Fancy French Backpacks

Tue Oct 15 2013

Being the owner of a brand new MacBook (one that I hope to be able to trade-and-upgrade very soon) and being in the new business of trekking around from client to client with my tools, I decided that I needed a bag. Initially I was going to try to keep my "cool hipster image" and stick with the cross-body satchel but Craig's tweet made me reconsider my future with a twisted spine.

The Helpful Clerk

When I bought my laptop, I was fortunate enough to be served by one very helpful Apple Business Specialist named Alistair, who just so happened to be a self-confessed bag tragic. In addition to giving me some sage advice on my purchases, he also deftly marched me upstairs to show me some of his favourite bag sites. We looked at swanky bags. We looked at bomb-proof bags. We looked at offerings on Etsy. Most importantly, he pointed me at RushFaster.com, which is an excellent place to start looking for any kind of bag (or wallet). Several days later, out of all of the sites he had pummelled into my head, only RushFaster remained. After a quick review of available styles, only one brand appealed to me.

It's Pronounced "Coat Ay Sea-Elle"

After several hours, I narrowed down the choice to two bags: The "Rhine New Flat Backpack" and the "Isar Rucksack Twin Contrast". Unfortunately, photographic coverage of the inside of the Isar was quite sparse, so with RushFaster's 100 day money-back guarantee in mind, I ordered both of them.

Fast forward to today, and as per their reputation and promise, the two bags were delivered on the next business day after shipping. Considering the lack of good decision-assisting unboxing photos of at least one of the bags out there, I decided to throw together an impromptu product review to help out the next guy.

The Actual Review

Touchy-Feely

The New Flat (not to be confused with the old Flat) is made out of Eco Yarn, giving it a pretty stock-standard backpack appearance. The Isar is made from cotton canvas fabric, which gives the bag a soft, comforting look and feel. The cotton, albeit soft, is strong and tightly woven to make it seem pretty durable.

Would you like dog hair with that?

Côte&Ciel's Eco Yarn is apparently made out of recycled plastic. It doesn't feel as cushy as the Isar, but for what it lacks in tactile appeal, like vinyl car seats, it makes up for it in terms of easy maintenance. In the first twenty minutes since pulling it gently from the post bag, the New Flat had barely picked up a speck of dust or dander, and the plasticky nature of the bag would see most things wipe right off. The Isar, however, is a completely different kettle of sushi.

We have two "inside" dogs and if there's one thing that's common around here, it's dog hair - on everything. The Isar was no exception. Although care was taken to keep the bags out of detritus, it was as if the Isar actively attracted all the dust and hair from the air around it. In addition, The material on the Isar, although soft and comforting to touch, seems like it would mark up pretty quickly. I'd be mildly uncomfortable with putting it on the floor of a taxi or bus. If you keep a pristine household that's free of pet dander and dust, you'd probably still have to carry a sticky-roller to keep it presentable.

Weight

The Côte&Ciel website is nowhere near as informative as it could be. It doesn't even include an empty weight listing. We had to weigh the bags ourselves.

The New Flat weighs:    1.42 kg
The Isar weighs:        1.58 kg

This actually surprised me because the Isar feels significantly heavier than the New Flat when wearing it. The difference between them is barely more than the weight of an iPhone 4S. Perhaps it feels heavier due to the thicker material and its larger surface area? I'll discuss the laden weightiness later on.

Sacks Appeal

“It’s a shape that’s unique to and quintessentially Côte&Ciel...”

The New Flat: You'll look a little like an oversized bookish schoolboy

If you're looking for something über trendy to blend in with the chic crowd, then the New Flat is not for you. Although not entirely common-looking, it does lean towards rather boring and unimaginative in its appearance. But apparently, it's quintessentially Côte&Ciel, so perhaps I'm missing something?

"An ergonomic backpack built for creatives and entrepreneurs on the move."

The Isar: You'll look more like a trendy hostel-sniffing backpacker than an entrepreneur

The Isar is anything but common. It isn't even symmetrical! Its two-tone, odd-shaped style is sure to have every second traveller say something along the lines of "Oooh. Isn't that a fancy bag?". I'm not much of an attention-seeker so that's not exactly a plus for me. I love the design of it and the fact that it's a bit "out there", but when contemplating first impressions, I think I'd look more like I was ready to trek Europe than do serious business.

