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Reviews: Laptop Backpacks

Volume Number: 20 (2004)
Issue Number: 6
Column Tag: Reviews

Reviews: Laptop Backpacks

by Lorin Rivers, Bon-vivant and Raconteur

A roundup of some of what's available


If you have a laptop, you need a way to transport it. A conventional briefcase or backpack just does not offer the protection your extremely valuable hardware deserves! After carrying (at some times two) laptops all over the US and Europe in a shoulder bag, and suffering the discomfort the uneven load produces, I thought I'd try a backpack instead--and I'm glad I did. The worst thing about backpacks is they are dorky looking, but I doubt I'll go back to a shoulder bag for lugging my kit around. Maybe someday I'll be rich enough to afford a laptop Sherpa and won't have to worry about it....

I used seven different backpacks from as many manufacturers for at least a few days each. I have a highly mobile work life, and live in one of the most unwired cities in the US (Austin, TX). I throw my poor battered TiBook into a bag several times every day.

Figure 1, Top Row, left to right: Brenthaven Professional 15", Shaun Jackson Design BackOffice, Willow Design Jacques 15", Booq BP3 System, Bottom row, left to right: Targus Sport Deluxe, Timbuk2 Detour, Spire Volt

That's Not My Bag, Baby

No, I'm not going to use the "Which bag would you want if you were trapped on a desert island" cliche (the bag with the satellite phone in it, thanks for asking). Instead, each of the bags fills a particular niche as it turns out, as I'll explain in more detail.

Cadillac Bag

Hands down, the best all-around bag in this collection is the Brenthaven Professional 15", and at $170 MSRP, it ought to be. That said, it's also the one I'd pay for with my own money if I were to buy a new laptop bag. The construction is very solid, and materials are top-notch. The amazing thing about the Brenthaven is its capacity--somehow, they've made this bag far bigger on the inside than on the outside. With six closeable pockets, and numerous pouches, there's a place for every piece of kit you might have, and all easy to get to. It's not that it's a large bag at all, it's just very well designed. Hefty padding on the bottom of the bag, plus a sturdy removable inner sleeve, ensures the safety of your machine. It has strong, comfortable, quick-adjust shoulder straps with perforated covers to promote airflow and cooling. The straps have rings and hoops to attach accessories to (cell phone bags, and what not). This is the bag I always came back to, and the one I always chose when traveling. In several months of hard use, the only visible impact is the finish on the zipper pulls is starting to wear off. I recommend this bag without reservation to anyone.

Figure 2, Interior of the Brenthaven, with sleeve detail. Note the numerous pouches and places to stow things--the pouch for the sleeve has a large document slot and the inner compartment has six pouches, two with elastic tops.

Commuter Special

The Shaun Jackson Design BackOffice <> is a unique piece, and if you commute by train or bus, or work frequently without ready access to a table or desk, this is the one for you. This bag is also sturdy, and well constructed, as you'd expect from one at the higher end of the price range at $149.95 MSRP.

Figure 3, BackOffice virtually deployed. There are two pads for elevating the back of your 'Book for airflow. The sides which drape on either side of your lap as you use it are easily accessed while in use. Takes about one second to close it up and go.

While it's ideal for the type of users I mentioned, it doesn't have much in the way of storage. It's also one of the more compact bags I looked at. I enjoyed using it around the house too, since I have a thigh-frying TiBook.

Expedition Grade

The Willow Design Jacques 15" <> is the bag for those who tend to be hard on their gear, or live a rough and tumble life. If you want to bring your laptop along for the ride and still be able to use it after, this is for you. I've never felt my machine was better protected in my life. When it's all in place, this bag has bank-vault solidity, and it's quite compact, as well. It's truly amazing. You can also use the sleeve as its own bag--it's got its own shoulder strap and some compartments of its own.

Figure 4, The sleeve for the Jacques, strapped in.

The other distinguishing feature of the Jacques bag is the conspicuity factor. There are reflective strips all over the place on the outside of the bag, and the sleeve. If I had a kid who rode a bike to school (or skateboard or whatever), and had their own laptop, this is what I'd get for them. At $170, it's not cheap, but that price includes the sleeve, and with laptops averaging $2000, not a bad price to pay for the level of protection this bag offers. For what it's worth, the Jacques was a close second in my opinion. My only complaint was that because the zipper goes all the way to the bottom of the sides, the front part of the bag had a tendency to flop open and if it wasn't all buttoned up stuff would fall out.

