Tom Bihn is still iterating on the Smart Alec and their latest change is to the exterior fabric. They have added an option to the bag that has a 400d Dyneema exterior. This is the classic grid patterned nylon that Tom Bihn is known for on the interior of their bags, but a bit thicker […]
Tom Bihn is still iterating on the Smart Alec and their latest change is to the exterior fabric. They have added an option to the bag that has a 400d Dyneema exterior. This is the classic grid patterned nylon that Tom Bihn is known for on the interior of their bags, but a bit thicker now that it is used on the exterior.
The result is a strong material that is also much lighter. I’m told the bag is now 30% lighter, and I can verify that you can feel the difference when you compare the two side by side.
Tom Bihn sent me a review unit that I have been testing for a few weeks now and it’s still the fantastic Smart Alec that I love. In day to day use the weight savings aren’t felt, but if you load the two bags for hiking, or any other weight conscious activity, you can and will notice the difference.
However the difference you will notice everyday is the look of the material. What I’ve always liked about the Smart Alec is its understated look. Yes it’s a nylon backpack, but it still looked handsome and not as nylon-y as other bags. The Smart Alec Dyneema looks like a nylon bag — there’s no way around that.
At first I really didn’t like the look of the bag — just not my style. It’s less professional looking and a bit “louder”. My father, upon seeing it (he uses my original Smart Alec), loved how it looked and so have a few others that have seen the bag while I have been carrying it around.
After about a week I was liking the look too, but I still like the original all black better. The gray grid is neat looking and different, but it a bit more outspoken.
Overall this is yet another great Smart Alec that I’m sure many will love and that hikers should really give serious consideration when choosing a versatile daypack.
With the bag Tom Bihn has sent me some goodies that they just finished up:
Tool Strap: This is an all new accessory that has not been released yet, but it is sweet. Basically it is the same as the keyring strap, but has a little rectangular d-ring on one end that allows you to clip things to it. What kind of things? Knives for one — though I believe Tom Bihn mentioned Flashlights too. Either way, what a great little strap.
3D Mesh Organizer Cube: This is actually a great little cube. I have the original 3D Organizer that has clear sides and use that for toiletries, but this one makes an excellent cable tote. Much more compact than the Snake Charmer and thus better for day-to-day use for me.
Dyneema Organizer Cube: Same as above, but without the mesh. I don’t like it nearly as much as the mesh version as it traps a bit of air when zipped so it doesn’t compress as easily, but this would be handy to keep prying eyes away. If in doubt, go with the mesh one.
Tom Bihn has done a minor design change to the best backpack: the Smart Alec. That post I linked to lays out the nitty-gritty of the update, last week Tom Bihn was kind enough to send me a new version of the bag to test out — I’ve been using it everyday since. When I […]
The mesh back alone makes it an instant upgrade. When I took my Smart Alec to Macworld last year, my back was constantly warm. It felt like something was heating the bag internally, but it was just a lack of air circulation to my back. The new mesh back solves this, and does so wonderfully. It’s a minor change that makes the bag a lot better to carry for long periods of time.
Of the other changes, they all make a noticeable difference:
It is easier to zip the top closed — a one-handed affair at times now.
The bag does indeed pick up less cat hair, much to the dismay of my two cats.
I look forward to seeing the modular pockets for the bag, but overall this is a solid update. Oh, and if you were waiting to order, do so now because the price goes up next week — I am certainly going to upgrade.
Back when my wife was registering for all of our “baby stuff” for showers she asked me which diaper bag we should get. I am pretty sure I said pick “whatever” because I was confident Target wouldn’t have what I wanted, and knew my wife wouldn’t put up with me spending months trying to find […]
Back when my wife was registering for all of our “baby stuff” for showers she asked me which diaper bag we should get. I am pretty sure I said pick “whatever” because I was confident Target wouldn’t have what I wanted, and knew my wife wouldn’t put up with me spending months trying to find the right bag.
So now we have this shoulder bag that claims to be a diaper bag, something parents will likely need to carry almost every time they exit their homes for quite a while. And the bag we have isn’t very good.
I could list out everything wrong with the bag, but it’s just easier to say that there isn’t a single thing I like about our diaper bag. It almost offends me.
So I started looking for a better diaper bag. Weeks later I still hadn’t found a single diaper bag that looked suitable. They either looked like a diaper bag, or looked like something I would laugh at if I saw someone else carrying it.
