Laptop Backpacks vs. Messenger Bags
Perhaps the first question that should be asked is whether you would be better served by purchasing and owning a laptop backpack or a messenger bag. We recommend laptop backpacks over messenger bags for almost all users, except perhaps 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. Our review of the best day backpacks may also have products that would pique your interest.
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. Backpacks that obviously fit in this category were the Osprey Flapjack, and the Incase City. Some of the other backpacks seemed to us much more like a normal old backpack, ones that we could use anywhere for nearly any purpose, and which happened to have a dedicated sleeve somewhere inside that accommodated a laptop. Backpacks which fit into this category were the Burton Tinder, Dakine Explorer, and Timbuk2 Rogue. While these packs have less dedicated laptop protection, if you're generally cautious with your pack then these packs will still suit you well. The two bags made by The North Face which we tested fit somewhere in between - they are obviously made to carry laptops, but still tend to seem like normal backpacks.
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, we recommend one of the first three bags or one of The North Face products we tested. On the other hand, if you need an all-purpose pack and sometimes carry your laptop, you will probably be better served by one of the second types.
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 models that are considerably smaller which are also very popular, like the Apple MacBook Air or a variety of smaller Google Chromebook's. We used an Asus 11" Chromebook in our testing process along with an iPad mini and a 15" 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, simply measure the visible screen size diagonally from corner to corner. This 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 is because despite having the same size screen, the actual physical size of the whole machine varies between manufacturers. As stated above for our testing we used a 15" Macbook, an iPad mini and an Asus 11" Chromebook.
Every pack that we tested is designed to carry at least a 15 inch computer. Only one the, Incase City claims that it will fit a 17 inch computer. Interestingly, and perhaps disappointingly, every bag that will hold a 15 inch computer will of course also hold smaller laptops, like 13 or 11 inchers, but in our testing, very few of the bags did so securely, which is a concern. If the pocket that holds the laptop is too large, it moves around inside the bag, which can be annoying during travel, and at worse can lead to damage from impacts. The backpacks which did the best job of holding an 11 inch computer were Osprey Flapjack and both of The North Face backpacks. These worked well because they have a separate pocket that is specifically sized for an 11 inch computer or tablet. If you have an 11 inch computer but end up preferring a different model of backpack, we would recommend that you also own a protective sleeve or case for your laptop which you would use in conjunction with your backpack.
Some of the laptops we tested also include a designated pocket for an iPad or smartphone. These were the two North Face bags, the Patagonia Black Hole,the Osprey Flapjack and the Granite Gear Rift 2. However, similar to our advice for 11 inch computers, we recommend that you have a protective case for your tablet or smart device in addition to the padding features in your laptop backpack.
Zippers or Top-Loaders?
Two 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 one case, cinch-able opening at the top. These large openings are covered by a flap that secures over the opening with plastic buckles or velcro. The backpacks that feature this design are the Burton Tinder, and the Timbuk2 Rogue. 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 pack was more water resistant than the others because there were no zippers that served as leak points for water. The Osprey Flapjack also would fit into the top loader category but it has a unique design that non of the other bags encompass and was a well designed combination of both of these laptop backpack styles.
The alternative to a top-loader is a pack that uses zippers to seal its compartments. These bags tend to have many compartments, instead of just one large one, so work better for keeping many items separate and organized. In general, the zippered openings are also bigger and accessible from the sides and top, as opposed to simply on the top. The downside to these bags is that we found that zippers typically provide leak points in a 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.
Travel or Work?
Some people are looking for a laptop backpack specifically for the purposes of traveling, 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 you list are laptop protection (because it is far more likely that your bag will end up getting knocked around), easy access to the computer for going through airport security, and the bag's look (better to be incognito and not look like you are carrying expensive things around with you).
The Burton Tinder has a separate and easily accessible side entry computer compartment that make accessing your laptop for airport security very easy. The others all require you to reach inside from the top, which may or may not be so easy depending on how many things you have stuffed into your bag. The Flapjack even has a secret documents pocket tucked in behind the back padding at lumbar height designed for carrying your passport, documents, or money, without anyone knowing where it is.
Security can be a really big deal if you spend a lot of time traveling in foreign countries. If you are there traveling specifically for work, or if your work or passions include activities that are highly electronics dependent, like photography, then security is even more important. We recommend you read our Ask an Expert section with Cheyne Lempe at the bottom of our main Laptop Backpacks Review page for some great tips and advice about protecting your expensive and valuable gadgets in foreign countries.
None of the bags we tested have a totally secure way of protecting your laptop; only a couple of them have double zipper pulls that could be locked together to prevent entry or in the case of our Editor's Choice Winner the Osprey Flapjack the large top flap that extends and covers the entirety of the pack and seemed to add an extra level of security for the pockets within. If you truly need to secure your belongings or simply want peace of mind, invest in some backpack security webbing.
It's hard to purchase an everyday accessory without considering style. In fact, it's very likely that style will be one of the most important things to consider when purchasing your new backpack. Check out our complete comparison table to see how each of the bags matches up style-wise. Consider also that all of these bags come in many handfuls of different colors, so if you like a look but not a color, check the companies' websites to see what all of your options are.
No two people will have exactly the same needs in a laptop backpack, although certainly one bag might easily fit the needs of two people. Rather than simply purchasing a backpack 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 fine-tune your search for the perfect laptop backpack for you.
