7 laptop bags: How well do they really protect?

We drop-tested 7 laptop bags to find out whether they can keep your laptop in one operating piece -- and we have the videos to prove it.
  • (Computerworld (US))
  • 19 October, 2012 11:16

One of the most important parts of your travel kit, next to your phone and/or your laptop, is the bag that holds and protects them. A sturdy bag that cushions its contents could be the only thing keeping your digital gear from becoming a useless pile of plastic, metal and glass.

For example, several years ago while my plane was rumbling down the runway, the overhead compartment door popped open and my notebook bag crashed to the cabin floor. After we were airborne and the seatbelt light was turned off, I cautiously opened the bag to find that my notebook's screen was shattered, the CD drive had come loose and there were several pieces of broken plastic at the bag's bottom. Luckily, the hard drive with all my data survived, but my $1,500 computer was junk.

It was clear I needed a better bag.

Currently, most travelers use soft cases made of a variety of fabrics to carry their technology from place to place. Bag-makers tend to use three techniques -- or a combination of them -- to lessen the force of impact:

  • Padding. This is the simplest form of protection, and it works by compressing on impact to absorb some of the shock.
  • An elastic sling. This works like a vertical shock absorber to take up some of the force of the impact.
  • An air bladder. This can also absorb much of the jolt of impact.

To see which bags best protect their precious cargo, I gathered six soft laptop cases for testing. I looked for bags that advertised themselves as paying attention to the safety of their contents and that represented three popular styles of bags: two backpacks ( Airbac AirTech Backpack and Brenthaven Expandable Trek), two messenger bags ( Booq Cobra case and Timbuk2 Ram) and two soft briefcases ( Samsonite's Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief and Tom Bihn's Brain Cell Horizontal).

I also tested a hard case (the Pelican ProGear Laptop Case 1095CC) to find out whether it protected a laptop significantly better than its soft-sided cousins.

Unsurprisingly, all the bags reduced the force of impact to at least some extent in my tests, but there was a lot of variation in the protection offered. The best bag reduced the force of impact by a little more than one-third, substantially reducing the potential for damage; some reduced it by only about 6%.

How I tested

After measuring and weighing each bag, and examining the material it was made of, I looked at the ruggedness of the zippers, Velcro straps and snaps. I also appraised the comfort and adjustability of the shoulder strap and recorded the number and types of pockets.

I then loaded each bag up with about 20 lb. of the typical accouterments of travel. In addition to files, magazines, books and a few pens and pencils, I put in a mid-sized laptop, a 10-in. Archos 101 tablet and an LG Nitro HDAndroid phone, along with their AC adapters. I then carried the bag around for a while to see how well it bore the load.

Since I didn't want to risk losing another laptop, I tested the bags by hollowing out an old 15.6-in. laptop and installed an accelerometer to record the impact of a series of falls.

The accelerometer was connected to a Vernier Labquest 2 device that interpreted the accelerometer's readings and presented the data on its small screen. While the accelerometer is rated to measure the force of acceleration to a maximum of 25 g (25 times the force of gravity), it can accurately record forces much higher. Readings were taken at the rate of 200 samples per second for 10 seconds and the peak was recorded.

Each bag was put through two tests. The first, meant to simulate a normal fall from a desktop onto a hard surface, involved dropping the bag with the test unit inside from a 30-in.-high shelf onto a concrete floor; it was dropped onto its flat end, so that the laptop landed on its bottom. The second, meant to simulate a fall from an airplane's overhead compartment, involved dropping it 60 in. onto a padded carpet; it was dropped so the laptop would hit on its front or rear edge.

I also performed both tests with just the instrumented laptop and without any protective bag to use as a baseline. I oriented the accelerometer so its sensor was facing down regardless of which test was being performed.

For each test, I executed three drops from each height and reported the average.

The difference between the baseline results (from dropping the laptop without any protection) and the test results provided data as to how well each bag protected what was inside. In other words, the wider the difference in the force of the impact, the more protective the bag was.

Video evidence

I recorded the drop tests and have included the videos so that you can watch (in real time and slow-motion) how I and my son, Peter Nadel, dropped each bag and recorded the result.

Of course, there are a variety of aspects to consider when you're choosing a laptop bag besides how well it protects. These include price, convenience, how much it will hold, how well it will keep your stuff organized, and how good it looks. However, short of covering your laptop in bubble wrap, it is better to be on the safe side by using the most protective bag that you feel comfortable with. That way, if the bag accidentally falls, the computer inside will live to fall another day.

(Story continues on next page.)

