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.
My goals in purchasing a new backpack were:
- 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.
- Bag should Made in the USA.
- Be somewhat unique and not like every other bag.
- 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.
- Works well on vacation, but would also serve me well as an everyday bag.
- Fit under a typical airline seat.
- Easy access to contents, and easy to put things into bag.
- Be waterproof as much as possible.
- Be reasonably priced, but be willing to spend more to get a better product.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Below is a photo of the bag opened fully with the laptop carrying case inside.
And here you can see how the opening relates compared to a Nikon D300 with a 18-200mm lens attached.
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.
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! :)
The bottom of the Smart Alec does have a bit of padding, which is somewhat inconsistent with the manufacture of the rest of the bag (with so many pockets and such not having any protection).
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.