Backpacks vs. shoulder bags: Laptop commuters take sides

For lugging a laptop and other tech gear, the choice is more contentious than we thought.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Joshua Goldman
3 min read
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People have strong opinions about laptop bags. I'm used to battles with things like Mac versus Windows, iOS versus Android or PC gaming versus console. But backpacks versus shoulder or messenger bags? 

"The only acceptable way to wear a backpack is one-strapping it," said CNET Senior Managing Editor Dan Ackerman. "Even then, it's like wearing shorts in public in New York City -- very rarely acceptable." 

"Seriously, this is a no-brainer issue. Backpacks are better for your back health if you're a commuter," said Senior Editor Bridget Carey. "If you're going between the parking lot and your desk, a shoulder bag is fine. But for anyone commuting a distance, a backpack is better." 

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Others were willing to split the difference and say shoulder bags are better for work and backpacks are for travel, more casual use or when laptop size demanded a larger bag. The only common ground was that there's a special place in hell for people who refuse to take off their backpacks on a crowded subway. 

The whole discussion in our office stemmed from Dan's hatred for backpacks and Timbuk2's revamped Especial CollectionThe company got its start making messenger bags in 1989, but this collection has two backpacks and just a single messenger bag. It shows the shift the company is seeing from its customers. Backpacks are now a little over 50% of its sales, said Brandon McCarthy, Timbuk2's global merchandising manager. 

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Comfort vs. stigma

There are a lot of advantages to backpacks for a daily commute, not the least of which is comfort. The double straps spread the load more evenly on your shoulders and if you're biking (or scooting or skating), a backpack has greater stability, McCarthy said. You'll also typically find more organization and just a greater variety of styles and sizes in general, including models like the Tortuga Setout that can work as a day bag and carry-on luggage

There is a stigma with backpacks that they're for students and travelers, McCarthy said. Having seen and tested backpacks made for professionals from Waterfield Designs, Vessel and Anson Calder, it doesn't matter how nice-looking a backpack is, it can still make you look like a 12-year-old at the office and pairing one with a suit is a hard sell. 

Plus, McCarthy said a lot of people wear their backpacks incorrectly, which doesn't help the look or keep you comfortable.

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Travel light and tight

Aside from being a more traditional choice for business use, shoulder bags have advantages over backpacks. The bag is closer to you, for instance. A shoulder bag can easily be swung forward to quickly get something out or slid back and out of the way with little effort. This also makes it a good choice for public transportation, so you can keep an eye on your stuff while taking up less space. 

Messenger bags aren't a stable ride, though, McCarthy said. While Timbuk2 ships its messengers with a cross-stabilization strap, it's an extra necessary step needed to keep the bag from swinging forward while biking. That's not an issue for backpacks. Plus, the messenger's design also means it's not entirely hands-free the way a backpack is, he added. 

The biggest downsides to a shoulder bag are arguably weight and size, though. Having all the weight on one shoulder all the time can result in muscle tightness along with back and neck pain. If you carry a 15-inch or larger laptop day-to-day, it quickly gets uncomfortable. Also, you can only make a shoulder bag so large before it just becomes awkward. That said, the compression straps typically used on messenger bags can help keep the bag tight when not fully loaded.  

Your choice in the end essentially comes down to your needs and personal style, and I guess how much back and shoulder pain you can live with. I commute between New Jersey and New York by train and bus, carry two phones and travel with a 4-pound laptop, so my preference is for a shoulder bag. A backpack is eminently better for running to catch said train and bus, however. 

What do you think is the better bag choice for a daily commute?    

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