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May 18 2011

Tom Bihn Zephyr Review

I can’t believe that I have to be the one to say this. Tom Bihn has got to be stopped. He needs to go down. His blatant disregard for the laws of physics and particularly the law of conservation of matter are deeply troubling. Newton and Einstein are rolling over in their graves because of him and I am sure that the physics task force will be knocking on his door very, very soon. Or maybe just Gene Roddenbery’s ghost will give him a call to figure out how he accomplishes it!

I mean, really…there is no possible way that you should be able to get this much stuff in a bag! I made the mistake of referring to the Tom Bihn Zephyr as a Bag of Holding to my wife and now she knows what a nerd I was before she met me.


(wife’s note: I already knew what a nerd you were, and continue to be dear, but I love you anyway…)

Okay, enough silliness, I will try to return to the real point of this review! I have been using a backpack as my main mode of transport for my laptop and supporting pile of technology for about the last year. Recently, I switched from a 15″ MacBook Pro to a 13″ Macbook. Originally this was an MBAir but because of a long, involved story that I won’t go into here and now, I am back to a MacBook Pro, but still in the 13″ format. I love the smaller footprint and lower weight of the new computer!

The change in size has got me reviewing how I cart this stuff around and wondering if a more traditional briefcase style would suit my application better. As fate would have it, a < span="">< span=""> href=”http://www.tombihn.com/page/001/PROD/700/TB0720″>Tom Bihn Zephyr showed up for review just as I was going through this soul searching giving me the perfect opportunity to do some real field research on the process.

To give you an idea what I typically carry around with me, this is a picture from a review I did of the SpireUSA Torq at the beginning of the year.

What came out of the Torq: Grid-it organizer with widgets, Boot with 13” MBA, 15” MacBook Pro in soft case, notebook with printed boarding passes on top, orange organizer bag with Sprint Overdrive and Power supply, red organizer bag with Ipad power supply and VGA output cable, USB drive in velour case, 7200 RPM drive in Pleather case, multinational AC adaptor widget, yellow organizer bag with cell phone chargers, mini USB hub, pen, VGA out widget for MBA, Universal Audio UAD Laptop PC34 card in static bag, Ipad in brown leather Sena case with bluetooth keyboard, blue 3M cleaning cloth, silver zippered toiletries “oops” bag, Genelec acoustic tape measure, black bag with audio cables and adapters, white monster travel power strip, Monster earbuds with with microphone, mesh bag with computer cables, MBA power supply.

The only thing out of the ordinary here is the double laptops, which is why I ended up moving away from the MacBook Air, which I loved, but again that is another story.

We will find out how my experiment progressed but first let’s talk about the specifics on the Zephyr.

QUICK SPECS

Tom Bihn Zephyr

Exterior made of U.S. 500 denier Cordura® and 1050 denier Ballistic nylon: our Ballistic has twice the abrasion resistance of 1680 denier fabric, lined with U.S. 500 denier Cordura®

#10 YKK® Uretech® splash-proof zippers on main compartment and exterior pockets.

Exterior dims: 16.7″ x 12.4″ x 6.3″ / 425mm x 320mm x 160mm
Weight: 3.2lbs / 1.5kg
Total Volume: 17.5 liters / 1070 cu.in.
Main Compartment: 14.5 liters / 885 cu.in.
Front Pouch: 3 liters / 185 cu.in.

The construction is typical Tom Bihn; lovingly crafted, carefully put together and with an attention to detail that indicates that there are several very OCD people involved in the manufacturing process! The Zephyr is based on the legendary Empire Builder. The marketing text on the TB website talks about the 3 years of product development that went into its design and I can certainly picture Mr. Bihn chained to a sewing machine working through prototype after prototype improving the smallest little things that bothered him about the bag. Yes, Virginia, it is that well done.

The Zephyr is a slightly smaller version of the Empire Builder. It gives away less than an inch in height and depth and right at 1.5 inches in width. This modest decrease gives the bag about 300 less cubic inches in the main storage compartment. I was initially concerned about how this would impact my usage but after I did some research on what you could fit in an Empire Builder I decided my back might thank me for limiting myself a bit! The Empire Builder also gets a lot more press than the Zephyr, which made me even more curious to take a closer look at it.

The materials used in the Zephyr are 1050 Denier ballistic nylon and 500 denier Cordura and it definitely gives you the impression that anything less than something tactical and military is just going to make the bag laugh at you. The bag seems to repel dirt and stains and while it is not as dressy as some bags I have seen it would not be out of place in any office environments that I travel to.

The #10 YKK Zippers are huge, tactile and have the kind of feedback that they invented the word haptic for. I love the pulls that come on the zippers on my Tristar, but really, these zippers are so chunky and substantial they would seem like an afterthought on the Zephyr. All the outside zippers are sealed with gaskets to help repel water and keep all the precious equipment inside safe and dry.

The strap attachments are a quarter inch thick and I think that they are Delrin. They are so tough they might as well be titanium and they are offset across the bag so that the Zephyr balances nicely at your side.

