- My criteria
- Materials and construction
- How does it perform?
- What don’t I like?
There’s an old truism you’ve probably heard which says, “the best camera is the one you have with you”. Here’s another one (not quite so old, because I just coined it) “The best bag is the one you just saw someone else wearing.” It’s always held true for me — no matter how good the bag I have is, there’s always been either another one that I really wanted but couldn’t afford, or some minor dissatisfaction that stopped me from really loving it.
At least, that was how I felt until the day I opened up the big cardboard box that held the Tom Bihn Smart Alec.
I was prepared to like it — I’d done my research — but nothing had prepared me for just how impressed I’d be from the moment I cracked open the box and got my first look at the thing. The only comparable experience I’ve had was in opening Apple products. 1 The box it came in was a much simpler affair than the exquisite packaging you find when you open an iPhone or a MacBook: just a sturdy, fairly nondescript cardboard box with a couple of small logos on it. The effect, however, was very similar: you crack open the lid and BOOM, there it is, with no distracting wrapping or packing peanuts or extruded polystyrene to confuse you.
It says something about a company’s confidence in what they make when they’re willing to let it stand alone like that.
One of the things that’s often missing from reviews but which I think is sometimes interesting is the overall context — where the thing fits into your life compared to whatever did its job previously. Usually before you find something that you really like which does the job well, you make do with inferior solutions.
The only quality backpacks I’ve owned have been specifically for hiking. Even then I’ve never owned anything particularly expensive or cutting edge, preferring the sturdiness and longevity of Highlander gear to anything more lightweight. I’ve almost always preferred durability when choosing a pack, although much of its actual contents have been chosen for their reduced weight: the 1.34kg Vango Force Ten Helium, for example, was the tent I used for most of my big trips.
Like most people, hiking has usually only been a small part of the picture for me. Most of the time, I’m commuting or traveling. Despite that, I’ve never really had a day-to-day bag that was either expensive or particularly suited for my needs. I have had a few that I preferred above others:
- O’Neill Messenger Bag: A present, this actually turned out to be a decent bag. Nothing special, but it did have, you know, my name on it, so that was cool. Like all bags of this kind, the velcro closing got clogged with lint and became useless. It did the job, though.
- Miscellaneous canvas messenger bag: I found this under a bed when my roommate moved out — maybe it was his, maybe it was hiding under there, who knows — and used it on and off for a couple of years. It looked cool and was exceedingly capacious, but it had an awkward strap and weirdly sized compartments.
- Jeep backpack: I’ve had two of these. One I used for a while in college until I ended up giving it to a friend because it was a bit too bulky for my needs. The other — a smaller version — lasted a while longer and was my go-to backpack until the start of this year. They were both pretty cheap (under $40) and out of all the budget backpacks I’ve seen they’ve been the best. Decently durable and not too gimmicky. The main problem I had with both was that they weren’t sized quite right for what I wanted to put in them. These are great budget backpacks, and I’d recommend picking one up if you see it somewhere for cheap. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get one, however.
- Miscellaneous canvas satchel: This I bought in 2005. It actually looked pretty decent, but you could barely fit an iPad in it.
Of course, I also used a number of lesser bags over the years which don’t deserve a mention. As you can see, I straddled the messenger bag / backpack divide fairly evenly. Each has their pros and cons.
In general, I think messenger bags and satchels look more professional. There is a certain perception that backpacks are not really for grown-ups. This has often been what’s prompted me in the past to leave the backpack behind in favor of something else.
Backpacks, on the other hand, can usually hold more, provide better protection to the contents, and are much less fatiguing to carry.
I’ve used enough different bags — and thought enough about their strengths and weaknesses — that I’ve developed a pretty good idea of what I want in a bag.
Before I decided to buy the Smart Alec, I did a good amount of thinking and research. One of the first things I did was outline what I really wanted in a bag based on past experiences. Here’s what I came up with:
- Durable enough that I don’t feel like I have to baby it. It has to be able to withstand daily use without me worrying that a strap will break or my stuff will fall through a hole.
- Non-descript enough that will look appropriate to many settings, from the office to the mountains. I want something that doesn’t proclaim that its contents are valuable. I prefer something that is not eye-catching.
- Flexible enough in terms of size and compartments to suit a large variety of uses. Sometimes I’ll just want to carry lunch and a water bottle. Other times I’ll have a laptop, lots of electronics, business papers and so on.
- Large enough to pack a decent amount of clothing etc for trips ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks. (For me this is probably less to pack than for many people. I like to travel as light and efficiently as possible.)
- Exuding a general feeling of quality and good design — “delightful” design, even — which will give me general pleasure in owning and using something well made.
