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  1. #1
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    Empire Builder. A short review

    I have a confession to make. I have, in the past, abused my laptop. Sure, like most people I've shouted at it when it really hasn't been the laptop's fault and sometimes I've been so engrossed that I've selfishly let its battery completely drain so it hasn't even had the power to sound a warning beep. But what I'm most ashamed about is a history of physically abuse. Now please don't condemn me, I've never hit my laptop, but I have dropped it on the floor - a number of times.

    It was usually when I was in a hurry and I put it down in its bag on a chair or table, and it stayed there for maybe 15 seconds, then ever so slowly (and often when I turned my back) it fell. For a while I suspected that my 3-year old Toshiba knew its end was near and it was trying to kill itself. I'm sure it noticed when my web browser navigated to apple.com and when I read reviews of MacBook Pros. I think it worked out that VM Ware Fusion wasn't a nuclear experiment simulation game, but would let someone run Windows XP on a MacBook. Perhaps it knew, or perhaps the real problem was that my Eagle Creek bag only pretended to have a flat bottom? I also suspect that gravity is stronger in London, especially in my kitchen, than it is elsewhere.

    With the release of Leopard I succumbed. In November I bought a new MacBook and as I carried it home on the tube (subway) I promised that I'd never abuse it in the same way that I abused the Toshiba. I would not let it fall, I'd always put the bag down safely, in fact horizontally.

    Of course the Mac's 15" widescreen is, well, wider than the Toshiba's 15" square-screen, so the MacBook only just fitted tightly into the Eagle Creek bag. By 'only just' I mean the way your feet only just go back into your shoes after a 9-hour flight; and tightly doesn't quiet describe how the titanium atoms of the MacBook had to get a little closer together each time it was squeezed into the laptop bit of the bag. Of course because it was so rigid, so almost at-one with the bag, a fall would have been fatal.

    I really liked my Eagle Creek bag, I got it at the same time as a pre-9/11 carry-on wheeled case (quiet now in the Aeronaut anti-wheels department) and they slotted together like Lord Nelson and his column - they'd been all over the place. As a consultant I tend to pack maximally so generally travel with a laptop and the associated tagliateli of cables, some technical documents, a couple of book & magazines and my Bose noise-cancelling headphones in their rigid case. I needed a new bag that would hold all of this, but also one that gave an impression of between a high-end geek and a vaguely respectable business-chap: a backpack was out (I'd already tried one of these and it didn't make the right statement).

    Reading the Internet I found Tom's bags got well reviewed and had a proper amount of protection. I like the idea of memory foam and I particularly like the fact that the bottom of the laptop is nowhere near the bottom of the bag. The messenger-style bags were out (not quite professional enough) so a briefcase: either an Empire Builder (very fitting for an Englishman) or a Zephyr. I was really attracted by the proper, flat-base so that when placed on the kitchen work-surface or a chair it wouldn't slowly fall sideways and then quickly onto the floor.

    Now this is where my real angst began. The EB or the Zephyr? I think I read every post on the forum, I studied Zasky's excellent comparative review and pictures, and for comparison even tried putting that many paperbacks into my Eagle Creek. I decided on the Zephyr, then the EB, then the Zephyr (twice) but finally ordered the EB, Brain Cell 4X, a tagliateli holder and an Absolute strap.

    Like many correspondents I found that I was under-whelmed by the size of the EB, I expected it to feel much bigger. When I filled it up with a typical load, everything was a tight fit and I was really pleased that I hadn't gone for the Zephyr. I've lived with my EB for a couple of months now and I'm still very pleased with it. Sometimes I think that I'd like it to be a bit wider, but then I remember that I have to carry it and it would be better to merely 'take less stuff'.

    So if you're debating whether a Bihn bag is worth the money I'd wholeheartedly say yes. Your laptop will love you, it looks the part and is comfortable to carry (the Absolute strap is very clever). If you're debating between the EB and the Zephyr then as Zasky commented "don't sweat it. There are no bad choices here." However if you're an IT on-the-road person and are used to carrying a lot of 'stuff' then I'd go for the EB. If you look at Zasky's book picture (Empire Builder & Zephyr: A Comparison, Part II) with that many books in it, there will be no room left in the front pocket which is were there's all that useful compartmentalised storage. I've taken a couple of pictures of my EB fully-loaded and you can see that everything fits well but there's not really space for a whole lot more. The Snake Charmer also fits quite happily in the top of the main compartment as it's so high, but you can also fit a thin fleece or a waterproof there as well.

    (for the main compartment picture I've folded the zips back)

    A couple of final thoughts. Firstly, I was worried that the rear can-be-zippered pocket would be too small to fit over the handle of my EC wheeled bag as the zipper would reduce the width: it fits fine.

