Seattle-based Tom Bihn has been creating impressive travel bags since 1972, and I've had the pleasure of using and reviewing some of their laptop bags for TUAW over the past few years. In response to advent of smaller MacBook models and the iPad, the company recently unveiled the new Cadet laptop and iPad bag (US$170 base price). Read along as I provide a hands-on review of this well-constructed and durable case that is perfect for the MacBook Air and other Apple devices.
While the external design of the Cadet is rather utilitarian, it's the details that make this bag so attractive. It's not an oversized bag; rather, it's designed to take your laptop, a few paper files, your power supplies and some other small accessories.
There are two sizes: 15/13, which fits the 15" and 13" MacBook Pro, the no-longer-available 13" MacBook, and the 13" MacBook Air, and the 11/iPad that is designed for the 11" MacBook Air and the iPad. I reviewed the 11/iPad case, perfect for my 11" MacBook Air.
The Cadet, like every Bihn bag I've reviewed, is built to take the abuse of daily life in stride. The exterior is covered with 1050d ballistic nylon. Another Bihn bag that I own has been literally dragged, dropped, and stepped on for five years, yet looks like it was just delivered from the factory. The inside lining of the Cadet uses a Japanese nylon ripstop fabric to keep pointy things and sharp edges from causing damage. There is a quarter-inch of foam padding all around to protect your equipment from bumps, and the zippers are splash-proof to keep the bag interior dry in wet situations.
The handles on the Cadet are padded, which is nice when you choose to carry it like a briefcase. There are also shoulder straps available: the standard strap is included, while the Absolute Shoulder Strap sells for an additional $30. That strap uses an internal control-stretch system that makes carrying a heavy bag a more pleasant experience. With a strap installed on the Delrin eye-loops on either side of the Cadet, it can be carried either on one should or like a messenger bag.
I found myself in awe of the number of pockets on the Cadet. On the front of the bag are two zippered pockets for little goodies, while the back has an open-top pocket perfect for magazines. The smallest zippered pocket is lined with Ultrasuede and is the perfect spot to hide your iPhone while going through airport security. The next pocket unzips to reveal a space large enough for several power adapters, has a key strap for holding onto your car and house keys while you're on a trip, and adds five open top pockets -- two for mice or small notebooks, two for pens/pencils, and one for markers. The key strap clicks onto an O-ring, which is an O-shaped plastic ring for securely attaching accessories. There are two of these O-rings in the larger exterior pocket.
But the most amazing part of the Cadet is the main pocket. Once again, there are two O-rings onto which various Bihn accessories can be clipped. But there are also two thick straps that are on one side of the case. These area used to secure a Cadet Cache to the case. What's a Cadet Cache? It's a padded sleeve (made for either a laptop or an iPad) with what are called Gatekeeper clips on the bottom. When you pass through a TSA checkpoint, you just slide the Cadet Cache out of your case with your iPad or laptop securely stowed within. It's still attached to the rest of the case so nothing is going to be separated as the assembly goes through the X-ray machine.
There's one more great feature. That magazine pocket on the back of the case? It has a zipper near the bottom -- not so you can lose your magazine, but you can unzip it to create a wide "strap" and slide the bag onto the handle of a rolling suitcase for hands-free carrying. Sweet!
The bag comes in a variety of color choices, so if you don't like the forest green of the review model (which I loved), you can select from five other schemes.
That, in a very large nutshell, is the Cadet case. How does it work in actual use? Read on.
I wanted to test out the Cadet with all of my mobile gear -- iPhone 4S, iPad 2, and 11" MacBook Air. Tom Bihn thoughtfully provided both the Cadet Caches padded sleeves for the iPad and 11" MBA, so I was able to try both. In additional, I loaded the bag up with most of the adapters, cables, and accessories that I normally take with me on trips.
As you can see from some of the gallery photos (above), I was able to put all of that equipment, plus cables, power adapters, keys, and more into the Cadet ... and this is the small version! It's like this bag expands into another dimension, magically adding space when you need it. Fortunately the weight of the equipment wasn't overwhelming, but the Absolute Shoulder Strap did make carrying it quite comfortable.
I could have easily placed my podcasting headphones into the bag as well, and I'm betting that my Canon PowerShot SX30IS -- not a svelte camera -- would have made it into the Cadet as well. I'd love to try packing all of my tech gear into this bag for Macworld | iWorld next week, but we're going to be giving away the Cadet and its accessories at a TUAW meetup the night of January 26.
Tom Bihn bags are not the most inexpensive computer bags around; in fact, with all of the add-ons in this Cadet, the price tag was about $245. But if you're planning on keeping the bag for a number of years, you can rest assured that the Cadet is going to stand up to a lot of abuse and keep looking good.
Tom Bihn does an amazing job of building functional, durable bags for your consumer electronics. If you're in the market for a bag to keep your MacBook Air and iPad protected and at your fingertips, be sure to give the Cadet your full attention.