The Best Laptop Backpack Review
What is the best laptop backpack? We embarked on a meticulous testing process and examined nine of the best and most popular models on the market today. We tested them head-to-head in our daily travels around town, road trips, work trips and almost daily visits to the local coffee shop. Our side-by-side testing determined which models were the most comfortable for carrying heavy or awkward loads on foot and by bike, and which best protected our laptops. After performing these rigorous tests, we've determined which bags came out on top and which lagged behind. Keep reading to see which models were the easiest to use, looked the best, held the most items while staying organized, and were the most water resistant.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Laptop Backpacks nowadays aren't just designed specifically for carrying and protecting a laptop computer; some of them also perform well at carrying all of the other tech and non tech things necessary in your daily routine. Our Best Buy Winner The North Face Borealis is an excellent of an example of a multi purpose pack that performs well at holding and protecting your laptop while providing a spacious compartment for all the other stuff you might need. Whether you are heading to work, the coffee shop, school, or on a business trip, chances are that you will want to have your computer with you and the Borealis makes an easy job of that.
While some folks are able to handle all of their internet surfing, email writing, or Facebook scanning on their phones or tablets, most people still find that real work needs a real computer, and with this, a way to carry it. While laptops have continued to get smaller over the years, they are still bulky enough that they need a dedicated method of transport. And while the technology has continued to advance, it seems that the amazing new products have only become more fragile, necessitating solid protection wherever you are carrying it. Enter the laptop backpack.
The backpacks we tested all have similar characteristics in that their primary purpose is to carry and protect your laptop computer. There are a lot of new advancements in these laptop backpacks that also allow you to safely carry, store and protect your phone and tablet as well, while also leaving plenty of room for other necessities. Our Editors' Choice Winner, the Osprey Flapjack, was our highest scoring bag in laptop protection and also scored well in comfort and storage. While most of these are not rough outdoor packs, a few of these laptop backpacks have started to take into consideration the working outdoor enthusiast and designed a bag that can handle the elements while keeping your equipment safe.
These packs will carry it all - from books to paper work, extra clothing, electronics, sunglasses, pens and pencils, passports and maps - and will even have room for water bottles. They all seem to feature multiple compartments and a myriad of pockets designed to hold everything you might carry with you while out in the city or on the trails. In essence, we are talking about a cross between a briefcase and a school bag, made by the leading gear manufacturers in an effort to fit your lifestyle. Each of these bags includes two shoulder straps and are meant to be worn on the back.
We noticed that the backpacks we reviewed tended to fit into one of two categories. Contenders were either a laptop backpack or a backpack that could carry a laptop. The first type are designed around the computer in particular, with all the backpack's features centered on this as its primary function. These bags were made for people who need to take their computer to and from work or school every day. The second type - a backpack which can also carry a laptop - included far fewer work or school related features for organization, and tended to have less effective systems for computer protection. However, these backpacks were often more versatile and were usually the ones we would pick for other activities than simply going to work. We wouldn't recommend this type of bag as an everyday commuter bag, although many of them were still great products.
Choosing exactly which backpack is best for you can be a difficult process. For help, we recommend you check out our Buying Advice article. If you are interested in how we went about out testing, check out How We Tested. We also realize that some people prefer a different style of bag, particularly for those who need instant access to the items they are carrying or who commute almost entirely by bike. For those people, we encourage you to also look at our review of the best messenger bags.
Criteria For Evaluation
In order to decide which of the bags we tested was the best overall, we chose six criteria by which to evaluate and compare each one. The criteria are comfort, protection, storage, ease of use, style, and water resistance. To better help you understand what specific things we tested for in each of these categories, how we tested for them, and which backpacks fared best and worst, we have broken down and described each category below.
We deemed laptop protection to be the most important component of the backpacks we tested, and thus rated it as 25% of each pack's final score. No two packs, even those made by the same company, employed the same design or system of protection for your computer. There was a wide range of performance in how well each pack protected different laptops, which are fragile items, but overall we were pretty disappointed that more emphasis wasn't placed on this critical feature. No system for protection was even close to perfect, and the only pack that received a 9 out of 10 score for laptop protection was our Editors' Choice, the Osprey Flapjack; even that pack had its slight flaws. In our opinion, there is a lot of room for improvement in this very important category.
