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Review: Laptop Cases

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 10
Column Tag: Review

Review: Laptop Cases

So, you've got the laptop of the year, now what?

by Michael R. Harvey

Last January at MacWorld Expo San Francisco, Steve Jobs proclaimed 2003 as the year of the notebook for Apple Computer. It was no idle boast, either. Apple has some of the best portable computers on the market today. Both the 12 and 17 inch models were well received at MacWorld, and the new 15 inch Aluminum PowerBook G4 just released at Apple Expo Paris completes the line. But what do you carry it in? They are some of coolest, and most powerful laptops out there, but you still need to be able to get it, and its accessories from place to place.

I decided to look at this from a real world prospective. I developed an inventory of items any user might need and/or carry with their PowerBook on a regular basis. The list was as follows:

14" iBook

iBook power adapter

Spare iBook battery

PDA

Cell phone

iPod

Charging brick for iPod

One each Ethernet, FireWire, USB, phone, and HotSync cable

Small optical mouse

Two pens

Two CD jewel cases

Business cards

One book (I happened to be reading Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov at the time of this review)

Three press kits (to simulate miscellaneous paperwork)

With this pile of stuff, I set out to test some current offerings from various manufacturers to see if they could handle the load, and how well they could do it.

Brenthaven

The offerings from Brenthaven are top notch. So much so that they were the first official provider of cases to the Apple Store. These are high quality products. Well built, sturdy, and loaded with nooks and crannies for stuffing things into. Our inventory was easily handled by the Professional 17 Shoulder Case I tested. In fact, I doubled the load (except for computer), and this case was able to carry it. The bag is very well built. Tough, ballistic nylon, with solid, easily operated zippers throughout. There is a strap for sliding the handle of your wheeled suitcase through. The case for holding the laptop is detachable from the main case. There is an accordion file for paperwork within the main compartment, several sleeves for accessories, and hardware, a pocket for a PDA, a key chain hook. and even a secret small outside pocket just big enough to hold a plane ticket, and a passport. It's got a dual handle set up for carrying, as well as a decent shoulder strap. I did not particularly care for the dual handle set up. I couldn't just grab and go. I had to collect the two parts before hauling the case away. The strap is attached to the case in such a way as to automatically carry it over your hip, a much more comfortable position. The pad on the strap is only okay. It's soft, but sticky feeling. Make sure it is resting on your shoulder exactly the way you want it because it will not slide at all. I think they meant it that way, but I found it to be a detractor. Overall, this is a truly outstanding bag, ready to handle nearly any need a user might have. It is available from the Apple Store for $149.


Kensington

These guys make all sorts of great peripherals for the Mac. The also happen to have a really nice case called the Saddlebag Pro. This bag was really a surprise. Initially, I thought it would be okay, but nothing special. I could not have been more wrong. The Saddlebag Pro is well designed, tough, durable, and can easily handle nearly anything you need it to. It has one main compartment with a padded divider for the laptop (which is able to handle up to the 17" PowerBook). The other side is spacious and easily handled many of the items from the inventory list. There is an outer area that is covered by the flap with zippers on either side. This area has places for business cards, a key chain hook, and a pocket for whatever you want. The flap itself has pockets on either side. The main flap that covers it all also has a zippered pocket on it. The carrying handle it attached here. It is a single piece and very comfortable to grip, even when the bag is loaded down. The shoulder strap on this case was outstanding. The pad was very comfortable. Now, what about all the cable clutter? It fits in a hidden drawer that slides out of the lower side of the bag. It fit every random little piece of hardware from the list easily. Two other additions that really caught my eye. One, the bag can expand. Unzip the flap around the back edge of the Saddlebag Pro, and you give yourself even more room for those times when you have to take an entire desk worth of paperwork home with you. Last, this thing converts to a backpack. A compartment just above the suitcase handle strap opens to reveal shoulder straps that click to rings, and viola, backpack time. A nice addition for those times when you need to carry different, although I wouldn't recommend using the bag primarily in this configuration. The backpack straps are none too comfortable. The Saddlebag Pro can be found many places with an average price of around $60.