Laptop bags: Drop test results

Comparison used: An unprotected bag dropped from 30 in. with a force of impact of 31.7 g, and dropped from 60 in. with a force of impact of 32.4 g. *Lower is better. **Higher is better.

Backpack: AirBac AirTech Backpack

As its name implies, AirBac's AirTech Backpack relies on air to cushion your computer. However, the design goes a step further, supporting your lower back and making the load feel lighter.

About the bag

AirBac AirTech Backpack

Constructed of fine nylon, the 2.6-lb. backpack is available in black, blue or gray. It is 3 oz. heavier than the Brenthaven backpack and offers a lot of room for gear, including three large compartments and a variety of pockets. There's a phone pocket in the main compartment, but it seems designed for small phones; the top of my smartphone stuck out.

On the outside, the AirTech pack has two pockets for water bottles. Along with its padded and contoured shoulder straps, the AirTech pack has a cloth handle; however, the handle is somewhat less comfortable to carry than the Benthaven's padded handle.

With the AirTech loaded up, I was able to walk around comfortably. The integrated air bag does a good job of supporting the user's lower back, making the pack feel lighter than you'd expect. It also has two hidden benefit for travelers: the air bag can act as a pillow for those interminable airport delays, and it can stand on its own without annoyingly falling over.

How it protects

Able to hold up to a 15.6-in. laptop, the AirTech has a sheet of rigid plastic embedded inside to add structure to the bag, but the true protection comes from its integrated air bag. It comes fully inflated; the company says it should stay that way for at least a year.

If you need to re-inflate the air bag, you'll need to have a pump and inflation needle -- the same equipment you'd use if you were filling up a basketball or football. Needless to say, this could present a problem on the road.

Test results

The only one of the six bags I tested to use an air bag, the AirTech backpack protected its contents well. The bag reduced the force of impact from 31.7 g to 21.3 g in the 30-in. drop. In other words, it delivered reduction of 32.8% in the force of the fall, protecting the notebook better than the other soft bags.

At a Glance

AirTech Backpack

AirBacPrice: $89.99Pros: Air bladder provides excellent protection, lots of room, well-made and sturdy, good back supportCons: Re-inflation requires pump

In the 60-in. drop, the results were not as dramatic. The AirTech bag was able to reduce the impact of the fall by 23.5%, with an average force of 24.8 g -- roughly equivalent to the Brenthaven Expandable Trek's score of 24.9 g, but well behind the Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief's protective result of 22.5 g.

Bottom line

Airbac's AirTech backpack comes with a lifetime warranty. At $90, it is a good investment for keeping your computer working on the road, although it may be wise to check the air bag's level of inflation before you leave on a trip.

Backpack: Brenthaven Expandable Trek Backpack

Long known for its traditional notebook bags, Brenthaven's Expandable Trek Backpack coddles a notebook in high-density foam.

About the bag

Brenthaven Expandable Trek Backpack

Constructed of heavy-duty nylon on the outside and lightweight nylon on the inside, the Expandable Trek has padding and mesh fabric wherever your back touches it. Trek's laptop compartment can comfortably accommodate up to a 15.4-in. computer, and there is also a zippered section that allows the pack to expand by roughly 20% -- in all, this is a great pack if you have to carry a lot of gear.

The black bag can be ordered with gray or blue accents and weighs 2.4 lb. -- 3 oz. less than the AirBac pack. It has thoughtful design touches throughout, including fabric zipper pulls, a clip for your keys, and a soft felt-lined place to stow a pair of glasses while traveling.

There are two large compartments and one small one. On the outside, the bag has a pair of water bottle pockets and a bungee cord for attaching something to the outside of the pack. There are eight individual internal pockets, but no dedicated phone pocket.

The pack's shoulder straps are contoured and well-padded; I found it a comfortable way to carry a heavy load. An excellent padded handle makes it easy to grab the bag out of an overhead compartment. On the other hand, the Expandable Trek bag lacks the internal structure that the AirBac pack provides, and flopped over when I tried to stand it up.

How it protects

At the base of the Expandable Trek is a 1-in. layer of shock-absorbing high-density foam. The foam is made up of tiny spherical cells that can soak up some of the impact of hitting the floor. There's also thinner padding where the backpack touches your back. Unlike many of the others, the Trek has a Velcro strap to hold the computer firmly in place.

