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How to Choose a Laptop Backpack

More options than colors in a crayon pack. We can help you find the right one for your needs.
Thursday March 5, 2020
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So you're in the market for a new laptop backpack. There is no shortage of options available online, and it's pretty challenging to choose what you need. The first step in this process is identifying your personal preferences and determining what you need out of your backpack. In this article, we outline a few key considerations to help you get there.

Laptop Backpacks vs. Messenger Bags


Perhaps the first question that should arise is whether you would be better off purchasing and owning a laptop backpack or a messenger bag. We recommend laptop backpacks over messenger bags for most users, except bike messengers/commuters or postal carriers who need instant access to the contents of their bags. Generally speaking, backpacks carry more comfortably and have a larger carrying capacity, making them more practical in most situations. That said, some people who commute by bike might prefer messenger bags. Messenger bags also have the advantage of being easily moved out of the way, which is convenient in busy areas like public transportation.

Related: The Best Messenger Bags of 2020

We stop to take a break and check some e-mails while cruising around town. While working remotely a great laptop backpack is of utmost importance.
We stop to take a break and check some e-mails while cruising around town. While working remotely a great laptop backpack is of utmost importance.

Different Sized Laptops


Before you buy a backpack, you should know the size of your laptop. If you are like most people, you probably have a 13 or 15-inch screen. However, newer technology is producing considerably smaller models, which are also very popular, like the Apple MacBook Air or a variety of smaller Google Chromebooks. Likewise, some people have a monster 17-inch screen.

What size if your laptop? We tested with a 15-inch MacBook Pro and a 13-inch MacBook Air. We also used a Samsung Galaxy tablet. It's important to think about the size before investing in a backpack.
What size if your laptop? We tested with a 15-inch MacBook Pro and a 13-inch MacBook Air. We also used a Samsung Galaxy tablet. It's important to think about the size before investing in a backpack.

If you are unsure of the size of your laptop, you can measure it yourself with a tape measure or ruler. To do so, measure the visible screen size diagonally from corner to corner. It's worth noting that the manufacturers of these backpacks include the caveat that their pack will fit most laptops up to a specific size. This disclaimer is because despite having the same size screen, the actual physical size of the whole machine varies between manufacturers.

Eddie's 13-inch MacBook Air fits easily inside of the Tzowla Travel Pack  one of our Best Buy award winners.
Eddie's 13-inch MacBook Air fits easily inside of the Tzowla Travel Pack, one of our Best Buy award winners.

Most packs out there are designed to carry a 15-inch computer. Some can take larger laptops that are 17-inches. Interestingly, and perhaps disappointingly, every bag that will hold a 15-inch computer will of course also carry smaller laptops, like 13" or 11", but in our testing, very few of the bags did so securely, which is a concern. Some were too big, or the security strap wasn't tight enough, leaving smaller laptops and tablets to swim around inside the sleeve. Look for backpacks with large enclosures or even full padding that wraps all the way around for ample security. A relatively tight sleeve will also help hold your laptop in place, regardless of size, but it could be difficult if your computer is thicker than most modern models.

Protection


Keeping your laptop protected is of the utmost importance when traveling from one place to another. While some backpacks have great built-in protection, others are seriously lacking. When looking at options online, be sure to look for those with separate laptop compartments or sleeves that are suspended above the ground. Also, consider the weather, especially if you're in wet climates.

We love the ultra-protective sleeve of the Thule Pack n' Pedal because it's removable and protected from all sides.
We love the ultra-protective sleeve of the Thule Pack n' Pedal because it's removable and protected from all sides.

Weather


You never know when you'll be in a rainstorm, and your electronics shouldn't suffer because of it. When considering this, make sure to think about where you live and where you will be using your laptop backpack. Are you going to head around the world where the weather will vary wildly? Or are you going to tote it on the coast where heavy rainfall is an inherent hazard? Either way, it's important to identify where you live and use your backpack to ensure that your laptop will stay protected from the elements.

The Black Hole series by Patagonia never disappoints. Although not an award winner  this is a highly functional water resistant backpack that can also carry a laptop.
The Black Hole series by Patagonia never disappoints. Although not an award winner, this is a highly functional water resistant backpack that can also carry a laptop.

If you live in an area that has lots of rain, a water-resistant pack is essential. That said, buyers beware of manufacturer claims. For example, we've seen backpacks described as being waterproof when this claim is far from true. None of the bags we tested are fully waterproof, but some resistant penetration of water longer and better than others. If you are seeking a water-resistant option, be sure to look for thick fabrics that inspire water-wicking. Those with a DWR finish do better than those without one. Bags that come with a rainfly offer another layer of protection.

A look at the built-in and stowable rain fly that will keep your computer protected and dry in heavy downpours. This adds to its already awesome level of protection.
A look at the built-in and stowable rain fly that will keep your computer protected and dry in heavy downpours. This adds to its already awesome level of protection.

Additionally, make sure the zippers are covered or rubberized. Water typically comes in at the zipper or near seams where fabric changes (i.e., rubberized textile to canvas materials). So seek tight stitching and housing for those zippers to prevent water leakage. Aside from these features, it may be smart to carry a small rainfly that packs down quite small if you live in an area with tons of precipitation.

