We tested 12 briefcases by walking, running, commuting, biking, and flying with them during our regular workdays. Since carrying a briefcase—a holdover from when suits were required for most jobs—is a style choice for most people rather than a necessity these days, it’s impossible to make one briefcase pick that will match every person’s aesthetic, budget, and capacity requirements. With that in mind, we made a pick for everyday use that will go with any outfit, as well as a canvas style that pairs better with raw denim and a blazer, a leather design appropriate for more-formal suits, and alternatives for each. None of these picks are as ergonomically friendly as a backpack or messenger bag, but they are the most stylish choice if you regularly wear a suit or blazer.
A briefcase projects an aura that signifies you’re a professional in a serious field. And it’s still the gift people buy when their daughter graduates from law school or their son finishes his MBA.
But unless you’re in an industry where you wear a suit (or at least a jacket or coat) to work every day, a backpack or messenger bag will do a better job of distributing the contents’ weight, saving your shoulder from some grief.
You can distinguish a briefcase from a satchel or messenger bag in that it’s designed to be carried primarily by a hand strap or handle. Since you’re not relying on a shoulder strap to tote it, the bag won’t crumple or damage the shoulder of your coat. And you shouldn’t overload it: Although most modern briefcases come with shoulder straps, they’re meant for temporary use—while you’re running for the train, for instance—not for lugging around your entire office.
If you plan to get a briefcase, you’ll be happiest and most comfortable if you keep in mind that these bags are designed for short trips between car, office, and boardroom, or for commuters who can travel light. If you try to load one up with a water bottle, your gym clothes, and a bunch of extras, you’ll be very displeased.
We assembled a list of more than 50 briefcases from manufacturers that were either extremely well-known and respected names (such as Jack Spade, L.L.Bean, and Tumi) or smaller boutique brands with strong editorial and customer reviews. However, since briefcases serve more as status symbols than, say, backpacks and messenger bags, and since they tend to be popular among higher-income professions, they carry price tags to match. With that in mind, we raised our price ceiling to $500—not for everybody, but to allow for bags ranging from the reasonably affordable to the approachably aspirational. You can find well-known brands whose entire product lines sit above that ceiling, but we’ve seen enough great bags under $500 to be confident that spending more than that is more of a style choice than something we can test for pure utility—chances are, you’ll get something good.
We wanted bags that were large enough to hold a 15-inch laptop along with a tablet, a notepad, a mini umbrella, pens, a USB battery pack, associated chargers, cables, and extras—but weren’t more than 5 inches thick. Anything larger than that would be too tempting to load up with too many extras (lunch, gym clothes, and the like) and would be unreasonably heavy when full.
We then narrowed the list down to 12 bags based on specifications, aesthetics, materials, and a variety of prices. We loaded the bags with the above-mentioned gear and carried them while walking for anywhere between 30 minutes and four hours, alternating between the top handle and the carry strap.
Who it’s for: The Timbuk2 Hudson Laptop Briefcase 2015 is the perfect bag if you need a briefcase that’s comfortable, high capacity, nicely organized, and styled well enough that you can dress it up or dress it down—if you wear a suit one day and a T-shirt the next, the Hudson will look just as good and appropriate to both.
Why it’s great: The combination of waxed canvas and leather accents means it’ll look just as good with a suit as it will with a tweed jacket, or whatever outfit you happen to be traveling in that day. It’s comfortable to hold even when heavily loaded, and it offers organization and storage for a wide variety of gear to meet most needs. It’s also backed by Timbuk2’s lifetime warranty for defects and workmanship.
The Hudson weighs 2.5 pounds without its strap, and we measured its external dimensions as 16 by 13 by 3½ inches, which puts it squarely in the middle of the bags we reviewed—in weight and capacity, it hits the Goldilocks spot. Yes, this bag will feel heavy after you load it up completely and lug it around for an hour, but that’s true of any bag. Crucially, the hand straps are soft leather and naturally sit flat in your hands, so they don’t feel as if they’ll pinch your fingers off.
The waxed-canvas construction should provide some water resistance, probably enough that running from awning to awning in a sudden shower should be fine—but not enough for wading through a rainstorm.