Willow Design

The Eastern Large Display Carry Case is one of many fine bags from Willow Design. All of their offerings, much like everything I tested, are made of high quality materials, and excellent workmanship. The Eastern case we tried was able to hold the inventory, but only just. It was a tight fit (some of their other larger cases would have had no problem). There are three outer pockets. One very thin one along the back of the case for holding no more than a magazine. The other two are on the front side, one atop the other. The outer most is just a zippered compartment. The larger one has pockets for anything you want to put in (the largest of which can hold a CD jewel case). There is also a zippered mesh pocket. The main compartment is where the uniqueness of this case shows. You access it by opening up the top flap that unzips on three sides (and also has another zippered mesh pocket on the underside). It is one space that is split by a solid board. The laptop rests on it, and can be secured with a Velcro strap. Flip up the board, and space for all your accessories is exposed. It's actually a nice setup. You can work on the computer as it sits in the case quite easily, accessing any papers from the pouches on the flap. The space underneath can hold most all your accessories, as long as they aren't too bulky and fit within the one of the three spaces the area is divided into. One final note on this case, the shoulder strap and single piece handle are okay, but not the most comfortable of those tested. Prices vary depending the model you choose, but the Eastern Large Display Carry Case is $90 direct from Willow Design.

Crumpler

Crumpler automatically wins in the category of cool, or insane, looking bags (depending on your take on such things). Big, bright colors, and unique names are hallmarks of the company. The test model they sent, for example, was called The Very Busy Man. This bag is all about big spaces. Everything is covered by a large flap which both Velcros and clips closed. Four pockets make up the interior of the case. From front to back: a zippered pocket that has several smaller pouches within it, that either zipper or Velcro closed, for small items. Next a large space for stuff, books, tomes, small cars. Third pocket is a flap covered space for your laptop. It, as well as the entire bag, is very well padded. This pouch can easily hold the largest PowerBook Apple ahs to offer, while also safely keeping the smallest. The last pocket is a smaller zippered pouch probably best used for holding cables, and other accessories. Back to the outside of this monster, we find only a heavy duty shoulder strap. No handle, which I found to be a big minus. The strap itself, however, is of good quality, with a sliding pad (the only one tested that has this). There is also a smaller strap from the bottom corner of the bag that hooks around the shoulder strap to help hold the case more securely to your body when you are wearing it for extended periods of time. Crumpler bags are sold mostly through camera stores. To find a dealer near you, or an online dealer, check out their web site at www.crumplerusa.com.

Does size really matter?

Bigger isn't necessarily better, at least as far as laptop cases go. It may be that you don't need to carry the Rosetta Stones, and a Volkswagen around in your bag. If you only need to get your smaller laptop, and maybe a few other things at most from here to there, then one of these could be the bag for you.

First up is McBain's Baby from Crumpler. It's one of their smaller laptop bags. It can hold a 12" iBook or PowerBook in its main compartment, and a few small bits in its zippered front pouch. The flap Is held down by Velcro. The shoulder strap is adequate, and it even has a small handle, unlike its big, and very busy, brother.

Our next item up for review in the smaller is better category is the Courtney Slipcover from Willow Design. This is a very nice bag. Like the Crumpler above, the Courtney can hold a 12" iBook or PowerBook. It has two additional compartments, however. A small accordion file with a Velcro closing flap is on the back of the case. The front space has pouches and mesh zippered compartments for accessories. There is even a detachable key ring hidden along one side of the case. Very clever.

Brenthaven had two offerings I tried out in this category. The first is the Professional 12 Shoulder Case. A very fine bag, small in size, but with a lot of places to store stuff. It can handle a 12" Apple laptop snugly, and has more places to store things than you think it should, considering its small form factor, with pouches for a PDA, and other accessories, a key hook, and even a luggage handle strap. It also has handles and shoulder strap identical to its bigger sibling. The second bag from Brenthaven was the Mobility One Messenger Bag. Much like the Professional 12, this bag has more places for stuff than you would think the laws of physics would allow. In fact, although this wasn't part of the review criteria, this bag was able to hold the test inventory I used on the larger bags. It was pretty stuffed, but it did it, and everything was nicely accessible. It is also able to hold the larger 14" iBooks in its very well padded case.


Final Analysis

Choosing a laptop case is a very personal choice. It has to fit your needs exactly, and even being off by just a little will nag at you. For the smaller bags, I went with the Willow Design bag. It was small, but still held a lot of stuff. As for the larger cases, the surprising winner for me was the Kensington Saddlebag Pro. As I mentioned earlier, I thought this bag would be adequate, but nothing special. I was totally surprised by how well this bag met my requirements. It fit all my needs exactly. Let that be a warning, when you go looking for a case, discount nothing ahead of time, because you may just eliminate the perfect case without ever knowing it.

These are just my personal preferences, though. The Brenthaven bags are outstanding. They are very likely an outstanding choice for many users. The Willow Design cases would be great for those who need smaller sizes, and need to carry a bit less than our criteria set up. Then there is Crumpler. Wacky, cool, unique, huge. Sound like your thing?

Again, it's a personal choice, but choosing from any of the cases reviewed here will definitely put a high quality, durable bag in your hands. Just make sure it fits your needs, and habits, and you will be very happy with your choice. Good luck.


Michael R. Harvey

 
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