Saturday, September 10, 2011

Tumi Alpha T-Pass Expandable Laptop Briefcase Review

I now understand why sailors call boats and ships "she".  After a while, after some object has been so crucial to your daily work that you come to know it by merely touching it, you develop an affinity for it.  And so "she" doesn't seem quite so weird.  

While I am not about to call my briefcase "she", I still really like my Tumi Large Expandable Organizer Laptop Briefcase (from now on: Tumi Briefcase).  Tumi makes high-ish end luggage.  There are, of course, no limits on the price you can pay for luggage, but for the average person, like me, Tumi represents an upper limit.  They make tons of nice luggage, but it is their bags and packs that concern me here.  I would equate them to something like the William Henry of the bag and pack world.  I have owned two Tumi items, an out of production laptop backpack (which was very nice in law school) and the Tumi Briefcase that I have now.  The Tumi Briefcase is nothing short of a warhorse.  

I have been a lawyer for eight years and in that time I have done more than a dozen jury trials, probably 100-200 bench trials, and easily more than a 1,000 contested hearings.  In every one of the proceedings, full of files and law books, my Tumi has been by my side.  It has been with me when I have lost heartbreaking trials or when I have won ecstatic victories.  There is nothing I carry or own that I have used more than my Tumi bag.  I feel confident that this review will reflect just about as much use and abuse as this bag could take in eight years time.  And the cool thing is that even now, after torrential downpours and brutal winters, it still looks pretty nice.  It also works beautifully.

Here is the product page.  Here is an all leather version.  Here is a street price, note I did not say GOOD street price because there is great price uniformity.  Here are the Amazon reviews (it has a 5 out of 5 stars with 3 reviews).  Here is a review of a similar, but smaller bag from Tumi.  Here is a video overview.  There are no REAL video reviews out there as the one that is out there is clearly a shill and I am not linking to it. Here is my Tumi Briefcase (with my regular EDC):


Note that my Tumi Briefcase is an older model.  All of the changes are superficial except for one, which will be noted and discussed below.

Design: 2

Here is the bag facing you:

 The bag has two main compartments with a thin "notepad" pocket on the front of each of the main zippered compartments (it is behind the handle in the picture above).  There is a gear and gadget compartment up front and it is divided into two pockets, one that is wider and another that is taller.  There are additional pockets on and in each of these compartments.  There are grommets for pass through of fluids at the bottom of the two exterior pockets and another grommet at the top of the wide exterior pocket for a headphone out.  Between the two main compartments is a zippered gusset.  When the gusset is unzippered the main compartments become larger.  One main compartment is for a laptop and included a laptop sleeve.  The other has three built in dividers for organization. 

When I carried a laptop, this was a perfect bag, minus the dividers.  Now that I don't it is simply too big.  The evolution of the smartphone and in particular the advent of good legal search engines on the iPhone (yes, I mean Fastcase, Lexis and Westlaw stink) means that this bag is now a relic for me.  If you carry a laptop though this is a superb bag for you.  The tall exterior pocket is perfect for an AC adapter and cords.  The other exterior pocket is great for pens, pencils, change, and business cards.  I carry gloves and a face mask for visiting extremely ill people (even sick people get lawyers) in the taller pocket.  I still hate the dividers as they are not useful at all, but aren't much of a problem.   

It no longer suits my needs as well, but that is not the bag's fault.  I have just changed how I do what I do.  For a laptop case, this thing is really well designed.

As a sidenote, the bag is rugged looking but still nice and classy enough for even the most formal settings (try: State Supreme Court).  Much more refined looking than a Maxped bag, but not as sissified as a more traditional briefcase.  

Fit and finish: 2

Tumi's nylon is insanely tough.  Nothing has withstood the abuses this thing has taken in the eight years I have been a lawyer, nothing.  But the Tumi nylon shrugs off everything from spilled water to dirt to the winter apocalypse with grace and ease.  The zippers are in-house Tumi designs and they are great.  I have never had a misthreading of the zipper and they start very easily.   The straps are nylon with leather hand grips and they are nice.  I would prefer no leather as it wears much more obviously than the ripstop nylon, but, what can you do.

Carry: 2 (with new shoulder strap); 1 (with old strap)

Okay, so here is the non-superficial update.  The old Tumi shoulder strap was merely okay.  It had a snap shackle and it came off every once in a while.  Now, with the new locking snap shackles it is IMPOSSIBLE to inadvertently unhook the strap.  The new strap is also seatbelt weave instead of the bulkier ripstop nylon weave.  Both are tough, but the seatbelt weave snags less.  The original strap's pad stinks, but the new strap is much better.  As a sidenote the new strap is not that expensive and the upgrade is total worth it if you have the old one.  This is my third strap (original, aftermarket, and new strap) and the longest lasting.

The bag, when fully loaded is really big.  As a result, the strap needs to be really wide and nice.  Fortunately, this strap is.  Carry is very, very nice, but not as nice, of course, as a backpack.  Still if you have to carry a briefcase and a laptop, this is your bag.  

