Review: Tom Bihn ‘Smart Alec’ backpack for Apple MacBook and MacBook Pro models

Review by SteveJack

With the arrival of my new Apple 17-inch MacBook Pro, my trusty old 15-inch PowerBook-toting backpack that I got from The Gap, no less, finally had to be retired after more than two years in service.

After asking around and seeing a few in airports, I decided to give the Tom Bihn Smart Alec a test carry.

Now the backpack is one thing and the sleeve in which you store your MacBook is another. Bihn offers a variety of sleeve sizes to fit any MacBook or MacBook Pro. I tried Bihn’s Soft Cell ($30) soft-sided sleeve and also the hard-sided Monolith ($45) inside the Smart Alec. Both are vertically-oriented, so you can slip your MacBook in and out of your backpack without having to take the sleeve out of your backpack as you would have to do with a horizontal sleeve. Even though I consider both sleeves to be overpriced by about $10, I quickly chose the Monolith because I felt it offers more protection (even though my PowerBook was no worse for the wear using a sleeve very similar to the Soft Cell for years), has a convenient handle on the top, and also secures to the Smart Alec’s interior with a clip system. Either sleeve will work well.

In contrast to what I felt were pricey sleeves, the Smart Alec backpack itself is an excellent value at $110. It’s underpriced, if anything. The first thing you’ll notice about the Smart Alec is the lack of pockets, zippers, netting, straps and other assorted junk that seems designed to catch on things under airline seats and just about anywhere else. The Smart Alec’s designers seem to have spent a lot of time with and thinking about the backpack and how it would actually be used by people. One doesn’t need 57 pockets and zippers tacked on everywhere if the pockets and zippers provided are correct already (Bihn does offer other, more traditional bags and backpacks. Please see link below). It’s minimalist design with maximum usability – like the Mac. The Smart Alec features two zippers that run top to bottom on both sides of the backpack. Inside of each you’ll find two pockets — actually a pocket inside of a pocket — for a total of four pockets that you’ll actually use.

Along the top edge is the third and only other zipper. With the backpack’s straps facing you, peeling back the top of the Smart Alec reveals your MacBook sleeve (nearest you) and opposite a large pocket at the bottom and, above it, a medium pocket, a small pocket, and two pen-sized pockets. All of the pockets’ top lines are stitched with a strip of light, reflective material, so you can easily find the pocket even in low light. In between is a nice 3-4-inch gap (depending on how much you’ve stuffed into the aforementioned pockets), so you’ve got up to a 18.5″ x 11.75″ x 4″ space for newspapers, magazines, manilla folders, etc. This is another reason why I chose the Monolith over the Soft Cell sleeve as it attaches to the backpack’s interior and doesn’t float around the bag’s interior.

Bihn also offers an organizer they call the Freudian Slip ($35) which gives you organizer pockets for your pens, PDA, cell phone, or any small electronics. The other side keeps your files and folders neat and protected with four folder-like pockets. Another option would be Bihn’s Snake Charmer($20) which provides two separate zippered compartments for cables, modem, etc. The sides are mesh so you can see what’s inside. I just throw mine in the bottom of the backpack. The Freudian Slip is about $10 overpriced and the Snake Charmer is a really good value at $20. If you want to go with both, keep in mind that the Fedudian Slip’s height matches the Smart Alec’s, so you’ll need to wedge it in between your laptop sleeve and the Snake Charmer in order to be able to zip up the backpack. I picked the Smart Alec because I want that open space above it for magazines, newspapers, etc. I’d pick the best one for your needs and not try to do both at the same time with the Smart Alec. I also got a medium Organizer Pouch ($5) that holds my extra 17-inch MacBook Pro battery nicely.

The Smart Alec comes in a variety of colors: Steel (pictured), Crimson, Kiwi, Grape, Sage, and Solid Black.

If you’re looking for a strong, well-thought-out, and cleanly-designed backpack to match the style of your MacBook or MacBook Pro, I can strongly recommend that you take a look at the Tom Bihn Smart Alec. It’s perfect for the plane, where I want to be able to get everything in and out of the top of the bag with minimal fuss.

Bihn also offers smaller and larger backpacks and bags along with additional accessories. More info can be found here:

SteveJack is a long-time Macintosh user, web designer, multimedia producer and a regular contributor to the MacDailyNews Opinion section.

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  1. The object of a backpack is conveniently store lots of things and retrieve them easily, without effort. The way to do that is through pockets, pouches, and zippers. A “clean” design is great for laptops, but stupid for something designed to carry stuff. Maybe I don’t want to undo the big-*ss main zipper in tight quarters and have everything spill out of one gargantuan hole? Or worse yet, dig around inside the hole for zippered pockets inside of other zippered pockets.

    Next up an auto review praising the clean design of cars without wheels.


    I just bought this bag, and am using it to tote my 17″ PB.

    For me, it is PERFECT. If you can find it, take a look.

    It’s exactly the right size for travel, (if you believe in packing light as I do), yet not too big for just zipping around town.

    “Deuter” is the brand, Giga Office is the model, which I think they have a few variations of.

    Oh, here’s a link:

  3. Tom Bihn packs are nice, but a bit too bulky for my taste. I’ve been lugging PowerBooks for awhile and grew tired of bulky packs for everyday use. There’s an unwritten Law of Packs: No matter what size it is, it’ll be full.

    I found an excellent laptop pack from Arcteryx, the Blade 13, for my 15″ PowerBook (the Blade 21 for the 17″). It was about $90.

    The pack itself is low-profile, quite light and nicely constructed. The design is a bit minimalist and not “packy” looking as many laptop bags tend to be (really just glorified bookbags), so there aren’t a lot of straps dangling from it, but everything you carry is nicely contained.

    It has a handle on one side, so it can be carried like a briefcase when needed and because of the slim design, it looks more briefcase-like, as well.

    There are several full length compartments, with easy access from the side. Some inner pockets for pens, etc. and even a strap with a clip for keys! A nice touch, since I use this pack for bike and subway commuting.

    I’ve been extremely happy with it!

    Blade 13

    Blade 21

  4. Tom Bihn rules. The point of the Smart Alec is that it has lots of pockets and room for Mac gear, the pockets just aren’t on the outside of the bag making it ugly. People always ask me where I got mine, cause they’ve never seen a backpack like it. And they’re made in my hometown (Seattle), not in some nasty sweatshop.

  5. I have an TomBihn Super Ego bag and tvo BrainCells for my tvo Thinkpads. All bags are super good and very high quality. They are very sturdy and can take alot off things.
    I recommend TomBihn bags to everyone and I dont think they cost too much, you get what you pay for!

  6. Thanks for the great review. I’m bummed…I won a Smart Alec in an eBay charity auction held by another mac news web site over a month ago. I promptly paid but it was never sent to me. I hope the seller is not in a coma or anything and there is a reason for not shipping it because it sure looks like a nice pack. Maybe I’ll see mine some day.

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