It was 2004, I needed a backpack for university, and the only requirement was that it had to be pretty hard-wearing. Textbooks are weighty, cumbersome and numerous, and I needed something that would withstand that sort of assault. In a local mountaineering store I picked up The North Face’s Modem backpack at some crazy discount. My logic was, ‘Hey, it looks sturdy, and there’s space for a laptop should I ever need one.’ (As a perpetual desktop lover, I didn’t buy my first laptop until I started working at Engadget in 2011.)
The Modem is, or was, a bag that could hold a 13-inch notebook inside its rear sleeve, which was part of the generous main compartment. There was no excess padding; just a buckle and some cloth that held your machine upright. Toward the front of the bag was a middle pocket that had a series of inner organizers for notebooks, pens and cables. Then, up top, a zippered compartment big enough for a water bottle that also held the headphone hole, making it suitable for your iPod or, you know, other period-appropriate digital audio player (don’t forget, this was 2004). Over the outside front was a web of elastic string, held in place with a spring-loaded clip, ideal for stowing your jacket in warmer weather.
The bag’s tour of duty spanned three years of university, as well as my postgraduate tenure at law school. It did everything I needed it to do, so there was little need or desire to change it, especially since it never really looked anything but fine. The only tell was that the white, reflective material the The North Face logo was stitched in got grayer over time. I kept using it when I was going to work (it made a fine lunchbox and coat-holder), and when I went out for a walk. Then, when I joined Engadget, it became the obvious choice to just use as my regular work bag. (I did buy a Lowepro Fastpack with a dedicated camera section but it was too bulky for regular use and quickly stopped using it.)
In fact, this backpack has been dutifully toted around trade shows the world over, from Las Vegas to Taiwan, Berlin and Lisbon. It's certainly taken plenty of punishment in that time, from getting stuck with chewed gum and drowning in suspicious liquids from airplane overhead bins to the rough and tumble of being used as a laptop table on a number of trains and trade show halls. I wouldn’t call myself a clumsy sort, but I’m not gentle with the bag either — and it never once complained. Hell, while the instructions say you should spot clean with warm water and gentle detergent, if this thing needed cleaning, I went at it with a wire bristle brush.
Even though I work from home most of the week, the bag also pulls double duty as my childcare kit. The laptop sleeve is wide enough to accommodate a changing mat, and the overall bag holds nappies, wipes and a change of clothes for both kids with plenty of room to spare.
All was well until last week, as I was opening the bag up to put in diapers, when I saw spots of light filtering through and onto the floor. After 17 years, my beloved Modem was finally near its end. At its demise, the bag hasn’t just filled itself full of holes: It’s gently worn through until daylight is visible through the skin of its base.
There’s a temptation to replace this bag with whatever the tech community thinks is cool right now on Kickstarter. You know the sort: It’s made out of the finest gray alcantara with brown faux-leather leather fastenings and a dedicated camera sling. But then, why would I look anywhere else given that I know of a company whose products can last close to two decades without breaking a sweat?