In search of a grown-up laptop bag

Like many office workers, I lug my laptop to and from work most days. For years I've been encasing it in a protective sleeve and stowing that inside a no-name backpack. Lately, though, I've been looking for a more elegant solution. After all, I've been carrying a backpack since junior high school; maybe it's time for a more adult bag.

When UK bagmaker Knomo offered me two of its stylish laptop bags for testing, I jumped at the chance. For several weeks, I carried first the Aurora tote ($149.95) in bright "teaberry" pink -- a new color this fall -- and then the Saxby messenger bag ($169.00) in slate gray. (Both bags are available in several other colors as well.)

As a security-conscious city-dweller, I'm a fan of laptop bags that don't scream, "I have a laptop; please rob me!" (In fact, a few years back I was mugged while carrying a laptop, but it stayed unnoticed and safe in my low-profile backpack during the ordeal -- a huge point in my backpack's favor.)

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So I was pleased that the two Knomo bags just look like ordinary bags with a touch of style. With its quilted nylon exterior and tote-bag shape, the Aurora (right) might just as well be housing a knitting project as an expensive electronic device. The waxed canvas-clad Saxby (below) is more understated and businesslike but still doesn't broadcast the laptop's presence inside.

Both bags include a quilted pouch that's made of high-density foam for protecting up to a 15-in. laptop. (According to a company spokesperson, the bags are torture-tested by dropping them 2,500 times while loaded with a 33-pound weight.) The Aurora's pouch has a short strap that snaps over your device to secure it in place even if the bag is inverted.

About 13 in. tall and 17 in. wide, the soft-sided Aurora is a svelte 2 in. thick out of the box, but an exterior zipper lets it easily expand to about 5 in. thick, providing plenty of room for all your stuff. Because I usually bring my breakfast and lunch to work (and thus always seem to be carrying multiple Tupperware containers), I kept the Aurora expanded most of the time, although I appreciated the flexibility to compress it with a quick zip on days I was traveling light.

Across the the top are flaps that zip closed for security. There's also a large zipped pocket inside, a small zipped pocket on the outside and a clever hidden pocket on top of the bag that's accessible even when the top flaps are zipped (perfect for easy access to a smartphone). I found both the flexible leather grab handle and the adjustable webbing shoulder strap (not shown in these photos) to be quite comfortable for short distances, but on walks of more than half a mile I began to miss my backpack's even weight distribution.

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Knomo bills the Saxby a men's bag, but I felt right at home with it. I love its array of interior and exterior pockets, many of which are organized into handy compartments for phones, business cards, pens and more.

Even though it's about the same size as the expanded Aurora tote, the Saxby, which can't be expanded or compressed, felt a bit bigger to me overall. (Indeed, my husband commented that the bag looked a little large for my 5'3" frame.) Conversely, the inside felt smaller; I had trouble fitting in all my Tupperware and other gear -- admittedly a problem that may not come up for many people.

I found it a bit more comfortable to carry the Saxby over long distances than the Aurora; its adjustable webbing shoulder strap is slightly wider, and it feels more natural to sling a messenger bag across the body rather than hang it on one side. Still, neither style comes close to the comfort of a backpack for carrying heavy loads.

While I can't comment on the long-term durability of either the Aurora or the Saxby, they seemed sturdily constructed of high-quality materials, such as soft polyester linings that feel more luxurious than "polyester" sounds. Knomo guarantees its bags for 2 years, and it shows; I encountered no loose stitches, frayed edges, stuck zippers or other signs of shoddy manufacturing, as I've seen in other laptop bags that put style ahead of durability.

The Aurora's shiny metal buttons did get a bit scuffed during my daily public-transit commute, but the scuffs aren't very visible from more than a foot or so away. With brushed metal hardware and a tougher exterior than the Aurora, the Saxby withstood my abuse a bit better -- even up close it looks just as good now as when it arrived. It's also water-resistant, which might make it a better fit for wet climes.

One last nice touch: All Knomo bags have a unique tracker code and Knomo's phone number printed on the inside. The idea is for you to register your bag with the company using the tracker code, and if someone finds your bag (assuming they don't decide to keep it for themselves), they can contact Knomo, which will contact you and help you get it back. In these days of identity theft, it's a smart alternative to keeping your personal info in the bag.

When all is said and done, would I trade my trusty backpack for a Knomo Aurora or Saxby? I did appreciate the bags' good looks and thoughtful design touches. Given how much stuff I typically carry around and the distance I walk each day, however, I'm not ready to give up the utility and comfort of a backpack, despite its lack of style. But for those who don't walk far and who aren't packrats, these high-quality bags offer an excellent balance between form and function.

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