The one that tackled the challenge this year? The Phorce Freedom. There are three basic questions I ask of any bag: Can it carry all my shit, will it protect everything and is it comfortable to carry for extended periods? If it can meet that base line, then I'm interested. If it exceeds it, all the better. This bag from Phorce covers my "basic three" pretty easily. It's advertised as being big enough for a 13-inch laptop, but my 15-inch MacBook Pro and neoprene cover slip in just fine, as do my phone, tablet, camera, cables and other assorted tools. I won't lie, it's a tight fit (especially the camera), but I can get in there. The bag isn't cavernous, nor massively capacious, but this isn't about hauling large amounts, just the essentials. Besides, the "snug" fit keeps things from rattling about inside as I'm schlepping it between various conference halls.
The outside of the bag is, to be fair, not that great-looking. Initially, I thought it looked like faux-leather, but it's not even that. It's a weird, textured, matte-black material. It kinda makes the bag look like it's been wrapped in gaffer tape. Sort of like nylon, if it had been covered in a rubbery paint. Suffice to say, it's not a head turner. What it is, though, is water resistant. I'll take dry gadgets over admiring looks any day. In fact, I involuntarily tested this water resistant "feature" two times over the week. Cramped desks, cups of water and early-onset "CES flu" evidently make me a liability around liquids.
The last of my three requirements -- comfort -- also gets a pass. The bag has a number of hooks that let you move the straps around, converting it into an over-the-shoulder bag or a backpack. There are also two magnetic handles so you can do the briefcase thing too, if you wanted. In either messenger mode or backpack mode it's not overly comfortable compared to bags of fixed configuration. But having the ability to change means if you're tired of wearing it one way, or your needs change depending on your cargo, you can mix it up. It definitely adds to its usefulness. And this is what nudges it above the bar: added functionality.
The biggest bonus is a built-in (or, included, rather) battery. This is pretty much becoming a new essential/standard in gadget-friendly bags. The Phorce Freedom in particular comes with a 15,000mAh cell, with two high-speed charging ports. This proved to be a life-saver on more than one occasion. CES has several evening events, and after a day of busy phone-tethering and whatnot, I had to top up via the battery in the bag several times. It's an amazing anxiety eliminator, that's for sure. If only this bag had WiFi too. One other minor, but welcome, detail is the micro-fiber lining of all the pockets; it's like having a lint-free cloth on the inside of your bag. Much nicer than bare nylon, et cetera.
If I have any criticisms, it's that this bag really is the minimum workable size for my needs. Carrying anything that isn't flat is often a challenge. I had to carry back a can of drink by hand after an evening event because I ran out of space -- such are the terrible things we endure to bring you the latest gadget news. You can also forget about putting pretty much anything but the lightest jacket in there -- something you could do with a regular backpack. Given that it's pretty much a laptop bag, it's also a shame the battery doesn't charge larger gadgets (i.e., those that require a plug). Phorce does make a bag that addresses both of these issues: the Phorce Pro. At $650, though, it's also well over triple the price of the Freedom ($200) and well into way-too-expensive territory for me. Some might still balk at $200, but after protecting my tablet, phone and laptop from all that water spillage, it's arguably paid for itself already. It's not my everyday bag, but it's a worthy workhorse, for sure.