pied Piper or Snake Charmer?
The next component I was able to test was the Snake Charmer. This is a dual sided mesh bag that is made for carrying all of your cables, toiletries, iPod accessories, energizer bars, etc. I really like the fact that you have access to both sides of it, so you can really divide up your stuff. I am carrying some iPod stuff on one side, and my laptop power adapter on the other. For a $140 bag, I think this should be included in the price, and not $20 extra. You can get it in six different colors, and it's sure to look great in your Brain Bag.

If you have a need to really pack it in and carry a bundle of stuff, the Brain Bag is one of the best constructed backpacks I have come across. They are made in Minnesota, and evidently, they know how to stitch up some bags. I couldn't find a loose thread anywhere on any of the Tom Bihn stuff. How many times have you had some stray threads inside the bag that ended up getting caught in the zipper? All of the Tom Bihn bags impressed me with an extremely high level of quality.

Price wise, I think for the average person looking for a bag, they are looking to spend $50 - $70. The Brain Bag is double that, and if you want to safely carry a laptop computer, you need to add on some sort of sleeve, which will quickly top your purchase price at around $200. People looking on the low end price spectrum are looking for disposable East Pack style bags. Honestly, have you ever sent in your backpack for repair?

I will say this.. if you are seriously looking for a bag you don't want to replace every year or two, this would be a super choice. I can imagine these bags are going to last for years to come. All of the bags come in a nice selection of colors - nothing tawdry, but sporting muted colors, that would look great on the local trails, or in a business meeting.
brain - fully loaded

Since I tested this as a dual laptop solution, I will just provide an overall rating. However, independently, each of these would rank very high. I am extremely impressed with the craftsmanship, and the versatility the individual components provide. While I think the price is high for the average consumer, someone that doesn't mind paying for quality will surely feel like they have received an excellent value. If you are looking for an all purpose bag can hold the kitchen sink, check out the Brain Bag. Brain Bag=Smart Purchase.

Pros:

*Rugged excellent construction.
*Very well made product.
*Stylish and durable at the same time.
*Available in a variety of colors.
*Made in USA

Cons:


*Price - but it's the price you pay for keeping it in the USA.
*The Brain Bag could be smarter with a couple of extra inside zippered pockets storing miscellaneous items.
*Inside clips need to be bigger and easier to see.