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TechnologyTell Review: STM Drifter backpack

Sections: Gadgets / Other, Lifestyle, Miscellaneous, Reviews

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With all the tech and gear owned, one needs a proper bag or backpack to carry it all. While there are many options to choose from out there, only a few might appeal to each individual. I happen to be rather picky when it comes to my choice of bags, backpacks, and accessories. Earlier this year at CES 2014, I stopped by the STM booth and managed the time to check out one of their latest products. I can tell you right now that the Drifter backpack is beyond excellent.

Design

At first blush, the STM Drifter backpack may not seem like much. This is totally fine to me, since I don’t really want people ogling my bag and wondering what kind of awesomeness is tucked inside. No theft-magnet here. But once you dig into the Drifter to check it out, it’s plainly obvious that this backpack delivers modern-tech results with a casual look.

STM Drifter backpack loaded

Fully loaded

The exterior material feels like clothing – the comfy kind you’ve owned and loved over the years. If STM claimed their bags were made of the most comfortable, recycled, lounging-pants, I would totally believe them. Would I care? Yes, because I’d love the backpack that much more (go green!).

Despite the lighter-weight material, the styling is semi-retro, adventurous, but not too busy. Although it makes a great tech backpack (and without screaming it), it’s also great as a day bag for the beach, camping, school, or weekend outing. Professional? Probably not. Even though it looks great, it doesn’t really complement a suit as well as a pro-design bag.

There are enough pockets and YKK zippers to suit needs without excess. The flaps and openings provide a variety of sizes to fit all sorts of belongings. I especially like how the pockets are designed with depth in mind. All too often, backpack pockets are stitched like an envelope, where items bulge in the middle. The STM Drifter’s pockets are more like actual pockets with planned space. Not only can you fill it to the seams without awkward stretching, but there is less competition with shared boundaries (e.g. inside versus outside pockets).

STM Drifter backpack worn

Fully loaded, worn

The main compartment unzips around the top, while typical backpacks open wide from end to end. Contents inside the Drifter are less likely to shift around while carried, although items at the bottom will be harder to retrieve. By the same token, you won’t have as much a mess from tipping it over.

The somewhat rectangular shape of the interior is a good fit for folded pants and rolled shirts. Since the exterior isn’t rigid (with the exception of the backing), there’s a bit of flex for snug fits. The drawback is that the Drifter doesn’t maintain its shape or stand up when empty. It tends to tip forward too.

When it comes to internal space, the STM Drifter leaves little waste. The opening flap can hold items on both the outside and inside. The outside zippered area features a fuzzy interior with two smaller pockets. It’s perfect for loose belongings you’d want to access quickly. The inside pocket of this flap is enclosed in a see-through mesh. A surprising amount of stuff can be put into this one area, front and back. It doesn’t appear that way just from looking at it. But once you fill it? Holy cow that’s a lot. And it’s all easy-access too.

The inside of the STM Drifter backpack features soft, scratch-free pockets for a laptop and tablet each. There’s also a pair of non-fuzzy pockets for smaller accessories, and then one additional one for something notebook sized. All the remaining interior space is open and free.

STM Drifter backpack straps

Great padding and shoulder straps

Stitching! There’s some quality stitch-work on the Drifter. Whenever I get a new bag, I pore over every inch to find loose ends. Those strings either get snipped by scissors and/or melted with a lick from a lighter. The STM Drifter had only a few. I tug at all the seams too, just in case I find a weak point that needs reinforcement. This backpack has been ready from the start and is still going strong. The material on the bottom is slightly more rugged, since it has to withstand surface abrasion. But I’m talking standard rugged. Not apocalypse rugged. You won’t want to drag the Drifter along the ground, even if you feel cool doing so.

Although the resistant material is not waterproof, the included rain cover is. Tucked away in a zippered pocket at the bottom is the handy rain cover for those times when an umbrella just won’t cut it. It’s easy to apply, and almost as easy to fold (wad) up and put (cram) back.

The built-in trolley strap is helpful, thoughtful, and a clear indicator that the STM Drifter is meant to be your personal item for flights. Between this backpack and a carry-on, a person (or maybe a modern-day minimalist) can pack for a 7-day trip, easy. Also thoughtful are the loops on the front. What for? Absolutely anything and everything you’d like to attach with a clip, hook, or carabiner. It could be something fun like a toy, useful like a light, or daring like some truck nuts.

