Beyond basic black

Laptop bags have long been the Model Ts of the accessories world: practical, homely, and black. That’s changing. When it comes to toting your favorite Mac, basic black is way, way out. Bags now come in a riot of colors, fabrics, and shapes. But some bags clearly favor fashion over function, so shop carefully if you want a carrier that does more than just look good (see “Buy a Better Bag” for shopping tips).

Fusion MB Titanium (A)

$100; Brenthaven

Brenthaven prides itself on making laptop bags that last, even under torturous conditions—and though they don’t make a fashion statement, they’re not complete stiffs. The Fusion MB Titanium is practically indestructible, right down to its heavily padded, removable laptop sleeve (which fits a 12- or 15-inch laptop), and it’s available in navy blue and platinum—nearly garish, by Brenthaven’s sober standards.

Sukie PCNB Sleeve (B)

$45; Gyms Pac

Go LA-chic with the Sukie PCNB Sleeve, by Gyms Pac. Each of these thinly padded neoprene cases bears one of four distinctive prints. Sized to fit a 12-inch portable, the sleeves won’t provide enough protection for an extended business trip. But for slipping into a bigger bag or under your arm when you’re heading to a meeting, they’ll do just fine.

Envelope Computer Case (C)

$70 to $80; Casauri

What it lacks in sturdy protection, the Envelope Computer Case, from Casauri, makes up for in style. This sleek little laptop holder is perfect for carrying your Mac around the office, or for use as a sleeve in a larger bag. The Citra collection fits 12- and 15-inch laptops and is available in one of three tropical colors or in the Sun Stripes pattern (pictured).

Shuttle (D)

$40; backpack strap $10; Higher Ground

Somewhere between a simple sleeve and a fully padded laptop bag lies Higher Ground’s Shuttle. This portable workspace unfolds into a desk for your 12-inch laptop (complete with raised padding to aid air circulation). Above the work surface are sleeves for pens, flash drives, papers, and whatever other tools you need. When it’s folded up, you can carry it as a briefcase or strap it on as a backpack.

Connie Sac (E)

$250 to $280; Rebe

This is the laptop bag Mary Poppins might pick. Rebe’s large Connie Sac is big enough to hold a 17-inch laptop in its padded, Velcro-strapped pocket and still have plenty of room for accessories, books, and even personal stuff for a weekend trip—but nobody’s buying this bag because it’s practical. Each bag is a one-of-a-kind creation; the vendor will whip it up in your choice of color and pattern.

Laptop Purse (F)

$130; Sumo Cases

From the outside, Sumo Cases’ Laptop Purse looks like a traditional women’s shoulder bag. Inside, it’s got a small, padded laptop compartment with room for cords and other accessories. The quilted red nylon exterior has pockets for your cell phone and iPod; the iPod pocket has an opening for a headphone cord. It comes in two sizes, one for 12-inch laptops, and one for 15-inchers.

Outtawhack Day Pack (G)

$100; Timbuk2

Timbuk2 got its start making bags for real-life bike messengers, so you know its products are built for abuse. But the designs always had a bit more style than those of its bags-in-black competitors. The Outtawhack carries on that tradition, with its combination of style and strength. This laptop bag looks like a messenger bag, but you can also wear it as a backpack or carry it like a briefcase. The large outer pocket holds as much as some stand-alone bags, and the bag also offers a separate compartment for your laptop (up to 15 inches). And while you can get it in sober silver and black or navy and slate blue, the Outtawhack also comes in eye-catching burnt orange or peacock blue.

Buy a better bag

Of course there’s more to a good laptop bag than just good looks. The bag should provide protection for your shoulders and arms, as well as for your gear. Here are some quick tips for finding a bag that offers function and form.

Sleeve or Bag? If you’ve already got a shoulder bag, you can save yourself some dough by getting a padded sleeve instead of a full-blown laptop bag. Slip your iBook into the sleeve and slide the sleeve into your regular shoulder bag, and you’re ready to go.

Keep It Safe Look for a layer of sturdy, stiff padding in the outer shell, as well as additional padding around a special laptop compartment within. The bag should be able to stand up on its own and keep its shape.

Lighten Up Before you buy any bag, give it a lift: if it doesn’t feel empty even when it is, move on.

Stay Dry Ideally, the bag will have more than one waterproof layer between the laptop compartment and the outside of the bag.

Pay Attention to Straps Bag makers sometimes trim costs by skimping on the shoulder strap. Don’t let them: straps should be comfortable and well padded. Wide straps tend to distribute weight more comfortably. For extra cushioning, look for an adjustable, sliding shoulder pad—some pads now come in a stretchy fabric that can ease tension on your collarbones. If your bag doesn’t come with a good shoulder strap, buy one, either from the bag’s original vendor or online at a place such as www.ebags.com.

[ Executive Editor Dan Miller covers all things related to mobile computing for Macworld.]

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