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Messenger bag review   |  November 25, 2009  

By Peter Wolchack

We evaluated seven laptop messenger bags, so start here if you need to carry gear

Grade   Bag   Price / shipping to Canada  Website 
 A  Tom Bihn Id  US$200 / US$30  www.tombihn.com  
 B+  Brenthaven Switch MB  US$130 / variable  www.brenthaven.com  
 B  WaterField Cargo Mambo Combo  US$240 / US$20  www.sfbags.com  
 B-  Pacsafe CentroSafe  M100 US$160 / in-store purchase  www.pacsafe.com  
 C+  be.ez LE vertigo  15 C$90 / free  www.be-ez.com  
 C+  InCase Medium Nylon Messenger  C$70 / C$8  www.goincase.com
 D  Crumpler Part and Parcel  C$170 / free  www.crumpler.ca
Note: some bags require the addition of a padded insert for laptop use, and for those the insert is included in the above prices.

Computer bags are surprisingly personal items. On the surface they are just gear containers that you sling over your shoulder as you move from one location to the next, but choosing the right one can significantly change the quality of that experience. Selecting a bag starts with basics like build quality, size and the number of compartments but, after that, specific elements will make one bag right or wrong for you.

For example, one person who contributed to this review loved the be.ez LE vertigo entirely because of its looks. It’s a small bag with limited storage options but it looks fantastic, and for certain users or settings that’s the primary concern. For other people, storage space and a well-padded shoulder strap trump any other consideration.

And that means reviewing bags is inherently challenging. For this messenger bag review, our model user:

  • carries a smallish laptop. Our eval machine was the 13-inch Dell XPS M1330
  • packs a full mobile office (lock, mouse, power cord, USB keys, headphones, note pad, batteries, etc.)
  • is out a lot, so the bag needs to be weather resistant and durable
  • wants a bag that looks good, although this is not the primary concern. If appearance matters most, consider a leather briefcase-style case or the be.ez

 

Messenger bag review criteria

We used two basic criteria:

1. Protection. Can you drop the bag and expect it to protect your laptop? Brenthaven offers videos of its Harvey Stone doing exactly this. A few manufacturers employ a padded insert sized for specific computer dimensions or even models. This offers the highest level of protection, as the laptop is held securely in place, but it also adds cost and makes the bag inherently less flexible: buy a new laptop and you may have to shell out for a different insert. Some may prefer to trade off a little cost and protection for greater flexibility, and buy a bag that simply has a large padded compartment. Our choice: fitted inserts are the best bet.

2. Design and usability. Two bags with the same basic dimensions can have very different carrying capacities. The design of the compartments, the amount of flex in each, the number and design of the small pockets and the quality of the shoulder strap means one bag can be crammed with stuff while another fills up quickly.

And the delight is often in the details. Does the bag have a strap for attaching to the handle of wheeled luggage, and O-rings for securing small items or pouches? Also critical is a carry handle at the top, and pockets or pouches on the front and/or back. After using these bags continuously for many weeks, we recommend you only buy one that has both a handle and an exterior pouch.

For this review we assembled bags from seven leading manufactures and used them continuously over a number of weeks.

Tom Bihn Id, with Brain Cell insert messenger bag Tom Bihn Id, with Brain Cell insert 
Grade: A

Pros:
durable construction; water resistant, with splash-proof zippers; roomy enough for your portable office; excellent organization of pockets and compartments
Cons: only one water bottle holder; side smartphone/electronics pockets are a little too snug; pricey
Notable features: large padded carry handle; front and rear pockets; multiple shoulder straps available; numerous O-rings

The Id was the clear winner in our review. There are a number of solid bags here and some of them have nice features, but Tom Bihn put together the best overall package.

First, it will protect your computer: the Brain Cell insert is rigid and well padded. And the bag is simply very well designed: compartments are just where you want them, there is both a generous handle and exterior front and back pockets, there is ample storage for pens (which not all bags offer) and O-rings are scattered throughout. If you also purchase some of the company’s Organizer Pouches (and you should) there is always a convenient ring on which to clip them. And purchasers can opt for two different upgraded shoulder straps, in addition to the serviceable stock strap.

The Id is pricey, but you do get what you pay for. Oh, and if you like the Id but have a large computer or just want more storage room, check out the company’s Super Ego. It’s a great bag as well.


Brenthaven Switch MB messenger bag


Brenthaven Switch MB 
Pros: user-changeable flaps; vertical design; padded back panel; numerous pen slots
Cons: somewhat cramped interior; anemic handle
Notable features: back pouch doubles as a luggage strap; lots of small compartments

This is a sharp-looking bag, partly because of its vertical design but mostly because its appearance is customizable. The flap on the bag is removable and reversible, and there are numerous colour/design combinations available. So get, for example, classic black on one side and a fun design on the other, and then switch the flap to match your mood. Note that one of the choices doubles as a rain pouch, which is a good idea. And additional flaps cost US$30. Or, to save a few bucks, you can buy the same bag with a stock reversible flap for US$100.