Pockets and organization: The Hudson has a separate compartment for your laptop and tablet, and this section opens to lie flat, making it TSA compliant and one less thing you have to worry about while going through a security line. This briefcase can hold up to a 15-inch laptop, and the laptop and tablet sections both have magnetic closures for quick access.
It also has a roller-bag handle pass-through, so you can take some of the weight off your shoulders while traveling. The bag’s other section offers a series of smaller pockets for pens, cables, headphones, spare batteries, and their ilk, as well a small zippered section for important documents.
The outer flap covers two large pockets that are a good size for throwing in a MacBook power brick, a couple of Clif bars, or anything else you might want to grab without opening the entire bag. You close them with leather tabs that act like barbs; once they pass through the metal loop, they snag so that they won’t open on their own, but you can easily reverse them one-handed.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The one thing we don’t love about the Hudson is the shoulder strap, which is a simple strip of canvas. Although it’s comfortable and easy to adjust, it doesn’t match the visual flair of the rest of the bag, and it feels like a bare-bones accessory.
The lifetime warranty from Timbuk2 is better than most but not quite up to some competitors’ coverage (such as that from Filson or L.L.Bean), which also accounts for wear and tear.
While we haven’t had any problems with the Hudson, some owners are less than impressed with the zippers (scroll down about a quarter of the way and click the Reviews link). We’re hoping that as we continue to use this bag, any such issues will become apparent.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $395.
While the Timbuk2 Hudson is designed with travelers in mind, the Tumi Alpha 2 T-Pass Medium Screen Laptop Slim Brief is definitely made for travelers—and it shows. This bag can open flat for passing through TSA, but if you don’t need that, you can limit how wide it opens using snaps, so it doesn’t accidentally flop all the way open. In addition to the laptop sleeve—which you can adjust the capacity of using foam inserts—the bag’s interior has two full-length pockets, one of which zips shut. Externally, it offers a waterproof pocket that can hold a small umbrella (so you don’t get your important gear and papers wet) but is big enough to accommodate a standard 600 ml bottle. You’ll also find a full-length exterior zip pocket with two subpockets, as well as an RFID-protected pouch, a key loop, and a half-width pocket with space for pens, cables, and business cards.
At 3 pounds, 5 ounces, this briefcase is quite heavy, but its thick nylon sheds water better than the Timbuk2 Hudson’s material. The significant weight is somewhat mitigated by the exceptionally comfortable shoulder strap, which does a good job of staying in place when you’re hiking from one gate to another. If things get much heavier, you can use the roll-aboard pass-through, which covers the entire back of the Tumi Alpha 2 T-Pass—a far more stable design than the 2-inch pass-through strap on the Timbuk2 Hudson. And should anything go wrong, Tumi offers a more comprehensive five-year warranty than most, covering airline/transit damage for the first two years and manufacturing defects for the full five. If you register your bag, Tumi also provides a lost-luggage recovery program called Tracer, but we can’t comment on its efficacy.
Of all the affordable bags we looked at, the Incase Reform 15″ Brief with Tensaerlite was the most impressive. Incase has a reputation for excellent internal layouts, and that holds true for the Reform. This bag has a dedicated hard-shell internal case for your laptop that shuts with a magnetic-closure flap, and it can open to lie flat for TSA compliance. The second section has more pockets in one place than any of the other bags we looked at—a strip of nine in different sizes and shapes, one of which has a Velcro closure. The Reform is also one of the lightest and smallest bags we looked at, as it weighs just 1 pound and measures 15 by 11½ by 3 inches when empty. Both the top handle and the shoulder strap are comfortable, and the top handle includes memory foam, which your fingers will definitely appreciate after a long day.
Part of the reason for the Reform’s lightness is its 300-weight polyester exterior, which feels soft but won’t resist abrasion as well as nylon or waxed canvas. And although the shoulder strap is comfortable, it attaches to the top corners of the bag rather than the sides; such a design is okay most of the time, but the zipper track deforms if the bag is heavily loaded, making it difficult to close. Incase offers a scant one-year warranty, so you shouldn’t expect this bag to last as long as the Tumi Alpha 2 T-Pass or the Timbuk2 Hudson—but at about one-fifth of the price, that’s no surprise.
