The Highs: Thoughtful design; impeccable quality;  TSA checkpoint friendly;  a 320 pound bodyguard couldn’t provide your laptop more protection

The Lows: Quality ain’t cheap, son

The Verdict: A dual purpose laptop bag for the new millennium

In the ancient history of the 1980′s, the contents of my daily bag looked a lot different than they do today.  Back then, I’d have a slew of folders and papers, and on occasion, a three ring binder. Today, it’s basically my MacBook Air, a digital camera, perhaps a few random papers, plus a lot of small essentials – ear buds, a couple of Field Notes books, a few pens, an iPod touch, and so forth.  If I need to bring “documents” home, they’re on a jump drive.  My daily bag has gone digital.

As such, my needs in terms of the bag itself have changed.  Twenty years ago, I used a conventional briefcase;  today, a small Timbuk2 messenger bag. 

I have two basic requirements for a daily bag:  I need something that works for both my daily commute and as a seatside bag or “personal item” on flights.  The T2 messenger bag does this well; the only downside is that I’m occasionally asked to remove my MacBook Air when everything goes through the magnetometer.

Entering the fray is a new contender from Tom Bihn, the Cadet.  What makes this bag unique is the fact that it’s checkpoint friendly by virtue of a clever slide-out laptop (or iPad) padded sleeve (or “Cadet Cache” in Bihnspeak); more on this later.

For now, the basics: the Cadet is a “minimalist briefcase” that’s available in two sizes: 15/13 for MacBook Pros and MacBooks, and 11/Air for the 11″ MacBook Air or an iPad. As is the norm with Bihn, both are available in a wide array of colors, and if you’re not going to use it with a laptop or iPad, there’s a “Cache delete” option which results in a $30 lower price. 

Tom Bihn Cadet Features & Specs

  • Meets TSA guidelines for “checkpoint friendly” bags
  • Exterior made of U.S. 1050 denier Ballistic nylon: this Ballistic has twice the abrasion resistance of 1680 denier fabric
  • Lined with ultra-light yet super-tough Dyeema/nylon ripstop. Made in Japan
  • .25″ / 8mm closed cell foam on the front, back and bottom
  • YKK Uretech® splash-proof zippers on main compartment (#10) and exterior pockets (#8)
  • Overall dimensions:
    15/13 Cadet: 16.25 x 12.5 x 4.5″ / 410 x 320 x 115mm
    11/iPad Cadet: 13.5 x 10.5 x 4.5″ / 345 x 270 x 115mm
  • Features a dual-function “roll-aboard” sleeve/magazine pocket on the back
  • Weight:  1.4 to 2 pounds
  • Made in the US

A photo tour

The Tom Bihn Cadet is clearly the product of a crazed subset of the species that is hellbent on producing bags that are cleverly designed and ridiculously well made.  The thing is gorgeous.

It features 3 compartments. Up front, there’s an Ultraseude® lined valuables pocket, perfect for your wristwatch or smartphone:

In the middle, a Dyneema lined pocket with a few pen slots and a couple of compartments for a power supply, your passport, a travel mouse, and perhaps your digital camera.  A couple of O Rings are available for the (included) key retainer and if you wish, other Bihn pouches.  By the way, the model pictured here is the 11/Air version.

Finally, the laptop sleeve or “Cadet Cache” resides in the main compartment. In this image, we’re looking from the rear of the bag, and as you can see, there’s a divider panel toward the front of the compartment (for a few papers, or perhaps a manila folder).

The sleeve (or ‘Cache’) is made of 1/4″ thick foam padding laminated with an exterior of black 4-ply Taslan and interior of brushed tricot. Whatever the materials, it clearly is going to protect your laptop well, particularly in concert with the closed cell foam padding built in to the front, back, and bottom surfaces of the bag itself.

The Cache is mounted to the bag via two of Bihn’s (removable) “Gatekeeper” clips which mount to, and slide on, two vertical pieces of webbing sewn into the back panel of the Cadet.  So what?  This is how the bag/cache combo is TSA checkpoint friendliness: when you get to the magic magnetometer moment, unzip the main compartment, and the sleeve/cache slides out so it can lay flat on the belt:

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I found it helpful to grasp the bottom of the bag while sliding out the Cache.  Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it’s quite easy.

A few close-up shots

As I alluded to earlier, the build quality of the bag is stupendous.  It’s virtually impossible to find a loose thread, sewing error, or any sort of flaw in these bags.  The padded handles, incidentally, are quite comfortable:

YKK splashproof zippers are used throughout; the polymer hardware appears to be durable, and extensive use of my Bihn Tri-Star has proven it so.  Bihn has a few options with regard to shoulder straps, including the marvelous “Absolute” strap.

