Gadling Gear Review: BirkSun Atlas Solar Powered Backpack

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

As a gear reviewer for Gadling I see a lot of different products come and go across my desk. Everything from high-tech gadgets to travel apparel and footwear are sent my way for evaluation. After awhile, much of that gear can start to look alike and while I seldom come across an item that is completely without merit, it is also rare to find an item that surprises you with how well it performs. That happens to be the case with the new BirkSun Atlas, a backpack whose main selling point is its ability to charge your small electronics via a built in solar panel. But to focus too much on that one feature alone runs the risk of dismissing everything else this high quality pack brings to the table.

When I first took the Atlas out of the box it was shipped to me in, I was immediately struck by the high quality materials that it is made from. It uses soft, yet durable, fabrics that are resistant to the wear and tear that comes along with travel. In fact, after using this bag as a daily commuter pack for several weeks, it hasn’t shown a hint of fraying, abrasions or any other typical blemishes that you would normally expect to come with regular use. Those same materials provide a level of water resistance as well, helping to protect the important items you carry inside. The entire package feels solid, well built and more than ready to hit the road.

Speaking of the interior of the pack, it is absolutely cavernous. BirkSun has designed this bag to allow you to carry all of your important equipment with you wherever you go. It includes a large laptop sleeve capable of safely holding up to a 17-inch notebook, while still giving you plenty of room in the main pocket for an iPad or other tablet, not to mention any other miscellaneous items that you want to bring along such as a camera, book, snacks and so on. A smaller secondary pocket houses the Atlas’ battery pack (more on that later) and some organizational sub-pockets that come in handy for keeping track of smaller items like pens and business cards. An elastic water bottle holder along one side is a welcome touch too.Taking a few cues from messenger bags, the Atlas features a large flap that seals the interior with both heavy-duty Velcro and a pair of very solid plastic clasps. The back panel is thickly padded and works in conjunction with a pair of thin shoulder straps to make this a very comfortable bag to wear, even when it is loaded down with gear. A strategically placed handle on the top of the Atlas makes it easy to grab and go when you’re in a hurry as well.

BirkSun Atlas solar powered backpack
BirkSun

All of these nice little touches add up to a very impressive pack in its own right and that is before we even get to the Atlas’ ability to keep your gadgets charged while on the road. As mentioned, this pack has a solar panel embedded into the flap that efficiently collects power from the sun and stores it in an included battery pack. The battery sits nestled in its own pocket and features a proprietary cable that can be fitted with a variety of plugs to cover nearly every type of smartphone or other small gadget. BirkSun includes both micro- and mini-USB adapters as well as plugs for Apple’s 30-pin and Lightning ports. Those four options will cover just about anything you could ask for including Android phones, iPhones, iPods and a variety of other small gadgets.

Using my iPhone 4S as a test, I was able to get two full charges out of the battery before depleting it fully. As is typical with a solar charger, the length of time that it takes to recharge the battery pack depends on the amount of direct sunlight the solar panel is exposed to. When placed directly into the bright sun, it takes just a couple of hours to restore the battery, but on cloudier days it will be much slower. If you need to juice it up quickly it can be recharged via USB on a laptop or wall outlet, which takes no time at all. This is useful when you’re heading out the door and you want to make sure you’re at full power before you ever leave home. No matter how you charge it, however, you can set out secure in the knowledge that if your smartphone battery begins to dwindle, you’ll always have a charger close at hand ready to help restore it to full power.

BirkSun is a relatively new company but their first foray into the backpack arena shows that they have a keen eye for detail. For instance, the pocket that holds the battery has a small window on the outside of the pack that allows the user to quickly check the level of the charge it holds without ever having to remove it from the bag. I thought that was a nice touch and although it seems simple, it isn’t the kind of thing that the competition would necessarily think to incorporate into their packs too. They’ve even included a nice little carrying pouch to store the various adapters for the charging system, helping to keep them organized and preventing them from getting lost. I also appreciated the strategically placed zipper on the side of the pack that grants access to your smartphone without having to open up the entire bag.

As you can probably tell, I am highly impressed with the BirkSun Atlas. It serves as a great pack for travel or for daily commutes to the office, carrying everything you would need without a hitch. The built-in solar charger and battery pack would make it easy to dismiss this pack as just a gimmick but quite frankly that would be selling it short. This is a product that does an excellent job of doing its primary job, which is to carry all of our gear comfortably and securely. It just so happens to have a nice portable charging station built into it as well. The combination of all of those things make it easy to recommend and with a price tag of $160 it is more than competitively priced. This is a great piece of gear that will keep you – and your smartphone – happy for a long time to come.

