Timbuk2 Commute XL Bag
Company: Timbuk2 Designs
Price: $130.00 (US)
As I mentioned in an earlier column, I am the proud new owner of a new 1.3 GHz 17” PowerBook. While that in and of itself is not big news except maybe for me, and the fact that this is probably my 30th (or more) new Macintosh computer, and while I have owned way too many Mac portables (Original Portable, PB 100, PB 140, PB 170, PB 180c, PB Duo 230, PB 540c, PB 270c, 5300, and a Pismo) before this, what is news is that so far, they have all fit into the same few carrying cases I have always owned. OK, I tried to put this 17” beast into my favorite case (which I obtained at Apple) and while it “fits”, it is not well protected and bulges out a bit at the sides. As you already know, this 17” beast is big (read: wide) and not exactly light weight, and with such a big screen, needs all the protection it can get, so it was time to find a new case. My biggest concern was that with a screen this big, the slightest twist or impact to the VERY THIN case that surrounds the display and I end up with a G4 PowerBook boat anchor!
So I spent a good deal of my time at Macworld Expo 2004 talking to case manufacturers, where I hoped to find the best solution to lugging this beast about! The first of my trials into a new case came from Timbuk2. Timbuk2 has been in San Francisco since 1989 making bags for bike messengers, so they have a good deal of experience in durable, tough bags. Most of their bags are made in the US, which I liked, although a few are now made in China, and they seem very apologetic about that on their web site. The bag I tried, while designed in S.F. was indeed made in China, and they explain that because of its complexity, it would be economically feasible to make it in the US.
For my G4 PowerBook, I tried their Commute XL (retails for $130), a messenger-style computer “briefcase” (their word, not mine) as their best solution to carry this machine. Similar bags are also available in sizes better suited for the 15” and 12” PowerBooks and iBooks as well, but my trail pushed me to the XL size, an 18” wide, 11” high, and 6 “ deep case! And what was my initial reaction? “Damn, this is one big case, but I really like the way it looks.” The bag outside is a heavyweight textured black nylon with a yellow logo and name, while the inside is black and yellow smooth nylon and vinyl for the most part. Overall, I find this a very stylish bag in the bike messenger bag style.
The Good: This bag, like most all of Timbuk2’s bags are made from very strong, light weight ballistic nylon combined with waterproof vinyl along the inside. All stitching is extra strong, and the well padded handled is reinforced to prevent it from tearing off, which has happened to me on other bags I have used, and can be extremely hazardous to your computer when it does!
To hold the 17” PowerBook in place, a well-padded pocket, custom sized for a perfect fit is attached along the backside of the bag, and there is a Velcro strap along the top of the pocket to securely hold the computer in place. To further protect the computer, the bottom is made of a rugged rubberized, fairly thick padded material that protects the machine when you set the case down on the ground. To protect the computer and the carrier of the bag, the back of the bag is well padded in a soft cloth-like material, which made the bag very comfortable to carry as well.
A long, removable shoulder strap sports Timbuk2’s unique quick adjusting strap design, which I found quite handy when the bag started to become heavy. Simply flip up the adjustment clip and slide the bag to its new height, and lock it back. I have not seen this feature on any other bag, and the ability to reposition the height of the bag quickly helped make carrying it for a long period of time much more comfortable. This strap attaches to the bag via metal D-rings with strong self-locking j-clips, and again, reinforced stitching to keep the rings attached to the bag, an important feature here too!
The top flap as well as much of the inside is lined with waterproof vinyl, designed to keep the inside quite dry, even in the rain. I was able to test this theory as it was raining fairly hard when I walked the 5 blocks from Macworld Expo to BART on Tuesday! While I was quite wet, most of the outside of the bag repelled water just fine, but the back padded material did not do quite so well and did become damp. However, the entire inside was completely dry, and that’s what really counts! Made me wish my jacket were made like this bag! To help protect contents of the bag, the top/front flap closes completely over the entire front of the bag and locks into place with two snap clips on the end of adjustable straps. Additionally, Velcro holds the front flap of the bag closed, so even if you forget to lock the straps, the bag stays closed, a nice touch.
The interior is quite roomy with a good number of organizer pockets, one of which “swings out” of the bag for easy access. (Just do not forget to zipper closed its pockets before doing that, or their contents end up in your lap.) Spaces for pens, highlighters, cards, and one small and large zipper pocket make storing small and large items alike fairly easy. A very cool long strap for attaching keys is also included in this organizer flap, and is long enough to allow you to use the keys without detaching them (but see the bad below.) Several open and zipper pockets are also available along the front, inside of the bag that easily hold a cell phone, glasses, business cards, CDs, and other small, flatter items. (Again see the bad below.)
Two “water bottle” pockets line each outer edge and, in my case held easily an accessible mid-size water bottle and small umbrella. (No, I did not use the umbrella on Tuesday just to test the bag in the rain!) Lastly, a large, full length and height zipper pocket sits along the backside of the bag, which can hold large papers, notebooks, or other fairly flat, large objects. It too has several open pockets inside as well for holding a few smaller items.
