Review: Tom Bihn Smart Alec Backpack

A well-made backpack for laptops or not. (March 15th, 2007)

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Tom Bihn, Inc.

Price: $110

The Good

  • Lots of space. Side zippered areas hold tons of stuff. Sternum and waist belts. Fits a variety of laptop sleeves.

The Bad

  • Costs a lot to equip properly for laptop use. Must pay extra for organizational aids.

A great book bag in its own right, the Tom Bihn Smart Alec bag is also an excellent computer bag when paired with one of the company's Monolith laptop cases. I tested this configuration for the last several weeks.

unique, unobtrusive style

At first glance, the Smart Alec really looks unexceptional, but once you load it up with stuff you get some idea of just how flexible this case is and how much it can carry. The Smart Alec has a squared-off bottom and a tapered top and hangs off your back comfortably. Made of 1050 denier ballistic and 1000 denier Cordura nylons, the Smart Alec comes equipped with a splash-proof zipper, and it comes in a variety of colors: Crimson, steel, sage, black and kiwi. Only the front panel has the color, the rest of the bag is your basic black. It is a unique, unobtrusive style that works equally well for students and business people.

What is Inside

One of the first things you notice when you open it, is the presence of two removable Annex clips that work with optional case inserts, the Brain Cell or Monolith hard-sided laptop cases. The clips are necessary if you plan to use the Smart Alec as a carrying case for your Apple laptop, because the Smart Alec doesn't have any thick padding on its sides to protect a laptop from getting banged around.

The inside flap of the Smart Alec features four sewn in pockets. One oversized pocket is suitable for a day planner or PDA. The other three can be use for a cell phone, pens, or other small devices. There is another pocket closer to the bottom that's quite deep, also on the inside of the case, this is the side that goes against your back when you're carrying the Smart Alec, -- capable of swallowing my entire hand up to the wrist. This handy pocket keeps cables and cords or other stuff from swimming around inside. There is also a detachable key snap.

What is Outside

Outside, on either side of the Smart Alec, are two more pockets, protected safe and sound behind #8 YKK Uretech splash-proof zippers and the Smart Alec's weather-resistant outside covering. These are perfect for more pens, flashlights, light sabers, or just about anything else you'd like to jam in there. Both pockets are easily big enough for a 16-ounce water bottle, so the Smart Alec is a great choice, if you're planning to do lots of outdoor activity on a warm day. Each pocket also features another smaller pocket inside.

The adjustable and 3/8-inch (10mm) padded shoulder straps feature removable sternum and waist straps. This is handy if you plan to ride a bike with the Smart Alec or want to take the weight off your shoulders -- When laden with a MacBook Pro and some textbooks, this thing will give your shoulder some welts unless you distribute the weight carefully. Sternum and waist straps make a big difference when carrying a backpack, and their inclusion demonstrates Tom Bihn's attention to detail and your health.

Freudian Slip

The Freudian Slip Insert

Excellent, but Pricey

The real downside of the Smart Alec is the price, it costs $110 just for the basic bag; a Brain Cell ($50) or Monolith ($45) laptop case, which slide inside and lock in place using those Annex clips, will set you back another hour or three of labor. As of this writing, the Vertical Brain Cell is replacing the Monolith. If you want to add the Freudian Slip, a handy insert that lets you hold a ton more papers without worrying about them being folded and mutilated, you can expect to pay another $35. While these inserts are well worth the investment, the whole package is a bit pricey.

Other Tom Bihn bags reviewed by MacNN:

Tom Bihn Super Ego Bag
Tom Bihn Brain Cell Laptop Sleeve

Edited by Ilene Hoffman, Reviews Editor

by Lee P. Meredith


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