The Tom Bihn Synapse 25 | An (exhaustive) review

This post is the review of the The Tom Bihn Synapse 25, the bag I ended up buying after an obsessive two year research journey, I blogged that process here if you are interested | The Journey of picking a bag by an obsessive | Tom Bihn Synapse 25


A few months back I posted my rather obsessive journey of research that led me to buy 1 the Tom Bihn Synapse 25. I’ve now had the bag for almost 9 months and have gotten a feel for whether it was the right choice.

As in my last post, I’ll give this upfront disclaimer; if you don’t have an interest in the details of the bags you use, there is likely nothing of interest past this point. The short answer is the bag is great!

bagairport


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Ok, so from this point on, I’m presuming I’m speaking freely with the bag-obsessed remnant.

One of the comments in my previous article on the bag was that, because Tom Bihn2 makes all their bags by hand, often the colour combo’s are not available. I ordered a grey exterior, with a bright green interior! Not exactly what I had in mind. The upside though is that after about a week, I forgot about the colour and the fact it is bright helps me peer into the cavernous depths and see darker items lurking at the bottom due to the contrast. Still, if I had the option of having this bag with the Iberian red that the Syanpse 19 had come in, I probably would.

By nature, I enjoy to have bags where everything has their place, this is what led me away from the TB Smart Alec. Once I would have ordered all the custom add-on pockets, I would have handed over a seriously large sum of cash, for an already expensive bag.

After pouring over the TB forums I opted to add the Cache on Rails, Veritcal Freudian Slip, snake charmer,Travel tray, 3D clear organiser cube, and a couple of key straps. More about those later, first on to the function of the bag itself.

“I like bags, and I like attention to detail that translates into functionality.”

When I was in turmoil over the two sizes, I worried that the bag would end up feeling too big to carry round day to day. While I’m not carrying this everywhere, it always feels an appropriate size when I need to take a laptop somewhere, which is at least 50-75% of the reasons I need to take a bag anywhere.

baggrass

When I unboxed the bag 3, a few details stood out. It’s been said before in reviews of TB bags, but the materials feel significantly better quality than any other bag you have used. One of the functional benefits of this (other than you become assured this bag will last you a long time) is that the denser weave of the fabric means nothing ever feel like it gets snagged on the bag. It’s an experience you may not have felt regularly but, watches, rings, keys can sometimes snag and this just never happens with the fabric TB uses here.

The bag comes with a waist and chest strap. I immediately removed the waist strap as I knew I wouldn’t use use it, and it would simply hang and get caught on things. I left the chest strap and the few times I had really loaded the bag up I have used it to move the shoulder straps in a better position on my shoulders.

The shoulder straps are not overly padded, but they feel very comfortable even when fully loaded. The adjustment clips are very smooth and have never slipped. There is a small plastic clip for the hose of a camelbak or something similar. Though in order to use one (as far as I can tell) you’d have the leave the zip open4 which doesn’t seem like a great option.

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There is a grab handle on the top of the bag, it has no padding and looks like the type of nylon strap materials that can set your hands on fire if you run it through them too quickly. I was pleasantly surprised in the few occasions I’ve carried it this way to find it surprisingly comfortable. You are only likely to carry it this way for less than a minute and for that kind of usage the strap is perfect.

TB packs nylon zip extensions with plastic ends, but in the end I chose to leave them off and use the YKK zips themselves. Which brings us to the main zip compartment. For a bag geek the YKK zip for the main compartment is the ultimate in delightful details. It feels incredibly hard wearing without being a zip that feels like it might take 5 years to move freely. I noticed the Synapse 19 main compartment zip was a smaller YKK model and it definitely contributed to my choosing the larger model.

zipbag

Travel is rarely easy or enjoyable, neither is the need to take stuff with you on a day. The attention to detail in bags adds small moments of ease and enjoyment in these otherwise mundane and friction-prone environments.

