Review: Tom Bihn Empire Builder laptop briefcase

Posted on by Mike Evans

It’s a year since I got my first Tom Bihn bag, the diminutive Ristretto for the 11in MacBook Air. It was love at first sight and the Ristretto is now my all-time favourite daily companion. It’s just so convenient, light and well made. Above all, it is a system bag with lots of accessory pouches and other stuff you can add. I’m a sucker for a system.

As a travel bag, though, the Ristretto is definitely too small. I trawled through the Tom Bihn web site looking for my ideal carry-on bag. I don’t like wheeled trolleys because they are too heavy and are awkward to stow in overhead lockers. And backpacks aren’t my thing unless I’m dressed casually and setting off for a long walk.

I was seeking a traditional bag with lots of pockets and enough interior space to carry a computer and basic weekend clothes.

Finally I hit on the Empire Builder. It is billed as a briefcase but is in reality a very versatile overnighter, laptop case, carry-on bag and faithful travel companion. In the past six months it has served me on over ten excursions, including two long-haul flights, and I love it to death. It’s as near to my ideal as I think I’m going to get.

In common with the Ristretto and almost every bag in the Tom Bihn range, the Empire Builder is a great system bag. I can use all the zipped pouches I bought for the Ristretto and there are loads of new gizmos to keep my devices secure, my cables organised and my documents and valuables safe. But beware: All this comes at a price.


The bag is made from 500 denier Cordura and 1050 denier ballistic nylon, with a 500 denier Cordura lining. The outer zips are a YKK splash-proof design which have a protective flap over the tines to ensure an almost seamless closure. Overall, the bag measures 18.25x12.75x7in (465x325x180mm) and weighs 3lb 4.85oz (1.49 kg). It is comfortably within the dimensions for carry-on luggage, even for tightest of budget airlines.

To my mind, a good travel bag is all about design for purpose and, in particular, the placing and configuration of pockets and compartments.

So let’s examine the Empire Builder in three main areas: the back, the main compartment and the front pocket.

On the back is a full-width open slot which is designed for newspapers, books or other items to which you need easy access.

Outside of this compartment is a slightly smaller pocket with a bottom zipper. When closed it acts as an extra pocket. Unzipped, it allows the bag to be placed securely over the handle of a roller case.

The main compartment is a single open space with a volume of 19.5 liters. The front, back, bottom and sides are padded and stiffened by 1/4in (6mm) closed-cell foam. The main zip extends to within three inches of the bottom of the case so the compartment can be opened, bellows-style for easy access. However, the price for this convenience is the absence of a tag or anything to grab when closing the zips. When the bag is fully loaded, it’s a struggle to close the zips without an anchor point.

Within this large compartment are two features to help with adding accessories. First, there are two clips which are used to attach the optional Brain Cell laptop case. Second, there are padded ridges at either end of the compartment to secure the three hard-plastic file dividers which come as standard.

These can be removed easily and you can buy more if you need them. Although intended for organising files and papers, the dividers are very useful for keeping stored items separate. For instance, I use two dividers to keep my MacBook Air and iPad away from clothes or other items.

On the front of the bag, the messenger flap conceals a full-width open-top compartment with a 3-liter capacity which is fitted with smaller organiser pouches for cellphone, notebooks, pens and smaller items. At top left there is one O ring to which you can attach keys or accessories. In front of this compartment is a slightly smaller full-width slot with secure zip closure.

The messenger flap, which is secured by Tom Bihn’s trademark offset strap with a 2in side-release plastic buckle, is fitted with three outer pockets. To the right is a 6x7in (155x180mm) zipped pocket. I find this tailor made for my travel document wallet. It provides secure but easy access.

To the left is a 5x8in (125x200mm) open-top slot intended for quick-access items such as boarding passes and tickets. Finally, there is a zippered side pocket measuring 4x6in (100x150mm) intended for a cellphone, iPod or similar small device.

The handles are made from ballistic nylon rolled around thick foam. They lie together naturally and require no velcro flaps or connectors which I always find annoying. Seasoned Tom Bihn customers will not be surprised to find that there is no shoulder strap included in the price of the bag. However, you do get two sturdy strap connectors placed diagonally towards the left and right sides of the bag. This is a more comfortable arrangement for load distribution than the usual method of attaching the shoulder strap to either end of the bag.

If you decide to need a shoulder strap (you will) the Absolute Shoulder Strap is an esential option costing $30.

