Tuesday, August 5, 2008

PAT COM REVIEW--The 2008 Critical Mass Bag

My history with the Patagonia Critical Mass Bag goes back to about 2001 when I received as a gift my first Critical Mass. Since then I've had the updated version which was the first with a dedicated laptop compartment, the Half Mass, and the Lightwire Tote. In fact I even found a great bargain and strayed to the fashion side of the spectrum--not exactly the "Dirtbag" culture that Patagonia expounds, sorry--with a Jack Spade bag for a little while (very utilitarian for a fashion bag but far from the functionality Patagonia offers). I've finally come back to the Critical Mass and received the new Fall 2008 version yesterday. I'm going to give some positives (and there are many) followed by a couple of concerns. Here are my thoughts about it.
First of all, it's big. The Patagonia website has it listed as 21 x 16 x 6.5 giving it 2,800 cubic inches of space. It seems significantly larger than the previous version. My guess is that the redesigned top flap adds to that feeling because it now overlaps the top opening to increase the ability to prevent water from entering.
When I put it on my shoulder, it looks almost as if I am carrying a folded garment bag--it's that big. Now I knew what I was getting into. I very well could have gotten the Half Mass with about half the volume of the Critical Mass, but I like knowing that I can throw whatever I want to into the bag and it will handle it just fine.
The color of the bag from the Patagonia website and catalog pretty accurately portray the bag's actual color (my screens are on an iMac and a Lenovo T60 in case you're wondering if your screen would show the color in a similar way). I ordered "gravel" and it's a nice grey in natural light and has hints of brown in artificial light. For the record, I visited eBags, a popular internet bag retailer, and their pictures are completely overexposed. Don't rely on their pictures for the colors as the actual bags are several shades darker.
When I saw the first pictures of the CM this past winter, I noticed that the interior "wall" of the bag was cut lower than the overall height of the bag. I was concerned that this might lead to contents spilling out. Upon testing however, it seems like that side is high enough to adequately keep files and other contents safe. I don't know how the Half Mass would do with this, but it appears fine on the CM. Note the top portion of the regular sized white binder that peeks out the top. The wall offers plenty of coverage against spilling.
I also like the extra expandable pocket on the front, the first time the Critical Mass has had this. It has a stretchy top border that gives it some extra volume and a Velcro patch to keep contents secure.
Yes, that's a regulation NFL football (go Chargers) that is being swallowed up by that pocket. Side note here: the stitching on the top border of that pocket is zig-zagged. Reminds me of the stitching on my college roommate's Tevas that he wore back in 1993. However, I'm guessing that the stitch pattern helps to add durability to the piping.
I like the new laptop compartment. It now has a flap for added security/water deflection but the biggest and best change is that the padding on the bottom of the compartment is now sewn in place and not a flap that can get flipped up or down. The older version was not sewn in place so when I put my laptop in, the padding would sometimes be between the laptop and the ground and sometimes would not and would be useless. Nice change.
Also, the compartment is big, which I don't mind because the next laptop my company is giving me will have a widescreen. Here's the compartment with my current 15 inch Lenovo T60:
Note that I pushed it all the way to the left so you can see the extra space on the right. The laptop looks a bit shrunken in that wide pocket. One other hidden gem that I found (and that I don't think is listed on the website or in the catalogs) is the inner mesh pocket that would work well for carrying the power cord or a water bottle. Great idea.
The other new feature that I like is the zippered external side pocket that replaces the old mesh pocket.
It has a mesh pocket inside as well as a slot that is mildly protected with a Velcro strap (which I flipped up in the picture) and a nice key ring holder that detaches (visible just at the top of the compartment). I think pen slots somewhere in there would have been convenient too but perhaps Patagonia doesn't view this as a serious office bag (like the Lightwire Tote and the Lightwire Brief).
The other end has the traditional pleated pocket slot though if I'm not mistaken, this one differs from past versions in that the pleated portion is now stretchy mesh as opposed to the fabric that is used on the rest of the bag, thereby giving it a bit more capacity.
I have placed a typical 24-ounce cycling water bottle in it so that you can see the relative size of the pocket.
Another feature is the back pocket. I like that it's now secured with a zipper. And like the rest of the bag, it is big. Again, a regular sized one-inch binder fits easily. I angled it in the pocket to give some proportion.
I also like that newly padded top handle. And the zipper pulls are still the best around--dual density and grippy.
The zipper on the front flap of the bag has been moved lower for easier access. From the website pictures, I thought that maybe that would also shrink the capacity of the pocket if the area above the zipper was not open or rather, was sewn shut. However, it is indeed open.
A potential problem could be that items may get shuffled around (especially when raising the flap open) and move above the zipper so that when you unzip the pocket, little things may get stuck above the zipper making them awkward to reach, especially if the bag is hanging on your shoulder. I haven't yet had the bag for long, so I'll have more experience with this once I get into the daily grind.

