If you're getting a new notebook for Christmas, make sure you check out our 13-product roundup of carrying bags: we'll point you at the best-made, best-looking, least-stealable and best-value products.
If you’ve spent the best part of two grand on a notebook computer, you’ll want to take good care of it. Among other things, that means equipping yourself with a well-made carrying bag that, first and foremost, will protect your system from the bumps and bruises that are part and parcel of life on the road. So your chosen bag will need a sturdy compartment for the laptop itself, along with extra capacity for the power brick and accessories like drives and spare batteries -- not to mention all the other elements of the notebook user’s travel kit (handheld computer, mobile phone, MP3 player, papers, you name it).
Unless you’re completely devoid of vanity, you’ll also want your bag to look good. But this isn’t purely a matter of aesthetics: it helps if your bag doesn’t effectively carry a big sticker saying ‘Mug me: £2,000-worth of computer inside’.
Finally, having spent that two grand on the computer, it goes against the grain to add a huge amount more for a bag, so you’re naturally looking for value for money. But there are hundreds of products available that could do the job, so what’s a bag-seeker to do? Luckily, in an act of selfless pre-Christmas charity, ZDNet UK has gathered a representative sample of 13 notebook bags of various kinds, arranged them into three price bands (under £50, £50-£100 and over £100), and poked, prodded, zipped, unzipped, lugged and finally come up with some answers. Read on to discover which ones get the thumbs-up and which get the cold shoulder.
BUDGET BAGS (under £50)
Belkin eOn £39.99
Build quality 8/10 * Aesthetics 8/10 * Muggability 6/10 * Value for money 7/10
With its beer-cooler looks, Belkin’s eOn is one of the most distinctive bags in this roundup. It's sturdy too, with a rigid outer frame lined with foam and felt that makes a good protective combination. There's a side compartment, secured by Velcro with side zips so it opens out, and pockets for pens, a mobile and a handheld. If your notebook's particularly big you may have to put the plug, cable and power brick in there as well, because the main compartment's a bit snug. You can sling it on your shoulder or carry it in one hand, and despite the silver finish it doesn't particularly scream 'steal me'.
Ritter Classic £39.99
Build quality 8/10 * Aesthetics 8/10 * Muggability 5/10 * Value for money 8/10
Ritter's only computer bag (the company is best known for making innovative musical instrument bags) has an unusual three-in-one design that means you can carry it one-handed, over your shoulder or -- having unzipped the cunningly concealed straps -- on your back as a rucksack. With the exception of STM's Alley and Targus's Overnight Roller, it's the least obvious computer bag here, but the padded inner sleeve will accommodate all sizes of notebook and there are plenty of pockets elsewhere for your bits and pieces. Nice styling, lovely rubbery zipper grips and plenty of space make this a very good bag for the money.
STM Alley £46.80
Build quality 6/10 * Aesthetics 8/10 * Muggability 5/10 * Value for money 6/10
The narrowest bag here, STM’s Alley has a subdued, slightly grungy feel and would look at home on the shoulder of a surly student. The main compartment is decently padded, the two outer pockets are big enough for all your extras, and there's a phone pocket on the outside -- too trusting, if you ask us. STM has also gone Velcro-crazy -- the main flap is secured on both sides with the stuff, and although this makes the fastenings good and solid, it's a noisy nightmare to open and close. Elsewhere, the shoulder strap is industrial-strength, but the carrying handle is too small and short on padding.
This traditionally-styled laptop bag has excellent padding in the main compartment, a Velcro strap to secure all but the very largest computers, and a movable padded partition to keep smaller notebooks snugly in place. There are two side compartments -- one with a selection of mini pockets for pens, phone, calculator and handheld, and a second that concertinas out to store papers, folders and so on. Be careful you don't fully open the zips here, because small items can easily fall out of the bottom. Elsewhere there's plenty of space for notebook accessories, a good padded strap and strong rubber feet.
Victorinox CS2 £49
Build quality 9/10 * Aesthetics 8/10 * Muggability 10/10 * Value for money 5/10
This curious shoulder bag at once protects your notebook between two rigid outer panels and flaunts it for everyone to see. The notebook itself slips into a central bag (only padded at either end) that's suspended from the top of the outer bag and then secured at the bottom by six thick, elastic straps. The top of the bag is then held shut by a central Velcro strap, but apart from that, the notebook is exposed to both lustful eyes and the elements. It would work inside another bag, but the open top and lack of any other pockets makes it hard to recommend on its own.
