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  1. #1
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    Learning to love a Smart Alec

    Let me preface this post by saying two things. Firstly, I love bags. I especially love backpacks. I've owed at least 25 of various shapes and sizes in the last 20 years. Not the fashion-oriented ones, but the serious, functional, built-for-a-purpose ones, with that purpose being hiking, climbing, urban commute, travel, etc.

    Secondly, I researched a *lot* before buying this one – read reviews, looked at photos, considered my own carrying needs in terms of travel and commuting.

    My reference bags for sizing (with manufacturers' specs) were:
    * The North Face Amira (19x13x7", 26L) – my daily commute bag, a 4-5 km round trip walk on foot with study notes, handbag, lunch, seater, umbrella, etc;
    * The North Face Sweeper (20x13x8, 30L) – my current work “clinic” bag for patient notes and assessment tools;
    * High Sierra Passport (HSP) (22x14x8.5, 40L?) - carry on bag that's survived 2 x 6 week trips to Europe and 50+ domestic flights.

    The plan was to use the Smart Alec as a less “outdoorsy”, slightly classier and water proof replacement for the Amira. The plan came a little unstuck when I opened the TB box....

    The Smart Alec is HUGE. Another reviewer here
    http://www.livedigitally.com/2005/08...-and-monolith/
    said that the photos on the TB website, and even those posted by owners elsewhere, really don't do it justice. I agree. In terms of volume, I estimate the Smart Alec is about 1.5x larger than TNF Sweeper, 2x larger than TNF Amira, and only slightly smaller than the High Sierra Passport. Now I know one should take manufacturers’ specifications largely with a grain of salt, but... wow. Wow. WOW.

    My Tom Bihn gear arrived about 10 hours before a 5 night trip to Melbourne. After a minor packing crisis brought on by the size of the Smart Alec, I decided to leave my trusty High Sierra Passport at home and travel with a Western Flyer / Smart Alec combo. The Smart Alec swallowed my clothing and personal gear - pictured here
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/2269127...l-57753561@N00
    with room to spare. At one point I stashed a wool/cashmere coat and Pacsafe Toursafe 100 handbag in there as well, and STILL managed to get the zips closed. Amazing. The Smart Alex's exterior is sleek and functional – it shed water easily during a Melbourne downpour, fit nicely into the over head lockers and didn't knock anyone out down the aeroplane aisle . The pockets – especially the zip pocket in the “lid” - are fantastic and ensure that smaller items don't get lost in the depths of the bag. The solar lining is gorgeous, the steel outer is subtle and lovely. The Smart Alec is a solid bag.

    As my daily commute bag, however, the Smart Alec is unfortunately not working as well as I'd hoped. I'm a 5'5”, 150 lb gal with a slight exaggerated lordosis (sway back). When the bag is loaded with my day gear (small handbag, 1” thick binder, 2 x A4 plastic wallets with papers, sweater, lunch, sometimes an ultra light laptop), the gear migrates to the front / bottom, which pulls the bag away from my body. The back pad “bows” out, and only makes contact with my back at the top (through the shoulder straps and down another 3” from there) and at the bottom, in a 1” ridge along the stitching that marks the transition from back pad to base. If I tighten the backpack straps, the ridge loads onto the top of the sacrum and the straps pinch my neck. If I loosen the straps, the bag sits lower and the ridge loads heavily on the bottom of the sacrum. It's very uncomfortable for me to carry. After persevering for two weeks, I've concluded that I'm just a little too short and too curvy for the bag to fit right. Which is quite unfortunate because the bag kinda rocks...

    What to do? Well... I’m a little sad that I didn’t wait for the Synapse, because 19L would be plenty big enough. But, had I waited I wouldn’t have two very nice bags in my office every day. :-)

    Anyway, the plan now is to trial the Smart Alec as my work “clinic” bag and use the Western Flyer in backpack mode for the daily commute. Should be interesting!