The Main Compartment

The main compartment of the bag is not structurally anything surprising, There is an elasticated open sleeve on the front side and the cache on rails system is held against the back of the bag. One of the ways you can tell this bag was well thought through is that whether half empty or packed full the bag keeps a great form. The bag is firm enough to not collapse into a puddle when empty, but somehow stretches to contain more than you’d expect. After looking over the bag, I think a big part of this is two panels which attached themselves to the back of the bag which seem to allow the main compartment to expand to almost double without looking like the fabric and zip are barely holding themselves together.

One of the costs of these form-keeping design, is that the zip for the main compartment don’t feel like they go down the sides of the bag quite as far as they should. When originally zipping it open they would come to an abrupt stop as I expected a few more cm’s out of them. In terms of a trade off for the bag standing up (which structurally is the only reason i can think of), it is worth it, and unless the front pockets are packed to bulging you can easily access the bottom of the bag.

There are a couple of O ring sewn into the seam of the bag at the top. These are to accommodate TB’s clip-on pouches and straps. For everyday use I’ve been using the key chain strap to attach my keys. It works perfectly as it is easily detachable, holds the keys against the side of the bag, but if I fill the bag with coats, books etc. I simply pull on the strap to find my keys rather than having to take everything out to find my keys fallen to the bottom of the bag.

Although the elasticated pocket had no clear use for my imagination, it has become a useful place to store things that I don’t want to blindly scour the bottom of the main compartment for. On my latest trip I managed to use a Muji large packing cube in it for a change of clothes at the layover airport. This let me fill the main compartment with books, the freudian slip and laptop sleeve.

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Cache on Rails System

One of the best add-ons mentioned when I read reviews of the TB synapse 25 was the cache on rails system. Basically it is a neoprene sleeve5 with straps running down its vertical length. It then clips in at the top of the bag, so that your laptop sleeve essentially hangs on these clips. The first benefit of this is that your laptop doesn’t become the gravitational base of the bag, so when you accidentally drop your bag or place it down heavily the first thing to hit the surface is not the side of your laptop.

The main function of the straps though is to use at security lines in airports which require the removal of laptops separate to your bag. By pulling the sleeve up, the clips stay at the top of the bag and the straps on the sleeve run through them like rails. There is enough give to place the laptop sleeve in another tray but leave it attached to your bag. As someone who has both been the person, and been frustrated by the person who holds up the security line by furiously trying to stuff your laptop into a bag that didn’t have enough room for it in the first place, this is a great feature.

I wasn’t imagining that it would be of much use apart from those few times flying6, but actually the cache system has been surprisingly useful when I constantly pulling out my laptop and placing it back it. The Smoothness of the neoprene which is just tight enough to hold the laptop in place makes for an easier but secure way to keep your laptop safe. My only complaint is the sleeve has a envelope-like top which is intended to fold over and protect the top of the laptop. In practise the neoprene fabric wants to keep the envelope top in the open position and there is not a way to fix it close (such as a piece of velcro, or button etc.).

The other pockets

At the top of the bag, there are a further two pockets which are accessed from separate zips from the main compartment. The one closest to the main compartment is gusseted which allows it to hold an incredible amount in addition to the main compartment. It can hold a normal sized water bottle, and in fact that is likely it’s best use. Keeping a water bottle (often one of the heaviest items in a bag) down the centre rather than a side pocket keep the weight evenly distributed and the water easily accessible. As I am not in the habit of carrying a water bottle7, originally I used it for keys, phone8, or whatever I wanted to quickly have to hand. Used in this way, the pocket seemed just slightly too deep.

bottlebag

The second pocket is a shorter non-gusseted pocket which is probably meant more for the uses I mentioned starting out using the gusseted pocket for. The only thing is that this front pocket is only just big enough for my admittedly gargantuan iPhone 6 plus. It does fit but it involves lifting the top part of the zip to tuck the top of the phone into the above-zip part of the pocket9.

There are then two pockets on either side of the bag. Both are well proportioned and allow for glasses case, or even small water bottles. Both of the side pockets also have the O-rings I mentioned earlier, which allow for accessorising to one’s hearts content on the TB store. The pocket on the right of the bag, has a small elasticated pocket within it which has a cloth-type fabric which is the correct place for a phone, though the dimensions of my phone out-do the line of the zip. There are pen loops and other nice organisational options in both pockets.

