Just over a year ago, bag maker Tom Bihn contacted me to see if I’d like to try out one of their larger SuperEgo bags and the carry-on Tri-Star. I said sure as I’d had experience with their bags before and I knew they built good stuff.

At first, I thought I’d use the bags for a couple of weeks and write something up about them, which is my standard procedure for accessories and wearable items. But, as bags are typically created once and sold for years with small refinements, I then got the idea to use them for a bit longer. So I used them as my only travel bags for a year. To Tom Bihn’s credit, aside from an initial email to make sure I didn’t have any questions, they haven’t pestered me at all, which is fairly unusual for a company who sends out merchandise for review. 2012 01 09 13261241431 220x220 Review: A year with the superb Tom Bihn Super Ego and Tri Star bags

So, after a year with the bags, I’ve had a chance to get to know them fairly intimately and to test them out under a variety of loads. I’ve been in and through a dozen airports or more, in planes large and small. They’ve accompanied me to half a dozen conferences and been spilled on, dropped, dragged, used as a pillow and as a footrest. These are tough, good looking products that have done me well in a variety of situations and protected my junk all over the place. If that’s enough for you, you can head over to Tom Bihn’s site now to buy one. If you want a deeper look, read on.

Super Ego

The Super Ego is a larger version of TB’s Ego messenger bag. It’s made of 1050 denier, ballistic nylon and padded in some spots with 1/2″ thick PORON foam. The main bag is tri-toned, with three choices of color. The version I tested was black, blue and wasabi, with the lighter green interior color making it easier to find small black bits of electronic paraphernalia in dim lighting. And nearly every peripheral maker things that black and black cords are the way to go, so a light interior is very helpful.

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The bag has two main compartments, two zipper pockets on the front and 11 secondary open-topped pockets. The front compartment contains 10 of those pockets, which are protected by the large front flap. The flap is well sized, with a good overlap that should prevent stuff from coming out when the bag is inverted. I’ve flipped and flopped it a good amount and never had anything spill, but since it’s a messenger bag it would be better if you stored truly sensitive stuff in the main pouch, which has a zipper.

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The front pockets are good for things that you need to get at quick. Because the front pouch has a nice large clip, you can unsnap it with one hand and get into those without even having to look. This can be handy for swapping camera batteries or snagging a business card on the go.

The front flap has a buckle and strap that’s pretty much the perfect length, but it also has a secret emergency ‘extra’ bit if you need it. The strap (which is cork on my unit) can be swapped out for various other colors, but it’s also attached by velcro inside those loops. So you can take it out and re-attach it wherever you want if you’re stuffing a tube inside the front flap to carry it and you can’t make the strap long enough. It’s kind of a bag hack but it’s nice to have if you really need it.

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The interior of the front pouch features two hardware contact loops that you can use to clip the Tom Bihn pouches to (you can buy these in a variety of sizes and materials). Or they can be used to clip keys or memory card pouches to. Those Tom Bihn pouches, like the ones below, are really useful and can be bought in a bunch of flavors. I like the clear plastic-fronted ones because I can see what’s inside each of them. When I’m really loaded up with cables and such, I keep those in these things. It keeps me sane.

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This various colors mean that I can assign a ‘look’ to a kit. So, yellow is my 3G modem and charging cable, red is my camera batteries, etc. Depending on what I’m carrying I typically clip 2-4 of these pouches inside the front. The main area here is usually left clear or used to dump things quickly if I’m handed tchotchke at a trade show or something.

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The main compartment, which is where I keep a laptop and a tablet typically, has a rail system that allows you to slide a neoprene pouch out of the pocket to extract your laptop without having to remove it completely. This is a cool little invention but I didn’t end up using it much myself. I ended up removing the rails entirely and just throwing a (smaller) Tom Bihn pouch with an 11″ MacBook Air in there and my iPad alongside it for most trips.

Because some of the stuff I do requires taking a camera, I often had to cart along a Canon body and one or two lenses. The main pouch is thankfully large enough to shove a body and lenses in without too much fuss, along with a laptop and tablet. It bulks up the bag significantly, but thanks to the large flat back that rests well against the hip, it’s still comfortable even when stuffed to the gills.

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Which brings us to the strap. The Super Ego comes with a standard shoulder strap, but you can upgrade it for $20 to include the Absolute strap. Do this. The Absolute strap is one of the best I’ve used on any bag. It consists of a rugged nylon strap that connects to a neoprene center piece with a wide shoulder support section. That chunk is bookended by tough rubber connectors that prevent tearing and the edges are capped and stitched so they won’t fray. When the bag is really loaded for bear, this center piece stretches, absorbing the jolt of it when you take a step. This is an enormous boon to your knees and once you use a heavy bag with the Absolute strap you won’t want to go back.

Because the center panel stretches, it also distributes the weight across a larger portion of your shoulder, making it much more comfortable. A grippy underside prevents slippage but will also tug at your shirt a bit if you slide the bag around. This makes repositioning the bag more of a ‘sling and hop’ maneuver, rather than just a sliding one.

