Spire Meta & Dart, Travel Bag / Gadget Bag & Laptop Sleeve Combo Review

Overview 500

A few years back my car was a SAAB 95 estate (station wagon). The 95 is perhaps not so large by US standards, but for most of us Europeans its a big beast. For vacations we really did not have to care about packing – we just threw everything in the back. For the last couple of months I’ve been living with a bag that’s a bit like this; the new Meta from Spire. The Meta is big; easily the biggest, baddest travel/gadget bag that I have. The composite photo below gives an idea of its size. I’m 1.88m (6’2”) tall.

Composite

We took that photo when I’d just got back home after a three-day trip to Sweden. There is about 14 kg worth of gear and clothing packed in there, and its not full! Carry-on luggage regulations vary a lot, tending to be a little tighter in Europe than in the USA. The Meta just about fits these when it comes to volume, but if you have it fully loaded it would probably exceed carry-on weight limitations. The blue tag in the picture reminds me that I had to leave the Meta at the “bottom of the steps.”

My Meta came with a Dart 15; Spire’s top-end laptop sleeve. The standard bundle is the Meta plus Boot sleeve. I’ve reviewed the Boot previously, and so got the Dart this time. Overall I’m very impressed with the Meta. The case has a few limitations and minor problems, but most of these are reflective of design trade-offs more than anything else. The Dart was less impressive. I really liked the design, but the build quality was not so good. Anyway, first up, a description of the Meta and Dart, then I’ll talk about using these for travel and work.

Description – Meta

The Meta’s physical dimensions (HxWxD) are 56x36x30cm (22”x14”x12”). On Spire’s website it says that the depth is 10”. The the depth will obviously vary a lot depending on what’s in the bag, and how tight the compression straps are done up. My Meta weighed in at 4.7 lbs – just over 2kg. This is pretty good for a 2800 cubic inch (46 l) pack! The Meta is made from a mix of fabrics, the main exterior fabric being 500 denier Cordura, with a lighter nylon (210D) on the inside. There is a rip-stop nylon cover that can cover the back-straps, and on the waist strap is a very fine stretch nylon. The remainder of the harness and back-pad is padded foam mesh and webbing. The 500D Cordura seems to be a much finer weave than is the case with other Cordura products I have. It looks nice anyway. The Meta comes in black, with a pleasant – and useful – light gray interior.

The Meta has three main compartments. At the rear (nearest the back) is a garment area. Within this, at the front is a half-height slip-pocket. The garment area is lined by a light grey nylon. It is hard to read the tape in the pic, but its extended to 50cm (just under 20”).

Meta garment area

The middle compartment is where you put your laptop cell. My Meta came with Spire’s “Dart” laptop sleeve. For $199 the Meta comes with the “Boot” sleeve as standard, but you can order without this ($30 less), or with a Dart (plus $10).

Meta laptop compartment front

This middle department has a couple of fasteners at the top to hold the Boot / Dart and the front end has a mesh organizer pocket for cables and the like. The base of the middle pocket is lined with an additional foam pad.

The front compartment is for gadgets. At the rear are nylon and mesh pockets with one of the former stitched up to hold a couple of pens. At the front end are two large pockets, one mesh and one solid (zipped into the light grey lining material). Finally, this front compartment has another single clip fastener at the top for keys etc.

Meta front compartment flopped

These zipped pockets high up on the bag help to stop the lower part of he bag bulking out, though it does not work perfectly in practice as garments tend to slide down to the base (see later on).

Meta cloth pocket

Moving to the exterior, we have a long and shallow pocket accessed by a zipper on the front.

Meta front pocket

Overlaying this is a strip of webbing with stitches every 5 cm. Into this webbing you could clip a karabiner as I have done. Spire now has a new logo, and very nice it looks too; this is stitched over the webbing strap. On both sides of the case are mesh pockets for a drink bottle. These have elasticized tops.

Meta rear

In the next pic you can see a 0.5l (17 Oz) water bottle in the pouch with the shoulder strap draped over the top. The shoulder pad has a grippy material on one side.

Meta on side

As this bag is designed to carry a lot of gear, Spire put in a high specification carrying system. This system consists of a sculpted, and padded back pad with a channel running down the spine to allow airflow over your back. The shoulder harness is well padded and allows adjustment for length (via sliders at the bottom) and also at the top where one can change the tension in the shoulder straps. We also have a padded waist strap and a small chest strap. At the top is a small piece of webbing for use as a lug handle / hanger.

Meta harness

This whole lot can be neatly zipped away behind a cover of ripstop nylon. When not in use the cover is stowed in a small compartment at the bottom of the bag.

Meta half straps

Meta harness cover in place

Other details: We have a pair of compression straps on each side, and a carry handle on the left side and on the top. There is a pair of d-rings at top left and bottom left to attach the shoulder strap. Finally, we have big, beefy zip-fasteners, with those neat “glow in the dark” pull-cords on the sliders.

