Nov 28 2011

Tom Bihn Cadet Review

My daily carry briefcase over the last year has been the Tom Bihn Zephyr. It’s professional looks, ruggedness and total capacity (over 1000 cubic inches) have served me incredibly well and you can get the whole story on it, if you would like, here where I originally reviewed it.

My biggest problem with the Zephyr is not a complaint, it is a personal idiosyncrasy. I view empty space in a bag or briefcase as a challenge. The Zephyr’s capacity had me tilting perilously close to 30 pounds of weight and even with the Absolute Strap, that is simply too heavy.

So, I began my quest for a more minimal briefcase that would still allow me to carry the kit that I needed along on my every day travels. I made lists of the characteristics that I needed (invulnerability, bag of holding capacity, unbreakable waterproof zippers, great organization) and I kept going back to the Tom Bihn site. I would leave disappointed as the bag that most closely suited what I needed…was the one I had.

I have to confess, I dated shopped around some. I looked at some generic bags, I tried a really good micro-briefcase from another great company. I even considered going back to a backpack. Nothing really worked for me.

Than I got a tip from the crew at Tom Bihn that they had something coming very soon that might work for me. Little teases kept coming from them that made me more and more sure that the upcoming micro brief was my holy grail.

I got a first glance of the Cadet on Halloween night and I was immediately hooked. I made sure that I was first in line to get one to run through its paces and it has been by my side for the last three weeks non-stop.

The Cadet side by side with the Zephyr

The Cadet INSIDE the Zephyr...don't try this at home


The Cadet is described by Tom Bihn as “a minimalist briefcase designed to fit your laptop, a few files or magazines, power supplies, pens, notebooks, and other small accessories.”

It comes in two sizes with the larger suited for 13 to 15 inch laptops and the smaller perfect for an 11 inch ultraportable or an iPad. Both are made from nearly indestructible 1050d ballistic nylon and lined with a custom-made Dyneema nylon, that is light and VERY strong. Bihn has a pretty compelling comparison up here that shows just how much stronger the external ballistic is than the 1680d nylon used in less expensive bags.

Both bags have essentially the same features with the only real difference being scale. I have the 13/15 laptop version and all measurements and comments made will directly reflect that bag.


    Over-all dimensions:
    15/13 Cadet: 16.25 x 12.5 x 4.5″

    15/13 Cadet with 13-inch MacBook Air Cadet Cache:
    2.0 lbs

    15/13 Cadet (empty):
    1.7 lbs

    .25″ / 8mm closed cell foam on the front, back and bottom
    YKK Uretech® splash-proof zippers on main compartment (#10) and exterior pockets (#8)

    Volume, without laptop or Cadet Cache :
    825 cu.in. total
    Main Compartment:
    670 cu.in.
    Front Pouch:
    150 cu.in.

When I reviewed the Tristar I commented that it had a very 40s feel to it. The Cadet lives in a different decade. It has the clean lines and profile that would suit Sean Connery on a visit to see Q. I can picture him calmly unzipping the main compartment and putting something high-tech and deadly in with a smug look on his face. The Cadet would nicely set off the impeccable tailoring of his suits, but be tough enough to brave the inevitable gunfire and explosions.

The bag I chose is a smart navy color with those wonderful waterproof YKK zippers that Bihn uses to make a laptop case downpour proof. The twin carry handles are lightly filled with poron to make them very comfortable in you hand. Since the handles are split around the main compartment you can pick the bag up with the main section unzipped without worrying that the contents will tumble free.

The Cadet ships standard with a simple shoulder strap but I am horribly spoiled by the excellent Absolute Shoulder strap so I transferred the one attached to my Zephyr to the Cadet. The attachment points for the straps are beautifully over-engineered chunky triangles of Delrin that look to be rugged enough to survive a shot from a hollow point. Mr. Bond would approve.

