Always curious to give a new backpack a try in my quest to find the perfect bag, I didn't think twice about agreeing to review Booq's "Mamba Shift" when they reached out to us several months ago. Only afterward did it occur to me that there are actually two kinds of perfect bag: the go-to, everyday pack that becomes an extension of one's body, and those that fill—or rather, can be filled to serve—a specific need, patiently awaiting their intermittent calling, at which point they will humbly fulfill their duty (i.e. a frame pack). Read on to find out if the Mamba Shift proved itself worthy of that elusive upper echelon of faithful utility.
My first impression of the Mamba Shift was that it looked pretty slick—judging a Booq by it's cover, perhaps—with its unconventional vertical detailing on the front, which is bisected by a seam that runs the length of the panel. A pop color peeks out from the top half of the split, concealing the functional pleat of the expandable front pocket. The pocket is big but the zipper is a little awkward, as it runs along one of the two slightly curved seams along either side of the centerline; it's also hard to see what's in there. (Similarly, diagonal stitching conceals a slash pocket on either side, their openings limned by red piping.) The general aesthetic is minimal but still a little overdesigned for my taste.
The front pocket is also lined with the pop color
Personal preferences aside, the materials and construction exude 'premium product': the 1680 denier nylon feels largely impervious to the elements and the Mamba Shift feels entirely sturdy, albeit a bit heavy at three pounds. The Mamba Shift boasts substantial padding throughout, and the Nylex-lined laptop pocket, in particular, accounts for some of the weight: it's incorporated between the main compartment and the back of the bag, like a giant laptop sleeve (indeed, a separate sleeve would be overkill). A foam pad between the laptop pocket and the breathable Airmesh padding adds a bit of structure to the backpack. No complaints here: it's easily accessible and feels safe, even cozy.
The turtle shell-like exterior of the bag belies its highly partitioned interior: the main compartment is divided into no less than ten pockets, plus a removable nylon pouch. Lest it seem like that Booq design team has lined the inside of the Mamba Shift with as many pockets as they possibly could, each one is a slightly different size, material or dimension. While it's at the consumer's discretion as to what, if anything, goes in each one, the sheer number of permutations—nylon or mesh lining, velcro or elastic enclosure—seems a tad superfluous.
The slash pockets are split into four, with the dedicated pen and business card slots at left; the opposite face of the compartment (bottom of the picture) has the other five pockets
The abundance of pockets certainly presents a variety comfortable homes for cords, tablets and other periperhals, but bulkier objects pose a problem: a DSLR fit best at the bottom of the main compartment, which can be difficult to reach when you've loaded up the upper pockets (I was also baffled by the decision to put dedicated business card and pen slots near the bottom). Nevertheless, the zipper runs along a full three-quarters of the Mamba Shift, enabling easy access when completely open—flaps of nylon prevent stuff from spilling out the sides—but the usable volume is limited by the stiff exterior panels, which offer extra protection at the expense of capacity.
Indeed, the backpack's semi-rigid size and shape suggest a substantial internal capacity that I ultimately found a bit lacking: all that padding and all those pockets take up valuable cargo space, especially for loose objects like clothes or groceries, which defy the implicit hierarchy of the myriad pockets.
A hoodie stuffed into the main compartment
Still, I'll admit that it's at least partly a personal problem: as something of a diehard cyclist, my main criteria for a pack tends to be its capacity-to-weight ratio, as well as comfort (i.e. weight distribution) in an unconventional body position. For the summer, I've streamlined my 'everyday carry' down to a small waist/shoulder bag containing essentials such as a U-lock (or two), lights, a packable jacket and an Outlier Minimal Backpack. (This last item, which can swallow a week's worth of groceries yet weighs next to nothing and folds neatly into a 7” square, is essentially the exact opposite of the Booq: it's completely unlined and unpadded, a sort of overized stuff sack with two adjustable straps, a spare cargo pack par excellence.)
As a corollary to my preferred mode of transport, I also prefer backpacks that keep the weight close to my body while remaining easily removable; in practice, this means that the shoulder straps should be easily tightened/loosened to a fairly specific length. The Mamba Shift succeeds on the first count but due to some vagary of individual ergonomics, I found the straps a bit uncomfortable when I hiked it up to the point that the weight distribution felt right to me. The discomfort typically arose only after wearing the backpack for longer durations (2+ hrs) and with heavier (15+ lbs) loads; since I usually tighten straps to just short of the point that they restrict my movement, I suspect that I was unaccustomed to the breadth and stiffness of the straps.
The straps have a hidden phone pocket; detail of Airmesh padding at right
Again, I'll acknowledge that the strap issue is a personal grievance—I can imagine the bag being pretty comfy after a few months of daily use—as is my main plaint about capacity. But that's precisely the point: the Mamba Shift simply isn't the bag for me. And while I'd be curious as to how it compares to other laptop backpacks (for which the emphasis on padding and pockets galore seems to be the status quo), I've come to realize that this specific style of backpack is, for me, a role player at best... something like having a Swiss Army knife with several tools that I never use and an undersized blade.
So it's not a case of feature creep after all: I simply don't fall in Booq's sizable target audience of laptop-toting urban professionals. The only time I need a laptop bag is when I travel; to that point, I would note that the Mamba Shift is not particularly suited for carrying more than a couple items of clothing, as you'll invariably stuff them into the modest maw of the main compartment. For short trips, I'd say it's best paired with an overhead-approved roller; it so happens that our own hipstomp, who also happens to be quite particular about his luggage needs, recently reviewed a couple options from Crumpler: the Dry Red No. 3 and the Spring Peeper Duffel.
All in of a day's work
This, too, only underscores the point that it's not an all-purpose backpack: the Mamba Shift is expressly designed for commuting with laptop-and-mobile-gear in tow, i.e. a situation in which its relatively compact size is an advantage. I can see how it could be the go-to everyday bag for a permalancer who is expected to bring his or her own laptop to a client's office or, likewise, a patron of a co-working space (Steve Wozniak need not apply). In other words, it's a solid option for anyone who needs to fit a day's work in a reasonably-sized backpack, and it's definitely an upgrade from a low-slung messenger bag if you're sick of having a thinly-padded five-pound slab of aluminum jostling against your hip on a packed rush-hour train. Just be sure to pack an extra tote in one of the Mamba Shift's many pockets if you plan on picking up groceries on the way home.
The Booq Mamba Shift is available for $149.95.