Description – Dart

The Dart is a minimalist laptop sleeve. It holds the laptop in the vertical / portrait mode. The Dart is made from an attractive Ballistic Nylon and comes in black or light gray. The Dart’s dimensions are 40x29x9 cm (15”x11.5”x3.5”)

Dart front left

The main laptop pocket is well-padded and fits my 15” MacBook Pro perfectly. Like all the pockets on the Dart, its lined with light gray nylon. In this pic you can also see the two carry handles.

Dart top close open

In front of the laptop pocket is a larger unpadded pocket for power-bricks, accessories etc.. This pocket curves out towards the bottom end – the curve is more visible in the side shots.

Dart front pocket open

Dart right edge

At the front is a full-length but narrow pocket. Its not red by the way, that red thing is a small accessory pocket which I put in for illustrative purposes.

Dart front pocket open 2

At the rear is a very handy document sleeve secured by Velcro.

Dart rear

The Dart comes with a simple shoulder strap and this clips into a couple of D-rings. Obviously the large shoulder strap off the Meta can be used instead of this. Like the Meta, the Dart has glow-in-the-dark pull-tags on the zip sliders.

Meta – in use

The Meta / Dart combo was field tested on four trips in June and July 2009. The trips were a mix of academic conferences and vacations, and involved overnight stays of three nights in each case.  After this I lived with the case as my work-bag for the remainder of July. The next picture shows what kind of clothing I packed into the Meta for the trips. We have some business shoes, three shirts, smart trousers, t-shirts for sleeping, underwear, wash-bag etc. I would usually travel in jeans, t-shirt, running shoes .. i.e. scruff-order – no chance of upgrade!

clothes

One of the first points to note about packing the Meta is that the garment compartment lacks tie down straps. I think there is probably an assumption on the part of the designers that one would use packing-cubes. Spire do not sell garment packing-cubes, but then there are many on the market that would do the job admirably. As you can see, I’ve used a couple here to prevent my clothes from slipping and therefore creasing.

Meta garment compartment wideI like the way the garment area (in fact all the compartments) flops open like a clamshell to aid packing.

Meta garment compartment filled

If I never opened the Meta during a journey, clearly the main compression straps on the outside of the case would serve to stop one’s clothes moving around. However, on most journeys there is a need to access the laptop compartment, for example to remove the sleeve for security inspection. I found that when packing my clothes, including a pair of shoes, it is best to have the shoes at the top of the compartment. This is because there is already a bulky item at the base of the pack, and that is the padded waist-strap. If you don’t pack this way the Meta adopts a conical cross-section rather than a rectangular one. This can make it difficult to squash into luggage compartments on aircraft, and certainly difficult to fit into the luggage size tester at check-in desks. The fact that items in the gadget compartment may sink to the bottom exacerbates this problem. I could have fitted way more clothes into the garment compartment. However, I prefer to travel fairly light on clothes, washing items if I need more than three days worth. Also, it’s handy to have spare capacity in the event that one buys anything on the trip.

The middle compartment has space for the biggest laptops one could use (check Spire’s site for fit). The 15″ Boot and Dart fit easily.

Closed Dart resting in Meta

The laptop sleeves can hang from the clip fasteners, but this makes it a little awkward to remove these in hurry.

Dart locked in Meta

When the Dart is installed in the middle compartment there’s quite a lot of spare space. I have a light Gore-Tex raincoat that I packed into a waterproof stuff sack (the green thing in the pic) and put this into the bottom of the compartment. This gives me some handy extra padding in the event of a drop.Meta laptop compartment

On Spire’s website there is a suggestion that you can “swing” the Boot or Dart out for say, TSA inspection. In practice this is a little difficult as the whole unit (Boot / Dart and Meta) is quite long. It is probably best to unclip the sleeve and lay it on the belt separately.

Finally a mix of gadgets, were slotted into the front compartment.

Meta front compartment top view

In previous reviews for the Gadgeteer I’ve listed all the stuff I put in the bag, but this would get ridiculous with the Meta. There is just so much room in there. I could load up the pack with gadgets until it would be impossible to lift.

With this amount of gear, for me the preferred mode of carrying is on the back. In this mode the Meta is supremely comfortable. It just so happens that the case fits me very well. Obviously it would not fit everyone, while there is some adjustability in the straps, the sculpted back-pad is fixed in length and curvature. I don’t think this should be a huge problem unless you were very short in the back area. Underneath the padded back is an aluminium frame that maintains the shape and structure of the pack. Ordinarily I don’t use a waist strap, but I gave the Meta’s a try. Again, it luckily fits in at the right place on my torso. I found it pretty useful on one occasion when running to catch a flight. The waist strap is bulky though, and if given the choice I would have preferred a simple webbing strap.

