Review: Tom Bihn’s Empire Builder Bag

by James Bain Jun 27, 2007

It’s called the “Empire Builder” and my two word review, to misquote Charlotte’s Web, is: “Some Bag!”

From time to time a product comes my way that just bounces the others in its class out of the offing. This is one of them. Whoa!

Blurbs on their site say the bag took three years to design. Now, that might be from start to finish and not take in to account a few lunch and washroom breaks here and there, but it does show a lot of design work. Tom Bihn‘s “Empire Builder” is a multi-role nylon messenger bag and it truly differentiates itself from anything in its class in styling and construction. You can carry this with a suit or with cutoffs and Crocs clogs and it works well in both modes.

Some positive points quickly.

This is a huge bag. It is very very large, but it looks small, almost petite. Sort of like a pocket universe DISGUISED as a smallish-looking laptop bag. If I ever do get a pony for Christmas, I think I’ll keep it in the Empire Builder. There’s room to spare for it, definitely, and a few weeks’ rich fodder and water as well. Jokes aside, the bag’s unbelievably compact, but holds a ginormous 28 litres. A good backpack for camping, for example, holds anywhere from 45 to 55 litres. 28 liters is quite ample.

Materials and stitching are impeccable. If I don’t spend too much time on them it’s not because they’re not worthy but because they’re as close to perfect as I can imagine.

Styling is very nice. I can imagine carrying this with an Italian suit as well as with a pair of jeans. It looks good in both genres.

Now, some points that I think might improve this bag. It may have taken three years to design, but revisions are always possible.

Firstly, the optional Brain Cell sleeve included with the bag I reviewed protects the laptop quite well, but it’s fixed to the bag with some admittedly ingeniously designed quick release clips. I personally prefer a sleeve I can take in and out without fiddling with clasps. Still, it’s pretty tough, and that’s worth a lot too. I really couldn’t imagine buying an Empire Builder without a Brain Cell. Unless you have some other dearly loved sleeve that you are loath to part with. I have some I really really like but, while using the Empire Builder, I stick with the Brain Cell.

Secondly, the optional Absolute Shoulder Strap is such a great addition that I think it should be included with the bag, even if it means the price goes up a bit. Some things really do finish off a product and a prospective buyer might not know how much nicer the whole thing would be with the finishing touches. Everyone wants to save a few pence here and there. You know, getting the lambskin butter leather rather than the hummingbird skin seats for the new Lamborghini, or the eiderdown-lined bunny slippers rather than the loon pelt lined ones. If you’re going to go big, go biggest or go home!

Thirdly, well, there is no third. I am so blown away by this case that I cannot imagine not using it now.

So, final evaluation? Just buy one. If you were thinking of buying a briefcase that can span high tone formal business wear AND comfy server room garb, this is simply it. Keep the dust off it, and you can carry this anywhere. As well, it’s built to survive heavy-duty usage and has enough space in it to probably keep both your laptops, all working files, and most of your really useful peripherals in it. You can do then what every real hardworking IT person wants: carry all your important stuff with you always and still look cool enough not to scare people away.

The Empire Builder gets a 93%! Now that I’ve found this best in breed, I’m throwing away all my other multi-role briefcases!



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