- Made by a company that I like and trust.
That’s the basics, but there were also a couple of other things I took into account when researching different bags. One of them was the quality Michael Lopp talked about in his own Smart Alec review: the “am I going to beat you through the security line?” question. That resonated with me, because I start preparing to go through the security line before I even leave the house. For me, like Rands, the true measure of a bag is how it stands up to air travel. It cannot have a bunch of straps hanging off of it, it cannot be larger than a certain size, it cannot take 20 minutes to locate something in its cavernous recesses. Otherwise my trip will be a little bit ruined.
I have taken so many flights now that I have my procedures down to a science: the only possible weak link in the chain now is my equipment (or my traveling companions…)
The biggest benefit that a backpack confers is that it just gets out of the way when you want it to. I sympathized with Ben Brooks when he talked about the walk from his office to his car and how — now that he has the Smart Alec — he can check on apps on his phone as he does that. A messenger bag never really goes away: you’re always balancing it on a shoulder or stopping it from swinging round with an elbow. Ever try bending over whilst wearing a messenger bag? Not so fun when you get an uppercut to the face from your suddenly malicious bag, is it?
I did a lot of research before I bought the Smart Alec. It is not cheap, at $160. Once I’d decided that I was going to make the leap up to the big leagues and drop some serious cash on a bag (I earmarked some birthday money) I wanted to be damn sure that I got the right one.
I read a lot of reviews (notably by Michael Lopp (above) and Ben Brooks and couldn’t find anyone with something bad to say about the bag. I also spent a lot of time on the Tom Bihn forums. This was not a hardship — as I’ve mentioned I really like reading reviews.
I came to the conclusion that people really, really love Tom Bihn products, and they especially love the Smart Alec. Despite that, I knew that I would have to see it for myself before I really knew. I’ve read enough reviews to know that you can’t trust anyone else 100% — opinions differ, people write overly flattering reviews, and what one man does with a product might be different from what you need it to do.
Eventually, on the evening of my birthday, I sat down at my computer, carefully selected a Smart Alec from the Tom Bihn site and clicked my way through checkout.
One of the great things about Tom Bihn is that they really believe in constant innovation and allowing the customer to make a lot of decisions themselves about the “system” that they put together. This is an aspect of Tom’s philosophy that I really appreciate. Buying a bag from them is a bit like buying a new car. There are a whole host of options that you can pick, and this year’s model has improvements on last year’s model.
Their website is really fun to shop from. I love the big wall of text that they have on their product pages which tells you all about what you’re looking at. I hate when I buy something from Amazon and all I have to go on is a couple of basic bullet points and some contradictory reviews.
When you buy a Smart Alec you can choose from a number of different color options for three main parts of the bag: the main body, front panel, and lining. Because of my desire for a versatile bag that wouldn’t be too ostentatious, I chose black for both the main body and the front panel. There are 9 different possible combinations.
For the lying of the bag I picked “solar”, which is a kind of yellow (imagine that). The benefit of picking a bright color for the inside of the bag is that it improves visibility when you are looking for something. I’ve had enough bags with dark interiors to know that you really need a bright lining to see what’s going on, especially with a top-loading bag like the Smart Alec.
There are a number of different compatible add-ons which you can buy at the same time as the Smart Alec —which I’ll cover a bit later — but to start with I just went with the bag itself.
It took about a week to ship to me. They sent it quickly after the order was received, but they are based way out west in Seattle so the bag had to make the long journey east. I chose UPS ground, which is cheapest, but if you needed you could have it in your hands next day, assuming your bag is in stock and you pick next-day air. When it finally arrived, I was pretty ready.
Materials and construction
The bag exterior is made from 1050 denier, high tenacity ballistic nylon fabric and 1000 denier Cordura® nylon. What does that actually mean? Well what you need to know about this is that you’d need to really work to do much damage to your bag. It is built to last, and feels like it. This is not your average cheap nylon: it’s thick enough that it almost feels waxed. It holds the bag’s shape even when there isn’t anything in it.
The bottom of the bag is padded with closed cell foam, which helps it maintain shape and stand up, and also protects whatever is inside pretty darn well. The back is also padded with closed cell foam, and the most recent iteration of the Smart Alec also includes a Dri-Lex Aero-Spacer mesh on the back which makes the bag more comfortable to lug around when you’re carrying a ton and it’s a warm day. This might seem like a small addition, but I can confidently say from past experience that this will make the difference between me taking this backpack out hiking or leaving it at home.
