The Ultimate Laptop Bag: My Quest For Perfection
This has sent me on a multi-year hunt for the perfect laptop and gear carrier.
I’m going to share my research and results with you – feel free to chime in with your own recommendations.
My current laptop, by the way, is a Macbook Pro 13″. Most of the solutions I describe could work for a variety of PCs and Macs. [Note: Per normal, some of the product links here are affiliate links, i.e., I get a small piece of the action if someone clicks through and makes a purchase. You can trust my comments, whether positive or negative, to be my real opinion.]
The Paradox of Choice – Alive and Well
This post is really in my “Tools” space, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring in some marketing psychology. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak with Dr. Barry Schwartz, author of the bestseller, The Paradox of Choice. (See Is Choice Still a Paradox? With Dr. Barry Schwartz.)
We talked about “maximizers” and “satisficers.” A satisficer is happy when a product is good enough. A maximizer strives to make the best possible decision, may obsess over details, and ultimately may be less happy with his decision.
Our orientation may vary depending on the product. You might be a satisficer when choosing paper towels, but a maximizer when buying a high performance sedan.
When it comes to computer carriers, I’m sure Dr. Schwartz would diagnose me as a maximizer. (This article alone would be enough to convict me!) But, if you are looking for a product recommendation, you are better off asking a maximizer than an easily-pleased satisficer. Read on…The Paradox of Choice meets choosing a computer bag - 5 field-test reviews. Click To Tweet
The First Conclusion
My first conclusion is that there is no single path to computer transport perfection.
The bag you need depends on where you are going, how you are traveling, what you’ll be doing at your destination, and many other factors.
I’ve got five solutions I use on a regular basis. (OK, maybe that’s a bit obsessive… but I’m doing the field testing so you don’t have to!)
Before we get to the bags…
Essential for (almost) any bag
One very useful approach that facilitates rapid switching is to put all your essential gear on one or two Grid-Its (see Staying Organized with Grid-It). Not only do these make moving gear a snap, they also prevent your accessories from clumping up in the dark bottom of a bag compartment.
I love bags with lots of nooks and crannies, but it takes a while to get used to any one bag. Until you’ve used the bag for a while, it’s likely you’ll have to root around a bit to find that elusive EU power adapter or thumb drive. A GridIt puts everything in plain view.
I won’t go anywhere without my GridIts.
With that out of the way, here are my top solutions for schlepping my computer around town and around the globe.
PC Treasures PocketPro Padfolio Portfolio Case
This little carrier gets used more frequently than any other bag in my collection, despite its rather severe limitations.
It gets used a lot (almost daily) because it’s my way of taking my computer to the coffee shop for an hour or two of “co-working.” My battery lasts far longer than that, so there’s no need to carry a power adapter. I forgo a mouse, too, and rely on the trackpad.
I love certain aspects of this case and hate others.
On the plus side, it provides great protection for my Mac. The sleeve is very well padded, the exterior is fairly stiff, and a zipper seals the unit inside. I’m not going to test it, but I’m pretty sure my Mac would survive a drop onto a concrete sidewalk inside this case.
It’s also sleek and reasonably good-looking. The exposed red liner on one side is a bit superfluous, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show up at a board meeting with this case. I expect it would work well with similarly sized Ultrabook PCs and large tablets.
On the minus side…
First, there’s no handle, shoulder strap, or any other way to hang onto it. You can hold it in your hand or tuck it awkwardly under your arm. Juggling this case, a cup of hot coffee, and your phone or wallet, is possible but decidedly risky.
The lack of any handle or strap also makes it a less than ideal choice for long carries. It’s fine for car to office or office to conference room, but on a twelve block hike carrying it might prove to be a bit much.
The other problem with this case is its utter lack of storage, despite being about two inches thick. The outside pocket (where the red is visible) is very tight. You can insert a thin manila file folder, but it will stick out. That looks cheesy and the file will get dog-eared.
There’s a small zippered pocket inside that might hold, say, a few business cards or a folded note.
Two small, very tight pockets could hold a few more business cards, or, with some pressure, a passport. A wider zippered compartment could hold a few sheets of paper if you could shove them in without crushing them.
The operative word for all of the supposed “storage” is tight. These compartments seem to be more for show than for effective use.
