Sling away with laptop sling bags

Most people who’ve used a backpack—laptop or otherwise—have at one time or another worn it on one shoulder. While perhaps convenient, doing so isn’t exactly good for your back, as those who’ve carried around a pack full of textbooks this way can attest.

Over the past decade or so, a more ergonomic alternative has become popular: sling bags. These bags often look very much like backpacks, but are designed with only a single strap—one that crosses from one side of the bag to the other and distributes the bag’s weight more evenly. You get one-strap convenience without the back strain, along with the ability to quickly swing the bag around to access its contents. More to the point for Mobile Mac, a number of manufacturers are now making sling bags for carrying your laptop. These bags tend to be smaller and lighter than a traditional backpack and can’t hold as much cargo, but for those times when you don’t need to carry a road warrior’s arsenal, a sling is a practical alternative to a backpack or traditional laptop bag.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been testing three such bags—one each from Tom Bihn, Everki, and Incase.

The Buzz

Tom Bihn’s Buzz ($120) is available in nine color combinations and fits 15-inch MacBook Pros and smaller laptops. Made of water-resistant, 1000-denier Cordura nylon with “splash-proof” zipper closures, the company says the Buzz “will protect your gear in heavy rain but you wouldn’t want to throw it in the drink.” The main compartment features a foam laptop sleeve (made of a three-layer, 1/4-inch, foam laminate, according to the company), but instead of the standard slide-in sleeve design, the Buzz uses an interesting folder-style approach.

Tom Bihn Buzz

The entire back of the sling—one “side” of the folder—is padded; you slide your laptop into the main compartment and then another nylon-covered foam section—the other “side” of the folder—pulls up and over the corner of your laptop, securing it in place. This design offers protection similar to that of a traditional sleeve, but lets you slide your laptop out of the bag from either the top or the side. On the other hand, because of this corner-securing design, 15-inch laptops fit perfectly but smaller notebooks (the MacBook, 12-inch PowerBooks) slide around; they can even slide right up against the unpadded left side of the Buzz, which could result in damage if you drop the bag on that side. In other words, this bag is a much better fit for 15-inch laptops than smaller ones.

The Buzz’s single, adjustable strap rests on your right shoulder and crosses your chest to the left side of your waist. Like the other two bags covered here, the strap features a quick-release buckle that makes it easier to put the bag on and take it off; you don’t have to pull it over your head as you do with some sling bags. On the strap is a padded pouch that fits any iPod or mobile phone, most smart phones and, according to Tom Bihn, the upcoming iPhone; this heavily-padded strap-pouch is the most protective I’ve yet seen from a laptop bag. A smaller waist belt with a plastic buckle keeps the bag from flopping around (for example, while riding a bike). Of the three bags covered here, I found the Buzz to be the most comfortable to wear, even though it offers no padding or mesh material on the back. On the other hand, the Buzz’s top-mounted carrying handle was the worst of the three; it’s simply a thin, unpadded nylon strap.

In terms of storage space, with a laptop in the Buzz, there’s still room for a couple books. A separate front pocket includes the requisite organizer panel with two pen slots, two nylon pouches, and a key fob. However, this pocket isn’t very large; of these three bags, the Buzz can accommodate the least amount of additional “stuff” in its outer pocket. On the other hand, an elastic side pocket, which also includes two adjustable straps, can securely hold a water bottle or umbrella on the outside of the bag.

Perhaps the best feature of the Buzz is its build quality. The materials are thick and rugged, and the bag uses large, sturdy zippers. The pack looks and feels well made—made in the U.S., in fact, unlike most laptop bags these days—and includes a lifetime warranty.

