Notebook bags are sold in nearly every shape and size, material and price range. We’ll review important considerations when choosing a notebook bag in this article including the bag’s intended purpose, material choices, notebook protection and more. This article focuses on the functionality and features of a good laptop bag; style is left to the eye of the beholder.
Have a goal in mind before shopping for bags; these questions may help you get a better idea of what you really need. Rate the importance of each question on a scale of one to five with five being a definitive “yes” and one a definitive “no”.
Will the bag be exposed to the elements? 1-5
If so, you’ll want to look for a bag that at least completely covers the notebook i.e. shuts securely (no open-ended totes). This is an important point to consider even if you have no intention of going out in the rain – you could get caught in it during a long walk to class or commute to work.
Will the bag see a lot of wear and tear? 1-5
A good example of minimal wear would be using the bag once or twice a week to transport the notebook from point A to point B; taking the bag daily through airports, subways and other situations where the bag is continuously being moved, pushed or otherwise used would count as more significant usage.
Will you carry extra gear in the bag besides the notebook? 1-5
The size of the bag you’re looking for will depend greatly upon the answer to this question. The bag naturally has to fit the notebook itself plus its power adapter. If you’re a student, you may be looking to pack books as well. And for commuters, a bottle of water or two (which take more space than you think). And then the miscellaneous items such as cell phone chargers, headphones, tablets, a digital camera, business cards and other accessories you’d typically take with you.
Will you carry the bag for extended periods of time? 1-5
Comfort will be of paramount importance should you need to carry the bag for more than 10 minutes; rate this higher if you’ll be carrying a lot of weight.
Notebook bags are typically marketed to fit certain size notebooks; it’s usually a range e.g. 14-15” or 16-17”. It’s almost certain that a 17.3” notebook isn’t going to fit a bag intended for a 14” model. At the same time, you wouldn’t want to buy a 17.3” notebook bag for your 14” notebook.
The advantage with buying a bag specifically marketed as a notebook bag is that it will in all likelihood have a dedicated compartment for the notebook computer. Bag makers will post the specifications of this compartment – please make sure your notebook fits within the space. It’s advisable to stay within a half inch of wiggle room in any particular direction so the notebook fits snugly; in the event of an impact or other jarring movement, you’ll want the notebook to stay in place (think of how it’s important to have your seatbelt fit securely in a car). If you’re planning to store your notebook in a sleeve and then inside the bag, measure the dimensions of the notebook in the sleeve and make sure it fits. Check out our guide to choosing a notebook sleeve if you’re interested in one.
Remember your response to the third question above regarding what other items you intend to take in the bag; the bag’s specifications should list the total carrying capacity or at least show photos with example items inside. To play it safe, choose a bag that allows you to fit all your items inside with 20% room to spare.
Build Quality and Material: What to Look For
Your answers to the first two questions play a role here; the more you use the bag, the more sense it makes to pay for a well-made one. These are some common indicators of good (and conversely bad) build quality:
Seams and stitches: check the stitches on the leading edges of the bag; is it double-stitched? How thick are the threads? For the best wear characteristics, are the stitches located on the inside of the seam as opposed to the outside where they’re exposed? Finally, is the stitching consistent? Look inside and outside the bag to see if any shortcuts were made.
Material: it’s true that bags can be made from nearly any kind of material, even alligator skin if you’re willing to pay that much. Most inexpensive notebook bags are made of nylon, but not all nylon is created equal. Ballistic nylon is one type (the quality of which also varies) that generally has excellent wear characteristics. Nylon is generally rated by the term “denier” which is a unit of thickness of the threads. Any exterior nylon material rated at less than 500 Denier (500D) may not provide adequate durability for regular use.
Neoprene is another material with good wear characteristics, although neoprene is more commonly used for laptop bag interiors or sleeves. Leather is common as well provided you’re willing to spend a bit more; better leather bags can easily get to the several hundred dollar mark while the least expensive ones hover around $100 (for all leather, that is). There’s not necessarily a correct material choice; use the rule of thumb that if it feels poorly made then it’s probably true.