Then I had an idea1 . The best bag I have is my Tim Bihn Smart Alec, so what if I just used that bag. There’s a problem: I don’t want to own two, and I don’t want to have to go through the process of converting the bag into and back from a diaper bag every time.
Yet, after thinking about it more I realized that most everything I keep in the Smart Alec are things I would like to take anyways in a diaper bag outing, I just needed a quick way to add or subtract the diaper specific items and things like my MacBook Air.
Since I can easily remove the padded laptop sleeve, and that being the only item I wouldn’t want when using the Smart Alec as a diaper bag, this looked like a simple fix.
I ordered two of these packing cubes (Tri-Star small-all fabric and the same in the non-all-fabric option) and hoped they would be enough. Turns out they are perfect, but a third cube is needed for bottles, so I ordered this one.
Now I have one packing cube with diapers and wipes. Another with a change of clothes. A third with all the other miscellany that ends up in the diaper bag and bottles. It takes me less than two minutes to go from computer bag to diaper bag.
That’s acceptable because I get to use a bag that I love.
What’s also neat is that the packing cubes still fit in the ”real” diaper bag, so it is still always ready to go for my wife (I toss the packing cubes back in that bag when I change out my backpack). So now I have a diaper bag that I love at very little extra cost, and a system that is very flexible.
I only wish I had thought of this weeks ago.
I know most of you don’t use the Smart Alec, but the nice thing about this is that there are probably packing cubes that fit your setup very nicely — it’s worth playing with, because diaper bags suck.
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 […]
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.1 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.
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.
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.
They have told me that they are working on a video to demonstrate what they mean. ↩
In part one I talked about my day-to-day usage of the Tom Binh Smart Alec and how it felt to switch from a messenger bag to a backpack. In part II I am going to talk about using the Smart Alec as my only bag for a short weekend away. But first some follow-up on […]
I still very much like using a backpack over a messenger/should bag.
My only remaining frustration is the friction that is involved in putting on the second strap. Whether the bag gets caught by literal friction of the strap against my clothing, or is hung up on my watch face — I have yet to find it easy to don both straps. I don’t know if this is my inexperience here or if I am just doing it wrong, but it is annoying the crap out of me.
I have started advocating to people I know that carry heavy shoulder bags that they should switch to backpacks. I didn’t see that coming.
I am really loving the modular-ness of having smaller bags inside my Smart Alec to quickly add and remove a mass of things.
Before I dive into using this bag as a weekender I think it is important to give you an idea of the type of weekend I am talking about and my general travel style (as we all travel differently). For starters the trip I am basing this one on is one that I do 6-10 times a year.
It is a trip down to Portland, OR to visit with my wife’s family. We stay with in-laws and not in a hotel. I have done this trip well over 60 times in the last 4 years.1 That’s to say this is a trip I am very familiar with and thus know exactly what I will need every time.
With each passing year I also pare down what I need to bring with me as I travel. I don’t need a ton of clothes — I know what I can wear a couple of times and what I will need for different activities. I travel light — not as light as others — but I travel lighter than most.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I travel light because I don’t care if I have to go buy something I have at home to better enjoy my trip — I just care about traveling light. That is if I didn’t pack clothes to go do activity X, I would just go buy the clothes to do activity X while away and not worry about having failed to pack something.
I also stopped packing in rolling suitcases quite a while ago. I much prefer the MLC from Patagonia. It holds more, holds it better, and stows away in overhead bins much easier than other bags.
I was bound and determined to pack everything for a three day and two night trip away in just the Smart Alec. I honestly had no idea if everything I needed/wanted to bring would fit in the bag, but I laid it all out without concern for what would and wouldn’t fit. It all fit with room to spare, here’s what I packed (in full):
All of that fit in the Smart Alec with room to spare. I did remove the Brain Cell since my MacBook Air wasn’t accompanying me on this trip to gain some extra space. (The clothing was strategically placed to pad my iPad 2.) That is pretty surprising to me, but it was only the beginning of my surprises.
What surprised me the most was just how much I loved the modular nature of my packing with the Smart Alec. Two small bags for my toiletries (one is TSA approved for liquids, too small for everything) one Snake Charmer for all my electronic goodies and my small pouch for the often used accessories. It was truly great to just pull out a little bag of items when I needed to get something instead of digging through large pockets filled with these items.
With all this in the bag it carried surprisingly well and allowed me to keep both hands free to carry gifts and my wife’s rolling luggage when we arrived places.
