Updated November 2017
We keep an eye on the laptop backpack market, always seeking new contenders for our hard-earned awards. This Fall, we added The North Face Surge to the group of contenders. Following extensive testing, it proved worthy of our new Top Pick Award for Frequent Travelers. It performs well all-around, but the standout feature is a unique butterfly opening that allows you to pass through TSA security checks without removing your laptop from the sleeve. That said, the Osprey Flapjack remains our favorite backpack overall.
Best Overall Laptop Backpack
Comfy and spacious
Secure and reliable laptop protection
Can't sit upright on its own
The Osprey Flapjack
is the highest scoring product in our review, and although it faced fierce competition, it is the clear winner of our Editors' Choice Award. With an incredible amount of compartments, pockets, and even an external zippered side pocket, it's our favorite for both storage and versatility. This is a bag that can comfortably carry anything you need and is not limited to being an electronics carrier. We love its overall design, which provides a plethora of options for staying organized. It also has pockets for carrying more than one size of laptop and is one of the most water-resistant bags in our tests. If you want a great combination of laptop protection, comfort, organization, and great features, this is an excellent bag that will help you handle whatever gets thrown your way.
Read review: Osprey Flapjack
Best Bang for the Buck
The North Face Borealis
The North Face Borealis
Plenty of room for storage
Might be larger than necessary
will only set you back $89, making it one of the least expensive bags in our review, and a fantastic overall value. We love this bag 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. Perhaps the best feature that differentiates it from the rest is the ability to adjust for the load you are carrying, via the side adjustment straps.
Read review: The North Face Borealis
Best Budget Buy
Keeps contents dry
Big main compartment
Lacks robust laptop protection
Only decent comfort
Below average organization
If a lightweight, stylish, top-loading bag that fits almost any budget sounds intriguing, then look no further. The Timbuk2 Rogue
was the second most affordable laptop backpack we tested retailing at $79 and took home one of our Best Buy Awards. One of its best features, besides its low price, is its unique and spacious style. With plenty of external attachment straps that easily clip a water bottle or a plethora of other accessories to and the messenger bag-like outer design, the Rogue will transport all your electronic needs and much more. One downfall is an unsubstantial mesh laptop sleeve that deserves a secondary measure of protection for your mini computer. Still, the mesh sleeve is secured with a strong Velcro tab and does a great job of keeping laptops secured in place while commuting. The Rogue
fits into the category of a great backpack that also carries a laptop. With its unique military-esque top loading style and it's very affordable price point, the Rogue won't disappoint.
Read review: Timbuk2 Rogue
Top Pick for Style
Comfy and durable
Lacks water bottle storage
We know you are crazy for the outdoors. And for those who want only the very best gear for their outdoor adventures, functionality should always be the first consideration. But let's be honest here, laptop backpacks are primarily for use in the city, for going to work or school, for our everyday lives, not our spectacular weekend adventures. And in the city, for most people anyway, style matters. That's why we gave the Burton Tinder
our Top Pick Award for Style. Designed to look like a bare-bones, old-school 80's rucksack, the Tinder is urban and hip in a way that these other bags only wish they could be. 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. And if that's all you need and want to look good doing it, then give Burton a try.
Read review: Burton Tinder
Top Pick for Versatility
Patagonia Black Hole 25
Easy to use straps
Comfy on your back
Resists all kinds of weather well
Not much laptop protection
When your work life and your play time frequently coincide, get your hands on the Patagonia Black Hole 25L
. It won our Top Pick Award for Versatility, being the right combination of trendy and functional and one of the most adaptable laptop backpacks in the review. With its superior water protection and sleek, streamlined design, it won't disappoint whether carrying your laptop to the office or holding your gym clothes for an after work hours gym session. The shoulder straps are comfortable in any scenario, and the sternum strap offers a little extra support when your cargo is a heavier than normal. The sleek single compartment design keeps things straightforward and easy to use. So if you are a laptop welding individual with a draw to the outdoors, the Patagonia Black Hole
is a worthy partner to have in your backpack arsenal.
