Tom Bihn Smart Alec Backpack Review

I recently purchased a Tom Bihn Smart Alec Backpack. Tonight, I put it back in its original shipping box and will be shipping it back to Tom Bihn tomorrow. I wanted to review the bag here on my web site to provide some unbiased and alternative opinions to this bag that I didn’t find elsewhere.

IMG_0326My goals in purchasing a new backpack were:

  1. Reduce the number of zippers and pockets in my backpack to a manageable number. My current REI bag has too many pockets and I’m always forgetting where I’ve put things in the bag.
  2. Bag should Made in the USA.
  3. Be somewhat unique and not like every other bag.
  4. Have room for: 13” Laptop, DSLR with attached lens, magazines, kindle, assorted cables, external portable hard drive, travel meds, pens, markers, pocket digital camera, mouse, adapters, and a full sized computer book.
  5. Works well on vacation, but would also serve me well as an everyday bag.
  6. Fit under a typical airline seat.
  7. Easy access to contents, and easy to put things into bag.
  8. Be waterproof as much as possible.
  9. Be reasonably priced, but be willing to spend more to get a better product.

Non goals:

  1. Last a “life-time.” I want high quality, but I get bored with things like this and am likely to replace it in 3-4 years anyway. But, if it’s a good bag, I’ll buy a new bag from the same place.
  2. Stand-up on it’s own. I’ve owned those types of bags and although handy, it adds too much weight for my needs for little goal.

The Smart Alec seemed to cover my goals quite well.

So, why did I return it? Because looks and customer reviews can be deceiving. IMG_0338

The ordering process and receipt of the bag were quite painless. The staff responded to e-mails when I asked about the right sized storage for my laptop (after a bit of prodding and tweeting).

The bag itself is put together extremely well and it’s obviously assembled with a very watchful eye. I definitely appreciated that. From the zippers to the fabric, it’s made of really nice materials and constructed well. I was very impressed.

First off, the bag could easily hold all of my gear. However, and this is what really irked me the most, is the fact that the main (and only real) compartment has an extremely inadequate opening for accessing the claimed 26L (1600 cu. in.) of available space within the bag. With the custom sized Vertical brain cell (an extra $60) designed to hold my 13” laptop clipped into the bag, the opening that may have been reasonable without the laptop bag became far too tight.

The bag has a few external and internal pockets. One side has a pocket intended for pens and the like. I think it held about 3 pens (unfortunately, I always carry more than that). There was another space in the same pocket for some other random stuff, but nothing felt overly secure and it all bounced around and jingled when carrying the bag. Since it was on the outside of the bag I wasn’t willing to put in my portable mouse or any electronic gear for fear of damage. I really wasn’t sure what was intended for this outside pocket. On the opposite side of the bag there is another pocket, that is intended for a water bottle. Although I didn’t test it, I saw no reason it wouldn’t perform adequately.

The side pocket did have a handy clip for things such as a keychain, which is a nice touch.

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Below is a photo of the bag opened fully with the laptop carrying case inside.

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And here you can see how the opening relates compared to a Nikon D300 with a 18-200mm lens attached.

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Inside the main opening flag on the front of the bag is a zippered pocket which at first I thought was perfect. That is, until I realized this too wasn’t protected from external strikes and drops that could easily happen in a busy day (maybe putting it in the car, or riding the bus, etc.). So, some of the common things, like my ZuneHD and my pocket-sized camera would have to be stored elsewhere (things I use frequently). It would work fine for a pair of in-the-ear headphones and any gear like that (non-breakables). Unfortunately, I never found a location for those types of things to which I want quick access.

In the photo below, I’d stored my headphones and a portable mouse, but didn’t really like putting it there. Although I would have easy access to my laptop, the accessories for the laptop, such as the power adapter and my mouse would be difficult to access. There was a side pocket on the Vertical Brain Cell which did fit my power adapter. However, if the bag was reasonably full, I wouldn’t have been able to gain easy access to the pocket and the power adapter. 

