Searching for your next and best laptop backpack? After researching over one hundred different models, we settled on testing 12 of the top options out there. We took them on the daily commute, stuffed them with electronics, and shredded the local mountain bike trails with each backpack in tow. Our experts evaluated key features, put them in the shower, and determined their specific niches. To appropriately examine fit, we gave these unisex backpacks to both men and women of all shapes and sizes. We also noted the number of "ooh's" and "ahh's" received and comments on individual style. In the end, we evaluated each laptop backpack on six key metrics, selecting award winners and notable mentions to help you find the perfect backpack for your laptop and lifestyle.
The Best Laptop Backpacks of 2018
In this update, we look at three different laptop backpacks that stand out for their reputable and versatile performance. A new award winner takes the podium! The Incase Icon is a versatile option earning our Editors' Choice award. The Booq Cobra Squeeze, a compact yet functional option for the city minimalist. If you prefer a more voluminous and versatile backpack, the Thule Paramount features a roll-top opening with a versatile storage compartment and expandable capacity, great for bike-commuting to work. These options and more are found below in our latest update!
If you seek organization and a high capacity to store all your gadgets in one place, this is our favorite option! It is perfect for loading up a laptop or a couple of tablets, your lunch, and an extra layer. While the volume advertises to hold only 17-L, it provides better storage capacity than expected, with the option to pack away all your electronics among the numerous pockets and three larger compartments.
While we love the urban style and functionality of this laptop backpack, it's a little pricey and not waterproof. That said, if you are in search of a model that specializes in helping you organize your electronics with a separate access point for both the laptop and tablet, this Editors' Choice may be the perfect option for you.
Read review: Incase Icon
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Borealis
This bag features the best value in this review! Retailing for just $89, it has many great features and fantastic performance. We love it for its simple design and the ability to protect our laptop while keeping an outdoorsy feel. It is burly and durable. It also has a simple and sleek design, while still including necessary organizational features, such as an external water bottle pocket and organizational pockets on the inside and out.
Large, versatile, with tons of features and pockets for organization of all of your various accessories, it is a fantastic pack for work, school or running errands. It's one of the highest-performing in every metric that we measured, as it can carry what you need wherever you would like to go; it will do a good job of protecting your laptop as you jaunt about your busy tasks in life.
Read review: The North Face Borealis
Top Pick for Bike Commuting
Thule Paramount 24L
Loaded with ample features that make this one of the most versatile packs, it's perfect for bike commuting! Built by Thule, the Paramount features water-resistant fabrics that protect during or after a rainstorm. The ultra-protective laptop compartment features side-access that makes it a great option for airport travel as well as around town. Also, the expandable volume, made possible by the top-loading zippered roll-top design, will accommodate all gadgets and gear for the day.
While we love the versatility of this pack, the torso is long, and not the most adjustable, even for our tallest testers. The price tag is also high. That said, with its protection and additional features that can easily attach a bike light or helmet, this is the best option for riding bikes around town or to and from work. Take it with while you travel internationally or while riding your bike around town.
Read review: Thule Paramount
Top Pick for Frequent Flyers
The North Face Surge
Folks who air travel with a laptop will appreciate The North Face Surge the most. It performs ahead of the pack in most categories, like laptop protection and organization, but truly shines in its ease of use, specifically at airports.
The TSA-approved laptop compartment completely unzips to lay flat on the conveyor belt to be screened at security without taking the laptop out of the backpack. When traveling, deleting a step as you rush through the airport is a bonus. It's one of the more expensive models reviewed, but for a great pack that makes airports a little less stressful, we dig it.
Read review: The North Face Surge
Top Pick for Style
Designed to look like a bare-bones, old-school 80's rucksack, the Tinder is urban and hip with a cool style that fits both the city and the country. We received many compliments on the street and like this pack for its simple yet handsome design. This is a Top Pick for its unique style.
The Tinder looks great mostly because of all the stuff that it doesn't have. While it underperforms in organizational ability and laptop protection, its single top-loading compartment with double drawstring closure will do one thing for you very well: hold lots of stuff. If that's all you need — and want to look good doing it, then give it a try.
Read review: Burton Tinder
Notable Mention for Compact Storage
Booq Cobra Squeeze
Seeking a compact laptop backpack that offers an urban style and fantastic functionality? This notable mention is a superb option. The Booq Cobra Squeeze is constructed with organic materials, featuring clean lines and a canvas overlay that gives a vintage yet futuristic look. It has one large compartment with organizer pockets for versatile yet functional use.
While we love the compact and sleek design, this backpack is not waterproof (as Booq claims), and the side pockets are hard to use when completely loaded down. Despite these caveats, it's a great option, perfect for the minimalist city slicker looking for an urban look.
Read review: Booq Cobra Squeeze
Analysis and Test Results
After testing a series of laptop backpacks, we honed in on the most important considerations. A great model is exemplified by a balance of comfort, functionality, and style. It must also protect your laptop, whether you accidentally throw it down on the kitchen floor, or gently place it on your desk. While all products in this review suffice as a bag to hold your laptop, there are several different options with unique features. When perusing this review, keep in mind what you are looking for in a laptop backpack to find the best option for you.