This bag does not employ a fitted insert, yet the company likes to drop it (with laptop inside) to demonstrate its advanced protection features. The bag seems very well padded and the lack of an insert means it accommodates up to 15.4-inch laptops. This versatility may be enough to sell many on the Switch.

The vertical design also helps you navigate crowded coffee shops, but at the same time its interior feels a little cramped. Obviously this is a trade-off: bigger bags are heavier and bulkier, but even so the Switch should be just a little roomier. If you opt for a Switch—and it is a valid choice—add one large and one medium pouch (US$20 and US$16). We found we needed the large pouch attached to the exterior to hold the power brick and cord.

Last note: the $130 price is a good deal but even for that money the handle on the bag is a disappointment. It’s small and uncomfortable to use, although at least it’s there (unlike some bags that follow).



WaterField Designs Cargo Mambo Combo  messenger bag


WaterField Designs Cargo Mambo Combo 
Pros: large exterior pockets; solid construction
Cons: no water bottle pocket; has a stiff feel
Notable features: nifty “paragliding” buckle available;

The Cargo is a good example of the personal aspect of choosing a laptop bag. This has a formal briefcase feel to it; the word “stiff” comes to mind, both in terms of its construction and its appearance. The look may appeal to some, especially those who want to use a messenger bag in a formal business setting, and the word they employ may well be “sophisticated.” Others will not like the design as much.

That’s not to say it’s a bad design. WaterField employs a fitted insert—called a SleeveCase—that offers good computer protection. The dual leather-lined handles are also a nice touch, as is the ability of the back compartment to double as a luggage tether. Also nice is the optional paragliding buckle: this is the only bag that offers an interesting buckle and it’s worth the extra US$10.

The price quoted in the chart is for the Cargo Mambo Combo, which gets you the bag, a SleeveCase and a Medium Gear Pouch. While pricey, it’s a nice bundle. If you like messenger bags but need one that is also comfortable in a boardroom, check out the Cargo.



Pacsafe CentroSafe Messenger bag


Pacsafe CentroSafe Messenger 
Pros: multiple and clever security systems
Cons: not the most attractive bag
Notable features: luggage strap; comfortable handle

It has to be said up-front that the CentroSafe is not going to win any beauty contests, and that meant we often grabbed a different bag when heading out for the day. However, for a few business trips during this review, the CentroSafe was always the choice.

That’s because this bag is built for security: the shoulder strap is slash proof, so a thief with large scissors can’t cut and run with your bag; the front and bottom panels contain a concealed anti-slash mesh; and—most importantly—a combination lock secures the strap to the bag and also locks the main zipper. This means you can secure the bag to a table or chair in a hotel room and go out for an evening. The bag is also very expandable: on a vacation we were able to fit in all our computing gear plus a digital SLR, a couple of lenses and a small video camera.

The bag’s drab appearance and basics-only list of features earned it a B- in our ranking, but if security is your priority this is the bag for you. Check http://bluerivertrading.com for a list of Canadian retailers.



be.ez LE Vertigo messenger bag


be.ez LE Vertigo 
Pros:
good looks
Cons: not a lot of storage room
Notable features: eye-catching pumpkin-on-black colour scheme

There is not a lot to say here. If you like its looks and own a small and slim laptop, this may be your bag.

It doesn’t offer a lot of interior room, there are few compartments inside and other bags will protect your computer better but, really, if you like this bag then buy it. The compliments you get—and you will get compliments—will ensure you’re happy with the purchase.

It’s available online from the Canadian Apple store, and with free shipping it’s even a good price.


InCase Nylon Messenger bag



InCase Nylon Messenger 
Pros:
light, roomy, inexpensive
Cons: no back pocket, no water bottle holder
Notable features: soft, lined laptop compartment

InCase earned a C+ based on the barebones nature of this bag, however if you’re on a budget or simply don’t want a lot of frills, this may be an A-level bag to you. It doesn’t offer the best protection and there aren’t many value-add elements here, but at only $70 plus $8 for shipping from the Canadian Apple store this is certainly a good deal and it is an attractive bag at that price point.



Crumpler Part and Parcel messenger bag


Crumpler Part and Parcel 
Pros: large main compartment; attractive, casual appearance
Cons: no handle; no exterior pockets; less laptop protection
Notable features: long shoulder strap, suited to tall people

Sight unseen, we really wanted to like this bag. It has a nice canvas-like look to it and the company projects a pleasingly hip image. But then the bag arrived. It has no handle whatsoever and no exterior pocket on the front or the back. If these omissions don’t seem like a big deal, just live without them for a number of work days. At a trade show, for example, where you are collecting pamphlets, pens, magazines and business cards, you will find yourself repeatedly wanting an easily-accessible pocket to drop them into. Even under the big main flap there is no pocket on the bag itself, and there is a lot of room for one.

The Part and Parcel left us with the feeling that there is a good bag here somewhere, but that it hasn’t quite arrived.


Have a favourite bag to recommend, or disagree with our messenger bag review conclusions? Please e-mail me at pwolchak@backbonemag.com.

 

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