Wheeled/rolling laptop bags
In our recent Essential Mobile Gear article, I recommended a rolling bag or case instead of a backpack or shoulder bag. As I wrote at the time:
If you travel frequently…you’ll be able to carry more—possibly even a change of clothes—without putting stress on your shoulders and back.
I’ve been taking my own advice as I’ve recently tested four rolling laptop cases. While they all help you more-easily transport your gear, thanks to standard features such as hard-rubber inline-skate-style wheels; locking, telescoping handles; and padded laptop compartments, and all fit in an overhead airplane bin, they’re otherwise very different bags with different designs and advantages.
(Note that these bags each fit a 15.4-inch—or smaller—laptop. Although I didn’t test any cases for 17-inch laptops, there are a few models out there; for example, Solo’s 17” Rolling Laptop Portfolio, Targus’ 17” Trademark II Overnight Roller, Clark & Mayfield’s Stafford Rolling Leather Tote all fit Apple’s largest portable.)
Although STM’s $135 Journey looks like a large backpack, it really is a wheeled pack; you won’t even find hidden shoulder straps. At 21 by 14 by 8 inches when empty, and thicker when packed full, it’s the largest of the bags I tested in terms of overall size. The main compartment, at the back of the bag, offers approximately 18 by 13 by 5 inches of space for clothes, files, or other large items; elastic straps keep clothes in place, and there’s a large pouch for notebooks or files.
The laptop pocket, located just in front of the main compartment, provides very thick padding on five sides; only the top of the pocket lacks this protection. Although a 15-inch MacBook Pro fits snugly in the pocket in terms of width and depth, the pocket is designed for much thicker laptops, which means Apple’s notoriously thin models have quite a bit of room to wiggle. On the other hand, one of the Journey’s backpack-like features is a set of four compression straps, two on each side, that let you squeeze the bag’s thickness down a bit after packing. (The Journey’s outer surfaces are heavy-duty, water-resistant nylon with a thin later of stiff padding. Only the bottom surface and the rear frame are completely rigid.) These straps specifically compress the main and laptop compartments.
In front of the laptop compartment is an organizer pocket with secured pouches for a PDA and mobile phone, along with open pouches for pens, an iPod or other portable player, and other accessories. (An outlet hole for your headphone cable lets you listen to your media player while it’s in the bag.) Unfortunately, this pocket isn't very thick, so you can't store as much gear here as you can in the corresponding compartment on the other bags I tested. Finally, a zippered exterior front pocket holds smaller documents and items, and a zippered pocket on the back of the bag fits files or several magazines.
The Journey uses a single-bar, T-shaped handle that extends to 39 inches from the ground. Nice touches include a pair of thick, rubber handles—one on the top of the bag and one on the side—that give you several options for picking up the bag, and lockable zippers on the main and laptop compartments. On the other hand, the Journey lacks a water-bottle pouch or pocket, something that’s important to many travelers.
Case Logic 18” Lightweight Upright Roller
I briefly covered Case Logic’s $160 18” Lightweight Upright Roller in the Essential Mobile Gear article mentioned above. At 18 by 13 by 10 inches, it’s the size of a compact carry-on suitcase, and looks like one, to boot. One of my favorite features is the rigid EVA shell, which is relatively light but offers an impressive degree of protection for the bag’s contents. The main compartment for clothes or larger gear is 16 by 12 by 6 and, like that of the Journey, includes elastic straps to keep clothes in place. But you also get a large zippered, mesh pocket for dirty clothes and a smaller zippered pocket for loose items.
The Upright Roller’s laptop compartment, just in front of the main compartment, offers the least protection of the bags I tested. Although the sides of the compartment are semi-rigid, the laptop pouch inside extends only about 2/3 the length of the compartment and uses a thin layer of padding. Because of the Roller's outer shell, I didn’t worry too much about my laptop’s safety, but if it’s a concern, the laptop pouch is large enough to accommodate a 15-inch MacBook Pro (or, of course, any smaller Apple laptop) inside another sleeve. This laptop area also provides three mesh pouches for non-bulky accessories.
As with the Journey, in front of the laptop compartment is an organizer compartment featuring a large, zippered-mesh pocket; a padded organizer panel with lots of mesh, zippered, and elastic pouches; and a sleeve for files. On the outside of this compartment is another zippered pocket for documents and small items.
The zippers for the Upright Roller’s three largest compartments are lockable, and the handle is a two-bar U-shaped version that extends to 40.5 inches from the ground. The zippers felt exceptionally sturdy during my testing, and I liked the thick, padded handle on the top (although I found myself wishing the bag had another on either side, like the Journey). Finally, on the right-hand side of the Roller is a pocket that, when unzipped, extends to hold a water bottle. This is especially handy while traveling, but a complaint I had was that my water bottle slipped out of the pocket too easily.
(Case Logic also has a 22” Lightweight Expandable Upright Roller, for $190, that offers a removable laptop sleeve and quite a bit more internal space for clothes or gear.)
Solo 15.4” Shock Stop Laptop Case
At 15.5 by 16.5 by 8.5 inches in size, Solo’s $160 15.4” Shock Stop Laptop Case is a bit smaller than the other bags I tested. However, it appears considerably smaller at first glance thanks to a shorter, wider shape that makes it look more like a traditional laptop case and less like a suitcase.
The Shock Stop’s main compartment, at the back of the case, is similar to the “clothes” area of the STM and Case Logic bags. However, the Shock Stop’s compartment has wide, nylon straps on the sides that keep the bag from opening fully—more like a laptop case designed to be opened from the top than a suitcase that’s opened while lying down. In fact, you can fully unzip this compartment without the bag tipping over. (You can actually detach these straps if you’d prefer to open the bag fully; however, the straps are a bit of a challenge to re-attach if you later change your mind.)