Smart Alec vs. MLC
As I mentioned above my go to bag for weekend to week long trips is the Patagonia MLC. It’s large, comes with a shoulder strap and backpack straps. I always thought it was a pretty nice and compact bag to carry, but I usually also carried a messenger bag in addition to it.
Do you know how difficult it is to carry a messenger bag and a suitcase type bag when each just have one strap to go across your body?
It’s very difficult and certainly not comfortable.
The most striking difference between these two bags though is how I had to fold my clothes. In order to maximize space I had to fold my clothes into much smaller bits in order to pack them in the Smart Alec well. This isn’t a problem for underwear, jeans, t-shirts and the like — but it is a problem if you have something you want to keep wrinkle free.
In the winter this is less of a problem since most of my shirts go under sweaters, but I can imagine this becoming quite frustrating in the summer months when button down shirts aren’t hidden under the warmth of a sweater. I am not sure of what the solution here is, perhaps some type of packing cube thing.
Beyond that I can see this bag being a far better bag for weekend trips than the MLC — it is just far more compact and controllable.
I felt quite nimble.
Weekender Bag Verdict
As you can tell by now I am smitten with this bag. I think it makes for a great weekend bag just given the surprising amount of stuff that it can hold. The bonus to using this bag as your day to day bag and as a weekend getaway bag is that you need not transfer around a bunch of little times as you would if you were using two different bags.
That in itself makes this a great choice.
I had enough room left over that I felt as though I could have packed tighter and squeezed in the Brain Cell with my MacBook Air, or just tossed my Canon 5D on top of everything else that I packed — that’s a nice option to have.
I never once was uncomfortable carrying all the weight in the bag and was glad on 4-5 occasions to have both hands totally free. I highly recommend this bag for day to day usage and weekend getaway usage.
In part three of this series I will be looking at using this bag as part of a larger kit for traveling to a conference. Look for that after Macworld.
No I am not bad at math, I do the trip 6-10 times a year now. In previous years I was doing this trip every other week. ↩
I actually didn’t realize this was at the bottom of the bag until I started writing this list. It has been at the bottom for a while I gather since I tossed it in there for a potential review after getting it. ↩
I need another bag like a need a hole in the head — at least according to my wife. I have (off the top of my head) over 20 different bags at my house: from huge duffle bags to an iPad man-purse. My wife, well, isn’t too happy whenever I get a new bag. For […]
I need another bag like a need a hole in the head — at least according to my wife. I have (off the top of my head) over 20 different bags at my house: from huge duffle bags to an iPad man-purse. My wife, well, isn’t too happy whenever I get a new bag.
For the most part I am an over one shoulder bag type of guy. Since my freshman year in high school I have been using a messenger style bag of some sort — that was 1998.
I have tried just about every messenger bag out there:
Sling strap with odd strap that comes back around the other way.
Lots of pockets
Yeah I’ve been there, done that. Since ’98 there has probably only been a handful of times I can remember switching back to a backpack for everyday carrying — usually precipitated by some self-imposed need to carry more stuff — all switches were short lived.
For me the messenger style bag is the pinnacle of style. Backpacks are for kids and hiking — neither of which fit my daily routine. The other problem is that I am six feet, three inches tall so any normal sized backpack is either going to:
Not fit me.
Look ridiculously small on my back.
So I need a slightly larger bag than most and that’s not really a good thing. When Micheal Lopp recently wrote about his switch to a backpack I was immediately sold and purchased his exact setup:
This is part one and this is going to be a long series and most of you are not a big enough bag nerds to care — but those that are should get something out of this.3
In part one we are dealing with using a backpack from day to day (home to work to home) type situations and how it stacks up against messenger bags that I have used.
Before I go any further I want to talk about my reasoning for why I am ready to go back to a backpack, or why I think I am.
I am married and generally don’t give a shit anymore what people think of the way I look. The only exceptions are my Wife’s opinion and my opinion (not necessarily in that order). So the idea that only kids wear backpacks is quickly fading on me.
I love hiking and wouldn’t dream of carrying anything other than a backpack while hiking. They stay put and distribute weight well4 and I think it would be nice to bring that comfort to my daily routine.
I have had stuff fall out of my Ristretto while on a plane and in my car — that is starting to get really annoying.
I want to get rid of most of my bags and just have one bag.5 The idea of not having the mental clutter of extra bags stored somewhere in my home is incredibly appealing to me.
Lopp is right about never really having your body totally free when you are using a messenger bag — you are always striving for balance on the strap. I want very much to feel that freedom again.
So there you have it.
