The Highs: Good looks & typical Bihn quality in a compact package
The Lows: Only contortionists will love the central water bottle pocket
The Verdict: Great backpack for around town, hiking, and “seatside”
With Tom Bihn, the recipe is simple: load your products with thoughtful features grounded in real-world experience; hand sew them in the U.S., using tough, high quality materials that reek of quality; and in a nod to (home) Seattle’s weather, equip them with YKK splashproof zippers so everything stays dry.
In the case of the Synapse, there’s another ingredient: eschew the ‘bigger is better’ mentality in favor of a bag that’s as perfect for an afternoon hike as it is for touring art galleries, or stowing beneath the seat on a regional jet or commuter.
The Synapse’s relatively modest dimensions, however, belie its remarkable capacity. I’ve recently been using a full size backpack as a work “daily bag,” and was able to put everything I’d been carrying in it into the Synapse. The only difference is that the smaller bag can’t accommodate my (jumbo sized) ThinkPad.
Before going any further, let’s take a look at the Synapse’s specs.
- Exterior of 1000 denier U.S. Cordura, lined with ultra-lightweight yet abrasion-resistant Dyneema/nylon rip-stop fabric made in Japan
- Back panel with exterior of Dri-Lex Aero-Spacer mesh and U.S. 1050 denier ballistic nylon; padded with 1/4″ (6mm), high quality, closed-cell foam
- 16″ x 11.5″ x 7.9″ (410 x 290 x 200mm); Volume: 19 liters (1160 cu.in.)
- Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz. / 710g
- #8 YKK® Uretech® splash-proof zippers
- 3/8″ (10mm) thick padded and contoured shoulder straps with removable sternum strap; removable waist belt
- Internal front pouch helps organize main compartment – sized to fit an iPad (or netbook)
- Made in the U.S.A.
- Available in 9 color combinations
A photo tour…
The front of the bag features five zippered pockets. The pocket at the top front (single zipper pull) measures approximately 6½” x 10″, and can accommodate a 1 liter water bottle; the pocket immediately beneath it measures appx. 6″ wide by 5″ deep (note that it’s trapezoidal shaped, and is about 4″ wide at its base); there are two side pockets, each of which is about 9″ deep and ~4″ wide; finally, at the base of the bag is a pocket which is ~11″ wide by 5″ high.
Bihn touts the top pocket as perfect for a water bottle. While it’s true that this location keeps the weight of the bottle centered, and prevents it from banging into your back, removing it while the bag’s on your back is impossible unless you’re Irina Vashchenko. Even if the bag’s on one shoulder, I defy anyone to remove a bottle in that pocket without dislocating a shoulder. The bag must be slung around in front of you in order to get the bottle out. All is not lost; as you’ll see in a moment, smaller water bottles will fit in the side pockets.
In actual practice, I’ve used the top pocket for my reading glasses case, and sunglass case, plus a few odds and ends.
Here’s a view of the left side pocket (this bag’s color is “Indigo” and the interior panels are “Solar” Dyneema):
Note that a 16.9 oz. water bottle fits neatly in either this pocket or its counterpart on the right side of the bag. The left pocket includes a few pen slots; the right, an Ultrasuede-lined pocket that’s ideal for a smartphone or iPod Touch.
The right pocket comes equipped with a key retainer. Finally, the two side pockets and the bottom pocket are equipped with O rings for accommodating any of Bihn’s numerous storage organizers.
Below, my Canon S90 in the smaller of the two “top” pockets.
In daily use, I’ve been using the bottom front pocket for items which don’t logically belong in other pockets: energy bars, a small aspirin/med bottle, lip balm, nail clipper, small notebook, in-ear headphones, and the like. In this shot, I put my 3-1-1 liquids bag in the pocket in order to illustrate its capacity:
A view of the back of the bag; the shoulder straps are comfortable, particularly when the sternum strap is utilized:
Typical of packs in this price/quality range, the back panel features closed cell foam for comfort. I should note that the sternum strap and waist belt are easily detached, should you prefer to not use them. A nice touch: when they’re removed, there’s no trace of hardware; you’d never suspect that anything had been removed from the bag.
Finally, the bag’s main compartment, which opens with a pair of the #8 YKK splashproof zippers which are used throughout the bag:
As you can see on the right side of this image, this compartment features an open-top pocket that holds a book, a netbook, or as shown here, a Bihn Vertical Cache which holds my iPad. Note that the Gen 1 iPad fits in this Cache nicely, but when the iPad is in its case, it’s a very snug fit. I assume that the Gen 2 iPad with Smart Cover will fit more easily. Also in the photo above are a thick paperback book (partly obscured) and a Mountain Hardwear shell. This compartment easily accommodates file folders, 8½ x 11 tablets and spiral bound notebooks; my Asus netbook fits nicely, even in its neoprene sleeve.
Which brings me to a comparison which ought to help frame how large the Synapse is. Here it is alongside my full sized, generic backpack:
The Synapse is about 65-70% as large as the pack on the left. If you’re a woman, smaller in stature, or just don’t desire to adopt the “everything I own is in this pack on my back” look while out and about in the city, airport, or hiking trails, the Synapse ought to fit the bill. Here’s an illustration which captures the bag’s basic dimensions:
A few detail shots…
I don’t know who is in charge of Quality Control at the Bihn shop (although I suspect every employee has a hand in it) but it’s virtually impossible to find flaws in any Tom Bihn bag: the stitching, and every seam, for example, is perfect.
High quality polymer hardware is used throughout; below, the removable sternum strap. Note the reinforced stitching on the strap loop (to the immediate left of the TB logo tag) —
The splashproof zippers (equipped with ‘quiet’ cord pulls, below) really work. I’ve been caught in rainstorms a couple of times with Bihn bags, and the contents stayed dry!
If you need a full size backpack capable of carrying a full size laptop, cross the Synapse off your list. But if you’re looking for a smart looking smaller pack that’s capable of carrying a surprising amount of gear including an iPad or netbook, definitely check it out. I recently used the Synapse as my “seatside” bag on several flights, and it held everything I needed, including an iPad, book, magazines, padfolio, digital camera, ear buds, snacks, — well, the list goes on and on. At a trade show, I slung it over one shoulder so I could quickly grab my S90 when needed.
As with everything, there’s a price to be paid for all this goodness. The Synapse is $120, and is worth every cent in my estimation. It’s a bag I’d be proud to use almost anywhere.
Covered by the Tom Bihn Lifetime Warranty; see the Synapse here: Tom Bihn Synapse Backpack
The Fine Print: I have no connection with Tom Bihn, but I was provided a sample bag to assist in the writing of this review