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How to find the best laptop bag

A techhead's guide to the world of soft goods.
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As with any tech accessory, when it comes to laptop bags, one is largely spoiled for choice: From colored Cordura backpacks and canvas messengers to leather briefcases, there is a plethora of options when it comes to style, size and features. Try to filter through just laptop backpacks and you'll still need to select a capacity, material, style and color and pick from features like solar power and RFID blocking. But the bag you carry your devices in should be a tool and a resource: essential, vital and yet largely works without your having to think about it or tinker much with it. And, much the same as with shopping for a laptop, in order to find the best bag for your buck, one of the first things to determine is what specs you're looking for.

What is your budget?

One of the first, and most obvious, details that will guide your decision is price. At a minimum, you should expect to pay $70 to $80 for a solidly constructed bag with a laptop section and some back padding; $150 to $200 will get you significantly more options with regard to styles, colors and additional features like sternum straps and external water bottle pockets. If you're ready to make an investment, need a particular feature or have a high-end brand in mind, expect to land somewhere in the $250-to-$325 range.

Regardless, the goal should be to spend your funds on something that will suit your needs and last a long time. And while you can get a bag for less than $80, it's likely to lack the reinforcement stitching or top-tier zipper hardware found on more durable offerings. Anything in the $120–$275 range should land you in the sweet spot: solid materials and a durable build, with a good choice of professional styles and device-specific features.

Bags in this range often go on sale too, particularly if they're not a flagship style, so sign up for newsletters from bag companies if you've got your eye on something that's just out of your price range. If you're looking at a bag priced higher than $400 or so, you're likely looking at a designer collection (Coach, Jack Spade), a premium material (Saddleback leather), or a reputation for quality craftsmanship (Tumi). Not that there's anything wrong with spending more than $400 on your purchase -- Saddleback and Tumi make amazing backpacks and messengers, so if you've got the cash, there are worse ways to spend it. It's just generally unnecessary to spend more than $200 for a laptop bag.

What size and style are you looking for?

The measurements for bag sizes are usually expressed as a liter size. For instance, a classic Jansport backpack (one big pouch, two smaller zippered pouches) has a capacity of 31L, which easily fits a laptop and three to four fat textbooks. Meanwhile, one of my main bags, the Mission Workshop Sanction, has a smaller 20L capacity but can easily get me through both my regular work commute and weekend trips.

Waterfield Designs' Staad backpack

For day-to-day use, something in the 20L–40L range will almost certainly do the job. Under 20L and you're looking at a slimmer profile bag like Waterfield's Staad Slim Backpack, which is professional in appearance but won't have a lot of space for anything beyond your essentials; over 40L and you're either employed as a bike messenger and rocking something like Mission Workshop's expandable Vandal or you're drastically overpacking. (Just as every surface has a tendency to get cluttered, every bag ends up filled.)

When it comes to style, your options are largely going to fall into one of five categories: zippered backpack, rolltop backpack, messenger, briefcase or tote.

Though you may find something that feels like a hybrid of two styles, most of what's out there is going to fall into one of those categories. Zippered backpacks, like InCase's Icon and the aforementioned Jansport, are probably something you're familiar with. The advantages of this style are the convenient access to compartments (the farther down the zipper goes, the more "open" the bag becomes), the weight distribution offered by the shoulder straps, and the versatility. To that last point, zippered backpacks can easily be repurposed for a trip to the store or the gym, weekend travel or outdoor adventures. The drawbacks mostly come down to the styling, which skews more casual. The lack of waterproofing is also a potential issue, as zippers can let in moisture.

Rolltop backpacks, like the ones made popular by Chrome and Timbuk2, are also known as barrel bags because of their top-only access. These styles have a top flap that can be rolled and/or buckled to seal the compartment tight, and they're usually waterproof because of this. That's one of the advantages of roll tops, along with more formal styles, better features for those who commute on two wheels and the ability to unroll and expand the main compartment. The main drawbacks are that the rolltop access can be onerous for some people to use (especially when what you need has shifted to the bottom of the bag), and the use of Velcro instead of zippers means opening the bag can be pretty loud.

Timbuk2's Clark Commuter Backpack

Messenger bags are popular for their side-carry style, which makes it easy to quickly access your stuff while walking or cycling. Because the top flap overlays the opening to the bag, they're also usually waterproof and have features for commuting, but that single shoulder strap isn't really intended to haul a lot of weight over a long period of time. So if you have back issues or a lot to carry, stick to two straps. Likewise, a lot of briefcases these days have adopted the messenger strap for side carry, and some include a top flap to better protect contents. Totes have easy top access and generally offer a more professional look, especially in leather. However, most of them don't close, they're largely feminine in style (a problem for people with masculine tastes) and they're often only carried on the shoulder like a purse.

Materials

Mission Workshop's Monty waxed canvas messenger bag

When it comes to the materials your bag is constructed from, the options will usually be leather, nylon (sometimes Cordura, or ballistic nylon) or canvas (often waxed or treated). As with everything, there are pros and cons. It's said that nylon wears out while leather wears in, which means that while nylon will eventually start looking a bit frayed, leather will still look amazing after being beaten up and used for years. But nylon can be dyed a variety of colors, is easy on the wallet, resists scrapes and punctures and is more lightweight than leather.

