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.

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Soft briefcase: Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief

One look at the Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief and it's obvious how different this bag is. The black fabric case has three bright blue rectangular air cells at its base that can help protect a notebook from a fall. Unfortunately, they don't offer as much protection to the bag's sides.

About the bag

Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief
Samsonite Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief

The Viz Air Laptop Slimbrief is minimalist, to say the least. It's made from heavy-duty nylon fabric with only one outside pocket. At 1.8 lb., it is 8 oz. heavier than the Tom Bihn Brain Cell.

The Slimbrief also lacks some of the extra creature comforts that the others offer, such as a keychain clip or a felt-lined area for protecting fragile mobile devices. The bag does have sturdy handles; the shoulder strap can be unclipped and it has a handy strap for attaching it to a wheelie bag for quick travel maneuvers. However, I felt that Slimbrief is probably better for day trips than long journeys.

While the others have a five-year or lifetime warranty, Samsonite covers the Slimbrief bag for only three years.

How it protects

The Slimbrief uses air cells that wrap around the bottom of the case while its corners act like shock-absorbing bumpers to lessen the force of an impact and keep some of that impact from being transmitted to the computer. Unlike the AirTech bag, the Air Viz's sealed air cells can't be pumped up again.

It's a great idea, but the air cells only protect the base of the bag. The bag's sides are bolstered with rigid foam and its main -- and only -- compartment is felt-lined.

Test results

On the 30-in. fall, the Viz Air bag had a rating of 25.1 g, about average for the group. It represents a 20.8% reduction in force over the baseline.

It came as no surprise that the Slimbrief did better on the 60-in. drop test onto the bag's base, where most of its protection is concentrated. It reduced the force of impact to 22.5 g, a 30.6% improvement over the baseline.

Bottom line

The Slimbrief is a well-built, inexpensive notebook bag (be aware that the price changed several times during the course of this review). It should do a decent job -- if you don't plan on carrying much.

Soft briefcase: Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell

Easily the simplest bag of the group -- it is so slim it can be used inside another bag -- Tom Bihn's Horizontal Brain Cell offers your laptop a variety of survival techniques.

About the bag

Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell
Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell

With only one compartment, the Brain Cell has little room for papers, a phone or other travel gear; it does have a pair of mesh slash pockets on the outside. The Brain Cell can be clipped inside one of Tom Bihn's other bags, most of which have lots of pockets and offer additional protection.

On the other hand, you can be assured of a good fit: There are 14 sizes of Brain Cell bags available to accommodate everything from a tablet to a 17-in. laptop. The site has an online fitting guide that lets you choose by model; there's even a list of notebooks that won't fit.

The bag I looked at weighs 1.3 lb., has a pair of handles made from webbing fabric and is the lightest bag of those I tested. It doesn't come with a shoulder strap, although there are triangular rings for clipping on a strap. You can purchase one of two optional shoulder straps: woven nylon with a shoulder pad for $12 or more padded with a wider shoulder pad for $30.

How it protects

The thin black rectangular bag uses several strategies for protecting its contents. In addition to surrounding the system with rigid corrugated plastic and suspending the notebook on a foam sling that absorbs some of the shock of impact, it is encased in foam padding. The notebook compartment has a soft felt lining.

Test results

On the 30-in. drop, the Brain Cell subjected the dummy notebook to 26.1 g of impact, a 17.7% reduction from the baseline. This put it in last place among our tested bags.

On the 60-in. fall, the Brain Cell's test results were in the same ballpark, with a rating of 26.8 g, a 17.3% reduction in the force of its impact.

Bottom line

At $60, the Brain Cell Horizontal is inexpensive and comes with a lifetime warranty. On the other hand, it provides minimal protection and few places to stash your stuff. It would no doubt do better to use it in combination with one of Tom Bihn's other bags, and just pull it out for short walks. That will increase its protection level and give you more storage as well.

Drop tests from 30 in. and 60 in. using soft briefcases for laptops.

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