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How to Choose a Laptop Backpack

Friday August 30, 2019
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How do you decide what laptop backpack is the best one for you to purchase? In this buying advice article, we help you narrow down the choices by describing some of the critical differences between the various bag choices and identifying some questions you will want to ask yourself when buying a laptop backpack. The one you select will largely depend on your lifestyle and daily habits. You'll want to consider things like what you need to carry regularly, what kind of daily commute you have, and how much weight do you need to carry. Other considerations might be style preferences, security, and weather. Once you've made these major considerations, you'll know how to truly embark on the mission of finding the best laptop backpack for your needs.

What is the best laptop backpack for you?
What is the best laptop backpack for you?

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 almost all users, except bike messengers/commuters or postal carriers who need instant access to the contents of their bags. Generally speaking, backpacks are more comfortable and have a larger carrying capacity, making them more practical in most situations. That said, some people who commute pretty much entirely by bike prefer messenger bags. Check out our Messenger Bag Review if you are interested in messenger bags.

A Laptop Bag or a Backpack?


As we conducted our review, it became obvious to us that there were two types of bags that we were testing. The first was backpacks that are specifically designed to carry laptops, with storage and other considerations secondary to that purpose. Some of the other backpacks seemed to us much more like a normal old school bag that we could use anywhere for nearly any purpose, and which happened to have a dedicated sleeve somewhere inside that accommodated a laptop.

Eddie chooses to use a laptop backpack on his daily commute to a local co-working space. He works as a software engineer which depends on the use of his laptop stored safely inside this pack.
Eddie chooses to use a laptop backpack on his daily commute to a local co-working space. He works as a software engineer which depends on the use of his laptop stored safely inside this pack.

Other backpacks are less dedicated to laptop protection, with the sleeve being utilized as a hydration bladder sleeve as well. Other bags fit somewhere in between. They might have many storage compartments and a place for both a tablet and a laptop. These backpacks feature lots of room in the compartments to store an eclectic mix of "stuff," though it is a little less stylish and certainly looks more like a school bag or even a day hiker.

How does this knowledge help you? Well, this is where you ask yourself what the backpack's primary function will be. If it is going to be used to carry your laptop to and from work every day of the week for years to come. On the other hand, if you need an all-purpose pack where you will only sometimes carry your laptop, you will probably be better served by a more versatile option.

Different Sizes of Laptops


What size is your laptop? If you are like most people, you probably have a 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. We used an Asus 11-inch Chromebook in our testing process along with an iPad mini and a 15-inch Macbook. Likewise, some people have a monster 17-inch screen. If you are unsure of the size laptop you own, you can measure it yourself with a tape measure or ruler. To do so, measure the visible screen size diagonally from corner to corner. This measurement will tell you the size of your laptop. It's worth noting that the manufacturers of these backpacks include the caveat that their pack will fit most laptops of a certain size. This disclaimer is because despite having the same size screen, the actual physical size of the whole machine varies between manufacturers.

The protective laptop compartment is separate from the rest  offering easy access. It's narrow enough that even our 11-inch MacBook Air didn't move around while throwing around the pack.
The protective laptop compartment is separate from the rest, offering easy access. It's narrow enough that even our 11-inch MacBook Air didn't move around while throwing around the pack.

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. Look for backpacks with large enclosures or even full padding that wraps all the way around for ample security.

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-able 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.

A look at the side access pocket of the Thule Paramount that allows you to get right at your laptop without digging through the main compartment.
A look at the side access pocket of the Thule Paramount that allows you to get right at your laptop without digging through the main compartment.

If you are interested in a pack that can do both, a top loader with zipper side-access, then there are options out there! For example, the Thule Paramount has a roll-top design with expandable volume to fit several items into the main compartment of the bag. It also features side-access zippers, separate from the top access. One connects to the laptop compartment while the other connects to the main compartment. This arrangement is especially helpful if you plan on loading up your backpack and need quick access to your computer without to have to dig through all your stuff.

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 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.

Where are you headed with your backpack?
Where are you headed with your backpack?

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. For example, the Thule Pack 'n Pedal provides fantastic laptop protection and is easy to access on the go. 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.

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.

The North Face Borealis wins our Best Buy award for its basic style  great utility  and wonderful price.
The North Face Borealis wins our Best Buy award for its basic style, great utility, and wonderful price.

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.

Weather


Weather is a huge consideration, especially if you live in a place where it changes all the time. 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.

On a particularly wet day in Hawaii. Luckily we didn't have anything too important inside!
On a particularly wet day in Hawaii. Luckily we didn't have anything too important inside!

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 waterproof, but some do 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. For example, Patagonia Black Hole 25 uses a super water-resistant fabric that keeps water out. 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.

Bike Commuting


Are you going to be riding a bike to work? While most packs can 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 night riding when you need to be seen on the road.

Eddy takes the Pack 'n Pedal to work  commuting to his shared workspace to do some software engineering. This pack is protective from weather and offers many cool features.
Eddy takes the Pack 'n Pedal to work, commuting to his shared workspace to do some software engineering. This pack is protective from weather and offers many cool features.

Packs like the Thule Pack 'n Pedal have these features in addition to a mesh stow-away system that fits a helmet. A built-in rain cover is also helpful in bad weather. It's essential to have a rain fly that also has this reflective tape in case it's raining at night. If you don't bike to work, buying a pack without all these extra features may be fine, though they do offer more versatility than your average laptop backpack.

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 first 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.

Take this testers' Top Pick anywhere in the city that you love to work and play.
Take this testers' Top Pick anywhere in the city that you love to work and play.


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