Finally there is a pocket at the bottom of the bag at the front. This, unexpectedly, has become one of my favourite features of the bag. It is the full width of the bag, largely proportioned, but in a pandora’s box-type way doesn’t cut in to the main compartment when full. The structure of the bag allows for it to use the space created by the angle of the bag (from wide to narrow, bottom to top).

The pocket is a perfect place for a rolled up rain coat but it is also (by no accident of design I imagine), the perfect size for TB’s snake charmer.

Snake Charmer

TB created this large pouch, with 2 equal size compartments running the whole length. The snake charmer is made to carry your cables and anyone who has seen inside a bag I am carrying (or any given drawer in our house) knows I have alot of cables.

As promised this pouch is charming or at least taming the mass of cables I carry. On one side I put my most used cable, my macbook charger along with the bulky converter I use to go from a UK plug to the RSA plugs. On the other I normally have 2x iPhone lightning cables, 2x USB power packs (for charging iphones when there is no easy power source), and a USB to mini-USB to charge the power packs.

snakecharm

Instead of having to find (or more likely, leave behind) these different cables, having the snake charmer allow me to have a single grab bag for it all.

One piece of advise though, cables, being cables insist on getting connected to one another. Instead of pulling out a fistful of cable mess, use one side for your laptop charger so you know the only fistful of anything you are pulling out is the cable you need the most.

Vertical Freudian slip

I didn’t know what I would think about the freudian slip. I reckoned I would either have no use for it, or absolutely love it. The truth is, I like it, but I haven’t discovered it as indispensable. The freudian slip is an organisational slip which matches the outline of the bag and therefore fits perfectly in the main compartment of the bag. It has a single loop handle which allows to be easily slipped10, out. Another helpful use of this loop is that it can be (as I am doing right now) be hung on the coat hooks on the back of an airplane seat.

On one side of the slip are a selection of pen/pencil holders, then two wider pockets which Im using for a collapsable iPhone stand and Bose QuietComfort in-ears. Below are two elasticated net pockets which could hold plug adapters or cables etc.

On the other side of the slip are 2 full width pockets that can hold magazines, newspaper, or a small book. The top, shallowest pockets are divided by 3. At the top of the slip on each side is a zipper secret compartment, which I discovered is big enough for a paperback novel or anything you want to keep more secure than the open pockets. Another nice feature in these high up zips is that you can store things you want handily accessible from the top of the bag when the slip is inside, and don’t want in a more easily accessible (to someone other than you) exterior pocket such as a passport.

Concluding thoughts

As you can tell from the length of this post, and obsessive research from my last post, I like bags, and I like attention to detail that translates into functionality. Travel is rarely an easy or enjoyable, neither is the need to take stuff with you on a day. The attention to detail in bags adds small moments of ease and enjoyment in these otherwise mundane and friction-prone environments.

Tom Bihn bags seem to get this, their attention to detail and quality makes bags priced like this one worth it for something you carry often and will be a primary travel tool.

There are certainly things about the bags and accessories that I would adjust if I were designing them myself, but I have been surprised enough by how the design of the synapse 25 has pre-empted my needs before I knew I would need it, that other people (namely Tom Bihn) having been thinking about and testing what makes bags great and they’ve pulled it off with the Synapse 25.

bihnmountains


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  1. or, more strictly speaking, have bought for me, as it was a 30th Birthday present. 
  2. shorten to TB from here on out. 
  3. a strange idea in itself I suppose 
  4. open to correction here from any TB enthusiasts, I’ve not discovered another place where the hose could come out of the bag. 
  5. which you have to order to size for your laptop/ipad. 
  6. which for me would likely only be 3-4 times a year max anyway. 
  7. I know, tut tut, from all my well-hydrated friends out there. 
  8. Yes, to the alarm of those of you who keep your electronics in pristine condition I mindlessly throw both keys and glass screens into the same pocket. You can chalk it up with the bad habits from footnote 7! 
  9. plus, it makes me a little nervous to have my phone at the most exterior pocket in case of impact etc. a competely irrational fear logic, I understand, considering footnote 8! 
  10. see what I did there 😉 

