By Andrew Liszewski
My affinitiy towards computers, gadgets, gizmos and generally anything else electronic is well-known and as a result I am regularly asked by friends for my opinion on a specific product or brand that I would recommend. When it comes to giving advice on laptop bags and cases the Tom Bihn website is always one of the first places I send people.
For a few years I survived solely with the use of a laptop at home so I can understand the importance of wanting to protect the device that for some people stores their entire life and for others can be an integral source of their income. (Bloggers etc.)
In this review I’ll be taking a look at Tom Bihn’s Empire Builder coupled with a Brain Cell & Soft Cell. For those seeking a Reader’s Digest-esque condensed version of my review the Empire Builder is probably one of the best, if not the best solution for those seeking a more professional looking means to haul around their laptop and assorted gear. While courier bags have become increasingly popular they’re not always suitable for all work environments and more often than not do not protect a laptop as well as some people would like. Tom Bihn’s Empire Builder is an extremely well constructed bag and it’s obvious the company put a lot of thought into its design. When coupled with one of the company’s Brain Cells or Soft Cells I simply do not know of a better way to safely transport a laptop short of renting a tank or other heavily armored vehicle.
Read my full review with more pics after the jump…
Tom Bihn Empire Builder
The website claims the Empire Builder was three years in the design process and after using the bag for a few weeks now I don’t find that fact that hard to believe. When I first pulled the bag out of its shipping box I immediately noticed that this thing is covered in pockets and pouches and I have to say that’s one of the bag’s biggest strengths. I’m a pretty organized kind of guy and when I travel I like to know where all my stuff is and be able to easily find it. When confined to the seat of an airplane or train I especially want to be able to find a particular cable or gadget with minimal digging around and the Empire Builder easily facilitates that.
On the front flap of the bag you’ll find two zippered compartments and a tall pocket which is pretty handy for temporarily stashing boarding passes or tickets while wandering around an airport. The zippered pockets are useful for keeping items like your phone or iPod easily accessible but also safely out of sight when not in use. In the lower corner of the flap you’ll also find a Tom Bihn logo and while I know some people really do not like having logos of any kind on their gear this one is small and subtly colored and definitely doesn’t jump out at you.
Also slightly visible in the above photo is the Empire Builder’s shoulder strap. It attaches to two metal eyeholes, one on the front edge of the bag and the other on the back edge of the bag placed on either sides. I actually tend to prefer having these shoulder strap hooks mounted on the sides of a bag instead but I can understand why they’re placed this way based on the design of the Empire Builder and how the main compartment opens. The strap itself is fully adjustable and has a non-removeable neoprene shoulder pad that is actually quite comfortable even with the bag fully loaded. On the top of the bag is also two nylon handles that have thick, sturdy foam inserts making them easy to hold onto and unlike other bags never feel like they’re cutting into your hands.
Of course on the front flap you’ll also find a large 2-inch side-release plastic buckle which when opened reveals the large inner pocket pictured below.
Here inside the flap is another assortment of mostly pockets and pouches that are great for holding items like a smartphone or PDA, pens and even a DS Lite cleverly stored in a PSP pouch. And, though I’ve never used them in the past I’ve become quite fond of the key tether that’s also included here. It only takes one time of having to return to your apartment after leaving for a trip because you forgot to bring your keys to start relying on one of these. There’s also a pretty large open pocket you can see at the bottom of the shot that I use to stow books or snacks or anything else I want easy access to.
I also wanted to point out some of the features on the back of the Empire Builder before we take a look inside. One of the most important features I require from a laptop bag is the slot on the back for sliding over a suitcase handle so the two can be stacked. Reducing the number of bags I have to carry around an airport or terminal is a definite plus for me. The Empire Builder of course has one of these slots but they’ve also cleverly added a zipper at the bottom (see circle) so that when you don’t need this feature you can zip it closed and use the sleeve as another pocket instead. It’s a simple addition but helps illustrate that a lot of thought has been put into the design of this bag.
Opening the zipper on the top of the Empire reveals the cavernous main section. While this particular photo really doesn’t give an idea of how big it is let me say that when not carrying a laptop in here I’m actually easily able to stow my Nikon DSLR in its own smaller bag plus a few other items as well. I can’t imagine anyone will be disappointed by the amount of storage space in this bag.
