Tom Bihn “Brain Bag” Laptop Bag Review

Tom bihn brain bagFrom the day you started Kindergarten and your mom handed you a sickeningly cute backpack, a rite of passage for starting school, to slogging around campus as a grad student some 20-years later, a backpack has been with you.  You’ve had ugly backpacks, black backpacks, backpacks with your initials on, Jansport backpacks, LL Bean backpacks, leather bottom backpacks, backpacks that you carried so long you may have shed a tear the day you had to eventually retire it.  Backpacks can become a part of us when we carry them long enough, and that’s the point, they should last long enough that they become like an old friend.  Not all do, but Tom Bihn, a Seattle based designer and maker of some of the toughest and coolest looking bags in the world is in the business of making bags that become your friend and can stay with you throughout your years in school (which can be a lot of years nowadays).

Today we review the Tom Bihn Brain Bag.  It’s a big bag, but that’s the point, students have to carry a lot of stuff sometimes.  Textbooks, laptops, water bottle, lunch, extra clothing, chargers, snacks, loose papers, iPod, iPad, headphones, keys, gym shoes, pens, pencils, id cards, ad infinitum it seems.  Point being, we’re needy people these days and then classes demand that you carry certain things (how dare they) in the form of textbooks that tend to be very, very big and heavy and so you either jam everything so tightly into a small bag that stuff crumples and breaks or get a luxuriously large backpack and carry everything with ease.  I recommend the latter.  The Tom Bihn Brain Bag was designed by folks that love the outdoors, so naturally the bag is also water resistant.  And since the people that designed it love the outdoors and go hiking often, they understand the notion of carrying lots and lots of stuff and the best way to design a bag that fits things in an organized and efficient manner.

Tom Bihn Brain Bag Overview

First let’s cover the specs for the Brain Bag:

  • Material: 1000 denier Cordura® lined with 500 denier Cordura
  • Dimensions: 18″ x 14″ x 9″ / 450 x 350 x 230mm
  • Volume: 36 liters (2200 cu. in.)
  • Weight: 3lbs / 1.3 KG
  • Zippers: #10 YKK® zippers on main compartment and #8 YKK® zippers on pockets.
  • Straps: 1/2″ padded backpack straps with removable 1″ sternum and 2″ waist straps.
  • Colors Available: Navy Blue, Black, Olive, Steel, Crimson, Camouflage
  • Made in the TOM BIHN Factory in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A

In case you’re curious to see how a Tom Bihn Brain bag is packaged and delivered, here’s a picture of the large box mine arrived in (shipping label is obscured to prevent stalkers) and then the contents when opened:

tom bihn brain bag box in the tom bihn box

As you can tell, there’s more than just the Brain Bag in there, in fact it’s buried in its own accessories, so here’s a rundown of each item in the box:

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Tom Bihn Vertical Cache, designed to fit the iPad 2.  Nothing fancy about it – no hooks, straps or zippers.  Simply designed to protect.
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Tom Bihn Clear Quarter Packing Case, good at storing snacks or cables and gadgets and making them easy to see still
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The Snake Charmer, two compartments in this mesh pouch make it perfect for storing cables and keeping them tamed.
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Tom Bihn padded organizer pouch, good for digital cameras and other small gadgets.
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Horizontal Brain Cell laptop protection case designed to hook inside and rest suspended in the Brain Bag
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Freudian Slip, designed to organize papers, folders, pens and pencils and slip in and out of the Brain bag

And of course the star of the show, the Brain Bag itself:

Tom Bihn Brain Bag Review

Tom Bihn Brain Bag Compartments

Brain Bag Main CompartmentThe Brain Bag has two main compartments and then three external pockets on the front.  The main compartment is huge and where you would put your laptop, at 18-inches tall and over 12-inches wide you can actually fit a 17-inch MacBook Pro in here.  And I don’t just mean fit it inside unprotected (not recommended as the compartments aren’t padded on their own), if you purchase the Tom Bihn Vertical Brain Cell Size 1 the Apple MBP 17-inch will fit snugly protected in that and then hook inside the main compartment.  As it is, I carry a much smaller 12-inch screen Lenovo ThinkPad X220 and it’s swallowed up in the main compartment.  No worries though, thanks to the Horizontal Brain Cell that shipped with this bag it easily hooks in and can be reached without having to dig down into the bag.  Another advantage of the hooks and keeping the laptop suspended is that if you drop the bag the laptop does not hit the ground, just your books.  While you could use a protective laptop sleeve from other brands, Tom Bihn’s Brain Cell is best as it uses soft foam padding inside, hard corrugated plastic outside and then has the built in clips to fit inside many Tom Bihn bags.  Tom Bihn makes it easy to determine what Brain Cell size to get by using their size guide list.

Brain Bag Secondary compartmentThe secondary compartment is huge in and of itself and can also be equipped with hooks to carry another laptop if you roll like that Mrs. Tech Overload.  Some business users have to carry a work laptop and personal laptop, so it’s probably more suited for those types.  A student is more likely to use the secondary compartment for books or simply organizing papers and folders.  Speaking of organizing papers and folders, the Freudian Slip (don’t you love the names they come up with?) is a great accessory for doing such a thing and fits perfectly in the second compartment.  The Freudian Slip has organizer pockets on one side for things such as pens, iPod, USB drives, cell phones and other small electronics.  Meanwhile, the other side has slips that easily fits papers, files and folders. This is a great way to boost the number of pockets on the Brain Bag and stay organized and allow you to pull the slip out and just have everything there, you don’t have to dig around inside.

