Years ago in my undergraduate youth I worked in a luggage store that carried a variety of bags and suitcases ranging from cheap-and-cheerful to brands like Tumi and Hartmann. As a result, I got a pretty good appreciation to what quality could look and feel like. With my corporate discount, I purchased a Swiss Army laptop bag (the WebMaster, since discontinued)
I was very fond of that design - it was the standard three-compartment laptop bag, it had a very good laptop sleeve (with suspension cradle in bottom), an excellent strap and just about the perfect pocket layout. Unfortunately, while its layout was excellent, the implementation could not last the test of time. The stitching in high-stress areas (like the part that held the straps) failed, the hardware itself was made out of cheap pot metal --- in short, the critical load-beating features of the bag disintegrated on me.
So - a hunt for a new bag. I narrowed it down to the Tom Bihn Empire Builder briefcase and the Waterfield Cargo messenger bag. Both bags looked excellent, though I'm not the biggest fan of the messenger-bag design, and the Cargo bag is kind of pricey (a bit ironic, considering how much I paid for that Swiss Army bag!). So - I bit the bullet, and bought the Empire Builder.
Much has been said about its build quality, and I think it is excellent (though personally I like the extra-high-denier self-healing ballistic nylon used on Tumi, for example). I'm not quite a fan of the huge plastic buckle on front and am worried about how well it'll stand up. And I hope the metal hardware is made out of better metal than the cheap stuff in my previous bag. But - in general, I think it's an excellently constructed bag.
Then - to my impressions. Many comment on the enormous size, but it's actually smaller than my previous bag when it was expanded. I'm used to throwing in a ton of stuff --- full sized headphones, papers, books, who knows what. I think this'll be better for me in that it'll force me to not carry so much stuff around with me - and I had actually considered the Zephyr, but I'm getting a unibody MBP for work and I read that it might not properly fit. So - now I have to think about what to pack.
I love the exterior pockets, especially in the front. They allow quick access to any number of things. While I'm not a big fan of the messenger-style flap in front, it works ... though it is slower than just unzipping my old bag's front compartment. And the layout of the pockets and pen containers is quite good. Finally, the "wasabi" internal color really helps to make the interior much more visible. My old bag was black inside and I could indeed lose things in it.
For the meat of the storage space, there's only one main compartment, which is a little different from what I'm used to. The relocatable dividers are a nice touch, too, and I bet the Brain Cell would be an excellent companion, especially with that locking mechanism. But --- the lack of organizational pockets is really annoying me. Now, I know I could buy some bags or organizers, but my old bag had three pockets in the rear (as the laptop sleeve hooked in the center wall) and I found them exceptionally useful for organizing my cables and various things. I'm honestly a bit lost without them, and not incredibly happy about having to get something else to replace them.
But, even despite all of those issues - I like the bag. A lot. And now I'm looking at a Brain Bag ...