Fling Light 13" Laptop Sling Pack

Everki’s Fling Light 13" Laptop Sling Pack ($40) is the most inexpensive sling bag I’ve seen. It’s available in black with either blue, ivory, or flax trim and fits only smaller laptops—MacBooks or 12-inch PowerBooks. Although also made of 1000-denier nylon, the Fling doesn’t have the same solid feel as the other two (more expensive) bags here and has the thinnest padding. It also uses an very different laptop-storage design: when you unzip the main compartment—like the Buzz, above, the zipper runs from the top all the way down the left side—your laptop slides, horizontally, into a sleeve-like area at the bottom of the bag.

Everki Fling

A second area at the top of the main compartment, separated by a removable, padded barrier, can hold a power adapter and cables or other smaller items. Although the Fling fits the 13-inch MacBook, the laptop compartment is a very tight fit. In fact, if you’ve got something like a Speck SeeThru or Macessity BookShell —a thin, polycarbonate shell that adds only a few millimeters to your laptop’s dimensions—on your MacBook, you can’t zip the Fling closed. And once you’ve got your laptop in the Everki, there’s really no room for books or other items.

Like the Buzz, the Fling’s adjustable strap rests on your right shoulder and crosses to the left side of your waist. A less-substantial buckle offers similar quick-release functionality, although the Fling’s strap also secures via Velcro—a low-tech but effective backup in case you accidentally unclip the buckle. (The downside is that using the buckle to remove the Fling means you have to also “undo” the Velcro—a noisy procedure in a classroom or library.) The strap also provides two storage pouches: an elastic and rubber-mesh pouch near the top for carrying a phone or iPod, and a nylon pocket at the waist with a Velcro-closed flap. Unfortunately, neither of these pockets offers much padding or feels very secure. On the positive side, the Fling is the easiest bag of the three to “swing around” for quick access to its contents; the thin, padded handle on top is a comfortable alternative for carrying the bag; and a thick, mesh pad on the back helps with comfort, especially on hot days.

The Fling’s organizer compartment is an impressive display of pockets and pouches. Within this compartment are four padded and lined pouches (one specifically made for sunglasses, one for an iPod or other media player); three mesh pouches; a business-card pocket; three elastic pen holders; a key fob; and a large, zippered storage pouch. Even the most obsessive-compulsive organizer will find a spot for all their stuff here. (There’s also a large, rubber-mesh pouch on the outside of the bag, although it closes via a single Velcro “button,” so this pouch isn’t very secure.)

Sling Pack

Incase Sling Pack

Incase’s Sling Pack ($70), available only in black, fits all current Mac laptops, including the 17-inch MacBook Pro. You would think this would mean that smaller notebooks, such as the 13-inch MacBook, would slide around quite a bit, but even that model fits quite well thanks to the Sling Pack’s traditional padded (and “faux-fur”-lined) sleeve with an elastic panel at the top.

The Sling Pack is more like a traditional laptop backpack in other ways, as well: it opens from the top; it provides more storage space than the Everki and Tom Bihn models—enough for several books—and it offers the most padding and protection of the three bags (the sleeve actually “floats” off the bottom of the bag for added shock protection). It’s also the most business-like of the three sling bags.

Although the Sling Pack’s adjustable strap offers a similar quick-release buckle for easy on/off, the strap rests on your left shoulder, crossing to your right side near the bottom of your rib cage. A large, heavily-padded, zippered pocket at the bottom of the strap can hold a small digital camera, a mobile phone, or an iPod; a rubber-reinforced headphone-cable hole is provided for the latter. The top of the bag features a thin, nylon-and-rubber carrying strap.

Like most Incase packs I’ve seen, the Sling Pack’s main (laptop) compartment also contains the organizer panel—in this case, you get two thick-mesh pouches, two elastic-mesh pouches, and two zippered pockets. However, you don’t get any pen holders, which is a bit odd for a laptop bag. On the outside of the bag is another large, zippered pocket. Finally, the Pack features one “hidden” pocket, a zippered one tucked in between the two mesh pads on the back of the bag; this pocket is useful for storing items, such as a passport or tickets, that you need to get to quickly.

UPDATE 5/20/2007: Clarified comments about the size of the Buzz bag’s outer pocket.

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