Canvas occupies a middle ground: It's a bit more professional than nylon but not quite as formal as leather. It's also a bit more lightweight than leather yet still waterproof. Plus, it ages well over time. However, waxed canvas does have to be occasionally retreated, much like leather, the sturdiest and heaviest of the options. If you're unfamiliar with the various grades of leather, there's a great explainer here but tl;dr: Just say no to genuine or bonded leathers, and stick with split grain or top grain instead. Or -- if you have the cash -- full grain, which, because it isn't sanded and has all the layers of hide intact, will be the thickest, strongest leather. Because it's a complete version of the hide, full-grain leather retains all the markings and characteristics of the animal it came from, but the material is heavy and difficult to work with, hence the higher prices.

As long as the bag is in a neutral shade and has minimal accents, any of these materials can be appropriate for casual to formal situations (although waxed canvas and ballistic nylon are more Indiana Jones or Ethan Hunt, respectively, while leather would be more suited to a Kingsman).

Construction

It's hard to apply hard specs to soft goods, but once you have a liter size, style and material, you've made most of the hard decisions. Now it's time to figure out which options speak to your personal taste. But first, let's talk construction details.

The body and laptop compartment

When it comes to the body of the bag, make sure the bottom is constructed from waterproof material (so it won't absorb water if you accidentally set it down in a puddle). Laptop sleeves shouldn't reach to the very bottom of the bag but should end in a seam that seals the compartment off an inch or two from the ground. Additionally, laptop storage should be padded (preferably on both sides, though you'll often see just one) and independent of the main section so your devices can be kept separate from anything that might not be friendly to electronics, like sweaty gym clothes or a travel mug.

If the laptop division isn't separate, it should at least have a strap or a way to secure your laptop in place. In short, the area should be isolated, padded and well secured, and also easy to access when you need your laptop.

Hardware and storage

Booq's Cobra Squeeze backpack

Zippers are always a potential point of failure, as are clasps, buttons, buckles and, to a lesser degree, snaps. You'll often see a metal zipper head paired with plastic teeth, as all-metal zippers may rust or stick. While it may seem tempting to get a bag with a bunch of bells and whistles, it's best to keep it as simple as possible. To keep zippers as waterproof as possible, main compartments should be covered by a flap of edging fabric (again, check out that classic Jansport design) or be waterproofed by shielding the zipper teeth from exposure, as seen on the Booq Cobra Squeeze.

External storage should largely be zippered or sealed so that your items can't fall out. Keep in mind, too, how easy it might be for thieves to access these sections. Internal storage will often consist of open "'slip"' pouches, along with a zippered pocket for cables. As you look at potential bags, think about what you would want to keep in each pocket, and how frequently you'd need to access it. Also remember that you don't have to rely on your bag's storage sections alone. I use a Mission Workshop Arkiv tool roll to corral my cables, chargers and batteries. It rolls up neatly, leaving the external pockets on my bag available for things I need to grab quickly, like transit cards and headphones.

Padding and support

Padding in the back panel is essential when it comes to comfort -- mesh will breathe better, but it won't bounce back as fast as foam padding. Channels built into the back padding should provide some relief to those who tend to sweat a lot. There should also be some padding in the shoulder straps. If you have back issues or commute on two wheels, make sure you get a sternum or waist strap on your bag to help secure it to your body and redistribute the weight.

Mission Workshop

Mission Workshop's Radian Travel Pack

Stitching and reinforcement

Pay attention as well to how the straps are attached to the bag, at both the top and the bottom. The bottom straps should be sewn into a bit of triangular reinforcement fabric that attaches to the body of the bag, not sewn directly into the body of the bag itself. The stitching on this triangular attachment will often be reinforced, resembling an X or an X in a box.

The tops of the straps should also be in some way reinforced to the back panel, as seen in the Fjällräven Kanken, which has a distinctive X shape, or Mission Workshop's Sanction, which has two attachment points to adjust the fit. Speaking of adjustments, watch out for buckles or hardware on the straps -- they may sit or rub uncomfortably when worn.

So what should I get?

If you need a professional yet feminine style and aren't worried about weather or pickpockets, then check out some of the offerings from Knomo or Tumi. If you need something professional, or at least business casual, in more of the briefcase style, consider the options from Defy, Timbuk2, Waterfield Designs and Filson.

If you want a traditional messenger, then you're squarely in Chrome, Mission Workshop and Timbuk2 territory -- but there's a lot out there, messenger-wise, so keep in mind other great manufacturers like Rickshaw Bagworks, Vaya and Freitag. If you need a zippered backpack, there are great options from InCase, booq and Briggs & Riley; also Knomo, Aer and Tom Bihn. If your style is more rolltop backpack, then you'll want to see selections from Chrome, Timbuk2 and Filson as well as those from DSPTCH, Inside Line Equipment (ILE), Thule and Fjällräven.

Whatever style you wind up selecting, keep a close eye on the construction and materials -- stitching should be snug and uniform, hardware should be sturdy and functional, compartments accessible and thoughtful -- and keep in mind how you want your bag to fit to your body. As with any tech purchase, you want to get what you pay for: a quality product that suits your needs and lasts for years.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
A writer and editor based out of San Francisco, Amber has worked for The Wirecutter, PCWorld, MaximumPC and TechHive. Her work has also appeared on InfoWorld, MacWorld, Details, Apartment Therapy and Broke-Ass Stuart. In her spare time, she takes too many pictures of her cats, watches too much CSI and obsesses over her bullet journal.
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