Read review: Patagonia Black Hole 25
Top Pick for Frequent Flyers
The North Face Surge
Excellent for getting through security quickly
Lots of organization
Not ideal for large items
Folks who 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 really shines through 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
Analysis and Test Results
The backpacks we tested all have similar characteristics in that their primary purpose is to carry and protect your laptop computer. There are a lot of new advancements in these laptop backpacks that also allow you to carry safely, store, and protect your phone and tablet as well, while also leaving plenty of room for other necessities. While most of these are not rough outdoor packs, a few of these laptop backpacks have started to take into consideration the working outdoor enthusiast and designed a bag that can handle the elements while keeping your equipment safe.
The field of contenders selected for our review, with the Editors' Choice winner standing in front.
To decide which of the bags we tested was the best overall, we chose six criteria by which to evaluate and compare each one. The criteria are Laptop Protection, Comfort, Organization and Storage, Ease of Use, Style, and Water Resistance. To better help you understand what specific things we tested for in each of these categories, how we tested for them, and which backpacks fared best and worst, we have broken down and described each category below.
We deemed laptop protection to be the most important component of the backpacks we tested, and thus rated it as 25% of each pack's final score. There was a wide range of performance in how well each pack protected different laptops, which are fragile items, but overall we were pretty disappointed that more emphasis wasn't placed on this critical feature. No system for protection was even close to perfect, and the only pack that received a 9 out of 10 score for laptop protection was our Editors' Choice, the Osprey Flapjack
; even that pack had its slight flaws. In our opinion, there is a lot
of room for improvement in this critical category.
Luckily for us, no actual laptops were broken in the testing of these packs! To test protection, we loaded them up with a 15" MacBook Pro, as well as the much smaller and thinner iPad Mini and sometimes, if room, an Asus Chromebook.
The Borealis comes equipped with an array of different sized laptop sleeves for your eclectic mix of electronics.
Through our extensive testing, we noticed four main factors make for a good, or terrible, protection system. We describe them below:
Laptops are fragile and expensive machines and need protection from knocks and blows that could potentially damage or break them. The most common types of padding were plastic sheaths or plates and simple foam pads. It seems obvious that there should be protection on all sides, yet many of the padding systems we tested left significant gaps in the protection. A critical area for padding is, of course, the bottom of the pouch against which the laptop rests.
This was less of an issue for those packs which featured an adequate suspension system. The Osprey Flapjack
not only had a properly suspended laptop sleeve, but it offers a large velcro strap to secure your laptop in place while transporting. A few bags chose not to suspend the computer above the bottom, and thus needed extra padding to absorb a blow from setting the backpack on the ground, but in general we felt this method of protection was inadequate compared to suspending it in the middle of the bag, particularly since the backpacks tended not to include as much padding as we prefer.
Laptop Compartment Size
The Rogue's super thin mesh laptop padding made it one of lowest scoring bags in laptop protection.
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. We found that virtually every bag we tested is designed to fit a 15" laptop, except for the Incase City
which hold up to a 17" Macbook. It seemed like all products protected our laptops with varying amounts of success. None of the main laptop sleeves were specifically designed for an 11" machine, which caused smaller ones to move around considerably in almost every bag. Luckily, most of the packs featured a separate smaller, compartment for carrying a smaller electric device. In many cases, issues in compartment size were minimized when the bag was filled to capacity with other items, but we chose not to account for that in our assessment since it isn't always the case during everyday use.
Most of the laptop backpacks had a protected option for carrying smaller electronic devices along with your larger laptop. Here is the Granite Gear Rift 2 with multiple padded sleeves for a variety of different sized electronics.
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 Osprey Flapjack
, seemed to work best. Others incorporated an open top design, which confined the range of motion inside the backpack, but would not keep the computer stable in its position. Most of the bags had 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.
The large sturdy velcro strap on the Flapjack makes it an excellent choice for laptop 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 liked, earning an 8 out of 10 in laptop protection. 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 featured suspended compartments were lacking 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 were located much too close to the edges or zippers of the bags, where there was no padding, making the computer vulnerable to an impact from the side or top.
This contender has a secret zippered access compartment for your laptop. While it was a fun feature, it had a very thin padded back panel and laptop sleeve, making this a low ranking pack for laptop protection.
