After many years of having my budget requests for a Tom Bihn bag denied by the Household CEO, I finally got it approved and promptly ordered an Empire Builder.
Of course in my excitement, I ordered the wrong brain cell. So after a few days, I finally had my whole commuting setup, thanks to Tom Bihn's customer service crew. I am one of the few Southern Californians that do not drive into work everyday, so this will be on trains and buses a lot. Needless to say it will be carried around a lot and probably bumped into all sorts of things. So what all is it carrying?
The brain cell carries a Macbook Pro 15" (unibody). The pockets under the flap hold pens, a small ciak notebook, and clipped to one of the rings inside is my train pass inside a clear organizer pouch. The zipped compartment under the flap has some cables and usb sticks.
In the main compartment is a freudian slip in whose pockets I stash an iphone cable and my WLAN card as well as the train and bus schedules and any other paperwork I happen to be toting around that day (and have likely forgotten about). It also holds an emergency pocket radio and headlamp. In between the brain cell and the freudian slip I attempt to squeeze in as much as I can. This generally includes my lunch bag, a commuter mug and the power supply for the laptop. Today it even includes a fleece jacket.
Compared to freebie laptop bag I received when I started at this job (some Targus bag), the build quality is night and day. The back of the Targus bag was getting frayed, just from me carrying it around, and front showed all of the signs of the battles it had been in being squeezed under seats. So far, after 3 months of use, the Empire Builder looks like the day I pulled it out of the box. The Absolute Shoulder Strap is miles more comfortable than the strap on the Targus, and despite the Empire Builder/Brain Cell's additional weight, distributes it very well across my shoulder. Also, the strap never twists around and thus makes the bag easy to swing over a shoulder quickly.
The padded handles that always are leaning toward each other are easy to grasp and the padding makes the whole package easy to carry through the sometimes crowded confines of a train or bus aisle.
There are a few minor annoyances. The bag will topple over towards the flap side after I pull out the laptop and power adapter from the main compartment, so I have to move some stuff around to get the balance right when the laptop is out. Sometimes the shoulder strap will get positioned to the bottom of the bag, meaning it's not instantaneously there for me to hoist onto a shoulder. The zipper slider on the vertical flap pocket has some of its paint scraped off. I wish there was another key strap ring in the open pocket on the flap. But these are pretty minor quibbles in a very excellent bag. I know I much spend less time fiddling with it than its predecessor, and that inconspicuousness is a testament to its design. And it certainly gets me on and off transit faster than anyone hauling around a wheeled bag.
I know in a lot of reviews of the Empire Builder, people note the price as a big drawback. This (sadly) isn't the most expensive laptop bag I've purchased, and easily is designed and built far better than that one.