  2. #2
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    Hi: I wish I had seen this earlier! I just ordered my Smart Alec and I am even smaller than you. I had gone back and forth between the Synapse and the Smart Alec for over 6 months. I have the Western Flyer which I love, but I only use it for trips--mostly clothes + laptop kind of thing. I like the Smart Alec cos if I take public transport, it is not "thief friendly"--I travel to India and Europe quite a bit, and in public transport there it is often difficult with regular backpacks....zippers get niftily opened....although the zippers on TB bags are less accessible to passers by cos of the flap and neatness of it...still.
    Hmmmmmmm. I am a bit concerned about what you have said above about the back pad "bowing out." I had wondered about that--especially if the bag was not too full. I will keep this in mind. I guess i just have to wait for it to come and try it out and if it does not work return it right away without using it.
    I did not get the Synapse cos I like bungee cords to stuff jackets and such on the outside..not to mention wet umbrellas!

    Thanks for the feedback and the great pictures.

    shiva

  3. #3
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    hi notmensa, shiva,

    i haven't run into this with the smart alec, but i have a solution that might help if i'm understanding this correctly.

    i generally carry a vertical brain cell inside the smart alec, which provides a fairly rigid surface against the back side of the smart alec regardless of how full or empty the bag is otherwise.

    how are you carrying your laptop? if you're using the vertical brain cell, you may want to consider leaving it in the smart alec even when you're not carrying your laptop if your smart alec is otherwise pretty empty.

    let me know how that works out.

  4. #4
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    Maverick: Nopes: I do not have a vertical brain cell. I don't lug my laptop around that much, so I have a soft cell for it which has been more than enough for my purpose. What you are saying makes sense in terms of keeping the volume full...but it seems a lot of stuff to carry just for that....I also understand that the Smart Alec is designed for volume; so perhaps it is asking for too much to expect it to be both small and voluminous..I hope it works for me. I am looking forward to it...

  5. #5
    TOM BIHN Crew (we work here) Darcy's Avatar
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    I'm about 5'5" and 130lbs and the Smart Alec - when fully loaded for a 20 mile dayhike - fit me quite well. I don't think I could have carried another type of backpack that day... except maybe for the Synapse, but it would've been too small. I didn't experience any bowing, and this thread is the first time I've heard of anything like that. It could be that the Smart Alec just isn't a good match for you. The Synapse might work better for you, but it's hard to know for sure.
    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
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    When I used the Smart Alec as a travel bag, my clothes went in a large Western Flyer packing cube, which was then loaded it vertically against the back pad (where the Brain Cell would fit). Once I added the rest of my gear (shoes, personal items, jacket) the whole bag became more like a cylinder and felt OK. It's only when the bag is carrying papers etc - weighty but not filling out the volume - that it's an issue for me and my over-curved spine. I just haven't come up with a good solution for stabilising the load within the bag.

    I thought long and hard about the Brain Cell - it's such a fantastic concept! My laptop's in a TSA-friendly Eagle Creek Pac-It laptop bag at present.
    It only comes to work with me a few times a month at the moment, so the Vertical BC wouldn't be used that often. For most of my travel, I carry my laptop in my "personal item" bag, previously a tote bag and now the Western Flyer :-), which means it sits horizontally. So I'd need two BCs... at which point I'd seriously question why my packing needs are so complex!

  7. #7
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    maybe a freudian slip to distribute weight better?

    Hi, notmensa,

    I was reading this thread and thought that a Freudian Slip might work to distribute the papers vertically throughout your Smart Alec better. I also have a Smart Alec, and I use the Freudian Slip every time I use it for commuting. I can put papers and books in the different pockets, and the back of the backpack stays straight.

    I've also found that cinching with the elastic straps outside can help keep some items from pooling at the bottom, thus distributing the weight a little better and keeping items closer to my back (albeit making things towards the bottom more difficult to get at).

    I have also traveled with this bag, and it also fits great under the airplane seat. I'm short, so it's more convenient for me to grab things from my bag that way. (It can also be a handy footrest!)

    Good luck!
    -drpher

  8. #8
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    Hi drpher: I have ordered the vertical freudian slip...and I like this suggestion. But why should the back of the smart alec flop anyway? If I remember it from seeing at the store, it has a fairly padded back...so the back should stay straight regardless, I would think.
    Notmensa: I have had similar problems with other bags before--where when you don't have enough to FILL up the bag, everything sort of moves about inside and pools around..I guess the only thing to do is to use organizers of various kinds inside the bag when carrying a lesser load..so the freudian slip or other such might help.

