Review: Tom Bihn Empire Builder Bag

Just before the fall semester started, I decided to purchase a briefcase-style bag to haul my laptop and books around campus. My booq Boa XM backpack has served me well, but I wanted to move to something with more of a business look because I knew I’d be spending more of my time off-campus in my 3L year.

After examining a wide variety of bags online, hit upon the Tom Bihn Empire Builder. I’ve now used it for five months, and I love it. The Empire Builder costs $150, and the Absolute Shoulder Strap costs $25. Both are worth every penny.

Tom Biehn Empire Builder Bag with books inside.

The Empire Builder is constructed of sturdy ballistic nylon and Cordura. I selected the Black/Steel/Wasabi (black exterior, steel colored accents, and wasabi green interior) color scheme, because I wanted the interior of the bag to be bright enough that I could more easily spot objects inside the bag. The Empire Builder is also available in Black/Black/Steel, Black/Black/Sapphire, Black/Steel/Steel, Black/Crimson/Steel, and Black/Steel/Crimson. The bag comes with three interior dividers that allow for flexible separation of the contents of the main storage area. It comfortably holds two casebooks, my 15″ PowerBook (shown enclosed in a booq Vyper XM sleeve), and one or two thinner supplements or hornbooks.

The Absolute Shoulder Strap is extremely sturdy, but also incorporates flexible grip padding. The strap stays on your shoulder, instead of constantly sliding off. It is easily the best shoulder strap I’ve ever encountered.

Tom Biehn Empire Builder bag storage

The front flap of the Empire Builder is secured with a big plastic clip which can easily be manipulated with one hand. I keep my glasses case and a spare pen in the open pocket, my iPod and iPod accessories in the horizontal zippered pocket, and extra keys in the vertical zippered pocket.

Tom Biehn Empire Builder bag flap open

Open the flap, and there is more storage goodness. I use this area for spare pens, a couple of extra pocket-sized Moleskine cahiers, an Ethernet cable, and other odds and ends. The back side of the bag has a large open pocket, which I often use to store a magazine or two and a clipboard. Three smaller pockets on the outside of the back pocket are handy for extra pens, highlighters, a smartphone, and a thin paperback book.

The Empire Builder has 1,700 cubic inches of storage capacity, but if you’re carrying books, you’ll wear yourself out before you wear out the bag. The Absolute Shoulder Strap is particularly handy for chugging across campus when you’re really loaded down. But the handles on this bag are also excellent. They lean in towards each other, making them easy to grab in a hurry. They’re thickly padded but very sturdy, and they don’t look cartoonish, unlike some bags with oversized handles. When I’m carrying a smaller load, I unclip the Absolute Shoulder Strap and use the handles.

This bag gets all the details right. In particular, the zippers make a big difference. They’re rugged, smooth, and they don’t catch or bind. Beauty. Tom Bihn also offers an array of accessories for the Empire Builder: The Brain Cell (a laptop sleeve), padded organizer pouches, clear organizer pouches, and a horizontal file holder. They also sells a variety of backpacks, briefcases, laptop bags, and shoulder bags. Based on my experience with the Empire Builder, if you’re looking for a new bag or pack, it’s worth taking a look at Tom Bihn.

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