Tom Bihn Empire Builder Bag Review

by Maelwys Reads (15,557)

With the purchase of my brand new Dell XPS M1330, I naturally needed a bag to put it in. First and foremost, because I have been a long time messenger bag user and prefer that style, it was my primary requirement. After that, I wanted something that would not only protect my laptop through sturdy construction and generous padding, but that would also be appropriate when matched with either street or business clothing. After many comparisons and many adjustments to my budget, I finally settled on the Empire Builder and Brain Cell from Tom Bihn.

The Empire Builder

My first impression of the bag, even before opening the box, was that it was strangely small in size. After reading about how cavernous this bag was, I had expectations of something truly gigantic in proportions. But the Empire Builder box was modest in size, and the bag itself, at first glance, seemed merely average. So naturally, the first thing I had to do was see if it would hold all my stuff. In addition to the laptop that holds my academic life in its electronic hands, I usually have 1 to 2 binders of papers, a textbook, my planners, and various and sundry other items that I need for school and travel. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but it sure does weigh like a lot. On average, I carry about 20 lbs (9 kg) around with me daily, and this is what I used to test the bag out over the past two weeks. Of note, the Empire Builder, Brain Cell, and Absolute Strap weigh 4.5 lbs when empty, so my actual shoulder weight was around 25 lbs most days.


All of this needs to fit in there. (view large image)


The main compartment with Brain Cell installed. The inside color is wasabi – it really stands out against the black shell. (view large image)


The Empire Builder and Brain Cell, side by side. Note that they both stand on their own. (view large image)

My first lesson about the Empire Builder is that it’s only deceptively small. It swallowed all I had to offer without so much as a hiccup, and without the Brain Cell, I could probably double the number of books it holds. I have to say that this impressed me quite a lot – the bag doesn’t look so large on the outside, but inside it has plenty of room to spare. This says a lot about the size and number of pockets available. The main compartment is where most things will go, and measures roughly 16” x 12” x 7” (L x W x D). The Size 4 Brain Cell takes up about 2” of this depth on one side, leaving you with 5” remaining for most of your goodies. Tom Bihn also provides three sliding file dividers for use in this space but, since I was toting mostly books, I opted not to use them. Thankfully they are very easy to remove and install. Of note, the bag is sturdy enough that it can stand up on its own, something I am inordinately pleased about.


The front flap. Notice the large buckle – it’s extremely secure. The zipper on the left side of the front flap is covered in a rubberized material meant to keep liquid out. (view large image)


With the flap up, the secondary compartment is exposed, complete with small pockets. (view large image)

The front of the bag has a large flap that is roughly the same dimensions as the bag itself. On the outside of this flap are three pockets – the two zippered pockets are 4” x 6” and 7” x 7”; the other has no closure and measures roughly 5” x 8”. All three of these pockets are meant for thin items, and I found them best suited to hold my iPod, cell phone, and any papers that I needed access to quickly (passport and tickets for example). Underneath this flap are two more pockets, or more appropriately 1 pocket and 1 secondary storage compartment. The second storage area is fairly standard – a deep pocket measuring 14” x 12” with a series of small internal expandable pouches meant for electronics or small items, pens and pencils, and possibly business cards. I used the main area of this compartment for my journals and my daily planner – it won’t really hold anything much thicker than an inch or so unless the center compartment isn’t full. Outside of this compartment is the additional pocket that I mentioned before. It measures 13” x 8” and might be useful to hold papers – it’s not really designed for anything of substantial depth. The whole flap closes with a sizeable quick release buckle that is extremely solid and very easily adjustable.


The back of the bag is fairly simple. Note the center pocket and the zipper at the bottom. This allows the Empire Builder to piggyback on the handle of a rolling case. (view large image)

Finally, on the back of the bag are another few pockets, 4 in total. The largest of these is open, and almost the same size as the bag, 16” x 11”. Of the other three (4” x 6”, 8” x 6”, 4” x 6”), the most interesting pocket is the center one. It has a zipper at the bottom so it can be opened and turned into a sleeve which can be placed over a rolling luggage handle. This is a fantastic innovation that allows the bag to be added to your rolling case when in an airport or traveling. Of course, all four of these pouches are thin, and can only really be used with papers, file folders, or thin notebooks.

