Review: Pelican S100 hard case backpack takes on the auto show circuit
Last year, Pelican launched a line of backpacks, rolling its hard-case protection into comfortable, shoulder-harness form. On paper they look like a great way to protect laptops and tablets, but how do they hold up in the real world? We took one of the packs around the globe, from the 2013 New York Auto Show, to the Dusseldorf Caravan Salon, and finally to the IAA show in Frankfurt. Here's what we learned.
The S100 Sport Elite backpack that I received for testing represented a change in strategy for me. My instinct has always been to travel as lightly as possible, an instinct that eventually led my laptop spiraling into a rickety pile of cracked plastic and defunct electronics. After a week long road trip with Mercedes, a frantic couple of days running the floor of the North American International Auto Show, and a trip across the Atlantic to the ISPO Munich show, my laptop was toasted. It turned out that, while comfortable and easy to carry on and off planes, my small, non-protective canvas backpack wasn't really up to properly protecting my laptop from the rigors of frequent travel. On paper, the S100 seemed far better equipped for the task. But it also represented abandoning the light, airy footprint I had gotten used, a fact that was made abundantly clear when the big box appeared on my doorstep. Upon pulling the 18.5 x 13 x 10-in (47 x 33 x 25.4 cm) pack out of its oversized packaging, my first thought was: "Damn, this thing is going to be heavy and awkward. Why did I agree to review it again?" I knew ahead of time that the pack was large, heavy and hard, but just how that related to my shoulders and back wasn't fully clear until I pulled it up by its burly plastic handle.
Basic loading and use
When I first began loading the pack, I ran into an immediate issue: The laptop case was very thin. The Dell laptop I was trying to stuff inside wasn't exactly new or super-sleek, but it was only about four years old and never struck me as overly large or thick. However, at 1.5-in (3.8-cm) thick, it did not fit inside the hard laptop case. It was possible to jam it in and close the case, but the stretched seam clearly diminished the case's "watertight" claims. I also imagined the stretched case would pop open easily, further diminishing its protective value. The lesson here is that the case interior is listed at 1 in (2.5 cm) thick, so thicker laptops won't fit properly. Outside of that major issue, the S100 offered ample storage and organization. I was not actually using it to carry a laptop (see comments above about fried Dell), but an iPad Mini, Mac Mini plus keyboard and a DSLR camera. The iPad Mini slid easily into a sleeve inside the small front compartment, which had a plastic front plate for protection. That tablet sleeve was good for small devices like the Mini; larger tablets would have to be stored in the hard case or main compartment.
The boxed Mac Mini, keyboard and camera, along with some miscellaneous magazines, all fit comfortably in the pack. The main compartment felt a little narrower and less versatile than other backpacks because of the hard, flat back, but a zippered wall between the small, front tablet compartment and main compartment added some versatility for bigger loads. It could benefit from a stretchy material for adjusting around larger loads, however.
The pack also included a small, upper compartment with organizers and a fleece-lined compartment on the flap closure. These were valuable for small items like pens, small notebooks, sunglasses and snacks, but they did not offer any hard protection. I didn't experience any problems, but items in these sections could potentially be crushed by the weight of the hard case and contents should the backpack drop on its front. I wouldn't suggest putting anything fragile in these pockets. The pack also had two stretch side pockets, good for carrying water bottles and such, and compression straps for tightening down the load.
The S100 was easy to load and offered ample access to components. Because of the hard case, I really had to take it fully off to get inside. It was not ideal for swinging off of a shoulder and accessing contents quickly, but that's to be expected of such a rigid design.
If I'm getting picky, the top flap closure clips were a little stiff and difficult to open, not great for situations where I needed to get inside quickly, say to grab a camera for a passing photo opportunity. It would have also been nice if the top handle folded flat onto the top of the hard case. Neither of those was a big concern, just small tweaks that could make the pack a bit more comfortable and easy to use.
As mentioned, before testing the S100, I was used to traveling light, taking a small backpack, if anything, as a carry-on bag. The S100 was definitely larger than I preferred for a carry-on, but it fitted easily in the overhead storage compartments on the planes I traveled on. On one flight, I even stored it under the seat in front of me. While it did fit, it took up the vast majority of the space, forcing me to straddle it uncomfortably with my feet. I definitely preferred the option of pulling out whatever I needed for the flight and stuffing the pack in the overhead bin until arrival. One aspect of the pack that I found particularly useful on the plane was the rubber carry handle. It proved a very comfortable handle with a sure grip, and it made it easy to pull the pack out of the storage bin and carry it off the plane. Without that, I'd imagine the guy behind me would have gotten a bruised face courtesy of me throwing the large, heavy, plastic pack onto my shoulders. The handle made it easy to pick up and go without slowing the impatient line of passengers.
Any trade show involves being on your feet all day, running around a large expo floor with computer and camera gear. In other words, an excellent test bed for a backpack. In the case of the Frankfurt show, it involved even more running, hopping from one large show floor to another, all split among multiple buildings. For all three aforementioned trade shows, I left the Mac Mini and keyboard at the hotel and used the S100 to haul basics like my camera + lens, iPad Mini, pens, notebooks, and press materials I picked up along the way. I went into my test expecting the backpack to weigh me down and cause miserable days filled with huffing, puffing and blistering. I was beyond pleasantly surprised when I started using the S100. What I had failed to take into account was that the hard case on the pack's back actually served as a sort of suspension system, pulling the weight off the shoulders and distributing it down the back and onto the hips. The included hip belt was available for better distribution and stabilization, but I rarely felt the need to use it. The sternum strap, on the other hand, was essential in keeping the pack centered and stable. Between the inherent suspension; soft, padded straps; and ventilated back panels, the backpack was comfortable and stable throughout even the longest days. Over the course of about seven busy trade-show days, I never had an issue with the pack.
The pack did take a little getting used to when it came to navigating tight spaces. It was larger and more rigid than any other pack I've used, making it a threat for bumping into people and knocking things over. Tight spaces and crowds were made even tighter with this pack, so it required a little extra awareness.
Save for one short burst of rain at the Frankfurt show, I experienced beautiful, sunny weather while carrying the S100 around outside. That was great for me, but not so great for testing the laptop case's advertised watertightness. With a lack of any real rainstorm, I resorted to giving it a shower. Since my laptop didn't fit properly, I put a vinyl business folder in its place and snapped the case closed. I stood it up in the shower to simulate the upright position it would take on one's back and ran the shower full force for about five minutes, rotating the pack occasionally to hit it from different angles.
When I stopped the water and grabbed the pack, it was soaking wet, the material thoroughly drenched through. It dripped a puddle onto the floor, but inside the laptop case my folder and the lining of the case were bone dry. The case held watertight throughout the dousing, leading me to believe that it would hold up just fine under a steady drizzle or sudden downpour.
The ProGear S100 Sport Elite backpack retails for US$269.95. Frankly, that's a little more than I personally would spend on a backpack, but that's largely because 90 percent of my days are spent commuting from bedroom, to kitchen, to home office. For someone that commutes regularly and has found lower priced packs lacking in protection or comfort, the price could be well worth it. It seems like it would be a bit rigid and uncomfortable for bicycle commuting, but it works well for trains, planes and cars. Note that Pelican also offers ProGear Sport Elite packs specifically made for carrying laptops and cameras. while it wasn't hard to fit my camera in the S100, I probably would have been better off with the organization of the S130, which includes a front camera pocket in place of the S100's open front compartment with tablet sleeve.
Product page: Pelican S100 Sport Elite backpack