There comes a time to lay down your technology burden – and a properly designed bag helps
My previous most successful and secure way of carrying a light laptop in inner-city London - apart from a purpose-made bag - used to be slotting it between multiple copies of broadsheet newspapers, double-bagged courtesy of Tesco carrier bags.
In venues frequented by sneak thieves it attracted no nefarious interest whatsoever. Thank you Tesco. There have been many alternatives since then, but eventually I came across STM.
The need to include a digital camera, audio recorder and suchlike, along with the move to higher value laptops, namely various MacBooks, meant turning to professional offerings. And the brand that has impressed the most, so far, has been Australian company STM.
The preferred list pre-STM included TechAir, Belkin, Samsonite and Lowepro (with padded sections for laptop, DSLR and lenses), and they were all good. But a serious resolution to reduce the weight of my mobile technology rather than simply accommodate it, was rewarded by an introduction to STM (courtesy of Jessica Lamb of PR consultants KL Associates).
'Many equipment bags have unacceptable weight even when unloaded'
The first STM bag sampled was the Jet backpack (medium £64.95, large £69.95) which was the final compromise for inclusion of a Canon DSLR camera. While most laptops are luggable, you’ve only got to include a DSLR and you’ve instantly reached that crucial point where you wished you had a wheely-bag (STM has one of those too). It's not just that the weight limits your mobility but it's not exactly good for your general comfort and health.
Always a promising start, this bag was light before anything was put in it. Of course that should always be the case but many equipment bags have unacceptable weight even when unloaded, and they are to be avoided.
The Jet, designed as a rucksack for both shoulders, is robust as well as light. And while it had no specially designed accommodation for a DSLR it could, at a squeeze, adequately house a Canon camera on top of the laptop charger. Not ideal, but doable.
The pockets coped with all the other laptop add-ons and leads, as well as digital audio and Flip camera too. And it was as happy with a 15-inch MacBook Pro as a MacBook Air. Tablet users have their own little lined pouch too. For them the laptop section could then be released for those who still have to deal with paperwork – perhaps the heaviest of all loads.
Over a couple of weeks this bag proved its worth – it could easily and safely handle most reasonable loads. The trouble is that 'reasonable' can soon stack up to the kinds of weights you are trying to move away from. For many users of technology, having space means that it ends up being filled to the brim. So to make life easier for yourself, it's not just finding the optimum bag but also developing some discipline and restraint.
My wish for a strong, light, discreet bag that would also help me limit my burden was granted with the arrival of the STM Alley (small, 0.5 kilo, £34.95, medium - £37.95) and the Vertical (small, 0.73 kilo, £49.95, medium £54.95), both fit for purpose, clearly based on the same design principles and extremely good value for money. It’s no surprise that the Alley has been one of STM’s most popular bags for education customers.
What’s worth bearing in mind is that STM bags carry a lifetime warranty. Despite heavy-duty use – and by a number of different users – neither of these bags approached a point where the warranty was considered let alone invoked.
They are like a vertical version of a dispatch rider’s satchel, with a covering flap in the front (complete with zippered pocket) that folds over. Under this cover is another fold-down flap that secures the laptop and tablet enclosures and adds extra protection from knocks. Both these flaps clamp down with strong, tough Velcro (or similar), allowing for quick opening and access.
There are also 'sleeves' on the back panel that are ideal for paperwork (open on the Vertical and zippered on the Alley). On the front are smaller zippered pockets (two on the Vertical, one on the Alley)
'Any downsides? I couldn't find any'
These are not obviously laptop/tablet bags, although that wouldn’t be hard for keen eyes to work out. But they are light and extremely tough, far more so than first appears. For example the straps are held on by clever, swivelling attachments which look as if they could be a weak link. Not so – they are strong and have been, for me, completely trouble-free. They are removable so that you can just use the grab handle on the top if that's more suitable. What’s also good is that general feedback indicates that they are just as appealing to women as to men
The Vertical (0.73 kilo), with its tough green exterior and soft knuckle cord-like interior, is virtually a deluxe version of the Alley. Slightly thicker, with a little more protection, which makes it a little heavier too. But the everyday performance has been virtuallty identical.
Any downsides? I couldn’t find any, apart from experiencing some griping elsewhere about my Vertical’s eventual "grubbiness" (some of us don’t notice dust or grime!) after a full year of consistent hard work which it simply lapped up. It’s the same for the Alley which, despite its budget price and marginally slighter protection, also came through the test with flying colours – and no grubbiness (it was the ‘right’ colour to start with).
However, nothing lasts forever and the Vertical appears to have come to the end of its commercial life cycle (although you may still be able to track one down on the internet). And that makes it a perfect time to check out a newcomer further with a new sample to try out, the STM Linear. It's a natural progression and incorporates the best of both the Vertical and the Alley.
Remember, it's not just the bag – self-discipline is needed too
The STM Linear also comes in a black that effectively pre-empts grubby. It’s really light (0.5 kilo, same as the Alley) before anything goes into it, and it tightens up on the tech you can cram into it.
It feels even more compact than the Vertical and Alley. The only things missing are the inner flap covering the two padded hardware compartments and the instant-release material flap fasteners. The missing flap probably marginally lessen protection but the 'tailored' opening for the laptop does help, but this compromise feels perfectly acceptable. The alternative, plastic fastening clips on adjustable straps give some slack and may be more reassuring for those sniffy about Velcro (to be fair, grip didn’t seem to lessen over the test period), while alarming some by their lightness.
However, the tight design brief on space doesn’t seem to have significantly affected protection. This bag feels right, and under the overarching flap, the laptop enclosure (perfect for MacBook Air) and the one next to it (ideal for a tablet), have strong padding that also covers the base. The other open enclosure can take power cord and accessories (inc compact camera). And, like the Alley, there is only one zip-up pocket (two on Vertical).
These bags may be too small for some, but if you take a more disciplined approach to what you carry they are brilliant. A light laptop and/or tablet, with chargers, and compact digital devices (in this case Nikon 1 compact digital camera and Olympus digital camera) along with the old analogue notebook and pen and a smattering of A4 paperwork) can be a perfectly acceptable load. Be sure that if you used a ruck sack you would likely find a way to fill it. And the days of the Tesco thief-fooler are well and truly over.
Artwork: courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (by Frederick Barnard, J.D. Linton, W. Small, etc. Engraved by Dalziel Brothers)