I need to start off this review with a bit of an “I’m sorry” to the lovely folks at Tom Bihn. I received a sizable discount on both this Brain Bag and my Camera I/O back in July 2012. It’s now March 2013, and I’m just now writing this review. In the meantime, I purchased (at full price) a Smart Alec, and that bag is now my day-to-day bag that I use for almost everything. I did however carry the Brain Bag every day from July 2012 through December 2012. I wanted to put some time into the Brain Bag before I wrote about it. One, because I wanted to stress the bag more than bag’s I’d previously reviewed and two, because the Brain Bag initially left me with a ho-hum feeling. I’ll expand on that initial feeling and how it changed after starting to use the Smart Alec day in and day out.
The Brain Bag is a monster of a backpack. That’s the reason I chose it. It can hold a lot of gear. I used it for a daily work bag where I carry textbooks, binders, laptops (it can hold two Brain Cells at a time!), large water bottles and a set of gym clothes. I also used it on overnight trips to the mountains of Oku-Hida here in Japan where I stuffed it with clothes, my DSLR and a couple lenses, an iPad and it still had space to drag my souvenirs back.
Like my Empire Builder before it, the Brain Bag’s size wound up being a major factor in why I stopped using it. It was overkill as a daily bag that I took to work. As an overnight bag, it was excellent. It’s large enough to handle a two day trip’s worth of clothes and toiletries, a camera and space to bring back things you may buy on your trip. Since it’s a backpack though, and not a small suitcase or a duffle bag (like my beloved Aeronaut) it’s not as difficult to carry around.
The Brain bag has excellent straps like all Tom Bihn bags. They remain very comfortable even when the bag is fully loaded. They sit firmly on your shoulders and flare out to the sides as they go down to avoid rubbing your torso too much. The bag comes with removable chest and waist straps as well.
The back of the Brain Bag has a nifty carabiner that you can use to hook something (water bottle or umbrella) to the bag and straps below the clip will keep the item in place and there’s a strap on the bottom that prevents the hooked item from sagging down past the bottom of the bag. I usually use my clip when I’m taking my glass water bottle out with me, but you could use this clip for just about anything.
I wasn’t that happy about the side pockets on the Brain Bag. The Synapse’s side pockets have great sleeve for a cell phone and have o-rings inside them so that you can hook up accessory (key) straps that Tom Bihn sells. I always use these to make sure I know where my keys are at all times when I’m out with my Synapse or Smart Alec. The Brain Bag lacks these o-rings in either of its side pockets.
The Brain Bag’s side pockets do include slips for pens and pencils and large pockets that could be used for passports, notebooks or cell phones (although they are a little large for an iPhone and it might slip out if the bag is turned over). The left side pocket has a mesh pocket on the outside that I often stuck extra water bottles in at times.
At the top of the front of the bag, there’s a small compartment that I used to keep my wallet and phone in. It’s a great size for keeping small item like these in, but the zipper on this pocket is kind of loose and I often worried about it being pulled open from behind while I was out and being pick-pocketed. That’s not a huge concern here in Japan, but I was paranoid about putting valuables (or just fragile items that might break if they fell out of this pocket) in there. This pocket does have an o-ring inside, so it’s a good place to clip your keys. The loose zipper is ideal for quick access to keys.
Moving backwards, the middle compartment, the smaller of the two large areas of the Brain Bag is a big open space. No built-in pockets inside, so I added a Freudian Slip to organize my pens, notebooks, cables and files. The Freudian Slip fits perfectly into this middle compartment and really enhanced my use of the Brain Bag. If you decide to purchase a Brain Bag and need to organize smaller items inside it, the Freudian Slip (vertical) is a must-buy accessory. Lastly, this compartment also includes an o-ring.
The final part of the bag is also its biggest, the back of the bag. It’s a giant open space with two sets of Brain Cell clips for your laptops. You could fit a couple 17-inch MacBook Pros in here (if Apple still made the damn things). I carry an 11-inch Macbook Air, however, so these clips were lost on me, as Tom Bihn doesn’t make a Brain Cell for the 11-inch, only a Cache sleeve. This part of the bag also includes an o-ring. Are you seeing a trend here?!
Overall, here are my final thoughts on the Brain Bag.
- While there are o-rings in the two main compartments and the small one at the top of the bag, why aren’t there o-rings in the side pockets?
- The carabiner clip on the front of the bag and its accompany straps are a novel idea that I really miss on every other backpack I have.
- The bag felt too big at first (as a daily work bag) but its size is a huge plus if you’re going on two or three day trips and don’t want to drag a duffle bag along with you.
- There needs to be a better place for things like your wallet and cell phone. The small compartment on the front or the side pockets can be used for these things, but the side pockets are the right size and the small front compartment feels unsafe.
- There’s a good bit of fraying around the biggest compartment’s zipper that’s a little worrying. So far, I’ve been able to just cut the threads without any trouble, but it’s been worrying me about the build quality of this particular bag. Not that any of my other Tom Bihn bags have ever had build quality issues, so this may just be a one time problem, that hasn’t affected my use of the bag as of yet.