Qool Factor

Next, and pretty much tied with the Jacques, is the Booq BP3 System <>. This is a very cool looking, and customizable bag. The System includes a shell, a sleeve, a PDA case, and a phone case in addition to the bag itself. At $159.95 MSRP, it's a pretty good deal. Carefully consider this unit if you spend much time listening to an iPod due to the handy Media Jack, which allows you to thread your headphones through a grommet

Figure 5, Big black Booq with orange shell

The BP3 includes some great features (such as the MediaJack), lots of storage, sturdy design, very comfortable straps with a sternum strap (this keeps the shoulder straps securely on the shoulders, and makes carrying heavier loads more comfortable), and hip padding. It also has an innovative pocket for storing documents on the side of the bag--stuff slides between the padding against the wearer's back and the lining of the main compartment. The bottom, and back surfaces are well padded. The PowerSleeve is a rugged, padded enclosure for your laptop, and Booq offers them in 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 in. sizes. They sport shoulder straps, zippered compartments, and heavy-duty padding.

Budget Model

I suffer from champagne taste on a beer budget. The Targus Sport Deluxe <> is wholly adequate, large, and quite comfortable to wear, with well padded back and straps (which also have a sternum strap). I found it to be priced very fairly at $79.99 MSRP. It might be hard to argue that the more expensive bags are twice as good as the Targus, but I'd recommend this only for people on a very tight budget, or who only want to use a bag occasionally.

Figure 6, My stuff kept falling out of the outer pocket of the Targus

Messenger Bag AND Backpack

I am a big fan of Timbuktu products. I have had one their messenger bags for years. They also have a great, and entertaining website. The Timbuk2 Detour <> is a fantastic messenger bag, way better than the classic that I have--it's padded and has a handle. I just found it hard to use as a laptop bag, even with a sleeve. I like compartments, though, which is reflected in how much I like certain bags in this roundup. The Detour also suffers a little from the "neither fish nor fowl" problem. It's got these vestigial straps, but it's not wide and shallow like a regular messenger bag, it's sort of square. That said, it's definitely cool looking, well made, and stylish. If you are looking for an all purpose bag that you sometimes put a laptop into, this is one to consider strongly, because it's priced reasonably at $100 MSRP.

Figure 7: The Detour

The Timbuk2 sleeve is fantastic--stouter padding than any of the others, while not trying to be a bag inside a bag (with no shoulder strap or extra pockets). The one they sent for review was this crazy electric purple (Mariposa Purple) that is beautiful. It is priced at $50 for small, medium, large and XL and $60 for XXL (for 17" 'Books).

Glow in the Dark!

This bag has the coolest zipper pulls ever! There are sturdy plastic buttons attached to cord and tied to each conventional pull and they glow in the dark! I am easily amused....

Figure 8: The white part glows

The Spire Volt <> is much more of a technical backpack that carries a laptop really well. It has things like a real hip strap with padding, well padded shoulder straps with a sternum strap, lots of places to hook other things to, and a grommet similar to the Booq for passing a headphone jack through.

Figure 9: The Boot Deluxe, the divider and the inside of the Volt

What sets the Spire Volt apart is the security (but different from the Jacques). I felt like it was so strapped, in nothing would shake it. There are two cinch straps around the body of the bag (you can see the top set's buckles clearly in the group photo), so with all that hooked up, it's going nowhere! The laptop pocket is lined with Velcro loop (the fuzzy side). Then there's another divider made from a hard, but flexible material, and covered with ballistic nylon. This protects the bottom and sides of your machine unlike any of the other bags here. You can fit the divider precisely to your laptop because the sides have Velcro hook stuff on them. For even more protection add the Boot Deluxe <> which fits into the divider in a clever way. The sleeve has a shoulder strap, handle, and a zippered pocket. My only nit to pick is that it was a little hard to get the laptop in and out of the sleeve with the sleeve in the bag. At $115 MSRP for the Volt, and $30 MSRP for the Boot Deluxe, this rig is priced reasonably.

Loving Each One Best

OK, I didn't really slam any of them (though a couple rightfully deserve kudos). You really can't go wrong with any of these bags unless you choose the wrong one for your needs. Some of these are carried at national computer stores, and I encourage you to really check them out before throwing your money down.

Lorin is a long-time Mac user with roots in the NEXTSTEP community (he was a key member of the Altsys Virtuoso team), a former Macromedia evangelist, Power Computing PowerTower Pro Product Manager, Vice-President of Marketing for REAL Software, and is currently Account Executive for MacTech Magazine.


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