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: http://www.tombihn.com/
SteveJack is a long-time Macintosh user, web designer, multimedia producer and a regular contributor to the MacDailyNews Opinion section.
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