Comfort

Although it might seem odd to comment about it, the STM Drifter’s top handle is excellent. The handle itself is folded and re-stitched in a way that makes picking up heavy loads comfortable, either an over- or underhanded. The sturdy material doesn’t bunch up and pinch at your fingers, and the wide opening remains readily available.

STM Drifter backpack pocket top loaded

*photo 1, top compartment inside/outside

STM’s shoulder straps are done right. Instead of being fused to the main body of the Drifter, the straps are attached to the ends of the handle material. There is an inch between where the padded strap ends and the backpack starts. If you’ve never worn a backpack with straps attached in a similar way, the difference is huge.

The method STM takes also provides a greater freedom of movement. This means that no matter how you carry the bag to your body (tight or relaxed), or how your shoulders are muscled, the straps move and conform. This kind of evenly-distributed weight makes extended carrying comfortable, and your arms are more free to move around.

The straps themselves are well-padded with flexible, breathable material. This is yet another detail that extends the comfort of carrying loads. Straps that are too rigid and/or too thin focus the weight instead of spreading it out. STM doesn’t believe in having sore shoulders, which is likely why they also included a chest strap on the Drifter. The shoulder straps curve in at the chest, and, in conjunction with the vertically- and horizontally-adjustable chest strap, a full pack feels like only a fraction of the weight.

STM Drifter backpack pocket top contents

*photo 2, contents

Once you snug the Drifter to your torso closer to your center of gravity, it feels like an extension of your body. The shoulder strap material shifts with you and has give. I’ve been able to move around (typical stuff, like distance walking and playing around on a playground with my kids) with 25 pounds in the backpack and not have it throw off my balance.

The length of the shoulder straps are easy to adjust, even while you’re wearing the STM Drifter. Sometimes you might want a little more or less slack, and it’s a benefit to adjust it without having to take the backpack off. Despite the ease of adjustment, once set, the straps themselves won’t slip. This is an important (e.g. OCD) aspect for me, because I like to keep my sweet spot once I’ve achieved it.

When I generate body heat (oversharing alert), it always starts and is the most intense between my shoulder blades. Whether I’m wearing layered (winter) clothing, exercising, or wearing a backpack, that’s where I’d want the most cooling. While the STM Drifter can’t prevent sweat through prolonged wearing, it does an incredible job at staying dry and minimizing overheat. Since the back padding is thick, the air flow channels are pretty deep, going end-to-end vertically and horizontally. The memory foam is cushy, and makes for excellent back padding. Why else are memory foam mattresses so popular, right? Great for the back.

Capacity

The STM Drifter backpack holds more than you might think, especially once it’s filled to the top. Just keep in mind that doing so can make it harder to access items at the bottom of the bag. The Drifter also likes to tip, lightly loaded or otherwise. A lack of exterior structure sort of makes it like that. When it comes to the exterior pockets, the accessibility is highly determined by how packed the interior is. Less wiggle room means less fit.

STM Drifter backpack pocket middle

*photo 3, middle pocket

Bags and backpacks can be a very personal purchase, especially for those who want that perfect bag for them. Quite often, it takes a hands-on approach with belongings to determine if a backpack works or not. The following paragraphs venture through my gear in the STM Drifter pocket by pocket, with photos, which should help give an idea of the types of things and sizes that fit.

The top zippered compartment (*photo 1) is double-sided with a soft exterior pocket and mesh-enclosed interior. Both sides are very useful for storing smaller, quick-access items (*photo 2). The soft pockets are meant for smartphones, sunglasses, or anything that needs to stay scuff-free.

Most newer smartphones are likely going to be too big for these cute little inner pockets. My old HTC Evo 4G fits fine, even when coupled with my business card case. However, a smartphone with another half inch in height is going to bump up against the top seam.  My Klipsch Image S4 headphones have enough room with a SanDisk Connect Wireless Flash Drive on the other side. And I toss other loose items in there, like a headphone splitter and PowerPractical Practical Meter.