The Mystery Ranch offers waterproof zippers and a super water-resistant fabric that beads water. It's a good option to consider if you're looking for a pack that will do well in the rain.
The Mystery Ranch offers waterproof zippers and a super water-resistant fabric that beads water. It's a good option to consider if you're looking for a pack that will do well in the rain.

Zippers or Top-Loaders?


Some of the bags we tested have a top-loading design, meaning that they feature a large storage compartment that is only accessible from a wide, and in some cases, a cinch opening at the top. These large openings are covered by a flap that secures over the opening with plastic buckles or Velcro. Those who like the idea of a large compartment for storing pretty much anything will appreciate this design. We also found that in general, if secured very tightly, this style of a pack was more water-resistant than the others because there were no zippers that served as leak points for water. If you seek a backpack that offers ample and versatile storage, a top-loading backpack may be a great option for you!

There were two types of designs in our testing lineup  a top loader like the one pictured above  or a more standard design of a multi-compartment style backpack.
There were two types of designs in our testing lineup, a top loader like the one pictured above, or a more standard design of a multi-compartment style backpack.

The alternative to a top-loader is a pack that uses zippers to seal its compartments. These options tend to have many compartments, instead of just one large one, to help keep items separate and organized. In general, the zippered openings are bigger and accessible from the sides and top, as opposed to solely on the top. The downside to these bags is that we found that zippers typically provide leak points in heavy rain. Also, there are more easily accessible openings for a person to potentially steal your things if you are on the subway or in other crowded city areas.

Some backpacks have zipper access  which allows you to get to all your items. This offers great protection but isn't as easy to get to as flip-top options.
Some backpacks have zipper access, which allows you to get to all your items. This offers great protection but isn't as easy to get to as flip-top options.

Overall, consider what type of access and storage you require before purchasing a backpack. If you like versatility and ample (and generalized) storage, choose a bag with fewer pockets and compartments. But, if you need a pack that is highly organized, consider one with more compartments and pockets.

Travel or Work?


Some people are looking for a laptop backpack specifically to travel, rather than simply commuting to and from work or school. If you are looking for a travel bag, then considerations that should be high on your list are easy to access to the computer for going through airport security, protection, and packability. Also, consider what you want to carry in your backpack to determine what type of bag you need.

Here we take our award winner laptop backpack for a ride on our travel luggage while visiting an Air Bn'B in Ontario  Canada.
Here we take our award winner laptop backpack for a ride on our travel luggage while visiting an Air Bn'B in Ontario, Canada.

Some different strategies a bag can employ for easy access to the laptop is side-access that allows you to quickly get at your computer without digging through the contents of your backpack. While we didn't test any of these backpacks, those that are "TSA" approved are starting to see more restrictions and shouldn't be relied on for all airports.

Related: The Best Travel Backpacks of 2020

Style


It's hard to purchase an everyday accessory without considering style. It's very likely that style will be one of the most important things to consider when purchasing your new backpack. For example; do you want a backpack that looks techy? Do you like a vintage look? Or do you prefer an incognito backpack that doesn't stand out? When considering this super personal topic, look around to see what you prefer. You want a bag that you can flaunt and feel good about toting. Take any recommendations with a grain of salt — what you think is hip and stylish may be different, and that's wonderful.

What style do you require? Some prefer a low-key sleek and professional backpack  while others love loud colors and flashy designs. Whatever you like  be sure to consider how you want to present yourself.
What style do you require? Some prefer a low-key sleek and professional backpack, while others love loud colors and flashy designs. Whatever you like, be sure to consider how you want to present yourself.

You can find backpacks in all sorts of colors. If you want a pack that matches the different outfits you wear throughout the week, muted greys and blacks tend to work well. In contrast, a bright yellow backpack might look awesome with one of your outfits, but not necessarily all — do your thing.

Bike Commuting


Are you going to be riding a bike to work? While most packs suffice to offer the basic functionality you need for this, there are some features to consider. First, rooster tail sprays will have your backpack wet on the bottom, and it's important that it offers a little water resistance when the weather isn't great.

Reflective bands on the back are important for dawn, dusk, and night riding when you need to be seen on the road. Look for options with stowable rain flys, for all-weather resistance, and a place to attach your helmet. It's also important to look through reviews to make sure the back is comfortable, distributing weight evenly while you lean over and ride.

We love features like bungee cords and water bottle holders for commutes to work. The North Face Borealis does a great job as a bike commuter with many other applicable functionality.
We love features like bungee cords and water bottle holders for commutes to work. The North Face Borealis does a great job as a bike commuter with many other applicable functionality.

Conclusion


As a consumer, it's important to determine what is important for you in your laptop backpack. Rather than simply purchasing one from your favorite company, instead, ask yourself the above questions to determine what characteristics of your backpack are the most important. Once you have determined your needs, it is easier to check out individual product reviews and narrow your search for the perfect laptop backpack for you.

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