There are also a couple of Velcro patches on the underside of the top flap. I believe this is to secure the top flap and keep it half-open so it's easier if you're constantly putting things in or taking things out. Clever thought.
That all leads me to a couple of possible negatives with the bag. First, take a gander at the stuff on one end of the shoulder strap:
Not exactly "the cleanest line." There's a buckle, excess strap, a clamping mechanism, and a stretchy band to collect the excess strap. I realize that part of this was to correct the biggest gripe about the old version and that was that the strap could not be shortened enough. This solves the problem but makes for a somewhat unsightly bundle. Also, the fabric for all of the straps is now a seatbelt-looking material. If the seatbelts on old cars are any indication, fraying could be possibility down the road. Time will tell.
My biggest concern though has to do with the fabric and this could be major because what good is a bag if the very material from which it's made isn't tough enough? This fall 2008 version of the bag is made with recycled polyester which I applaud. That's consistent with Patagonia's philosophy and an example to all of us of making the most of our precious few resources.
However, the fabric is now 1,200-denier polyester as opposed to the 1,680-denier fabric used on previous versions, including even the spring 2008 bags. The difference is literally tangible. My bag feels much more pliable and less rigid than previous versions. The waves in the fabric and the resulting shadows in the pictures above give a sense of this. In this case, rigid is better if it means that the fabric is going to be more durable. Also, the lining is now 200-denier polyester as opposed to the 210-denier that older versions used. In fact, my first version of the bag back in '01 had 1,680-denier ballistics fabric on the outside with 420-denier packcloth on the inside--a tough, tough bag and that was what I LOVED about it.
Again, the recycled factor may partially justify the lower denier and maybe the difference between 1,680 and 1,200 won't appreciably affect durability (only the good folks at Patagonia could probably tell us that), but still. So the fabric toughness has deteriorated while...
The price is $21 more! The previous two versions were $99 and this one's $120. That hurts, that really hurts. I love the quality, I love the improvements, I love that they listen to their customers. But if you're listening, Patagonia employees (and I'm hoping my buddies and blog supporters Free and localcrew might be), please watch the prices! I know quality costs more, but $21 more? In these economic times? For what appears to be lesser-quality materials? I realize no one forced me to buy it, but I hope that the company does take note of the fact that their customers take note of the price hikes (the Prefontaine jacket is now $90?!).
I hate the "Patagucci" stereotypes and from all I've seen, that's just not the way the company is interested in coming across, nor is it consistent with the company's values. But something like this only adds to that false perception.
In the end, I really do like this bag and plan to get a lot of use out of it. In fact, this weekend I'm headed out of town for an overnight trip and I'm guessing that this bag is going to be ideal.
My love affair with the Critical Mass is back on. In my humble opinion, it's overall been improved and well-thought out as Patagonia has considered customers' input and re-designed accordingly. On the whole, (with one final note of price protest!) a job well done.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent and thorough review. I had the older half mass which I love but has a few drawbacks. It sounds like I'll stick with it though. thanks.

Sep 17, 2008, 5:50:00 PM  
Blogger Patagonia Community said...

Hey thanks Peter. The old Mass is a really good bag. The beefy fabric definitely feels more durable than the one I have. My bag is holding up well so far (under light use) and hopefully will continue to do fine. Best wishes and come back often. I plan to increase the number of posts on this blog.

Sep 17, 2008, 7:55:00 PM  
Blogger Q said...

Thanks to this informative review I just bought the critical mass in gravel. I had to return the half mass because my widescreen laptop didn't fit in it. I just have one question, what are the two Velcro patches on the underside of the flap for? The half mass had them as well and I couldn't figure out what they are for.


Oct 3, 2008, 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger Patagonia Community said...

Hey Q,
Glad you found the review helpful. The Velcro patches on the underside of the flap are for folding the flap in half so that the bag stays open. So if you are needing to get to the bag's contents quickly and continuously, you don't have to lift up the big flap every time.

This is probably most helpful for couriers or anyone who constantly has to fish through the bag. For me though, I bring the bag to work, take my laptop out, and the bag sits behind my desk all day.

I've had the bag for several weeks now and it's performed well. I am noticing a TINY bit of fraying with some of the threads along the back side's zipper. With my previous versions of the bag, nothing like that ever came close to happening even after years of use. I'm going to keep my eye on it. You'll have to let me know how you like yours.

Oct 3, 2008, 1:16:00 PM  

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