Smart Alec - EDC, Canyonlands, and the California Zephyr
I recently purchased a Tom Bihn Smart Alec. This is not my first Tom Bihn bag, I've had a Ristretto for my iPad for about four years. I've been very happy with the Ristretto, carrying it almost every day (the bag has now lasted about twice as long as my first iPad).
I had three roles in mind when I got the Smart Alec. Its primary use would be as an EDC laptop bag, but I also wanted something suitable for some day hiking, and to serve as a one-bag solution on overnight trips. I've now had a chance to use it in all three of these roles, so I feel I can go ahead and give a review.
When I was researching the Smart Alec before buying, it became pretty clear that this was a BYOO bag: Bring Your Own Organization. It's pretty much a sack with one large main compartment and two smaller pockets: one for pens and such and the other for a water bottle. If you want more organization than that, you need to add pouches, packing cubes, and such. So in addition to the bag, I went all out on the accessories. I got various small and mini sized pouches, some stuff sacks, a 3d Mesh Organize Pouch, 2 small and 1 large Western Flyer packing cubes, and a Snake Charmer (the latter merits a separate review). I also got a Brain Cell for my Retina Macbook Pro and the upper and lower modular pockets.
When it first arrived, my initial impression was that the bag was smaller than I thought it would be. I'd read several reviews noting how big the Smart Alec was, but to my eyes it's a rather compact bag. This sort of thing is relative, of course. I'm 6'5" and a routinely carry around a 15" laptop and by these standards, I'd rate this as a medium sized, rather than large backpack.
The first thing I did was to attach the Upper Modular Pocket to the top of the bag. I really think this is a must-have if you get a Smart Alec. It adds a lot of additional options for carrying smaller, miscellaneous items. I've got a sunglasses case in there, along with pens and pencils, business cards, and a small flashlight.
The folks at Tom Bihn had pre-installed the Brain Cell in the bag (a nice touch, given that I've heard the clips can be a bit tricky to get attached the first time). The Brain Cell is certainly sturdy, sandwiching the laptop between a pair of padded pieces of stiff plastic. I think my laptop is going to be well protected in here. The flip side is that the Brain Cell is pretty bulky. For a 15" laptop it extends from top to bottom of the Smart Alec and takes up close to a third of the available depth. While I think the Brain Cell will continue to be my EDC laptop carrier, I've got a Cache on the way for situations (like overnight trips) where I might be tight for space.
Even with the Brain Cell in place, there's still plenty of room for the Snake Charmer and my Ristretto, with enough room left over for lunch or a light jacket. This will probably be my standard EDC load.
I recently took a trip to Canyonlands National Park and had a chance to use the Smart Alec for some day hiking. The water bottle pocket easily accepts a liter bottle (it also has the option to carry a larger bottle if you leave it unzipped). The main pocket accepted food, rain gear, and a DSLR camera with ease. Even only about half full, it rode well; it didn't get floppy or bounce around.
Last weekend, I had my first chance to use the Smart Alec on an overnight trip. The trip itself was rather interesting: I flew from Phoenix to Oakland, stayed the night at a hotel in Emeryville, then took Amtrak's California Zephyr from there to Denver. After a night in Denver, I flew back to Phoenix. So, a three night trip, with none of the three nights spent in the same place.
It was pretty clear I had no hope of doing this with the Smart Alec as my main bag if I took my Macbook with me. The Brain Cell just takes up too much space. So I decided to go iPad only for this trip. The iPad and my Kindle went in the Ristretto, while the main compartment of the Smart Alec held three days of t-shirts, socks, and underwear, an extra pair of pants, and a light jacket and my DSLR (barely). I used a stuff sack for the jacket and a large and small Western Flyer packing cube for the clothes. The main compartment was full enough that I couldn't really fit my toiletries in there.
This was a good opportunity to try out the lower modular pocket for my Smart Alec. It would easily take the 3D Mesh Organizer Cube with my toiletries and my 3-1-1 bag with enough room left over for a bottle of water. However, I was concerned the Smart Alec/Lower Modular Pocket fitting in the overhead bin, particularly given that both legs of my flight to Oakland were on small regional jets. Rather than attach the modular pocket to the pack, I was inspired to try attaching it to my Ristretto instead. The Ristretto has two pairs of loops on the back for attaching the waist strap (which I've never used). These are spaced a bit wider than the loops for the lower modular pocket on the Smart Alec, but I was able to use them to attach the bottom two pairs of gatekeeper clips on the lower modular pocket. I attached the top pair of clips to the Ristretto's grab handle. This worked, although it made the Ristretto somewhat less handy while it was on there.