Who it’s for: If you wear a full suit less often and want a bag that will improve with age, form itself to your body more, and remain backed by a famously good warranty, we recommend the Filson Original Briefcase. Although this model is more casual than the Timbuk2 Hudson, Filson is a respected enough brand that even if you do carry this bag with a suit, you won’t get too many funny looks. And thanks to its larger straps and thicker leather, it feels bomb-proof—though you’ll need to spend some time breaking in the handles to make them comfortable.
Why it’s great: The Filson name has long been a byword for rugged quality, and the Filson Original Briefcase is part of that legacy. While definitely on the less formal end of the spectrum, it’s still good-looking enough that it won’t seem totally out of place accompanying a tweed coat or a blazer—and Filson’s reputation means you can carry it most places. It’s water repellent, with a storm flap to make doubly sure your laptop doesn’t get splashed. For its straps, it uses bridle leather, the result of a post-dyeing process that treats the leather with oils and then wax on both sides. This procedure creates a stiffer leather that takes longer to break in but is smooth, hard-wearing, and traditionally blessed with a deeper color.
Like the Timbuk2 Hudson, the Filson Original measures 16 by 13 by 3½ inches and weighs 3.5 pounds, a good middle-ground weight for a fairly rugged bag. We wouldn’t recommend going much heavier than that, though.
Filson’s warranty covers regular wear and tear, so if you use the bag for a few years and anything goes wrong—even with advanced wear—the company will cover you for repair or replacement. The Internet is littered with stories of people’s excellent interactions with Filson repairs.
Pockets and organization: Inside the main section, the Filson Original has two full-length laptop or folder pockets, as well as a series of smaller internal pockets for miscellanea. It also sports a large outer pocket on either side for tucking in minor flat extras like newspapers.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: The Filson Original is perhaps too rugged and casual for more-formal situations, especially with its huge metal fixtures and thick waxed-canvas exterior, but you can be the judge of that based on the occasion and venue.
The leather strap and handles both feel high quality as soon as you pick up the bag—but they’re also extremely stiff and can hurt with heavier loads. This leather is the sort that will soften and become more comfortable with age, but it will be a bit rough on your hands for a while. We’ve heard of people returning their bag because they just couldn’t, erm, handle it. The shoulder strap runs long, too: A 5-foot-2 tester found that even on its shortest length it was a bit long for her. Luckily, since it’s a leather strap and buckle, you can easily add more holes with a punch to customize the length.
None of the internal pockets have closures, which isn’t a dealbreaker, but if you’ve ever accidentally upended an open bag, you know that having closures can be handy. This briefcase also doesn’t open flat for TSA pass-through or attach easily to a roller bag, so frequent flyers might be better served by one of our all-around picks.
If you’re taking the bare minimum of gear with you, going short distances, and seeking a lightweight briefcase that will maintain a clean line and look, go for the Jack Spade Waxwear Commuter Brief. It’s the most refined and minimalist of the canvas bags we looked at, and it’s perfect if you want as little visual clutter as possible. This bag won’t hold much, but the rigid structure means it won’t bulge when fully loaded.
At just over 2 pounds, the Jack Spade Waxwear Commuter Brief is one of the lighter bags we tested, but it still feels tough enough to handle abrasion well. Since it’s only 3.5 inches deep, it’ll never become big and clunky, and because it’s constructed of waxed canvas, it should resist water to some extent. Unfortunately, the simple shoulder strap doesn’t offer any extra padding for a long day of carrying your briefcase, but its handles are soft and pliable even brand-new; that, combined with the bag’s small capacity, makes this Jack Spade model easier on the wrists than a style like the Filson Original.
Since this is a thin bag, it doesn’t have quite the wealth of pockets that some other bags have—so you won’t be able to throw in, say, an extra sweater—but it did offer enough space and organization for our testing loadout.
