The bag has a rigid shell that makes it look like it's constantly filled to the brim. It isn't. The Access Pack is constructed from a stylish mix of grey and black nylon panels, with the padded straps making it surprisingly comfortable to carry around all day. There's also a clasp that goes across your chest, keeping the bag high on your back. It all looks looks cooler than it has any right to -- at least for a brand that many of us associate with brightly colored windbreakers and navy fleeces. All told, the rigid shape and understated (perhaps too understated) colors make for a stylish work backpack.
The backpack's primary compartment shuts with a satisfyingly meaty latch that's quick to operate and quicker than drawstring toggle or a zip. It folds out to reveal a surprisingly wide opening, making it easy to dip your hand in and reach around. The laptop sleeve itself is entirely separate, in a padded water-resistant, zippable pocket along the back of the bag.
This is also where you'll find one of the Access Pack's notable features: pull tags for the pockets. When it comes to laptops up to 15 inches big, a hardy nylon handle at the top of the sleeve pulls at the base of bag, gently drawing your laptop toward you. It's not entirely effortless -- you'll need both hands -- but the handle means the laptop smoothly slides out without having to grasp deep into the sleeve for the machine. There's also an extra zipped compartment in the back specifically for glasses or sunglasses, with a solid enclosure to help avoid any accidents.
The bag's structured shape comes with a cost: It weighs around 4 pounds. I otherwise haven't paid attention to how much backpacks weigh, but when empty the Access Pack is noticeably heavier than softer backpacks I've owned, which might not make it not ideal for, say, a quick coffee break.
It was fortunate, then, that I was auditioning this bag as a possible new work backpack. With laptops, adapters, chargers, cameras and miscellaneous technology to test, I need a lot of pockets just to make some semblance of order from a nest of cables. Inside the main part of the bag are two phone-size pockets (spare phone, battery pack), pen holders that I didn't trust -- pens leak on me -- as well as a deep internal pouch that's good for magazines and bigger tablet models. (My iPad Mini got lost in there, if that's any indication of what can fit inside.)
As with the laptop sleeve, North Face added pull tabs to the two phone compartments and the tablet pouch. They're lighter, rubberized tabs that have some elasticated give. The things you'll put in here will weigh less, obviously, but I'm cautious about how much abuse these pull tabs could take, day after day. Two weeks of daily use didn't break anything yet. Do you need these tags? No. But the laptop assistance, in particular, helps when you're trying to get to work in a tightly packed cafe or even on a train or plane. (I'll admit I didn't fly during my time with the Access Pack. Apologies.) The smaller internal tags make retrieving what's in them just as easy as if they were in the main bag compartment; the less effort I have to make, the more organized my bag will be.
There's also a stretchy pouch just underneath the aforementioned latch that serves as an excellent pocket shrapnel and gum receptacle. Yes, I'm running out of synonyms for space, but we're almost done. There's also a pair of zipped pockets at the front. They're both relatively narrow but deep, and while they overlap with one another, they're completely separate: good for cables, maps and other slim items.
The hard thing about assessing backpacks is that how you use it (and when, where) inform what you look for in a bag. Everyone's different. There's no built-in battery pack for charging your phone, although there are plenty of pouches to store one, and the shell means it seems to bump into things and people moreso than other bags I've used. Those smartphone pockets are a little too tight for phones around the size of a Galaxy Note 7, and there's no way of securing the main compartment; at least if there were zips, you could lock them together. (Yes, you can do that for the laptop part.)
The Access Pack is classy-looking bag whose design is centered around gadget storage and removal. However, you have to consider whether these convenient features -- and modern looks -- warrant a $235 upgrade. They don't quite cut it for me.