We're not going to lie. The backpack is a tough look to pull off, especially if you're a both-straps-on type. The one place you can get away with it is in school, so we've collected the best laptop-friendly backpacks for a back-to-school roundup.
A massive canvas backpack designed to fit laptops with screens up to 15-inches (although many 16-inch models will fit as well), the STM Convoy ($99) looks more like a piece of camping gear than a high-tech laptop accessory.
The back panel is heavily padded, while the main laptop compartment is divided in two with a Velcro-attached panel that create a padded laptop section and a large but shallow space for papers or magazines. A front compartment has a traditional assortment of small pockets and flaps, big enough for laptop power bricks, phones, and other accessories. Two generous pockets (with snap closures) are on the front face, with a water-bottle-sized snap pocket on each side of the Convoy's body.
The STM Convoy is very sturdy, with plenty of room for laptops and other gear--just make sure you're ready to sign up for the green canvas look.
Tom Bihn backpacks aren't cheap--the Brain Bag costs a hefty $140--but they're huge, multipurpose, and come with a lifetime guarantee on their workmanship. This bag's bigger on the inside than it appears: two panels spread open to accommodate a laptop up to 17 inches in screen size, along with a few large textbooks.
One word of warning: you'll need to buy an additional "Brain Cell" ($60) or other Tom Bihn accessories to make the most of the two large interior compartments (no laptop sleeve is sewn in), but that could be great for regular travelers: the noncompartmentalized space is perfect for weekend packing. In case things get too bulky, side buckles adjust to compress the backpack. A variety of basic colors and a rugged construction give the bag a very outdoorsy feel.
Several deep outer zippered compartments are great for commuting or airline travel, and buckles running down the middle are even thoughtfully placed to lock an umbrella or jacket in place. The more we spend time with the Brain Bag, the more we like it. Enough to justify its $200 effective cost? Actually, yes.
Rigid like a turtle shell and full of internal storage for gear, the large, round Boa Flow ($199) is neither a subtle backpack nor is it cheap. But there's a lot to love for frequent travelers and weekend warriors: a separate zip-up padded laptop compartment holds computers with screens up to 17 inches, and there are more upper, lower, and side pockets than even us pocket-loving editors know what to do with.
The Boa Flow also has an oddly-placed but well-padded bottom compartment shaped to hold an SLR camera. In case you don't own a camera, it's also nicely sized for a AC adapters and cables. Even with a laptop in the back, the rest of the Flow has enough room to pack a change of clothing, some books, and an ample supply of pocket gadgets. It doesn't stand upright easily, but we'd have no concerns about throwing this reinforced bag around.
This sophisticated-looking backpack trades the squared-off, multipocket collegiate look for curved lines in black nylon, and an oversized front flap that creates a streamlined look.
Inside, its massive main compartment is evenly divided into two sections--a padded one for your laptop, and a large space for accessories and other goods. The front face of the bag has a decent-sized triangular pocket that's surprisingly deep, with a separate webbed pocket in front of that. The most interesting compartment is a semihidden one in the very base of the bag. It's a hard plastic drawer that pulls out to provide safe storage for delicate electronics, or bulky cables.
While it has backpack straps, the Saddlebag Pro ($79) deemphasizes them, at least compared to other laptop backpacks. The twin shoulder straps can be unhooked from the bottom of the bag and stowed inside a zipped pocket on the rear face, allowing you to use the large, and well-padded, top handle instead.
It's not a fancy or particularly cool bag, but the Targus Varsity ($59) has one big thing going for it: it's relatively cheap. Built to hold up to a 15.6-inch screened laptop in its padded sleeve, the Varsity packs flat, has numerous zippered compartments and plenty of pockets, and has a useful set of side pouches for extra gear.
Even though it's a little slighter in feel than some heavy-duty backpacks we've seen, it's well-built and feels comfortable. The back is slightly padded, and there's even a small Velcro webbed pouch on one shoulder strap for pens or loose change. Not surprisingly, since Targus focuses on laptop bags, this no-nonsense all-around backpack is pretty versatile.
The PacSafe line of laptop bags and cases is about as close to Fort Knox as bags get. Many of the PacSafe bags, including this massive DaySafe 200 backpack ($199), include several security features design to keep your laptop safe, even if you have to leave your bag unattended.
The outer layer is embedded with a mesh of wires, making it slashproof, which is important, as thieves have been known to take a boxcutter to laptop bags (even ones that are right on your back) and slice their way through. The large main compartment has a fully enclosed slash-proof laptop sleeve inside it, which cinches shut with a metal cable that can be attached to a table leg or lamppost with an included padlock.
In short, this is a very secure laptop backpack. Left alone, a thief might be able to cut away the actual bag, but hypothetically wouldn't be able to get away with the wire exoskeleton inner sleeve, if it's chained to something secure. Unless they have a pair of bolt cutters, that is.
This oversized backpack from Slappa is a bit of a kitchen sink model, including a checkpoint-friendly zippered laptop compartment, a big padded panel on the rear face, and a lot of room in its varied pockets and compartments.
The front face bows out like a turtle's shell, giving you plenty of room, and three small triangular pockets on the front bow open wide, accordion style, although we'd be cautious about putting fragile gadgets in there.
The most notable feature of the M.A.S.K. Koa ($129) is its interchangeable lining inserts. The front compartment zips all the way open, and a variety of sold-separately inserts, done in different art styles, can be slapped in with Velcro. The styles are appropriately collegiate, with themes from aliens, to mock Soviet constructivist art, to Che. Of course, the artistic inserts are mostly for your own amusement, as people will only see them when the bag is wide open.
Bags from Tom Bihn operate on a system of modular functionality rather than offering built-in pockets: roomy and weather-resistant, their backpacks do good double-duty as outdoor/travel gear. Unfortunately, that also means you'll have to invest in one of a variety of clip-in sleeves or organizers, upping the total "real" price of the backpack.
Those expecting multiple pockets and plenty of zippers might be thrown by the Smart Alec ($120), which has one deep chamber and two long outer zippered pouches, but not much else. On the other hand, fewer zippers mean fewer openings for rain to seep in. The raincoat-esque lightweight fabric and weather-protected zipper linings make for a minimalist backpack, but one that actual backpackers heading to school might prefer.