Smart Alec Review: Part III

Traveling and using the Smart Alec.

In part one I talked about my day-to-day usage of the Tom Bihn Smart Alec and how it felt to switch from a messenger bag to a backpack. In part II I talked about using the Smart Alec as my only bag for a short weekend away. In the third and final installment I am going to talk about using the bag at Macworld and toting it around San Francisco and airports.

First, some more follow-up:

  • In the last installment I reported that I had some trouble getting the second strap on my shoulder. The tip provided from Tom Bihn was to loosen the strap that I put on last as I take the bag off. ((They have told me that they are working on a video to demonstrate what they mean.)) This is a cumbersome tip, but it does work. When in San Francisco I didn’t run into this issue given that I wasn’t wearing layers of clothing. So this may not be an issue for people that aren’t constantly layering clothes.
  • The zippers on the bag continue to get easier and easier to close one handed — this is great news.

I’ll keep this pretty short because I don’t have much to say, but did want to talk about two things: expandability and the airport.

Conference Mode

While at Macworld|iWorld I found the Smart Alec to be outstanding. It kept my hands free the entire time and at times carried quite the load of gear. The bag went from carrying just an iPad and battery chargers to carrying the goodies purchased at the Apple Company Store and a couple of jackets that Shawn and I carried with us.

I still preferred to not carry the bag around if possible (I would feel this way about any bag), but it never once became uncomfortable to carry with me. The only hinderance I ran into was when on the expo floor due to how crowded it was in spots.

Last I will note that while moving around SF with the pack on there were more than a few times when the back of the Smart Alec became very warm — it felt like my MacBook Air had woken up and was overheating in the bag. This is likely due to how tightly the pack sits against your back and the dense material, adding that extra layer to your body. It was never uncomfortable, but it was warm enough that I noticed when I took the backpack off.

TSA, Flying, and Airports

Had I not been carrying an additional shoulder strap type carry-on, the Smart Alec would have made for the best TSA line bag I have ever had. It was fast and easy to pull out my MacBook Air and to stuff away the various items in my pockets — all in secured areas of the bag. And I mean fast.

However trying to add another shoulder strap in lock step with a backpack is cumbersome at best and downright painful most of the time. I hate wheeled luggage because you can’t carry as much in them and you are at risk for them not fitting in overhead bins, but that would be a better option than carrying my Patagonia MLC with me on this trip.

The absolute best part of the bag is how the pockets open, because it’s very easy to stand the bag up on the ground and pull out my iPad from the main compartment. I don’t have to futz about with balancing the bag and trying to get my iPad out as I have had to with most shoulder bags. Set the backpack down, unzip, and pull the iPad out — all while the bag is standing upright on its own.

I can do that one handed.

Bottom Line

This is the best bag I have ever owned. It excels when you need it to go from medium to huge. But it doesn’t do small and compact well.

It is, however, lightweight.

The best feature of this bag, and I imagine of most backpacks, is just how freeing it is to have both hands free and not having to worry about balance. I don’t feel a desire to go back to a single strap bag of any kind.

The tradeoff is size.

A small backpack looks stupid, so you have to put up with a larger sized bag, but you don’t really feel the extra weight of the bag. Having a backpack always makes it look like you are carrying more than people with fancy minimalist shoulder bags, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you actually are carrying more.

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