The Best Laptop Backpack Review
Which laptop backpack is the very best? In order to find out, we selected eight of the best and most popular models on the market today and tested them head-to-head in our daily travels about town, work trips to the coffee shop and school, and on road trips around the country. We wanted to find out which models best protected our laptops and which were the most comfortable for carrying heavy loads on foot or by bike. We also assessed which models were the most versatile, looked the best, held the most items while staying organized, and were the most water resistant. After performing these tests, it was easy to choose our best overall winner, the bag which offers what we believe is the best value for the money, and our top pick for the fashion conscious.
Read the full review below >
Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
The Best Overall Laptop Backpack
The North Face Recon
Best for Budget-Minded
Top Pick for Style
Analysis and Test Results
Laptop Backpacks are designed specifically for carrying and protecting a computer, as well as all of the other things necessary in your daily life. 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. While some folks are able to handle all of their internet surfing, email writing, or Facebook perusing on their phones or tablets, most people still find that real work needs a real computer, and thus 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 products we tested all have similar characteristics in that their primary purpose is to carry one or more computers and perhaps a tablet as well. These are not duffel bags or rough outdoor packs; they feature multiple compartments and a myriad of pockets designed to hold everything you might carry with you while out in the city. These packs will carry it all - from books to important papers, extra clothing, electronics, sunglasses, pens and pencils, passports and maps, or water bottles. In essence we are talking about a cross between a briefcase and a school bag, but made by the leading gear manufacturers 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 models we reviewed tended to fit into one of two categories. They 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.
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, versatility, 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 protection to be the most important component of the products we tested, and thus rated it as 25% of each final score. No two products, 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 product 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 we found it impossible to give any single backpack greater than an 8 out of 10 score. In our opinion, there is a lot of room for improvement here.
Luckily for us, no actual computers were broken in the testing of these products! To test protection we loaded them up with a 15" MacBook Pro, as well as the much smaller and thinner 11" MacBook Air. While a few of the models have a separate place to store a tablet or iPad, we unfortunately did not have one of these to test. 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 contenders which featured an adequate suspension system (see Laptop Location below). 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.
The size of the compartment that holds the computer 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, which they did with varying amounts of success. None of them were specifically designed for an 11" machine, which caused smaller ones to move around considerably in almost every bag. The only exception was the The North Face Surge II Transit, which featured two separate, different sized compartments. 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 in the Arc'teryx Blade 24, seemed to work best. Others incorporated zippered pockets, which confined the range of motion inside the pack, but would not keep the computer stable in its position. A few 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 support and padding. This 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 products 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 it on and how you set it down. Although there were refinements we would like to see made, we believe that the Arc'teryx Blade 24 will do the best job of keeping your computer safe from abuse. On the other end of the spectrum, we determined that the Patagonia Arbor 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, but 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, random odds and ends) and had numerous people put them on, adjust them for their body type, and walk around.
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. Further apart meant less friction and biting into the neck. Just as important was how wide the strap material was to disperse the weight of the load. The Dakine Campus 33 was hands down our favorite based on comfort alone, while the Arc'teryx Blade 24 had the least comfortable shoulder straps.
Equally important as far as comfort goes is the construction of the back plate. Some of the contenders we tested had super stiff stays or plastic sheets to add rigidity and protection. While these may have done a better job protecting your laptop, which is another very critical factor in which product to choose, we found that models which incorporated soft padding in the back plate were the most comfortable, both for walking and bike riding. 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 to the comfort factor. 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 Arbor and Timbuk2 Rogue were 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 Osprey Pixel, had many functional pockets each obviously designed for a very specific purpose or item (important papers, pens, wallet, passport and money, sunglasses, iPod or other electronics), 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 pockets of different sizes and locations designed to keep everything separate and organized. Although their designs were quite different, the Timbuk2 Command and The North Face Recon (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 22 liters on the small end to 33 liters on the large end. 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.
While all of the products listed here are designed to carry laptops, we wanted to also compare how well they carried everything else you might need to have with you, specifically in different contexts or different activities. Was the bag big enough to carry water, 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? 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 North Face Recon made it the most versatile pack of the bunch. Top-loading packs like the Timbuk2 Rogue were great for carrying things like groceries, climbing gear, and clothing, but not very good for protecting documents. The Arc'teryx Blade 24 was designed specifically as a briefcase in backpack form, and while it does some things really well, it is almost useless as an actual backpack. We weighted versatility as 15% of a contenders overall score.
In our previous laptop backpack review (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. 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 – 2015. Essentially, this metric is rating how well each pack fits in with the rest of your attire. We asked women in particular to help us with this, and if you are a woman, then you will probably want to ignore this rating anyway and make the call for yourself which one you like best. The retro-hipster look of the Patagonia Arbor was the runaway favorite here, while the extremely dated looks of The North Face bags didn't win many style points. 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 winter in Colorado, it was impossible for us to find a rainstorm 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 computer 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 pack. The best ones, like The North Face Recon, had sewn flaps of water resistant material which overlapped and covered nearly all of the main zippers, while employing water resistant zippers for the small external pockets. The worst performers, like the Arc'teryx Blade 24, 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.
