Posted on November 15, 2015
Posted on November 15, 2015
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.