Luckily for us, no actual laptops were broken in the testing of these packs! To test protection, we loaded them up with a 15" MacBook Pro, as well as the much smaller and thinner iPad Mini and sometimes, if room, an Asus Chromebook. Through our extensive testing, we noticed there were four main factors that made for a good, or terrible, protection system, and we described them below:
Laptops are fragile and expensive machines and need to be protected from knocks and blows that could potentially damage or break them. The most common types of padding were plastic sheaths or plates and simple foam pads. It seems obvious that there should be protection on all sides, yet many of the padding systems we tested left large gaps in the protection. A critical area for padding is of course the bottom of the pouch which the laptop rests against.
This was less of an issue for those packs which featured an adequate suspension system. The Osprey Flapjack not only had a properly suspended laptop sleeve, but it offers a large velcro strap to secure your laptop in place while transporting. A few bags chose not to suspend the computer above the bottom, and thus needed extra padding to absorb a blow from setting the backpack on the ground, but in general we felt this method of protection was inadequate compared to suspending it in the middle of the bag, especially as the backpacks tended not to include as much padding as we would have liked to see.
Laptop Compartment Size
The size of the compartment that holds the laptop is critical because if it is too large the computer will move around, exposing it to potential knocks and friction. We found that virtually every bag we tested is designed to fit a 15" laptop, except with the exception of the Incase City which hold up to a 17" Macbook. It seemed like all 9 of these protected our laptops with varying amounts of success. None of the main laptop sleeves were specifically designed for an 11" machine, which caused smaller ones to move around considerably in almost every bag. Luckily, most of the packs featured a separate smaller, compartment for carrying a smaller electric device. In many cases, issues in compartment size were minimized when the bag was filled to capacity with other items, but we chose not to account for that in our assessment since it isn't always the case during everyday use.
The securing system works hand-in-hand with the compartment design to hold the laptop in place, ensuring that it doesn't move. Adjustable Velcro straps, like those found on the Osprey Flapjack, seemed to work best. Others incorporated an open top design, which confined the range of motion inside the backpack, but would not keep the computer stable in its position. Most of the bags had no securing system at all, meaning you'd better be very careful to set your bag down upright and gently, or pay the possible price.
The final critical feature is where the laptop storage compartment is located within the pack. All the models we tested place the laptop next to the back, thereby using the back support to double as laptop support and padding. The North Face Borealis offers a well padded yet firm back support which we liked and earned this pack an 8 out of 10 in laptop protection. Having the laptop against the back also minimizes movement if the computer is the only thing in the bag. However, a critical feature of these specialty backpacks is having a designated compartment that is suspended above the bottom of the bag, so that when the bag is put on the ground, there is no impact to the computer. Not all bags in our test group included this.
Equally as important is whether the back support is rigid enough to absorb the blow of the bag being put on the ground. Some of the packs that featured suspended compartments were lacking this element, thus nullifying the advantages of the suspension design. In a few of the tested bags, the side edges or top corner, of the laptop were located much too close to the edges or zippers of the bags, where there was no padding, making the computer vulnerable to an impact from the side or top.
In the end, none of these backpacks did an ideal job of protecting the laptop, which was disappointing. It seems that regardless of which bag you use, your best protection is diligent awareness of how you move with your pack on and how you set it down. Although there were refinements we would like to see made, we found that the Osprey Flapjack will do the best job of keeping your laptop safe from abuse. On the other end of the spectrum, we determined that the Timbuk2 Rogue was the bag most likely to leave you with a broken or damaged computer, even though we liked the bag in general.
Perhaps the most critical component of any backpack is how comfortable it is to carry. After all, if you can't stand to put the bag on your back for more than a couple minutes, how effective will it be for carrying things all over town, or the world? To test comfort we wanted to make sure that we mimicked real life conditions; so, we loaded these bags up with our around town necessities and carried them everywhere we went. That gave us a pretty good idea of which ones were most comfortable.