Unlike the other bags here, the Shock Stop doesn’t have a separate laptop area; the bag’s laptop sleeve resides in the main compartment. The sleeve itself is thinly-padded nylon with a Velcro strap on top to secure your laptop. Although the sleeve doesn’t offer much protection from other items you pack in this main compartment, the bag’s rigid outer shell offers significant protection, and elastic sections along the sleeve mean that thinner laptops—such as Apple’s entire MacBook line—fit nearly as well as the bulkiest Windows notebooks. This area also provides two nylon pouches for large items. Although it’s possible to use this main compartment for clothing or other travel items, it holds considerably less than the corresponding sections of the STM and Case Logic bags.
The marquee feature of the Shock Stop—and the source of the bag’s name—is its suspension system. Like the other bags here, the Shock Stop uses inline-skate-style wheels, but on the Solo bag, each wheel is mounted on two spring-based shock absorbers to protect your laptop and other bag contents. Although this feature sounds a bit gimmicky, it does work; when using the bag fully loaded, bumps, rocks, and other shock-inducing “road hazards” felt less jarring to my hands (which means my laptop had a similarly-softer ride).
In front of the main compartment is a large organizer area that opens accordion-like. Inside is a large file/magazine/book sleeve, a large zippered pocket, and a slew of elastic pouches and pen holders. The front of this compartment hosts two smaller, zippered pockets for documents and other quick-access items.
The Shock Stop's ballistic-nylon exterior feels rugged, and its zippers worked smoothly for me. Except for the front panel, which is just thick nylon, the exterior of the bag is rigid and sturdy. A thick, padded handle on top is comfortable, even with heavy loads. The bag uses a two-bar, U-shaped handle that extends to 38.5 inches from the ground. Unfortunately, like the Journey, there's no water-bottle pouch or pocket.
Brenthaven Duo II Wheeled Case
Whereas each of the previous cases can double as a small rolling suitcase, Brenthaven’s $200 Duo II Wheeled Case is a dedicated laptop bag on wheels. At 19 by 14 by 10 inches, it’s actually larger in overall size than the other bags, but that increase in volume is due to both larger feet on the bottom of the case and the additional bulk of the Duo II’s hefty laptop section; its storage capacity is actually similar to that of the Solo Shock Stop.
The standout feature of the Duo II is the degree of protection it provides for your laptop. Located just in front of the telescoping handle, the Duo II's laptop compartment uses Brenthaven’s CORE Protection System, which means rigid, padded panels in the front and back; thick padding on the bottom and top (padded panels fold down over the top of your laptop before you zip the compartment closed); and padded, flexible pieces on the left and right. These flexible pieces curve inwards, providing shock protection and helping the compartment accommodate both 13-inch and 15-inch laptops. The Duo II’s laptop section is easily the most-protective of the four bags I tested.
On the other hand, as with the Journey and Upright Roller, the Duo II’s laptop compartment was clearly designed for thicker laptops; a 15-inch MacBook Pro is less than half the size of the thickest laptop the bag can accommodate, which means Apple’s laptops move around quite a bit in the Duo II, at least on the front-to-back axis.
In front of the laptop area is a large, zippered compartment for files and large items. You could also use this area for a jacket or a flat toiletry bag, but at just over three inches thick—front to back—this area isn’t going to hold as much stuff as the “suitcase” sections of the other bags. The compartment is rigid on the back side (the side adjacent to the laptop area) and padded on the front and bottom; it also includes a file sleeve and five pouches for gear.
The very front of the bag hosts the standard organizer compartment with several mesh and nylon pouches for gear, as well as pouches for business cards and pens. This pocket expands to nearly three inches, so it can hold a good amount of stuff. Just above this pocket is a smaller zippered pocket for travel documents, glasses, or an iPod or other media player.
The Duo II also provides a few unique storage areas. Because there’s no large compartment in front of the handle, the internal space to the left and right of the handle could have been wasted. Instead, Brenthaven added a zippered pocket on each side of the bag. These pockets aren’t deep, but run the length of the bag and include rigid panels on three sides. The left-hand pocket includes a pull-out, mesh water-bottle pouch with a drawstring closure. Since you can’t zip up the pocket when the pouch is extended, you lose the use of the pocket for storing items, but the pouch is a welcome feature. There’s also a small pocket on the lower-front of the bag that’s useful for storing cables.
In addition to its exceptionally-protective laptop area, the Duo II’s zippers and ballistic-nylon material felt the sturdiest of the bags here. The bag uses a two-bar, U-shaped handle that extends to 40 inches from the ground, and a thick strap on the back of the bag lets you place the bag over a larger rolling suitcase, threading the other bag’s handle through the strap. The Duo II has two handles on top; this is a bit odd, as the two handles don’t connect to one another, and their “floppy” design means it can be a hassle to try to grab both when in a rush—say, at a security checkpoint at the airport. I preferred the handle designs of the other three bags here.
Spin those wheels
Each of these bags turned out to be sturdy and well made, and each eased the burden on my back while toting lots of gear. For the best laptop protection, it’s tough to beat the Brenthaven Duo II, although its laptop compartment is a bit large for Apple’s laptops, which means you’re wasting some space that could have been used for holding more gear. If you’re looking for a traditional laptop bag with wheels, Solo’s Shock Stop gives you that look and feel, as well as a unique shock-absorbing feature. Finally, STM’s Journey and Case Logic’s Lightweight Upright Roller let you bring your gear and a change of clothes, making them good for overnight trips. I preferred the Upright Roller’s rigid shell and better organization, although the Journey offers a bit more space and a better laptop compartment.