Review Shootout: Laptop Bags for Light Computing

Living the cloud life is only part of the equation; traveling light and easily being able to move your workspace from your home to class, a coffee shop, a coworking space or office are just as important. That's why I use a MacBook Air and that's why I've gotten my hands on some fine examples of small computer bags for light computing.

Meet the Contestants

Bags for the MacBook Air - from Waterfield and Tom Bihn

Left to Right: WaterField SleeveCase (with flap, piggyback and strap), Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell (with TerraGrip strap), WaterField HardCase, Tom Bihn Ristretto.

The idea for this post sprouted from Tom Bihn. They approached me about reviewing one of their bags to which I replied "what do you have that fits the Air?" From there I browsed around and looked for similar "light" bags to add to this review. The only one that I could not get my hands on in time was the 13-inch "Coder" by Timbuk2.

I did not include my bag of choice for the last year, a 15-inch Timbuk2 messenger bag, as it is too large to include in any sort of light computing bag review.

Tom Bihn Horizontal Brain Cell

At 60 (not including shoulder strap), the Brain Cell is a no-frills, gets-the-job-done laptop tote. It provides a good amount of laptop protection at the expense of leaving room for little else. There is a front pouch which potentially could be used for the charger and occasional day planner, but nothing else. Then again, that's the whole point of computing light.. you don't need much else! If you could really use an extra pouch or two, Tom Bihn sells those as attachable add-ons (pictured above).

My only real criticism is that the Brain Cell's handles are wimpy compared to the structure of the rest of the bag, which makes it a bit awkward to use as a briefcase. I'm used to the solid handle found on Timbuk2 bags.

Tom Bihn Horizonal Brain Cell laptop bag
Tom Bihn Horizonal Brain Cell laptop bag

The top of the Brain Cell closes with two overlapping, velcro-equipped flaps. I found myself struggling with this a bit by first having to push down the lower flap and pull across the top flap to get an adequate close that wouldn't come apart.

Verdict: Something about the boxy, geometric styling doesn't do it for me.

Tom Bihn Ristretto

The Ristretto is a vertical messenger bag priced at 90 with a bit more room to spare. It has considerably less padding than the Brain Cell or any of the other bags in this review but definitely enough to keep your laptop safe from coffee-table falls.
Tom Bihn Ristretto Vertical Bag

As you can see the Ristretto maintains a small profile while affording the storage space for an extra notepad, book and miscellaneous items. It's like a 2+2 sports car - there's extra space in the back, but not enough to get carried away with.

Tom Bihn Ristretto Vertical Bag

I was never a fan of vertical messenger bags but I found myself taking this one to class more than any of the other bags. I attribute this to the smaller ground footprint. It doesn't take up much floor space in cramped auditoriums and people won't trip over it when squeezing by you to get to their seat (College of Architecture Auditorium 123 I'm looking at you!).

While I generally only need my MacBook Air, I tend to pack a notepad and pen for classes just in case. For having the room to accomodate this, the Ristretto gets bonus Stammy points.

Verdict: While not exactly the epitome of light computing, the Ristretto is solid, versatile performer.

WaterField Hardcase

If the last two bags were the Toyota Camry and Infiniti G37 (respectively) in the crowd, the WaterField HardCase would most likely be a Bentley Brooklands. Made with genuine leather and starting at 229 for the MacBook Air sized version, the HardCase is built for the businessman. Like the Bentley, the HardCase has a plush interior with loads of padding.
Waterfield MacBook Air Hardcase

You will never have to worry about your laptop's safety again. You could even trust your laptop with, dare I say, airport baggage handlers in this bag. I had originally considered this extra bulk to be a downside, but I don't think extra padding is ever a bad thing.

Waterfield MacBook Air Hardcase

Unfortunately the amenities stop there. There is no room for much more than a few pens and a pack of gum. It's a tight fit for everything else, including the laptop charger.

Verdict: I'll take one in white to match my Gulfstream. Realistically though, I took this bag a few times with me to tech events and meetups but that was about it. It is still a big bag but pretty much only holds the laptop. There must be a way to engineer a small pocket to hold a legal pad. Save your money and entertain some young ladies with bottle service at your local upscale bar.

WaterField SleeveCase Ensemble

Last in this review shootout, I have the WaterField SleeveCase with all the fixings: a flap, shoulder strap and piggyback pouch. As the name implies, the SleeveCase is literally just a protective sleeve for your laptop. With the added piggyback pouch, it easily takes on the challenge of toting along your laptop charger as well.
Waterfield Sleevecase Ensemble bag

The SleeveCase is the smallest bag of the bunch and was my bag of choice when going to Skribit meetings and development sessions where all I needed was my laptop and charger, and didn't want to tote along a big bag.

Waterfield Sleevecase Ensemble

With neoprene protective padding and a ballistic nylon exterior, the SleeveCase felt rugged enough to take care of my laptop while not adding too much bulk. That being said, the SleeveCase won't entirely protect your laptop from any substantial staircase falls or the like.

Verdict: The SleeveCase Ensemble is my favorite of the bunch, although the Tom Bihn Ristretto isn't far with its added versatility.

Your Thoughts

What do you look for in a laptop bag? Are you ready for a minimalist bag yet?