Thursday, June 6, 2013

Tom Bihn Synapse 25 Review

The Bihn Synapse in Dyneema was a great little bag.  But it is probably too small for more than one person or more than one day.  The problem is that going from the Synapse to a larger bag resulted in something MUCH larger, probably too large.  Recognizing a space to be filled, Tom Bihn released the Synapse 25.  It has all of the great features of the original, plus the Dyneema fabric, plus just enough size to make it the ideal backpack.  The short summary of this review is simple: this is the benchmark backpack on the market today.  There are special purpose packs, like Kifaru, that may be more capable, or high end packs that have a few more doodads and features, but nothing bests the Bihn in terms of all around performance and versatility.  The Synapse 25 is the perfect backpack.

The testing period for bags and packs is long.  It is hard to get a meaningful amount of information from merely a few days.  With a knife or a light you can play with it for an hour or so and get a good handle on what it does and how well it does it, but with a pack, it is a different story.  You can put it on and where it around the house (and be a weirdo, yes, I am a weirdo), but only real life use can tell you how good a pack is.  The Synapse 25 was my go to pack for about a month and half (thanks Darcy!) and it did not let me down once.  In that month and half it came on quite a few day hikes (5 or 6 mile trail loops) where it did well. It also was a bag I used at work (for a change of clothes and hauling books/iPad).  It did very well there too.  Finally, during a series of short day trips it worked as a general pack and did that exceptionally well.  Any role you press it into, the Synapse 25 will excel.

Here is the product page.  The Synapse 25 is $170 and available only through Tom Bihn.  Here is my review of the original Synapse.  Here is a written and video review of the Synapse 25.  Here is the review sample sent to me by Tom Bihn:

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Twitterable Review Summary: Best General Purpose Backpack Available 

Design: 2

There are ton of options on the market now.  Go Ruck makes some pretty amazing and pricey bags.  Kifaru, a specialist brand of almost bespoke bags, has a few offers.  Tumi has a few nice carry options all of which include the Tumi Tax.  TAD Gear makes some very nice packs.  Camelbak and Maxpedition are still doing there thing.  But none of these brands, not one, makes a bag as well designed and a broadly useful as the Synapse 25.  It is essentially the Synapse with all of the problems I had fixed (though, to be fair there were only two issues).

As I wrote in the Synapse review, the design is flawless.  The water bottle pocket on the pack's spine is a stroke of genius and the foundation for what makes this a superior design.  But here, unlike on the original Synapse, you can stow two water bottles with zero loss of balance.  All of the well-placed and well-designed pockets on the original Synapse are here, but slightly bigger.  And there in lies the improvement.  The original Synapse is an excellent one person, one day bag.  It would work for a school bag, but if you wanted to haul a change of clothes and pair of shoes plus a laptop or tablet, you were out of luck.  Understanding that limitation for the old bag was important, but here there are no such limitations.  This is still a small-ish bag compared to some of the absolutely cavernous designs out there (some of the LL Bean bags are so big they seemed to be designed for encyclopedia salesman and certainly not for anyone that has a...you know...portable computing device).  Here is a shot of the Synapse 25 next to a standard 8 1/2 x 11 sketch pad.


Here is the Synapse 25 next to my Pygmy Falcon II.  The 25 is probably in direct competition with the normal Falcon, but I don't own one of those so this is the comparison shot you get (and yes, I do really like the Talon Hooks in my pegboard).

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But this is not simply a bigger bag than the Synapse.  The 25's size means that the main pocket is actually much more useful.  Even with the Cache inside, I could still pack a change of clothes, a tablet, shoes, a water bottle, and more.  The kangaroo style pouch inside the main compartment is, instead of a nuisance, very useful.  In the original it took up too much space and made packing the main compartment a drag.  Now, with the additional space, the pouch does what it is supposed to do--provide a little separation between things in the main compartment--without ever getting in your way.  Also, I love the rail system for the Cache.  It is amazingly handy and I don't even fly that much.