Another nice feature of the main compartment is that it uses a sort of bellows (pictured to the right) that allows the bag to open really wide but at the same time helps prevent everything from spilling out. The bellows themselves and the front and back walls inside the bag are made from a flexible but very sturdy foam material that helps give the bag some rigidity which is something I feel most messenger/shoulder bags are really missing. There’s no question this bag can get knocked around quite a bit while still protecting everything stored inside.
The Empire Builder also came with 3 hard plastic tabbed dividers that can be easily added and removed and are designed with a clever notch on their sides that ensures that when they’re inserted in the main compartment they will not accidentally fall out. If you find yourself in the modern paperless office with stacks and stacks of paper to deal with these dividers are a pretty simple way to help keep things organized. And since they’re removable they’re also a really flexible solution. I haven’t had the need to use them yet but they’re nice to have on hand just in case.
One of the few complaints (if I can even call it that) I have with the Empire Builder is that it doesn’t have any rubber or plastic feet on the bottom. The finish on the bottom is the same as the rest of the bag and as a result I hate putting it down anywhere for fear of it getting scratched up or dirty under there. Having even a small set of rubber feet on the bottom would allow the bag to be set down anywhere while still keeping the bottom safe from whatever’s on the ground, sidewalk or even worse on the floor of the subway car.
Now of course the primary function of the Empire Builder is for carrying around your laptop. If you’re so inclined you can simply slide your naked laptop into the bag’s main compartment and haul it around that way but most people will probably prefer something a little more secure. The Empire Builder is designed to accomodate a laptop in conjunction with either the Tom Bihn Brain Cell or the Tom Bihn Soft Cell which we’ll take a look at next.
Tom Bihn Brain Cell (Horizontal)
The Brain Cell in and of itself is a great way to carry and protect a laptop but it’s really designed to complement the Empire Builder and a few other bags in the Tom Bihn lineup. Available in a large variety of sizes based on the make and model of the laptop (and in a horizontal or vertical orientation) they’re designed to ensure a snug fit with the laptop inserted to prevent any sliding around or shifting from occurring. (All testing was done with a Dell Inspiron laptop which is a bit on the large side these days but was still easily accomodated by the Tom Bihn sizing charts.)
The front and back of the Brain Cell are made from 8mm thick soft foam padding with 4mm hard corrugated plastic inserts that keep the whole thing stiff and adds a bit of armor-type protection as well. The side sections are only made of polyethylene foam but are mostly there to prevent the laptop from sliding out. On top of the Brain Cell are two flaps that close on top of each other with a large piece of velcro running along the entire length that keeps it more than securely closed at all times. There’s really no chance of this thing accidentally coming open at any time.
There’s also a sort of mesh elastic material on one side of the Brain Cell that is divided into three pockets. They may look like you could only slip a few pieces of paper in them but in reality they’re easily capable of stretching quite a bit to accomodate power cables, mice and other laptop accessories.
As you can see here the Brain Cell also has plastic hoops on either side of the case that can be used to attach a shoulder strap if you’d prefer to carry your laptop this way. The Brain Cell also has two simple nylon handles on top but they’re not padded so I don’t recommend using them with your laptop inside for any extended period of time. But they’re still handy to have. For the ultimate in protection and convenience in transporting your laptop though the Brain Cell is designed to be paired with the Empire Builder. (And other bags in the Tom Bihn line.)
On the side of the Brain Cell opposite the mesh pockets you’ll find two nylon straps that sit flush to the case. These are actually used to hook into the inside of the Empire Builder bag and secure the Brain Cell from moving around while it’s inside. (Since even with a laptop-loaded Brain Cell inside the Empire Builder there would still be plenty of room for it to shift around.)
As you can see in the above photo these two clips found inside the main section of the Empire Builder can be opened allowing you to slide the ‘teeth’ into the straps on the back of the Brain Cell and then be locked back down into place preventing them from coming untethered. Here is the only other concern I have with the Empire Builder as getting these hooks inside to properly line-up and slide through the nylon straps on the Brain Cell was a bit of a pain that I still haven’t gotten the hang of yet. In fact most of the time I simply won’t use them because I’m usually flying out the door and don’t have the patience to get them hooked up properly. Now unfortunately I don’t really have any suggestions on how to make these clasps work easier but it is something I think that could use improvement. (Of course the comments section will probably fill up with people telling me how easy this feature is to use but keep in mind this is just my personal experience.)
