The Best Laptop Backpack Review

We tested eight of the best backpack style laptop bags in a eight-week long competition to determine their ranking in the following categories; durability, security, aesthetics, comfort, storage, water resistance and versatility. We had eight reviewers use each pack for a week in order to determine our award winners. They choose the best all-purpose pack and best high capacity pack. For those of you who prefer a bike messenger-style bag, please check out our related Messenger Bag Review.

Read the full review below >

Review by: and Max Neale

Top Ranked Laptop Backpacks Displaying 1 - 5 of 6 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
Timbuk2 Swig
Timbuk2 Swig
Read the Review
Video video review
Cilo Gear City Pack
Cilo Gear City Pack
Read the Review
Video video review
Timbuk2 Light Bright Swig
Timbuk2 Light Bright Swig
Read the Review
Video video review
Arc'teryx Blade 24
Arc'teryx Blade 24
Read the Review
Chrome Soyuz
Chrome Soyuz
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Top Pick Award    Top Pick Award   
Street Price Varies $25 - $64
Compare at 2 sellers
$175$120Varies $161 - $179
Compare at 7 sellers
Varies $160 - $330
Compare at 3 sellers
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Editors' Rating
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User Rating Be the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate itBe the first to rate it
Pros Simple design, well placed pockets, side access laptop compartment, great laptop sleeve, dozens of color options, u-lock sleeve, fits men and women.Simple and effective storage, storable shoulder straps, easily accessible external pockets, waterproof materials, large reflective strips, six removable and adjustable external attachment straps, lightweight.Simple design, well placed pockets, side access laptop compartment, durable materials, great laptop sleeve, u-lock sleeve, fits men and women.Sleek professional look, great document and laptop storage, exceptionally good external pockets and handles.Fully waterproof, extremely durable, easy access front pockets.
Cons Can be small for some people, no reflective material, u-lock only side pocket, customization is expensive.Some say it's too large for their needs, not sexy.Can be small for some people, back panel can be sweaty or slippery, u-lock only side pocket.Difficult to get large objects in and out of compartments, not waterproof.Heavy, sternum strap is poorly positioned for women, main compartment has small opening and is hard to organize, poor velcro closures on front pockets, no external side pocket, only one zippered pocket, poor fit for shorter people.
Best Uses The best all-purpose laptop bag.Bike commuting, people who carry lots of things.All-purpose wet weather bag.Active business commuterWe don't recommed this bag.
Date Reviewed Aug 23, 2011Aug 24, 2011Oct 14, 2011Aug 25, 2011Oct 10, 2011
Comfort - 15%
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Storage - 15%
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Versatility - 15%
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Laptop Protection - 15%
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Professional Look - 15%
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Water Resistance - 15%
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Durability - 10%
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Product Specs Timbuk2 Swig Cilo Gear City Pack Timbuk2 Light Bright Swig Arc'teryx Blade 24 Chrome Soyuz
Volume (L) 21 30 21 24 26
Dimensions (in.) 17.7 x 12.2 x 5.5 21 x 10 x 9 17.7 x 12.2 x 5.5 20 x 12 x 5 22 x 14 x 8
Weight (lb.) 1.9 2 2 2.9 3.1
Number of Compartments 2 1 2 2 2
Number of Large Pockets 0 2 0 1 4
Number of Small Pockets 1 1 1 3 3
Number of Zipper Pockets 2 3 2 4 1
Key Clip? Yes Yes
Reflective Material? Yes Yes
External Side Pocket U-lock only Yes U-lock only
Fits Laptop 15 in. 17 in. 15 in. 15 in. 17 in.
Available Colors 5 Black 2 Black, Brown Black
Available Sizes 1 2 1 1 1
Hip belt Removable
Sternum Strap Yes Yes
Waterproof Yes Yes Yes

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


  • Review Photos
  • Editors' Choice Winners
  • All Reviewed Products
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Timbuk2 Swig
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Arc'teryx Blade 24
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Arc'teryx Blade 30
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North Face Surge
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Chrome Soyuz
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Timbuk2 Option
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Product Selection
We tested eight packs that represent the cream of the crop of the laptop backpack market. From large companies like North Face and Timbuk2 to much smaller outfits like Cilo Gear our mission was to provide a line up of products from various manufacturers. Here we hope to determine the best product for your everyday needs. One that accompanies you on whatever adventure you decide to embark upon. The challenge, as a reviewer, is that every person has a different lifestyle and therefore has different requirements for what they expect it should be able to endure. We addressed this problem by getting eight testers with completely different preferences, occupations and lifestyles, to test each laptop backpack for a week.

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Laptop backpacks at Lake Tahoe, California.
Credit: Max Neale

Backpack vs. Messenger
We found it challenging to choose between a backpack and messenger bag. Mostly, our testers found backpacks to be better for everything except for having near instant access to the packs contents. Check out our Messenger Bag Review for more details.

Criteria for Evaluation
We assessed each laptop backpack based on its durability, its professional style, storage, versatility, comfort, security and water resistance. All variables count equally. We also scored each contender based on how well it performed at various activities such as bicycling, walking, and hiking, and also in various environments like offices, airports, subways and costal day excursions.