Test results

At a Glance

Expandable Trek Backpack

BrenthavenPrice: $119.95Pros: High-density foam, lots of pockets, felt-lined area for glasses and fragile tech, moderately protectiveCons: Doesn't stand on its own

The Expandable Trek was able to cut the impact of the 30-in. drop to 25 g, a reduction of 21.1% from the baseline. It hit the floor with 3.7 g more impact than the AirTech did, making it second best in the backpack category and just behind the Booq Cobra case and Timbuk2 Ram Backpack overall.

In the 60-in. drop, the bag reduced the impact to 24.9 g, a 23.1% reduction from the baseline. This puts it in a virtual tie with the AirBac pack. Overall, only the Cobra case did better in the simulated overhead compartment drop.

Bottom line

With a lifetime warranty, the Trek Expandable Backpack costs $30 more than the AirBack AirTech Backpack but doesn't absorb as much of the impact of a 30-in. drop. On the other hand, the Trek is lightweight and comfortable, and has a good selection of design touches -- so your choice will depend on your priorities.

Drop tests from 30 in. and 60 in. using laptop backpacks.

Messenger bag: Booq Cobra case

At 5.3 lb., Booq's Cobra case is easily the heaviest bag of the group and costs nearly as much as a budget notebook -- but it does a good job of protecting your technology.

About the bag

Booq Cobra case

Able to hold up to a 16.4-in. Windows-based laptop or a 17-in. MacBook Pro, the Cobra has twice the heft of the Timbuk2 Ram messenger bag and is three times heavier than the Tom Bihn Brain Cell soft briefcase. When I picked it up, it felt heavy before I put anything in it.

Made of heavy-duty nylon with a black leather trim, it has three main compartments, along with a total of 12 pockets that will serve even the most compulsive organizer. Unfortunately, I found no convenient place to stash my smartphone (at least, no pocket with a protective flap). Like the Brenthaven, the Cobra has a clip for keys and a felt-lined pocket.

The case's padded shoulder strap can be removed, which is a nice touch, and the bag had the most comfortable handle of the group. There's also a strap to attach the case to a wheeled bag to lighten the load for sprints between airport gates.

This bag's been designed well for day-to-day abuse, including a rubberized coating on the bottom and waterproof zippers with rubber-coated pulls. It was also the best bag at standing on its own.

How it protects

The sturdy Cobra has sheets of rigid plastic sandwiched between its inner and outer fabric walls. Inside, the notebook compartment is surrounded by half an inch of high-density foam, which has tiny cells that deform to absorb some of the impact. It's lined with soft Lycra fabric.

If your bag is lost or stolen, Booq offers a great recovery program called Terralinq. Inside the Cobra is a metal tag with a unique serial number. If you register the bag and a kind stranger finds it and reports it at the Terralinq site, the company will put the two of you in contact with each other.

Test results

At a Glance

Cobra case

BooqPrice: $345.00Pros: Good protection, rugged construction, well-made and elegant, loss return serviceCons: Expensive, heavy

Booq's Cobra did quite well on the tests, cutting the shock of impact to 23.3 g on the 30-in, drop. That's a 26.5% reduction from the baseline.

It did even better on the 60-in. fall, with a rating of 22.4 g, a 30.9% percent drop in the force of impact. This is the best result of all the bags dropped from this height.

Bottom line

At $345, Booq's Cobra case is not for bargain hunters. It's roughly five times the cost of the Samsonite bag; in addition, it comes with a five-year warranty, whereas most of the others reviewed here have a lifetime warranty. Still, the Cobra is well-designed and roomy, and excelled on the 60-in. drop test, which may make it worth its price.

Messenger bag: Timbuk2 Ram Backpack

Don't let the name of Timbuk2's Ram Backpack fool you -- this hybrid bag leads a double life: It is a messenger bag that can quickly convert to a backpack.

About the bag

Timbuk2 Ram Backpack

Made of fine-weave nylon and able to hold up to a 15.6-in. notebook, the Ram has cylindrical rubber zipper pulls and a fold-over cover that can be clipped into place; the cover also has Velcro straps. The bag has three compartments as well as seven pockets inside, one with a Velcro cover that was large enough to accommodate my smartphone. There is a large external section for papers as well as a small zippered pocket for a wallet, phone or tickets.

The Ram has a padded handle and a removable padded strap -- and a pair of shoulder straps hidden in a compartment on the side that let me convert the bag from messenger to backpack in less than a minute. As a bonus for thirsty travelers, the backpack's right shoulder strap has a bottle opener.

All those straps and metal fittings make the Ram versatile and flexible, although at 2.6 lb., it isn't a lightweight. Still, I found the Ram to be quite comfortable in either configuration, even when it was full. The soft Ram bag has the tendency to flop over, though.

