Review: Timbuk2 Scheme


The Timbuk2 Scheme is a convertible briefcase/backpack targeted at business and tech-oriented commuters and travelers who need multiple carrying modes. Maybe you alternately bike, drive, or ride the bus to work. Maybe you may need a laptop bag that can pair well with different kinds of luggage (wheeled, backpack, duffel, etc.). Or maybe you just like to mix things up. Whatever the reason, a convertible bag like the Scheme means you can do it with a single bag.

Versatility always comes with compromise, however. Some convertible bags purport to do everything, but aren’t very good at anything. Others might give up features you consider essential to give you features you don’t care about. As you’ll see, while Timbuk2 did make some compromises with the Scheme, the tradeoffs are thoughtfully considered and should work well for a lot of people.

Materials and Construction

The Scheme employs 600D Non-P PVC-coated polyester and 900D polyester. While not best-in-class, both fabrics are high quality and heavy-duty, and they should be both durable and performant. The smooth-surfaced PVC-coated fabric is used on the front and bottom panels for extra water and abrasion resistance in these areas. It also provides a subtle and pleasing texture contrast to the 900D poly on the rest of the bag. 

Under the fabric, all of the exterior and interior walls of the Scheme are padded with what feels like closed-cell foam of differing thicknesses depending on the wall. This not only protects the contents but also provides structure so that the bag maintains its shape even when empty, making it easier to load and unload.

YKK zippers are used throughout the bag, with simple nylon cord pull extensions on most of the external ones. YKK is a de facto industry standard so I have no complaints about quality, although I do wish they used #10 zippers on the large compartment openings instead of #8 zippers. The other hardware – clips, adjusters, and buckles – are all Duraflex, which is also top-shelf.

The bag I reviewed is the sadly discontinued “Dove” colorway, which features a light gray fabric with bronze-colored trim (the webbing straps, zippers, and edge binding). It’s a real shame Timbuk2 no longer offers this colorway because it looks great and is distinctive, yet still professional. Many online photos make the fabric look like a cream color, but it is actually a light gray. I’ve tried to be careful with the color balance of the photos in this review to depict the colors accurately.  

The black version, which is currently the only available color option, is also nice and provides an even more understated look if that’s your thing. I have read some online reviews saying the PVC-coated panels on the black version are prone to marring. I can’t confirm or deny that, but I can say that the Dove version doesn’t exhibit this problem.

Timbuk2 rates the Scheme’s capacity at 25L. Yeah, I’m going to call bullshit on that one. Its stated dimensions (16.7" x 11.8" x 5.51") work out to a maximum of 17.85L. As good as Timbuk2 may be at making bags, they can’t defy the laws of nature and conjure 7 liters of capacity out of nothing. Rounding up, 18L is a more credible figure given the dimensions, and it also passes the sniff test – the Scheme looks and feels like an 18L bag, not a 25L bag. Maybe it's just an honest mistake, but I have seen a lot of bags (not just from Timbuk2) with a claimed capacity that is way more than a rounding error off from what the dimensions can support. And it's almost always in the "bigger than possible" direction. Ironically, I think 25L is too big for a convertible if you primarily carry it as a briefcase or messenger bag, which I would. For me, 18L is Momma Bear: just right.

The exterior of the Scheme has PALS-like webbing loops on the front of the bag, the shoulder strap pad, and the top-midline (when in briefcase orientation). Despite the loops, the bag doesn’t look “tactical” because Timbuk2 wisely kept the loops to single rows and didn’t festoon the whole bag with them. There are a ton of great applications for these loops. For example, the front webbing is a perfect place to carry a bicycle U-lock without giving up internal capacity. Or you could attach some webbing straps with quick-release buckles to secure a tripod, umbrella, or unusually tolerant cat. I unimaginatively used a carabiner attached to a loop to clip on my Hydro Flask.

Compartments and Organization

Let’s look at the various compartments. Starting at the front of the bag, there’s the obligatory quick-access pocket for storing frequently accessed items like phones, sunglasses, boarding tickets, etc. It’s a big one, with a recessed zipper that spans nearly the entire width of the bag. The compartment is a plain pocket with no internal storage features.