To be sure, we then compared them head-to-head by adding a lot of weight to each one (computer, textbooks, binders, folders and notebooks, clothes, lunch and snacks) and had numerous people put them on and adjust them for their body type. Testers then walked around to determine each pack's level of comfort. The Top Pick Winner for style, the Burton Tinder, doesn't look like it would be a comfortable bag with its sleek design and hardly minimal padding on the back and shoulder straps; however, it earned itself a 7 out of 10 and turned out to be a comfy fit.
We found that the two most critical features in regards to comfort are the design of the shoulder straps and the design of the back plate. The amount of padding in the shoulder straps is not nearly as important as how far apart the straps are where they attach to the top of the pack. Further apart meant less friction and biting into the neck. Just as important was how wide the strap material was, in order to disperse the weight of the load. The Osprey Flapjack was hands down our favorite based on comfort alone, while the Incase City had the least comfortable shoulder straps and didn't have a sternum strap for added stability.
Equally important, as far as comfort goes, is the construction of the back plate. Some of the backpacks we tested had super stiff stays or plastic sheets to add rigidity and protection to the laptop. While these may have done a better job protecting your laptop, which is another very critical factor in which laptop backpack to choose, we found that packs which incorporated soft padding in the back plate were the most comfortable, both for walking and bike riding, like The North Face Borealis.
Soft padding meant a flexible fit, which we preferred. Rigid padding and rigid back plates didn't move and flex with our bodies as well, and in general were less comfortable. While sternum and hip straps were appreciated at times to help stabilize a heavy load, we didn't feel that they added or detracted significantly from the comfort of the pack. We rated comfort as 20% of each backpack's total score.
Organization & Storage
What use is a backpack if it can't store everything that you need to carry? In our view, not much. We determined that two factors were most important when comparing storage: 1) How much can it hold? 2) How well does it stay organized? A few of the bags we tested, like the Patagonia Black Hole 25 and Burton Tinder were a top-loading style, similar to a classic rucksack, and while they could carry enough for us to be happy, they included very few features to help to stay organized.
Others, like the Dakin Explorer, had many functional pockets each obviously designed for a very specific purpose or item like important papers, pens, wallet, passport, sunglasses, iPad or other electronics (and even an attachment for a skateboard), but were a little too small to fit everything we could imagine carrying (like food, water, or a jacket). The perfect combination were the bags which were both large, had many different carrying compartments, and included tons of different sized pockets and locations designed to keep everything separate and organized. Although their designs were quite different, the Granite Gear Rift 2 and Osprey Flapjack (which received our Editors' Choice award) were both a great balance of volume and organization. We rated Storage as 15% of a bag's total score.
For those who are interested in the exact breakdown of volume for each bag, check out the specs table at the top of the review where we have each pack's volume listed. The packs range from 21 liters on the small end to 31 liters on the large end. Our Editors' Choice Winner, the Osprey Flapjack, turned out to be the smallest volume pack coming in at 21 litters but its great ingenuity of design allowed us to properly pack and store all we needed for everyday use. So in this case size really doesn't matter. In the specs table, we have also broken down the division of compartments that each pack has – large pockets, small pockets, external side pockets, and zippered pockets. A compartment refers to the number of separate large (text book or bigger sized) storage spaces the pack has.
Large pockets are big enough to fit many small items, or a few medium sized things, while small pockets are for things like keys, pens, or a wallet, and help with specific organization. In the case of small and large pockets, some of these are found on the inside of the bag, while some are accessible from the outside. External side pockets refers to un-zippered pockets on the outside of the bag, designed to hold water bottles or extra clothing.
Ease of Use
While all of the backpacks listed here are designed to carry laptops, we wanted to also compare how well they carried everything else and how well they handled everyday use of other items besides laptops. We specifically addressed different contexts or activities and measured how easy it was to perform these tasks. Was the bag big enough to carry water? Does it come with its own hydration reservoir? Can it carry a jacket, climbing shoes, and harness for a session at the gym, or even a full change of clothes? How about picking up groceries for dinner on your way home from work?
