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Tom Bihn Smart Alec Backpack Review: Part Two

The Tom Bihn Smart Alec

The Tom Bihn Smart Alec

As a gear tester, there are those rare moments when you take something out of the box and you know instantly that you have something in hand that is going to be difficult to review because you’re not sure that words and pictures can do it justice.  My unboxing of the Tom Bihn Smart Alec was one of those moments.  The quality of materials and attention to detail is evident.  Everything just feels better, which is strange because I’ve reviewed bags that on paper are constructed with many of the same raw materials. 

In Part One of this review, I took the Smart Alec into the wild on a day hike.  I will now focus on Every Day Carry, which admittedly means different things to different people. For me, five days a week, it’s my commute to the office by car and/or by train.  One of things I like about Tom Bihn is they don’t sell bags, they sell systems.  Every Tom Bihn pack can be customized with a wide assortment of accessories to meet virtually any load out requirement.  This makes Tom Bihn’s backpacks and messengers very strong options for EDC – regardless of the intended “philosophy of use”.

I carry a laptop everywhere – even at times on the weekends.  Initially, I had a Lenovo 14″ Thinkpad and used Tom Bihn’s Vertical Brain Cell to protect it.  The Brain Cell, which Tom makes in various sizes to fit different sized devices, also has two slip pockets made of a stretch material to add a little organization.  I found them to be perfectly sized to fit my Motorola Xyboard 8.2 tablet and my Spyderco Dragonfly 2 SALT (a larger knife would fit also).

Tom Bihn Vertical Brain Cell

Tom Bihn Vertical Brain Cell

The Brain Cell clips into the Tom Bihn Smart Alec  via removable Annex Clips.  I’m ordinarily not a huge fan of Annex Clips but this is the best use of them I’ve experienced.  Just line up the clips with the loops, press, and the Brain Cell is in and secure.

The Smart Alec actually has a second set of loops in the main compartment.  It’s possible to also use these four loops to securely attach an appropriately sized molle pouch to the interior of the bag.  Nice to have options.

The Brain Cell has a velcro closure with a loop to help quickly open it once secure.  The Lenovo slides right in and the cell provides very good protection.

Shortly after receiving the Smart Alec, I made the switch to the 13″ Apple Macbook Air (MBA).  Fortunately, Tom Bihn makes a version of their Cache laptop sleeve for the MBA.  The Cache, which has 1/4″ foam padding, doesn’t add a lot of bulk to the wafer thin device.

The Tom Bihn Cache for the 13

The Tom Bihn Cache for the 13″ Macbook Air

The only thing I didn’t like about the Cache is that the sizing was so snug that the tiny Nano receiver for my Logitech mouse wouldn’t fit requiring me to remove it each time I put the MBA in the case.  Not a huge issue, but I’d worry about losing it eventually.  Of course, switching to the Apple Magic Mouse would solve that problem. ;-)

Another common accessory for Tom Bihn Smart Alec owners is the Freudian Slip.  It’s an admin panel, available in either vertical or horizontal orientation, that adds removable organization to the main compartment of the Smart Alec if needed.  Here are pics of the panel sides – each with a variety of sleeves and pockets.

Tom Bihn Vertical Freudian Slip

Tom Bihn Vertical Freudian Slip

I tried using it with the Brain Cell, but quite honestly the combination took up too much room in the main compartment and added too much weight to the overall package (especially carrying the heavier laptop).  I did start using the Freudian Slip when I switched to the MacBook Air Cache.  It made up for losing the Brain Cell’s slip pockets and the Cache can actually fit in the top sleeve of the Freudian Slip so the combination was more compact.  Your mileage may vary.  Below is the Freudian Slip/Vertical Brain Cell combo and for comparison the Freudian Slip with the Cache.

Tom Bihn Vertical Brain Cell and Freudian Slip in the Smart Alec

Tom Bihn Vertical Brain Cell and Freudian Slip in the Smart Alec

Tom Bihn Freudian Slip with 13

Tom Bihn Freudian Slip with 13″ Macbook Air Cache in the Smart Alec

I found a few other add-ons to be useful for my EDC.  The Small Padded Organizer Pouch tethered to an O-Ring was an ideal place to store and protect my laptop’s mouse.

Tom Bihn Small Padded Organizer Pouch

Tom Bihn Small Padded Organizer Pouch

The 3D Mesh Organizer Cube can be used for power cords or other miscellaneous items and it fits nicely in the Smart Alec’s bottom pocket in the main compartment.