Just behind the quick access pocket is what might be called an admin compartment. I’m hesitant to call it that because there’s not much of an admin panel in this pocket. Just a couple of zippered slip pockets. However, its U-shaped dual zipper provides near-full panel access and the blister-like shape of the compartment provides decent capacity without encroaching on the space of neighboring compartments, which is nice. I used the compartment for my tech organizer pouch and its zippered pockets for smaller everyday items like coins, pens, keys, etc.

Next is the main compartment. With the bag in briefcase orientation, its dual zipper goes across the top and down one side of the bag. This allows the entire compartment to be viewed and accessed easily, for fast loading, unloading, and finding things. It also means that in backpack mode, if you remove the strap from your left shoulder and swing the bag under and around your right shoulder, you can easily get into the main compartment without taking the bag completely off. In fact, all the compartments can be accessed easily with this maneuver. But only from your right shoulder, which is going to be annoying if you’re in the habit of doing it from the opposite side. Unfortunately, that would be me because I’m used to side-access camera bags that usually assume you’ll swing the bag around your left shoulder.

The main compartment is fairly roomy for a bag this size. There’s room to easily fit a change of clothes and a dopp kit. If you’re judicious, and perhaps use a packing cube, you could fit a weekend's worth. And it's mostly open space, except for a couple of flat, zippered mesh pockets.


Continuing past the main compartment, there’s a separate laptop compartment. It’s very well-padded but unfortunately doesn’t have much of a false bottom to suspend your laptop off the ground and protect it from drops. The compartment’s interior panels are quilted, which adds a bit of class to your laptop's padded cell. Timbuk2 conservatively rates the compartment to fit a 15" laptop, but my 16" MacBook Pro fit just fine with a little bit of room to spare. There are no internal pockets in this compartment, but there is plenty of room to fit a laptop and tablet, or even a pair of thin laptops.

Lastly, behind the laptop compartment is a pass-thru sleeve to slip the Scheme onto the telescoping handle of a roller bag. This is obviously very handy if you use roller bags, but even if you don’t, the space is still useful because Timbuk2 thoughtfully put zippers on the top and bottom of the pass-thru so you can put it to use as an additional quick access pocket. Very nice.

What’s missing? Well first, there’s no water bottle pocket. You’ll have to put your bottle in one of the compartments or clip it to one of the Scheme’s many lashing points.

The other thing missing: This bag is noticeably bereft of small item organization. As I described, the main and front compartments have two zippered slip pockets each, and they’re kind of big. There are no nifty dedicated pockets for small things – pens, business cards, phones, sunglasses, and so on. At first, I thought this was a case of minimalism taking precedence over utility. However, a common problem with convertibles is that those little pockets often dump their contents when changing carry modes. I think Timbuk2 deliberately limited the Scheme's organization to zippered pockets to avoid this problem. It’s a sensible compromise, although they could have added a couple of smaller zippered pockets and a key tether and still have maintained their apparent design goal.

In Use

The defining feature of a convertible is supporting multiple modes of carry and the Scheme does this quite well. Although it is slightly biased towards briefcase/messenger use, it looks good and functions well no matter how you carry it. In all modes, it provides a reasonably comfortable carry, good access to compartments, and internal storage that doesn’t get discombobulated when the bag is turned on its side.

The briefcase handle is a single strap (i.e. not a duffel-style pair of handles) sewn on along the spine. It is placed near-center of the bag, not exactly on it, but close enough that it still provides a balanced carry. The handle is made from two strips of nylon webbing, one wide and one narrow, sewn together with the wide one wrapping up around the edges of the narrow one, and a thin strip of dense padding between them. It’s not plush, but it is streamlined, strong, and reasonably comfortable for the weight this bag will typically carry. You could easily add a paracord wrap and/or neoprene handle cover to improve comfort if needed, but I think it's unnecessary and the stock handle aesthetically complements the bag. The top grab handle (when used in backpack orientation) has the same construction.

