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Thread: The perfect commuting bag for a heavy laptop?

  1. #1
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    The perfect commuting bag for a heavy laptop?

    Hi All, after reading a lot of threads over the past two weeks, I figured I should join up since I can see that there will be a number of TB bags in my future , and this seems like a really friendly forum

    But firstly, I could use some advice with regards to which of the backpacks (I've tried messengers bags in the past and don't really get along with them), would be best for my daily commute - I'm currently using a Patagonia Chacabuco 32L, which is generally well designed and reasonably constructed (long time Patagonia fan, 25yrs+, but some purchases in the last few years don't appear to be as robust), but using it over the last 6 months has exposed some flaws that the TB bags seem to address.

    The shortcomings of the Patagonia are as follows:-
    Top handle is thin and uncomfortable
    Bag collapses with minimal contents
    Back of bag doesn't seem to sit very well on my back, and appears to curve inwards under the internal laptop sleeve
    The position of the smaller pockets on the outside of the main pocket opening cause it to flop forward and fold over itself when accessing the main compartment
    The backpack straps are fairly comfortable but the weight can become noticeable after 30 minutes or so

    Anyway, my daily bag contents are a Dell Latitude E6420 (approx 5lbs), Black'n'Red A4 hard sided note book, primaloft vest, kindle, 2x iPhones, pens, business cards, flash drives, compact umbrella, 750ml water bottle, and my commute starts with a 10 minute walk (or 5 minute cycle if taking the bike), 1hr train ride, 10 minute walk, 5 minute tube ride, 30 minute train ride, and a final 10 minute bus ride.

    My research narrowed it down to the Brain Bag or Synapse 25, but as I continued to read, I realised that whatever I chose may well impact upon my next choice! To add some context, I'm based in London, and fly regularly for work, (every 3 weeks or so), mostly short haul flights to Scotland and Norway, and occasionally long haul to the US, and I'd already decided that a Tri-Star or Aeronaut would be perfect to cope with these trips, although I could see an argument that both would also be appropriate

    So whilst I realise that the Brain Bag could probably cope with both the daily commute and 2-3 day trips, thus leaving me the option of an Aeronaut for the longer trips, I'm not so sure that the Synapse 25 would provide as much versatility, although I do like that it is a lower profile. As I started to look more at the Tri-Star I also considered that it could almost be the 'one' bag for everything, but I can't quite convince myself that it would be the best solution for the daily commute......and it was at this point that I realised I was descending into analysis paralysis, so decided that it would be good to get some opinions from those of you that may have already faced this problem.

    Oh, and btw, I'm male, 5'11", so the size of the backpack isn't really an issue, more the practicality and comfort.

  2. #2
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    Not to make your decision even more difficult, but have you also considered the Smart Alec? For some reason, it was the first backpack I thought of before you mentioned you were considering the Brain Bag or Synapse 25.

  3. #3
    Registered User dnarud13's Avatar
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    My first TB purchase was for a Brain Bag to carry a 9 lb laptop, its 2 lb power supply and other equipment. That was over 10 years ago and I still use that bag today (fortunately the heavy laptop is long gone). It was as comfortable as one can make 25+ lbs of gear all day. I highly recommend it.
    [2003] Brain Bag (w/Snake Charmer & 3 Monolith/Brain Cells)
    - [2010] Aeronaut (w/Absolute, 1lg/2sm Packing Cubes, Travel Tray & 3D clear cube)
    - - [2013] Co-Pilot (w/ Cache, Clear Org wallet, S.O.S., 3D Clear & mesh cubes, Passport pouch)
    - - - Small dyneema Shopbag
    - - - - Various TB stuff (organizers, straps, whistles, etc.)

  4. #4
    Registered User Yoda Sloth's Avatar
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    Welcome to the forum!

    I recently compared (bought three, returned two - very long story elsewhere on the forum) the Brain Bag, Synapse 25 and Western Flyer for carrying a load somewhat like yours (heavy laptop + iPad + Kindle + water bottle, etc.) I ended up with the Synapse and am very happy with my decision. However, a big part of that was aesthetic of the bags.

