I got a review sample of the Tom Bihn Cadet early this year and it was the first, and so far only, product that I reviewed and then purchased (I sent back the review copy and then purchased another, paying shipping, not just for integrity reasons, but also because I wanted different colors). That review is due for an update because, like all good creative things, the design of the Cadet is something that takes time to truly and deeply appreciate.
Knowing this I took my time with the Synapse. I am no longer in the "bookbag" phase of my life, but I still appreciate a good backpack. I really like the old stand by, my Maxpedition Pygmy Falcon II, but it is about as staid of a design as you can get. The Synapse is distinctly less tactical in appearance--appropriate for those still in the "bookbag" phase of life as well as those who are looking for something to lug stuff around in after they finished school. The Synapse was already a great design, but Bihn likes to outdo the competition, even when the competition is himself and here he really hit a home run with the fabric.
The bag is made out of a new high tech fabric called Dyneema and no review would thorough without a quick look at this amazing material. Dyneema is a UHMW (ultra high molecular weight) fiber developed by a Dutch company DMS. It is very light and strong. VERY STRONG. How strong you ask?
Now the Bihn Synapse is obviously not made of 3/8" Dyneema rope, but that is a pretty compelling strength comparison. Its abrasion resistance is pretty impressive too. In studies Dyneema gloves outperformed amarids (like Kevlar) in terms of abrasion resistance and leather in cut resistance. That is pretty impressive. Having been with the bag for about 45 days I can tell you this is the material your future favorite bag ever will be made from.
The big deal in the case of the Dyneema here is that it offers equal or slightly superior strength and durability to regular nylon with much, much less weight. Bihn and a few other companies have been using Dyneema as bag liner material, that stuff being 200 denier Dyneema. The entire shell is made of 400 denier (tougher and slightly bulkier) Dyneema. This is, to my knowledge, the first use of 400 denier Dyneema and the first bag made with mostly Dyneema both on the interior and exterior of the bag. The result is a bag that is as tough as the PFII with significantly less weight.
Here is the product page for the Synapse. Here is a review of the original, non-Dyneema Synapse. Here is a video review of the Synpase (yes, he really needs a wind sock). And here is my review sample:
One of the tricks of good design is a narrow focus. Making things that work well in lots of situations, without trade off, is impossible. Good design is often the result of choosing to make things that work well in specific cases. The Synapse is a great example of this. It is a small bag. You need to be prepared for that. Here is a size comparison between the Synapse and the PFII:
The Synapse is a bag for one person. So if you are okay with that, then this bag has to be at the top of your list.
Despite it is distinctly non-tactical appearance it held up every bit as well as the PFII did in hikes. This is, in part, thanks the to incredible abrasion resistance of the Dyneema fabric. My wife and I took our son on a hike around Waldon Pond (yes, that Waldon Pond) and took the bag with us. The car's temp gauge read 29 degrees, but the wind whipping off the water gave us the sense that it was roughly zero. It was a quick hike, especially given that we had a two year old walking with us. The terrain is super accessible, but we did push the bag. It got wet. It got pulled and scrapped, in some places on fence material, and it showed no wear whatsoever. Here is the bag on my wife's back:
She is very small. She'll tell you she is 5'1 1/2", but that is pretty generous and anyone that still includes half inches in their listed height as an adult is, almost as a rule, short. Again, this is a small bag.
Small as it is, it is impeccably laid out. It has just enough room for one large water bottle, in my case a 20 ounce insulated Kleen Kanteen. It has a pocket for keys and pens, a fleece lined pocket for a smart phone. A pocket at the very bottom for easy access to items when the bag is being carried. Finally it has three pockets or compartments towards the top of the bag--the main compartment, a pocket inside the main compartment, and a very shallow pocket at the very top of bag. There is an abundance of organization and the alignment of the pockets through the center of the bag, both helps with balance and gives Synapse a spine of sorts. It is an ingenious design that makes the bag easier to use and more comfortable to carry--no worried of a water bottle making you feel lopsided when hiking or trucking through an airport.
As usual with a Bihn bag, this is a design jewel.