So why the Tom Bihn and not something awesome like the Goruck GR1? Some reasons:
The Bihn is cheaper.
Tom Bihn is local.
I have not had a bag as well designed (ergonomically) as the Ristretto and that’s just a small vertical messenger with a handful of pockets — imagine what they can do with a backpack.
I have a really good daypack for hiking — I just need a city bag and the Bihn seems more tailored for that use.
The Smart Alec seems more versatile in the ways that you can arrange it — including having no laptop pouch at all.
I went with the Tom Bihn because Tom Bihn has proven to me that their bags are great.
The first thing I had to decide was the layout for the bag. This would serve as the layout for the bag across all types of uses so I spent time thinking about this. The right side pocket of the bag (my right when I am wearing the bag) contains:
Because of my profession I have to deal with a lot of keys on a regular basis (our key cabinet at the office holds 160 keys and on any given day my already large (20+ keys) key ring needs to be supplemented with these keys, so I needed an area that I could toss loose keys in. This works perfectly. I did notice that the strap Tom Bihn provides is not long enough to reach from its location to a door if needed (this is how I stow my home and office keys). Luckily, Tom Bihn makes a double length strap that I picked up.
The pocket on the opposite side carries a little accessory bag from Tom Bihn that holds my daily essentials, which include:
I like keeping all those little bits inside an internal bag because I never have to wonder if I lost a thumb drive or if it just went in another pocket. I also carry a few more things than I did with a messenger bag because:
I have the room.
I do not notice the weight.
Internally there is a lower center pocket that I haven’t found a use for just yet. It’s an odd pocket in an odd location.
In the top internal pocket I stow:
Micro fiber cleaning cloth
I like Lopp’s idea of leaving half of this pocket open (it’s divided) for stashing a wallet/passport/watch and things of that nature while you are traveling — especially when going through security checks.
The Brain Cell locks (rather cleverly) into the backpack and secures shut with velcro on the top. I really don’t like the use of velcro here, but the security it offers is almost worth the tradeoff of the noise it produces. I have been thinking about this quite a bit since getting the bag and while I am getting more and more used to the velcro I am beginning to think about stitching in a button and clasp to shut the Brain Cell with — but I will give it a bit more time before making that move.
The Brain Cell offers a mesh pocket that is rather small and flat on the front of it. In there I stash small bits of paper like receipts and permits (usually elevator permits that I always forget to change out). I particularly like this pocket because it holds paper things flat and keeps them from getting “lost”.
Aside from what was mentioned the only items that I add before leaving the house are my MacBook Air and my iPad 2.7
In the morning when I gear up to leave I only need to toss in my MacBook Air, iPad 2, and headphones. That’s not much different from the messenger bag life style. What I have noticed is that I am still not used to zipping up a bag.
Overall there isn’t much of a difference here when I get ready to leave. My bigger fear initially was that I would end up throwing too many things in the bag that just sat in there loosely or out of place. This has actually not been as problematic as it was with the messenger bag because everything secures in its place — allowing you to immediately see what doesn’t belong.
The car toss is my morning ritual where I put my bag in the backseat of the car (fancy, I know). With all messenger bags I typically slide the bag in the footwell behind the driver’s seat. The Smart Alec doesn’t fit there (remember I am a tall guy so my seat is all the way back). Instead I toss the bag on top of the seat behind the driver’s seat.
I really mean toss here too. The protection afforded by the Brain Cell gives me no worries about the gear inside of it (I can fit my Air and iPad in the Brain Cell).
This is a huge difference from my messenger bag, becausee:
The padding was a lot thinner in the Ristretto, so I took greater care when placing it down somewhere. I was always aware with other bags that my gear could still be damaged if not properly handled.
The Ristretto was prone to having things fall out or move about the bag if not carefully rested — this is not so with the Smart Alec as everything just stays put.
I would much prefer this bag to slide behind my seat to conceal it a bit more, but I haven’t had a problem with the Smart Alec sliding about the rear seats.
About 40% of the time I loose track of the time near the end of my work day. Because of that I will often glance up at the clock and realize it is past time to go home8 and I tend to rush my packing to get out of the office.
My messenger bags were perfect for speed packing and so far the backpack has proven it is even better — much to my surprise.
One thing that I never even realized was a problem for me was the tucking of the padded flap on the Ristretto to secure my MacBook Air. The Smart Alec with Brain Cell requires you to close a velcro flap and zip the bag and it would seem like that backpack is causing more work while adding time, but in my usage the backpack is actually much easier and faster to pack up.
