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7 laptop bags: How well do they really protect?

October 19, 2012 06:00 AM ET

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
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
Price: $89.99
Pros: Air bladder provides excellent protection, lots of room, well-made and sturdy, good back support
Cons: 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
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
Price: $119.95
Pros: High-density foam, lots of pockets, felt-lined area for glasses and fragile tech, moderately protective
Cons: 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.

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