The Tom Bihn ID: An 11-Year Review

[Update March 26, 2016: I posted a follow-up to this review, with my ID now at twelve (and a half) and still my daily bag.]

[Update February 10, 2017: I retired this ID after thirteen years and replaced it with a newer one.]

My Steadfast Companion

Is there much point to reviewing an 11-year old bag, especially one that has been updated and improved since I bought it? Perhaps not, but this is as much a love letter to the company that made it β€” Tom Bihn β€” as it is a review of my ID messenger bag. After being exposed to cheap laptop bags from local stores and the Willy Loman bags that are the bane of the corporate world, the ID was a revelation.

We moved to Portland in 2002 from further south in Oregon and I traded a long car commute for walking and a ride on the light rail. To be more productive on the train, I bought my first laptop, a 12″ iBook, and carried it in a laptop backpack we picked up from an office supply store. I was shocked at how quickly the backpack fell apart. So when I upgraded to a 12″ Powerbook in November of 2003, I decided to get a better bag as well. I wanted to try a messenger bag for the crowded train as I had been witness (and victim) too many times to the horrors of inadvertent backpack whackage from one rider to another.

I didn’t want a heavy bag since all of the weight would be on one shoulder, but it needed to be big enough to store a fleece and a raincoat for the variable spring and fall weather. My search led me to the Tom Bihn ID. At the time I was a bit nervous at the cost, $85 for the ID itself and $50 for the Brain Cell laptop case that attaches inside it, as it was more than I had ever spent on a bag (today the ID sells for $160, the Brain Cell $65). But it seemed like a great bag from a great company so I ordered the ID in Black/Crimson/Steel, hoping it would last me a few years.

A few years turned into eleven.

Little Touches

While I’ve been driving to work the past few years, most of my time with the bag has been spent walking or on the train. It’s about a 20 minute walk home from the train station and, living in Portland, I’ve been rained on countless times, from light drizzles to out-and-out downpours. Snowed on a few times. One day I even trudged home in a freezing rain, finally arriving home to find the bag completely encased in a thin sheet of ice. But nothing has ever gotten wet.

Brains! Brains!

The main reason I settled on the ID as my messenger bag is that you can attach a Brain Cell inside to hold a laptop. The Brain Cell has corrugated plastic providing protection on the sides but more importantly suspends the laptop so it doesn’t touch the ground when you set the bag down. The Brain Cell itself is suspended in the ID, so my laptops have always been nicely protected even though they go out and about every day. My first Brain Cell was sized specifically for my 12″ Powerbook, but six months later I replaced it with a larger one when I upgraded to a 15″ Powerbook, and that Brain Cell has held all my laptops since.

Adaptable

For nearly every day I’ve owned the ID, I’ve kept the Brain Cell attached in the main compartment to hold my laptop, as transporting my laptop is primarily how I use the bag. However the Brain Cell is removable as shown here, and I do use it this way occasionally to transport bulkier items. That’s our cat Emma beside the bag. She hates it when I try to take her picture but photobombs every picture she can. She’s a complicated girl, our sweet Em.

The bag has a few scars after its years of loyal service. There are a couple of scuff marks near the bottom of the bag. The thickly padded shoulder strap makes for comfortable carrying but the underside of the pad is flaking off after a decade of heavy use. But I thought the ID might be on its last legs late last year when the stitching around the rear zipper started coming apart in a few places. I rely on that zipper to pull in the corners of the laptop pocket and keep them safely under the outer flap when it rains (a feature I wish all messenger bags would adopt). Thankfully my wife was able to fix those sections but all she had was white thread, which you can see on the back left corner. I consider it a badge of honor.

The Thin Bag

One of the things I love about the ID is the buckle & strap on the front that cinches the bag down into a thin profile when it isn’t heavily loaded, but quickly allows the bag to expand to hold coats and the like. One of the prongs on the big buckle broke a few years ago, and although it still closed securely I did replace it recently with a new one I ordered from the factory, just in case the other prong ever broke.

There are so many nice touches in the bag, I could go on and on, such as the o-rings for attaching key straps, the zippered front pocket for securing small items, the comfortable grab handle, the water-resistant zipper on the exposed pocket on the main flap. Newer bags also get an iPhone pocket, but I can’t hold it against mine for not having one, as back then there were no iPhones.

The one thing I haven’t used much is the water bottle pocket in front, it’s a little too small and short for many of my bottles, but this has been addressed in newer designs by moving the pocket outside the main body of the bag. The lines of the bag aren’t as clean but I think this is a much better place for it.

Goodies

My biggest complaint is not with the bag but with me. Tom Bihn makes an assortment of small bags and organizers that clip to the o-rings inside the bag which would have come in handy for train and air travel, but I never availed myself of them. Better late than never, I recently ordered several bags (with Emma still hanging around for pictures). Going clockwise from the upper left we have a Storm 3D Clear Organizer Cube with an 8″ Olive Key Strap attached, an Aubergine/Wasabi Side Effect, a red Lifefactory 22oz glass water bottle, blue & red Op Tech Strapeez cable ties, a Forest Clear Organizer Wallet, an Ultraviolet Travel Stuff Sack (size 1), an Iberian Travel Stuff Sack (size 2), and a Turquoise Double Organizer Pouch (medium).

Tom Bihn designs and manufactures a variety of bags a bit to my north in Seattle, all with the same quality and thoughtfulness that went into the ID (I’ll soon be ordering a backpack and later a travel bag). So if you find one you like, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

They’re the best.

4 thoughts on “The Tom Bihn ID: An 11-Year Review

  1. Nice! My ID is nearly as old – about 10 – it has a slightly different tag but the same padded shoulder strap as yours. Mine’s in Steel/Wasabi. One of the new brain cells I’ve bought is a slightly different shade of Wasabi – I dread to say it is just “cleaner” but that might be it πŸ˜‰

    It has stood the test of time very well. Nothing’s broken on it. A few tufts have appeared on the flap where the materials overlap though. It is still waterproof! Though I’ve recently bought some of the recommended Nikwax spray to make sure.

    It is a great bag. I’m sorry to see Tom Bihn abandoning the design but I’m sure the replacement will be superb!

    • Glad the ID also served you so well, it’s one of my favorite products I’ve ever bought, in any category. I was tempted for a moment to order a new one when they came back in stock, to store away for a rainy day, but I too am curious as to what the new design will bring.

  2. I was so happy to find this review. I have the same ID, though no thick strap, and carried it every day all over China for several years, and then around California once we moved here. Great bag, sad they stopped making it but sure they are still doing great stuff. My favorite feature was the magazine slot on the back. Perfect design so I could pull my magazine out on crowded trains.

  3. The back slot is a key feature for me as well, but these days it’s an iPad that I slip in there. I love how easy it is to slip in and out of the slot while waiting on the train, and while I wait for a seat, because I can put it away at a moment’s notice and yet it stays secure pressed against my lower back while I’m wearing the bag, which also keeps it from getting wet when it’s raining and I’m walking home.

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