Tom Bihn Synapse 25 - Six(ish) Month Update by Erin Wade

Back in December of 2016 I purchased a Tom Bihn Synapse 25 and, after a couple of weeks of ownership I wrote up an initial review.

I've now been using this backpack for over six months, and that time allows for a few additional observations on it. When I first ordered it, it was in part because I was traveling more, and wanted the ability to carry more things in a single case. My primary concern, then as now, was things like workout clothes, and it has worked nicely for this. But I also bravely predicted:

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.

I've had the opportunity to use the Synapse for multiple overnight trips, and the central compartment readily manages everything that is needed for such a trip. What's more, having the single bag to keep track of simplifies the travel quite nicely.

And the carry-on question? That turned out to be more interesting than I expected.

In my relatively limited air-travel experience, it seems that most airlines will allow you both a carry-on item - generally a small luggage item - and a "personal item" in the cabin. The dimensions of the carry-on luggage are pretty well established - there's usually a metal frame at the gates you can stick your carry-on bag into in order to see if it fits, and several luggage companies make specific pieces designed to fit within that size window. The size of the "personal item" is less well defined, but as a general rule seems to involve being able to fit under the seat in front of you. In the past I've used my Ristretto as my personal item, it being able to carry my iPad, iPhone, wallet, etc, nicely enough.

For our recent trip to Detroit - a five day adventure - I decided to put my previous prediction, as well as my minimalist packing skills, to the test, and use the Synapse as my carry-on luggage. I also brought along my Ristretto, figuring I would pack my iPad and such in it after I arrived at the airport and use it as my personal item.

The Synapse worked quite nicely as a carry-on item. In most respects this is not surprising - it's measurements are just below the standard size requirements for such an item. What was more surprising was this: it actually appears to work as a personal item.

Which is to say that, tightly packed with clothing and hygiene supplies sufficient for five days of stay in The Motor City, as well as my iPad, and all of my usual supplies (minus my Swiss Army knife and nail clippers, of course) the Synapse fit under the seat in front of me. While I packed the Synapse in the overhead and used the Ristretto on the way to Detroit, I set aside the Ristretto for the way back and simply slid the Synapse under the seat in front of me at the required intervals.

Your mileage may vary, of course - this one example may not be indicative of what other airlines, or other circumstances, might allow. But it did mean that I had access to all my stuff while in my seat, and did not have to experience the relative risk of my bag being in a compartment which may or may not have been near me.

This trip also allowed some additional comparison. LB and I were flying together for this trip, and we used similar backpack packing strategies. One of the things I noted, however, particularly on the way home, was that LB kept taking their backpack off and carrying by the handle strap, or simply setting it down. When I asked why, LB said that the pack was making their shoulders sore. I suggested we swap bags for a bit.

LB was using the backpack that they also use for school. It's a standard, big-box store bag that one might typically see as a part of a wall-o-backpacks. It's approximately the same size as the Synapse, and LB has been using it for the better part of the past year to cart books and such back and forth.

About five minutes into wearing it, it started to make my shoulders sore.

Whether it was the angle of the straps, or the amount of padding, or how they were designed with respect to the weight distribution of the bag, I can't say. What I can say is that the bag provided a cutting sensation into my upper shoulders that I've never experienced when carrying the Synapse, and it took virtually no time at all for the discomfort to present. At the same time LB pronounced that the Synapse was significantly more comfortable to carry than their backpack. I suspect I may have to keep a vigil to prevent its disappearance...

As for the rest at six months - the bag shows virtually no wear and tear at this point. The central water bottle holder still works very nicely, and I've only managed to spill my coffee in it once (so far). The only complaint I might have in that regard is that the bottle pocket is not water- (or coffee-) proof, so this event (which involved me carelessly setting the bag down and walking away, not realizing that it had fallen over with the travel mug inside) resulted in coffee filtering down into the adjacent pockets.

This may have, possibly, been more my fault than that of the bag. Maybe.

I can say that it cleaned up quite nicely with a little stain spray and then wiping down with a wet cloth, and no longer bears the signs of this unfortunate event. I do have a fair amount of practice dealing with coffee stains, but I was surprise at how completely they came out of the material. Going into it I was resigned to going from having an orange backpack to now having a backpack best described as "orange with coffee highlights"...

As with all of the Tom Bihn products, the Synapse is not inexpensive. However, as is often the the case, where the extra cost reflects thoughtful, careful design, it readily turns out to be worth the difference in price.

Tom Bihn Synapse 25 by Erin Wade

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.

Synapse in the box

Synapse back

Zipper Pulls

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...

All my stuff

....Would easily be able to fit inside the Synapse:

Ristretto Inside

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.

iPad Pro Cache

Cache is on rails

Yup - Rails

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.

yup - the cup is orange too

It's deep enough to allow for my mug to be zipped into it.

Deep coffee

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".