Storage
Here we assessed each pack and its ability to serve as a vessel for our everyday necessities. We scored each bag on how much it could hold and how well. Was it possible to fit everything we thought were necessities and still remain organized? Would we still be able to get to the things we deemed most important easily, quickly and without frustration? We assessed how intrusive the amount of noise it made while accessing items just in case we might be somewhere where too much noise might be distracting to others? We also wanted to know if we could transport important documents without wrinkling them? Our highest rated backpack in this category was the Timbuk2 Swig, which represents the best blend of easy access, secure pockets, and logical compartments.

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The Timbuk2 Swig held these groceries with ease.
Credit: Max Neale
Comfort
Here we looked at how comfortable the pack was loaded with different amounts of weight and while performing different activities. We looked at shoulder straps, the inclusion or omission of rigid stays and sternum straps and back padding. We thought the North Face Surge was the most comfortable. It fits a variety of body types well and has very well padded shoulder straps. We also found that what is comfortable when walking is not necessarily comfortable when cycling. Our testers preferred semi-rigid support for walking and flexible padding for cycling. Our two top rated bags have flexible padding that remains comfortable regardless of the activity. The Arc'teryx Blade 24 and 30. with their semi-rigid removable stays, are the most comfortable for walking.

Security
Here we assessed how well the backpack protected our laptops from accidental drops and dirty floors which on occasion were wet. The winners in this category were the Arc'teryx Blade 24 and 30, both of which have a rigid hanging compartment that protects a computer on all sides. The bag with the worst protection is the Cilo Gear City Pack, which has a rudimentary foam insert.

Water Resistance
The Chrome Soyuz was the clear winner here. The least waterproof backpack was the North Face Surge. But, do you need a bag that's completely waterproof? Most people don't. But we think it's a very useful feature to have in case you get caught in an unexpected downpour.

Professional Look
This variable attempts to quantify how well each bag performed in a professional office environment. Could the bag enter a prestigious law firm unnoticed? (Answer: none could.) Each pack tested here was far from a traditional leather briefcase, but we ranked them based on how well they would perform in an environment where professional appearance mattered. Some companies, such as Timbuk2 and Rickshaw offer custom designs with your choice of over thirty colors and a variety of fabric types. While this allows you to express your individuality it doesn't necessarily make a bag look more professional. Our testers agreed that the most professional looking backpack was the Arc'teryx Blade 24.

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The Timbuk2 Swig performs well whether it's in downtown SF or in an alpine meadow.
Credit: Max Neale
Durability
We ranked each pack based on its ability to endure years of abuse. We looked at materials, buckles, straps, zippers, and velcro quality. After two months of constant use we found the Chrome Soyuz to be the most durable. None of the packs were exceptionally fragile.

Versatility
Here we assessed how well each pack adapted to different environments and activities. Could it go the office, gym, and grocery store all in one day? Was it comfortable for cycling and walking? Could the pack successfully store fragile documents and bulky, sharp objects at the same time? The Cilo Gear City Pack sprinted to the finish in this category. Its large capacity combined with adjustable attachment straps make this bag a sure winner for any and all activities.

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The Cilo Gear City Pack's removable side straps come in three different styles and contribute to the bag's versatility. Also note the large reflective strip, generous mesh side pocket, and accessory pockets under the cover.
Credit: Max Neale
Weight
Although weight isn't factored into our numerical ranking, it's an attribute worth discussing. A lighter bag is easier on your body and makes walking and cycling more enjoyable. Therefore, weight is something to consider when buying a bag that will hang from your body nearly everyday for the next ten or more years. Lighter bags are better!! Our two top rated backpacks, the Timbuk2 Swig and Cilo Gear City Pack weigh over a pound less than other bags with similar capacity E.G., the Chrome Soyuz. (This is due to their superior, more efficient design, and the fact that lighter bags are more comfortable.)

Editors' Choice Award: Timbuk2 Swig
Of the eight models tester here the clear Timbuk2 Swig is the winner, and recipient of our Editors' Choice Award. The Swig provides a durable, weatherproof, comfortable backpack with effective storage for small items, a versatile capacity, good looks, and an excellent built-in laptop sleeve. It's the ultimate conqueror of school, work, and play, and only costs $90.

Top Pick Award for Large Capacity: Cilo Gear City Pack
Taller people, those with broader shoulders, or those who demand a greater capacity should get the Cilo Gear City Pack ($175). With a 30 Liter capacity, customizable and removable attachment straps, and high quality materials the City Pack is the most versatile pack we've reviewed. Both of these bags are exceptionally comfortable and more versatile than messenger bags. You can't go wrong with either.

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.

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Cheyne in Chiang Mai, Thailand, carrying around his valuables in an ultra comfortable laptop backpack.
Credit: Jessica Pemble

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 laptop 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 laptop sleeve 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 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 laptop 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, rate: storage, comfort, security, water resistance, professional look, durability, versatility, weight 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 laptop, 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 laptop backpack?
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. 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 have any tips for people on a budget?
Search the best deals for eBay, Amazon, and of course, Outdoor Gear Lab. Shop around and check out garage sales and used gear shops.

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 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 well, 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.

Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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by Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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