|InCase -- The Nylon Backpack, the Nylon Slim, and the Canvas Vertical Sling
While many of us will buy a $2,000-plus laptop without first testing it, relying on its numeric specs to determine if it will suit us, the sub-$200 bag we'll buy to put it in is a different story.
Lots of us have purchased laptop bags that looked great in the store and later regretted our choices--it didn't hold everything we needed, the handles were crappy and uncomfortable, the zippers were fussy, there was no good access for things we needed quickly. For peripatetic freelancers and commuting designers, a good laptop bag has to be durable, functional, roomy, light, and yeah, we'd like a little style to go along with that.
For this Studio Bullitt we take an in-depth look at three different laptop bags from California-based InCase Designs: The Nylon Backpack, the Nylon Slim, and the Canvas Vertical Sling. Rather than a one-bag-fits-all mentality, each of the bags we're analyzing was designed to satisfy different needs.
The Nylon Slim
This cleanly-styled, ballistic nylon backpack is the streamlined version of InCase's MacBook-toting flagship, the Nylon Backpack. It adds about 4-5 inches to your profile.
We brought the Slim to a freelance rendering gig, loading it with a laptop, charger, pen tablet, mouse, cables, calipers, eyeglass case, and a file folder. With this load, it still retained its namesake profile without bulging or changing shape, a boon on crowded subway cars. Post-assignment, the design firm needed us to take some bottle samples home, and the bag expanded slightly with two 500mL containers inside. There is compartmentalized webbing inside the bag, and by moving components around (i.e. swapping the location of the charger and the mouse, say) purists can stuff the bag quite densely while still maintaining its original slim shape.
On NYC's packed rush hour subway cars, etiquette (or a burly guy from Brooklyn) dictate you take your backpack off when squeezing into the car. But wth the Slim, it didn't feel neccessary.
The padded spots where the bag comes into contact with your back do a good job of allowing airflow and avoiding the "sweaty back spot" encountered with some other backpacks.
We were pleased and surprised to find two nice design touches, one explicitly mentioned in the product literature, one not. The first: the Slim has two hip-level flaps with padded, zippered compartments, lined with the same faux-fur as the inside of the laptop compartment. These hip-level flaps make perfect and easy-access storage for an iPod, cell phone, or headphones. Either compartment swallowed a Motorola e815 or an iPhone with no problem. The zipper gave us confidence the phones wouldn't fall out, and were easy to undo in a jiffy when the phones rang.
The second, unmentioned touch: One of our gripes with backpacks is the hanging straps--we need them for adjustment, yes, but hate setting the bags down on the floor of crowded subway cars and dirty platforms--there's too much urban goo for the straps to pick up. But the Slim has a clever little slit-pouch on each hip flap, and little ring-straps on the shoulder slings, so loose straps can be neatly bundled and tucked away. Once this is done we were able to set the bag down without fear of entangling the straps in filth, because they were completely retracted.
The Nylon Backpack
The flagship of the line, this bag is the Slim on steroids. It boasts the same neat-looking styling as the Slim with the same ballistic nylon shell. It adds about 6-8 inches to your profile.
The Nylon Backpack swallowed the laptop and all equipment mentioned above--plus gym clothes and a 40-oz water bottle. It distributes the weight in such a way that the bag feels light, even when fully laden. During our testing, the Nylon Backpack quickly became dubbed "The Outerborough Bag." One of our testers, a Queens resident, explains:
"Having a voluminous bag is crucial when you live in the outerborough. Going [into Manhattan] is basically like urban camping--you have to be completely prepared for any scenario and you have one shot to get your pack right because you're not going back home anytime soon! Laptop, sweater or umbrella for changing weather, gym clothes, plus a bottle of water and a book, because you're going to be on the train for at least an hour each way. Ideally you'd bring a Sherpa; in the absence of that, a really big bag." The Nylon Backpack fit the bill.
On days we didn't have it fully loaded, it came in handy for unexpected items; we got a call to judge a local film festival, and after stopping by their offices the bag neatly held nearly 40 DVDs (eight in full-size cases, 29 in jewelboxes) in addition to our laptop. It also fits well with the urban lifestyle trend of shopping for things piecemeal--a stop at the pharmacy today, a small grocery run at the deli tomorrow--because you can load it with a plastic shopping bag's worth of items and still keep your hands free.
It felt like having a mobile office on your back. This comes at a price, depending on your frame: Your 5'5 male correspondent and a 5'1 female tester both reported a turtle-like sensation when fully loaded; our 5'10 Queens tester had no issues with the size.
In addition to the same features as the Slim--the side flaps, the faux-fur-lined laptop compartment--the NB has a second compartment nearly as large as the first, with more webbed nylon compartments and two velcro-flapped pockets. At the top of the bag is a handy faux-fur-lined iPod pocket.
The Nylon Backpack (like the Slim) has a handle at the very top of the bag, which is what you use to hold it after wriggling out of it on crowded subway cars. We put this handle to the test, because old online forums showed that this handle had failed in the first version of the bag. But with ours fully loaded, the handle took a beating and never frayed.
The Canvas Vertical Sling
This bag is in a completely different configuration than the previous two; closer to a messenger bag, the Canvas Vertical Sling is the kind of bag Jim Halpert would wear. The attractive styling is, if you'll pardon the analogy, sort of Axis Powers--it looks like something designed in Germany, Japan or Italy, with a vaguely military feel. It's roughly 3-4 inches front-to-back.