On the subject of construction, this is another area where the Empire Builder truly shines. The bag is impeccably constructed with tight seams and very sturdy stitching. Both the nylon and Cordura materials have a great feel to them and I think they would take a lot to rip or tear through. Each of the three main zippers is of the heavy duty metal kind and is uncoated, so they do jingle about when walking. But as a tradeoff, they’re so sturdy that under normal usage there’s no fear of these things breaking off at any point before the end of time. Additionally, all of the exposed zippers are covered in a rubbery material that lies flat when the zipper is closed. This has the effect of making the zipper seams highly water resistant (although not water proof). In terms of spill resistance, Tom Bihn has coated the entire bag with a water resistant coating that is designed to keep general wetness at bay. I actually had the opportunity to test this particular feature of the bag, being caught outside in an unexpected downpour. The bag itself performed wonderfully – nothing in the main compartment got wet even though the outside was soaked. However, the front flap compartments didn’t faire as well. Due to the large size of each zipper, they can’t close as tightly as one might like, so water does seep in at the small gap where the zipper stops. This presents a problem for the main compartment as well if the two zippers meet on top, underneath the handles. One solution to this minor problem might be to have the zippers close underneath a flap, so there is no exposed gap for water to get into. Additionally, the open pocket on the outside acted like a water collector – the 5 business cards I had stored in there were soaked almost immediately. This isn’t really a negative point for the bag, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re out in the rain.


The handles have foam cores and are, like everything else on this bag, extremely sturdy and well made. (view large image)

A pair of carrying handles are also sewn into the top of the bag, allowing it to be carried like a briefcase if need be. I found this addition to be invaluable when I was wearing a business suit and wanted to maintain a professional look. The handles themselves are very soft and well made, with a foam core that is rather comfortable. However, when carrying a heavy load as I do, they started to hurt my hands after a short while. Perhaps some way to capture both handles in one via a nylon / Velcro sleeve would be beneficial.

The Brain Cell

I want to take this moment to look at the Brain Cell by itself, instead of lumping it in entirely with the Empire Builder. It’s easy to think of the two separate bags as one entity, especially since Tom Bihn provides a set of clips that hold the Brain Cell firmly in place against the inside wall of the Empire Builder’s main compartment. These clips are somewhat difficult to open, at least when new, but they do allow you to take the Brain Cell out of the bag for use by itself.

Standing apart, the Brain Cell really does provide some amazing protection for your laptop. The bag has an internal hard plastic skeleton which lends enough support for it to stand on its own. Your laptop is cradled inside the bag in soft foam padding which has an elastic suspension feel to it. All in all, the laptop gets roughly half an inch of hard and soft protection on all sides, keeping it safe and sound at all times. In addition, a large stretchy pocket is on one side of the bag, allowing you to store your laptop power cable, mouse, and various other items if you need to, although this does make the bag fairly bulgy due to the hard sides. Two very solid snaps keep the pocket secure at the top though, so there’s no danger of anything falling out. The Brain Cell also has two minimalist nylon handles, which, while very sturdily attached, don’t seem like they would be comfortable to hold for a long period of time. Also, there is a Velcro-like closure at the top which is great when the bag is inside something else as it allows noisy but quick access to your laptop. This could be seen as a drawback when using the Brain Cell by itself, especially in terms of water resistance. Finally, there are two attachment points on either side of the bag for use with a shoulder strap, a very thoughtful addition for those who want to carry it by itself.

In terms of size, I ordered the #4 Brain Cell for my XPS M1330, which was recommended by Tom Bihn’s sizing chart at the time. Checking recently however, they have since added a 6T Brain Cell for the 1330. There’s not much point in going into the dimensions of them both since everyone will have different needs, but this does illustrate one point that I’d like to make about the Brain Cell: pay special attention to its depth when mating it with a bag. The 6T Brain Cell has more padding, making it a better stand-alone bag, but that extra padding means added depth. By itself, the extra padding might be welcome, especially to protect a more fragile laptop like the XPS M1330. However, if you’re buying a Brain Cell to go inside a bag such as the Empire Builder, the extra padding might not be as useful as the extra space.

