Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tom Bihn Founder's Briefcase Review

I am a lawyer, so I kinda have a thing for briefcases.  Like farmers and tractors, lawyers and briefcases go together.  They are called briefcases for a reason--you used to be able to store an entire file or brief in the case.  Briefcases have since moved beyond that original meaning, but their utility has never waned.  In the age of the laptop, the briefcase form factor was easily modernized by the inclusion of a padded sleeve to protect the precious computing cargo inside.  But the age of the laptop is over and still so many briefcases come with the obligatory and now virtually unneeded laptop sleeve.  These briefcases also usually have a 3 side zipper to allow for easy extraction of a laptop.  As normally constructed, the modern laptop briefcase is, well, a real hunk of junk if you don't carry a laptop.  This is the main reason I switched to the Tom Bihn Cadet, dropping the enormous Tumi bag loaded with vestigial features as handy as your tailbone. 

When Darcy from Tom Bihn contacted me about reviewing the Founder's Briefcase with its 3 side zipper and padded laptop sleeve I was a little worried.  It shared too many features with that monster of a bag I used to have.  I agreed nonetheless and I am glad I did.  My preconceptions weren't totally wrong, but I was surprised at just how good this bag was.  It proved to me, yet again, that Tumi stuff is overpriced junk with all of the design sophistication of the Subaru Baja (sorry Baja fans). 

Wanting to make sure I wasn't crazy I lent the bag to a fellow lawyer to get her take on it.  She used it for a week and then reported back.  Here is her take:

I was impressed by how much it could hold. I was able to fit many more files than I expected. It has lots of pockets – but my favorite one was the zipper pocket on the top edge inside the main pocket.

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It was perfect for easy access to my pens, phone, keys, ID etc because I was able to reach into it while walking and carrying the bag on my shoulder. The thorough padding makes it seem like a very durable laptop bag, although I didn’t try my laptop in it. My one complaint is that this particular bag can really only by worn messenger style (NOTE: see more on this below). When I wore it on just one shoulder it would constantly slip off. As a professional woman I generally don’t find messenger bags to be flattering. When I was wearing it over my winter coat it wasn’t an issue, but I never wore it messenger style when I was just wearing a suit coat because I just don’t find it comfortable or attractive.  I also dislike them in general because when I’m feeling uncoordinated it can be less than a graceful maneuver to get them off, which tends to look less than professional in front of clients. So that’s personal preference, but in general it was a great bag and seemed very durable.

Here is the product page.  Here is a video on the bag.  Here is a review of the bag.  Here is the review sample (already returned to Tom Bihn):

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For purposes of this review I carried my wife's Mac Book Pro and my iPad for two days each.  I don't have a laptop anymore, so I had to borrow one.

Twitter Review Summary: If you still need a laptop briefcase, stop looking...this is it.

Design: 1

If you accept that this is a laptop briefcase, you'd be pleased with how it works.  The entire bag is very slim, given that it contains essentially a double padded interior.  I liked the overall slim size and I liked the placement of the shoulder straps, which are situated diagonally over the 3-side zipper (as opposed to being anchored to the sides of the bag, which is impossible because of the zipper).  The grab handles are placed well and the overall appearance is very clean, with echoes of the klettersack thanks to the diamond patches.  There are a lot of things I like about the bag--little touches that are part and parcel of the Tom Bihn product design--but I'll address each of those in the appropriate category below.  Suffice to say, this is a very good bag.

The one major problem that I have with the Founder's Briefcase is the lack of a true external pen pouch.  I have become addicted to being able to grab a pen without opening the main compartment.  It is especially difficult with a 3-side zipper.  You can always carry a pen outside your bag, of course, but there is always something you need at the last minute.

The bag's size is quite manageable.  Here it is in comparison to my Cadet:

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As you can see it is about the same size as the Cadet and the Cadet is, itself, a svelte model.  Here it is in comparison to a standard 8 1/2 x 11 notepad:

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Fit and finish: 2

By now, I have come to realize that I could just write: Tom Bihn standard fit and finish and be done, but for the uninitiated I'll give you a bit more detail.

First there are no stitch or seam errors.  All of the seams and joints between sheets of fabric are clean, even, and without stray threads.  All of the straps are equally nice in their construction, with no stray threads or uneven stitching (which can result in awkward straps and carry).  The piping around the bag is nice and even as well, creating a consistent and even appearance.  The zippers are nicely integrated into the bag and very smooth.  

Carry: 2

This is a very nice bag on your shoulder and in your hand.  Its not as nice as the Cadet, but there's no way to make it as nice to carry and still be able to hold a laptop.  I would note that the grab handles aren't as beefy as those on the Cadet and THAT is something that has nothing to do with this bag being a laptop bag.

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The diagonal placement of the strap works better when the bag the is carried sash-style (or bandolier-style if you prefer the manly descriptor).  Regular shoulder carry works too, but not as well.  There is a tendency for the bag to hang funny.  I think that the base model shoulder strap has something to do with that, as the Bihn Absolute strap has me spoiled.