The front of the Cadet has a 6 inch horizontal zipper that opens to reveal a pocket for your cellphone. It is lined in cozy ultrasuede to cushion your phone in style. I tried several phones and they all fit nicely. My iPhone with a battery case installed got a little tight but was still doable.

The main organizational section of the Cadet opens with a U-shaped zipper opening that goes roughly halfway down the front of the case. The opening is about 13 inches wide and opens to reveal a pocket lined in Dyneema, a very lightweight ripstop nylon in the brightest color I have ever seen. Bihn calls it Solar and I specifically got the Cadet in this color to get this high contrast lining.

When I got my Tristar I opted for a bright color on the outside which came with a steel colored lining. The beauty of a bright lining is that it is really easy to see inside of the bag even in poor lighting conditions. Not having the high contrast lining was my only regret with that bag, and I vowed to address it when I had the chance. I jumped at the opportunity when I got the Cadet. It really does make a huge difference.

The inside of the organizational pocket there are two O rings at the top of the pocket for attaching key rings or additional organizer pouches.

The back wall of this section has three pen/pencil slots, a 3.5 by 4.5 inch pocket that is fairly tight (perfect for a phone or organizer) and a 2.5 inch and a 3 inch pocket that have some give. I have a travel mouse and a USB hub tucked in these pockets. I keep three of the TB small organizer pouches key strapped into this pocket for extra storage.

The main section of the Cadet is accessed via a dual #10 YKK zipper that opens about 2 inches down the sides of the bag. The front wall has two more O rings in this compartment for extra attachment points. If you have not used a bag that has this kind of modular organizational structure you will wonder how you ever got along without!

This wall also has a full length slash pocket to allow you to separate papers or an iPad from the rest of the contents of the bag.

The main section of the bag has a special cache that is included with the cost of the Cadet. You choose this based on the size of your laptop or tablet and it has a pair of guardian clips that ride on nylon straps. This allows the laptop to be pulled out when going through a security checkpoint but still be attached to the case. This is what makes the Cadet “blessed” by TSA.

If you are confused by my murky description of this click on the video below and hopefully the mechanics will be a little clearer.

The Cache can be completely removed from the Cadet if you are in a situation where you are not carrying a laptop and would prefer to repurpose the storage area.

I did find myself needing a bit of file storage in the Cadet so I transferred a Horizontal Freudian Slip into the Cadet. This added a bit more organization to the center section and the file dividers I needed.

The back of the Cadet has a dual purpose open top pocket for magazines or maps or anything flat. It has a zipper across the bottom that also allows it to thread over a handle on a roller board suitcase.

The Cadet is uniformly well made with not a stitch out of place or a seam out of true. It oozes quality of construction and it wears its made in the USA tag with obvious pride.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles. If the bag is underloaded but does have a laptop in it, it is a bit unstable when you set it down. Also, the backside of the ultrasuede phone pouch is visible in the organizational pouch. The seams are all impeccably finished but I would have like to have seen the front pocket finished in Dyneema.


James Bond valued something not just for its appearance but also for its utility. The Cadet has that combination of looks and brains that would make Bond smile and raise an eyebrow. It couples those attributes with the strength and durability to shine at an embassy party or speed safely through a car chase.

It is truly an excellent choice for my applications. It is big enough to carry what I need. A laptop, an iPad and all the supporting accessories fit into the bag in a nicely comported way. It flies through a TSA screening with the panache of a man with multiple passports.

Possibly more importantly, it forces me to choose the things that I truly need in my daily kit and not the things that I might need. This bit of discipline is a good thing for me.

The Cadet is a bag that is all about on what you need and not what you don’t. Sounds like a perfect bag to bring out your inner secret agent. So, if you do need to smuggle some blueprints out of the consulate…this is your bag.

The Cadet comes in 6 color combinations and two sizes to suit a range of applications.

The 13/15 Cadet $170 (includes Cache) +$20 for the Absolute Strap

Tel: 1-800-729-9607 / +1-206-652-4123
4750 A Ohio Ave S, Seattle, WA 98134

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