After about six weeks of using this bag, Sweethome writer Shannon Palus said that she’s a fan of the bag’s look, its tendency to make an outfit appear more professional, its comfortable strap, and its plentiful compartments. But even with all of that, she probably wouldn’t use it over the long term. She noted that it isn’t suited to holding anything that isn’t especially flat or easily deformed, saying, “Even a sweater makes it awkward and bulgy. A bottle of wine makes it bulgy and makes the bag swing on its axis a lot.” And with the large number of compartments but very narrow bag mouth, small items took too much time to ferret out if they weren’t carefully stowed in a specific compartment, since you can’t open this bag wide to look around it easily (though the bag unzips almost all the way around, this narrow design is inconvenient if you’re just trying to find your keys). “Ultimately, this bag couldn’t fit enough stuff for my needs, and made it easy to lose stuff,” Shannon told us. “However, I think it could work well for someone who needs to transport a heavy laptop and papers back and forth from an office every day.”
Jack Spade items are widely stocked, and the company changes its lineup on a regular basis, about once a year or so. That means the exact model can change, and prices can often drop significantly below list.
Jack Spade’s warranty is just one year, and only for manufacturing defects.
We tested the Jack Spade Computer File briefcase for this piece, but that model is no longer widely available. The most similar is the Jack Spade Commuter briefcase—linked above—which differs from the Computer File in that it offers a dedicated laptop section, measures half an inch wider, and has a slightly redesigned strap.
Who it’s for: The Linjer Soft Briefcase is for anyone who wants an absolutely gorgeous, sleek leather bag with a refined aesthetic—and is willing to pay a substantial amount for it. Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but it is the most versatile style. If you’re spending this much, it makes sense to invest in something that fits with more outfits and occasions.
Why it’s great: Linjer is a small company that focuses on high-quality leather goods and sells directly to customers. Immaculately constructed from vegetable-tanned leather (which takes longer to produce but generally ends up as a longer-lasting, tougher leather), this bag is one of the most beautiful briefcases we’ve ever seen. It’s fairly expensive (though not in the realm of other leather briefcases, and hardly even close to what you’ll pay for a major designer label like Burberry or Louis Vuitton), but it draws compliments. And since it is vegetable-tanned, it will gradually develop a patina with long use, by way of exposure to the sun and oils from your hands, which will give it a deeper, more complex coloring.
The Soft Briefcase’s construction lends it a cleaner silhouette than we’ve seen with many other leather briefcases. Often, leather bags have joins stitched together with internal piping, a technique that creates bulging around the seams (as you can see in the L.L.Bean leather bag pictured above). Instead, Linjer builds the Soft Briefcase by stitching in a more structured method that produces a cleaner and more refined look. “We decided to use a somewhat rare construction for our soft briefcase,” said Linjer founder Roman Khan in an email interview. “It involves sewing the edge of one panel onto another panel, rather than using piping, which you see on almost every other soft briefcase out there.… With piping, you sew the bag together while it’s inside out and then you turn it right side out. With our construction, you have to sew the bag right side out at unusual angles.” Khan added that this labor-intensive method takes more than twice as long as traditional piping.
If you want a leather briefcase that won’t put undue pressure on your arm, the Linjer is the best we found. It measures only 16 by 12 by 3 inches and weighs just 2 pounds, 6 ounces, making it the smallest and lightest leather bag we tested. It’s almost identical in dimensions to the Jack Spade, but made in gorgeous, soft leather. The handles are firm and well-structured without being uncomfortable—we found that they didn’t pinch like the handles on the L.L.Bean briefcase did.
As for warranty coverage, Linjer says that it offers “a full manufacturer’s warranty against defects and we will replace/refund your product as necessary.” The company clarified to us that this policy remains for the life of the bag.
Pockets and organization: The minimalism of the Linjer Soft Briefcase means that it doesn’t have quite the organizational array that we’ve seen in other bags. It offers only one primary pocket, with a sleeve for a laptop, one other sleeve, and space for business cards, a small battery or phone, and two pens. The bag also has one external pocket, but it’s tiny and flat, and not suited to anything more than a luggage tag, a slim smartphone, or a passport. That’s it. No large external pockets, no pass-through for attachment to a carry-on bag handle. You’ll be toting a light load with this briefcase, if only by necessity.