Stuffing It Silly

Initially, I thought that including a section on scalability would have obvious conclusions - until I tried the laden packs on myself. Although it's obvious that the Isar can fit everything but the kitchen sink (note: slightly different model in the video), it's not exactly the most comfortable thing to wear when it's heavy. Here's what we put in both bags:

As expected, stuffing the wadded beach towel into the New Flat made it feel a bit over-full. I had more trouble breathing due to the pressure between and below my shoulder blades. After loosening the buckles, the pressure was mostly relieved. In practice, I wouldn't recommend stuffing the New Flat with towels, but it handled the test ok, and as our reasoning goes, a scarf and a jacket don't take up as much room as a wad of beach towel.

The real surprise was when we put the same load into the Isar. Of course it went in easy enough. There's loads of room for expansion in it (just slide the duffle buckles). When I put it on, however, it was more uncomfortable to breathe with than the New Flat, regardless of buckle position. It seems that the greater distance of the load from the spine makes an enormous difference to the ability to carry heavy things. I felt added pressure in my back, my knees and my feet.

So just because you can stuff everything into the Isar, that doesn't mean your body won't hate you for it. I'm all about efficiency and trying not to hoard stuff, so I prefer to travel light. After all, every extra kilogram you carry means you need extra energy to move.

The Proof Is In The Pockets

The Isar may be the most versatile, expandable pack of the two, but the New Flat beats the Isar senseless in the pockets department.

The New Flat

  • a secret ipad-and-even-larger pocket (at the front)
  • two subtle, external side zip pockets for iPhone-sized items
  • a laptop pocket
  • a huge charger and cables pocket
  • an airline-seat-back-style iPad pocket

The Isar

  • no externally-accessible pockets
  • one handy pocket (in the duffel compartment)
  • a laptop pocket
  • a cables zip pocket
  • a too-small-for-an ipad fold-flap pocket

(all of these pockets are adequately packed for protection of your gear)

Those who know me well will know that I'm all about pockets, so this is a huge selling point for me.

Likely Questions

How easy is it to get to my stuff? Can I do it easily without taking the pack off?

In terms of getting your lappy (alone) out, the bags are roughly the same. One twin-zipper at the top (both hands) and you're done. Getting your iPhone is quicker and easier on the New Flat. If you store it in one of the handy side pockets, you're a one-handed zip away from your precious. You can even get at them with the bag on (one strap off the shoulder was required for this trick). You can also get to the hanging zip pouch in the Isar's duffel compartment this way but you have to catch and unzip the duffel first.

Can I carry my lunch?

That depends on what you eat. I tend not to pack lunch often but if you pack mostly flat (or small) things, you're all set with either bag. However, if you like to bring casseroles, cake and bowls of soup from home, you'd probably not want to squash them into the New Flat, as it closes up much like a paper filing cabinet. With the Isar, you can bring your own salad bar.

Can I carry my jacket?

Again, that mostly depends on the jacket. I think a lightweight cardigan, jumper or jacket would fit in either bag. Neatly folded in the New Flat, thrown in however you like in the Isar. If, on the other hand, you are a big, bulky leather-jacket-wearing bikie, you might run into some over-stuffing issues unless you decided on the Isar. In that case, you can throw your helmet in as well.

Other Notables

  • Both bags have metal hardware (buckles and zip tags) so they get extra points for longevity
  • The New Flat includes fabric fold-out guides in the back section to prevent you from accidentally dropping all of your gear
  • All zippers are as subtle as possible, but the New Flat definitely has a more minimalistic appearance than the Isar in all respects

Final Thoughts

As much as I love the gorgeous feel and unique style of the Isar Rucksack Twin Contrast, I'm leaning towards keeping only the Rhine New Flat, as it's far more comfortable with a heavy load and has more numerous accessible pockets for my tech gear.

Technically, I have 100 days to think about it thanks to RushFaster, but I actually need to use one of these pretty soon.

Also on my agenda today was a meet-up with Mark Aufflick (of Cocoaheads Sydney), who proudly boasted to me that his booq Boa squeeze was the best laptop backpack that there is, but it was unavailable through RushFaster. After having compared these and done a bit more searching, I found an Australian seller with stock for the Boa squeeze, which boasts LOTS MORE POCKETS than the New Flat, and it looks pretty sweet too.

Now I'm in a dilemma. Again. Thanks, Mark.


You can buy the Isar Rucksack Twin Contrast and the Rhine New Flat on RushFaster.com. The booq Boa squeeze is out of stock on RushFaster at the time of writing but you can buy it here.

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