My Empire Builder review
Over a year ago, I saw a blog post (sorry, don't remember where or I'd give credit) where the author raved about his new Empire builder bag. I wasn't in the market at the time, but the "Empire Builder" name stuck to a brain cell (no pun intended) and got filed away for future use. Lucky me.
For the past 7 or 8 years, I had been using a laptop bag that was given to me as a Christmas bonus from a dot-com company I worked for long ago. It was extremely well-built, had a good form factor, and proudly displayed the logo of the (now long-defunct) company on the front. After 8 years of daily use, it was time to retire it.
But finding a replacement was no easy chore. I'm pretty picky about these kinds of things, and finding the right bag was made more difficult by changes in what I demanded of it. While the previous bag served most of its duty shuffling my laptop and other stuff between home and work, my job now requires much more travel. That means more stuff to carry, more abuse, and more times when the bag has to be juggled with another one. While the old one was adequate, it was by no means a good long-term solution.
So I started looking around for a new one. I started with the usual local places: the luggage store at the mall, the various computer/office supply stores, and places like Target. Nobody had anything really compelling, and I wasn't interested in paying a lot of money for something poorly-made with a designer label on it. Needless to say, I didn't have much luck.
It was about that time that my memory shook loose the name, "Empire Builder," so I did a Google search and quickly found the Tom Bihn site. As I imagine a lot of people do, I quickly got confused by the number of choices available to me. I came looking for an Empire Builder, and after about a half-hour, had decided that I needed to choose between about 5 different bag styles.
In the end, it was a pretty easy choice. I carry a LOT of stuff with me when I travel, and need a bag that will hold it all without looking like it's going to explode. The huge interior space of the Empire Builder was exactly what I was looking for.
So I ordered one in Black/Crimson/Steel and pitched in for the Absolute Shoulder Strap too. Less than a week later, I had my new bag.
And what a bag it is! I wasn't sure I was going to like the crimson panel on the front of the bag, but it's really nice. It's different without being tacky, and shows off the pockets and zippers. Like many other people have mentioned, it just doesn't look that big when it's all closed up. It's not tiny by any stretch, but from the front it looks about the same size as a briefcase or "normal" laptop bag.
The workmanship is top-notch, too. The material quality and rugged zippers, fasteners, etc really show that this is a long-term investment. I fully expect to get 10 or more years from this bag.
Inside the main compartment is an unbelievably huge amount of room. Even just looking into the bag doesn't fully convey how much it will hold. Filling it up is also easy due to the way it opens - it's made to stay upright and opens wide from the top without flopping all the way open. There's just the right amount of structural support to keep its shape without being stiff or restrictive. It's not a big deal to just stand it on the desk and start throwing things into it.
The Empire Builder comes with 3 file dividers, which work really well for organizing paperwork and dividing up the interior space. I didn't buy a brain cell, since I often carry 2 laptops and don't own either one. I figure this ends up saving some room in the bag, but not a significant amount. The attachment points are easy to reach and make a lot of sense. If I ever start transporting my personal laptop in this bag, I'll go buy the Brain Cell...but I really don't care about the work-provided ones enough to spend money on them. Instead, I use the dividers to keep laptops on one side, paperwork in the middle and cords/junk on the other side. It's not the most organized approach, but it works well enough for me. Tom Bihn sells a lot of helpful containers and the like for people who want them, so you're sure to find the right combo for your special brand of anal-retentiveness.
The front flap has 2 zippered pockets and one open pocket. the open one is perfect for holding boarding passes, while the other ones are good places for passports, sunglasses, and other things you might want to retrieve quickly.
Under the flap are two more big pockets (one zippered, one not) and a really useful organizer. There's also a key hook, which I use for my bundle of RSA tokens. It's really nice to be able to grab these without digging in the bag or keeping them with my keys.
The back side has two more big pockets, one with a zipper on the bottom. Unzip this and slide it over the handle of a roller bag and you're all set. It's an elegant solution to a problem I didn't know I had, and I'm very happy with it now.
In the past 2 months, I've taken this bag overseas twice and on a few cross-country trips. I usually need to take 2 laptops, and tend to pack a lot of other stuff for the long flights - books, a PSP, IPod, etc. And lots of cables. I just got back from a trip and took this picture (sorry for the quality - low light+iPhone=crummy pictures):
As you can see, that's a lot of stuff to cram in one bag. If I'm going overseas, there's also a change of clothes in there. And even with all of this stuff, the bag doesn't look over-packed or distended. It just takes everything in stride.
Of course, all of this makes for a heavy bag. With all of this and the clothes, it comes out to about 25 Lbs. And that's where the Absolute Shoulder strap really shines. It stretches just enough to keep the jarring and shocking to a minimum. When using a normal strap, you'll notice how a bag really pulls on your shoulder while you walk. This strap absorbs those shocks so the bag doesn't feel as heavy. It's a simple solution, but is implemented very well here. The grippy side keeps the strap from sliding off of your shoulder (another common annoyance with other straps) and it adjusts to suit just about anybody.
This is really a great bag for road warriors. I can't think of anything I'd change, and I'm still constantly surprised by how well it's designed for this purpose. I'm certainly a Tom Bihn convert now, and definitely have an Aeronaut in my future. I'm sure I'll be back for more.
I also have the Empire Builder and also found it really heavy with all the gear that I carry. When I had to start carrying two laptops, it was just too much, so I switched to Brain Bag which is capable of carrying 2 laptops and all the junk that goes with them.
I use the Empire Builder for day to day and when I travel I switch to the Brain Bag.