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Review: Tom Bihn Synapse Backpack

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At a Glance
  • Tom Bihn Synapse

I have both an iPad and a laptop, and I suspect I'm not alone among iPad owners in that respect. So as much as I've been tempted to get a great iPad bag, I've been turned off by the fact that doing so would mean having two bags—one for use when I'm out with my iPad, and the other for when I need to bring my MacBook. Of course, I could stick my iPad inside my laptop bag, but the iPad would swim around inside the too-big laptop compartment. So I set out to find a bag that could do double duty. My other requirements were that for ergonomic reasons it had to be a backpack, and that it couldn't be huge—as appealing as a massive bag such as Spire's Torq may be to some people, I prefer to (force myself to) travel light.

What I ended up with wasn't officially a laptop bag or an iPad bag: Tom Bihn's Synapse. Despite not having a padded laptop compartment, this compact daypack ended up being a perfect bag for bringing along a MacBook or iPad.

The Synapse's materials and construction are typical Tom Bihn: The exterior of the bag is made of 1000-denier, water-resistant Cordura, with the inside lined with abrasion-resistant, rip-stop nylon. (The interior surfaces are also bright yellow to make it easier to find the stuff you've put inside.) The padded, mesh back and the shoulder straps are comfortable without being bulky, the zippers are waterproof, and Tom Bihn includes removable chest and waist straps. And it's all backed by the company's lifetime guarantee.

But it's the overall design of the bag that hooked me. Despite the Synapse's small size, its 16.2-inch by 12.8-inch main compartment can hold a decent amount of gear. And on the front side of that compartment is a sturdy, full-width pouch, about two-thirds of the height of the bag, that can accommodate an iPad in pretty much any case or sleeve, or a 13-inch MacBook or MacBook Pro in a slim sleeve. (Tom Bihn offers the Cache Sleeve as an option for your iPad, but there are plenty of others out there.) Slide your encased iPad or MacBook into the pouch, zip up the bag, and you're ready to go. You might be tempted not to use a sleeve, but since the Synapse is padded only on the back—the side against your back when wearing the backpack—your laptop or iPad does need some additional protection.

The front of the bag has a useful assortment of zippered pockets. Across the bottom is a horizontal pocket large enough for a couple AC adapters and all your cables. The left and right sides each get a spacious vertical pocket with some organizational pouches for pens, a phone, and the like; each side pocket also includes a D-ring for attaching, say, your keys using the included fob.

Across the top are two additional zippered pockets. The smaller one is relatively shallow, making it perfect for your wallet, iPhone, and earbuds. The larger pocket is, surprisingly enough, a water-bottle pocket, and it's one of my favorite features of the bag: the pocket is deceptively deep and wide—it can accommodate a 32-ounce Nalgene bottle!—and because the pocket is located along the vertical axis of the bag, the weight of your water bottle never makes the backpack feel unbalanced.

If you don't have protective sleeves for your iPad and MacBook, those will of course add to the total cost of the package. But the Synapse and two sleeves will still cost less than buying separate bags of comparable quality for your iPad and MacBook—and with a single bag, you don't have to deal with the hassle of moving your stuff whenever you switch between travel companions. (I can also tell you from experience that the Synapse makes a great daypack and, for the dads out there, a great diaper-bag backpack—it's been doing quadruple duty for me.) As long as you tend to travel light, and you've got a 13-inch (or smaller) laptop, this is a superb, and superbly versatile, bag.

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At a Glance
  • Instead of a device-specific padded compartment, the Synapse offers a place to put your sleeve-encased iPad or 13-inch (or smaller) laptop, making it a versatile daypack-sized backpack. Throw in quality materials and construction, as well as a clever design, and you get a standout bag for those of us blessed with both an iPad and a laptop.

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