Flaws but not dealbreakers: As we mention above, this is a small bag, with little in the way of organization. You won’t be filling it up with everything you need for a long day. Anything beyond a laptop, a tablet, and a few extra bits and pieces slightly overfills it.
In our tests the shoulder strap felt a bit slippery, as if it didn’t want to stay in place properly when we were out and about, but it should form to your shoulder better with time.
Leather is not waterproof. You can coat it (Linjer recommends Collonil) for some resistance, but bad weather will stain your gorgeous expensive bag, probably permanently. Linjer’s warranty is excellent, but as it’s a young company, we don’t know how well its bags will hold up to years of wear.
If you want a traditional leather briefcase with a larger capacity than the Linjer offers, we suggest the Custom Hide Organizer Laptop Briefcase. It has more pockets and an incredible warranty, and it’s made of thick, high-quality leather—but you have to be willing to tolerate its extreme weight (it’s more than twice as heavy as the Linjer) and its steep price.
Custom Hide provides high-quality traditional leather bags at a lower price than many other bag manufacturers (such as Saddleback) charge, and it backs them up with an impressive lifetime warranty. The policy covers anything except “scratches, soils and normal wear and tear,” and we’ve seen reports online of the company being as good as its word. Custom Hide told us their leather briefcase is treated for water resistance (which should make it better in wet conditions than other leather bags like the Linjer), and that water stains are covered under the warranty, but that other stains are not.
The full-grain leather is thick and gorgeous, and it will develop a patina with long-term use. The stiff shoulder pad should also soften with age, and it does a good job of distributing weight. This bag has more pockets than the Linjer Soft Briefcase but fewer than most of the other tested bags have—and that’s okay, because more pockets would add even more weight. It closes with adjustable buckles, but to save you from having to thread and unthread them each time, the bag also hides push-lock closures beneath the buckles.
No two ways about it: This is by far the heaviest bag we tested. Empty and without the shoulder strap, it weighs 5 pounds, 2 ounces—the same weight as the Timbuk2 Hudson with a 13-inch MacBook Air inside. By the time you load this bag up with all your gear, it will be exceedingly heavy. If you’re only ducking from your car into the office, or from your desk to a conference room, that’s one thing, but this bag is too heavy for extensive carrying.
If you’re interested in a fairly informal leather briefcase but are deterred by the $400 to $500 price tags on many designs, you might like the L.L.Bean Signature Leather Briefcase, a nice bag with soft leather available for much less. It gives you some of the cultural cachet of a leather bag but at a lower price—and it also comes with L.L.Bean’s lifetime guarantee, so if anything happens to this bag, you know the company will deal with you fairly.
The leather feels supple but retains enough structure for the bag to stand upright relatively easily. Although the design isn’t formal, the structure and overall layout make the Signature Leather Briefcase appropriate for carrying with a suit as well as for use in most business situations—but it isn’t so sleek that it’ll look out of place elsewhere. Unfortunately the soft leather scuffs quickly (though that should be easy to work out with conditioner and polish), and you also have the usual caveats regarding leather and water.
The Signature Leather Briefcase isn’t as well laid out as other bags we’ve looked at, especially our main picks from Timbuk2 and Filson, as it has only one large internal section rather than multiple. The internal piped construction also makes it look a bit puffy next to other leather bags we recommend.
Regrettably, the included cloth shoulder strap doesn’t match the look and feel of the otherwise solely leather exterior, but at least it’s comfortable and stable. The handles are also a bit too thin, and when the briefcase is full, they can pinch the skin of your hands like an overloaded bag of groceries. And even though it isn’t the heaviest bag at 3.5 pounds, it’s still weightier than most canvas options.
After using the bag for around a month, Wirecutter senior editor Mike Berk praised the bag’s handles, saying they’re “very comfortable to carry,” as well as its excellent price. But he also noted that the shoulder strap was difficult to adjust, and that the internal tablet pocket was too small for an iPad Air 2 to fit horizontally, so instead it had to go in vertically, protruding into the main bag section.
(Photos by Tim Barribeau.)