For most of my professional life I've been a backpack guy. Early on I did work with a handful of bags that would fall more into the "briefcase" category, often centered around carrying a laptop, but these would quickly demonstrate their limitations as soon as one had to walk any kind of a distance carrying them. Shoulder strap or not, any bag big enough to carry a 1990's era laptop makes you sore in a hurry. I became acutely aware of this when I was in graduate school, having to cover territory carrying books and bulky electronics along Milwaukee city streets to get to my class (Marquette University offered parking conveniently located approximately 15 miles away from any classroom[^1] ). And it reminded me of the relative value of a backpack, which I'd used when I had last had to travel a campus with books in tow.
To that end I purchased and used a "Backpack Briefcase", designed by Trager, for the longer part of a decade. But when the iPad came out, and it became clear that I no longer would need to carry a bulky laptop or its support crew[^2]. It offered the opportunity to pare down my daily carry to something more streamlined. I began to investigate, and ended up choosing a messenger bag from Tom Bihn - the original Ristretto.
This bag has worked well for me for several years. The decreased weight of the iPad means that it isn't problematic to carry the way that the older briefcases were. And it's design is more along the lines of a satchel than of a traditional messenger bag, meaning that you look a little like Indiana Jones carrying it.
Yes - Indiana Jones. Not this guy.
Over the past couple of years, however, I've found that I am traveling more, and as a result I am needing space to carry additional things - particularly food and changes of clothing for working out. For a while I've managed this by periodically carrying two bags - my Ristretto and a backpack borrowed from my kid. But you only have to forget to pick up your second bag on the way out the door a couple of times - leaving yourself either hungry, unable to work out, or both - before the idea of simplifying the number of bags occurs.
I've had extremely good luck with the Ristretto - it has performed flawlessly and, seven years in, I find it has weathered well. I've been very happy with it. Given that, I decided to look at the backpack options Tom Bihn had to offer[^3]. Spending a little time on the site, I decided on the Synapse 25.
The Synapse 25 ticked off all the boxes for me - organizational compartments in the front that allowed free access to the things that I need on a regular basis, it has a specialized carrying system for the iPad Pro, and has the room in the center that I needed for the additional things I have been using a second bag to carry. It also has one clear bonus feature in the form of a center pocket designed to carry drinks up to the side of a one-liter water bottle. As a person genetically predetermined to spill coffee on himself, the mesh side pockets on most backpacks are a disaster waiting to happen.
The Synapse came in a large box right to my home. As you can see, I chose the Burnt Orange/Northwest Sky option.
I like orange, and it makes things easy to see and find. I would have preferred a different interior color - maybe "island" - but that wasn't an option.
It quickly became clear that all of the things I carry in the Ristretto...
....Would easily be able to fit inside the Synapse:
Yup - that's my entire Ristretto being readily swallowed up by the Synapse.
I ordered my version with a Cache - a padded internal bag - sized for the iPad Pro. I did not realize until it came that it would include a set of internal "rails" to allow the cache to slide in and out of the bag while keeping it attached.
I've been using the Synapse for about two weeks now. The size difference between the Synapse and Ristretto took a little getting used to, but that went by pretty quickly. What became clear was that it does exactly what it promised - it holds everything I want to carry easily, and does so without seeming overly large. It's comfortable to carry fully loaded, and the pockets on the front mean that, when I'm at a work site I can easily get to all of the supplies and materials that I need quickly - they are just a zip away. Similarly, the cache on rails means that you can easily find your device even when the main cargo compartment is fully loaded.
The central compartment swallows a lot of stuff. I can easily fit a martial arts uniform and basic gear (belt, ankle brace, mouth guard) or winter biking gear along with a bag of trail mix or a lunch bag. In fact, if you aren't a heavy packer I suspect this bag could easily be used as a carry-on for flights.
And that final, bonus item? The bag really does readily hold a drink in the center compartment. I can easily fit a 16 oz travel mug in the compartment and zip it closed. The sides of the compartment are elastic and taper in towards the bottom to more securely hold the item.
It's deep enough to allow for my mug to be zipped into it.
It works perfectly, and carrying the drink in the center - instead of on the side - of the bag absolutely keeps things from flying about. Additionally I'm finding myself less likely to leave my cup behind when I'm finished, since I can just put it back in the bag when empty.
Thus far the only downside is that the iPad Pro cache appears to have been sized for an iPad Pro without any kind of a case on it. It's a tight fit with the Smart Cover and the ESR backside cover on it; the Smart Cover is designed not to be slippery (for good reason), so it is a bit of work to get it in and out. Two weeks in it is starting to stretch a bit and get easier to use, but anyone using a larger case would want to consider a cache designed for a larger device. Fortunately, the company provides a dimension chart for all of their products, including the caches, so you can measure your device in the case before buying.
The Tom Bihn bags and accessories are not inexpensive. If you are someone who changes bags often, or uses them for only a short while before moving on, they may not be for you. If, like myself, you want a bag to use for a decade or longer, they hold up extremely well and easily justify their cost over the longer term.
[^1]: Its possible that I am exaggerating slightly.
[^2]: Modern laptops notwithstanding, my laptop usage was from an era in which you could not expect to leave home without a power cord.
[^3]: For the record, I'd also had good luck with the Trager backpack, and I still use it to carry supplies for presentations (projector, cords, etc). Unfortunately, the company no longer has a web presence, and a little homework suggests that it appears to be defunct. This article indicates "Records at the office of Washington's Secretary of State indicate that the Trager Manufacturing Company, Inc., formally expired on September 30, 2004".