5 Comments on “The Tom Bihn Synapse 25 | An (exhaustive) review

  1. Hi…Such an awesome review and well taught of..I have been debating on either the smart alec or the synapse 25….Honestly which one do u recommend..I understand you really like this bag but what are some things you would change as you mentioned…I read what u said about the smart alec being expensive and stuff but it cost the same as the synapse…What i like about the smart alec is the ability to expand the storage like add the top bag and front bag to maximize storage whereas the synapse has more organizational features and stuff….What made you shy away from the smart alec….How is your bag holding up so far till this day..I really am a nerd with these bags as well and have been saving up for a sid bag for wuite some time…Do you still feel the same about your tom bihn bag and hows the durability….Sorry for all the questions but i really enjoyed your review alot and would like some answers

    • Thanks Bag Enthusiast! I still really enjoy the synapse! I’m not sure there is something I feel like I would change at this point. The durability has been great, I use the bag pretty hard. You should be able to buy certain tom bihn organisational puches and attached them to the d-rings that are within the different compartments. This has certainly helped me. The snake charmer and cache on rails are a must. The vertical slip is useful but not a deal breaker. Thats all I can think of right now. Feel free to ask any other questions and Ill see how I can help! Enjoy your further bag geekery!

      • Thanks for the reply..Im so into tom bihn but have also considered the goruck gr1 because the ability it has to haul weight as some of its areas of the bag are tested at a 400 lb load…Whats the heaviest you have carried with this bag and how does it feel with that much weght.Hows the back panel holding up in terms of material and breathabity,ive heard a few comments on another website reviewing this bag mention that it starts smelling after a while,can you comment on it or the fact that the cordura attracts alot of the pet hair and lint,has that been an issue to you at all..

        • As I mentioned in the review, the goruck is a little too nationalistic for my tastes. I’ve never weighed it when full, but Ive packed it so it was hard to close and it distributes the weight evenly. The back panel is not breathable like other reviews mention because it doesn’t employ channels. I haven’t noticed it picking up an odour so far. Also, I don’t own pets but I do have a rug that sheds that I lay it on now and again. It picks up some fluff but it doesn’t take much to brush it off. Hope that helps!

  2. I enjoyed reading your review of the Synapse 25. I have the GoRuck 1 (GR1) as well as a Synapse 25 and love both bags. I have taken several short 3-4 day trips using only the Synapse 25 and several packing cubes and the bag is great. The downside I see is there is no dedicated laptop sleeve. Yes, you can buy the Freudian slip and I have one, but I think it takes up way too much room in the main compartment to really be useful. I have several of the small Tom Bihn pouches and they are great for keeping organized. I like the form of the bag, as you mentioned regardless of how much or how little stuff you pack, the bag keeps it’s slim shape.
    As mentioned, I also have the GR1. I like this bag. It’s well made, rugged, you could probably drag it behind your vehicle and it would show little wear and tear. The main compartment is HUGE and you can use the water bladder sleeve for a laptop. I purchased several padded pouches from Go Ruck to use and they are nice, but if you attach them to the interior straps, they diminish the main pocket storage. I just store the padded pouches in the bag and don’t attach them. As said, the bag is well made but it’s also heavy when empty. It also has as a military appearance, so if you want to simply blend in on the streets and you are getting a GR1, look over their color options and pick something that isn’t black.
    I really can’t decide on which of these I like more. I frequently switch between them and now and again pull my old favorite, a black Oakley Panel Backpack out. I’ve had this bag for 6 years and I just love it. The shoulder straps are a bit thin and the bag has no real shape; when it’s empty it just flops. It won’t stand on it’s on, the back panel isn’t reinforced, and I think there were only two color options, black and tan. I don’t know what about this bag that I like, but I just keep coming back to it. All the stuff I carry has a place and as my wife says, you just seem comfortable with it. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your review and I am a bag nerd.

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