Below, a close-up of one of the Gatekeepers that allows the sleeve/Cache to slide in and out at TSA checkpoints:

Finally, another nice touch:  there’s a magazine sleeve on the back of the bag. Near its bottom, a zipper which when unzipped, enables you to slide the bag over the handle of a wheelie:

Finally, a side by side comparison of the 15/13 (L) and the 11/Air (photo courtesy of Tom Bihn):

The 11/Air is to my eye more of a man purse (similar in size to the Bihn Co-Pilot), than the 15/13, which is more obviously a laptop bag.  The two are priced identically, which begs the question of whether iPad or MacBook Air users might want to opt for the larger bag in order to take advantage of its greater capacity. Whether that makes sense in actual practice,  I can’t say, as I haven’t used the larger Cadet.  It’s worth consideration, though, and perhaps a call to Bihn’s Customer Service folks.

Wrapping up

What’s clear is that the Cadet definitely works as a modern, digital briefcase, and certainly meets the requirements of a seatside bag, given its capacity and checkpoint friendly design.  If you’re constantly lugging about a lot of papers and hard copy documents, this isn’t the bag for you.  But if you need to carry a laptop and a few other essentials to work and on the road, definitely check it out.

You can see it here: Tom Bihn Cadet.  $170.  $140 w/o the Cadet Cache/sleeve.

Made in Seattle, Washington, USA. Lifetime Guarantee, 60 Day Return Policy. 

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8 Comments on Review: Tom Bihn Cadet – a daily bag for the digital age

  1. Dan says:

    “Quality Ain’t Cheap, son.” Loved that line.

    Thanks for introducing my to Tom Bihn, they make great products.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Thx for the comment, Dan.

    [Reply]

  2. Ed says:

    Interesting review and pics.

    The first comment though in your Summary about the laptop protection is odd to me?

    This bag offers much less protection than the Bihn Brain Cell which is a staple of many of his other bags.

    The Brain Cell offers active Drop Protection which has saved me more than once!

    Keep up the good work.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Ed,

    Good point. I was responding to the combination of the foam padding in the walls of the bag in combination with the Cache, but there’s no doubt that the Brain Cell is the gold standard… maybe the equivalent of a 350 lb. lineman. :-)

    [Reply]

  3. Michael W. says:

    Last of the Facebook holdouts – yahoo! – so we can comment without blasting our comments out to all our FB friends. Who really shouldn’t know about our strange obsession with bags anyway.

    I am not sure I like the slide-out way of dealing with TSA concerns. I think I prefer the “unzip and flop out” method – where a bag splits in half, clam-style, into TSA friendly and regular sections.

    The Bihn approach looks like it leaves the mouth of the bag open during transit through security – an invitation for stuff to spill out or, worse yet, for pilfering hands to enter and pilfer. I do admit the Bihn approach seems less bulky (the clam-style bags I’ve seen go crazy on padding and of course the zipper bulks things up too).

    I also admit the slide out feature is undeniably novel and cool.

    For me, I just use a Chrome laptop sleeve – one of the slimmest and tightest fitting I can find – and a nondescript but not cheap bag – and pull out the laptop sleeve through security.

    I’m not sure if the Bihn would be harder to walk away with, than just a sleeve. Maybe a thief would be deterred by the extra step required to re-insert the sleeve. Or maybe the laptop is safer because it would be harder to “mask” a whole bag than to slip a sleeved laptop into the thief’s own bag.

    Makes me wonder why US airports don’t use numbered bins and require you to turn back a same-numbered card when you pick up your stuff. This simple level of security is common in Asia.

    I also think if you worry about security – I do – having a high end bag and high end laptop sleeve are kind of inviting trouble, vs. pulling out a beat up, cheap looking sleeve from a nondescript bag.

    But for hauling a laptop to a cafe in a posh shopping center – this is the cat’s meow, without a doubt. Think I’d go for the larger version though, and use my own sleeve.

    [Reply]

  4. Michael W. says:

    BTW the weight and shape of the smaller version are very appealing compared to the Gator – they are both rated at the same (or nearly the same) volume but obviously the Cadet is designed with a computer in mind, while the Gator is squatter and more of a trunk. Still worth cross-shopping with the Red Oxx Gator though, imho. It’s still a workhorse.

    [Reply]

  5. Jeff Mac says:

    Kevin,

    Nice run through and your pics are great! What camera are you using?

    The only issue I have bumped into with the sliding cache is if I have something else in the main compartment that is not in the slash pocket. It tends to fall against the strap guides and makes it a little challenging to slide the cache back in.

    Other than that I think it is a home run.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Jeff,

    Thanks for the comment, and your point about contents in the main compartment is a good one.

    I use a Nikon D80 for most of the shots on the site, including the reviews.

    [Reply]

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