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Tom Bihn’s Smart Alec is an Ideal Commuter’s Backpack

A few months ago, as I was preparing to move to a new job in Boston, I asked colleagues on Twitter to recommend a good backpack for commuting. In the ProfHacker 2011 Gift Guide I wrote of my love for the Mulholland Brothers briefcase I received as a graduation present. I still love that bag, and it’s still in great shape, but I knew I’d be taking the train to work and walking more than in my previous job, and so I wanted something with two straps that would be better for my back. Many of my colleagues on Twitter recommended I check out Tom Bihn‘s backpacks. I took their advice and I have been using the Tom Bihn Smart Alec for several months now. I’m ready to sing its praises along with those who recommended it. Full disclosure: I’ve based this article on a review unit provided by Tom Bihn. I attempt to review the product fairly, but I understand these bags are expensive—perhaps prohibitively so for some ProfHacker readers.

I won’t repeat all of the bag’s features here, as you can read about them on the product page. Instead, I’ll comment on what I’ve found most useful:

  1. The main compartment is huge. Most days I carry my laptop, tablet, accessories, and at least one (probably more) books to and from school. I have yet to even approach the capacity of this bag. Somehow it doesn’t feel enormous, but it is.
  2. The bag’s top zipper opens 2/3 of the way around its circumference. In practice, this means I can open the bag pretty much all the way and easily access anything inside. It’s a handier feature than I would have expected.
  3. My laptop is extremely well protected. My kit includes the Vertical Brain Cell laptop bag, which attaches to two clips inside the main bag—in other words, my laptop is padded by the case and then suspended in the middle of the backpack. Even in the press of the crowd on a busy train, I’m not worried that anyone can damage my laptop.
  4. The side pockets are, like the main compartment, huge. One side really can, as advertised, hold a full water bottle (and includes a tiny hole at the bottom where any spilt liquids can escape). The other is big enough for pens, pencils, a checkbook, a spare set of glasses, a zippered “emergency” bag (aspirin, chap-stick, tissues, etc.), and a power cord for my laptop. They’re big, useful pockets.
  5. The optional Freudian Slip insert is also part of my kit, and I absolutely love it. I use its smaller top pockets to carry pens and pencils, headphones, sticky tabs for marking book pages, and miscellaneous other items. I use the mesh pockets on one side to carry the cables that connect my laptop to projectors and my stash of whiteboard markers. The flat pockets on the reverse side carry my folders and thin books. What’s great about this accessory is that it sits in the main compartment and can be easily slipped (ha-ha) out when I get to class. Then I have most of what I need for class—the cable, the markers, etc.—organized and immediately on hand.
  6. Finally—but perhaps most importantly—the Smart Alec is incredibly comfortable. The straps sit easily on my shoulders, and the (removable) sternum strap helps me keep the bag positioned in just the right place on my back. I removed the waist straps, but they might be useful for some users. In short, I’ve hiked all over with this bag quite full, and I’ve never felt burdened.
  7. Bonus tip: This isn’t an advertised feature of the bag, but I’ve found that if you cinch up the drawstring on the bag’s front, you can store a small umbrella there. This has come in handy several times when a sunny day turned suddenly to rain. Cinching the drawstring does reduce the space in the main compartment, but I’ve not felt the lack.

In short, I love this bag. If you have a commute to work (especially if that commute involves significant time on your feet) and can afford the investment, I highly recommend you try a Tom Bihn bag. They do come with a lifetime guarantee. How about you? Do you have a favorite bag or backpack for commuting to work? Tell us about it in the comments.

P.S. For those wondering, I keep my Mulholland briefcase in my office and occasionally carry it to events on campus, especially when I want to appear more professional. I could never abandon it entirely!

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