    I couldn't get everything I wanted to carry comfortably in the Western Flyer. Both the BB and the Synapse 25 will carry your load pretty easily. BB is a much bigger pack and looks it. It also has a more traditional backpack strappy feel/look to it. The Synapse is more like a sleek work of art.

    One thing I realized with the Brain Bag was that there were 3 categories of gear allocation to the bag:
    1) What would fit
    2) What I could lift onto my back
    3) What I would be willing to carry on my back for more than 20 feet

    Now I am a 5'6" female who claims no upper-body strength, so your experience may differ, but I could pack a lot more in the BB than I was willing to carry - so the extra space did not really buy me much. Also, fully loaded, the BB looks like a BIG bag. (probably because it is

    As to your specific requirements - the BB has a nice padded grab loop on top of the bag, the Synapse has just a normal un-padded webbing loop. Also, the water bottle carry is very different in the two bags (neither is "better", they are just different). They Synapse has an internal, perfectly centered pocket for water bottles. The BB will let you strap into a spot on the outside (my water bottle wasn't the right size for this to work), or you can put it inside one of the two side front pockets. Both bags hold their shape pretty well - even when empty. With fully loaded front pockets, I still did not have any issues with the Synapse flopping forward. (the BB was so large, I never got its front pockets full...)

    I found both comfortable to carry at about 15-20 pounds. The BB has a slightly wider waist strap (if that matters to you), but I was able to get a lot of the weight to ride on my hips with both bags. Both have adjustable sternum straps.

    I also tried putting all my stuff in the TriStar - but it just looked like a suitcase to me in the end, so couldn't do it for any kind of daily carry.

    I found the pocket configuration on the front of the Synapse to be fantastic - seems to be arranged just right to carry and amazing amount of stuff - and keeps the load well distributed.

    Others will recommend all kinds of things - but I vote for the Synapse, and then get the TriStar for clothes/etc. for your longer trips.

  5. #5
    Volunteer Moderator tpnl's Avatar
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    Hello and welcome

    There is a recent user review that might be helpful for you - in the section "Questions about bags or accessories", there is a post titled - "Time to invest in a new EDC bag" where the person Sandman reviews the Brain Bag, Smart Alec and Synapse 25 in order to make his decision.

    I am also 5' 11" and I am wide shouldered. I have a Brain Bag and a Smart Alec but not a Synapse 25. I carry a similar load - 15.6" laptop (sometimes 2) and all the adaptors/power supplies as well as compact umbrella, lunch, thermos mug, first aid kit, solar power pack, tools, business cards, business files, pens and compact camera.

    I find that the Brain Bag is my go to bag if I need a backpack to carry anything any way I want and is my go to bag. Absolutely, you can overfill it and cause it to be too heavy and bulky. But I like to have the option to do this in a pinch and the thicker waist strap make it much easier to hold a heavy load than the other bags. The handle is also very well padded and will not tire your hand carrying a heavy load. Also, the BB shoulder straps are about a 1/2" to 1" further apart than the Smart Alec (and Synapse 25 I would guess as both Synapse 25 and Smart Alec are about the same volume) at the top making it easier for a wide shouldered person like myself to carry and to put on/take off. Also, with the new fabric options - parapack on top and 1050d Ballistic Nylon on the bottom, the Brain Bag is one durable backpack that has a smooth sheen and look (as opposed to the Cordura, more canvas/cotton look which is good but not as professional IMO). Oh - and the Brain Bag, when not full, can be packed to be low-profile (the side compression strap help with this). I uploaded a picture of this in another thread - Under-packing the Brain Bag for ultra-light travel. How does it perform?.

    I tried the Smart Alec and initially did not like it as much. It is hard to pack and keep the bag looking good - if you do not watch it, you will get a very lumpy bag. However, there are two things that made me love it - one is that if you do pack it well, you have a very sleek, smooth, tapered backpack with no zipper pulls, straps, etc to mar the look. Also, the 1050d ballistic nylon centre piece really puts a nice accent to the bag. The other thing is that it can carry fairly big, boxy, square items while the BB and the Synapse 25 (I believe) cannot. It saved the day when I was able to fit a small subwoofer in it for a team event. So it could do one thing that the Brain Bag could not!

