Tom Bihn’s ID Mid Sized Messenger Bag Review

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I have been an admirer of Tom Bihn’s bags since I purchased a Brain Bag for some location shooting a number of years ago. I’ve taken that bag all over Asia with gear in tow and it looks as good as the day I bought it. It’s a huge bag divided in two, allowing for my simple system of laptop and tech. in one side, and clothes in the other. It was great for short excursions and grad. school but far too large for my daily activities these days. So I have been looking for a smaller bag to carry my 15″ and 12″ Powerbooks (separately of course).
In a fit of haste I bought locally a Gravis bag which though thoughtfully designed lasted only about a year. All the zippers broke and the fabric started to look worn. What I should have done, and what I recommend everyone do, is first take a look at Tom Bihn’s bags. If you are looking for a quality built bag from a company who cares about their customers and their product then you need to look no further than Tom Bihn.

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My choice in a bag this time was the mid-sized messenger called the ID. It’s a shoulder bag designed for people like me. I want a bag I can quickly put my essentials in, throw over my shoulder, and go. I don’t want to fuss over pockets and enclosures. I want a useable tool that helps me keep mobile. It’s well designed, with real use in mind, and I am sure this bag would last me for years and years. The ID’s high quality and timeless styling make it a real winner.
Tom Bihn has been designing and making bags for well over 20 years. The daypacks he made when he was 13 years old are still in use today. Tom Bihn the company is based out of Port Angeles, Washington and makes almost everything out of their U.S. based factory. Unlike many companies he doesn’t outsource overseas preferring to keep manufacturing in his own factory where he can have greater control over the quality of the end product. As he puts it, “we’re not only making products, we’re making jobs”. I think this commitment shows in the quality of his product.

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The ID bag came with a Size 5 Brain Cell, their hard sided sleeve. The ID bag itself measures 15.75 x 12 x 5.5″ / 400 x 310 x 140mm, has a volume of 1100 cu in / 18 Liters, and weighs a very light 2lb., 5oz. Despite the moniker of mid-sized messenger this is a big bag. The lightness of the bag does not belie the belief that light means cheap materials. The ID is made from 1050 denier Ballistic Nylon and 500 denier Dupont Cordura. Quality zippers are a basic feature often forgotten by many manufacturers but Tom Bihn doesn’t skimp here and uses #9 YKK zippers with a #8 YKK water-resistant zipper on the flap pocket.
The Size 5 Brain Cell has interior dimensions of approximately 11.8 × 9.5 × 1.5 inches (300 × 240 × 38 mm), exterior dimensions of 12 × 11.125 × 2.125 inches (305 × 280 × 54 mm) and weighs 14oz. I’m not going to talk much about the brain cell in this article but will say that if you are using your Tom Bihn bag to carry a laptop then the Brain Cell should be an integral part of your set-up.

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My first impression of the ID was exactly as I just mentioned, that it seemed very very big. Far bigger than I had anticipated. This is in fact the only real criticism I have of the ID, it seems too big for my daily needs. This isn’t the fault of Tom Bihn of course but it is difficult to have an opinion about the size of something from abstract number’s and photos out of context. Tom Bihn has a number of other bags which might be a better choice for quick trips to a meeting or working from a café. The soon to be released Imago small sized messenger might just be perfect.
Most bag manufacturers don’t understand how to show product online. Tom Bihn mostly gets it I think and eschews those annoying small sized zoom in viewers that so many sites have bought into. An improvement might be in the form of a little bit of storytelling, “A Day in The Life” of a bag or something similar. The title may seem silly but seeing the bags in context in words and in pictures can really help someone make a more informed decision. Tom Bihn does have a section of their site that shows customer use stories and photographs but it is not part of the buying process.
You can really pack a great deal of stuff into the ID – I don’t. A 12″ Powerbook, adaptors, power brick, a momobay firewire hd, Apple mouse, second mobile phone with local sim if traveling, pens and notebook, audio cable, and maybe a pair of headphones. Maybe that seems like allot but it hardly comes close to filling the ID. If you travel light like I do you might even be able to fit a weekends worth of clothes in the bag. Take my comments of size with a grain of salt – I know many people these days like to carry everything with them in their bag. I’m just not one of you.
There are few details about this bag worth illustrating.
I’m not a seamstress but I have to say that the seams in this bag seem really well done. The bag isn’t double stitched, if that is even necessary, but the fit and finish is really excellent. I don’t think you will ever see any wear in the seams in this bag. Other bags of lesser quality can see wear in the stress points which leads to unsightly threading and perhaps a failure in the bag. Another essential point are the zippers. Never buy a bag you are going to put to serious use with crap zippers, they will fail, and good luck finding someone to repair them in a timely manner. I’ve gone through more zippers than I care to count and have learned this lesson the hard way many times. There is nothing worse than seeing your investment fall crashing to the floor. Luckily, the ID and all Tom Bihn bags have great zippers. These first two points are often overlooked in favor of far more sexy features that make for good copy. I’ve never read any marketing material that specifically stated “we have great seams” or “our zippers don’t suck” but it certainly should be an important factor in purchasing a bag.
The inside of the ID takes a generalist approach to organization. Many companies are touting organizational pockets geared toward specific uses; for the iPod and Palm Pilot specifically. I think these features are based more on the need to market product than actual usefulness. I prefer the approach taken in this bag. Though I can confirm that an iPod will fit in the pocket (I threw away my Palm years ago) so will a myriad of other things. I think it ensures that this bag will last long after any specific device becomes obsolete. Having said that I do like how some bags are becoming lined with non-scratch fabrics and equipped with a headphone pass-throughs. I think these are pretty safe features to incorporate.
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The outside of the ID I received is black and steel in color while the interior is a bright crimson. This is actually a pretty important point. The brighter the inside a bag is the easier it is to find objects that are contained inside. I have a small camera bag which touts its many pockets to organize your gear, unfortunately the interior is black and unless I have a flashlight it’s very difficult to see any small objects inside. The outside of the ID is water-resistant, meaning that it will keep your stuff dry from some rain but it’s not going to work so well on a canoe on the River Ping in Thailand. I’ve been out in typhoons with my Brain Bag and the isides were completely dry. If you treat the bags from time to time you should be fine.
The handles are appreciated as this is not a briefcase. The outside handle is good enough for some short term carrying and the internal handle is a really great touch. It allows you to grab the bag easily while it is open. Luckily the strap is a good one as it is completely integrated with the bag. I would like to try one of Tom Bihn’s other straps at some point as I am in constant search for something that works in the big heat of Asia. A strap that helps reduce that uncomfortable wet strip across your shoulder from carrying bags designed for the North American market. The included strap is comfortable and has a nice rubberized texture on it to help keep it in place.
I think the fact that I have to stop myself from talking about what is “just a bag” illustrates just how good a product this is. To some of my friends here this bag seems a bit pricey but if you really are interested in a bag of quality it is worth every penny. Buy this and you won’t have to buy another. $150US with Braincell only from Tom Bihn.

I had some fun quickly shooting some photos of the ID, you can see the set on Flickr.

Thanks to Darcy Hudgens.