How do you travel with your laptop? Some people have it in a protective sleeve inside a full-sized rollaboard, other people have it in a slimline bag that carries the laptop and almost nothing else. Some people have it in a larger briefcase/tote along with potentially many other things. And then there are the people who toss it in a backpack.
To date, I’ve generally carried my laptops either in a slimline bag specifically for the laptop alone, or in a tote together with a variety of other things too – paperwork and files, a book or two to read (or an eReader/tablet), accessories for the laptop, and if just a brief overnight trip, maybe a clean shirt, etc, as well.
This is ostensibly convenient, but it doesn’t take too many miles of walking long airport concourses – with a bag that ends up weighing dangerously close to 20 lbs – before one risks having one arm stretched much longer than the other. (I just checked, the minimum load in my former tote comes to 17 lbs.)
So I’ve been increasingly interested in some type of a backpack. Maybe it is just because I’ve been becoming more aware of such things, but it does seem like they are increasingly prevalent, even for middle-aged businessmen on business travel, as well as for younger backpackers on vacation, for mothers with a load of essentials for a young child, or for children with everything they need for the journey and the destination.
If I had a choice, I’d much rather carry a heavy weight on my back than have it hanging down off my arm.
I’ve experimented with various multi-purpose backpacks I’ve collected over the years, and none have felt quite right for the task. They’ve either been excessively casual, or they’ve been too ‘heavy duty’ – great for a five-day hike through the forest, but a bit much for flying somewhere on business. Others have gone too far to the opposite extreme- they’ve been too flimsy and insubstantial to protect my precious laptop (whether in a sleeve or not). Some have been promising, but don’t sit comfortably on my shoulders when laden with a full load of ‘essentials’ inside.
So I’ve struggled on with the status quo, realizing it is not optimum, but lacking the passion to try to improve it. And then, I bought a new laptop a week ago and accidentally ordered one that was larger (and heavier!) than I thought I was getting. I liked it, and it was my own fault anyway that I got the 15.5″ screen model instead of the 14″ model, so I kept it, while considering it the catalyst to motivate me to get a better carrying solution.
Which brings me to my wonderful find. The ECBC brand Hercules Laptop Backpack.
Why do I like this backpack? I’m glad you asked the question!
In a nutshell, it combines awesome load carrying with a business smart/casual appearance.
Now, I’m a guy, so looks (at least for bags) are one of the last things on my mind, but I place reasonable importance on the appearance of my luggage, especially items that I’ll take into meetings, and items which I’ll carry on the street. My elusive goal is to find items possessing the ideal compromise blend of ‘ordinary multinational casual’ to avoid drawing attention to yourself or your backpack in dubious foreign back streets, while also possessing quietly understated refinement that makes it not out-of-place when you pull your laptop out of it with a flourish to make your multi-million dollar presentation in the corporate boardroom.
I think this backpack offers that suitable compromise. It doesn’t shout ‘Rob me – I’m a tasteless and rich American’ when you’re outdoors, and it doesn’t embarrass you in a business meeting, either.
So, after the backpack passed its visual test, I proceeded to give it (and me too!) the torture-test. Ah, the things I do for you, dear reader…..
I loaded it down with two laptops, a netbook, an iPad, assorted other books and bricks, and then weighed it. Great – 26 lbs of heaviness – 50% more than my former briefcase/tote. I strapped the backpack to my shoulders and proceeded to recreate the experience of going through an airport. Or, to reveal the ‘secret’ of my testing procedure, I wore it for the next 25 minutes while cooking dinner, all the time having this 26 lb weight on my shoulders.
Yes, I’d sometimes have to do things you’re not so likely to do in an airport like bend all the way down to the floor to pick up the food I’d dropped from the bench, reaching up into the top of cupboards, leaning over hot pots to stir them, spinning around and leaping to the stove when realizing ‘Uh oh, I forgot to turn that off’, and so on through a typical David-style frenetic cooking experience.
At times, in the excitement of the moment, I almost forgot I was wearing it, although now, an hour later, I will admit to a few new aches and pains. However, I can tell you there’s no way I could have been walking or standing in an airport for 25 minutes holding my briefcase nonstop. After even five minutes, it ceases to be fun – I love airports like Schiphol with those miniature shopping carts that are freely available everywhere in the concourses – first thing I do is to grab one of those and put my briefcase in it.
So, from a weight and balance perspective, two thumbs up.
Let me tell you about this backpack in more detail so you can decide if it might work for you, too.
Its prime mission – for me, anyway – is to safely carry my laptop. The backpack does this more cleverly than you might think. It has a nice padded protected pocket for the laptop that is the part closest to your back, so presumably the most protected. The pocket is clever – it has a spacer at the bottom which you can leave in or take out, meaning that if you have a large 15.5″ or 17″ laptop, it fits in snuggly without the spacer and doesn’t slide up or down, but if you have a smaller 14″ or whatever laptop, put the spacer in and the smaller laptop also sits snugly. The spacer itself only weighs one ounce, so there’s no perceptible weight penalty to put it in.
The manufacturer says it fits most laptops up to 17″ in size. My 15.5″ laptop also has an extended battery on it which rudely sticks out the back another inch, which makes it larger in size than most 17″ laptops, and it managed to fit in the laptop compartment, but only just. I also tested the smaller 14″, but with a ‘slice’ on the bottom of it which added another half-inch all around to its base thickness, and that was an easy fit. So probably most 17″ laptops would be fine, but if you have an extra slice or extra battery ‘bit’ sticking out the back of a 17″ unit, you might want to check the return policy before buying the bag online, or try it out in the store if buying at a regular retail store.