    I like the Synapse 25 - great organization. I will not comment on it as much as I have never seen or used one in person. But, it gets rave reviews on the forum (as do the other 2). It is sleek (but not as sleek as the Smart Alec IMO). I initially thought that the slightly longer length (20" vs 18" for the Brain Bag) would look better. However, after seeing a few people with it on - e.g. First Look: Tom Bihn Synapse 25 | Loaded PocketzLoaded Pocketz , I felt that the combination of tear drop shape and wide shoulders was not for me - more for a thinner person (which I am definitely not ). Also, the tear drop shape would limit the size of items I could pack (note that the Synapse 25 cannot carry as large a laptop as either the Smart Alec or Brain Bag). It is this last point that is really stopping me from getting this bag as I have a 15.6" laptop - that and the carry handle not being padded (hard to carry a heavy load this way).

    That's my 2 cents - but, in the end, I do not think you can go wrong with any of them. The differences are minor at best IMO and it really comes down to your "shape", what laptop will fit and what you feel looks good.

    Hope this helps

    Cheers!
    Last edited by tpnl; 01-18-2014 at 06:43 AM.

  6. #6
    Registered User Ms. Ferret's Avatar
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    I'd recommend either the Smart Alec or the Brain Bag over the Synapse 25, because both of these will accommodate a vertical TB Brain Cell to protect your work machine (size 4 has worked pretty well for the last three Dell laptops I've been issued, one of which was an E6420). At your height either one should work (they are both a bit long for me at 5'0").

    I have a longish daily commute involving hauling my laptop while walking/riding on public transportation as well, and I've done multi-week one-bag trips with the Aeronaut, Brain Bag, Smart Alec, Western Flyer, and Synapse 19 before. For your usage (non-car daily commuting and various shortish trips) I'd suggest the Brain Bag:

    • At 36L, the Brain Bag has more internal capacity than the Smart Alec (or the Tri-Star, apparently! ).
    • IMO the dedicated backpacks are more comfortable to carry for long distances than the convertible bags with backpack straps.
    • Compression straps -- for daily use you can cinch the Brain Bag down to a flat, more "crowded commute"-friendly size if you aren't carrying much.
    • The external mesh pocket/water bottle pocket of the BB could be handy for your water bottle or wet umbrella, since you probably don't want to have these anywhere near your computer and books.
    • The dual main compartments in the BB mean that you would need fewer additional organizational tools to separate, say, your work items/books/electronics from your clothing items on a trip.
    tpnl likes this.

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    Thanks for the hugely detailed responses, and whilst I spent the last couple of days seriously considering the Smart Alec (loaded pocketz reviews nearly convinced me), ultimately I think that the Brain Bag addresses my needs better, at least at the moment. I think what really swung it was that it's primarily configured for laptop carry, and the volume can be adjusted with the side compression straps, (something that strikes me as an odd mission on the SA). On the downside, I think it's a shame that you can't have the same range of brighter inner linings in the BB, but I'm sure I can live with the Steel.

    Looking to order at the end of the month, hopefully more stock will be available then, and since I'm in the UK and will be facing the inevitable import duty and 'handling costs', I want to make sure that I add all the accessories that are considered worthwhile - at this point my list is a vertical brain cell, Freudian Slip and snake charmer, so I'd welcome any further recommendations

  8. #8
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    Well, I wrote a post this morning thanking you all for the great advice, but somehow it disappeared, so I'm hoping this one is more successful

    Whilst I was nearly swayed by the Smart Alec recommendations (including the very informative loaded pocketz review), the Brain Bag seems to address more of my requirements, and is more obviously designed to carry a laptop. The compression straps issue is interesting since I'm so used to having them on the packs that I've bought, that it's quite surprising that they're not present on the SA, and that factored into my decision......only minor gripe is that it would be nice to have the option of brighter interior lining for the BB

    Since I'm UK based and will be facing import duty and assorted charges, I'm keen to add as many of the essential/useful accessories to this order, so would welcome any recommendations. I've already decided that a vertical brain cell, Freudian slip and snake charmer should be on the list, but what else?