    Secondly I wouldn't be surprised if my next laptop was a 17" one. Software companies seem to have taken the decision that we're all going to be working on widescreens and have built applications that use 20% of the left hand side and 20% of the right hand side of the screen for inspectors, libraries etc, leaving a small bit in the middle where the actual 'doing bit' of the application lives. I hope my EB will last more than 3 years and so I know that if I do upgrade to a 17" laptop it will fit in the same bag (albeit with a new brain cell).

    Go on, end laptop abuse, buy a bag that has a really sensible amount of protection and tends to stay where you put it.
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  2. #2
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    Outstanding review. I've been lusting after one of these for nearly a year but have been "settling" with my $40 REI bag and Incase sleeve for my MacBook Pro. Over and over I've told myself, "You can spend $2000 on a laptop but not $200 on 'protection' for it?"

    I suspect my restraint won't last much longer.

    My wife is so going to kill me...

  3. #3
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    Scott, I remember you talking to me about the Empire Builder before.

    Did your wife kill after you bought the Levenger goods?

    Mine almost did!

  4. #4
    Registered User lpotr4's Avatar
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    Question Empire Builder with Absolute Shoulder Strap

    I just recently got the Empire Builder in addition to (my workhorse) the Super Ego for days when a more corporate look was necessary. I'm just curious to see how one "sets up" their Absolute Shoulder strap on the Empire Builder. The Super Ego came with the Absolute, but later on got replaced by the Q-AM strap, now with the Empire Builder, it uses metal end clips to attach to the bag's metal loops as opposed to just threading the strap through the sewn in loops found on the SE. Can someone please be kind enough to post some photos on how to properly attach the Absolute Shoulder strap (clips, loops, strap and all) to the bag? Mine looks/feels funny (see photo below) so I'm thinking I may have it on wrong, and the photos on the TB site doesn't provide enough detail closeup for me to look at for reference. Thanks all!



    Last edited by lpotr4; 07-30-2008 at 12:46 PM. Reason: Added photos.
    Luis P.
    If it doesn't fit in your Tom Bihn bag, leave it behind

  5. #5
    TOM BIHN Crew (we work here) Darcy's Avatar
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    You've got it right. The "d-rings" on the Empire Builder are off-set to keep the center of gravity directly below one's shoulder.

    Did you put the clips on the Absolute Strap yourself or did it come with the clips?

    Maybe it's just getting used to clips vs. webbing.
    Current Carry: Founder's Briefcase (every day carry), Small Cafe Bag (every day carry), Shop Bags (groceries, extra random stuff), Aeronaut 45 (travel), Synapse 19 (day hikes), Smart Alec (longer day hikes), Skookum Dog Road Duffel (Medium) (travel), Clear Organizer Wallet, Travel Stuff Sacks, Organizer Cubes

  6. #6
    Registered User lpotr4's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darcy View Post
    You've got it right. The "d-rings" on the Empire Builder are off-set to keep the center of gravity directly below one's shoulder.

    Did you put the clips on the Absolute Strap yourself or did it come with the clips?

    Maybe it's just getting used to clips vs. webbing.
    Hi Darcy, I just put on the clips myself, which is part of the reason for my fussing... Did I have the correct way of putting it on? Can you post a pic or email me one with a detailed view of how "factory" puts it together? That's just for my own peace of my mind and to put a rest towards my a-disorder on details
    Luis P.
    If it doesn't fit in your Tom Bihn bag, leave it behind

  7. #7
    Registered User lpotr4's Avatar
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    One more thing...

    Almost forgot to mention, I have read somewhere in this forum before that there might be some additional o-rings added to the Empire Builder in the future? Does the current run of EBs only have one o-ring in it? I have several pouches just looking for an attachment point at the moment, and that one o-ring has already 4 items hooked up to it (2 lanyards , 1 small and 1 medium pouch)...
    Luis P.
    If it doesn't fit in your Tom Bihn bag, leave it behind

  8. #8
    TOM BIHN Crew (we work here) Darcy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by lpotr4 View Post
    Almost forgot to mention, I have read somewhere in this forum before that there might be some additional o-rings added to the Empire Builder in the future?
    The Empire Builder currently has four o-rings.

    Three are under the front flap: two in the open pocket and one in the zippered pocket.

    One is in the horizontal zippered pocket on the exterior of the front flap.

    We may add o-rings to the main compartment in the future.
    Current Carry: Founder's Briefcase (every day carry), Small Cafe Bag (every day carry), Shop Bags (groceries, extra random stuff), Aeronaut 45 (travel), Synapse 19 (day hikes), Smart Alec (longer day hikes), Skookum Dog Road Duffel (Medium) (travel), Clear Organizer Wallet, Travel Stuff Sacks, Organizer Cubes


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