    I should get it next week..will report!

  9. #9
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    Hi Shiva!

    I'm 5'5 and a bit over 200, and actually had an InCase backpack that was good, but a bit of a hassle to deal with when I traveled. Hence I got an ID with a Soft Cell. With your back, is doing an messenger bag possible for you? I went for the ID because I could insert and remove the Soft Cell as needed. It's actually about to be tested on its first business trip this weekend, but I've been carrying around my load and it's been a lot easier than the backpack.
    Meg
    -----
    Proud owner of a conifer/steel Synapse, indigo/black Swift, a linen/olive Small Cafe Bag, a couple of yarn stuff sacks, a clear organizer wallet and various organizer pouches

  10. #10
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    Hi Megs: I had seen the ID but found it too large and cumbersome for me. I prefer larger backpacks to messenger bags cos at least it is on my back---and not in my way! I do have the Imago for daily use and absolutely love it. In a pinch I am able to carry the MacBook 13inch in it--sans cover..but that is ok. Yes: removing laptop from softcell/backpack is more cumbersome, but I don't lug it around so much that it has proved a hassle. At that time, it will have to be checkpoint, or brain cell!

  11. #11
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    Notmensa,

    I've ordered an extra Synapse because I couldn't decide between Kelly/Steel and Navy/Solar (and I also have the Indigo coming for my husband and the all Dyneema for travel - yes, I ordered 4!) - it's possible I'd consider swapping one of those with you for your Smart Alec. I'm in Melbourne.

    Just another alternative possibility for you.

    Audrey

  12. #12
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    Falconea - wow!! Four Synapses! How funny. :-)

    Thanks for the suggestion. My husband will road-test the Smart Alec on our next trip to Brisbane at Christmas, so we should know by early January if he wants to keep it for himself. By then you might have made a choice between navy and kelly - or decided to keep both!

    Cheers,
    Emma.

  13. #13
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    I recently let my son borrow my Smart Alec for his 5 week trip to the Philippines. He was staying in Manila when they were hit by Typhoon Ondoy earlier this month. He and his fiancee were stuck at a Mall for a couple of hours during the worst of downpour and then they decided to try to get back to their apartment. He wrapped his laptop in a store bag inside the Smart Alec and set the bag on his head and they started walking through waist deep water. They eventually made it home although it took a couple of hours walking. He was amazed when he pulled the laptop out, that it still worked, and although the Smart Alec was soaked, the inside was only damp and the laptop unscathed. He couldn't believe it. He carried that bag every day for 5 weeks. Now I know I'll never get it back from him. That is one tough bag.

  14. #14
    I work at TOM BIHN Katy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kinsale View Post
    I recently let my son borrow my Smart Alec for his 5 week trip to the Philippines. He was staying in Manila when they were hit by Typhoon Ondoy earlier this month. He and his fiancee were stuck at a Mall for a couple of hours during the worst of downpour and then they decided to try to get back to their apartment. He wrapped his laptop in a store bag inside the Smart Alec and set the bag on his head and they started walking through waist deep water. They eventually made it home although it took a couple of hours walking. He was amazed when he pulled the laptop out, that it still worked, and although the Smart Alec was soaked, the inside was only damp and the laptop unscathed. He couldn't believe it. He carried that bag every day for 5 weeks. Now I know I'll never get it back from him. That is one tough bag.
    That is an awesome story! Good luck getting it back from him.
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  15. #15
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kinsale View Post
    I recently let my son borrow my Smart Alec for his 5 week trip to the Philippines. He was staying in Manila when they were hit by Typhoon Ondoy earlier this month. He and his fiancee were stuck at a Mall for a couple of hours during the worst of downpour and then they decided to try to get back to their apartment. He wrapped his laptop in a store bag inside the Smart Alec and set the bag on his head and they started walking through waist deep water. They eventually made it home although it took a couple of hours walking. He was amazed when he pulled the laptop out, that it still worked, and although the Smart Alec was soaked, the inside was only damp and the laptop unscathed. He couldn't believe it. He carried that bag every day for 5 weeks. Now I know I'll never get it back from him. That is one tough bag.
    You might as well put in an order for a new one today!


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