 
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Materials: 2

All of the materials are quite nice--tough, smooth to the touch, and pleasing to the eye.  I wouldn't put much stock in the parapack material.  Its nice and all, but it just didn't move the needle for me.  It is certainly not worth a premium.  Perhaps to pack rats the difference is huge, but to me, a regular carrier and user, I don't think it is worth the price increase (the Founder's Briefcase, 800 cu. in., is almost $50 than the Cadet, 825 cu. in.).   Here are the two fabrics in macro next to each other (Cadet on the left and Founder's Briefcase on the right):

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Accessibility: 1

Okay, there is only so many concessions you can make before they start effecting performance.  The need (or tradition) for a laptop bag to upzip on three sides is silly.  It really does hamper accessibility.  So many times I wanted to open the bag just a bit, but a tug on the shoulder strap would cause the zipper to run a bit.  I was always worried that the bag would just flop open (it can't, of course, because of the strap placement), but the concern was there.  That alone is not the only problem.

Again, I strongly dislike the pen pockets on the interior of the bag.

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They work, as does the cord pocket, but they are annoying to get to as you have to basically spill the bag open.

A note for Tom Bihn: there are some people that need to be able to take things in and out of their bags discretely.  As an attorney I try very hard to not disrupt court proceedings and a 3-side zipper makes that hard when I need to reach into my bag and grab something.  The Cadet, on the other hand, does well zipped open and sitting by my side.  Not everyone that carries a briefcase is a airplane traveling business man that can sprawl out when doing a Powerpoint presentation.  For that guy, this bag is AWESOME.  For the rest of us, I'd rather have a smaller zipper. 

Ease of Packing: 2

Okay, if there is one benefit to the 3-side zipper this is it.  Opening this thing for packing is like filleting a fish--everything is right there.  It is very easy and the padding on both sides protects stuff quite well.  

Pockets/Organization: 1

With a laptop comes a mouse, a power cord, a presentation pen, or whatever.  Perhaps this is why there are a ton of small pocket EVERYWHERE on the interior of the Founder's Briefcase.

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They are all, as usual for Tom Bihn, well done.  But the inability to access crucial (non-business card) sized stuff when the bag is closed is an annoyance.

Snaps/buckles/zippers: 2

As usual, Bihn uses YKK zippers.

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They are smooth and relatively quiet.  They are not rain guarded like those on the Cadet, but they are very nice nonetheless. They never got bound up and they were incredibly easy to open, even with one hand.  GREAT.  As always.

Straps and belts: 2

Its hard to give the Founder's Briefcase a 2 here as it is not as good as the Cadet, but I think this is more likely to be the Willie Mays Hall of Fame problem than an indication of an inferior product.  Sure, the straps are inferior to the Cadet decked out with the Absolute strap, but then again so is everything else I have ever test, touched or seen.  The reality is this bag's straps are very, very good.  Lightyears ahead of the Tumi crap that is out there.  

Modularity/expansion: 2

Clip points, pockets, accessories galore--that's what you get with every Bihn bag and the Founder's Briefcase is no different.  Not much you can say really.  Marvel at the forethought and modularity of theBihn system as a whole--few bag companies are this good.

Overall Score: 17 out of 20

The Founder's Briwefcase is very, very good.  AS far as laptop briefcases go, its as good as you will find.  It is a bit pricier than others, and it might be the fabric that makes it so, but its still much less than a Tumi of equivalent size.  I know I use Tumi as a touchstone  lot when it comes to bags and it is, in part, because they make so many different designs, and, in part, because they are so widely available and well-regarded.  The Founder's Briefcase, however, has proven to me that Tumi bags are from a different age, an age when the Internet didn't exist as it does today.  Now, businesses cna make great stuff and get it out to people quicker, faster, and cheaper.  The Founder's Briefcase proves that.  

However, and this is a big however, I am not sure why you would buy this over the Cadet.  You can get the cache and store a laptop or a tablet in the Cadet.  and you can remove all of that stuff quickly.  The Cadet is not as good a laptop briefcase as the Founders Briefcase is, but its not that much worse, and it makes a vastly better normal briefcase.  Plus buying the bigger Cadet will save you money. With the cache and the Absolute strap included its still $25 cheaper. 

Here is the real problem though--is there really a market for this bag?  Who carries a big, bulky laptop anymore?  I have long ago stopped looking for or even following laptops in favor of my iPhone and an iPad with a good bluetooth keyboard.  Even those that still need a full function laptop, carry smaller ones.  In part because of the Mac aesthetic and in part because of the increased computing power of these non-laptop devices the laptop itself is just not that useful.  Go look at the displays at your local eletronics store (which, is, itself a vestige of a bygone era).  Note how few laptops are there.  Go to the Apple Store.  Note how frew laptops are there. This is a bag made for ten years ago.  Its a very good bag if you need all of the laptop bells and whistles, but I am not sure how many people there are that fall into this camp.

If you need a full function laptop bag there is a LOT of junk out there.  There are good designs, but they tend to be uber expensive.  My Tumi was more than twice the price of the Founder's Briefcase, even though it was no where near as nice.  If you are a road warrior or someone that still carries a laptop on a regular basis, this is the best design I have seen.  For those that don't go for the Cadet.  Its amazing (and a score update on the Cadet is coming). 

3 comments:

  1. Your last flashlight review was 6 weeks ago. We're waiting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That thing may be great for lugging your stuff around, but it sure looks like it fell from the top of the ugly-tree, hitting every branch on the way down.
    Good review though, as usual.

    ReplyDelete
  3. There are many available styles of laptop messenger bags. Choosing the best messenger bags, especially those made of leather, is quite difficult but the most important things to consider are quality and style.

    ReplyDelete