7 laptop bags: How well do they really protect?

We drop-tested 7 laptop bags to find out whether they can keep your laptop in one operating piece -- and we have the videos to prove it.

One of the most important parts of your travel kit, next to your phone and/or your laptop, is the bag that holds and protects them. A sturdy bag that cushions its contents could be the only thing keeping your digital gear from becoming a useless pile of plastic, metal and glass.

For example, several years ago while my plane was rumbling down the runway, the overhead compartment door popped open and my notebook bag crashed to the cabin floor. After we were airborne and the seatbelt light was turned off, I cautiously opened the bag to find that my notebook's screen was shattered, the CD drive had come loose and there were several pieces of broken plastic at the bag's bottom. Luckily, the hard drive with all my data survived, but my $1,500 computer was junk.

It was clear I needed a better bag.

Currently, most travelers use soft cases made of a variety of fabrics to carry their technology from place to place. Bag-makers tend to use three techniques -- or a combination of them -- to lessen the force of impact:

  • Padding. This is the simplest form of protection, and it works by compressing on impact to absorb some of the shock.
  • An elastic sling. This works like a vertical shock absorber to take up some of the force of the impact.
  • An air bladder. This can also absorb much of the jolt of impact.

To see which bags best protect their precious cargo, I gathered six soft laptop cases for testing. I looked for bags that advertised themselves as paying attention to the safety of their contents and that represented three popular styles of bags: two backpacks (Airbac AirTech Backpack and Brenthaven Expandable Trek), two messenger bags (Booq Cobra case and Timbuk2 Ram) and two soft briefcases (Samsonite's Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief and Tom Bihn's Brain Cell Horizontal).

I also tested a hard case (the Pelican ProGear Laptop Case 1095CC) to find out whether it protected a laptop significantly better than its soft-sided cousins.

Unsurprisingly, all the bags reduced the force of impact to at least some extent in my tests, but there was a lot of variation in the protection offered. The best bag reduced the force of impact by a little more than one-third, substantially reducing the potential for damage; some reduced it by only about 6%.

How I tested

After measuring and weighing each bag, and examining the material it was made of, I looked at the ruggedness of the zippers, Velcro straps and snaps. I also appraised the comfort and adjustability of the shoulder strap and recorded the number and types of pockets.

I then loaded each bag up with about 20 lb. of the typical accouterments of travel. In addition to files, magazines, books and a few pens and pencils, I put in a mid-sized laptop, a 10-in. Archos 101 tablet and an LG Nitro HD Android phone, along with their AC adapters. I then carried the bag around for a while to see how well it bore the load.

Since I didn't want to risk losing another laptop, I tested the bags by hollowing out an old 15.6-in. laptop and installed an accelerometer to record the impact of a series of falls.

The accelerometer was connected to a Vernier Labquest 2 device that interpreted the accelerometer's readings and presented the data on its small screen. While the accelerometer is rated to measure the force of acceleration to a maximum of 25 g (25 times the force of gravity), it can accurately record forces much higher. Readings were taken at the rate of 200 samples per second for 10 seconds and the peak was recorded.

Each bag was put through two tests. The first, meant to simulate a normal fall from a desktop onto a hard surface, involved dropping the bag with the test unit inside from a 30-in.-high shelf onto a concrete floor; it was dropped onto its flat end, so that the laptop landed on its bottom. The second, meant to simulate a fall from an airplane's overhead compartment, involved dropping it 60 in. onto a padded carpet; it was dropped so the laptop would hit on its front or rear edge.

I also performed both tests with just the instrumented laptop and without any protective bag to use as a baseline. I oriented the accelerometer so its sensor was facing down regardless of which test was being performed.

For each test, I executed three drops from each height and reported the average.

The difference between the baseline results (from dropping the laptop without any protection) and the test results provided data as to how well each bag protected what was inside. In other words, the wider the difference in the force of the impact, the more protective the bag was.

Video evidence

I recorded the drop tests and have included the videos so that you can watch (in real time and slow-motion) how I and my son, Peter Nadel, dropped each bag and recorded the result.

Of course, there are a variety of aspects to consider when you're choosing a laptop bag besides how well it protects. These include price, convenience, how much it will hold, how well it will keep your stuff organized, and how good it looks. However, short of covering your laptop in bubble wrap, it is better to be on the safe side by using the most protective bag that you feel comfortable with. That way, if the bag accidentally falls, the computer inside will live to fall another day.

(Story continues on next page.)

Laptop bags: Drop test results

30-in. drop     
60-in. drop     
  Price Force of impact* Reduction of impact** Force of impact* Reduction of impact**
AirBac AirTech Backpack $89.99 21.3 g 32.8% 24.8 g 23.5%
Brenthaven Expandable Trek Backpack $119.95 25.0 g 21.1% 24.9 g 23.1%
Booq Cobra case $345.00 23.3 g 26.5% 22.4 g 30.9%
Timbuk2 Ram Backpack $135.00 23.1 g 27.1% 29.7 g 8.3%
Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief $53.99 25.1 g 20.8% 22.5 g 30.6%
Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell $60.00 26.1 g 17.7% 26.8 g 17.3%
Pelican ProGear 1095CC $124.95 20.2 g 36.3% 23.5 g 27.5%
Comparison used: An unprotected bag dropped from 30 in. with a force of impact of 31.7 g, and dropped from 60 in. with a force of impact of 32.4 g. *Lower is better. **Higher is better.
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