MID-RANGE BAGS (£50 - £100)
Belkin AeroPack £59
Build quality 7/10 * Aesthetics 6/10 * Muggability 6/10 * Value for money 6/10
This rucksack with a difference incorporates a removable padded inner sleeve complete with handle, so you can pull the whole thing out and use that to carry your notebook around when you're indoors. The rest of the rucksack has room for your power brick, plug, cables and so on, as well as a neat outer back pocket for pens, calculator and handheld. The external mobile phone pocket is on the front of the left-hand strap, so it'll be harder for light fingers get at. But while the back padding is among the most comfortable of the bags tested here, it seems a bit pricey compared with, for example, the Ritter Classic.
STM Sports £78.39
Build quality 6/10 * Aesthetics 6/10 * Muggability 6/10 * Value for money 5/10
Rucksacks may not go well with a pin-stripe, but they're a very comfortable way to carry a notebook PC around, particularly a big one. The central compartment -- with securing strap -- in the STM Sports will accommodate pretty much anything (possibly even another notebook for a friend). There are two thick, kidney-shaped foam pads to cushion your back and a clip-round belt to balance the whole thing should you be tempted to overload it. There’s also a solid rubber handle for hefting the bag on short journeys. It may look like a typical sports-day sack, but the self-conscious label -- "luggage for the global digerati" -- tells another story.
This combines the features and styling of the ubiquitous bag-with-a- handle-on-wheels with a padded compartment big enough to take the largest desktop replacement notebook. This leaves plenty of room for all your notebook necessaries as well as a change of clothes, wash bag, papers and any other bits and pieces you might need. It rolls smoothly, the wheels are thick and solidly mounted, and it looks like any other roll-on bag so no-one need suspect that there's £2,000-worth of anything inside. It's also the right size for carry-on luggage, and means you don’t have to carry a bag for yourself plus a separate one for your notebook.
HIGH-END BAGS (over £100)
STM Parachute £105.30
Build quality 7/10 * Aesthetics 6/10 * Muggability 6/10 * Value for money 5/10
A sturdier, more stylish version of STM’s Sports bag, the Parachute is scuppered by the two awkwardly placed clasps used to secure the main back flap. These are hard to engage, and even harder to undo, because the unclipping mechanism is underneath -- and completely flush with -- the flap: this means you have to scrabble around under the flap to release it. The design may maintain the rucksack's clean lines, but it makes it difficult to use: something you should never have to say about a bag. Although it features the same roomy interior, comfy straps, waist band and back support of the Sports model, those clips are horrid.
Belkin Leather Folio £119
Build quality 9/10 * Aesthetics 8/10 * Muggability 8/10 * Value for money 8/10
This deceptively large leather bag with shoulder strap looks like it should be carried around by the first violinist in a leading orchestra. It's a flat, well-defined executive job, with strong padding round the notebook compartment, and an adjustable, padded partition to keep everything snug. There's room to stow your notebook’s power brick and other accessories, and although this will spoil the sleek lines, any unsightly bulges will vanish over time as the bag becomes more supple. For extended trips there's a rear trolley strap and the only real drawback is that the bag itself is probably too stealable -- never mind what's in it.
Clever design, sturdy construction and a surprising expanding mid-section make this as good choice for the frequent traveller. The notebook compartment isn’t as padded as some, but the shoulder strap is fantastically comfortable -- cleverly, it's attached corner to corner at the top of the bag for better balance. It’s also superbly designed, from the special newspaper pocket to the fabric sleeve that lets it slide over the top of a bag on wheels. There's stacks of room for papers and a cleverly concealed mid- section which, when unzipped, increases the bag's capacity by two inches all over. It’s a lovely bag, but, given that it's still only nylon, expensive.
A top-end attaché-style case with an excellent strap, the Platinum Leather has a capacious, well-padded central compartment with Velcro over-strap and movable, padded partition to keep any size of notebook computer secure. There's an expanding file section for A4 size paper and folders and in the other compartment a labyrinth of extra pockets for phone, handheld, calculator pens, wallet and so on. It's obviously a computer bag (and is worth nicking on its own), so you'll need to take care. But with its fat, highly grippable handle, luxury finish and practical pocket arrangements, this is a splendid specimen.
Despite the foolish name, this is a king among computer bags. For a start there's a full re-enforced CS2 bag inside to keep your notebook safe. Then there's the expandable midriff which, when unzipped adds extra inches all round. Elsewhere, there's plenty of room for papers and folders in a separate pocket, lots of smaller ones for business cards, a handheld, calculator and so on. There's a pull-out handle that curves towards you like a rearing snake so you can wheel it around instead of using the traditional closed grip; the pull-out handle is T-shaped and rotates, so it's much more comfortable to use. But beware: everyone will be watching.