With its ultraslim profile, the CVS is clearly not meant to be laden in the manner of the NB, and we used it accordingly. We found it great for a couple of things: 1) "quick hits," or popping down to a cafe with the laptop for a coffee/e-mail session, and 2) bringing the laptop to places where we weren't sure if we'd need it and wouldn't ordinarily carry our full kit. We brought it to a jobsite for a floorplan-measuring job where we'd normally only bring a tape measure and notepad; since the bag was unobtrusive we brought it along, and managed to get some quick CAD-work done. On that particular assignment the bag carried laptop & charger, pen tablet, cables, glasses, file folder, a laser measuring tool (about the size of a Star Trek tri-corder), and measuring tape with no problem, though we definitely felt that was the maximum it would hold.
We also found the CVS great for bringing a laptop and minimal kit to client meetings at corporations, where we couldn't show up in jeans and a black ballistic nylon backpack. The styling of it is hipper yet more professional-looking than a ruck-style pack. A handy accessory strap, stitched flush with the bag above the magazine pocket, was the perfect place to clip a measuring tape or cell phone.
The CVS stores laptops in a portrait orientation, rather than the landscape orientation typical of a messenger bag. Laden with fifteen inches of stiff verticality, the bag must be worn over the shoulder, like a purse; when worn diagonally across the chest, like a messenger bag, our 5'5 tester couldn't get the bag to hang correctly under the other arm--the stiffness of the laptop and the angle caused it to jut out slightly at the bottom. This took some getting used to, as we prefer to wear messenger-style bags across the chest.
Though it holds less than the ruck-style bags, the CVS has one nice feature we find totally neccessary for commutes: an easily-accessible magazine/newspaper pocket. It held a standard-sized mag (The Economist, Entertainment Weekly) without needing to be folded.
The versatility and capacity of the Nylon Backpack are unmatched, and the obvious thought that went into the bag's design leaves a strong impression. When using other, unrelated bags for the sake of comparison, we missed little touches like the iPod pocket, strap-retractability and side flaps. The bag is comfortable during long commutes. Our 5'10 tester chose this bag as his favorite.
The Nylon Slim is great for smaller-framed folk or those who don't have to carry as much (gym clothes, for instance). The unobtrusive profile doesn't take up a lot of space when placed between your legs at a cafe table or bar counter. Our 5'5 tester preferred this bag over the others.
The Canvas Vertical Sling is good for lighter, more casual use. It's a good main bag for those who don't have to carry a lot of peripherals and/or for the fashion-conscious; in terms of style, this bag can go places where the first two would look out of place. Our testers deemed this a good second bag.
Our testing complete and our opinions formed, it was time to talk to the designer behind the bag. We spoke with InCase product designer Tim Wall.
Core77: The three bags we tested are all clearly different. What was the planned focus of each? (Please go all the way back to the initial design brief if possible.)
Tim Wall: The Nylon Backpack is intended to be a more comprehensive and larger pack providing complete organization for people who travel and carry all of the requisite tools of their trade--notebook/laptop, power cords, drives, cameras, etc.
The Slim Backpack is for those who appreciate less bulk and carry a more edited selection of things, or maybe have a smaller physical frame. Also, the Slim Backpack was in some ways a response to our male fans who wanted a slightly more masculine version of our very popular Sling Pack.
The Canvas Vertical Sling was inspired by conversation had with some of our retail partners in Europe who were interested in a more classic, sophisticated material story and a slim, vertical form factor to carry the essentials for arriving prepared and looking good.
What kinds of considerations went into materials? Where did the idea for the faux fur linings come about?
We consider carefully the durability, level of weather resistance required, and the hand of our materials. Fleece and faux-fur linings came from our experiences in the music industry. We were inspired by traditional materials that had been used to protect cherished musical instruments and tools.
We were also interested in the idea of creating an experience of discovery. You discover the luxe materials, not necessarily at first sight, but in a tactile way that is reassuring and pleasurable—this is where we store the things we care about. The Canvas Vertical Sling was inspired by European and Japanese style—the orientation, the economy of size, and the mix of more "traditional" materials.
Can you talk about the design process for each of the bags? Ideation, testing, teams involved? Also, did you have any surprises, setbacks or happy accidents during the design process?
Our design process is probably not all that different than most. We draw a ton, we prototype a ton, we test the results. Everyone from the designers, to the shipping department, up to the President has access to the designs. As our business continues to grow and segment, distinct teams will begin to emerge, but all of our creatives are multi-disciplined and contribute to the success of each product. We are focused on what we do so there rarely are any great surprises, just a spectrum of smaller discoveries that push us forward.
What is the "InCase difference?" What differentiates an InCase design from the competition?
Details. We labor over the smallest details and it makes a difference. Even if you didn't notice at first, you will and it will be good. Most carrying solutions can be evaluated in the first five seconds, on an aesthetic level, and the experience ends. With our bags and cases, details you find attractive on the outside continue inside and are applied to ideas of organization, protection, comfort, and usability. The user will discover layers of thoughtful consideration and detail that is not found elsewhere.
What is it like, as a designer, working for InCase? What is the atmosphere like, and how does the company foster creativity?
The freedom, actually the mandate, to consider the best option first is amazing and can take some getting used to. Incase is a design-driven brand founded and owned by designers and creatives. "Cost-driven" is understood, but rarely the variable by which a good design or experience is considered.
What can we expect to see from InCase in the future?
Building on and strengthening all of the things that have made the InCase brand. You will see growth in our product offering and in the types of consumers we reach. "A better experience through good design" is flexible, optimistic, and full of potential...keep an eye out!
Date Posted: April 23, 2008