And what about using the bag when you weren't specifically headed to work, school, or the coffee shop? Could you ditch the computer and happily take this pack for a day hike? Our Best Buy Winner, The North Face Borealis, made the transition from laptop backpack to outdoor backpack very well, especially with the option to use the laptop sleeve as a hydration bladder. Lastly, how well does the pack carry important documents, keeping them clean and unruffled, while also carrying everything else? We found that the incredible amount of features included on the Osprey Flapjack made it the most versatile pack of the bunch. Top-loading packs like the Burton Tinder and the Granite Gear Rift 2 were great for carrying things like groceries, climbing gear, and clothing, but not as good for protecting documents when paired with the other gear in the packs. We weighted Ease of Use as 15% of a laptop backpack's overall score.
In one of our previous laptop backpack reviews (published in 2011), we rated each of the packs for their "Professional Look." But the reality is that none of these packs look professional at all in the suit-and-tie sense, and are not designed to be. We used the same guidelines for style as in last year's review. Let's face it, it's tough to make a backpack look super professional. So we have substituted the words "professional look," with one word: Style.
Now, style is a pretty subjective term, but we did our best to rate each bag according to how well it meshes with the look of today – 2016. Essentially, this metric is rating how well each pack fits in with the rest of your attire. Because style is objective, you might want to ignore this rating anyway and make the call for yourself which one you like best. The retro-hipster look of the Burton Tinder was the runaway favorite here, while the extremely dated looks of The North Face bags didn't win many style points. We also awarded the Osprey Flapjack a 9 out of 10. Style was awarded 15% of the overall score.
While we didn't expect any of these bags to be completely waterproof, it is nice to know that if you get caught out in a rainstorm, all of your precious and expensive gadgets will not end up water damaged. For that reason, we also decided to test these bags for water resistance. Testing these bags during the Fall in Tahoe, it was hard to find consistent rain to use for our purposes, so we were forced to create our own "rainstorm" in the shower. We devised a test which we thought was a fair and adequate test of water resistance and subjected each of the bags to the test.
Not wanting to risk the health of our own laptops, we instead used someone else's. Just kidding - what we actually did was put a piece of fresh dry paper in every pocket of bag, including where the laptop would be stored, then filled out the rest of the volume of the bag with dry clothing. We zipped and sealed the bag as tightly as it was designed for, then held it under the shower for 30 seconds. We quickly photographed the bag to be able to show you its relative merits and faults, then dried it off with a towel, dried our hands, and slowly and carefully removed the contents to check for water intrusion.
The results of the test were predictably all over the board. We noticed that two things in particular made for an especially water resistant bag: a durable water resistant (DWR) coating and covered zippers. DWR coatings are applied to the fabric of a bag and help it to shed water upon contact, rather than absorb water. It's worth noting that over time and with wear, these DWR coatings will break down and wear off, and will need to be reapplied if the original amount of water resistance is to be maintained. We found that zippers were the main point of water entry into a backpack.
The best ones, like the Patagonia Black Hole 25 and the Osprey Flapjack seemed to employ water resistant zippers for the small external pockets, or a giant flap that completely cover the internal compartments of the bag.The worst performers, like the Incase City, had many zippers that were not covered or water resistant, and laid flat on top of the bag pointing directly up, towards the direction of rainfall. These top zippers leaked and allowed water to filter down amongst every major pocket and compartment of the bag. The importance of having a water resistant bag is largely dependent on the climate that you live in, but for the purposes of this review, we rated Water Resistance as 15% of the total score of each bag.
Shopping for a laptop backpack can be tough. Do you favor style? Comfort? Water resistance? All three? We hope we were able to help you in making a decision, but we do realize that you might still be searching for the best contender to suit your needs. If your questions remain unanswered, head over to the Buying Advice for additional information to help you decide which pack is the best choice for you.
— Katherine Elliott
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