I think the reason behind this is that the motion for tucking is much more cumbersome than pressing down on a velcro flap. I also always made sure the tuck was all the way in and smoothly done.
I also tend to have things I need to bring home from work — a chore to do when your bag is nearly full already as with the Ristretto — are easily swallowed up in the depths of the Smart Alec.
The best part for me though: being able to check on apps while walking to my car. Before it wasn’t possible because I would be using one hand for the door and balancing the bag with the other hand/arm — yet I never noticed that I was doing this. Freeing up that arm has allowed me to sync up Twitter and the like with where they were on my MacBook Air before I left my desk.
One day I left my office with the side pocket unzipped that had pens and notebooks in it. To my surprise everything was still in its place when I got to the car. This alone made me feel a lot more secure with the backpack than my messenger bags.
Thoughts and Observations
I’ve only had the bag for about a week now and have been very self conscious about the fact that I am carrying a backpack, yet no one else seems to notice or care. I’ve asked my wife a few times if it looks too dorky — let’s just say she doesn’t think it looks any worse than any other bag I use.
The backpack is much larger than I am used to. Even when mostly empty I find that it doesn’t tuck away as discretely as my messenger bags have in the past.
I have never had a bag that I felt so confident in the security and protection of the things inside of the bag.
The zippers still feel a bit stiff to me. This is exaggerated by the waterproof coating on them and I tend to find that these types of coatings ease up over time. I am hoping that zipping the bag doesn’t require me to also hold the bag after a bit more use.
The Snake Charmer bag is much larger than expected, but should be perfect for longer trips.
Initially I bought a medium sized push for my daily essentials, but quickly realized that was much too large — I scaled back to the small.
While the elastic cord across the front may look like a silly bit of design it is actually functional. More than just being able to strap a jacket in it9 — tightening the strap will cinch up the backpack to shrink the size a bit when it is empty. This is a great little touch.
When wearing a rain jacket or synthetic down jacket the straps tend to slip around much more than I would like. However when wearing a softer texture like a sweater or shirt the straps have just the right amount of friction to them — not too “grabby”. It’s an interesting trade-off that non-rain-all-the-time folks will likely not notice.
The backpack is much lighter than I would have guessed. Many of the highly padded backpacks that I have used are too structure and heavy to be great — not the case at all with the Smart Alec as it has a nice lightweight to it.
Consensus on Daily Use
This backpack is probably the largest bag that I have carried on a regular basis in my life, yet it doesn’t feel like the biggest bag I have ever carried. The second strap (as opposed to the one strap on messenger bags) adds a lot of psychological weight to the bag and a makes the bag a bit more cumbersome to put on — something that I feel is offset by the usefulness of that second strap.
Once on this is the best bag I have ever carried on a regular basis.
Everything about the bag seems to have been designed by someone who uses backpacks. It doesn’t look professional, yet after using it I can’t help but feel bad for those hapless businessmen lugging around briefcases and messengers at the expense of their backs and balance.
On an average work week I bring my lunch two days. Those two days always necessitated an additional lunch bag with my Ristretto. With the Smart Alec I don’t even notice the extra items that I carry into the office. Same goes for those odd days that I need to bring more than one small thing home.
The size of the Smart Alec is quite obviously overkill for my day to day routine — yet I don’t notice that it is.
It’s a bag in waiting.
Deceptively bigger than you would expect — while feeling smaller than it truly is.
I’d feel uncomfortable carrying my Ristretto through Pike Place Market when I am showing guests around Seattle: it was too small to be helpful and far too open to ever feel secure in such a crowd. With the Smart Alec though it’s a no brainer: throw it on my back and go. What could be simpler?
I really like this bag. So much so that I have put up for sale almost every other bag that I own — the Ristretto is next (and I love that bag).
Thus far the Smart Alec has done the one thing that I truly hoped it would do: eliminate my need for any other bag.
In part two I will be covering using the bag for a weekend getaway and just how much you can stuff in it. Look for that some time after Christmas.
Ideally one, realistically I know that isn’t likely to happen for me. ↩
A great idea I stole from Micheal Lopp. I have a deck of the Helviticards that I keep in there.) and my current favorite hard candy. ((Lifesavers right now, I bought a mass amount from Amazon a while back and — well — I still have a few cases. ↩
Typically I do not carry a charger with me for my devices unless it is an overnight trip because I have one at my office and one at home — if you don’t have two like this I feel bad for you. ↩
If I leave too late I am in for a traffic headache ↩