Most significantly, there’s no secure place for a file folder or two, logical accessories for, say, a lunch meeting. The only option is to stick a folder in the middle and bring the halves of the padfolio together.
If you do this, the folder fits nicely and doesn’t stick out. The catch is that you are relying on friction to keep everything in place. Chances are your important contract won’t slide out the open sides, but it’s a bit unsettling to put a folder in with no real barrier to the outside. Using a zipper to attach the halves would have provided secure storage for files, loose papers, etc.
The last oddity relates to the small zippered compartment. Not only is it so small and tight as to be useless, but the zipper pull tends to gouge anything it touches, like the legal pad or any papers you stick in the middle.
Conclusion. This is an attractive solution for protecting your laptop and carrying pen and paper. Use it for nearby meetings, a jaunt to the coffee shop, or any time you want your laptop with you for a short time. Lack of handles and near-zero storage make it impractical for anything else.
Photos, specs, and buying info: PC Treasures PocketPro Padfolio Portfolio Case
Old Reliable – Heritage Leather Computer Bag
This bag has logged 300,000+ air miles and accompanied me all over the globe. It’s actually one of several in this style I’ve owned, though it has proved to be far more durable than the rest.
I actually started using this bag when I owned a much heavier and thicker Toshiba PC laptop, complete with a power brick that fully deserved its name. After that, it held a Dell that was a bit of an improvement space-wise and weight-wise, but not by much.
Before this bag, I had a black vinyl bag of similar design whose carrying strap ripped off the bag in less than a year. I picked the Heritage bag to replace it based on its sturdy reinforcing where its handles and straps attached. (Fool me once…) I haven’t been disappointed after seven-plus years.
This bag has enough compartments, pockets, and storage crannies to satisfy any road warrior. Many compartments have their own pockets and interior dividers. Undoubtedly, its usability factor for me improved as I became consistent in where I put accessories and learned to find them on the first try, or even in a dark airplane cabin.
It fits under every airline seat and every overhead bin, so I’m never separated from it as I board a flight. It easily holds a laptop, iPad, files, all kinds of gear, and even a hardcover book or two.
The bag has a trolley strap that slides over the handle of my reliable Delsey Helium rollaboard (which has seen nearly as many miles).
I really like most aspects of the bag, though for my sleek MacBook Pro it’s perhaps a bit more than I need. These days, too, I rely less on the great organization options built into the bag and more on my Grid-Its.
What don’t I like about the Heritage bag? Being made of durable leather, it’s a bit heavy.
It’s also a bit too cumbersome for, say, long walks around trade show exhibit halls or hiking from a hotel to a distant meeting. The shoulder strap helps, but if the bag is fully loaded it gets uncomfortable.
One thing that’s rarely a problem but is a deal-breaker on occasional trips is its lack of wheels.
Normally, this bag rides on top of my carry-on. But, if I’m going on a trip of a week or more, particularly one that demands a variety of clothing, I’ll likely use a larger suitcase and check it.
Without the rolling carry-on bag, when fully packed this computer bag turns into a dead weight to lug around on your shoulder. Whether you are jogging to a distant terminal or standing in long security lines, a load that didn’t seem bad at first quickly gets onerous.
And, as capacious as the Heritage bag is, it’s not really designed to carry a change of clothes or emergency toiletries. I’ve had plenty of checked bag delays, so, on those rare occasions when I don’t carry on my primary suitcase I like to stuff a few essentials in whatever I take in the cabin.
Since 95% of my trips are carry-on flights, though, the Heritage bag continues to serve me well. After many years of hard use, it’s going strong. The only thing that has been problematic was the velcro patch on the bag that the trolley strap grabs on to. The stitching began to fail at about the five year point. A couple of metal rivets fixed that.
Being stuffed into countless overhead bins and being used a foot rest when under the seat have created some surface wear, but that goes with the territory.
I hunted around for a link to this bag at Amazon or eBags, but couldn’t find it. I suspect the transition to slender computers, far smaller power supplies, etc., has shifted cases away from these somewhat bulky designs. But, I did find a quite similar design which I linked to below.
Conclusion. This is still my go-to road warrior bag. Don’t be surprised if a few years from now you still see me jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, wheeling this gem off a red-eye on top of my Delsey carry-on.
