Trying to choose between the Empire Builder and the Zephyr? Wondering if one is too big, or the other too small, for your daily haul? Until a couple of days ago, so was I. The good folks at Tom Bihn gave me the opportunity to try both of them out--thanks, Darcy!--so I figured I'd post a few pics of the two bags side by side for anyone else who might be going back and forth between them.
On paper, the two briefcases seem like they are almost the same size. The Zephyr is 16.7"x12.4"x6.3"; the Empire Builder is 17"x12.75"x7". And viewed head on--the Empire Builder is on the left--they don't appear that much different:
But in real life, the Empire Builder is substantially larger and a bit bulkier to carry than the Zephyr. It's not an enormous difference. Both are big bags, and both will carry a lot of gear. But the difference is immediately noticeable when you pick them up. In hand, the Empire Builder feels--to me--about 1/3 larger than the Zephyr.
Looking at the front of the bags, you can see some small differences. The webbing and buckle securing the front flap is 1/2 inch wider on the Empire Builder, and the Empire's front flap zipper pockets are just a big bigger. The size difference between the two bags is more apparent when you look at them from the side (again, Empire is on the left):
And from the bottom:
As you can see, the Empire Builder is a bit longer, and deeper front to back. This is where the Empire gets most of its additional space, and it is the main reason it feels larger to carry around.
One more outside comparison, from the top:
Let's move inside to the pockets under the flap. (I didn't bother with photos of these, since they didn't capture the differences between the bags.) On the Empire Builder, the big open pocket under the flap is 13" across at its widest point, about an inch longer than on the Zephyr, and about an inch taller (10" vs. 9"). But the bigger difference is in the front-to-back depth of this pouch. The mouth of the pouch opens 4" on the Zephyr and 6" on the Empire. These extra inches give the the Empire Builder's front pocket a luxurious amount of space--enough that I can easily slip my 13" Macbook, in a neoprene sleeve, inside the pouch with room to spare, even if all of the hanging pockets are full of stuff. (I wouldn't actually carry around my laptop in the front pouch--not nearly enough protection--but it illustrates how roomy the pocket is.) The Zephyr's pocket isn't large enough for that. It isn't small--I can still fit a book, a digital camera, a small digital video camera and an iPod in there, even if the hanging pockets are full. But the Empire Builder can hold all that, and more.
The hanging pockets themselves are also just a bit smaller on the Zephyr. My wallet, for instance, easily slipped into one of the two larger pockets in the Empire Builder, with room left over for business cards. The Zephyr's pockets fit the wallet just fine, but snugly. The long zipper pocket under the open front pocket is about the same on both bags.
(To read the rest of the review, go to Part II)