In the end, none of these backpacks did an ideal job of protecting the laptop, which was disappointing. It seems that regardless of which bag you use, your best protection is diligent awareness of how you move with your pack on and how you set it down. Although there were refinements we would like to see made, we found that the Osprey Flapjack
will do the best job of keeping your laptop safe from abuse. On the other end of the spectrum, we determined that the Timbuk2 Rogue
was the bag most likely to leave you with a broken or damaged computer, even though we liked the bag in general.
The Osprey Flapjack in its natural environment. It was a great choice for someone looking for superior laptop protection and a means of staying organized.
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 we wanted to make sure that we mimicked real-life conditions; so, we loaded these bags up with our around town necessities and carried them everywhere we went. That gave us a pretty good idea of which ones were most comfortable.
To be sure, we then compared them head-to-head by adding a lot of weight to each one (computer, textbooks, binders, folders and notebooks, clothes, lunch, and snacks) and had numerous people put them on and adjust them for their body type. Testers then walked around to determine each pack's level of comfort. The Top Pick Winner for style, the Burton Tinder
, doesn't look like it would be a comfortable bag with its sleek design and hardly minimal padding on the back and shoulder straps; however, it earned itself a 7 out of 10 and turned out to be a comfy fit.
Our Editors Choice Winner the Osprey flapjack strutting its stuff around town. It remains of of the most comfortable bags to carry, along with keeping your gear organized and your laptop protected.
We found that the two most critical features in regards to comfort are the design of the shoulder straps and the design of the back plate. 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. Further apart meant less friction and biting into the neck. Just as important was how wide the strap material was to disperse the weight of the load. The Osprey Flapjack
was hands down our favorite based on comfort alone, while the Incase City
had the least comfortable shoulder straps and didn't have a sternum strap for added stability.
The lack of sternum strap on the City was unfortunate, as the width of the straps made it rather uncomfortable for carrying. It tended to pinch our underarm area.
Equally important, as far as comfort goes, is the construction of the back plate. Some of the backpacks we tested had super stiff stays or plastic sheets to add rigidity and protection to the laptop. While these may have done a better job protecting your laptop (a key factor), we found that packs which incorporated soft padding in the back plate were the most comfortable, both for walking and bike riding, like The North Face Borealis
Soft padding meant a flexible fit, which we preferred. Rigid padding and rigid back plates didn't move and flex with our bodies as well, and in general were less comfortable. While sternum and hip straps were appreciated at times to help stabilize a heavy load, we didn't feel that they added or detracted significantly from the comfort of the pack. We rated comfort as 20% of each backpack's total score.
Organization & Storage
What use is a backpack if it can't store everything that you need to carry? In our view, not much. We determined that two factors were most important when comparing storage: 1) How much can it hold? 2) How well does it stay organized? A few of the bags we tested, like the Patagonia Black Hole
and Burton Tinder
were a top-loading style, similar to a classic rucksack, and while they could carry enough for us to be happy, they included very few features to help to stay organized.
Others, like the Dakine Explorer, had many functional pockets
. Each is designed for a specific purpose or items like important papers, pens, wallet, passport, sunglasses, iPad or other electronics (and even an attachment for a skateboard), but were a little too small to fit everything we could imagine carrying (like food, water, or a jacket). The perfect combination were the bags which were both large, had many different carrying compartments, and included tons of different sized pockets and locations designed to keep everything separate and organized. Although their designs were quite different, the Granite Gear Rift 2
. The North Face Surge
, and Osprey Flapjack
(which received our Editors' Choice award) were both a great balance of volume and organization. We rated Storage as 15% of a bag's total score.
Organization is crucial in maintaining a happy relationship with your laptop backpack, the Osprey Flapjack had a great system in place with lots of ways to stay organized.
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 where we have each pack's volume listed. The bags range from 21 liters on the small end to 33 liters (of the Surge
) on the large end. Our Editors' Choice Winner, the Osprey Flapjack
, turned out to be the smallest volume pack coming in at 21 litters but its great ingenuity of design allowed us to pack and store all we needed for everyday use properly. So in this case size doesn't matter. In the specs table, we have also broken 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.
The Explorer didn't take home any awards but it had a clever function for attaching a skateboard, or electric skateboard in our case, to the back of the pack.
Large pockets are big enough to fit many small items, or a few medium-sized things, while small pockets are for things like keys, pens, or a wallet, and help with specific organization. In the case of small and large pockets, some of these are found on the inside of the bag, while some are accessible from the outside. External side pockets refer to un-zippered pockets on the outside of the bag, designed to hold water bottles or extra clothing.