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For my wires and cables and portable hard drives, I went to Target and bought a $10 make-up case (although it just contained a few travel containers inside). Tom Bihn sells a product called the “Snake Charmer” for $30, but that seemed too expensive to me for what it is. Target had men’s shaving cases and such, but they were two to three times as expensive, and I really liked the clear bag idea (rather than the traditional “black bag”). This went into the bag. Here’s where the second big problem with this bag comes into play if you’re intending to use it frequently. Since the opening to the main compartment is quite limited, you’ll be forced to pull out the things on the top to access items lower in the bag. That was a big deal for me. I couldn’t imagine being on a plane, with my DSLR packed, and then need something at the bottom of the bag. I’d end up needing to hand things to my seat neighbors to hold while I dug through the bag! :)

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The bottom of the Smart Alec does have a bit of padding, which is somewhat inconsistent with the manufacture IMG_0339of the rest of the bag (with so many pockets and such not having any protection).

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In the photo on the left, it’s probably difficult to see that there’s another pocket deep in the bag (3/4 of the way down the inside of the bag). I didn’t know what to put there, as it would be completely inaccessible if the bag was even slightly full. There was no zipper either, so if the bag wasn’t full, the contents would have slid out if the bag was tilted beyond 90 degrees.

The photos on the Tom Bihn web site show a fully packed bag. I can’t imagine how much careful layering and work it would take to properly organize and fill the bag like that, and how much time it would take to unpack/repack. Again, a larger opening for this bag would help dramatically, especially if using one of the Vertical Brain cells.

If your needs are similar to mine, I wouldn’t buy the Tom Bihn Smart Alec.

The total price, with the Vertical Brain Cell was $190 US.

Not recommended.

13 Comments

  1. Good, honest review! Thanks for sharing! I, too, find myself looking for a backpack for very similar needs. I’ve considered Tom Bihn packs but was unsure. I had a backpack made by a guy who makes them one at a time, called Chicago Wig. Very strong pack but huge! A smaller version of mine would be fine but they are costly. I’ve also tried Mission Workshop. Nice urban pack but no place for a water bottle?!?! Even tried the Ivar pack, nice idea, poor execution! Crappy build on them. If you found something that works I’d be curious to hear about it. Thanks again!

  2. This company makes another bag that is geared towards your requirements. Seems like you just wanted to criticize a well regarded manufacturer to get web traffic. Also, not sure why I would listen to someone who bought a Zune HD.

    1. Seriously? I’m not allowed to criticize a product I paid for? Sorry, but you apparently love Tom too much. The Zune is a far better music player than people gave it credit for. I’m imagining that you’ve tried neither the bag or a Zune HD. As this is my web site, I’ll review products as I see fit, and always be as fair as I want to be.

  3. I like how somebody using the name “skeptical” took such a hilariously unskeptical view of this :) logical fallacies abound in that comment.

    For a good DSLR + laptop bag, LowePro would be a good bet – they specialise in that. I’ve no idea if they are made in the US though.

    1. Thanks for the idea — I’ve always wanted something that doesn’t say, “CAMERA BAG” on it though, which is what I’m often worried about when I’m carrying a camera manufacturer bag internationally (out of the USA). I admit to not have looked recently though. So maybe things have changed.

  4. I’m late to the party, just stumbled across this review. Thanks for posting it. I’ve been searching for a good backpack for every day use plus travel. Need to replace my Tumi briefcase that is starting to fall apart. Plus, I just want to transition to a backpack.

    I ordered 5 different bags to try out with the idea of returning the 4 that didn’t make the cut. One is the Tom Bihn Brain Bag, which hasn’t arrived yet, gets here tomorrow, but seems like it might be better suited to your needs. Only slightly more expensive but far bigger.

    Have you come across the Brenthaven Expandable Trek? That’s my current favorite and the one the Brain Bag will be competing against. They make great stuff. Would be interested in hearing what you finally settled upon.

    1. I settled on an REI backpack for around $80 that has a place for a laptop (and side access) and a handful of pockets. It’s really lightweight when empty (which I’m really thankful for). It expands really well but collapses down pretty well when empty.

      Is it my favorite backpack? No. :) Is it functional, yes. It’s of course, not made in the USA which is what I really wanted, but I just couldn’t find one that I liked that didn’t seem to have more than a few questionable design choices. I had been looking at some of the smaller Tumi backpacks and really liked them over all, but just couldn’t decide. :)

      If you find you like the Brain Bag, please add a comment here! My recollection was that it was just too big for day to day use as I don’t really need to carry much (13″ laptop, iPad, pocket camera, cables, and a few laptop accessories and pens).

