I've written about laptop bags a few times before, but I'm on an unflappable quest to find the best tote for my portable PC - one that's sturdy, looks good, provides easy access, and doesn't compress my lower back vertebrae.
The Empire Builder from Tom Bihn comes very close to fulfilling my dream. The biggest knock I would give it right off the bat would be that it doesn't roll. Although after using this bag for a while, I don't know if that's even much of a complaint.
Bags Made By People Who Care
First a word about the company - I've heard really good things about Tom Bihn over the years, but never had a chance to use any of their products. They're based out of Port Angeles, Washington and make almost everything out of their U.S.-based factory.
Their products are not cheap. You can't buy Tom Bihn bags out of your local office supply store. But you do get amazing quality and superior craftsmanship. If you really depend on your laptop and need a carrying bag that will protect it thoroughly, then a Tom Bihn bag is for you, and I heartily recommend the Empire Builder.
|Named after the historic train, the Empire Builder measures 17" by 12.75" by 7" deep and weighs a measly 3.2 lbs. I say that with such emphasis because I've lugged around many heavy laptop bags in my career that just add to the overall weight of your burden. Granted, when you put a laptop inside, that 3 lbs. starts adding up, but the Empire Builder gets high marks for its lack of heftiness.|
Less weight often means cheap materials, but not in this bag. The Empire Builder is made from 1050 denier Ballistic Nylon and 50 denier Dupont Cordura. I honestly don't know exactly what that all means, but I can tell by running my hand over the bag that the material is brawny and rugged. It would take quite a knife to poke through any of this stuff.
I was very impressed with the zippers on this bag too. Zippers are obviously a small part of any bag, but I get very frustrated when zipper handles fall off, or the tracks get out of sync. I appreciate a good quality zipper and the Empire Builder even provides small flaps that help keep out water and other weather.
The Empire Builder gets a blue ribbon in the category of pockets. There's a main flap on one side that gets locked in with a fat, secure plastic clip. On the outside of that flap are a couple of pocket with zippers, and one extremely convenient pocket that perfectly fits a plane ticket.
Opening up the flap reveals a nice roomy pocket with multiple accessory pockets to hold pens, phones, PDAs, and iPods.
The inside is incredible - you get a cavernous hollow that will hold the largest consumer laptops of today. Unbelievably, I was able to fit not only my 17" HP laptop, but also my 15" Dell laptop, side-by-side. The most amazing part of this was that the Empire Builder wasn't bulging at the seams. It was heavy, but the Empire Builder zipped up perfectly and looked great.
While the outside of the Empire Builder is mostly conventional black, the inside is usually a contrasting blue, red, or "wasabi." This may sound quirky, but the lighter color helps you to see inside better, especially when you're laptop is the same conventional black color.
A couple of other surprises exist inside. First, the inside of the Empire Builder generously accommodates another product from Tom Bihn called the Brain Cell. The Brain Cell is a smaller sized bag designed to wrap around your laptop and easily clips inside the Empire Builder. If you're looking for maximum protection for your laptop, a Brain Cell inside the Empire Builder is a tough combo to beat.
Second, the Empire Builder comes with three hard-plastic file dividers that fit perfectly inside. These dividers are a fantastic addition and do a wonderful job of separating documents and files.
Lastly, the handles on the Empire Builder are superb. There's not much to them, but they feel solid and very tough.
The Empire Builder is water-resistant, meaning that the outside material has been treated with a water-repellant solution. This doesn't mean you can dunk it into a bathtub full of water with your laptop inside, but it will surely keep your laptop dry while running through a thunderstorm.
The Empire Builder costs $140.00 and it's worth every penny.
A Strapping Good Addition
It sounds odd, but the Empire Builder doesn't come with its own shoulder strap. Tom Bihn, of course, has a solution in the form of their $25 Absolute Shoulder Strap. The Absolute Shoulder Strap can be used with several Tom Bihn bags, but it's perfectly mated with the Empire Builder.
Some shoulder straps cut into your skin, others leave a red mark, but the Absolute Shoulder Strap feels like it has some elastic in the shoulder pad so that it "gives" a little in just the right spot.
And I don't know if it's my imagination, but using the Absolute Shoulder Strap literally makes it easier to carry around the Empire Builder. It hangs in just the right place on my hip, and it's obvious that the clips are strong and won't give way.
Charm Your Wires & Cables Into Submission
Last but not least, Tom Bihn offers the brilliant and appropriately named $20 Snake Charmer.
This little devil with mesh sides can make your mobile computing life much happier. The Snake Charmer is simply a bag with two sides that each open on top with a high-quality zipper. The whole thing is about the size of a shaving kit or toiletries bag.
The purpose of the Snake Charmer is to charm all your nasty but necessary wires and cables that seem to frolic and intermingle every time you stuff them down into your bag. The Snake Charmer keeps them in a controlled environment. You can look into the sides to see what you need, and you don't have to empty out a whole side to pull out one needed cable.
The Snake Charmer is one of the products that seems too simple to be true. This one little bag keeps me calm because I don't have to constantly dig around in the bottom of my laptop bag for the one silly cable that I need and can't find. Plus it's great to have one place to store all my wires.