- Buyer's Guide
During the craziness of this year's Carry Awards, we were sent a Tom Bihn Synapse 25 (in limited edition Parapack) to play with, and I raised a hand to test it – and I'm glad I did. The Synapse could be Tom's best offering: a versatile pack that's perfect for travelling light, day-to-day, and when in black, works well with a suit.
Meet the pack that took home our Best Carry-On Award, and the pack I'm still using to this day...
- Name: Synapse 25
- Brand: Tom Bihn
- Format: Backpack
- Measurement: 20
- Capacity: 1526 cubic inches / 25 liters
- Weight: 400d Dyneema®/420d nylon ripstop: 1 lb 11 oz / 770 grams
- Zippers: #10 and #8 YKK Aquaguard® water-repellent zippers
- Material: 420d HT nylon limited edition Parapack exterior; 200 denier Dyneema®/nylon ripstop fabric lining
Who it suits
This is a great everyday bag for the day-to-day commuters, business and school crew; it doesn’t feel too boring or square-ish and floats between the realms of casual and corporate like a nice fitted blazer would – and this pack took home the Carry Award for Best Carry-On, so you know it’s rad for tarmac-related jaunts, but only if you’re a ninja at travelling light, as it’s a little on the small side.
Who it doesn't suit
People who need to carry big things or dig a lot of layering of elements. It’s not a very big bag, and it’s very curved so you lose depth quite quickly as you fill it. So you can’t carry too much in it, but if you carry things that need to be spread out through the bag, then it’s awesome. If you need to have a big sack, it’s not the right bag for you.
The Synapse is solid in the looks department. It’s got a nice egg-shaped silhouette from the back – shying away from the standard box-inspired motif – and when it’s full it feels quite compact and doesn’t look out of shape or massive on your back.
That said, it’s got curves in all the right places, everything’s a bit angular and tapered, and it’s very tight and clean; there’s no dangly bits swaying around like you see on outdoor packs. My color of choice: black all the way, it looks great in all scenarios – although if you can pull off the kiwi or wasabi then kudos for embracing bold colors in a big way.
Honestly, I was surprised here, this is the best patternmaking I’ve seen from Tom’s stable, and the result is a pleasing three-dimensional profile; even the sidewall has a chamfer that makes the back panel a touch smaller, and the bag fits on the body really well.
The pockets are tight and integrated into the main body, so if you don’t use them they’re not sticking out like sewn-on pockets do. The overall construction quality is good. There’s been no delamination of the material, the zips haven’t torn or been delaminated, and the straps are built properly too.
The sternum strap is really good when the bag is a bit heavy. I had a fair bit of tech at some point, it was over seven kilos, and the sternum strap saved my shoulders when I was traveling. The shoulder padding is not too bad, though if you go over seven kilos, it could be. However, the padding isn’t the main issue. I think the shoulder strap width could be a bit wider but it really depends on how you use the bag. For every day, one laptop, a few pens, notebooks, and a jumper or something like that you won’t need wider shoulder straps. It’s only if you get to that five-to-seven kilos range, when you get a lot of tech into the bag, then maybe a fraction wider would be nice. That being said, these straps are better for suit wearers than a wide technical strap.
Thanks to the slender silhouette, when the bag is full this doesn’t make the bag look any wider. The Synapse keeps everything very close to the silhouette of the body, which I really like. There’s also piping on the side panel which is flexible, adding a bit of structure. It doesn’t reinforce too much, but without it the side would look a bit floppy. However, the piping at the front pocket I’m not a fan of; it feels a bit school-ish to me. The triangle for the attachment of the shoulder strap could have been a bit better as well. There’s a bit of opportunity here, but everything else with the build has been really good. The stitching and seams have held up well.
For the exterior material they’ve used 420d HT nylon Classic Parapack. It’s durable, it’s quite flexible but with good structure and it has a slick look. This is very lightweight and thin, so it’s kind of sleek, but it’s not too cheap-looking. I haven’t had any tears, even after traveling to Europe three times and twice to Asia with the pack.
Slight niggle: It’s common knowledge we’re not fans of air mesh, it irks us. In this case, it’s found loitering around the back panel and shoulder straps. I think if it was a nicer material, it would marry better with the patternmaking – it would feel like it’s been sewn through.