Now, I am no seamstress but I am pretty good at figuring out how things work. However, some other Tom Bihn magic that is beyond my comprehension is at work in the handles. They are a pair of split handles on each side of the main section zipper that are sewed up around half inch pieces of poron. They are well suited to carrying the bag for long distances and are very comfortable. The magic part is in the way that they are ALWAYS in the right place when you reach for them. How do they know? The drape themselves perfectly across the top of the bag and cuddle together like newborn kittens. You will never find yourself groping for the handles of this bag. Something about the stitching on them just makes them lay in exactly the correct location.

Given that the obscene amount of stuff I carry brings the weight of the bag to 18.6 pounds, the ridiculously good Tom Bihn Absolute Strap is really more a necessity than an option. The metal hardware attaching it to the D rings on the bag is as tough as a ten penny nail. The Absolute strap takes on the job of supporting that much weight with aplomb rather than punishing me for it. The strap is 3 inches wide at the shoulder pad and has just the right amount of give to function as a shock absorber. It stays on your shoulder perfectly and makes carrying any heavy load just a little bit nicer. I have lots of experience with it from overloading my Tristar (which I reviewed here) for long trips and I am utterly sold.

The front flap of the Zephyr is held closed by a 1.75 inch Duraflex Warrior buckle. It is easy to latch and unlatch with a single hand but is highly unlikely to ever come undone on its own. This strap is offset and breaks the front panel of the bag in a roughly 60/40 ratio. The smaller, left side of this division features an open top angle cut pocket perfectly sized for a boarding pass or a sunglasses case. There is also a vertically zippered pocket which is roughly 5 x 6 inches. A cellular phone or iPod would fit nicely here and grant you very quick access.

The pocket on the right side of the buckle is roughly 6 x 7 inches and could hold a pile of DVDs or a DVD drive or player. There is an O ring in the upper left hand corner of this pocket for attaching a key strap or one of the Tom Bihn accessory pouches or anything that you want to secure inside of this pouch. These O rings are another one of those trademark Tom Bihn extras and they make the pockets they are hidden in just a bit more flexible. I currently have my Sprint Overdrive module and power supply tucked in this pocket in a mesh bag.

The Zephyr before I crammed it full of stuff!

Under the flap is a zippered pocket that runs the whole width of the bag. It is about 6 inches deep and the zipper mouth opens to about 12 inches but you have just a touch more width inside of the pocket. There is an O ring tucked up in the left hand corner of this pocket.

Front zippered pocket with a MBPro power supply inside

The main organizational section of the bag is behind this. It is a large open section (185 cubic inches) that is about 9 inches deep. It has open pockets sewed onto the back wall. These include a 4 inch wide and 3 inch wide pocket that I have a USB drive and a package of ear buds in. Both of these pockets are 5 inches deep. There are 3 pen/pencil slots and than a final pocket that is 2 inches wide, but is shallower at 3 inches. I have my Apple remote stuffed in this pocket.

There is another O ring with a key strap attached to it in the upper left hand corner and there is room for pouches or other things in the bottom of this space. I have a mesh bag in here, a Tom Bihn small organizer bag with a point and shoot camera, a small cable organizing pouch and a small power strip.

Front open section...

The main compartment of the Zephyr can only be described as cavernous. 885 cubic inches of echoing availability that is there challenging you to fill it up with something that you may or may not actually need to carry with you.

Hello..hello...hello...

The zippers for this section only lack about 2 inches from going all the way to the base of the Zephyr. This makes cramming large, asymmetrical objects into this space almost pleasant. It also makes putting normal day to day stuff in this bag as easy as pie. And to quote Agent Cooper, “I like pie”.

There are three hard file dividers in this section when it comes from the factory. They are great for dividing, and more importantly, protecting paper documents in this section. Tom Bihn will happily sell you more of these if you have more papers you need to organize. In my case, I chose to take them out as the amount of important paper documents that I carry around is EXTREMELY limited. This section is entirely surrounded with quarter inch closed cell foam to protect the contents. While you could drop a laptop in this section unprotected, you will feel better if it is in some kind of sleeve.

There are also a pair of annex clips for attaching the Tom Bihn Brain Cell to the back wall of the Zephyr. The Brain Cell is a dream for anyone that has ever bolted up in the middle of the night with nightmares of their laptop being crushed by an aggressive office mate. It couples hard corrugated plastic and soft core foam to cushion your laptop just like mama would. If you don’t have a Brain Cell you can remove these clips.

You may notice in the pictures showing the inside of the bag the incredibly high contrast insides. This particular color is described by Tom Bihn as Wasabi. You may or may not be a fan of this color scheme, but the beauty of this is you will NEVER lose something inside of a TB bag. The option to do this kind of offsetting interior is sort of a hallmark of their design scheme and I love the touch that it adds to the bag. While I love the color, if you should want something a bit tamer, the insides are available in Steel as well.

The utter simplicity of the center section of the bag means you can put almost anything in it with no distraction. If you want a bit more organization, Tom Bihn offers a clever little product called the Freudian Slip.