Without the lower modular pocket on it, the Smart Alec fit in the overhead bin of the CRJ just fine, obviating the need to gate check anything, and the Ristretto/lower modular pocket combo worked fine as my personal item. When I got to my hotel in Emeryville, I swapped the lower pocket over to the Smart Alec.
The Smart Alec did a great job as my main bag on this trip. It certainly left me a lot more mobile than I would have been had I brought roller luggage. This was important, given that I walked from my hotel to the train station in Emeryville and walked and took the bus from the train to my hotel in Denver (not to mention lots of walking in the airports). It also let me avoid gate checking any luggage on the CRJ (probably half the passengers on the flight were waiting for gate checked luggage when I got off the plane). A three night trip like this was definitely pushing the limit as far as using the Smart Alec for an overnight bag. I couldn't have done it if this trip required my laptop (for circumstances like that I think an Aeronaut is probably in my future). For the Smart Alec, an overnight or two-night trip would probably have been more reasonable.
I should also mention that the Travel Tray was very useful on the train. I was initially on the fence about the travel tray; I didn't really have a good idea of how it was going to fit in with my usual travel. I picked one up based on how people raved about it on the forum. The roomette I was sleeping in on the train only had a small shelf where I could put stuff and the travel tray did a good job keeping all my small things in one place.
I am of two minds about the lower modular pocket. The extra volume was welcome; I could not have done the California Zephyr with just the Smart Alec and Ristretto if I hadn't had the lower pocket. The modularity is also a nice feature, it allowed me to switch the pocket over to the Ristretto for the flights and means I didn't have to have the pocket on when using the Smart Alec for day hiking or EDC when I didn't need the extra space.
That said, it doesn't seem quite as well thought out as the rest of the pack (or most other Tom Bihn items). The zipper is an inch or so below the top of the pocket, making the volume above the zipper difficult to use effectively. The portion of the pocket above the zipper is also home to the top pair of gatekeeper clips, meaning it is solidly attached to the pack and can't be flipped out of the way, so it gets in the way when trying to access the rest of the pocket.
The other issue with the lower modular pocket is that the gatekeeper clips are kind of hard to attach and detach. This affects all gatekeeper clips, not just the pocket, but so far the lower modular pocket is the only one that I've taken on and off repeatedly (the upper modular pocket went on and stayed on while the belt strap came off and stayed off. ) While this does make it more difficult to put it on or take it off, I can see why TB does them this way. Too often "quick detach" ends up being synonymous with "spontaneous detach" (at the worst possible time, of course). I'd rather it be hard to put on and take off than for it to come off when I don't want it to.
The upper modular pocket, on the other hand, I can recommend unhesitatingly. As I said I think it really is a must-have for anyone getting a Smart Alec. Not so much for the extra space as for the organization.
The assortment of Tom Bihn mesh, dyneema and padded organizer pouches are also working quite well. I will say that the mini sized pouches really are quite small, and I didn't find them as useful as I thought I would. I've only got one set of gear (a power brick and some cables) that really fit well in a mini pouch. The small pouches, on the other hand, just seem to be the perfect size for just about everything. They're useful enough that I've already ordered a second batch.
I'm impressed enough with the Snake Charmer that I'm writing a separate review on it. The 3D Mesh Organizer Cube is a handy little product that worked nicely for my toiletries and other stuff that's too thick to work well in an organizer pouch. For EDC it does a good job of holding my glasses and contact lens case and fluid.
The Western Flyer packing cubes fit perfectly in the Smart Alec. They made packing for my trip a lot easier and more organized. They were particularly nice on the train where I didn't have a lot of room to spread stuff out. The stuff sacks also worked quite well. The dyneema is stuff enough to give them some structure, while still being crushable. I was very impressed with the detail work on the drawstring. The way it's sewn and grommeted I'm not at all afraid of the drawstring tearing out, as I've seen on some cheaper stuff sacks. I'll say that if you're 6'5" and you want a stuff sack for your jacket the Size 4 (Large) is really the way to go. Size 3 just doesn't cut it.
I am very happy that I got the Smart Alec. Based on my experience with it so far I think it's going to do a great job for me in all three of the roles I envisioned for it: as an EDC laptop bag, as a day hike pack, and as an overnight bag. I'm very impressed by the quality of the bag and by the thought that's gone into the design.
Last edited by Blackeagle; 05-05-2014 at 06:02 PM.
I very much enjoyed reading this extensive review. In particular I like your Idea on putting the lower modular pocket on a Ristretto.
You made me rethink the Snake Charmer.
Thanks for charing.
Thanks for the comprehensive review, Blackeagle! I enjoyed reading it and your description of how you've used it is making me seriously consider the Smart Alec and the Upper Modular Pocket for my next order... 😃
Originally Posted by Ilkyway
I'm happy to be an enabler. :rolleyes:
Originally Posted by WenV