The inside lining is made of a high-quality ripstop 200D Dyneema fabric. A bag solely made of this alone would be pretty sturdy, and I have no problem chucking pretty much anything into the bag. It feels like it can take a beating, which the inside of a backpack generally does. Remember those big holes in the lining of your schoolbag? That isn’t going to happen here.
I was especially impressed with the zippers. Both the main opening and the two pockets have YKK Aquaguard coil zippers. This is about as close to waterproof as you can get without, you know, actually being waterproof. They are nice and stiff to begin with, which I like: I know they will loosen a bit over time. A zipper is often the first point of failure on a bag, so I’m glad that these are really high quality.
The shoulder straps are comfortable and foam padded. They are just about the right width: if the bag was any larger you would want something wider but they are about right for what you could fit in there. If you are carrying cinderblocks they might dig in a little bit — although I can’t verify that because I have my sherpas carry my cinderblocks.
The other straps are your regular nylon straps, nothing exciting. The handle is padded with foam and is nice and thick — none of that getting-the-groceries-in-all-at-once feeling with this bag.
The buckles seem very sturdy — they are plastic but they seem to be made of a pretty dense, competent plastic.
The stitching on this bag is insanely great. I did not find any stray threads and everything seems really meticulously joined. You can tell that there were more people than machines involved in the construction of this bag.
Overall the bag gives a sense of competence, quality, and durability. This is really craftsmanship at work: you can tell that every part of the process from inception to shipping has been thought out extensively and executed with loving care. It is clear that the people that made this bag have a lot of pride in their work.
It’s no surprise that Tom Bihn bags are beloved by nerds. They are overflowing with features and customizability. Tom himself is obviously a real bag nerd, and the constant dialogue between the company and its customers has yielded some great innovations.
The bag has the following discrete areas within it:
- The main compartment
- Left and right external pockets
- Two pockets inside the lid of the bag which share a zip
- A zipless pocket fairly deep inside the main compartment on the front wall
The left pocket (that is, the pocket on your left when you’re wearing the bag) is the water bottle pocket. It expands — I was a little confused on what this actually did until I realized that it allowed you to leave the pocket open but stick a water bottle in it that wouldn’t fall out. This is potentially useful because both pockets expand into the bag, so the exterior profile of the bag doesn’t change. This is great for making the bag continue to balance and sit right on your shoulders no matter what you have in the pockets.
The right pocket has some interior organizational pockets (meta, eh?) which are sized for pens and various other things. Both pockets are extremely deep and have eyelets at the bottom to allow fluid to drain.
The lid pockets are a great idea because they don’t take up any space that would otherwise be used. If you have any free space left in your bag when you close it, that’s where it would be.
The zipless pocket on the wall of the main compartment is an interesting one. I haven’t really found a great use for it yet. It takes up no space, so I’m happy its there.
Both pockets have O-rings at the top, the main compartment has three. This allows you to attach pouches or other things via key straps. I keep my keys attached in the right-hand pocket, and a small pouch in the main compartment. This just adds a little bit more security and saves a little time when you gotta get gone.
On the outside of the bag, there are a couple of neat features. There is a clip on the left shoulder strap for a hydration pouch straw. As mentioned previously, there are removable chest and waist straps.
There are also 13 webbing loops on the outside of the bag all the way around the lid and front panel. The bag comes with bungee cord looped through these — very handy for attaching a jacket. You can buy Gatekeeper straps to also clip onto the loops, which would allow you to attach bulkier, heavier items like snowshoes.
I haven’t really needed to use the bungee cord much for attaching stuff, but what I do use it for every day is this: you can cinch the bag tight with it. This is just a killer feature, essentially meaning that I can let it out and stuff the bag full of stuff, or cinch it tight and keep the few things I have in there from rattling around. You can turn a 26l bag into a 16l bag in a couple of seconds. I love this feature.
The flip side of this is that the Smart Alec gains a sense of limitless space. I never feel like I have filled it, and I’ve had a lot of stuff in there. Somehow it always seems ready to take one more thing.
Inside the bag on the back wall there are some useful straps and loops designed to work with accessories. I’ll cover add-ons in a moment, but it’s good to know: these would be compatible with a lot of different pouches and cases.
Everything I’ve covered so far comes with your standard Smart Alec. However, one of the great things about Tom Bihn bags is they’re designed to become part of a customizable system. This means that there are a lot of different things you can buy to make the bag exactly what you need it to be at any given moment. These are the suggested extras: Upper Modular Pocket, Lower Modular Pocket, 1-inch Gate Keeper Straps, Vertical Brain Cell, Horizontal Brain Cell, Cache, Freudian Slip, Snake Charmer, Whistle Sternum Strap Half, Guardian Dual Function Light, Glowire kit.