Lining: your bag is likely to get bumped and dropped; you can mitigate the impact on the bag’s internals by choosing a bag that incorporates some sort of protective lining. This is of lesser importance from the notebook’s perspective if you’re keeping the notebook inside a separate protective laptop sleeve like the ones described in our guide to choosing a notebook sleeve.
The bag I personally use is very thin to keep the weight down but I keep the notebook inside a thick neoprene sleeve. If you don’t want to bother with using a separate sleeve inside your bag then make sure the interior lining is nice and thick to provide added protection for your laptop.
Zippers: if it feels cheap, it is. It’s also not good if it’s too tough or too easy to pull in either direction. Zip and un-zip the zipper many times in a row to make sure its performance is consistent. Better zippers will use a heavy-duty slider made of metal, not plastic and have thicker teeth also made of metal. Nylon plastic zippers used on cheaper bags more susceptible to coming apart and failing than their metal counterparts; they’re also more likely to come undone unintentionally. If you answered yes to the question regarding the bag being exposed to the elements, you may find value in a bag that has waterproof or at least weather resistant zippers which will have rubber sheeting over them.
Flaps: some bags incorporate flaps to cover the main compartment; these are handy if you need quick access to the internals and usually more forgiving than zippers should you need to carry a larger than usual item inside. Flaps are also better than zippers at keeping the elements out, unless of course you were able to find a bag with waterproof zippers.
Shoulder Strap Considerations
The shoulder strap may feel good in the store but that’s not with all your stuff in the bag and carrying it around for 10 minutes (remember your answer to question four?). The shoulder strap itself should be made of a wear-resistant material – pay special attention to the leading edges to see if they look like they’ll fray over time.
The shoulder pad is where the weight of the bag will be supported on your shoulder. It should have three basic characteristics:
Adjustability: ideally it would be detachable/movable and if not, at least make sure the strap itself can be adjusted.
Proper thickness: there should be enough cushion to evenly distribute weight across your shoulder otherwise it’s going to get uncomfortable to carry over extended periods.
Non-slip: ideally the part that rests on your shoulders will have a catchy material such as rubber that creates friction with your clothing so it doesn’t move or creep down your shoulder as you move about.
Internal compartments/holders: look for pencil, business card and cell phone holders if you need them. Some bags will also have securable compartments on the inside (usually via zippers or Velcro) which are useful if your bag will be upside down at some point (like when putting them in the overhead compartment aboard an airplane).
Open exterior compartments: as a frequently traveler, I find myself continuously taking items out of my bag and putting them back; two great examples are water bottles and magazines/books. I choose notebook bags that have open exterior compartments to accommodate my habits.
Internal/external key rings: these are useful for attaching keys, bottle openers and mini flashlights. If they’re strong enough, you could use them to attach a water bottle holder.
Checkpoint Friendly designs: Their are also some laptop bags labeled as “TSA compliant” bags which are designed to be “checkpoint friendly.” In theory, rather than removing your laptop from the bag you can simply open the bag in a “butterfly” position with your laptop visible on one side and run your bag through the X-ray machine on the way to your gate. In practice, the “TSA compliant” bags don’t make travel any easier. TSA officers frequently demand that you take out your laptop so the agent can get a clear X-ray picture. Even if the TSA official doesn’t ask you to remove your laptop it’s common for the agent to rescreen your bag, which wastes more time than simply removing your laptop from the bag in the first place.
In this article we covered the ins and outs of buying a notebook bag. The bag you choose should be based on what you’ll subject it to – how much travel? Will it be out in the elements? What will you be carrying? Based on the responses to these questions we looked at the key areas they affect including the size of the bag, the material it’s made from, the amount of protection it offers and what kind of shoulder strap it has. We looked in-depth at build quality considerations such as zippers and seams and stitches. Finally we rounded up with a couple last minute items including the bag’s internal compartment layout. Overall you’re better off knowing your exact needs vs. wants prior to shopping to make sure you’re covering the functional purpose of the bag.