For messenger bag carry, Timbuk2 provides a detachable shoulder strap. The strap is adjustable on both ends with ladder adjusters, so its length and pad position can be fine-tuned. While the strap webbing is narrow (1”), the pad is wide (2.5") and reasonably cushioned with a fairly thin but dense foam core and padded mesh on the underside for comfort and breathability. Like the grab handles, the strap pad isn’t luxurious but is completely fit for purpose. There’s only so much a strap can do to make a heavy load carried on a small patch of your shoulder more comfortable. And the Scheme does most of them by widening, stiffening, and cushioning the pad, while not making it disproportionately big and unwieldy.

Like most convertibles, the Scheme has deployable backpack straps. When not needed, the bottom ends of the backpack straps can be detached from the bag and the straps can be tucked into a dedicated zippered compartment on the back. Neat and tidy. Stowing the straps is a quick procedure, but deploying them is slowed down by the gatekeeper clips used to attach them, which I’ll talk more about later.  The straps are slightly contoured and padded in the same fashion as the shoulder strap. You'll recognize a recurring theme with this bag: The backpack straps are not big and burly, they're built to an appropriate standard for the bag's size and expected load. I find them comfortable for the things I’d carry in this bag, including heavy-ish items like a large laptop and tablet, a loaded tech pouch, a full water bottle, and over-ear headphones.

The backpack straps include an adjustable sternum strap that works very well, stabilizing the bag, placing the backpack straps optimally, and redistributing some of the load from your shoulders to your torso. The sternum strap is detachable via metal snap buttons. I owned a different Timbuk2 backpack with similar snaps, and they had an annoying habit of getting snagged on things and coming unfastened. But so far, the snaps on the Scheme have stayed buttoned up nicely.

One of the backpack straps has an attached bottle opener tool, which is a charmingly odd Timbuk2 signature feature. It works great, although I’ve used it exactly once. And that was just to test it out. Perhaps I just need to carry beer with me more often. When I think of it that way, I start to appreciate the brilliance of this feature!

The back of the Scheme is amply padded for the laptop compartment, so you don’t feel the bag’s contents against your back in backpack mode. But there are no air channels or mesh coverings for breathability. I prefer it this way because I carry a bag like this in briefcase and messenger bag mode the most, and this design makes the backpack suspension system more incognito when stowed away. So once again, I think it's a reasonable compromise if you share my priorities.

As mentioned, the shoulder and backpack straps attach to the bag via gatekeeper clips. The upside of these clips is that the attachment is very discreet and low profile, maintaining the Scheme’s clean minimalist vibe. But usability is a mixed bag. The clips are easy and fun to open with one hand by simply pinching them, but closing them is a decidedly fiddly operation and usually requires both hands. Perhaps there’s a trick to it, but I haven’t discovered it. Despite their compact size, the strength of these clips has been proven in many other bags by Tom Bihn and other top makers, so I wouldn’t worry about that.

All the straps on the Scheme feature elastic keepers to keep dangling straps to a minimum. It’s a small detail that eliminates a common annoyance and makes for a cleaner look.

Verdict

With its minimalist styling, the Scheme presents a more professional demeanor than Timbuk2’s typical urban bicycle messenger look. Despite not being Timbuk2's claimed 25 liters in capacity, or rather because it isn't, the bag provides a near-ideal balance of capacity and compactness, with enough room to carry a 16” MacBook and all your tech accessories, plus a couple days' worth of clothes, in a bag the size of a briefcase. While its organizational features are notably sparse, its all-zippered internal pockets won’t dump their contents when switching carry modes. The Scheme provides a lot of external lashing points, but it won’t make you look like you’re playing Army or embarking on a mountaineering expedition. The carrying provisions are dialed in thoughtfully, with straps and handles that are robust and comfortable enough for the bag size, but not over-built with unneeded bulk and weight. At $150 retail, the Scheme provides supreme versatility without over-compromising on utility, at a very competitive price.

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