Ease of Use
While all of the backpacks listed here are designed to carry laptops, we also wanted to compare how well they held everything else and how well they handled everyday use of other items besides laptops. We specifically addressed different contexts or activities and measured how easy it was to perform these tasks. Was the bag big enough to carry water? Does it come with a hydration reservoir? 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?
And what about using the bag when you weren't headed to work, school, or the coffee shop? Could you ditch the computer and happily take this pack for a day hike? Our Best Buy Winner, The North Face Borealis
, made the transition from laptop backpack to outdoor backpack very well, especially with the option to use the laptop sleeve as a hydration bladder. If heading to the airport, you'll be most pleased with the Surge
, which is the only pack that allows you to pass through the security checkpoint without removing the laptop.
The North Face Borealis had all the making of an award winning bag all at a reasonable price.
Lastly, how well does the pack carry important documents, keeping them clean and unruffled, while also carrying everything else? We found that the incredible amount of features included on the Osprey Flapjack
made it the most versatile pack of the bunch. Top-loading packs like the Burton Tinder
and the Granite Gear Rift 2
were perfect for carrying things like groceries, climbing gear, and clothing, but not as good for protecting documents when paired with the other gear in the packs. We weighted Ease of Use as 15% of a laptop backpack's overall score.
Fully unzip the laptop compartment of the Surge and lay it flat for airport screenings. Never remove your laptop again.
In one of our previous laptop backpack reviews (published in 2011), we rated each of the packs for their "Professional Look." But the reality is that none of these packs look professional at all in the suit-and-tie sense, and are not designed to be. We used the same guidelines for style as in last year's review. Let's face it, it's tough to make a backpack look super professional. So we have substituted the words "professional look," with one word: Style
Now, style is a pretty subjective term, but we did our best to rate 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 which one you like best. The retro-hipster look of the Burton Tinder
was the runaway favorite here, while the extremely dated looks of The North Face
bags didn't win many style points. We also awarded the Osprey Flapjack
a 9 out of 10. Style was awarded 15% of the overall score.
The urban hip look of the Tinder put in in the top of the rankings for style out of the 9 backpacks we tested.
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 also decided to test these bags for water resistance. Testing these bags during the Fall in Tahoe, it was hard to find consistent rain to use for our purposes, so we were forced to create our own "rainstorm" in the shower. We devised a test which we thought was a fair and adequate test of water resistance and subjected each of the bags to the test.
Not wanting to risk the health of our own laptops, we instead used someone else's. Just kidding - what we actually did was put a piece of fresh dry paper in every pocket of each bag, including where the laptop would be stored, then filled out the rest of the volume of the bag with dry clothing. We zipped and sealed the bag as tightly as it was designed for, then held it under the shower for 30 seconds. We quickly photographed the bag to be able to show you its relative merits and faults, then dried it off with a towel, dried our hands, and slowly and carefully removed the contents to check for water intrusion.
The Tinder is one classy laptop backpack. It has a minimal modern design and that makes it unique among the rest.
The results of the test were predictably all over the board. We noticed that two things in particular made for an especially 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 will need to be reapplied if the original amount of water resistance is to be maintained. We found that zippers were the main point of water entry into a backpack.
The best ones, like the Patagonia Black Hole 25
and the Osprey Flapjack
seemed to employ water-resistant zippers for the small external pockets, or a giant flap that completely covers the internal compartments of the bag. The worst performers, like the Incase City
, had many zippers that were not covered or water resistant and laid flat on top of the bag pointing directly up, towards the direction of rainfall. These top zippers leaked and allowed water to filter down amongst every major pocket and compartment of the bag. The importance of having a water-resistant bag is largely dependent on the climate that you live in, but for this review, we rated Water Resistance as 15% of the total score of each bag.
The Borealis has everything you need in a laptop backpack and the best part is it's an affordable option, retailing at $89.
Shopping for a laptop backpack can be tough. Do you favor style? Comfort? Water resistance? All three? We hope we were able to help you in making a decision, but we do realize that you might still be searching for the best contender to suit your needs. If your questions remain unanswered, head over to the Buying Advice
for additional information to help you decide which pack is the best choice for you.