The Empire Builder, including three standard file dividers but no shoulder strap, costs $180 before tax and shipping.  It is available in five colour combinations: black/green with steel interior, black/steel/steel, black/navy/wasabi, black/black/steel, black/cardinal/steel. Mine is black with steel flap and with a black interior. I wish I’d chosen a coloured interior because the contrast makes finding items easier. And I also half wish I had been more adventurous and gone for a coloured messenger flap.

There is a slightly smaller replica of the Empire Builder, called the Zephyr, which is worth looking at. But, while it is clearly a versatile briefcase, it cannot double so effectively as an overnighter.

System accessories

One of the joys of a “system” bag such as the Empire Builder is in adding accessories. Tom Bihn doesn’t disappoint and has a multitude of ingenious ways of extracting extra money from you. That $180 price of the bag soon begins to rise.

Absolute Shoulder Strap

Without a doubt, the most useful extra is an Absolute Shoulder Strap at $30. This well-padded non-slip strap has what the makers call “a unique, patented internal control-stretch system”. I don’t know about the technicalities, but the strap just works and makes any load feel lighter.

I first used one on my small Ristretto bag and noted how it allows the bag to bounce when fully loaded. This bounciness is more pronounced with the heavier Empire Builder and seems to reduce the weight and improve the comfort on the shoulder.

Brain Cell

The Brain Cell is a padded laptop bag which is available in 11 sizes to suit most computers. It clips securely into the plastic holders fitted to the inside back of the large internal compartment in the Empire Builder. It can also be used as a stand-alone bag. It features carrying handles, shoulder-strap attachments and outer pockets for storing papers and computer accessories. Cost is $60.

Freudian Slip

The Freudian Slip is a removable organiser which offers eleven extra pockets. On one side are pouches for pens, phones, travel documents and full A4 papers in addition to two zippered pockets of 8x3.5in and 5x4in. The Slip simply slots into the main compartment of the Empire Builder and is removed easily by means of a loop on the top edge. This loop can be used to hang the Freudian Slip on a hook or doorknob to give ready access to all your stuff. It costs $45.

Pouches, pouches and more pouches

The Empire Builder likes to be a marsupial. There is a vast range of coloured organiser pouches which can be clipped inside. All have zip closure and a corner clip which attaches to the O ring in any Tom Bihn bag. They range from simple Cordura organisers, lightweight nylon pouches, clear organisers to padded pockets for fragile gizmos. There are packing cubes and clear cubes for toiletries. You will even find special-purpose pouches for the Apple Magic Mouse, the Kindle reader and the Apple Wireless keyboard. Hours of fun to be had here, and lots of cash to be spent. Did I mention pouches?

Snake Charmer

The $30 Snake Charmer keeps all your cables safe. It is flat bottomed for stability and features two zippered compartments for accessories.

Key Straps

One of the most useful accessories is the $2 key strap. It’s intended to hold your bunch of keys and to clip on to the O ring in a bag. I find it more useful as an extender between the O ring and most of the pouches. It comes in a range of colours and in 8in and 16in lengths (the latter being useful if you want to keep your keys attached to the bag while opening your front door).

Odds and sods

Tom Bihn’s site is dripping with ideas for better packing and luggage carrying. There are cord zipper pulls to attach to the zips, Strapeez cable tidies, luggage tags and, even, a passport pouch that blocks the detection or reading of RFID chips. Now I bet you never knew you needed one of these. I didn’t buy one.

Packing mode

I prefer to travel light and nothing gives me more pleasure (well, not much anyway) than managing for a weekend on what I can squeeze into the Empire Builder. First task, always, is to sort out the absolute essentials, including chargers, cables, documents, passport, money and credit cards. I work on the principle that if I forget anything else I can buy a replacement at my destination. These are always the first things I pack.

My travel wallet, containing passport, credit cards, currency and tickets, fits into the horizontal zippered pocket on the front of the Empire Builder’s messenger flap. This is a secure location, but it is easy to get to if you need access while progressing through the airport.

Next I fill the Snake Charmer with connecting cables, chargers (usually one 10w iPad/iPhone unit and one 45w MacBook unit). Also into the Charmer go Apple plugs for both home and away. If I am staying in an hotel I will usually pack an Ethernet cable and Apple’s USB Ethernet adaptor just in case there is wired internet to be had.

Usually there is ample spare room for batteries, coin bags and general bits and pieces. The trick is to leave nothing loose in the main bag. The loaded Snake Charmer fits into the main compartment of the case.

Any items I might need on the journey are stowed in coloured Cordura pouches which are then attached to the O ring inside the large pocket underneath the messenger flap. It is then easy to pull on the straps to find the right coloured pouch. Pouch items include earphones, synch cables, power unit, medication and bags of coins. I always use the same colour for the specific contents. Now I have memorised the colours and contents I find it easy to pull out the pouch of the moment.