The next nice part about the laptop storage is that you don’t need to take the laptop out to put the bag through the airport X-ray machine. You just unzip the bag and then open it out flat on the conveyor belt with the laptop on one side of the fabric hinge and the rest of the bag on the other. Easier and quicker, and while it happens very rarely, I know that people sometimes end up forgetting their laptop when they leave security – it is much more difficult to forget when it stays in your bag all the way through.
So, the bag’s prime mission – carry and protect the laptop – was handled perfectly well.
Now for its secondary mission – lots of space to load up with other ‘stuff’. I managed to fit in the other things I usually travel with and still have room left over for – ah, yes, praise be – a one liter bottle of whisky in its display box, such as I might hypothetically pick up while going through Duty Free.
The ability to hold a lot of ‘stuff’ is definitely a plus, but for me – and probably for you too – the more stuff you have, the more you need it organized. You don’t just want a great big cavernous space. You want all the nice little loops and pockets and sections and things. I’d give this backpack a ‘B’ grade for such features. There were more loops for pens than I’d ever need, but no business card holders. There was a pouch in one of the compartments, but it seemed intended to hold a reasonably large smartphone, rather than for business cards. I like to have ideally two compartments for cards – one for mine and one for those I collect on a journey.
The outermost pocket had a zipper across it not quite 7″ from the bottom. This was not a brilliant placement, because this would normally be the pocket I’d stuff printed out boarding passes, confirmations, and other documentation, which I usually fold in three, making for a shape measuring about 3″ x 8.5″. So it would be a hassle to get documents in and out of this pouch – it needs another 1.5″ of depth and indeed seems gratuitously shallow – there’s easily another two or more inches of depth it could have.
The next level in has various compartments for things, and zippable pouches on both sides (this section is opened up in the picture above). One of the pouches is see-through mesh so you know what is inside (a nice touch) and has a keyring cliphook for you to fasten your keys too, preventing a lot of agony when you get home again and start looking every which where for your keys. Both the zippable pouches are again shallow rather than deep.
The next level is another shallow pouch, accessible from the outside. When I first saw it I thought I’d now discovered something suitable as a document pouch, but – aaagh. The zip is only 8.25″ wide, a quarter-inch (or more) too short to allow 8.5″ wide papers to be put in and taken out.
The next layer in (yes, lots of compartments) is the ‘main’ compartment and has an internal see-through mesh zippable pouch, a padded holder for a full size tablet, a velcro closing pouch on the other side (I’d use this to hold papers and other largish sized ‘lie flat’ materials), and a big space in the middle for all your bulkier items (such as, ahem, duty-free purchases!).
The only remaining compartment is the rear-most one, with the padded laptop pouch on one side and another pouch on the other side (also good for more papers or whatever else).
There are also zippable pouches on both exterior sides that seem ideally suited for holding bottles of beer. Alright, they’d probably work satisfactorily for water bottles, too.
Back to the carrying capabilities of the bag, it has a nicely padded back to it so it sits more evenly against your back. It has the typical two adjustable shoulder straps – nice and broad and padded, and has a sternum strap to hold them together when it is fully loaded (a great extra device). Short of getting a heavy-duty pack with a waist strap, this is probably about as good and as comfortable a medium load bearing design as you can get.
Lastly, there’s a padded carry handle on the top of the backpack.
One thing that is missing is an ID holder somewhere on the backpack’s exterior – a place to put your contact details in case the backpack gets lost.
The backpacks come in five colors, all nicely muted and understated. Most of the zip areas are black, with just a few traces of red on some of the stitching. The ECBC logos are happily understated rather than in-your-face.
Empty, the bag weighs 2.5 pounds – my soft sided carry bag weighs 5.5 pounds – three pounds more. So there’s a double benefit – not only does the backpack weigh three pounds less, but it makes great weights easier to manage.
Those three pounds might sound trivial, but with airlines sometimes now weighing carry-on bags (and setting ridiculously low weight limits) those three pounds could make the difference between accepted and rejected (a really scary thought – who wants to check their briefcase and trust it to the tender mercies of the baggage handlers!). For example, with Air New Zealand and their dreadful 15lb weight limit (and their propensity to actually weigh your carry on item and enforce that limit!), the 3lb weight saving is 20% of the total 15lbs. That’s a truly significant increase in effective net weight you can take on board with you.
Oh – the cost, yes? $140. It comes complete with a three-year warranty, which is nice but not essential – a backpack that you carry with you all the time is much less susceptible to airline damage than a bag you check.
I’ve seen plenty of bags for less, and some for merely half the price, and I’ve also seen plenty of bags costing more, all the way up to the nonsense prices of Tumi type bags ((~$400). It’s an open secret that there’s a lot less than $140 of material and labor in this bag (ECBC is a US company that makes these bags from Korean materials, and using a Vietnamese company to actually make the bags) but that’s not really the point. It seems to do the job reasonably well and is fairly priced compared to competing products.
This backpack is better than most if you’re a businessman wanting a multi purpose travel/business/leisure bag for carrying a laptop and the rest of your road warrior kit.
It is very lightweight, has lots of compartments, a good multi-sized padded protective pouch for a laptop, and the TSA allow you to put it through their X-ray machines without needing to take your laptop out. There is plenty of room for plenty of stuff, and even when loaded up to a total 26 lb weight, it remains comfortable and doesn’t slip or slide, no matter how you move.
Its pouch sizes are not ideally suited for travelers, but that seems to be its only disadvantage. This is clearly a load bearing backpack modified for laptop carry and business travelers, rather than a briefcase modified by slapping a couple of shoulder straps on.
At $136 (Amazon) – $140 (direct) it is fairly priced and I’m currently unaware of any better bag in terms of value and features. Overall, I’d rate this as a B+ or A- bag. If it had slightly better internal organizers and an external zipped pouch that could fit regular tri-folded letter sized sheets, it would then get a full A rating.