  9. #9
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    Many thanks for the very detailed responses, and I've tried to respond to this thread twice (on tapatalk), but for some reason they didn't post - I did wonder if it was something to do with the fact that I'm new, but having just submitted another thread (I'm on Safari at the moment), that seemed to be accepted without a problem......maybe it's just a tapatalk issue?

    Anyway, I was pretty much all set for the BB after having read through your comments, but in the last day I've come to realise that maybe the SA would actually suit my needs better - I was concerned that it didn't have the side compression straps, and that it might be a bit of a faff to dig around inside the main compartment for stuff, but after reading a load more reviews, I'm convinced that it would work! The big question now is what colour, and what accessories!!

    Since it'll be predominantly my work bag, the all black exterior is my top pick, but I could be swayed by the black/cardinal if there is a possibility that it will return (I've posted a separate thread to ask that), with either the wasabi or solar interior, and since I would also opt for both modular pockets, my current thinking is that the upper pocket would look good in either the black (to blend in) or the steel (for contrast), whilst the lower pocket could be the same, or opposite....or, I'm even considering the nordic dyneema for a bright splash of colour, purely on the basis that the lower pocket would really only get used for outside work activities.

    As for the other accessories, my definites list so far is brain cell, snake charmer, glowire (for when I'm cycling), the additional gatekeeper straps (to provide additional flexibility), and the red guardian rear light, but I could really use some advice as to the options for the different packing cubes, stuff sacks and organiser pouches.

    For example,
    Work - if I wanted to carry a spare set of clothes (shirts, pants, socks) and toiletries for a 1/2 night trip, what would be the right size mesh bag to fit this into the SA
    Play - if I wanted to carry my climbing gear to the crag or wall, which of the bags would be best to store my shorts and vest, climbing shoes (which tend to smell a bit after a session), chalk bag and harness? Think I should be able to stash the rope on the outside using the gatekeeper straps.

    I'm UK based, so planning to buy all that I need in a single hit since shipping is relatively costly.....I know that I'm probably kidding myself and that further TB products will follow (already considering whether the Tri-Star or the Aeronaut would be best for week long trips, so I'm clearly acquiring the correct mindset to be here )

    If anyone has pictures that show the SA in the various colour schemes that I mentioned, in particular with the modular bags, I'd appreciate if you could post them to give me a better idea of how it might look.

    Can any other UK folk advise how long shipping takes, and what sort of import/handling costs were incurred?

    Thanks all

  10. #10
    Registered User UK-Limey's Avatar
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    Hi from a fellow Brit. My bag order took less than a week to arrive. Great tracking on the UPS website.
    Use Import duty & taxes made easy | DutyCalculator to work out the UK import duty & VAT.
    Don't forget the $45 shipping charge.

  11. #11
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    it might be a bit of a faff


  12. #12
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    Quote Originally Posted by UK-Limey View Post
    Hi from a fellow Brit. My bag order took less than a week to arrive. Great tracking on the UPS website.
    Use Import duty & taxes made easy | DutyCalculator to work out the UK import duty & VAT.
    Don't forget the $45 shipping charge.
    Thanks for the link, just ran the numbers and for $700 order (with $100 insurance) it's 113 for import duty and VAT, but if I add insurance to cover the value, the cost rises to 203!!

    Was this similar to what you paid?

  13. #13
    Registered User UK-Limey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by tmg68 View Post
    Thanks for the link, just ran the numbers and for $700 order (with $100 insurance) it's 113 for import duty and VAT, but if I add insurance to cover the value, the cost rises to 203!!

    Was this similar to what you paid?
    Sounds about right but I did not bother with the insurance. UPS have always delivered stuff to me without any problems.

  14. #14
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    For what it's worth, my Synapse 25 can fit my 17" gaming laptop. I love it cos everything's already so darn heavy, this doesn't add much weight at all.

    I am still looking at a brain bag cos it looks so nice, though Somehow though weight distribution is also important. My Synapse 25 and Smart Alec are the same weight, but the S25 feels lighter cos it's closer to the body.

    I fly every week for work (3-4 days each week is spent overseas), and the S25 so far has been the perfect EDC bag for those purposes (all my electronics- eg. MP3 player, iPad Air, Laptop, chargers, leisure book, documents, and so on). My clothes/shoes go in another bigger handcarry.


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