The Timbuk2 website offers a nice online fitting guide that can match your computer to the right bag either by model or dimensions.

How it protects

With a soft quilted tricot fabric lining, the Ram's padded notebook compartment seems like a safe place to put your computer. It has one-third of an inch of padding along its sides, but the padding on the bottom is slightly less thick.

Test results

At a Glance

Ram Backpack

Timbuk2Price: $135.00Pros: Padded interior, converts to backpack, many pockets, pocket for large smartphoneCons: Small, less protection than many, doesn't stand on its own

The test results weren't bad in the 30-in. drop, where the case offered a good amount of the impact. The instrumented dummy notebook experienced a 23.1 g impact on the test, a 27.1% percent reduction from the baseline, putting it in the middle of the pack.

However, the Ram provided minimal protection in the 60-in. drop test. It was able to absorb 29.7 g of the impact, or an 8.3% reduction in drop force from the baseline. It was the least protective bag of the six in this test.

Bottom line

The Ram Backpack carries a lifetime warranty. It is well designed, comfortable, and has lots of useful storage sections; it can also do a trick that none of the others can: Change from a messenger bag to a backpack and back again. However, it may not protect your laptop as well in long drops.

Drop tests from 30 in. and 60 in. using laptop messenger bags.

Soft briefcase: Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief

One look at the Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief and it's obvious how different this bag is. The black fabric case has three bright blue rectangular air cells at its base that can help protect a notebook from a fall. Unfortunately, they don't offer as much protection to the bag's sides.

About the bag

Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief

The Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief is minimalist, to say the least. It's made from heavy-duty nylon fabric with only one outside pocket. At 1.8 lb., it is 8 oz. heavier than the Tom Bihn Brain Cell.

The Slimbrief also lacks some of the extra creature comforts that the others offer, such as a keychain clip or a felt-lined area for protecting fragile mobile devices. The bag does have sturdy handles; the shoulder strap can be unclipped and it has a handy strap for attaching it to a wheelie bag for quick travel maneuvers. However, I felt that Slimbrief is probably better for day trips than long journeys.

While the others have a five-year or lifetime warranty, Samsonite covers the Slimbrief bag for only three years.

How it protects

The Slimbrief uses air cells that wrap around the bottom of the case while its corners act like shock-absorbing bumpers to lessen the force of an impact and keep some of that impact from being transmitted to the computer. Unlike the AirTech bag, the Air Viz's sealed air cells can't be pumped up again.

It's a great idea, but the air cells only protect the base of the bag. The bag's sides are bolstered with rigid foam and its main -- and only -- compartment is felt-lined.

Test results

At a Glance

Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief

SamsonitePrice: $53.99Pros: Air bumper protection, inexpensive, felt liningCons: Small, minimal pockets, three-year (rather than lifetime) warranty

On the 30-in. fall, the Viz Air bag had a rating of 25.1 g, about average for the group. It represents a 20.8% reduction in force over the baseline.

It came as no surprise that the Slimbrief did better on the 60-in. drop test onto the bag's base, where most of its protection is concentrated. It reduced the force of impact to 22.5 g, a 30.6% improvement over the baseline.

Bottom line

The Slimbrief is a well-built, inexpensive notebook bag (be aware that the price changed several times during the course of this review). It should do a decent job -- if you don't plan on carrying much.

Soft briefcase: Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell

Easily the simplest bag of the group -- it is so slim it can be used inside another bag -- Tom Bihn's Horizontal Brain Cell offers your laptop a variety of survival techniques.

About the bag

Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell

With only one compartment, the Brain Cell has little room for papers, a phone or other travel gear; it does have a pair of mesh slash pockets on the outside. The Brain Cell can be clipped inside one of Tom Bihn's other bags, most of which have lots of pockets and offer additional protection.

On the other hand, you can be assured of a good fit: There are 14 sizes of Brain Cell bags available to accommodate everything from a tablet to a 17-in. laptop. The site has an online fitting guide that lets you choose by model; there's even a list of notebooks that won't fit.

The bag I looked at weighs 1.3 lb., has a pair of handles made from webbing fabric and is the lightest bag of those I tested. It doesn't come with a shoulder strap, although there are triangular rings for clipping on a strap. You can purchase one of two optional shoulder straps: woven nylon with a shoulder pad for $12 or more padded with a wider shoulder pad for $30.

How it protects

The thin black rectangular bag uses several strategies for protecting its contents. In addition to surrounding the system with rigid corrugated plastic and suspending the notebook on a foam sling that absorbs some of the shock of impact, it is encased in foam padding. The notebook compartment has a soft felt lining.