Snake CharmerAnother recommended accessory is the Snake Charmer, a pretty simple little pouch with mesh pockets. Like it’s name insinuates, it’s designed to tame all those cables and charger wires you might have to carry.  There’s nothing worse than trying to yank a cable out of your bag only to find it coiled itself around everything and, voila, out comes the entire bag contents.  Grrr.

Pockets

On the front of the bag there are three zippered pocket compartments, a mesh pouch and even lash straps to put an umbrella (the bag designers live and work in Seattle, they think of such things).  The mesh pouch is handy for a water bottle and maybe some energy bar type snacks.  I liked the top front pouch for placing keys and ID cards since it was small, shallow and easy to access.  It even has a snap hook to attach keys to.  The left and right front side zippered compartments are perfect for pens and pencils as both sides have compartments to hold those things.  Smaller gadgets such as a mouse, cell phone or digital camera would also fit in these compartments although I would recommend a case for anything valuable as there is no padding within the compartments.

Brain bag pockets

Brain Bag Straps

The shoulder straps on the Brain Bag are of course adjustable, they’re two inches thick and nicely padded.  There’s also a waist strap, which is pretty essential to have for students that carry a ton of books, it’ll help save you from back strain.  If you don’t like the waist strap, no problem, it can be unhooked and stored away.  A sternum strap also comes attached and can be removed if you don’t want that. As mentioned before, you also have two compressions straps that can be tightened to make sure everything is secured in the bag.  All of the straps are black no matter what color bag option you go with.

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Brain Bag with straps wasit and sternum straps on
Brain Bag straps
Brain bag with waist and sternum strap removed

Brain Bag Material

The back of the bag has what Tom Bihn refers to as Dri-Lex Aero-Spacer mesh.  It’s padded with 3/8” of closed-cell foam so that your back is comfortable.  Most importantly it allows your back to breathe as well.  The Brain Bag is made with fabrics that are coated on the interior with urethane for water resistance and treated on the exterior with a durable water-repellent finish.  This means your papers and electronics won’t get wet should you get caught in the rain.  Tom Bihn recommends applying a product called Nikwax to help further water proof the Brain Bag if you live in very wet environments.  Those in the Southwestern U.S. might forgo this, Northeast and Northwestern denizens might want to consider it.

The Test

Say you go to the school library and, being the book worm that you are, check out an entire shelf of books to take home and diligently study.  Will they all fit in your Tom Bihn Brain Bag?  Let’s find out.  I have a certain family relation that is addicted to books (real, not iPad or Kindle eBook malarkey) and has their own mini library so I figured why not try fitting an entire shelf of their classic collection books into the Brain Bag.  Here was my target shelf:

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What you see on that shelf is 25 fairly thick books with library quality binding.  I’m a terrible packer, I couldn’t get a job at a moving company if my life depended on it, but I tried my best to fit all these books in the Brain bag but came up just short, I fit 23 in and had 2 left that would have to be carried loosely, or maybe in the Horizontal Brain Cell in place of a laptop.  Here’s what the bag looked like with those 23 books in and an umbrella on the front:

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And here is that stack of 23 books that fit inside the bag:

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I’m certain that someone with more determination, patience and packing skill than myself could have fit at least one more book, maybe two.  However, books are not very forgiving and cannot be compressed so it may just be the case that an entire shelf of books could not fit in the Brain Bag.

Conclusion

The Brain Bag retails for $150 on TomBihn.com, which might seem like crazy amounts of money compared to the $40 you can spend on the ubiquitously sold Jansport backpack, but this bag is built to last several years and can double as a hiking backpack, travel bag or warzone carry bag if you’re the  adventurous type.  The Brain Bag does an amazing job of swallowing books, laptops, papers, clothes and whatever else you stuff in there.  It’s like  a magic hat, things just seem to keep fitting in.  The amount of features and ability to accessorize and organize the Brain Bag are awesome too.  Yes, buying a Brain Cell, Freudian Slip and Snake Charmer do add to the cost ($60, $45 and $30 respectively) but here’s an idea, buy the bag and then ask for the accessories as gifts.  Now your family and friends won’t complain that you’re too hard to buy gifts for, you can endlessly accessorize your backpack.  Plus, how fun is it to say “I’d like a Freudian Slip and Brain Cell for Christmas”.

Bottom line, obviously the Brain Bag is a premium backpack and Tom Bihn isn’t out to compete on price.  The target customer appreciates design, quality and utility.  Customers that buy from Tom Bihn tend to be loyal and repeat customers, just check out their forum community to see that, to me that says a lot about a product and company.  If you’re a student that needs to carry a lot of stuff, and most do, the Brain Bag is highly recommended.  If you need something smaller and lighter that still does a good job of holding a few books and a laptop the Synapse is another Tom Bihn bag that could suit students well.

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7 Responses to Tom Bihn “Brain Bag” Laptop Bag Review

  1. John February 11, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    thanks for your review. Can you tell me what is the size of your organizer pouch? thanks!

    • Andrew Baxter February 11, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

      Hi John, it’s the Small size (7″ x 5″)

  2. Rick March 20, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    Great review! This was one of the reviews I read in making my selection for a new laptop backpack. I decided to go with the Brain Bag and it’s a great bag.thanks for taking the time to put together this really informative review.

    • Andrew Baxter March 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      Nice choice for a bag Rick, the Brain Bag is great for carrying a ton-o-stuff!

  3. Elyssa April 2, 2012 at 2:57 am #

    Thanks for your review! My only hesitation is the look – it’s a nice, casual backpack but it doesn’t look like it’d fit so well in a suit-n-tie environment

    • Andrew Baxter April 2, 2012 at 3:02 am #

      It depends on the color you go for, you are right though, if you’re a corporate lawyer this may not be the best choice.

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