Despite all the hype about cloud computing and remote working, many people still rely on transporting a laptop around for their work. Which can present a small logistical challenge – laptops are designed to be portable, but in general they're not designed to be rattled around or drowned. So what's the best way to get it safely to your destination?
Choose your weapon
Depending on your employer's IT procurement policies, you may not have much choice in the matter, but a small, light laptop is always going to be easier to carry than a large, “desktop replacement” device. An Apple MacBook Air weighs just over 1kg, and the latest generation of PC “Ultrabooks” is usually well under 2kg, compared to over 5kg for a big screen desktop replacement. Smaller, lighter machines inevitably have small screens too, but if you spend a lot of time carrying it then it may be a worthwhile trade-off.
Smaller laptops mean smaller bags to put them in, of course. Most bags, regardless of type, are designed around particular sizes of laptop, usually determined by screen size. Typically you'll find three sizes, for compact 11-13in screens, middling 14-15in devices and big 17inchers.
It's best to shut your laptop down completely before stowing it for your commute. The biggest risk of damage is to the hard disc due to vibration or impacts. In extreme circumstances the disc heads can bounce off the discs themselves, which is bad. To avoid this, the heads park themselves away from the discs when the laptop's shut down. In fact, the heads should park when it's merely hibernated or slept rather than completely shut down, but in those states it's conceivable that the laptop could wake up in transit. In particular, a laptop in sleep mode will usually automatically hibernate if the battery gets low. Hibernating involves saving the contents of the memory to disc, which isn't something you want to be happening while you're clattering through potholes.
Solid-state drives – essentially a box of memory – are becoming more common on high-end laptops. Because they have no moving parts, SSDs are more resilient than traditional hard discs. Prices are coming down, but you still don't get as much storage space for your money with an SSD.
There are two main options for carrying a laptop. You can either carry it on yourself, or you can carry it directly on your bike. To a large degree this is personal preference, although your decision may be influenced by your bike (not all can have racks fitted easily). Using a courier bag or rucksack offers a bit of extra insulation from impacts than a rack-mounted pannier, because you can absorb shocks with your arms and legs. But bags about your person can be uncomfortable, often lead to unpleasant sweaty bits and also obscure render brightly-coloured jackets somewhat less visible.
On the other hand, if you need to park your bike some way from your workplace, a bag you can carry easily is a boon. A rucksack is likely to be an easier carry than a pannier, although most commute-specific panniers have some form of handle or shoulder strap. Some even include full rucksack straps, although remember that the inside of a pannier gets hit by road spray so possibly isn't something you want to immediately put against your clothes.
It's worth looking at some of the many laptop-specific pannier bags on the market, though. They usually take the form of a briefcase-style laptop bag but with hooks (often concealed or foldable) to attach to a rack. Of course, you're unlikely to be carrying just a laptop and nothing else, so choose a bag that works with all your other commuting paraphernalia.
Whichever style of bag you choose, it's worth opting for one that's waterproof. Laptops really don't like water.
Whatever bag you end up with, it's a good idea to give your laptop an extra layer of protection. Simple neoprene sleeves help your machine cope with a few knocks and they're very cheap. A lot of laptop-specific bags include a removable sleeve tailor-made to fit inside.
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