Freudian slip front

Freudian Slip back

The front of the slip gives you a pair of zippered pockets, a 4 inch and 3 inch open top pocket, 4 pen/pencil slots and a shallower pocket on the far right hand side. The back side has two slots for papers to be stowed. This whole piece is wrapped around another quarter inch piece of foam so it makes a great divider inside of the main section and you can pull it out when you get to your mobile office to have easier access to the stuff you have stored within it. With the Slip in there I actually was starting to run out of things to put in all the pockets!

The beauty of the Freudian Slip approach is that if you choose to go bowling, you can remove the Slip and store a 16 pound ball here in the middle of the Zephyr. I am completely confident it would deal with that task with the same level of competence it has shown at every other job I have thrown at it. You could also store something far more normal here should you prefer! Again, this kind of ability to organize and equip the bag in the way that works for you is an approach that is common to all Tom Bihn products.

Zephyr main compartment loaded up

You can see in the picture above my MacBook Pro in a nylon slip case, the Freudian Slip, my iPad in Sena Keyboard case, a Grid It organizer with a a bunch of little widgets attached and a little emergency mini-toiletries case I slog around. This pocket is not tightly crammed and it is easy for me to pull things in and out without zipping the bag all the way open. If I still felt the masochistic need to carry a second laptop around, I could cram it in here, but it would be a tight fit.

The back of the Zephyr features a large open top magazine slot and a separate roller board pass through that is zippered on the bottom. This allows you to use it as a second back pocket if you would rather. If you, like Mr Bihn, believe in the limitations of wheeled luggage you will likely never unzip this section.

Rollerboard slot

So, at the beginning of this tediously long and boring review I referred to the back pack I had been carrying everything around in. This particular pack has 2400 cubic inches of storage and I could likely live out of it for a week with a little bit of discipline.

I thought I had it crammed pretty full, but the Zephyr calmly metabolized every single bit of kit that was in the Torq and looked cool and collected doing it. Keep in mind, the Zephyr’s volume is less than HALF of what the Torq lists!

In this corner the Tom Bihn Zephyr...

Granted, the rear section of the Torq was basically empty and I could pack for an overnight trip in that section but I was really pleased at how well the Zephyr absorbed everything. It is a well structured bag, so it did not look bloated or over stuffed and I look far less nerdy than with the black ninja turtle back pack approach. Try saying that five times fast!

(wife’s note: Nope…still nerdy.)

Conclusions:

I have not carried anything close to a traditional briefcase in years. Even then it was a leather monstrosity with so many compartments that it was hard to tell where the pockets ended and the bag began. It was heavy and bulky and offended PETA. It also was on its way to wearing out inside of a year.

The Tom Bihn Zephyr is a different story. While it has great organizational touches it does not beat you over the head with them. It is made of materials that have an effective life longer than my own and it looks smart and sleek. Tom Bihn has made a bag that addresses all of the myriad anal retentive demands I place on a bag and looks positively great doing it. It will also pass the PETA test with flying colors!

If I were a three piece suit kind of guy, I might find the Zephyr to be a touch casual. Luckily I am not that guy! I think that in most situations, 95% of business people would not have an issue with the looks of the bag. If you are in a very formal setting you may want to look closely before jumping in.

There is a price for this level of briefcase nirvana. The Zephyr with the Horizontal Freudian Slip and Absolute Shoulder strap tips the scales at $230. This seems like a lot until I start adding up what I spent on bags that have not lasted nor measured up to the Zephyr in the last three years. If I view this bag from a standpoint of cost of ownership it actually runs about half of what I spent on those other bags. To me this makes the cost not seem so high, and there is absolutely no arguing with the value of the Zephyr.

My father always told me that if you buy the best you will always be happy with it. That is quite simply what you get with the Zephyr. The best. No apologies or excuses. Just a briefcase that will likely last you until you retire, and maybe a year or two after that!

www.tombihn.com
customerservice@tombihn.com
1-800-729-9607
+1-206-652-4123
4750 A Ohio Ave S, Seattle, WA 98134

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  1. Daisy

    oddly enough this review almost talked me into an ID (another Tom Bihn Bag) but I’ve managed to resist.

    I would like to hear about why you went back to the MBP after the MBA though.. since I’ve been considering replacing my MB with a MBA..

  2. Jeff Mac

    Little bit complicated but here is the short version. I needed more than just the USB interfacing more often than I thought i would. I think I can get by with one other high speed interface.

    If I could wait for the Thunderbolt version of the MBA I would have stuck with the MBA but I had a great opportunity to get rid of it and painlessly acquire a MBP. This gave me back Firewire and got me Thunderbolt.

    I just had too many instances where I was having to take two computers.

  3. Daisy

    fair enough.

    My main computer is an iMac and I don’t tend to need the fancy connections “on the road” but the spouse would have the same issues as you do.

    I’ve spent a lot of time with firewire target mode drives moving from one machine to another lately while getting a troublesome problem repaired on the iMac – very very handy.

  4. Jeff Mac

    Target mode is a definite blessing, and as far as I am aware the MBA does not support it…

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