I won’t be reviewing any of these, for the simple reason that I don’t own any of them. I would love to get a chance to try out some of them — especially the modular pockets and the Snake Charmer — but for now that will have to wait.
What I can talk about, however, is something that Tom Bihn hasn’t yet officially publicized as working with the Smart Alec. I took a slight gamble on this one and it paid off. They have a product called the Cache with Rails which is designed to work with the Synapse 25.
The Cache with Rails is a version of their excellent padded laptop pouch which has straps (rails) sewn on the back. When you use two Gatekeeper clips to attach it to the inside of the bag, it makes it into an amazing system for quickly making it through security. You can remove the Cache completely from your bag to get X-Rayed, but it remains attached and easy to slip back inside the bag. Not only that, but the attachments keep it sitting up, snug against your back and slightly elevated above the base of the bag. The ultimate in laptop protection.
The version of the Smart Alec which I got had two loops sewn into it which I estimated were just about the right place to attach a Cache with Rails. Turns out they were. I was delighted. The Cache is just the simple laptop pouch that I wanted. Alone it’s durable and very well padded. The only thing I didn’t like was that I was worried it would slide around a bit inside the Smart Alec like my previous laptop pouch had.
I don’t like bags that have a laptop compartment built in for two reasons:
- It’s inefficient during the many times that I don’t have a laptop with me
- It means if I want to take my laptop anywhere and have it protected I have to take the whole damn bag
The Cache with Rails is the perfect solution to my problem. When my laptop is sitting in the Cache inside the Smart Alec it’s extremely safe — guarded by a lot of padding. If you don’t have a Smart Alec or Synapse I would also recommend just the Cache — it’s a very well manufactured, excellent laptop pouch for a reasonable price ($30).
The Smart Alec is designed to really come into its own when it houses a number of smaller bags and pouches — hence the straps and loops inside to secure these. I make do with some cheap pouches (the McGuire Nicholas 3 Small Bags) for now, but they aren’t really a patch on the Bihn-designed pouches.
The great thing about using a modular system like this is that it enables you to change the bags purpose significantly in a very short time, and also allows you to very quickly find things once you’ve worked out a good system.
Apart from the cheap pouches, I also depend on a Condor T & T Pouch to keep minor bits and bobs organized. I’ll be reviewing that soon, but for now I will say that it’s served me very well. I also use a zippered computer case to carry documents and a few other things — like my graphics tablet and Logitech K760 wireless solar keyboard.
The complete list of things I cart around daily is something that deserves another post (or maybe just an intervention). Suffice it to say that the Smart Alec adequately houses it all and keeps it both safe and ready to hand.
How does it perform?
All of the above is great, and most of these things I had noticed very shortly into my experience with the Smart Alec. But how does the bag actually perform on a day-to-day basis? I waited longer than I wanted to write this review because I wanted to test the bag in a number of situations over time and see how it held up.
The short answer: it performs like an absolute champ.
This is the best bag that I’ve ever owned and, honestly, one of the best made things that I’ve ever owned. I’ve used it in two of the three settings that I realistically will ever use a bag: traveling, and commuting to work. It’s done its job admirably in both situations.
I haven’t yet had it out hiking but I’m certain I will take it as soon as I manage to get out (and now that I live in Maryland that seems more likely). I also haven’t flown with it. I’ll update on either of these when I can.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have a kind of minimalist philosophy in regards to the things I own. I’d rather have one great all-round thing than a multitude of mediocre ones. Now that I have the Smart Alec I’m looking to give away or re-purpose the other bags that I own. So I guess we’re going to have a nice Jeep-branded diaper bag.
I have so much confidence in this bag already that I know it’s going to be with me for a very long time.
I haven’t yet run into a situation that the Smart Alec couldn’t deal with. Some days I’ve only needed it to carry a laptop. Other days I’ve had it packed with stuff and some jump leads strapped on the back. At no time has it seemed like the bag was struggling.
What don’t I like?
Nada. Zilch. There is nothing about this bag that I dislike. There may be possible additional functionality that I haven’t thought of, but I’d trust Tom Bihn to think of it before I do.
I imagine by now you’ll have gathered that I’m happy with the Smart Alec. It’s the first product I’ve bought from Tom Bihn — definitely not the last — and it confirmed what I’d heard: they are a great company who make excellent products.
I would recommend the Smart Alec to anyone, really — and for anyone who needs something different I’d recommend something else from the Tom Bihn Store.
Months later I’m still excited every time I realize I get to use it. If I enjoyed this bag any more it would start to get a bit disturbing, frankly.
unboxing, as it’s called on YouTube ↩
Published on October 14th, 2013