To help you narrow down your options, we selected award winners and top picks to help guide your process. We also laid out six key metrics to evaluate and compare each bag. These include; laptop protection, comfort, organization and storage, ease of use, style, and water resistance. Within each metric, we considered several factors. To better help you understand what we tested for, how we tested, and which backpacks fared best and worst, we break down and describe each category below.
When considering a laptop backpack, the price is a significant factor for most of us. You will find backpacks that range from $50 to hundreds of dollars. Some contain outlandish fancy features, while others stand out as super simple and versatile. While fancy features are attractive, it's important to consider if you're going to need them or not. You don't want to throw your money away on things you don't need. If you seek a simple laptop backpack that will carry your computer in addition to a lunch and a few other items, choose a lower priced contender. However, if you are in search of a specific feature, say a TSA-approved option or a backpack that is very water-resistant, paying a little extra may be necessary. That said, consider options that fit your criteria, and don't be attracted to the most expensive option. While more expensive options are typically more durable and functional, it doesn't always mean that it's the best option for you.
The main job of any laptop backpack is protection. What good is a bag that can't protect a laptop? Considering this fact, we made this the most important metric (25% of the total score) to consider when comparatively rating each backpack. When considering this metric, we looked at the padding. Specifically, the amount and its placement (sides versus bottom). We looked at the laptop compartment size, the securing system that keeps it in place, and laptop location. While most backpacks do a decent job of protecting a laptop, no system tested was perfect. In fact, we are surprised that companies don't emphasize this metric deeply in the engineering and design. Below, we dissect all these important considerations, providing an overview of which laptop backpacks provide the best in protection.
Laptops are fragile and expensive machines and need protection from knocks and blows that could potentially cause damage. The laptop compartment architecture is critical in achieving knock-out protection. Padding in the form of foam pads or sheaths are common, yet the most protective system utilizes a well-padded suspension system or a separate, well-padded compartment.
A well-padded suspension system floats the laptop over the bottom of the back to avoid forceful blows. Of the bags tested, the Thule Paramount offers the best laptop protection because it uses a well-padded suspension system that protects just as much around the edges (near zippers) as well as at the back of the pack. The Incase Icon also provides ample protection but utilizes a heavily padded foam compartment that sits right on the back of the user instead. Consider options with ample padding, separate compartments, and suspension systems to determine which is best for you.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. Virtually every bag we tested is designed to fit a 15" laptop, except for the Incase City, which holds up to a 17" Macbook. Most of the main laptop sleeves are not specifically designed for an 11" machine, which causes smaller ones to move around considerably in almost every bag. The only option that best fits a smaller laptop is the Booq Cobra Squeeze with its tight and protective laptop compartment. That said, virtually every laptop backpack is designed with a sleeve or slot to accommodate an iPad or tablet. While many of these compartment sizes may seem too large for a small laptop, you can easily fill your backpack with a lunch or other items to prevent the laptop from shifting around. Consider the size of your laptop to help you determine which is the best for you.
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 Thule Paramount work best. Others incorporated an open top design, which confines the range of motion inside the backpack, but did not keep the computer stable in its position. Some of the bags have 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. That said, make sure you look for a backpack with a good securing system for optimal protection.
The final critical feature is the location of the laptop storage compartment 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 like. 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 a designated compartment that is suspended above the bottom of the bag, so that when the bag is on the ground, there is no impact on 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 feature suspended compartments lack 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 are located much too close to the edges or zippers of the bags, where there is no padding, making the computer vulnerable to an impact from the side or top.
In the end, none of these backpacks do a perfect job of protecting a laptop. Regardless of which bag you use, the best protection is diligent awareness of how you move with your pack on and how you set it down. Although there are refinements we would like to see, we deem the Thule Paramount to be the most protective.
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 (20% of the overall score) we wanted to make sure that we mimicked real-life conditions. We loaded these bags up with our around town necessities and carried them everywhere we went. We also wore them almost empty to see how each felt without a laptop or much else. Testers and friends of different shapes, sizes, and genders donned each model to determine how they fit and how comfortable each is for everyday wear.
The two most critical features in regards to comfort are the design of the shoulder straps and the design of the backplate. 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 and the width of the straps.
When the straps are further apart, they don't generate as much friction, and they don't bite into the neck or armpit. Just as important is how wide the strap material is to disperse the weight of the load. We also found that packs with a sternum strap (versus those without) do a better job at distributing the force of a load. The North Face Surge is hands down our favorite based on comfort alone, while the Incase Cityand Booq Cobra Squeeze have the least comfortable shoulder straps and lack a sternum strap for added stability.
Equally important, as far as comfort goes, is the construction of the backplate. Some of the backpacks we tested have super stiff trays or plastic sheets to add rigidity and protection to the laptop. While these may do a better job of protecting your laptop (a key factor), they are not as comfortable. Packs which incorporated soft padding in the back plate were the most comfortable in our tests, both for walking and bike riding, like the Incase Icon, our Editors' Choice Award winner.