Tom Bihn 3D Mesh Organizer Cube

Tom Bihn 3D Mesh Organizer Cube

The Tom Bihn Small Clear Organizer Pouch can fit my Passport and other travel documents but most days I used it for my Work ID and some extra cash.

Tom Bihn Small Clear Organizer Pouch

Tom Bihn Small Clear Organizer Pouch

Tom doesn’t currently offer a sunglasses case but the Hazard 4 Mil-Pod is a good option since it features a snap hook that can clip directly to one of the Smart Alec’s O-Rings.

 

Finally, Tom Bihn will be making the matching Accessory Pockets available for pre-order soon but I thought it would be interesting to see if other molle compatible pouches could be mounted to the external loops.  Pictured below is a MSM Stealth Admin Pouch.  Gatekeeper clips can be slipped through the top and bottom row of molle.  Here I’m using 1″ and 1.5″ clips but for this particular pouch I could have used all 1″ clips. 

 

The other side of the Gatekeeper then threads through the Smart Alec’s loop.  The MSM Stealth is wide enough to line up the attachment points without stressing either the pack or the pouch stitching.


I also experimented with the TAD OP1 Admin Pouch.  Even though the TAD has fewer rows of molle, the OP1 can still be attached to the Tom Bihn Smart Alec using 1.5″ Gatekeepers.  By the way, the clips aren’t currently sold separately but Tom reportedly plans to add a parts page where they will be making the Gatekeepers available for purchase.  Stay tuned for that.  

CONCLUSION

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, the Tom Bihn Smart Alec is an extremely flexible platform for EDC.  If you’re the type of person that likes to experiment with different load outs and don’t want your pack to dictate your carry then you could hardly go wrong with this bag.  As I mentioned in Part One, the Smart Alec is extremely durable, weather repellent, light weight, and very comfortable.  And it’s now my reference pack for multi-purpose EDC.  The Tom Bihn Smart Alec retails for $160 and can be purchased directly from Tom Bihn’s website in a variety of different color combinations.

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7 Responses so far.

  1. David King,R.N. says:

    Bag is too citified & too civilized for my taste, but nice, all the same.
    As always: great reading & fine pix,TARFU!
    Glad you’re starting to see the light re: Annex Clips.
    Also will be very glad to add Tom Binh Gatekeepers, along with my current Annex Clips.
    Thanx!
    ~Gnarly

  2. Arnie says:

    As always…excellent gear review!

  3. [...] Read the full review — with 20+ photos — over at Loaded Pocketz. [...]

  4. Jeff W says:

    While I agree that Tom Bihn makes a great bag, this one is a $160 bag with no computer sleeve and minimal organization. If you want to spend another $100-$150 on Bihn ala carte items, you have a $300 bag without room for your lunch or a coat. I think you can find better deals elsewhere

    • admin says:

      Jeff – I understand what you’re saying but here’s how I think about it. Tom Bihn is really comparable in quality and materials to companies like Triple Aught Design, GoRuck, Arc’teryx, etc. All of those companies sell packs of similar size for $350 and up. The difference can buy a lot of accessories.

      I’m not saying that everyone has to spend or wants to spend $300+ on their carry system. Certainly there are great options for less money from a lot of bag makers. I’ve done reviews on quite a few of them on the EDC Forums. But, in those cases, you’re not going to get the same quality of materials both inside and out. You’re just not. Now if you’re someone that doesn’t put a ton of wear on a pack and/or doesn’t carry on a daily basis professionally then that may not be something you care as much about. I really hope to include a mix of premium and value brands here on this site so there is a little something for everyone. So stay tuned.

      One more thing. The Smart Alec will carry more than you think and it will take a jacket and lunch if you don’t mind the added bulk. I probably didn’t do a stellar job showing that in my review. I’ll do a video of that here in the next week and post it so you can see what I’m taking about.

  5. Jeff W says:

    Admin, thanks for your reply. I am a satisifed Bihn owner with a couple of pieces of luggage and other ala carte items. But I have been disappointed in their backpacks. Money doesn’t equal qualify. My current EDC is a Harley-Davidson backpack I bought for $100. It has a computer sleeeve and great organizaion. I’m a construction auditor and over the last three years the pack has seen a lot of airplane interiors and construction trailers. It’s still going strong.
    Keep up the good work, I’m glad that I found your site.

  6. [...] textbooks. For pics of a Brain Cell + Freudian Slip in a SA, check out Loaded Pocketz's blog post here. I think the BB would give you more options to carry more if you need to, especially multiple [...]

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