By way of some background, I have been on the hunt for the perfect business bag for years. I've tried unstructured messenger bags, I've tried traditional leather briefcases, I've tried a fashionable but ultimately impractical Mandarina Duck attaché case, and, most recently, a soft-sided Hedgren bag. None of them were quite right, because my work bag requirements are quite picky.
I am a senior public servant in Australia. My work environment is conservative, which means I need a smart looking bag that I can happily take to meetings with Ministers and external stakeholders, and to Parliamentary committees. I also do quite a lot of work travel, although mostly without overnight stays, so I need enough internal organisation to carry a mobile office with me. And finally, the volume of paperwork and equipment I need to take with me on any given day ranges from just an iPad and notebook through to ring-binders full of briefing materials and my laptop.
In short, the problems with the earlier bags I've tried have largely been that they don't scale (up or down), and that things end up rattling around loose in a huge bag. As Rands says in his great review of the Smart Alec, you never know when you're going to need to ‘go ninja’, which in my case might involve quickly responding to a request from a Minister at short notice, perhaps out of business hours or away from the office, or writing a quick piece of advice.
Having been so impressed with both the build quality and thoughtful design of the Synapse 25, which has been my weekend/non-work bag for a few months now, I recently splashed out on a Black/Black/Wasabi Empire Builder.
While I had been researching the EB, I had found it hard to get a good handle on how big it would seem. There are dimensions on the website, of course, but they can't tell you how it's going to feel to use a bag day in, day out. There are several reviews out there that comment on how big the bag is, and others that say it's really only an average sized bag. The reality for me is that it is a hefty item, but it's in line with what you would expect for a briefcase -- it doesn't make me feel as if I'm taking an overnight bag to work, for example.
It stands up beautifully by itself, even when empty, and the handles (which really do magically fall together for easy pickup) are super-comfortable. While it can hold a remarkable amount of stuff (more than I would want to carry!), it doesn't feel too big, or unwieldy. And, of course, it's beautifully made. It has the feeling of being a bag that I'll happily be using 10 years from now.
How much does it fit?
My standard EDC packing list is:
- Leuchtturm notebook
- iPad 3
- Phone book of key contacts
- Office building pass
- Parliamentary pass
- Migraine medication
- iPhone and iPad chargers, and headphones
- Folders to manage workflow
And on a paper/travel-heavy day, it looks like the above plus:
- Ring-binder folders full of paper
- MacBook Air 11" (in TB Cache with Rails for my Synapse)
- Laptop cables and adapters in TB Snake Charmer
To give you a sense of how this can all fit into the Empire Builder, I've taken some photos of the full load, both spread out and in the bag. Apologies for the iPhone photos (and the dodgy lighting in my dining room!).
Here's an example of the full list above:
And in the bag (open):
And closed (magic!):
To be clear, though -- most days, it's nowhere near this full, which is good news for me.
Carrying the Empire Builder
Most days, I'm in a suit at work, and so carrying a bag on my shoulder doesn't work. Even at its heaviest, the Empire Builder is comfortable to carry with the handles. They're thick enough to fill your hand so the weight of a full bag is spread out, but not so bulky as to be uncomfortable.
On the days that I've carried the EB on my shoulder (using an expensive but third-party strap), I've really appreciated the one-hand access to the admin panel area -- one click to undo the clip, and then everything is reachable at just the right height. This is the sort of thoughtful design that sets Tom Bihn bags apart from their competitors -- someone has clearly thought through all these configurations and ensured that they work properly. I have a three week training course coming up where I won't be wearing suits, so I'll definitely use the shoulder strap those days.
(I should note also that I bought a pack of Tom Bihn cord pulls with the bag. Even unpacking the bag, it was obvious that the jingling of the zippers would have really got on my nerves; with the cord pulls threaded through the zips, they're practically silent.)
Given how much organisation is built into the front pocket of the Empire Builder, I was in two minds about ordering the Freudian Slip. But given how expensive shipping to Australia is, I took the plunge and added it. I'm very glad I did -- apart from providing space for more pens and stationery, the two rear pouches on the Freudian Slip provide the perfect spot for my notebook and iPad. I don't think I'll be taking it in and out of the bag often, but even just having the extra space inside the bag is great.
Good design makes me smile
In my view, a sign of good design (in any sort of product) is that it makes you smile when you recognise it. In the Empire Builder, there have been a few of these moments so far:
- Finding O-rings everywhere they're needed -- A combination of key straps and organiser pouches has put paid to the 'junk drawer' section of my old bag, where pens, cables and post-its would rattle around
- The bright wasabi inside (the only thing better would be solar)
- One-handed, eyes-free acess to things under the front flap while driving (e.g. sunglasses, security pass)
- The handles really do magically fall together so you can just pick them up and go
- How clear it is that three years of R&D really have gone into this bag
There are some things I'm yet to do with the Empire Builder -- particularly, air travel. But having spent a week with the bag now, I am confident in saying that this is a work bag I will happily be holding on to. It's built like a tank, well thought out, and gives me complete confidence that when I find myself in an unexpected and stressful situation, the bag will help me work quickly and efficiently, rather than distracting me by making me hunt around for things.
If I didn't have days when I need to carry half my office with me, a slightly smaller bag (the Zephyr, for example?) would probably have suited me well. With the EB, though, I know that on those occasions when I really do have to carry everything, I can -- I'd much rather have a bag that scales down rather than one that's just a bit too small.
I'll come back and update this review in a few months after I've had some more time with the bag. In the meantime, I hope this is helpful for people who might be considering the Empire Builder. I think I may just have found the perfect work bag.