Laptop backpacks for student budgets

Back to school: affordable options for carrying your gear to and from school or around campus

Backpacks on a student's budget

It's the time of year when students start heading back to school, and these days, they often do so carrying MacBooks as well as books. That's a lot of gear to be hauling around, and if you've got to carry it, the best way to do so is a laptop backpack, which distributes all that weight more evenly across the shoulders, and more ergonomically on the body, than other types of bags. Here's a look at eight packs that will keep your MacBook, your back, and your budget in good shape.

STM Eclipse Medium and Rogue Medium Laptop Backpacks

STM bags have long been favorites around the Macworld offices thanks to solid construction, good comfort, and great organizational touches. If you tend to carry lots of books with your MacBook, the Eclipse Medium (left; $80; officially discontinued but still available online) offers plenty of cargo room and a generous number of pockets and pouches. For a more-compact load, the Rogue Medium (right; $80 MSRP, but widely available online for $45) offers less cargo room but adds a laptop compartment that's hidden even when the bag is open, external compression straps, and a few more external pockets. Both packs hold a 15-inch (or smaller) laptop and sport water-bottle pouches, chest and waist straps, and a tuck-away rain cover that keeps the pack and its contents dry.

eBags Downloader Laptop Backpack

Online retailer eBags has long been known for selling name-brand bags and luggage at discounted prices. But the company also sells its own line, and the Downloader ($40 to $60, depending on current promotions) is a solid value in laptop backpacks. The main compartment hosts a padded sleeve for a 13- or 15-inch laptop, with room left over for a couple books and binders and a few cables and accessories. The front organizer provides a good assortment of pockets and pouches, along with a pouch for your iPhone or iPod and a cable opening for your headphones. One of the two zippered side pockets doubles as a water-bottle pouch, and you can clip other small items onto the D-rings on the bag's nicely padded shoulder straps.

High Sierra Computer Day Pack

High Sierra's Computer Day Pack ($100 MSRP, but available for as little as $39 online) is one of the few quality-on-a-budget laptop backpacks that can accommodate a 17-inch MacBook Pro. Available in black, green, or "lava" red, the Computer Day Pack provides the usual organizer panel and MP3-player pocket, dual side water-bottle pouches, and compression straps to keep the weight of your books and huge laptop close to your body. A mesh pocket on the shoulder strap holds your mobile phone, and the back panel features an opening to slip the bag onto the handle of a rolling bag. Perhaps best of all, considering the weight of a 17-inch laptop, the Computer Day Pack itself weighs only 2.1 pounds.

Belkin Sling Bag for Notebooks

Despite the strain it puts on the back, some people insist on the one-shoulder approach to carrying a backpack. Belkin's Sling Bag for Notebooks ($50 MSRP, available online for $35) offers a reasonable compromise: a lightweight, backpack-style bag with a single, cross-chest shoulder strap that distributes the bag's weight more evenly across the body. The bag's padded laptop sleeve fits 13- and 15-inch MacBook models, a removable pouch holds a few laptop accessories, and a pouch on the strap holds your mobile phone. The single-strap design is also convenient, letting you swing the entire bag around to the front for quick access to its contents, and, thanks to a quick-release buckle, making it easy to put the bag on and take it off. The bag's main drawback—or benefit, if you care about your back—is that it won't hold a lot of books and your laptop.

Case Logic 16" Security Friendly Laptop Backpack

Do your academic travels include trips through airport security? Case Logic's 16" Security Friendly Laptop Backpack ($80 MSRP, but available online for $50) offers the usual laptop-backpack features in a checkpoint-friendly design: Unzip the two side zippers and the bag unfolds to lay flat with the laptop compartment alone on one side for unobstructed airport X-rays, and the rest of your gear on the other. You can even carry the bag—by its shoulder straps or handle—without re-zipping if you need to grab-and-go to catch your flight. Enhancing the travel convenience is a pass-through opening for slipping the backpack onto the handle of a rolling bag. (Note that the 16" Security Friendly Laptop Backpack is not the same as the similarly named Security Friendly Laptop Backpack, a $110 version aimed at the "executive" set.)

Targus 15.4" Rolling Laptop Backpack

Backbacks are convenient and comfortable, but load them up with too much gear, and even the most ergonomic backpack can be too heavy. Targus's 15.4" Rolling Laptop Backpack ($70 MSRP, but available for around $50 online) offers the conveniences of a laptop backpack but with the option to stop, drop, and roll thanks to a telescoping handle and inline-skate wheels. (A flap covers the wheels in backpack mode, then flips around to cover the shoulder straps when rolling.) Laptops up to 15.4 inches will fit in the removable padded sleeve, a large second compartment can hold books and files, and a slew of other zippered pockets and interior pouches hold your other gear and your water bottle. Of course, "roll-ability" adds weight to the bag itself—at 6 pounds, you'll likely find yourself rolling more than carrying. But that's probably a good thing in the long run.

Brenthaven Trek Sleeve

OK, so Brenthaven's Trek Sleeve ($30) isn't a backpack, but it's easily the most protective sleeve case you'll find for $30, letting you use any backpack as a "laptop bag." The Trek Sleeve is custom-made for a 13-inch MacBook or MacBook Pro, snuggly fitting your laptop in a padded, rigid-wall frame that protects on all six sides. A zippered organizer pocket on the front holds your laptop's AC adapter and an iPhone or iPod, and a slip pouch on the back holds a couple magazines or some files. For those days you want to travel light, you can carry the Trek Sleeve alone by its built-in handle or by attaching a shoulder strap (not included) to its dual D-rings.

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