Review: Axio Backpacks
Axio Swift Backpack
I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t $160 kinda expensive for a backpack?” Well, in the market niche occupied by Axio’s line of hard-shell backpacks, the answer is no, and for good reason: making a hard-shell backpack that actually protects its contents is costly. Whether Axio’s Swift does this any better than its few competitors remains to be seen.
“Few” is probably an exaggeration. As far as this motorcyclist/bicyclist/avid laptop user knows, there is precisely one other competitor in this market, namely Boblbee. The top-of-the-line Megalopolis was reviewed here at ATPM just over two years ago and, until the introduction of Harodesign’s Axio line a year ago, seemed to be the only realistic option for hard-shell wearable laptop protection. Saddlebags are a much better option on a motorcycle than on a bicycle, as anyone who has pedaled a bicycle up a hill with extra weight on board can attest, and you can’t take a saddlebag off the bike and into the office very easily.
Without making this too much of a shoot-out between the Swift and the Megalopolis, how does the Swift stack up? Well, the Swift encloses 1200 cubic inches, according to Axio, making it the second-largest hard-shell pack in the Axio line. Only the Fuse is bigger (see the review below); and, while not cavernous like the Hybrid (again, see the review below), it doesn’t feel terribly small, as the Megalopolis sometimes does.
It’s clear that the designers put some serious thought into the bag’s ergonomics. The Swift is a very comfortable pack, with contoured and very well-padded shoulder straps that fit the wearer’s torso. It’s fairly heavy for a backpack—about six pounds—but the limited size works in its favor here, as you can’t stuff it so full that it becomes a real burden. A laptop, AC adapter and miscellaneous other accessories, and a couple notebooks or large textbook aren’t going to be any more of a burden in this pack than they would be in the ubiquitous nylon Jansport packs you see on college campuses across the country. Conversely, if you’re the type who carries four textbooks and two three-inch binders around for eight hours a day, you’ll want something bigger. You probably don’t want to cram your laptop into a backpack with all that other stuff anyway, not to mention that your chiropractor is going to love you when you get to be 35.
The Swift does well on most details. All Axio bags come with a detachable nylon cell-phone pouch that can clip onto either shoulder strap. If you leave the pack in a locker during the day, you can take the pouch with you and clip it on your belt. It’s a nice touch, and it’s no worse than most $20 mall-kiosk cell-phone covers. The pouch can work with an iPod (sort of; you can’t really control the iPod, but it’ll hold it snugly and protect it) if you don’t have a cell phone, or if you carry your cell phone elsewhere. Also included is a protective cloth bag for storing your Swift, tossing it in an overhead luggage bin, etc. to prevent scratches.
We here at ATPM take reader satisfaction very seriously, and we’re dedicated to fair, thorough reviews that give useful buying advice. My useful buying advice about that cloth bag is this: Axio should have given you a rain fly instead. I’m going to get all Consumer Reports on you for a minute and describe the Official ATPM Worry Wart’s Wild and Wacky Western Washington Winter Weather Water WorkoutTM.
It all started when Lee directed my attention to a little feature I very nearly missed. Axio’s entire product line has a headphone cord pass-through port at the top of the backpack, near the carrying handle. This is ostensibly so riders can listen to a portable CD player (apparently enough people still use these for Axio to have designed an appropriately sized pouch into each pack) or iPod (a product Axio has apparently never heard of, as iPod-sized pouches or pockets are conspicuously absent) while they’re on the go. A fine idea in theory, if a bit dangerous. (Headphones in traffic? Just Say NoTM.)
Unfortunately, Axio forgot to put any sort of covering over this hole.
Any motorcyclist or bicyclist who’s ever been caught out in the rain knows exactly what that means: a leak waiting to happen. After much hand-wringing over how to deal with this potential problem, I decided to put it to a test, and the OATPMWWWaWWWWWWWTM was born. This test basically consists of the following:
- Turn on shower.
- Put on backpack, zipped up, with zipper pulls paired at top center (worst-case scenario with the gap at the leading edge).