Fit and finish: 2
You can't really appreciate a bag's fit and finish in a short time, which is why this review took so long. But I can tell you that there is nothing I would improve here. The stitching is immaculate, the details are wonderful (and so bountiful you will be discovering Tom's good ideas weeks after purchase), and the entire bag looks taut and even (because it is). Even with its elfin size, the Synapse looks professional. I lugged to a few bar conferences and everyone commented positively on it is appearance. This, in a profession still dominated by the old school brief case.
I loved the positioning of the shoulder straps and with adjustment (which is easy) so did my wife, who is approximately 9 1/2 inches shorter than me. That is a good sign. An even better sign? When this bag is loaded it actually feels slightly better on the back than when it is not. Stuffed to the gills, and you can really stuff it despite the size, this thing is in its element. So many bag just feel plain unwieldy when you get to the final few items. Not here.
Honestly, I think it is because of the careful attention to detail in the lay out of the bag. The balance from the left to right is so spot on that it never really swayed me off course whether I was running the trails of Walden Pond to find rocks for my son to chuck or weaving through a stream of shoppers at a huge local mall on the busiest day of the year. Yes, I know it is a small bag, but it can hold a lot of stuff and feels great doing so.
BEST FABRIC EVER. Seriously, this stuff wears better than Condura and weighs fractions less. I loved it. Bihn's normal top shelf sourcing of zippers, straps, and fastners rounds out the truly best in class Synapse. You will be hard pressed to find a more high-tech bag anywhere.
In the weeks I had the bag there was one thing that proved to me that it was a superior and highly accessible design. We went shopping and I used it as a diaper bag/toy bag for my son. I stuffed a Kleen Kanteen in the center pouch full of his juice. I crammed some toy trucks into the bottom pouch. I dropped some Gold Fish in a bag in the shallow topmost pouch. Throughout the day, despite the busy environment and sometimes crowded confines of the mall, we were able to get our son what he wanted when he needed it. I even popped out a snack while on the extra crowded elevator when the bag was fastened to our stroller. THAT is accessibility.
Ease of Packing: 2
It may not seem like an easy bag to pack, but if you know what each pocket is designed for, this thing, as I said above, can get stuffed to the gills. At some point I had spread out everything that was going into the bag on the island in the center of the kitchen. I started putting stuff in and it kept going in with ease. More and more stuff loaded into the bag and yet the bag never felt unbalanced. Then I finished and I realized I had MORE room. It may not be the most intuitive bag to pack, but I was shocked at just how much it held. Any more and I would have sworn it was sent to me by Mary Poppins.
There are a ton of pockets on the Synapse. Most are expertly designed. Many aren't 100% intuitive to pack, but once you figure them out they are superb. There is one that is, however, not so great. It is the only flaw on the entire bag and one that just doesn't make sense with the Bihn design aesthetic of everything with a purpose and purpose for everything. It is this pouch inside the main compartment:
It is really too big to carry small things and I imagine that it fits well with the Bihn Cache (an e-device sheath that works with all Bihn bags) but without the Cache it is just a loose and sloppy mess, stealing away usefulness from the main pouch. And it if is designed for the Cache where are the rails like in the Cadet? It is not a big deal, but again, it is an oddity on an bag that is otherwise just about perfect.
Speaking of perfect, here is a down-the-gullet shot of the bottle compartment.
Wedged between the two side pouches that hold small stuff like pens and phones, the bottle compartment is perhaps the very best part of the Synapse design. I cannot stress how amazingly balanced this bag is on your back and this is the reason why. Water, by volume, is quite heavy, so putting that heavy item in the dead center of the bag gives it a weighed feel that I have not seen on any backpack I have ever used (being a student for 27 years and a gadget guy I have had more than my fair share of bags).