Gadling Gear Review: Tumi Ticon Leather Backpack

Tumi Ticon Leather BackpackRadio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips have become increasingly popular in recent years, with the inexpensive technology finding its way into everything from our credit cards and cellphones to passports. The chips allow for the sharing of information over a short range making it possible to make purchases with just the tab of a card or to pass through a security checkpoint more quickly. But the technology has also shown a penchant for being easily hacked, allowing someone to obtain a host of data simply by scanning for nearby RFID-enabled items. This has led to a rise in identify theft while consumers scramble to protect themselves from yet another threat.

Enter ID LOCK from Tumi, a company well known for creating high-end luxury bags and luggage for the seasoned traveler. When the designers at Tumi saw the threat of identity theft via RFID hacking becoming a bigger issue, they put their heads together to come up with a way to defend their customers from this new form of high-tech pickpocketing. The result is ID LOCK, a specially designed pocket on Tumi bags that helps to prevent RFID signals from passing through, making it nearly impossible for anyone to capture private information from the chips.

The secret to keeping your data secure while on the go is in the fabric of the ID LOCK pocket itself. Tumi has woven metal threads into the cloth, forming a barrier that prevents RFID signals from getting in or out. The pocket is easily identifiable on any Tumi bag as it is always a distinct color of red. Placing your passport, credit cards, mobile phone or any other item packing an RFID chip inside the zippered pocket instantly dampens its signal, greatly reducing the chance of anyone tampering with your information.The ID LOCK pocket is an example of how Tumi is always looking for ways to innovate in an attempt to make their products better while also providing travelers with peace of mind in the process. It is a welcome addition to the company’s wonderful Ticon leather backpack, although it is just one small part of what makes this bag stand out from the crowd. In terms of carry-on packs for the typical traveler, this is a backpack that delivers everything you could possibly need in a compact, durable and attractive package.

Tumi Ticon Leather BackpackThe pack includes more storage than you would think possible at first glance. The main interior pocket is spacious enough to carry most things you would need on a typical flight, including books, magazines, headphones, an iPod and more. Tumi says that it has been designed to support notebooks with up to a 12-inch screen, but my 13.1-inch MacBook Air had no problems slipping into the laptop sleeve as well. A dedicated pocket just for the iPad is a nice touch too and adding a tablet to the load didn’t make the Ticon feel over burdened in any way. A zippered external pocket provides another versatile and easy to reach storage option, while two side pockets, each with magnetic closures, are suitable for small water bottles. Pen loops, a key clasp and an internal card pocket help round out the pack’s other features.

Listing the storage options for a Tumi bag is a bit like reviewing which items come pre-installed on a BMW. They sound good on paper but they do very little to convey the true quality of the overall product. Quite simply put, the Ticon leather backpack is one of the finest bags that I have ever seen. It is lightweight, incredibly well put together and designed with frequent travelers in mind. The pack is built from extremely high-quality leather that will likely look just as good in ten years as it does today. The Ticon has a timeless ascetic about it that somehow manages to appear both modern and classic at the same time, and while using the bag over the past few weeks I’ve had numerous people comment about how much they like it. Several of them I even had to run off with a stick as they eyed the pack a bit too longingly.

The Ticon is versatile enough that it certainly can be put to good use even when you’re not traveling. For example, I used it as a commuter pack for a couple of weeks and found that it served well in that capacity. I occasionally felt like I could have used a bit more room, but overall it handled the job admirably. Ladies looking to ditch their purse when they head out on the town will find the pack to be a great alternative as well, providing all the capacity needed for a night out.

Of course, considering the price of this bag you’ll definitely want to maximize how often you put it to use. Tumi is well known for making high-end products and that is certainly reflected in their pricing. The Ticon leather backpack comes with a luxury sized price tag of $595, which puts it beyond the means of most consumers. But if you’re someone who appreciates very high quality travel gear and has the cash to spend on such products, you certainly won’t be disappointed with what Tumi has delivered here. The Ticon really is in a class all its own, deftly melding form and function into a beautiful package. Throw in the added benefit of the ID LOCK and you have a product that will serve you well on numerous travel adventures for years to come.