As far as real-world loads, here’s what went into the Super Ego at CES earlier this year:

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  1. 11″ MacBook Air i7
  2. iPad 16GB Verizon
  3. Verizon 4G MiFi
  4. iPad SD/USB Dongles
  5. 8GB USB Drive
  6. SD>CF Adapter, in case a friend needs one
  7. Headphones
  8. Purell
  9. Field Notes
  10. Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pen
  11. Memory card wallet (~50GB of SD cards and 10GB of USB drives)
  12. iPhone 3GS backup phone with T-Mobile SIM
  13. Mophie JuicePack Plus battery pack for iPhone 4
  14. iPhone Charger and 2 Dock Connector cables
  15. Canon EOS 60D + 50mm + 28-135mm + 70-200mm
  16. Mophie Powerstation Pro battery pack
  17. MacBook power adapter with Twelve South PlugBug (+1 USB Port)
  18. Various medications like breath mints, Advil, Immodium, antacids etc.
  19. Tom Bihn SuperEgo bag with Absolute shoulder strap
  20. Olloclip lens set for iPhone
  21. SDHC card reader

That made the bag relatively heavy, and bulks up the thickness somewhat, but definitely not to maximum. The laptop pouch would easily have held a 15″ model as well. Even this loaded, it was far better to carry than one of my other bags, which include a well worn Crumpler Complete Seed and about 12 different camera and camera+laptop bags.

What I like about the Super Ego, though, is that it feels great both loaded for bear and nearly empty. It still sits well and feels nice on the shoulder and body. At Macworld this year I went in the opposite direction and this is how I covered the event:

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Not pictured is the MacBook Air and associated power adapters, but other than that this is about it. It was a bit larger than I needed but still very comfortable and had plenty of room for pamphlets and demo units.

At WWDC this year, my load was about the same as the CES kit above, but when I’m covering an event like the keynote solo, my lap has to be my desk. And, because I have short stubby legs, I use my bag as a footrest to keep my lap level. So laptop and camera are in hand (have to do both when you’re alone) and feet on the bag. Works well for that too if you’re also a shorty mcshorts.

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There are two holders on the sides of the bag that are water-bottle-ish in size. I think that’s what they’re for actually but I’ve never used them. I kind of wish they weren’t there as they add 4 more straps to the bag, but I’m sure that a lot of people carry water in them so probably best if they stay. I tend to shove it in the front pouch.

The top handle is grippy and comfortable and placed well at the bag’s center of gravity, so it doesn’t swing inwards or outwards when you’re grabbing and going. This goes for the main strap as well, which is balanced so that the bag hangs straight, even with a silly load.

If I haven’t said a lot of negative stuff about the bag, well, there’s not much to say. Yes, it’s a bit on the large end, especially for a small laptop user, but there’s always the Ego if you’d like to downsize. It’s tough, looks great, has an amazing strap and manages to work well both loaded and unloaded. It’s comfortable, low profile and extremely well made. Even though I haven’t taken any special care of it, it looks as good as new. Spills wipe off, feet don’t phase it and even the light interior has yet to take on any dinge.

If you’re looking for a heavy carrier bag that’s also good for light excursions, the Super Ego is one heck of an option.

Tom Bihn Super Ego

Tri-Star

The Tri-Star is a different beast. A travel bag that’s meant for weekenders or perhaps a stretched week, it features no external straps by default. You can add the abovementioned Absolute strap if you’d like to convert it for shoulder use.

On the back of the bag, there’s a side zipper that conceals two full backpack straps that you can use to convert it for carrying. That pocket can then be used for casual storage, but since you can’t zip it with the backpack straps out, nothing valuable.  The largest pocket is, likely not coincidentally, magazine sized. The second one has one of those hardware clips that you can use to keep track of keys or one of the pouches the company offers.

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The bag has a triple-zipper front, with pockets that overlap. This means that the top pocket reaches all the way to the ‘bottom’ of the front. The second is slightly shorter and so on. Every zipper on the bag is beaded to lock out moisture and water. The curved pocket to the right is a short quick access job, but also has a snapping flap inside that you can use to keep a water bottle tucked in if you’re walking around.

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There are also three interior pockets, all lined in bright cross-hatch lining for visibility. The first of these can go full-length or be divided into a 1/3-2/3 section with a zip-together partition. This adds some nice organizational options. The bag flips open completely as the zipper comes down to the base of the bag. This makes it easy to lay garments in without crunching or wrinkling them by shoving. There are two hardware points to clip things on in here.

The middle pocket is a plain pouch, but it has two clips that let you clip in one of Tom Bihn’s Brain Cell laptop pouches so it doesn’t shift around. Having this in the center of the bag is great, as it means your clothes offer padding and protection for your center mounted laptop. I wish that more bags took this tack, as sticking your laptop on the outside of a bag that you’re going to shove into an overhead compartment has always sucked.

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The third pocket features two straps that you can use to flatten out a puffy jacket or keep some slacks stacked and folded correctly. There are three more contact points in here for clips.

As far as packing the bag, I found it to be an easy job for 2-3 days, but any more and it started to get stretched a bit. Obviously, your milage may vary depending on amount or thickness of clothing, but I like to pack in a full change for every day. If you’re saving space and going with one pair of jeans and some t-shirts, you can probably get more days out of it, for instance.

When packed up, it’s quite easy to grab and go and stands on its own in both directions. Since it’s a soft bag, you’re going to see it bulge in almost every direction once it gets very full. This means that it can be a bigger challenge to shove it into an overhead on a smaller plane. I never quite failed to get it in, but it did pose some challenges from time to time.

After having packed it for trips from 1-2 days up to a full week, I can say that I’d definitely get something a bit bigger if you’re a week-long jaunter. It just gets too full to guarantee that you’re not going to wrinkle your clothes and looks silly carrying an overstuffed bag. But for 1-4 days, it’s a good size. If you’re going to use it with regularity, then I’d recommend picking up some of Tom Bihn’s packing cubes (or ones like them) to partition out items like socks and underwear.

If you’re a serious traveler, then you probably already have a bag preference, but The Tri-Star is good news if you’re looking for a weekender bag that’s attractive and packs well, without being too complex.

Tom Bihn Tri-Star

Once again, Tom Bihn impresses with both of these bags. I’ve yet to try out any of their stuff and have serious misgivings. Very solidly made and well thought out. Now I have to send these bags back and buy one of my own.