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Hands-on Gear Review
The North Face Surge Review
Cons: Hefty by comparison, not for extra large items
Bottom line: Our favorite laptop backpack from The North Face, it makes shuttling through security screenings a breeze while functioning well all around.
The North Face Surge won our travel-happy testers over during the testing period. The unique butterfly opening to the laptop compartment allows you to pass through security screenings at airports without removing your laptop from its sleeve. TSA approves, and so do we. Outside of the airport, it also keeps items well-organized with an array of pockets in various sizes, several with fleece linings. It protects multiple screen devices well simultaneously and kept us comfortable on our commutes. The Surge doesn't win in the looks department, and lands in the middle of the pack regarding water resistance, but otherwise, we really liked this pack.
For more style, water resistance, and all-around performance, the Editors' Choice Flapjack from Osprey hits all the right buttons for a daily laptop backpack. And if you like the Surge but don't need its travel feature, The North Face Borealis is similar in design and feel with a much lower price tag.
RELATED REVIEW: The 10 Best Laptop Backpacks of 2017
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
The laptop compartments across the three North Face packs we reviewed are very similar. The laptop sleeves are suspended about three inches above the bottom of the bag, a 15-inch computer fits inside easy and snug and the sleeves are lined with a microfleece material to avoid scratches. The Surge has thick padding on the back panel, as well as a firm frame sheet that gives solid support to the back of this pack. The front compartment also has a padded sleeve for 11" Chromebooks, small laptops, and tablets, which we really liked for devices of that size. We were able to stuff a 12" Chromebook into the front sleeve of the Surge, but wouldn't recommend it. The very tight squeeze didn't strike us as a good thing for devices over 11 inches.
We had two main concerns with the laptop compartment of the Surge. First, while larger laptops fit snugly, there is no strap to hold smaller notebooks in place. Second, the top edge and two corners are only protected by the shell of the backpack. There's no padding to protect it if an impact occurs there. While this is less likely than an impact on the side or bottom, we desire a design that covers all parts of our expensive laptops.
Compared to the field of contenders, this backpack's laptop protection is still superior to most. Only our Editors' Choice winner, the Osprey FlapJack, edge it out with a higher score, largely due to a securing velcro strap across the top of the sleeve.
The sheet of plastic inside the back panel gives the Surge a great basis for support. We noticed that this pack feels most comfortable when filled with medium to heavy loads, similar to the Dakine Explorer. Without mcuh weight in the bag, the stiff frame feels awkward. Between your back and this stiff frame are raised panels of padding that are very comfortable, even when the pack is loaded heavy. The pads vary in three different densities and thicknesses for an ergonomic fit. The FlexVent feature is a peace-sign-shaped channel that runs down the center of the back and out to the sides, increasing air flow. It kept our backs comfy and cool.
We liked the shoulder straps too, which are padded enough to bring comfort without being too hot. There are also vents in the straps where they run over the shoulders, which again increases airflow. This pack also has adjustable hip (removable) and sternum straps. They aren't padded, and therefore only contribute to stability when moving around, especially on a bike or when running to catch public transportation (we've all been there).
If you can't keep your backpack contents organized with the Surge No judgment, but this pack has pockets for storing and keeping track of most anything you need on a daily basis. There are lots of pockets. While we never used every pocket at once, each one was designed with intention. One of our favorite features are the microfleece linings of several pockets (as well as the laptop and tablet sleeves), offering a soft material that won't scratch screens or sunglasses. Two exterior water bottle pockets make room for a water bottle and a coffee thermos, and the small pocket on the front was convenient storage for earbuds, a phone charger, or any objects you want to access fast. For almost any product you need to carry with you from work to home and more, there's a place for it in this bag.
The back compartment is primarily for a laptop. You can fit a book or charger there as well, but it's a thin space. The middle pocket is the largest, and we were surprised how much we could fit inside. Packed lunches to climbing shoes and harness to extra layers, this pocket swallows it all and opens wide to quickly find what you need. The front compartment is for smaller electronics, keys, wallets, pens, notebooks, and more. We like the mesh pocket this compartment that makes products easy to find. This pack is a step up in organization from the other two North Face packs reviewed, the Borealis and the Recon.
Being split into three compartments limits the largest size that can fit inside. This pack is not our favorite for grocery runs, as large items will quickly fill it up or not fit. A small handful of items will fit, but if your list is long, you'll run out of space. Single chamber compartment packs like the Patagonia Black Hole 25 are preferred for such errands.
Ease of Use
When it comes to commuting to and from work, stopping at the gym on your way home, or traveling, we liked this pack. Keeping your items in place and organized is a cinch with the Surge. The number one feature that sets this pack apart is the TSA-friendly laptop compartment. Unzip and it opens like a butterfly to lay completely flat. With no zippers, pockets, or any extras in the way, you can cruise through most airport security screenings without removing your laptop and placing in a separate bin. This isn't a big deal if you fly infrequently, but our testers who work and travel significantly loved this feature. One less thing to remove at security is a big bonus. On top of its excellent organizational skills, this is a large reason it wins our Top Pick for Frequent Flyers Award.
The Surge is home in an urban environment, Monday through Friday. It is more techy and larger than we prefer for day hikes. It will carry your water and extra layers and snacks on the trails, but it's just not very efficient. In such cases, we prefer this pack's cousin, the Borealis, or the Black Hole from Patagonia.
When it comes to sleek looks, the Surge is a fish out of water. Built more for practicality than appearance, it landed at the bottom of the Style metric, along with the two other packs from The North Face. To most of our testers, friends, and colleagues, these packs all resemble bookbags from school days, albeit they are teched out much nicer. The Surge is at home on campus, but lacks urban style.
The Burton Tinder is the most fashion-savvy model tested, followed by the Flapjack. It's true, though, that it's difficult to make a backpack look professional. If you need to up that side of your office game, our review of messenger bags is up your alley.
This pack falls to the middle of the competition in this category. With a water-resistant shell, your gear and devices should survive quick spells under rain clouds. The Surge falls behind the Borealis and Recon in this metric based on one feature. Unlike its cousins, there is no flap of material covering the zipper to the laptop compartment. As this compartment holds the most expensive product in your bag on average and zippers are a common source of water entry, we are left confused why The North Face didn't include such coverage on one of its three laptop backpacks we reviewed. Such a flap does cover the middle compartment.
When caught in more than just a light rain, we recommend purchasing an after-market rain cover or keeping a plastic bag in the laptop compartment to cover your computer. If you encounter rain regularly, though, the Patagonia Black Hole is the most water resistant model tested.
Users who frequent airports and security screenings will fall for this backpack for its TSA-approved laptop compartment, but that's not all. The Surge offers all-around quality during the work week, with plenty of specialized pockets for your daily items and devices. Bike commuters, though, might opt for a more water resistant model in case of rain.
This is one of the most expensive backpacks reviewed with a list price of $129. If you're looking to save time at security screenings or want a tech-happy pack, the extra cash is worth it. If you need a simple, stylish pack for the week, though, you can save $40 by opting for the similar, but less travel-friendly, Borealis from The North Face.
The North Face Surge is specialized for traveling with a laptop, but its utility does not end there. If you need to keep plenty of devices secure when on the go, this pack won't let you down. With its only drawbacks in water resistance and style, there is a lot to like with this pack. It's our Top Pick Award winner for travel, but we bet you'll love it around town, too.
— Ross Robinson
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