Test results

At a Glance

Horizontal Brain Cell

Tom BihnPrice: $60.00Pros: Foam protection and padded sling, can be combined with other bags, 12 different sizesCons: Need to buy shoulder strap separately, not much room

On the 30-in. drop, the Brain Cell subjected the dummy notebook to 26.1 g of impact, a 17.7% reduction from the baseline. This put it in last place among our tested bags.

On the 60-in. fall, the Brain Cell's test results were in the same ballpark, with a rating of 26.8 g, a 17.3% reduction in the force of its impact.

Bottom line

At $60, the Brain Cell Horizontal is inexpensive and comes with a lifetime warranty. On the other hand, it provides minimal protection and few places to stash your stuff. It would no doubt do better to use it in combination with one of Tom Bihn's other bags, and just pull it out for short walks. That will increase its protection level and give you more storage as well.

Drop tests from 30 in. and 60 in. using soft briefcases for laptops.

Hard case: Pelican ProGear 15.6 inch Laptop Case 1095CC

Sometimes a soft bag just isn't enough protection, particularly if your career depends on keeping your digital gear working. That's why there are a number of hard cases out there as well. They are a lot heavier than soft cases, and not quite as convenient if you need to pack a lot of different items, but they're also a lot safer.

Pelican ProGear 15.6 inch Laptop Case 1095CC

To see how a hard case compared with our software test cases, we decided to go with the Pelican ProGear Laptop Case 1095CC, which fits 15.6-in. laptops (according to the manufacturer, it will also accommodate a 17-inch Macbook Pro). Pelican also makes a version for 14-in. computers.

About the bag

The Pelican ProGear case weighs 3.3 lb. and comes with a shoulder strap that can be set up as a short handle. At $125, the case is moderately priced for a hard case, but has no pockets or anywhere to put your AC adapter, tablet or more than a few papers.

How it protects

The Pelican has a skin of rigid ABS plastic (a type of plastic that offers high-impact strength) and is lined with foam to soak up the impact of a fall. But that's just the start.

The hard case itself is watertight -- it is equipped with a sealing gasket around its edge and has a valve that keeps dust and moisture out. In fact, I noticed that the Pelican case delivered a satisfying whoosh (the sound of air leaving the case) as it was clamped shut. It seemed very unlikely that any unwanted dirt or liquids could invade that space.

Test results

At a Glance

Pelican ProGear 15.6 inch Laptop Case 1095CC

PelicanPrice: $124.95Pros: Rigid construction, foam lining, water- and dust-proofCons: Heavy, no place for accessories or power adapter

It wasn't a surprise that the Pelican case led the way in the 30-in. drop test: It not only hit the concrete with a resounding thud, but the Pelican case rated a 20.2 g impact, a 36.3% force reduction from the baseline.

On the 60-in. drop test, the notebook registered an impact of 23.5 g, a 27.5% improvement. There was a problem here, though: The case tended to land on its hinges, which can concentrate the impact into two spots. (The bottom hinges also mean that the case can't stand upright on its own.)

Bottom line

It's heavy, and may be a bit awkward to use if you are carrying anything besides your laptop, but the Pelican Pro Gear case can help careful computer owners keep their laptops from becoming electronic roadkill.

Drop tests from 30 in. and 60 in. using a hard case for laptops.

Conclusions

After the dust had settled and all the numbers were averaged, I gave the instrumented notebook a dignified funeral. It had given much and asked for nothing in return.

The big take-away from over 50 individual drops is that every one of these bags could shelter a notebook and protect it to some degree. The difference comes in how much protection and under what conditions.

Compared with the impact of an unprotected notebook, the six soft bags and one hard case offered the ability to absorb between 6% and 36% of the impact of a typical accident at home or on the road. But some did better than others on the individual drops.

On the 30-in. drop, which was meant to simulate a fall from a desktop (or simply slipping out of your hands), the Airbac AirTech Backpack led the soft bags with a 21.3-g result, reducing the impact by 32.8% from that of an unprotected laptop. The Pelican hard case did better with a 20.2-g result, but since it doesn't have much room for anything other than a notebook, it may not be a practical alternative for travelers.

On the 60-in. drop onto the base of the bag, the Booq Cobra with its 22.4-g result and the Samsonite Via Air Laptop Slimbrief with its 22.5-g result were in a virtual tie for going the best job of protecting a computer.

The more we rely on our devices, the safer we need to keep them. Hopefully, bag-makers will redouble their efforts to create bags that go even further and offer even more protection. After all, it's a cruel world out there.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.

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