STM Drifter backpack pocket bottom

*photo 4, bottom pocket

The inside of it is roomier, enough for a decent-sized hardback book. I only have a (*photo 2)  Grid-It organizer with some Nite-Ize gear ties, USB cable, SD card, and a Sanyo eneloop USB charger. Then there’s a telephoto lens for my Galaxy Note 2 in a case, and that’s about it (for now). I could certainly cram a whole lot more, and the best thing is that this area doesn’t fight the fuzzy exterior side for space. Each are designed with their own amount of room.

The exterior middle (*photo 3) and bottom (*photo 4) pockets are good for other loose items. They’re lean, yet provide enough room so long as the STM Drifter isn’t bulging from contents. These pockets have about an inch of thickness before things start to get tight. But they’re great for pens, more USB cables, OTG host cable, Sanyo eneloop batteries, a Feenix E21 flashlight, Anker wall charger, and some other bits and pieces.

When it comes to water bottles, shorter and wider is better than tall and skinny (*photo 5). Even though there’s a strap to tighten it down, I’ve had the Starbucks thermos nearly fall out a few times. The strap would have been more effective if it were placed higher, maybe. My daughter’s Nalgene water bottle is a lot more secure in this spot, especially if I am active and moving around. The other, zippered (*photo 6) side holds my Altoids tin medkit, gloves, bandana, and some paracord. There’s a bit more room in there if I wanted to squeeze some small stuff in.

STM Drifter backpack bottles

*photo 5, bottle comparison

The main compartment of the STM Drifter is tall and roomy. I have a (*photo 7) Patriot Gauntlet Node drive in a case, Phiaton Chord MS 530 headphones inside a Slappa case, Creative SoundBlaster AXX 200 speaker, sunglasses case, and an extra change of clothes.

STM Drifter backpack pocket side

*photo 6, side pocket

This is with a Suntactics sCharger solar panel, Samsung Ultrabook, Vivitar Camelio (kids) tablet, Limefuel L130X battery, and Samsung Galaxy Note 2 battery charger. The 7” tablet and 13” laptop are completely swallowed up by the fuzzy pockets. A 10” tablet and 15” laptop are probably going to have the best, vertical fit. As for the accessory pockets, the Limefuel battery is absolutely perfect. That’s the size you want for whatever is going to sit there.

You could put a brick of a laptop into the laptop compartment – it’s that thick. Most modern laptops are slimmer, which is beneficial. I’ve found that space squishes a bit once you insert the tablet (with case) and laptop with everything else. What about the laptop power adapter? Who needs those bulky things when the FINsix Dart is available instead?

Lastly, I slid a 10” Grid-It organizer (*photo 8) into the document pocket on the inside of the Drifter. I don’t think I’m going to put anything else in there, since it greatly adds to maintaining the backpack’s shape. It’s far too handy that way. I suppose that cut cardboard would work equally well, but I can stick more things in the Grid-It as needed.

Verdict

Even when it’s completely full, the STM Drifter maintains a lean profile. It’s probably not considered as “slim”, but the shape is good and even. This is the kind of backpack you want to hold all of your gear, and then some. Whether it’s a day trip or romantic weekend adventure, the Drifter makes it easy to pack and stay organized. There’s more than enough pockets to put all sorts of gadgets or accessories in.

STM Drifter backpack main contents

*photo 7, main compartment (laptop not shown on bottom)

The biggest drawback is the lack of structure. If you have too little inside, the outside looks saggy and deflated. Fill the backpack enough, and the form is great, although it can make digging for items at the bottom a little difficult. But you’re also less likely to spill out contents if/when it tips over. It does tip, so prepare to lean it up against chairs, walls, or legs.

Most importantly, the STM Drifter has comfort locked down. The straps are padded yet flexible to conform to shoulders and body types. The back cushioning is thick with deep channels for venting heat. Wearing this backpack, even with 20 or more pounds, feels more like an extension of yourself than something hanging with straps.

STM tops it off with quality construction and a bonus raincover, too. If your near future calls for a new backpack that’s versatile, comfortable, and great-looking, then the Drifter is it.

STM Drifter backpack pocket interior

*photo 8, Grid-It adds some needed structure

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