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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Hard case: Pelican ProGear 15.6 inch Laptop Case 1095CC

Sometimes a soft bag just isn't enough protection, particularly if your career depends on keeping your digital gear working. That's why there are a number of hard cases out there as well. They are a lot heavier than soft cases, and not quite as convenient if you need to pack a lot of different items, but they're also a lot safer.

Pelican ProGear 15.6 inch Laptop Case 1095CC
Pelican ProGear 15.6 inch Laptop Case 1095CC

To see how a hard case compared with our software test cases, we decided to go with the Pelican ProGear Laptop Case 1095CC, which fits 15.6-in. laptops (according to the manufacturer, it will also accommodate a 17-inch Macbook Pro). Pelican also makes a version for 14-in. computers.

About the bag

The Pelican ProGear case weighs 3.3 lb. and comes with a shoulder strap that can be set up as a short handle. At $125, the case is moderately priced for a hard case, but has no pockets or anywhere to put your AC adapter, tablet or more than a few papers.

How it protects

The Pelican has a skin of rigid ABS plastic (a type of plastic that offers high-impact strength) and is lined with foam to soak up the impact of a fall. But that's just the start.

The hard case itself is watertight -- it is equipped with a sealing gasket around its edge and has a valve that keeps dust and moisture out. In fact, I noticed that the Pelican case delivered a satisfying whoosh (the sound of air leaving the case) as it was clamped shut. It seemed very unlikely that any unwanted dirt or liquids could invade that space.

Test results

It wasn't a surprise that the Pelican case led the way in the 30-in. drop test: It not only hit the concrete with a resounding thud, but the Pelican case rated a 20.2 g impact, a 36.3% force reduction from the baseline.

On the 60-in. drop test, the notebook registered an impact of 23.5 g, a 27.5% improvement. There was a problem here, though: The case tended to land on its hinges, which can concentrate the impact into two spots. (The bottom hinges also mean that the case can't stand upright on its own.)

Bottom line

It's heavy, and may be a bit awkward to use if you are carrying anything besides your laptop, but the Pelican Pro Gear case can help careful computer owners keep their laptops from becoming electronic roadkill.

Drop tests from 30 in. and 60 in. using a hard case for laptops.

Conclusions

After the dust had settled and all the numbers were averaged, I gave the instrumented notebook a dignified funeral. It had given much and asked for nothing in return.

The big take-away from over 50 individual drops is that every one of these bags could shelter a notebook and protect it to some degree. The difference comes in how much protection and under what conditions.

Compared with the impact of an unprotected notebook, the six soft bags and one hard case offered the ability to absorb between 6% and 36% of the impact of a typical accident at home or on the road. But some did better than others on the individual drops.

On the 30-in. drop, which was meant to simulate a fall from a desktop (or simply slipping out of your hands), the Airbac AirTech Backpack led the soft bags with a 21.3-g result, reducing the impact by 32.8% from that of an unprotected laptop. The Pelican hard case did better with a 20.2-g result, but since it doesn't have much room for anything other than a notebook, it may not be a practical alternative for travelers.

On the 60-in. drop onto the base of the bag, the Booq Cobra with its 22.4-g result and the Samsonite Via Air Laptop Slimbrief with its 22.5-g result were in a virtual tie for going the best job of protecting a computer.

The more we rely on our devices, the safer we need to keep them. Hopefully, bag-makers will redouble their efforts to create bags that go even further and offer even more protection. After all, it's a cruel world out there.

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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