Ask an Expert: Cheyne Lempe
Mountain Hardwear Athlete, and Yosemite Search and Rescue member, Cheyne Lempe, is in the midst of a budding photography and videography career. He is becoming a well-seasoned traveler and climber, making his way to the Verdon, Zion, Patagonia, and all throughout Asia and Australia, constantly in search of the perfect photo. Or even better, a video clip of someone with a giant smile on their face or that sheer look of terror when they've finally figured out that they've gotten themselves into something spicy. You can typically find Cheyne traveling with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II and MacBook Pro, always ready to capture an inspiring photograph or film a unique moment in time. Because Cheyne holds his gear very near and dear to his heart, he insists on protecting it as often as possible. Here are his tips for traveling light, fast, and comfortably to any part of the world.
You've spent a lot of time traveling - what do you typically look for in a laptop backpack?
When traveling, you need something that is going to protect one of your most fragile investments. It most definitely needs to have a padded sleeve, as well as a layer of padding on the bottom of the bag (what you'd set it down on). My laptop backpack is quite comfortable and has a nice support system, as the load can become heavy - you don't want a wimpy pack. The backpack material needs to be rugged, as traveling often can produce a great deal of wear and tear. I'd rather that it didn't look like a total briefcase - that says, hey, this guy is carrying something expensive.
Do you have any backpack accessories that you can't live without or do you like to keep it simple?
I like my backpack to be simple. I only have a few requirements: a padded sleeve for my computer and a big main compartment for my charger, external hard drives, and basic camera equipment. I like a simple design and one way to access my gear - I don't want a side zip that will make someone's life easier in potentially stealing my gear.
What is considered a necessity when heading to a photo or video shoot and will it all fit in your laptop backpack?
I bring my MacBook Pro and my charger (not necessarily to the shoot) - the main compartment has to be big enough for two external hard drives, my camera, an extra lens (or two), batteries, water, and snacks. Lots of snacks.
What do you do to make sure the water and snacks don't spill?
I screw on the lid to my water bottle absurdly tight and I put the water on the bottom, so if it leaks, it just sits in the bottom of the bag. I'll put the electronics on the top and keep my bag upright - so far, so good.
Is your gear insured?
My gear is definitely insured. It makes traveling (and really, daily living) way less stressful - I can't believe that I didn't insure my gear sooner. There's no reason you shouldn't buy insurance and that's coming from me, a pretty frugal person. I currently have PPA Insurance Solutions.
Why do you need a backpack specifically for your laptop?
It makes organization much easier and a lot of times, your computer is one of the more heavier things in your backpack. It is sitting pretty close to your back and proper weight distribution is pretty ideal. You also have less of a chance of things getting broken, though that's when the insurance kicks in.
With one (1) being the most important, can you rate how important storage, comfort, security, water resistance, professional look, durability, versatility, weight are to you and explain why.
1) Versatility - the easier I'm able to access my tools, the happier that I'm going to be.
2) Comfort - walking around with a stuffed pack (for long amounts of time) can get heavy!
3) Storage - if it doesn't fit all of the things that I consider to be necessary, it isn't going to be useful.
4) Durability - I want my goods to be safe and secure; if the bag rips, what next?
5) Weight - some airlines may have restrictions. I already struggle with weight limits and I don't want my bag to contribute to that.
6) Professional look - I prefer a sleek design, with a hint of professionalism on a shoot.
7) Security - all of these components are important to me, with security also falling under durability. If I want added security, I will throw a lock on the pack - having insurance also helps ease the mind.
8) Water resistance - it isn't often that I find myself outside in the rain with my Mac, but if I happen to, I will throw the pack on first and use my jacket to cover both the pack and my body. If you're jacket-less, run inside and find a trash bag!
What advice could you give to someone who is in search of a high-quality, comfortable, reasonably-priced laptop backpack? What is the most important criteria you look for when selecting a backpack like this?
Think about what you want to be using the backpack for and what you're going to be putting into it - know what you're looking for. Find a backpack that fits those needs best - don't buy one with pockets, just because it has pockets. Make sure you set a budget and stick to it, allowing yourself a little leeway if you find something that you absolutely can't live without. Test how the backpack fits and feels on your body, with a considerable amount of weight inside. If it's uncomfortable, keep searching!
Do you use your laptop backpack on a daily basis? Does it have any other uses?
Yes - I'm never in one place and I'm always moving around, especially living out of a tent cabin in Yosemite. I like the backpack to be multi-purpose and I need it to fit other things - climbing gear, snacks, necessities that I'll need to bring to the search and rescue cache in case of a rescue, or a few beers to drag to my favorite swimming hole.
Do you have any travel stories to share?
My first time traveling outside of the country, I was heading down to Patagonia in Argentina. I didn't have the right size backpack and so they wouldn't let me take it on the bus. For five days, it sat in the bottom of the bus, while everyone's luggage got piled on top. I was so stressed about it the entire time and I was so very thankful that nothing ended up being damaged. I learned that: a) do your research before you travel, even though it might seem more adventurous to not plan anything - at least have some idea of what you want to do, and b) plan what to do to keep your gear safe when things don't go accordingly; for example, if you're in a sketchy part of town, lock your bag with a mini combo lock. If you're in the airport for long layovers or crazy time-zone changes and you need to get some rest, use your backpack as a pillow or sleep with one arm through a strap; you could also clip it to you with a carabiner.
Do you have a ritual or any tips to offer to how you stay calm when traveling? Any last pro tips?
Make sure to keep an open mind, be patient, and pack light. I never regret packing too light, but carrying around a ridiculously heavy bag filled with unnecessary objects is not necessary. Expect that things may not go according to plan and that all transportation is guaranteed to be late - just know that you'll get to where you're going in due time.
— Andy Wellman
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