I loved the additional small accessory bags Timbuk2 sells that are designed to attach to the shoulder strap. You can add an iPod bag, a cell phone bag, a radio holster, a strap pouch, or something they call a “dirty bag” for things like power cords and such. I must admit though, with three or more of these on the shoulder strap, you might begin to look like an old time outlaw with an ammunition belt!
The Bad: I realize that no bag is going to be perfect, but there are a few oversights, lets call them nitpicks in this design that I hope to see addressed in future Timbuk2 designs. First, the interior PowerBook pocket is not removable, or even adjustable should you want to carry a smaller computer later. In previous bags I have owned, what computer I carried often varied over time, and putting a smaller computer in this pocket will not work well as it will slide about. Other bags have offered a Velcro adjustable size barrier, and unfortunately, this has none. Also, there are times when I would like to carry just the PowerBook, and leave the big bag at my desk. It would be great if this protective pocket could be removed to allow one to carry just the PowerBook itself, via a small handle. I would also like to be able to remove this computer pocket all together to use the bag when not carrying a computer, allowing a bit more internal room for other things.
While there is the cool key chain attachment, this is located fully inside the case, making access to your keys quite difficult while carrying the bag over your shoulder, as you need to open the front flap, then open the internal, backwards facing internal zipper pocket, and then pull out your keys. Access to pockets on the outside is also very limited. While there is the large, back pocket (which is where the keychain attachment should be moved to) which can be accessed without opening the flap on the bag, there is no easily accessible outside smaller zipper pockets for things like a wallet, Palm, phone or reading glasses for example, requiring one to completely open the bag to access anything on the small side. Actually, this is not entirely true; although the front flap covers the inside front pockets, you can reach past the side of the flap to get at these pockets. And that is both the good news and the bad. Unfortunately, you can only reach, at an awkward angle, the two, front, large, open pockets, and they are not entirely useful for larger items as they are cut at a strange angle, making their holding power a bit weak. I tried to put a number of things in here and get at them in this manner and it was simply not convenient. In addition, smaller things tend to slide out of these pockets and drop out of the bag if the bag gets laid down on any side, and that is another problem. With the bag full of things, it tends to fall right over on the front side. The bottom is just not strong or wide enough to hold it upright all the time. While the front pockets are large and soft enough to hold, for example, CDs or DVDs out of the case, when I laid the bag down on a table and picked it up again, the DVDs simply slid right out of the pockets, and then fell out of the case as I carried it. As for a place to put them inside…well, none of the pockets really worked well for that either, and I ended up putting them into a baggie and then into the large open area in the middle. It worked, but a pocket designed to hold CDs or DVDs would be great as would some smaller, outside zippered pockets.
And as I mentioned, there are pouches inside the large zippered pocket on the back, but anything too bulky in there (like my eyeglasses case) makes carrying the bag a bit uncomfortable, and they can be felt against your side. I think adding one or two zippered pockets to the front flap would easily solve this problem.
Another issue I had is with the shoulder strap itself. This is a strong, well-made strap but quite narrow given the size of this bag. At only 2 inches wide, it was not very comfortable at all for the first day I carried the bag. Given that this bag could hold so much more, this strap should be much wider, especially at the shoulder. So I went back to the Timbuk2 booth at MacWorld on day two to ask about shoulder strap options and discovered that for an extra $10, one can buy a padded shoulder strap accessory, one of the many extras for this and other bags. The shoulder strap accessory is a 2.5” wide, and 12” long, well padded piece that wraps around the strap at any point you like, and attaches with Velcro. This is a great accessory. The black one is made of something called “Toughtek® No-Slip fabric” (and no slip it was) while the other 15 colors (yes, I said 15 and include colors such as coffee, pink, plum, steel, and royal to name just a few) are made of something called “Cordura®”, what ever these names mean! To me, they look like the same material of which the bag is made. While this did make the bag easier to carry, I was surprised that it was not simply included with this bag, especially given the weight a bag this size will handle.
My last issue is with weight. The bag itself is not bad, weighing in at about 3 pounds with the strap and strap accessory, but it is big and can (read: will) hold quite a bit. Add the 17” PowerBook (about 7 lbs), its power supply and cord, a small note book, a small bottle of water, the lightweight umbrella, and a few CDs, odds and ends and you are tipping the scales well past 15 lbs. Ok, while not the bag’s fault itself, as I am not sure they could take any additional weight out of the bag if they tried, but the size of this thing will encourage you to carry a lot of stuff, and it will get heavy. My shoulder is still hurting from carrying this thing around for a week, so be aware that carrying such a big bag has its downside over time.
The not so ugly: Actually, this is an amazingly good-looking bag, quite functional, and despite the few issues I mentioned above, does a great job of holding all I would really ever need to carry in such a bag. You can read more about this and other Timbuk2 products at http://www.timbuk2.com.