The buckles and snaps are very nice. They work well and are smooth to the touched, even if they are snug against your body. But snaps and buckles are like runtimes on flashlights--you only noticed them when they stink because they are so uniformly excellent now. The real stunner on Bihn bags, Synapse included is this:
The Bihn zipper is completely and utterly superb. It is weird to focus on such a small detail, but it is clear, given how well they work, that I am not the first person to do so. One problem with zippers, especially ones with metal pulls, is that they are noisy. Not here. Another problem is that they do not do a very good job at keeping out moisture. Again, the seal here, prevents that. Finally zippers, with all their parts, tend to be finnicky. Again, look elsewhere as I had no problem either here or with my Cadet's zipper (that is identical in design). These are the best in the business (though Goruck's pulls run a close second). In all, there is nothing to complain about and nothing done better anywhere else.
Straps and belts: 2
I mentioned this above, but it bears restating here--this bag works for just about any size person. Here is a shot of the straps:
I really like the overall layout of the straps--the shoulder straps work well with the waist and chest strap. The back pad is also quite nice. Its not just that the bag works on folks of different sizes it also switches quickly. It took me less than three minutes, all while jogging behind my son who was running the paths of Walden Pond, to switch the bag from my wife's preferences to mine. That is the true sign of a great design.
One small bad thing, though not enough to effect the overall rating--the handle loop feels cheap. It is simple a single strap running across the top. I would have much preferred the rolled straps like handle loops for the Cadet. They give you a sense grabbing something substantial without the need for leather handles (which fall apart over time). Again, the handle loop works fine, it just feels cheap.
Owners of Bihn bags know that it is the accessories that send Tom's designs into the stratosphere. There are small delrin loops stitched into the bag's main pockets that allow for you to clip on small accessory pouches. I decked my Cadet out with two different padded pouches (one for my portable hard drive and the other for my iPhone cables) and it has made a huge difference. The pouches themselves are quite nice and the ability to mix and match and hook them just about everywhere is what separates Bihn bags from others. Bihn bags are great on their own--no doubt; but to squeeze every last drop of utility out of them you need to view them as a system. Additionally, all of the pouches, because the attachment points are so simple, can be switched from one bag to another. I easily switched the wire iPhone pouch from my Cadet into the Synapse. In addition to pouches, there are tethers, like this one for your keys:
There are also flashlights and other accessories too. Start with the pouches though, especially the padded ones. They are great for electronics. Viewed as a system, I honestly believe that Bihn bags are superior to almost every other bag out there--the Cadet easily crushes my old Tumi bag that was twice or three times the price. Likewise, when viewed as a system, the Synapse dominates the competition. Only a Kifaru bag seems to be in the same league and I'd never pronounce a winner without testing the Kifaru bag. But then again Kifaru bags are at least twice the price of this bag. If modularity and expansion are important to you, then this is a great option.
Overall Score: 19 out of 20
The only drawback, the only ding that was meaningful is the sloppy interior pouch in the main compartment. If it had the rails for a Cache like the Cadet does, the Dyneema Synapse would be a perfect day pack. Once you accept its size, the Synapse will not disappoint you. It is poised and balanced on the back, capable in a vast array of situations--from school to diaper bag to day pack for hiking--it can do it all and does it with style. The "spine" created by the alignment of the heaviest parts of the bag evince a level of design and forethought that frankly blows the competition out of the water. Its no longer enough to simply make your bags ridiculously tough by using thick Condura and then topping it off with a few cute features. The Dyneema Synapse rethinks the day pack entirely and its owners are better of for it.
Do you need it in Dyneema? Probably not, but the price difference isn't that great. I'd definitely go for it if I could. It feels better against the skin. It is substantially lighter. Finally, in my experience, it offered the same or better strength, wear, and abrasion resistance than Condura. You might not NEED it, but you don't NEED a titanium flashlight either. Either bag would be great, but the Dyneema seems just a slight bit cooler.
If you are looking for a bookbag, a day pack, or even a diaper bag that you can use for something else later, look no further. The fact that it was made here in the USA by a small company doing things the right way makes the Synapse an even easier purchase.
One last shot (for Darcy). This the Dyneema Synapse undergoing its toughest challenge ever, a diaper bag loaded with toys to entertain a two year old on the busiest shopping day of the year when he is going to meet the Big Guy:
As usual, the Synpase did great.