Fit and finish: 2

In terms of execution, there is nothing lacking on the 25.  It is, like all of the Bihn products I have used, immaculate.  Bihn's craftspeople are top notch.  Really though, the thing that stuns me is how much less this bag costs than a comparable Tumi bag.  Let's assume that they are the same caliber of materials (which they aren't, Bihn's Dyneema is better than anything Tumi has).  Let's assume they are the same exemplary design (they are not, not by a mile).  And let's assume they have the same level of finish polish (which, to be fair, they do).  The Tumi bags I have had were close to $400.  This is $170.  And it is made entirely in the USA (the Dyneema fabric is imported).  How is this possible?  How on earth can the old, "retail" brands survive?  It seems to me they are still in business because their customers don't know better.  That will not last.  That cannot be a good business model.  Eventually old executives will be replaced by folks that know how to use the Internet.  When that happens, well, goodbye Tumi.  Or at least the overpriced, overstuffed Tumi we know and sort of dislike.  Simply put, this level of refinement is amazing.  And for the price, well, there is nothing I can think of that comes close.  $170 is pricey compared to the junk Targus bags from Staples and Target, but this is light years ahead of those things.  Compared to a peer, like Tumi, this bag is a positive steal.  Or is that steel.  After all, Dyneema (the white grids) is stronger than steel on a weight basis. 

Carry: 2

More space, same gymnast-on-the-beam like balance.  I mentioned this in the original Synapse review and it is worth repeating because of how great an idea it was--placing the water bottle pocket in the middle of the pack allows for great weight distribution and balance.  Here the water bottle pocket is in the same place, but just bigger.  The tight dimensions keep the two water bottles nice and snug meaning that even with the extra size and weight they don't slosh around.  

The shoulder straps are plenty comfortable and the sternum strap, is, of course, very nice.  The back is padded and covered in large ventilating mesh.  All in all, the rigging holding the pack to your body is excellent.  When you combine these features with the great balance, you get a pack that stick with you on long day hikes, even over difficult terrain AND a pack that does well being toted around on a very busy, living-out-of-your car for a few days trip.

Materials: 2

The Dyneema grid reinforces the thinnish nylon making the bag lighter and stronger than it would be otherwise.  I also happen to love the modern look the grid provides.  Suffice to say, based on the information from the original Synapse review (including that awesome strength test video), Dyneema is the pinnacle of materials for packs right now.  The rest of the bag is great too--nice straps and thick well distributed padding where needed.  Even the zipper pulls are extra slick.

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One small, very small point--I don't like the grab strap, seen above.  I know it doest' matter and I know the one on the bag is plenty strong and durable, but man I really like the handles on the Cadet--they give you some hand filling substance to hold on to.  Again, the grab strap is perfectly fine.  It looks good, it will hold forever, but it is a small tactile thing.  It probably would add some extra weight and would definitely bonk you in the back or the neck when your on vigorous hikes, so come to think about it, maybe a bulkier grab strap wouldn't get all that nice.  

Accessibility: 2

Here is where the 25 improves over its smaller brother.  With more space and larger compartments, the pounch in the main pocket is now useful and not a packing obstacle.  Even when the Cache is loaded, like here:

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You can still get to everything in the main compartment easily.  I also like the fact that the pen organizers are on the sides, allowing you to sling the bag over one shoulder and rotate it forward, giving you quick access to small stuff.

Ease of Packing: 2

Bihn stuff, at least the original Synapse and the Cadet, always seemed to have small or somehow constricted openings.  Lots of use has shown me this is more a psychological problem than an actual one, as packing both was easy, but here the bags large size makes it very easy to jam stuff in.

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The opening is wide enought to really get everything you'd want in the pack, but not so wide that the bag feels like it flops open, like on the Pymgy Falcon.  I know some folks like the flop open bag for lay flat packing, but I'd prefer a little something to keep the pack from just cleaving in two when I open it on my back.  The 25 hits that in between perfectly--easy to pack without fear of just flopping open when it is on your back. 

Pockets/Organization: 2

Hiking with the 25 showed me that the pockets here are very good at weight distribution.  But I kind of expected that given the water bottle pocket's positioning.

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What took me by surprise was how Tom Bihn balanced the additional size with making pockets that don't feel like they ate your stuff.  One my main problems with big packs, like the LL Bean monster my wife has had since high school and still thinks is great, is that the extra size means the pockets are cavernous and you lose stuff in them.  Don't even think about dropping a Space Pen in that bag's pen organizer.  It would disappear forever.  But Bihn's design mastery means that the pockets here are big, but not gaping mouthes ready to eat your flash drives, change, and half sized writing tools.  

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

I love the Bihn zippers with their little rain guards.  I love zipper pulls.  I like the sternum strap snaps.  The strap adjustment buckles are excellent.  Everything is simply top notch.

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Lots of companies do this stuff well.  They make really durable snaps, zippers, and buckles.  But what puts Bihn's stuff in a different category is that his stuff is great and durable, but it is also light and quiet.  No one wants to announce their slightly late presence at a meeting with a bag that makes them sound like they are doing jumping jacks while wearing chain mail, and with the 25 you won't.  Strong, durable, light and quiet.  Done, done, done, and done.  