Ask an Expert: Cheyne Lempe
Mountain Hardwear Athlete, and former Yosemite Search and Rescue member, Cheyne Lempe, is in the midst of a budding photography and videography career. He is becoming a well-seasoned traveler and climber, making his way to the Verdon, Zion, Patagonia, and all throughout Asia and Australia, constantly in search of the perfect photo. Or even better, a video clip of someone with a giant smile on their face or that sheer look of terror when they've finally figured out that they've gotten themselves into something spicy. You can typically find Cheyne traveling with his Canon EOS 5D Mark II and MacBook Pro, always ready to capture an inspiring photograph or film a unique moment in time. Because Cheyne holds his gear very near and dear to his heart, he insists on protecting it as often as possible. Here are his tips for traveling light, fast, and comfortably to any part of the world.
You've spent a lot of time traveling - what do you typically look for in a laptop backpack?
When traveling, you need something that is going to protect one of your most fragile investments. It most definitely needs to have a padded sleeve, as well as a layer of padding on the bottom of the bag (what you'd set it down on). My laptop backpack is quite comfortable and has a nice support system, as the load can become heavy - you don't want a wimpy pack. The backpack material needs to be rugged, as traveling often can produce a great deal of wear and tear. I'd rather that it didn't look like a total briefcase - that says, hey, this guy is carrying something expensive.
Do you have any backpack accessories that you can't live without or do you like to keep it simple?
I like my backpack to be simple. I only have a few requirements: a padded sleeve for my computer and a big main compartment for my charger, external hard drives, and basic camera equipment. I like a simple design and one way to access my gear - I don't want a side zip that will make someone's life easier in potentially stealing my gear.
What is considered a necessity when heading to a photo or video shoot and will it all fit in your laptop backpack?
I bring my MacBook Pro and my charger (not necessarily to the shoot) - the main compartment has to be big enough for two external hard drives, my camera, an extra lens (or two), batteries, water, and snacks. Lots of snacks.
What do you do to make sure the water and snacks don't spill?
I screw on the lid to my water bottle absurdly tight and I put the water on the bottom, so if it leaks, it just sits in the bottom of the bag. I'll put the electronics on the top and keep my bag upright - so far, so good.
Is your gear insured?
My gear is definitely insured. It makes traveling (and really, daily living) way less stressful - I can't believe that I didn't insure my gear sooner. There's no reason you shouldn't buy insurance and that's coming from me, a pretty frugal person. I currently have PPA Insurance Solutions.
Why do you need a backpack specifically for your laptop?
It makes organization much easier and a lot of times, your laptop is one of the more heavier things in your backpack. It is sitting pretty close to your back and proper weight distribution is pretty ideal. You also have less of a chance of things getting broken, though that's when the insurance kicks in.
With one (1) being the most important, can you rate how important storage, comfort, security, water resistance, professional look, durability, versatility, weight are to you and explain why.
1) Versatility - the easier I'm able to access my tools, the happier that I'm going to be.
2) Comfort - walking around with a stuffed pack (for long amounts of time) can get heavy!
3) Storage - if it doesn't fit all of the things that I consider to be necessary, it isn't going to be useful.
4) Durability - I want my goods to be safe and secure; if the bag rips, what next?
5) Weight - some airlines may have restrictions. I already struggle with weight limits and I don't want my bag to contribute to that.
6) Professional look - I prefer a sleek design, with a hint of professionalism on a shoot.
7) Security - all of these components are important to me, with security also falling under durability. If I want added security, I will throw a lock on the pack - having insurance also helps ease the mind.
8) Water resistance - it isn't often that I find myself outside in the rain with my laptop, but if I happen to, I will throw the pack on first and use my jacket to cover both the pack and my body. If you're jacket-less, run inside and find a trash bag!
What advice could you give to someone who is in search of a high-quality, comfortable, reasonably-priced laptop backpack? What is the most important criteria you look for when selecting a backpack like this?
Think about what you want to be using the backpack for and what you're going to be putting into it - know what you're looking for. Find a backpack that fits those needs best - don't buy one with pockets, just because it has pockets. Make sure you set a budget and stick to it, allowing yourself a little leeway if you find something that you absolutely can't live without. Test how the backpack fits and feels on your body, with a considerable amount of weight inside. If it's uncomfortable, keep searching!
Do you use your laptop backpack on a daily basis? Does it have any other uses?
Yes - I'm never in one place and I'm always moving around, especially living out of a tent cabin in Yosemite. I like the backpack to be multi-purpose and I need it to fit other things - climbing gear, snacks, necessities that I'll need to bring to the search and rescue cache in case of a rescue, or a few beers to drag to my favorite swimming hole.
Do you have any travel stories to share?
My first time traveling outside of the country, I was heading down to Patagonia in Argentina. I didn't have the right size backpack and so they wouldn't let me take it on the bus. For five days, it sat in the bottom of the bus, while everyone's luggage got piled on top. I was so stressed about it the entire time and I was so very thankful that nothing ended up being damaged. I learned that: a) do your research before you travel, even though it might seem more adventurous to not plan anything - at least have some idea of what you want to do, and b) plan what to do to keep your gear safe when things don't go accordingly; for example, if you're in a sketchy part of town, lock your bag with a mini combo lock. If you're in the airport for long layovers or crazy time-zone changes and you need to get some rest, use your backpack as a pillow or sleep with one arm through a strap; you could also clip it to you with a carabiner.
Do you have a ritual or any tips to offer to how you stay calm when traveling? Any last pro tips?
Make sure to keep an open mind, be patient, and pack light. I never regret packing too light, but carrying around a ridiculously heavy bag filled with unnecessary objects is not necessary. Expect that things may not go according to plan and that all transportation is guaranteed to be late - just know that you'll get to where you're going in due time.