Other than that when it’s all attached and sealed up properly I would feel more than confident of dropping the Empire Builder with the Brain Cell and my laptop inside from a height of several feet with no worry of causing any damage whatsoever. I really think Tom Bihn has designed as safe a laptop bag as can be made while still making it convenient enough for daily use.
(Please note OhGizmo does not recommend or endorse dropping your laptop from any height on purpose no matter how well you may feel it’s protected.)
Tom Bihn Soft Cell (Vertical)
Tom Bihn also sent me one of their Soft Cell laptop sleeves to have a look at. It’s basically a simple padded sleeve primarily designed to protect your laptop against scratches, dings and scrapes with a minimal amount of added weight or size. It comes in eight different vertical sizes and four different horizontal sizes and will fit a wide range of laptops.
The exterior is made of durable 500 Denier Cordura and inside you’ll find a super-soft brushed nylon interior. The case itself is very clean in terms of design and the version I was sent only had a small blue Tom Bihn logo stitched in the lower corner. The flap is held shut by three velcro discs and while they work well enough I would have preferred to have a long strip of velcro like the Brain Cell uses on its flaps. To me it would have made the Soft Cell feel sealed like a vault when closed up like the Brain Cell does. A minor nitpick though.
The Soft Cell is basically designed to be used with any bag or backpack that you want to tote your laptop in but don’t want it banging around with everything else you’re carrying and there’s no question it will work well in that manner.
Tom Bihn also sent me a few accessories that come with some of their bags or are available for sale on their site and I have to say I’ve found a few of them quite useful so far.
The ones I really can’t live without right now, and wouldn’t mind having a few more of are these small zip-up pockets. They’re not unlike the pencil cases I had in grade school except now they don’t feature images of GI Joe or the Tranformers but instead have a more subdued design. They’re brilliant for keeping things like my various USB cables or smaller items like software dongles and headphone adapters from getting lost somewhere in the bottom of the bag. They also have a nice bright green interior so you can clearly see everything inside them when you’re digging around.
I was also sent one of the Tom Bihn laptop screen covers which is basically a thin piece of soft Ultrasuede? you sandwich between your keyboard and screen when you close the laptop. I’ve seen a few curiously engineered Dell laptops where the keyboard actually touches the screen when the laptop is closed leaving keyboard marks all over it. Something like that would definitely drive me crazy.
From what I can tell the screen covers are probably designed for a slightly smaller sized laptop than the one I’m using because they didn’t quite cover my keyboard completely, but only by a small margin. And I will point out that even though the screen covers are essentially a simple piece of fabric Tom Bihn has even managed to make them seem like a high quality product with the company’s logo and website stamped into the corner in a cool looking 3D relief.
Well what more can I say? It’s pretty clear from my review that even with a few minor issues here and there I was thoroughly impressed with the Empire Builder. Everything about the bag from the stitching to the Urutek splash-proof zippers to the design just screams high-quality. While it hasn’t replaced my day-to-day bag (that review is forthcoming) it has become the only carry-on I travel with now (even when I’m not bringing the laptop) and the only solution I’ll use when my laptop does need to hit the road.
The Brain Cell and Soft Cell take an already well-engineered product and add another level of protection to it. While they work best with the Tom Bihn bags they can really be used on their own or in conjunction with any other bag you prefer to use. If you’re not ready to part with that messenger bag just yet I highly recommend at least getting a Brain Cell or Soft Cell to stick inside if you have to haul your laptop around in there.
I also want to mention the great customer service at Tom Bihn. Even when putting together the review units they sent me they went the extra mile to not only ensure my laptop would of course fit, but that I also liked the color combinations of the bags coming my way. (Thanks again Darcy.)
Tom Bihn has obviously strived to stay at the top of their industy and to be honest I can’t think of many other companies that provide a better product in this field.
+ Extremely well constructed and just feels like a high quality product.
+ Simple well though-out design with a wide choice of colors and minimal logos on the bags.
+ More pockets and pouches than you’ll probably need, which is a good thing.
+ Padding and hard plastic inserts will keep a laptop protected even with the worst of treatment.
- Some may consider the bags to be expensive but considering the quality and level of protection they’re by no means overpriced.
- No feet on the Empire Builder means the bottom could become scuffed up over time.
- Clamps inside the Empire Builder used to secure the Brain Cell are difficult to use.
If you have any further questions or concerns about the Empire Builder, the Brain Cell or the Soft Cell please feel free to leave them in the comments section and I will try to answer them as best I can.