13-inch laptop bags are made EZ

There are many generic laptop cases out there that fit any notebook. And among those made for specific laptop sizes, the most-common specification is “fits 15-inch laptops.” But if you’ve got a smaller portable, these bags and cases are just too big–your laptop often slides around inside, and the bag itself is often larger than it needs to be. In today’s Mobile Mac, I take a look at three compact bags made specifically for Apple’s 13-inch notebooks, the MacBook and MacBook Air.

Be.ez LAbesace

I first saw, and liked, a pre-production version of Be.ez’s LAbesace ($75) back at January’s Macworld Expo; the official product lives up that that first impression. A compact shoulder/messenger bag just 15.4 by 11.4 by 5 inches on the outside, the LAbesace fits a MacBook or MacBook Air perfectly yet still has room for a decent amount of accessories and personal items thanks to a design that’s larger and rigid at the bottom. The rigid bottom keeps the inside storage area from collapsing, making it easy to get at the bag’s contents.

The Classic version of the LAbesace is black with a bright orange interior to make it easier to find things inside; the Lime Drop version is grey with a bright lime-green interior. (Note that I’ve seen the black model with black trim or white trim, and the gray model with gray trim or black trim.) The bag is made of “rainproof” 1682D nylon–in layman’s terms, it’s good-quality fabric–with waterproof zippers. The inside of the bag has a document pocket; an organizer panel; and, on the inside of the lid, a zippered, mesh pocket. The outside has two smaller, zippered pockets. The bag’s strap looks and feels like an automobile seat belt–it’s sturdy, but has no padding.

On the negative side, the LAbesace’s laptop area isn’t as protective as it could be; although the bottom of the bag is rigid, the sleeve for your computer has just a thin layer of padding. I also wish there was a water-bottle pouch and an outer pocket on the back for full-size documents; and a thin handle on top would be useful. But overall, this is a great bag for those who want something compact and attractive while still being able to carry some accessories and personal items.

Other than being very compact, WaterField’s HardCase 13 ($229) is almost the polar opposite of the Be.ez LAbesace. The HardCase is among the most protective laptop bags I’ve seen, but it has very little room for anything but your laptop–it’s essentially a heavy-duty laptop sleeve designed to look like a business-style shoulder bag. The main body of the HardCase is made of Waterfield’s high-quality, black nylon. The bottom and sides include rigid panels that surround thick padding for the case’s plush-lined laptop compartment. The flip-over cover, made of leather, is black on the outside with an inner lining of either black, kiwi (light green), or pink; the cover also hosts the bag’s leather handle. The combination of leather and nylon is an interesting one; I liked the look, but not everyone I asked did.

WaterField Designs has a history of using unique buckles on the company’s bags–for example, airline seatbelt buckles–and the HardCase is no exception: the buckle for the leather cover is actually a paragliding buckle. It’s obviously sturdy, but it’s also easy to use and gives the bag an even more unique look. The shoulder strap is thick nylon with a built-in padded, non-slip pad. When ordering the HardCase, in addition to choosing the color of the inside cover, you can choose black or chrome hardware–shoulder strap clips, strap anchors, rivets, and the like.

The HardCase isn’t inexpensive, but it looks and feels exceptionally well-made, and few “soft” bags I’ve seen offer as much protection for your laptop. On the other hand, the HardCase provides very little storage room. There’s a full-size document folder on the back (accessible without having to lift the bag’s cover), and two pockets under the cover. However, because the bag is so slim, you can’t put much in these pockets, and bulky items–such as your laptop’s power supply–are an especially-tight fit. (WaterField’s Web site seems to indicate that you should store your power supply in the outer back pocket, although this can make for uncomfortable carrying.) In other words, this is a bag for those who travel very light.

(Note that there are different versions of the HardCase 13″ for the MacBook and MacBook Air; the main difference is the size of the thickly-padded laptop slot. I tested the MacBook Air version; if you need a bag that fits both the MacBook and the MacBook Air, go with the MacBook model. There are also versions available for the 15-inch MacBook Pro [$239] and the 17-inch MacBook Pro [$249])

STM Rogue Small

Back in early 2007, I covered STM’s Evolution, a backpack with a compact design. As I said back then, I’m a big fan of laptop backpacks, which are much better on your shoulders and back than one-strap bags, and the Evolution’s smaller size encourages you not to overload your pack. STM has since released the Rogue Small ($90), a laptop backpack inspired by the Evolution and offered in an attractive denim-and-navy design.

Like the Evolution, the Rogue has comfortable shoulder, belt, and chest straps; very good back padding and venting; and a padded laptop compartment. The latter uses STM’s “hidden” design that keeps your laptop out of sight and securely in place, even when the bag is open. Although the bag’s thick 600D nylon is water-resistant, the Rogue also includes a built-in rain cover that tucks away into a compartment at the bottom of the bag. You also get two (small) water-bottle/umbrella pockets on the outside and a thick handle on top.

Although similar in size to the Evolution, the Rogue offers a bit more space for gear. Besides the main compartment, which can accommodate several large textbooks, there are three external pockets: a large one with a full organizer panel and two internal pouches; a medium-sized one with two internal pouches; and a small one that can hold an iPod, iPhone, or sunglasses. Overall, the Rogue offers a bit more room for gear, and better organization, than the Evolution. It’s still not a pack for the road-warrior who wants to haul a load of gadgets everywhere, but it’s a great backpack for everyday use.

(The Rogue is also available in Medium and Large versions for 15-inch and 17-inch laptops, respectively. The Medium version is gray and red; the Large version is gray and silver.)

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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