Although I bought a Brain Cell I have not used it. I find it bulky and it takes up far too much space in the main compartment. Instead, I use two of the supplied plastic file dividers to keep my MacBook Air and iPad upright and separated from the rest of the packing. The dividers are hard and prevent any items from the Snake Charmer or other organiser pouches pressing into the computers. Obviously the computers are not as well protected as they would be in the Brain Cell, but I judge the protection is adequate. I can live with that in order to reclaim some space.

If I need to take a camera I use a small 10x7x4in padded case I found in Katmandu¹, the outdoor supplies store. It holds either a Nikon D7000 SLR with one 18-200mm lens (lens not mounted) or a Nikon V1 with three lenses and a flash unit. The camera bag sits to one side of the main compartment with the Snake Charmer on top.

This leaves enough space for a 9.75x13.75x3in medium packing cube from eBags¹. It’s usually sufficient for all the spare clothes I need for a weekend. Normally these would include a second shirt, pair of jeans, tee shirt, two pairs of socks and underwear and, if necessary, a lightweight cotton jumper.

All these containers fit snugly into the Empire Builder’s main compartment and there is room on top for a set of toiletries, with liquids and tubes in a separate clear plastic bag for security inspection. With all this in place, there is no problem in pulling out the iPad and computer without dislodging anything.

All in all, this is a very sensible and logical way of packing and there’s a sense of satisfaction in keeping things to a minimum.

With all the essentials, including clothes, safely stowed away, it’s time to explore all the external pockets which give you loads of storage space for extras.

On the back of the case there are two full-width pockets which can take newspapers, files and books. I usually put my iPad in one of these pockets when boarding an aircraft so I can pull it out quickly before stowing the bag.

The outer pocket has a bottom zipper and allows the Empire Builder to be secured over the handle of a roller case. With the zip closed it is a usable pocket. Unfortunately, in my experience, this zip has a tendency to open without human intervention. It’s as well to make absolutely sure the zip is secure before placing any heavy items (such as an iPad) in the sleeve.

Under the front messenger flap is the 3-liter full-width compartment which can swallow three or four zippered pouches (attached to the O ring), plus all your pens, notebooks and odds and ends. In front of this open pouch is a full-width zippered compartment, ideal for keeping things secure. It’s a good alternative location for your travel documents and valuables.

On the front of the messenger flap, the horizontal zippered compartment usually holds my travel wallet and valuables. In addition there is a vertical zippered pocket intended to hold a smartphone and an open vertical pocket which can, at a pinch, hold a small bottle of water. It’s also an ideal location for boarding passes or anything that you need to grab in a hurry.

These outer pockets are good for stashing keys, coins, phones, wallets and other stuff before you go through security. So many people waste time emptying their pockets at the checkpoint when a little pre-planning could speed things up. I frequently transit Zurich or Munich when flying in Europe and it’s a big help to be able to stow pocket items in the bag for the duration of the journey.

All this stuff aboard, my Empire Builder clocks in at just under 8Kg (17.5lb) and can be carried perfectly comfortably with the springy, comfortable handles. Usually, though, I attach an Absolute Shoulder strap which makes toting the bag even more comfortable. The bag always feels lighter than it is because of this strap.

All aboard

This is what I usually fit inside the Empire Builder for a short overnighter or weekend. If packing for a longer trip I put all non-essential and non-fragile stuff in hold luggage to lighten the airport schlepping load.

  • MacBook Air fitted with Speck SeeThru Satin clip-on case
  • iPad with Frogz Backbone case and Apple Smartcover
  • iPhone 4S
  • Leather travel wallet with tickets, credit cards, passport, currency, foreign SIM cards and paperclip.
  • Tom Bihn Snake Charmer containing power adaptors (according to destination), micro USB cable, Apple sync cable, four AA batteries, Apple Magic Mouse, Nikon charger and adaptor for destination.
  • Small (7x5in) Tom Bihn Cordura pouch containing Apple 45w and Apple 10w power adaptors fitted with destination plugs. One 30-pin connector cable.
  • Small pouch for my Bose MIE2 earphones and Apple headphones.
  • Small pouch for my Mophie Juicepack Powerstation with 30-pin connector cable (recharging iPhone or iPad)
  • Timbuktu Protective Cell containing either Nikon D7000 with AF-S 18-200mm lens or Nikon V1 with three lenses (10mm pancake, 10-30mm, 30-110mm)
  • Moleskine pocket notebook and two pens
  • Box of vitamins and tablets
  • Pack of moist wipes
  • Screen cloth
  • Medium eBag packing cube containing one button-down long-sleeve shirt, two pairs of underwear and socks, tee shirt, spare jeans; lightweight cotton pullover depending on season.
  • Small toiletries bag
  • Clear plastic bag for fluids if travelling by air without hold baggage.