  5. Hi Aaron,

    So I’ve had the Brain Bag for about a month now. I LOVE this bag. My wife liked it, too, but wanted to try the Smart Alec and got that instead, so I’ve had a chance to look over both. I couldn’t use the Smart Alec, and for the reasons you described. Once I put the brain cell and freudian slip into the main compartment, there is still room for a lot more stuff but accessing it becomes a bit of a challenge. For her, it’s perfect. She basically wants a pack to hold her 15″ macbook pro, then let her just stuff her purse into the compartment, and put some misc stuff in the outer pockets and she’s good.

    The Brain Bag does have a LOT of capacity. But what’s cool is that with the compression straps, you can take a lot of ‘slack’ out of the bag and it doesn’t feel like this huge bag. I carry a 15″ macbook pro in a brain cell, I’ve got a freudian slip loaded down with files, reading material, and misc stuff, and then a few things scattered in the other pockets but I’m utilizing probably less than half the bag’s organizational capacity. For those times where I need to stash more into it, I can easily do it.

    I was concerned it might feel too big as an every day carry bag, but for me it’s not an issue. It’s working very well. I would highly recommend that anyone looking for a quality laptop bag with good space and easy access to different compartments take a good look at the Brain Bag.

    Hope that helps.

    1. Thanks Rick for the update!

      Maybe I’ll take a look at the Brain Bag again — although it really is bigger than I think I need (and it really looks huge in the photos on their web site). I hadn’t noticed the “Buzz” before. I like the idea of the “Buzz” for day to day use, but not sure about a sling (as I’ve had a backpack since collage). (And I know I’d need a different bag when I want to throw my camera and a lens or two when I travel).

  6. If you ever travel with a DSLR, I think you REALLY ought to check out the Brain Bag. They just came out with a new camera insert to hold DSLRs, lenses, etc…, and it’s getting very nice reviews. I don’t have anything more than a point and shoot so I don’t need it, but the thing looks tight. You could put the brain cell/freudian slip and misc stuff in one compartment, and the camera insert in the other when needed and travel very comfortably with all of it. when not, just cinch things down and it won’t feel like a huge bag. It’s got length to it, but as it fills up it fills OUT, like away from your back. If you don’t have much in it, it will retain a pretty low profile.

    I’m digging mine, your mileage may vary, but I looked at 7 bags now, including the Tumi Alpha Compact Laptop Brief Pack which Tumi sent me to replace my decayed briefcase. The Tumi is a very nice pack, but I’m sticking with my Brain Bag. Gonna sell the Tumi on ebay, brand new with tags still on it. If you know anyone who wants a $395 Tumi pack for $250, I’ll be listing it this weekend.

    If you check out the Brain Bag, post a comment here, would enjoy reading your thoughts on it. One thing I’m also digging with it is the organizational paradigm they use. They give you SOME organization capability built into the bag, but it’s not like Tumi with a million different compartments of various sizes. The organizer pouches are designed to provide flexible and adaptive storage, and that paradigm is really growing on me.

  7. Just to add a new option: RickshawBags (http://www.rickshawbags.com/). I had a chance to be in their Factory Store recently in SF, CA and looked at a few of their bags. In particular, I was interested in the Skinny Laptop Backpack. I liked it overall. The price was reasonable. The only issue I had with it that prevented me from ordering one on the spot was the laptop holder. It’s removable, with velcro. Although I do travel by plane with some regularity, I couldn’t see trying to rip the laptop holder out of the bag — as the velcro connection was quite strong.

    Further, the fact that it’s removable takes up space in the bag (as it’s a standalone compartment). It was a nice bag.

    That one feature has made me hesitate.

  8. Hi, thanks for the structured and “matter of fact” review. I was considering the Tom Bihn vs. a Booq vs. a Crumpler.
    Maybe the latter two brands have an option for you?

    1. Thanks for the suggestions Thorsten.

      I recently bought the Tumi Slim Solutions Brief Pack (black) and like it a lot! While it’s not Made in the US (which was one of my original goals), I abandoned that as I really wanted a new bag that fit my needs and I didn’t want to settle just for American made if it didn’t have the style and features I needed. I was in a Tumi store and had the opportunity to examine the Tumi closely, which really helped me make up my mind.

      I’ve had a Crumpler as a photography bag and while it’s a nice bag, the styling of their bags isn’t really something I like well enough to carry every day (they’re a bit too casual and frumpy). I’ve never seen a Booq bag in person (I wish I could have!)– I like their style, but the bags when empty always seem heavy for their size. I do like the styling and size of the .

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