We're fans of the sling-style laptop bag, which combines the shape of a backpack with an across-the-chest strap more commonly seen on messenger bags. The end result: a bag that sits high on your back but distributes the weight across your body instead of all on one shoulder. While many such bags borrow the backpack's top-loading design, the silver-and-black Brenthaven Sling II ($99), which features long zippers down one side of the bag as well as a front flap that opens to reveal small pockets, is more like a messenger bag turned on its side. In general this design works, letting you swing the bag around your body to access the interior without removing the strap; however, we do wish the zippers opened a little wider to allow fuller access to the bag's contents.
The outside of the bag features four easy-access pockets to keep frequently-used items close at hand. One at the top of the bag is the perfect size for a wallet and keys, and another on the outside of the front flap is large enough for a paperback, a smartphone, or a handheld gaming device. A zipper on the side reveals a collapsible mesh pocket designed to carry a water bottle, and a narrow Velcro-enclosed pocket on the front of the bag's strap keeps an MP3 player or cell phone handy. (Though some smartphones will prove too wide; our Treo 650 fit in this pocket, but our BlackBerry Curve did not.)
A large plastic buckle secures a flap on the front of the bag, which opens to reveal a swath of orange nylon fabric. An arc-shaped mesh pocket in front is large enough for a standard CD case, and a 7-inch zipper on the side opens into a pocket that's large enough for a plastic DVD case.
Two zippers along the side of the bag open to the two largest compartments. One, accessible via a 13-inch-long zipper, can accommodate a trade paperback and a small spiral notebook (or, for that matter, a Netbook). The main laptop compartment's zipper, though 21 inches long, doesn't reach all the way to the bottom edge, which makes it a little difficult to access the bag's contents; we wish it was just a bit longer. On one side of this compartment, there are two pen loops and a slot for business cards, plus two arc-shaped pockets that help corral power cords, discs, thumb drives, and the like. On the other side, a heavily padded orange sleeve protects your laptop, and a Velcro strap over the top holds the laptop snugly in place. Though Brenthaven specifies that the Sling II can accommodate laptops up to 15.4 inches in size, we struggled to squeeze the Gateway M-7818u into the bag, and it was difficult to extract. The task did get easier with each try, but we nevertheless recommend that owners of 15.4-inch laptops take the Sling II for a test drive to ensure that their computer fits properly.
Owners of smaller laptops need not worry. We were able to load the Sling II with everything we needed for an afternoon of work at a coffee shop, including a 13-inch laptop and power cord, two smartphones, MP3 player, and a pen and paper. The bag was rather comfortable to carry, thanks to its heavily padded and breathable back panel; however, we do wish the interior of the cross-body strap had such heavy padding. The strap is adjustable so you can situate the bag at just the right height on your back, but it is not ambidextrous: you have to carry the bag with the strap across your body from right shoulder to left hip. (To put the weight on your left shoulder, you have to carry it as you would a backpack on one shoulder, which, though not painful, is not ideal.) We were glad to have our wallet within easy reach when we got to the register, and we liked the nylon handle at the top of the bag, which made it easy to pick it up from the floor next to our table.
Brenthaven backs the Sling II with a lifetime warranty, and the company emphasizes its "zero impact" program, which addresses environmental and ergonomic factors in its bag design, as well as laptop protection.