In use

The secret of a good briefcase or carry-on bag is in keeping the proportions sensible. In my view the Empire Builder, even when fully loaded, is the ideal size and shape for travelling. It fits easily in all overhead compartments, even on smaller commercial aircraft. And, if it isn’t too bloated with contents, it will usually slide under a seat. Fitted with the Absolute Shoulder Strap, it is easy to carry around without strain.

I’ve been using the Empire Builder for six months and I am hard pressed to think of many changes that could make it better. I’d like a couple more O rings, including at least one in the main compartment, but this is a relatively minor point.

I love the way in which the hard-plastic file dividers slot into the channels at either end of the bag and allow the main compartment to be split. When the bag is used as a briefcase, the opportunities for file organisation are almost limitless. The dividers have tabs for a descriptive label.

The single offset front strap holds the messenger flap securely; it can be snapped open quickly for access to the inside pouches and compartments.

The Empire Builder has no smart solutions for going through security, unlike some TSA-friendly bags such as the Checkpoint Flier, but I find it easy enough to get to computer and iPad and. Importantly, it is also easy to replace the items easily because of the file dividers. The outside compartments are useful for storing contents of pockets before approaching security, so progress is usually smooth.

Above all, the Empire Builder is stable in use. It stands up, whether lightly filled or bulging and falls over only when empty except for a heavy laptop to one side.

What’s in a name?

It’s a train. The Empire Builder service was inaugurated in 1929 by the Great Northern Railway Company. It runs from Chicago, Illinois to Spokane, Washington where the train is split into two sections: one going into Seattle, Washington and the other section going into Portland, Oregon.

It was named after James Hill, the chairman and president of the Great Northern Railway at the time. He was called the “empire builder” because he had built a railway empire by buying, stealing or bankrupting, then taking over, competing railroads to eventually form the Great Northern.

The train was always the railroad’s crack service. It always had the latest technology, best coaches and newest engines. It is my understanding that the Great Northern was first to come up with the idea of a “dome car” explicitly for this route, since the train goes through absolutely stunning scenery.

Amtrak (National Passenger Railroad Corporation) is running the Empire Builder service now. The trip from Chicago to Seattle takes approximately 46 hours. It is the busiest long-distance train service in the US (information supplied by our resident train buff, Ralf Meier).

Backpack alternative

I’m not a fan of backpacks. I find them uncomfortable and awkward to don, particularly when wearing a suit or jacket. Backpacks go better with sweaters or casual wear.

But Tom Bihn’s Smart Alec ($140) is the one I would choose if I wanted an alternative. With a 26-liter capacity it is just a little bit bigger than the Empire Builder. Fortunately for you, Ben Brooks of The Brooks Review did an in-depth review of his Smart Alec only the other day. The article is in two parts: Part 1 here, Part 2 here.


There is no such thing as the perfect bag. Every one is a compromise and we all have our own pet list of must-have features. But the Tom Bihn Empire Builder comes nearest to my ideal. It is an superb combination of briefcase, carry-on luggage and overnight bag that you would be hard pressed to better.

The Empire Builder is the perfect size for me. Even when loaded to capacity it is not uncomfortable to carry by the handles. And with the addition of the Absolute Shoulder Strap it is even easier to tote around. Add in the quality, toughness, attention to detail and sheer good looks and it is a hard act to follow.

The bag is designed manufactured entirely in Seattle by people who actually use their own products. Unlike so many products on the market, is not produced in a cheap location and given an American brand name. It is more expensive because of this, but you are getting guaranteed quality from a team of enthusiasts.

What’s good, what’s bad?

Good: Superb design and build, sensible layout, amazing capacity for its size, stable (it stands up on its own). The handles are super comfortable, even when the bag is loaded, and the optional Absolute Shoulder Strap makes light work of the heaviest loads.

Bad: Only one O ring for accessories. I would like to see at least one in the main compartment and an additional one in the organiser pouch under the messenger flap (to make a total of three). Finally, the Empire Builder isn’t cheap and the long list of extras will have you digging deep.


Acknowledgement to Tom Bihn for the catalogue photographs used in this review.

¹ Tom Bihn also supply packing cubes in various sizes. I just had these alternative products on hand and they do the job well.

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