Materials: 2

The ripstop nylon is unbeatable.  The seatbelt weave strap is great.  The zipper in proprietary (though it looks and works like others) and is really nice.  I don't like the leather hand grips, but again that is a preference.  Nothing on the bag is cheap or chintzy.  

Accessibility: 2

When carried accessibility is very good.  When zipped open and stationary, this thing is like a bookcase.  It is perfect.  There is nothing I could or would change about how this bag opens up and how you get your stuff.

Ease of Packing: 2

With three side zippers on the main compartments packing is easy.  Using the tall exterior pocket for things other than cables is a bit of a pain, but still it is okay. 

Pockets/Organization: 2

Again, with the exit of the laptop, the bag and its compartments are too big for me, but it is still a nice bag.  Organization is excellent as are the size of the pockets.  I hate the dividers but they are easily worked around. 

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2 (with new strap); 0 (with old strap)

The zippers are smooth, the snaps and buckles are great.  The locking snap shackle design is crazy nice.  Truly ingenious industrial design.

Straps and belts: 2 (with new strap); 1 (with old strap)

Again, the hand grips stink, but that is such a small point.  Wide comfy straps really help with a bag this big.  Great job.  

Modularity/expansion: 2

The T-Pass allows for a lot of compatibility, opening up stacked carry with luggage.  The shoulder strap is wide enough for a phone pouch sold by Tumi.   The laptop sleeve is removeable.  About as modular as you can get in briefcases.

Overall Score:  20 out of 20 with new strap; 16 out of 20 with old strap

If you carry a laptop this is the best briefcase I have ever seen and I have been looking for more than a decade now (since law school).  Tumi stuff is bombproof and looks nice.  It is easy to pack and surprisingly easy to carry.  I really, really like the bag. It is not cheap, at $395, but it is worth every penny.

One Year Update: 15 out of 20

-2 on Design; -1 on Snaps/buckles/zippers; -2 Straps and Belts

So much of what made this bag great has been done better on much cheaper bags, like the Tom Bihn Cadet and the Red Oxx Metro.  Those two bags are much less than half the price and they are lighter, smaller, and better laid out.  The Tumi seems designed for or by the business traveler of the late 90s.  Its massive internal compartment is great for carrying a behemoth of a laptop AND files, something just isn't necessary anymore.  With the advent of the iPad and good smartphones, this design, especially this size of a bag, is not needed or helpful.  The snaps and buckles are okay, but again they are bulky.  They simply do not need to be this robust or all blacked out.  The Bihn combination of good Delrin connectors and nice metal, when needed, makes a huge difference in weight and noise with no impact on durability.  The cliched leather shoulder strap, even with its suede backing, is not even in the same league as the Red Oxx Claw.  It looks crappy in a few years and has no where near the staying power.  For the money you can't do better but that is because only "old" companies are producing stuff in this price range.  Drop the price $200 and you will find a wealth of better options.  This is the most radical change in an update I have done but it is because this market is vastly superior to where it was 18 or 24 months ago.  We have crossed over from laptop briefcases to bags that recognize the change in gear and dispense with the useless extra size and weight. 


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  3. These bags are gorgeous... I like these all and frightened too... Thanks for distribution your blog... Nice job.

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  4. Hello,

    Thanks for your reviews by the way. Your blog is fantastic, if I ran a blog it would be about many of the same things. Nice job!

    Anyway, I've been looking for a new every day bag for work (laptop, some other small items) that can also double duty for an overnight travel bag.

    I have the outdoor products glide backpack now which has a fantastic design for my needs but is fairly poor craftsman ship. For that reason I have been looking for a replacement. I'm also somewhat inclined to get a briefcase style bag to fit in more in a work setting then a backpack (otherwise I'd be gunning for a Goruck GR0).

    I had it narrowed down to the Red Ox CPA, Tom B Zypher, and Tumi Alpha Expandable. The Red Ox is the cheapest but I do feel the look is a little coarser and utilitarian then I like- and the bright metal hardware and basic pouch shapes with out zippers kinda a turn off.

    The Tim Bihn Zypher looks fantastic, high quality I'm sure. A very nice design, but it doesn't have that professional vibe (I think it's the big strap over the front). Also when you add in the laptop compartment and shoulder strap your up at 260+ bucks already.

    At that price I'm with in 100 bucks of the Tumi Alpha. Which I have always loved. It's almost a classic now. Seems durable, and the expansion function is awesome I can keep it smaller when going to work and just add 2" for overnights.

    So I guess my question is, since you have experience with all of these manufactures - which would you go for? The prices are close enough for me I don't really need to take that into account- so with price off the table and the following being my priorities, what would you go for?

    -Function (Organization, size, pockets)
    -Not too large, but useable for a light packer on an overnight
    -Classy, well suited to business environment
    -Durable materials
    -Comfortable to carry


  5. If you are looking for a quality suitcase for your next holiday trip, I would recommend Tumi Bags and Rimowa Bags as they come with high quality, different types and within everyone’s budget.

  6. Its your choice weather you choose a hard case or just backpack laptop but for me this will be depending on your lifestyle on what type you should choose.

    combined camera and laptop bag