Meta on Mike back left

Meta on Mike back left 2

I prefer to approach check-in desks with my bag in my hand or on the shoulder. Even a pack that is perfectly legal for carry-on will call for scrutiny by check-in clerks if it’s up on the back. So usually, with the Meta I would zip the straps under their cover, tighten the compression straps so it looks as small as possible, then go check in. I’d leave the bag in this configuration until I departed the aircraft. I really don’t like walking down an aircraft cabins, train isles, busses etc with a pack on my back. I invariably bash someone in the head with it. It’s best to have it in my hand so I can see it, and its ready to swing into the luggage rack. On two of my flights I couldn’t take the Meta into the aircraft cabin anyway. I was riding on a small Embrauer commuter jets and the luggage racks are barely large enough to take the laptop sleeve. The Meta was never going to fit, so I left it at the foot of the stairs to go in the hold (hence the blue, hold carry-on baggage tag in the pic above). When carrying the Meta sans back-harness one can use the shoulder strap or the grab handles. The shoulder strap has decent fasteners, and a comfortable pad. The grab/carry handles suit me perfectly. They are not too wide, and make it easy for you to lock your fingers around them when the bag is heavy.

Meta holding handle

Dart – in use

For $199 the Meta comes as standard with the Boot, but for an extra $10 you can get the Dart. Unless you really value the absolute minimalism of the Boot, get the Dart. The Dart is a really useful day-bag, office-bag, meetings-bag. On my trips I mostly dumped the Meta at my hotel, then took the Dart to the conferences. On the odd occasion when I was in tourist mode I removed the Macbook and used the Dart as a man-bag / camera-bag. The Dart is light (about 540g / 1.2 lb) and unobtrusive. It looks like a laptop bag bit doesn’t scream “steal me.” Its slim enough to hang under a coat if you are worried about such things.

Dart on Mike

In the next two photos you can see the effect of using the compression straps. The depth of the pack went from about 13 inches down to about 11 when I tightened things up.

Meta left loose rulerMeta left cinched and ruler

Critique

The stretch fabric on the outside of the waist strap can easily “pick” for example when you scrape it with your keys, or even a fingernail. I can see why this needs to be stretchy and flexible; so that the waist pads can wrap around, but its a little fragile. I’ve tried to be careful with this, but it shows some signs of picking already.

The lack of tie-down straps mean that you probably need to get some packing cubes if you want to keep your clothes neat.

The harness is bulky, especially the waist strap. This means it can be quite a squeeze getting the waist strap to fold up under the cover; especially when the bag is fully loaded. When might you have to do this? Well, in a check-in line maybe. When its in there, the waist strap bulks out the bottom of the bag. The harness is very, very comfortable. The padded waist strap contributes a little to that comfort, but not enough to warrant the bulk I think.

On Spire’s website it says “and still meets airline carry-on requirements.” Well, in the US maybe, but not everywhere. If you exploit the Meta to the full, then you might have to check it. Maybe you will be allowed to take it as unchecked baggage, but it might have to go “in the hold.”

The Meta is “unstructured.” when reasonably full it looks fine, but when not, it all sags a little, even with the compression straps.

It is really nice to have all this space. If you buy this bag then you clearly need all that room. However, it does mean that finding stuff can be a challenge. Hey, you can’t have it all. Pack with discipline – have a plan and stick to it.

The Dart shoulder strap is a little short for me. I imagine that most people would use the main Meta strap if using the Dart as a shoulder bag.

There were stray threads on the Dart; on the carry handles. These don’t affect the function and they show no signs of unraveling, but they are not a good advert for Spire.

The worst problem on the Dart was the flap over the rear document pocket. After about five weeks of use the edging material on this flap started to pull away. You have to tug on the flap to open it against the Velcro, and so this problem is going to get worse. This was annoying, as I really like the Dart design.

rip

Final thoughts

I think the main positive points of the Meta are its very large size, and the supreme comfort of its back harness. Not everyone will want a pack as big as this, but if you do travel with of lots of gear and clothing then this is the ideal tool for the job. For a pack of this volume the Meta is also very light in weight. Sure, you can find hiking sacks of similar capacity and weight, but these will not have the functionality (gadget pockets, laptop storage) of the Meta / Dart combo. So, you know who you are; if you have to take the kitchen sink then this is the bag for you.

I also like the versatility of the combination pack. Its nice to be able to park the big Meta somewhere, then use the Dart for meetings, tourism etc. If you prepare well, and pack properly you can have the Dart loaded up with all the essentials for a flight for example, and pull this out of the Meta before boarding.