Straps and belts: 2

Some bags, like the Kifaru and the Maxpedition, look they are made of nothing but straps.  I get why they are made that way and I am sure they are useful, but I am not a private defense contractor nor do I want to look like one.  Straps and MOLLE are not my prefered design aesthetic.  Here, the straps are less abundant, but no less useful or hardy.

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I especially like the thin, but padded shoulder straps.  On cheaper bags, these straps are made comfortable by heap gobs of gel, foam rubber, or other substances into or on the strap making them cushy and gushy but annoyingly thick.  Here you get just as much comfort with singnificantly less bulk. Great all around.

Modularity/expansion: 2

Equipped with lots of connection points for the myriad of useful Bihn pouches and accessories, the 25 is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of expansion and modularity.  Kifaru fans rave about their pack's versatility and I can't comment until I try one, but man do I love the Bihn expansion system.  There is virtually no end to the combinations and mixes and matches that can be done with various pouches, sleeves, straps and containers.  I have found the key strap and two small pouches to be very, very useful.  I also like the Cache quite a bit.

Overall Score: 20 out of 20, PERFECT


The original Dyneema Synapse was very good.  Great design, clean look, and bleeding edge materials.  But it was a little too small for general use.  As a day pack for hiking or school it was fine, but for carrying stuff for three people it was just too tiny.  The small size also meant that the pouch in the main pocket took up valuable real estate.  With the 25 Bihn fixed all of the problems (the one or two the original had) and made what has to be considered among the best general use backpacks ever made.  I love this pack.  It is more than deserving of the Everyday Commentary Seal of Perfection.  This is the best pack or bag I have ever used.

6 comments:

  1. Just found your site recently while looking for reviews on this bag. Great review! I was debating on getting the dyneema or the cordura version. I know you have only had this one for awhile but how is the synapse 19 holding up? Thanks keep up the great reviews.

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    1. The 19 was a review sample. I do have a Cadet and it is not Dyneema and it is holding up quite well. It is not as light as the Dyneema fabric would have been.

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  2. One problem I have been running into recently is the 15 pound (actually 7 kg) carryon luggage limitation on flights to SE Asia via Taipei/Hong Kong. Most of the carriers are becoming quite strict about the weight (they weigh you at the ticket counter and in the case of China Airlines, again at the boarding gate, at least outbound from the USA) and also paying more attention to the "personal item." I got hassled in May 2013 for having two items, both "personal item sized" - each would have fit under my seat, separately of course - one 15 pounds (my luggage) and one 8 pounds (my personal item). The two items started out as a Red Oxx Kat Pack and a Red Oxx Gator, but I had to stuff the Gator into a Small No Matter What Duffel from Eagle Creek so there would be room for my travel jacket if I didn't want to wear it. Long and the short of it is the Kat Pack LOOKED fat and hence larger than it was thanks to the 1/3 height external pouch, common to "school packs," and of course the Gator is a stout little trunk by itself and even larger and lumpier looking stuffed into a small duffel.

    So for my next rip I've resolved to take a lower profile - flatter - day pack combined with a visually less lumpy personal item, say a Patagonia Mini Mass or Rickshaw Small Zero Messenger. I don't think the weight was my problem, it was having a a luggage item that looked "fat" - the Kat Pack - and a personal item that looked to bulky - thanks to the duffel "over"-bag.

    I've been thinking about the Synapse, the design is appealing, but my principle worry is that the traditional "tear drop" or pear shape will cause it to bulge at the bottom, and the taper at the top will make the bottom bulge look bigger. As a single item I think it will pass SE Asia muster fine, but combined with a larger personal item would probably raise the same eyebrows that got raised in May.

    BTW the Kat Pack is remarkably rectangular, if you discount the external pouch, but if you delete the external pouch (not easy to do per my seamstress, and Red Oxx declines to do any such customization) you also loose what little organization the school pack provides .... Without the pouch, the Kat Pack would be the low profile I am looking for. As it stands, the PacSafe MetroSafe 350 is the flattest pack I can find, but it is flat at the expense of usable volume and the cable reinforced straps are so stiff they are awkward to shove out of the way when stowing the pack.

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  3. Hi! Would it be possible for you to post again a photo of the synapse 25 on your wife :) I'm 5'2" so I'm undecided whether it would fit my torso length. Thanks so much!

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  4. http://www.tombihn.com/forums/bag-reviews/6246-who-says-short-people-cant-carry-big-bags.html

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  5. Hey, love your review as I am running into the problem of choosing a backpack for everyday use. I am now hesitating between this Tom Bihn 25 and Crumpler Rampaging Mob backpack. Do you have any suggestions on Crumpler? Thank you.

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