Photos, specs, and buying info – the Heritage brand seems to have disappeared, but this model is very close: Claire Chase Executive Computer Briefcase
SwissGear Potomac Rolling Laptop Bag by Wenger
In preparation for a two-week cruise that entailed a long flight to Singapore, I decided to try another carry-on approach. I knew I’d be checking a full-size roller, and I didn’t want to take both a rolling carry-on and a separate computer bag.
So, I bought the cleverly designed SwissGear Potomac Rolling Laptop Bag.
I did far more research on this purchase than I did when buying my last car. Finding the right combination of features was surprisingly difficult. The key features I wanted were:
- Wheels for rolling through airports.
- Room for computer, tablet, and road warrior gear.
- Room for noise-cancelling headphone case.
- Room for a few small clothing/miscellaneous items.
- Fit most overhead bins on regional jets.
- Fit under most airline seats if overhead is problematic.
- Trolley strap for attaching to my larger suitcase for easy transport to taxi or hotel.
This list sounds straightforward, but a surprising number of bags don’t meet all of these.
The trickiest requirements are those related to getting the case onboard an airplane and then storing it. Big jets are rarely a problem. Some Airbus variations have cramped overhead bins, but they are usually workable if you board early enough.
The biggest problem in the U.S. comes with the regional jets flown mostly by affiliates of the major airlines. I try to avoid small jets from Embraer and the like, but sometimes that’s all that’s available. Typical rolling carry-on bags almost always have to be gate checked, which often results in a scrum on the jetway and a delay getting to one’s next flight.
I ended up using Amazon.com’s reviews and answered questions, since the dimensions alone don’t always answer the “can this be carried on?” question.
Even if your bag fits properly inside the “sizer” at the gate, it may still be denied by gate personnel due to the constraints of the particular aircraft. And there’s a good degree of subjectivity involved. I’ve seen bags let on board that were much bigger than the official limits, and I’ve seen bags denied that would have easily fit in the sizing tool.
The crowdsourced size information, unfortunately, was often inconsistent. The same bag would be described as “never a problem stowing on dozens of flights, even smaller planes,” by one reviewer, and another would report having to gate check it on smaller aircraft.
As with most crowdsourced advice, you have to gauge the credibility of the reviewer and also look for validation by multiple reviewers. The Potomac bag had mostly good reviews as far as successful boarding and stowage.
Bag-within-a-bag. There’s one unique feature of the Potomac that sold me on it over other rolling laptop bags.
That feature is the pull-out messenger bag that forms your laptop storage compartment. You can put your laptop, a tablet, a folder or two, a power adapter, and even a GridIt of accessories in this “bag within a bag.”
That gives you two advantages. First, if you roll up to the jetway and the gate attendant absolutely refuses to let you board with the rolling bag, you slide the small one out and let them gate-check the roller.Is this the perfect laptop bag? 5 field-test reviews. Click To Tweet
This can be done in seconds vs. the usual chaos of trying to find and extract important items before they take your bag away.
You not only have access to all your important stuff on the flight, you also prevent your expensive gear and valuable data from being turned over to sketchy baggage handlers.
The second advantage to this pull-out bag is at your destination. If you have meetings to attend, instead of showing up with a bulky rolling bag, you can take what you need in the comparatively sleek and business-like messenger bag. It’s handy for things like taking your computer and a few papers to work in a hotel lounge or coffee shop, too.
I’ve only taken a few trips trips with the Potomac, but so far it has worked as expected. I haven’t yet had a problem stowing it overhead, and the inside bag has been handy both on the flights and at my destination. The Potomac holds all my electronic gear, my headphones, and a few small clothing items with ease.
There are only a few things not to like.
First, it’s blocky and and the two big compartments are semi-rigid. This offers good protection for what’s inside, but limits your ability to squeeze the bag into tight spaces. Even removing the inner bag doesn’t actually let you compress it much.
Second, I find the appearance to be utilitarian. It’s well-styled, but the Potomac is clearly a ballistic nylon computer bag. Soft, flexible leather construction for both inner and outer bags would be more to my taste but would probably compromise weight, durability, and protection.
The third issue is the slightly deceptive “overnight” compartment closest to the handle. It looks huge from the outside, but the handle assembly takes up a good part of the space inside. The compartment is still useful, but is best for small or soft items that can fill the space on either side of the handle.
