I'm new to Tom Bihn bags -- having only discovered them recently -- but am not new to the quest for a perfect system to carry around my laptop. My livelihood is computer programming, so the main requirement I have of any bag is that it transport my machine, anywhere I need to take it, in safety and security. I've learned the hard way that comfort and quality are nearly as important, which is what started me on this quest.
From that perspective, I'd like to review the Smart Alec. I purchased it with a Brain Cell, iPad Cache w/ rails, upper & lower modular pockets, and 3 small organizer pouches. It cost somewhere around $350 all told.
My first thoughts on opening the box were that this is certainly a well-made product. My second thought was that the back straps seemed a little skimpy compared to other bags I've used. However, usage, and education about seam-stitching and bar tacks, has completely reversed me on that second thought. Simply put, these are the best back straps I've encountered, and the most comfortable that I've used on any bag. In fact, they are not just comfortable: my back actually feels better with the pack on than off! I'm not sure how that works exactly, but I look forward to putting it on each day. It has come to be one of my favorite things about the bag, which I would not have expected from the beginning. To give you a point of reference, I'm 6'1" 190 lbs with fairly broad shoulders.
I also *love* the fact that I can reduce the amount of hardware on the bag. I'm so tired of bags that look like a "strap medusa", waiting to turn me into stone if I look too hard.
In terms of laptop safety and security, I give this bag top marks all around. It gets banged into doors, accidentally dropped, has stuff put on top of it, etc., and I have no worries. The only bag I've had with better security was a Zero Halliburton, but I gave up on it due to weight and shoulder discomfort. The iPad Cache on rails is also a very welcome addition. In the past I've kept the iPad in a dedicated padded pouch, but it would swim around in the bag and I always feared a scenario were lateral pressure would somehow crack the screen. The rails system in the Smart Alec keeps the iPad in the exact same position and orientation (mid bag, off the bottom), giving me as much safety and security for that piece of tech as I could hope for.
I also purchased the upper and lower modular pockets, in order to have extra storage options while traveling. At first I thought I'd keep them on the bag at all times, but I don't use them enough to justify the weight (together they add 3/4 lbs to the bag when empty). I prefer to keep only what is necessary in the bag, to maximize ease and comfort while toting it around.
The stitching and materials are a dream compared to other bags. I think 1050 ballistic nylon is now my favorite bag fabric. I ordered a Side Effect in 1050 as well (which I'm not reviewing here) and sometimes I like to just sit and touch it to feel the fabric under my skin. I just wish the SA had no Cordura on the outside -- which gets dirty far too quickly -- and instead had 1050 over the whole exterior. Oh, and the nylon/dyneema fabric chosen for the interior is simply amazing! I love the color (my bag is black/black/steel) and the feel against my fingers as I bring things in and out. Plus, the high strength of this fabric relieves any worries about damaging it as I shove stuff things in or pull them out.
As for as internal organization, I like that there are only two external pockets, and that one of them is a giant empty pocket for a water bottle (I more often have an AC charger in there than a water bottle). The only negative in this respect is the "kangaroo pocket" at the bottom of the main part of the bag. I don't use this for anything, and my fingers are constantly catching on it while grabbing for things at the bottom of the bag. I'm half-tempted to tape it closed so I won't be bothered by it anymore. Oh, and I love all the O-rings everywhere. Makes it easy to add pouches and other quick-to-get items inside the giant storage area.
Is it worth $350? Given the value of what it's protecting, how often I'll use it, and how long I expect to use it for, I would pay 3x that and consider it money well spent. I realize it may be a large figure compared to other bags, or to pay "sight unseen" since you're ordering it online; but after a few months of usage -- and compared to all the other expensive bags I've owned in my quest for something truly useful -- $350 is a bargain in my opinion. It's really only $30/month for the first year, or $3/month for the ten years in which I fully expect to enjoy this pack.
Tom, you've made something I can truly enjoy using for my money, and that is really the highest praise I can give for an item designed for its utility.