I obviously have mixed feelings about the Dart. The design is good, but the execution is problematic. I think it looks great and it does a great job of transporting laptop and essentials. Without the quality problems, at $40 it would be a good value, and certainly the $10 upgrade from the Boot is a no-brainer. I’m 100% sure that Spire would sort you out if you had a similar problem, but its best to avoid these in the first place. The Dart is “a keeper” for me. It will be quite easy to sew up the damage and I will do so right after posting this review; but I shouldn’t have to.

I am often asked about the reliability of luggage. It is difficult to answer such questions unequivocally because one reviews a bag when it is new. I do have some older bags from Spire. Whilst past performance is no guarantee of future success I have to say that these are lasting up well. The old Volt XL that I reviewed several years back has been used and abused a lot over the years and it still looks fine. I guess like most people, I often end up carrying a rucksack with just one strap slung over a shoulder. For me, that is usually the left hand strap. So the attachment point where this strap joins the top of the bag is where the bag is likely to fail. I’m pleased to say that the Volt shows absolutely no signs of failure. I also bought the very first Meta; back in about 1996 I think it was. That bag is retired now, but its still fully functional. I must say that this new Meta also looks like a pretty tough bag, and apart from the waist strap fabric (which is “pilling,” but functional) it appears to be holding up well after a couple of months of nearly daily use. By contrast my experience of the Dart emphasises the need actually do extensive and extended field-testing before writing a review.

Overall then, a big thumbs-up for the Meta, and a qualified approval for the Dart. I love the design of the Dart, but these days, stitching shouldn’t come undone.

 

Product Information

Price:$209 (including Dart)
Manufacturer:Spire
Pros:
  • Meta:
  • Masses of storage for gear, gadgets and clothing
  • Very, very comfortable on the back
  • Backpack harness hides away in a zip-flap
  • Light weight (just over 2 kg) for the volume (46 l)
  • Dart:
  • Lightweight and simple, but ...
  • Versatile
  • Looks fab
Cons:
  • Meta:
  • No tie-down straps in garment area
  • Bulky waist harness
  • Pushing the limit of carry-on rules, esp. outside the US
  • Delicate fabric on waist harness
  • Dart:
  • Quality problems - stray threads and rear flap breaking
Posted in: Laptops and Gear, Travel Gear

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Ryan August 6, 2009, 10:03 am

    Where did you put the kitchen sink? OMG that is a big big bag!! nice review…As much as I love my bags, this can eat up all bags that I have…I like it. I just don’t know if I can really fill this bag though..haha

    1
  • Michael August 6, 2009, 10:25 am

    Seriously Ryan, I found myself getting lazy with this bag. Its like a black-hole for gear. If I can’t find one of my gadgets around the home or office, its probably in the Meta somewhere. You have to be disciplined – pack it properly, and remember to empty it!

    2
  • Fred August 7, 2009, 7:53 am

    What is the gadget found in the left nylon pocket ?
    -Meta-front-compartment-flopped.jpg
    -Meta-front-compartment-top-view.jpg

    3
  • Michael August 7, 2009, 8:16 am

    Hey Fred, Its a Joby Gorillapod. Go here to get some detail:
    http://joby.com/

    At its most basic its a small tripod for my digicam. However, its amazingly versatile. You can use it to grip lamposts, trees .. whatever. I’ve just noticed that there is no review of this gem on the Gadgeteer. Will have to do one.

    Mike

    4
  • Julie August 7, 2009, 8:35 am

    @Mike Knock yourself out :)

    5
  • Lexi Robert October 20, 2009, 7:00 am

    Anyone will get impressed with the versatility of the bag. I liked the way the details of the bag have been described.

    6
  • Michael Shulver October 21, 2009, 3:22 am

    Thanks Robert. Its very versatile. Its a general travel-bag, but with lots of dedicated capacity for gadgets. Critically however, these gadget compartments don’t get in the way if not used.

    7
  • ACAR May 1, 2010, 12:32 pm

    I went with Spire’s Meta after considering Tom Bihn. I liked Spire’s more protective backpack/simple sleeve over Bihn’s more protective sleeve (Brain Cell)/simple backpack concept. The Meta’s framesheet/stay/padded bottom design is a winner for laptops and convertable to a real backpack – the reason for that bulky waistbelt. The reviewer says the Dart is an easy choice over the Boot; which isn’t quite the case as the Dart only accommodates smaller laptops. But if I had been looking for a shoulder bag, a Tom Bihn bag would have been it.

    8
  • esperi August 1, 2010, 7:57 am

    Michael, I like the brown shoes you are wearing, what brand is that?

    9
  • Michael Shulver August 2, 2010, 7:20 am

    Hi Esperi,

    Thanks. They are by Jones. That exact style is no longer available, but there are similar here:

    http://www.jonesbootmaker.com/main/products/view_products_2/30/0/

    On sale at the moment!

    M

    10

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