The Absolute Shoulder Strap

In addition to the Empire Builder and Brain Cell, I also purchased Tom Bihn’s Absolute Shoulder Strap. The Absolute has a bit more engineering put into it than one would expect to find on your typical strap. The attachment hardware is made from some very solid feeling lightweight metal, and the attachment points on the bag seem, as with everything else, quite sturdy. I do have a slight problem with where the attachment points are placed on the bag however – diagonally, front to back. On the plus side, this allows the main compartment to open wide without having a strap in the way, but it makes the bag difficult to wear across your back (i.e. when running for the bus, having the bag slung across your back). Also, having the strap attach on the front of the bag can occasionally interfere with opening the front flap.


The Absolute Shoulder Strap attached to the Empire Builder. Note where the connection points are: front and back. (view large image)


It doesn’t look like much, but that’s the grippy side of the strap. Heavy duty metal clips are the status quo for Tom Bihn. (view large image)

The strap itself has a very impressive adjustment range, from 20” to 52”, so it can be set to just about anywhere you like very easily, and even adjusted on the fly. What sets this strap apart however, is the shoulder pad. One side of the pad is covered in a rubberized non-slip material that grips amazingly well – almost too well in some cases. Additionally, the entire shoulder pad area is elastic, meaning that it will flex and bounce (like a shock absorber) as you walk, taking some of the strain off your shoulder. Comparatively, I would say that this shock absorbing property does make the load seem lighter at times, and when wearing normal street clothing the strap doesn’t slip an inch. As a matter of fact, due to the non-slip nature of the pad and the bouncing motion, the strap at times seems to grab on to your shoulder and tighten. This can be a tad bit uncomfortable if you are, as I am, carrying a pretty heavy load of stuff but for the most part it just makes everything feel good and secure. There are a few downsides to this however. First, when wearing something like a business suit or jacket, the flexing motion of the pad causes the bag to slide downwards, either because it can’t grip well on a loose surface or because it pulls the loose material down with it. Every time I wore a suit with the strap, I found myself constantly pulling the shoulder strap up because it would slip slowly off my shoulder. Another problem I found with the shoulder strap is that, when running, the elasticity is actually something of a drawback – the strap starts flexing enough to throw you off balance. Both of these effects would likely be mitigated by simply carrying less stuff, but since that’s not an option all the time, it’s worth noting.


Me and my Tom Bihn Empire Builder. The bag is much more photogenic than I am naturally. This should hopefully give some scale though – I’m exactly 6’ tall. (view large image)

Conclusion

All in all, the Empire Builder is an extremely well made bag that really does fit all of my needs perfectly. The Brain Cell provides amazingly good protection for my laptop, and the bag itself is so well made that I fully anticipate it lasting a long time through my schooling and travels. On Tom Bihn’s website, they say that this bag took three years to design and I don’t doubt it – the amount of thought and effort is readily apparent. That’s not to say that this bag will appeal to everyone, especially those who are looking for a more traditional messenger bag. But for those of us who need something reminiscent of a messenger that works equally well on campus or at a meeting with the CEO, the Tom Bihn Empire Builder is should be at the top of your list.

Pros:

  • Deceptively small in size – this bag really does hold a lot of stuff.
  • The bag is sturdy and stands very well on its own.
  • Construction is impeccable and should last a good long time.
  • The material of the bag itself is highly water resistant.
  • The Brain Cell provides outstanding protection for your laptop.

Cons:

  • Jingly zippers; closure isn’t perfect and can let water in.
  • Main compartment could be just an inch deeper to offset the Brain Cell’s depth.
  • Many of the outer pockets can hold papers, but not much more.
  • The Brain Cell, if used alone, has uncomfortable handles and limited usability.
  • The Absolute Shoulder Strap can slip with loose clothes; flexes too much when running, especially when coupled with a heavy load.


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