[Photo Credit: Tumi]

Gadling Gear Review: ECBC Javelin Daypack

The ECBC Javelin daypackIt is amazing how much stuff we carry with us when we hit the road these days. Between laptops, tablets, smartphones, books, work files and various other items, our carry-on bags are often close to bursting. Lugging all of that gear around can be a real challenge unless you have a good daypack to help lighten the load and keep everything organized. The Javelin pack from ECBC is just such a bag, delivering everything a road warrior needs in one very high-quality and attractive package.

Built from lightweight and water resistant nylon, the Javelin has been designed to be slim and comfortable to wear while still protecting its contents to the fullest. Its shoulder straps and back panel are thickly padded, making it equally easy to carry a full load on a daily commute to the office or a business trip to the far side of the globe. Its classic good looks are simple and attractive, with a styling that is both understated and refined.

As good looking as the Javelin is on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that really impresses. The interior of the pack is filled with so many pockets, storage compartments and organizational slots, you’re likely to forget where each of them is located. There are multiple zippered mesh pockets and Velcro sealed sleeves, which helps to keep everything in its proper place, yet close at hand when needed.The center point for any pack like this one is clearly the laptop pocket and the Javelin doesn’t disappoint in this area either. Large enough to accommodate a computer that is up to 17 inches in size, the pocket is extremely well padded to ensure that its fragile cargo stays completely protected. A removable insert brings a level of versatility to the pocket, making it easy to adjust its size for smaller laptops as well. This handy feature means the pack will remain useful even as you upgrade your computer in the years to come. Best of all, the pocket is fully TSA Fastpass compliant, which makes it a breeze to zip through security, something frequent fliers will really appreciate.

Other nice touches include a quick access pocket on the front that is specifically designed for keeping a passport or other important documents close at hand, while a fleece lined pocket along the top is perfect for carrying sunglasses, an mp3 player or other fragile items. The soft interior material helps to protect glass from unexpected scratches and other abrasions that can commonly occur while traveling. Two additional pockets on either side of the pack zipper open to accommodate water bottles, while an integrated clip comes in very handy for those of us who are always scrambling to locate our keys after a long flight.

Simply put, this combination of features adds up to one of the best commuter packs I’ve ever used. It is comfortable to wear, even over extended periods of time, offers plenty of storage and has more organizational pockets than anyone could ever hope to fill. On top of that, ECBC took great care in construction and design, incorporating only high-quality fabrics and zippers throughout the entire pack. The result is a bag that is incredibly durable and well built for the road, providing everything travelers could hope for in a compact and rugged carryon.

If you’re in the market for a new laptop bag, or someone on your holiday shopping list could use such a pack, then the Javelin from ECBC may be exactly what you’re looking for. Its versatility and durability ensure that this is a daypack that you’ll be using for years to come, while its classic design means that it won’t go out of style any time soon either. At $130, it isn’t the least expensive laptop bag on the market, but I think you’ll find its quality and convenience is well worth the price.

[Photo Credit: ECBC]

Tom Bihn’s Aeronaut: A Great Long Weekend Bag

I have what’s fast becoming a stupid amount of luggage. It seems a little ridiculous that I haven’t discovered the one bag to rule them, what with the tide of carry-on sized backpacks, roll-aboards, and duffels that come through the house. The problem is that each bag has its own idea use scenario, they’ve all got a different mash of features, and some are better for certain types of trips than others.

I had dearly wanted to pack the newest bag in my house — the Tom Bihn Aeronaut ($240 from Tom Bihn) — for my safari trip, but I was vanquished by a sleeping bag. I was able to stuff a shocking amount of gear into what looks like not that much space. With my clothes crammed into packing cubes, I could just get everything I needed to pack into the bag, but the sleeping bag, nope, no dice. I ended up taking my Gregory rolling duffel instead.

The Bihn Bag I saved for a long weekend in bad weather to the Columbia River Gorge, and it was really nothing short of perfect for that. I packed three days of foul weather gear — a down sweater, a rain shell, long underwear, a hat and gloves, a little black dress (because really, you never know) and a pair of chunky knee high boots. I also had two magazines, a book, and the usual socks/underwear/toiletries. Oh, and flannel pajamas. I could easily have traveled for a week on the stuff I had in there, longer, if need be.