Organization & Storage
What use is a backpack if it can't store everything that you need to carry? We determined that two factors are most important when comparing storage: 1) How much can it hold? 2) How well does it stay organized? While there is certainly a fine balance between a backpack's volume and organization capacity, backpacks come in all shapes and sizes. Each is designed to carry specific items like important papers, pens, wallet, passport, sunglasses, iPad or other electronics (and even an attachment for a skateboard). While some are a little too small to fit everything we could imagine carrying (like food, water, or a jacket), others allow you to take it all with you. Those that did best in this metric offered a perfect combination of high volume and organizational capabilities. The Incase Icon exemplifies all that is awesome in organization and storage, earning it our Editors' Choice Award. Since storage is important, we gave this 15% of the total score.
A few of the bags we tested, like the Thule Paramount and the Patagonia Black Hole are a top-loading style, similar to a classic rucksack, and while they carry enough for us to be happy, they include few features to help us stay organized. These are great options as the top-loading style adds versatility for what you put in your backpack. The Thule model offers the opportunity to expand the volume with its roll-top design that the Black Hole does not have. The Thule Paramount also has a well-organized front pocket for keeping smaller items in their place, instead of falling to the bottom of the main compartment.
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. The bags range from 17 liters (Incase Icon) on the small end to 33 liters (the Surge) on the large end. That said, the volume of the bag doesn't dictate how much it can or cannot carry. For example; while the Icon is said to fit only 17 liters, it can pack in more items than the Booq Squeeze Cobra (20 Liters) because of its square versus rounded shape. In this case - volume isn't everything. Be sure to consider the shape of the pack.
Another important consideration is the number of compartments and types of pockets. Some folks prefer a backpack with an open compartment and fewer pockets while others prefer many pockets for optimal storage (like the Incase Icon). In the specs table, we break 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 (textbook or bigger sized) storage spaces the pack has. Use this to help you find the best storage options for your needs.
Ease of Use
While all of the backpacks listed here are designed to carry laptops, we also wanted to compare how well they hold everything else and how well they handle everyday use of other items besides laptops. We specifically addressed different contexts and activities and measured how easy it was to perform these tasks. Is the bag big enough to carry water? 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? Most importantly, we look to see which can allow you to access your laptop the easiest when the pack is fully loaded. We gave this metric 15% of the total score for each product.
Many contenders did well in this metric, as manufacturers seem to put a lot of thought into the architecture of the pack. Perhaps the simplest and easiest pack to use are backpacks with large openings and less pockets like the Thule Paramount. It's open voluminous compartment in addition to its well-throughout storage makes it a fantastic option for commuting to the office. Computer access is simple, even when loaded down as you can use the side-access zippers to get at your electronics.
Another feature that we really like is the separate compartments for both a laptop and tablet. The Incase Icon earns a high score because it features a separate zippered compartment for both a 15-inch laptop and a tablet. This is convenient when your backpack is loaded with other stuff, and you need to get at your electronics…another reason why it earns an award.
If you seek a pack that is versatile enough to take from work to the trails, our Best Buy Winner, The North Face Borealis, makes the transition very well. It has many features, including the option to use the laptop sleeve as a hydration bladder. If heading to the airport, you'll be most pleased with the North Face Surge, which is the only pack reviewed that allows you to pass through the security checkpoint without removing the laptop from the bag.
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 tested these bags for water resistance. We put each backpack under a shower for five minutes to see if any water leakage occurred. We also dunked the backpacks in a tub to see if the bottoms would hold up, similar to being put down in a puddle. Not only did we use these objective tests, but we also ran out in the rain to see how the materials would hold up. We gave this metric 15% of the final score.
The results of the test were predictably all over the board. We noticed that two things in particular made for an exceptionally 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 require reapplication if the original amount of water resistance is to be maintained. Zippers, though, were the main point of water entry into a backpack.
The top scorers, like the Patagonia Black Hole and the Thule Paramount both employ water-resistant zippers and water-resistant fabrics. The Black Hole, however, utilizes a face fabric that is thicker, more durable, and more water resistant than the Paramount. That said, the rubberized bottom of the Thule made for a thoughtful water-resistant feature when a bike sprays out a rooster tail on a puddle-packed day.
The importance of water-resistance in your consideration of a laptop backpack is specific to the climate surrounding you. Do you ride a bike or walk to work in the rain? If so, a water-resistant pack is important, but if not, don't worry too much about this metric.
"Style" is a subjective term. We rated each bag according to how well it meshes with the look of today. Essentially, this metric rates 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. Style makes up 10% of the final score.
The retro-hipster look of the Burton Tinder is the runaway favorite here, offering a great look for those in the city as well as those in the country. Right behind the Tinder is the handsome Patagonia Arbor, which boasts a very similar style but with different colors and patterns.
If you prefer an urban look best for the city, consider other options like the sleek and simple, Booq Cobra Squeeze or the boxy gizmo-savvy Incase Icon.
Shopping for a laptop backpack is a fun adventure! It's a great piece of gear that will protect your beloved laptop while you tool around town. While on the hunt, make sure to consider what factors are the most important for you. We hope that our recommendations and advice proves to be helpful for you in your search for the perfect laptop backpack.
— Katherine Elliott and Amber King