For the interior they’ve used a ripstop material, which I think is a bit upspec’d for the internal section but I don’t mind it. It’s better to have that than some of those really cheap linings with a lot of logos and stuff like that. It feels like I can put anything in it and it will still hold its shape in five years. The light color on the inside is really good for finding things as well. I don’t know if it’s the color I would have purchased, as the black and limey color is a bit sporty and something a bit more elegant would have been lovely. On the other hand, it’s an element that’s unexpected and maybe that’s its charm. This kind of bag with that kind of color inside means you’re a free spirit, a bit more active than would be expected.
The zips are pretty good quality. They’re waterproof, so it was actually quite nice in France when it was raining and snowing at some point. I wasn’t too worried, as they were good enough to resist all those kinds of conditions. It’s not an outdoor bag, but it’s built in a way that if you get caught in the rain on the commute to work, you’ll be alright. They’ve used a number ten zip for the main compartment. That’s a really good decision. A lot of companies put a number eight just to save some cash, and they often break.
The zip-pulls could have been better. They’re a bit outdoorsy and chunky. Those things are actually quite good when you’ve got gloves on. But if you don’t have gloves on and you’re just going to the office, I think they’re a bit bulky. They’re not very elegant and don’t quite match the thought and the design effort that went into the construction and the patternmaking. They could have done a better there without spending too much money.
The hardware on the back panel is a bit cheap. If the hardware was better matched to the beautiful patternmaking of the back panel and the tight pockets and all that, it would have been a sexier bag.
The one thing I prefer in bags is having the side pockets just slightly up and not sticking out. I don’t like having Mickey Mouse ears. But these ones are tight; they’re built in so as you fill them up they fill the inside of the bag. But because they’re in there in that angle, it doesn’t interfere with the content. They’re very easy to access, so I can have the bag next to me and access these pockets very quickly.
The top pockets are interesting. The front one is quite small, for items like headphones. I sometimes put my wallets there when I don’t want to have them in my pockets.
The next one in is much deeper, so that’s where I put my iPad mini. I’ve got my notebooks and things like that in there, so they’re easy to access from the top and I can sketch quickly and put them back in. I don’t have to open the main compartment.
The bottom pocket is very good for cables. It’s in a good position to put all those awkward things like laptop chargers and stuff like that. It doesn’t interfere with the main part of the bag.
I like the divider on the inside of the bag, although I've got a lot of things that end up being lost at the bottom of that pocket.
There’s a hanging iPad pocket in Neoprene and another one for a laptop. The iPad one is way too bulky and thick. I would never use that. I think it was just adapted using the same material. I get the design decision, but it’s not beautiful for the actual iPad. If you get an iPad, it’s because you want something thin, you want something practical. You don’t want a massive, thick Neoprene patch on it with a flap on top and big buckles for hanging. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
I didn’t use the laptop pocket either for the same reason, it’s just too bulky. I prefer a skinny Neoprene sleeve for the laptop and when I go through security, I just pull it out. So attached or not, you have to take the laptop out of the bag anyway. I just really don’t understand the big buckles – the laptop and the bag are never separated, but then when you go through security you have to separate it sometimes depending on who you have at the security desk.
In terms of the internals, it’s just a big sack so things get lost pretty easily on the inside. But if you’re organized, you can put a lot of things in there for a day or two.
Alternatives to consider
The Incase Icon pack is definitely in the same family, although the older version was a touch better for pocketing, and the Gravis Metro - fraction too action sports but can look really stylish with the correct fabric.
Sophisticated pocket design
Sleek, three-dimensional patternmaking
The not so good
Bulky internal tech protection
Zip-pulls and back panel hardware could be better
Air mesh detracts from the look and feel of the bag
Tom Bihn is usually a little bit too classic in their format and style, where everything looks very traditional. In the Synapse the design is coming out of its shell; it’s a bit different, with sleek patternmaking and three-dimensional design. I’ve seen a lot of details and a lot of thinking in the pattern or the function, but often the style is missing some elegance.
I’m finding that nuance between traditional, modern and active – like for the lining of this pack – is a very fine line. They could do better. But I like the brand, I like their thinking. I like that they do things that most brands tend to miss, especially with the organization on the inside of their bags. Though it’s missing a few things, I would still buy the Synapse – admittedly, I’m still using it for my day-to-day, and that never happens! It's a good city bag that has been through a fair bit and held up really well.
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