Here’s what I like about this bag. It’s got stow away backpack straps and a removable waist belt, so if you’re needing to carry it through town or while you run for the bus, you’re set. It’s got two side pockets that are the perfect size for stowing a pair of low rise hikers. It’s got a net pocket in the zippered top; you could use that instead of a toiletries bag, and it’s perfect for stowing the little things that get loose in your bag — a flashlight, the moisturizer you poached from the hotel… you know. There’s a grip handle on the top and the side and a removable shoulder strap so you can configure and carry the bag in whatever way works best for you. It’s regulation carry on size, so you’ll have no trouble fitting it in the overhead bin on your flight.I’ll admit that I’m partial to Tom Bihn products because they’re made right here in my home town — it’s almost impossible to find American made gear these days. I’ve visited the Tom Bihn factory twice. Both times I noticed how detail obsessed Tom Bihn himself is. You see it in his bags. The hardware is quality stuff, tough and designed to last. The shoulder straps are backed with neoprene so they don’t slide. There are lots of little add-ons and accessories that are designed to work together beautifully. I’ve got a little clip on red light that helps you see what’s in your bag in the dark without waking up your roomie — you can get a white light, instead. I’ve also got a packing cube type bag that doubles as a day pack; this is a hugely useful item for stowing in any bag — it’s great for the beach or for campground showers. Bihn bags are really well considered, you can see it in all the attention to detail.

The Aeronaut is Tom Bihn’s recommended round the world bag and there are lots of testimonials on their site backing this up. I have a caveat on that. I wasn’t packing heavy for my Africa trip, not by a long shot. (See also, strapping lad on my tour hefts my bag and pauses. “Wow, you’re traveling really light!”) I just needed a little more room, just a tiny bit, the size of, oh, a sleeping bag in a compression sack, to make the bag work.

If you’re not carrying a sleeping bag — and really, I had everything else — you’d do well to go with the Aeronaut. It’s not the lightest bag on the market, but I’d wager that it’s one of the best designed and it’s built to take a beating.

Gregory “Alpaca” Roller Duffel Bag

Gregory Alpaca Roller DuffelHere’s my issue with many rolling duffel bags: they don’t hold their shape. There are a few other nits — the material is too light and punctures or tears easily, the zippers give out, and weirdly, they’re heavy, making me wonder why I didn’t just go with a hard sided bag. Gregory’s new Alpaca Roller Duffel addresses all these complaints and then some, plus, the frame has been re-engineered so it doesn’t eat up valuable space in your bag.

Gregory’s Alpaca Roller Duffel is sort of a hybrid bag — the bottom and the wheelbase is lightweight molded plastic covered with tough fabric — this helps the the bag keep it’s shape; it also makes it easy to pack because unlike a lot of roller bags, the bottom is flat and the hard sides help it hold its shape. The upper part of the bag is treated fabric, tough, waterproof and hey, mine is red so if I do end up checking it, it’s easy to spot on the baggage carousel.

The handle is so much easier to use than the misnamed quick release handles on my other roller bags. There’s a strap to hold it in place when it’s down, but I imagine myself losing that and finding that, oh, look, the handle still stays down just fine. The big fat wheels mean it’s easy to maneuver, though I don’t yet know how that translates in the narrow aisles of a coach cabin.

The straps on the top of the bag Velcro together with a grip like most bags, but the straps themselves are designed like backpack straps. This is a nice compromise, it means when you’re finding your destination in that neighborhood that’s all narrow walkways or navigating the staircases of the train station, you can carry your bag like a backpack. That’s a really thoughtful touch. You can take the straps off, too, they’re designed to be easily removed if you’re not using them.
The interior lid of the bag is a netted, zippered compartment; there’s a strap with a clasp on it sewn in place, answering the question of where to put your keys while you’re not using them. There are cinch straps at the bottom of the bag to keep your stuff in place — and cinch straps on the outside for additional security.

On the outside of the bag there are lots of loops and tie downs; I suppose you might tie your muddy hikers to them, or your wet swimsuit. There’s a little pocket for your ID, and another small zippered pocket for odds and ends — it’s probably a convenient place for your travel documents while you’re wheeling through the airport.

Getting the perfect piece of luggage is tricky, that’s probably why I have so many bags. A soft-sided bag isn’t going to protect all the electronic gadgets I haul around; that’s a concern. I’d love an outside pocket for sandals — it’s bad form to have stuff flopping all over when you’re boarding a plane. But the Alpaca 22 (the 22 is carry on size, it comes in a 28 as well) , paired with my favorite digital backpack, is big enough, sturdy enough, and versatile enough to see me through a week or a month of travel.

The Alpaca Roller comes in Tarmac Black or Sunset Red. The 22 retails for $299, the 28 for $349. The bag hits retail stores in July, 2011.