Conclusion. If you want a computer bag that rolls, this may be the best choice due to the removable messenger bag. It isn’t high fashion and it’s a bit bulky, but it gets the job done.
Photos, specs, buying info: Potomac from SwissGear by Wenger Computer Double Gusset Rolling Case
Ful Improv Backpack
This is a special use-case carrier, to use the parlance of software developers. I’m not usually a backpack guy when traveling on business.
But, there are occasional casual trips where a backpack is appropriate and can serve dual duty for hikes, day trips, and so on.
This Ful backpack was fairly inexpensive but surprisingly capacious and versatile. There’s a padded sleeve for a computer, various pockets inside and on the exterior, a water bottle holder, and more.
The two main compartments are roomy enough to hold both electronics and some clothes. My GridIts slide in for transferring most of my gear, and I stick the Mac power supply in the zippered side pocket. Additional exterior compartments (and a deep pocket) are handy for travel documents, small accessories, sun glasses, and temporary phone storage while going through airport security.
I was more than happy with the way this backpack worked for the few trips where I wanted it to serve double duty. On a recent trip where I knew I’d hit chilly weather, I was even able to stuff a windbreaker inside.
One small issue with this particular model is that it has only one padded computer slot. There’s no second padded area to secure an iPad or other tablet. You could just drop it in the compartment next to the computer sleeve if you had soft items packed there.
Or, you could buy a third-party cloth or padded sleeve for the tablet and drop it into the roomy padded compartment next to the laptop. (I made my own little iPad sleeve out of bubble wrap. That has worked fine for occasional use.)
If you don’t stuff it, this bag can have a fairly slender profile. Adjustable straps can be tightened to keep it from ballooning out as your items settle.
The other minor annoyance on this bag is that there is no trolley strap. Some backpacks have a carrying handle that will slide over the extended handle of a rolling suitcase. The handle on this one is a bit too small.
I did find I could pass the rolling bag handle through the backpack’s crossed shoulder straps and get a fairly secure combination. That’s not quite as convenient as a proper trolley strap, but it works.
Conclusion. The Ful Improv is an attractive, light, full-featured backpack with room for tech gear and more. I’d use it more if I had more travel that demanded a backpack rather than a more formal case.
Photos, specs, and buying info – the Improv model seems to have disappeared, but this Ful model is very close: Ful Unisex Backpack.
Latico Men’s Park Avenue Laptop Briefcase
Here’s the newest addition to my computer carrier stable. It’s a compact messenger-style bag with carrying handles and a shoulder strap.
My current use for this bag is nearby travel, longer meetings, etc. where I need more capacity than the padfolio. With this bag, I can pack an array of files, my Mac power supply, and even a GridIt or two.
This bag is a bit like my reliable Heritage bag, but with one less big compartment and a much sleeker profile. It’s about a third of the thickness of the Heritage bag. And, the dark brown color is more to my liking.
One trend I’ve seen in my own technology use is that the gear I’m carrying is shrinking. In some cases, I’m able to eliminate items. The last time I used my Ethernet cable was a couple of years ago – do I still need it?
Similarly, if I have my iPad, do I really need the space to carry paper books on trips?
I see this bag as the future for my business travel. As I continue to slim down my essential gear, I’m quite certain I could use this bag to replace the much bulkier Heritage bag.
The one item that really overloads this bag is the case holding my Bose QC-15 headphones. I’ve found the superb noise attenuation they provide essential for long flights. One solution I’ve used occasionally with my Heritage bag is to attach the headphone case to one of the bag’s carry handles with a carabiner. It’s not a great solution, but it works for getting on and off planes and keeping the headphones handy.
A better solution, perhaps, would be to switch to Bose earbuds. Reviews suggest they aren’t quite as good at sealing out cabin noise, but they would offer an enormous size advantage over my QC-15s.
Sometime soon I’ll take this bag on a business trip and report on my findings.
Conclusion. The Latico Laptop Briefcase is attractive and roomy enough to hold technology essentials – laptop and tablet, power supplies, and a modest amount of other gear. It’s the future for my business travel. (I hope!)
Photos, specs, and buying info: Latico Park Avenue Laptop Briefcase.Quest for the perfect laptop bag - 5 field-test reviews. Click To Tweet
Your Turn – What’s Your Top Choice for Tech Travel?
I know many of my readers are constantly traveling, too. Please share the results of your experience in a comment!