- Get in shower.
- Stand in artificial downpour for three minutes.
- Point shower head away from you, or turn it off. Don’t get out of the shower unless you have floor drains in your bathroom.
- Note the amount of water (if any) that ends up in the pack, where it ends up, and where it seems to have come from.
Remember this, because you’ll be quizzed on it later.
Admittedly, this is an absolute worst-case scenario test. The only way you’d see rain this heavy in the real world would probably be to ride your motorcycle into a hurricane, to ride your motorcycle behind a semi truck with no mud flaps driving through a hurricane, or to take an off-pavement detour into a lake on your Scuba-Doo. Keeping that in mind, after three minutes under the shower, I poured at least half a cup of standing water out of the bottom of the Swift. Judging by the leakage patterns inside the bag, most of this water came in through the headphone pass-through, but some of it definitely came through the zipper. Most of the zipper leakage could be avoided by making sure the two zipper pulls meet anywhere but the leading edge of the bag, but I recommend a piece of black duct tape—or a proper backpack rain fly—for riders who don’t anticipate using the headphone pass-through.
That zipper, by the way, works very well. Its nearly circumferential design allows the pack to open very wide for easy loading and unloading of your laptop, books, gadgets, and other stuff. The interior presents a multitude of pockets for storing accessories, and the layout of these pockets makes them useful even when the bag is stuffed to capacity. This is something that cannot be said for the Megalopolis, and I’ve gotten very good at untangling cords as a result.
Unfortunately, that interior design is also responsible for the second of the Swift’s three major drawbacks. Due to the small panel that separates the laptop compartment from the rest of the interior, you really need to buy a laptop sleeve to protect the laptop from being scratched by the rest of the contents of the bag. Making this panel six inches taller (and, optionally, lining the compartment) would have entirely obviated the problem.
Tom Bihn’s Brain Cell is an excellent sleeve, but don’t expect to fit anything larger than a 15" Brain Cell in the Swift’s laptop compartment. With something thinner like a wetsuit-style sleeve, you might cram a 17" PowerBook in there, but it’ll be tight. Smaller PowerBooks and iBooks should fit easily. Keep the cost of a sleeve in mind when you’re making a purchasing decision; expect to pay at least $20 and possibly as much as $50 to get a feature that most laptop bags in this price range include by default.
The last major drawback may simply be a matter of perception, but it deserves mention. The polycarbonate shell on the Swift is very thin, so thin that it flexes when you push in on it. Polycarbonate is the generic name of GE’s famous Lexan plastic, and it’s tough stuff—so tough that it’s claimed to be “shatterproof” in many applications. That’s all well and good, but if you’re sliding along on your back at 20 MPH or so, how long is the thin layer going to hold up to the abrasion of the road surface? I don’t have any real-world testing on which to base this concern, but the thicker ABS shell on the Megalopolis gives me greater peace of mind.
One final (minor) word of warning: if you do get caught out in the rain and the bag really gets wet, or if you sweat heavily while wearing the pack, the red fabric on the back pad may bleed onto your shirt or jacket. I’d recommend washing the back panel in warm water when you first get the bag to bleed out as much excess color as possible.
All that being said, I prefer the Swift to the Megalopolis, as it’s more space-efficient, looks less like a prop from a B-grade ripoff of The Rocketeer, and holds more stuff in a more organized fashion. If I were riding my motorcycle more right now—and keep in mind the Swift was actually designed for motorcyclists, so this is pretty significant—I would have to pick the Megalopolis, which is totally waterproof and has a thicker shell.
So should you buy a Swift? If you’ve read this far, you’re probably looking for the same thing I am—a roomy, highly protective hard-shell pack that looks good and works better. The Swift is almost it. If you can live with its disadvantages, or if you just can’t stomach the design of the Megalopolis, it’s a good choice. It’s attractive, it’s competitively priced, and it’s very comfortable. Just keep your duct tape or rain fly handy.
Axio Hybrid Backpack
Axio’s Hybrid is the Texas of laptop backpacks. It’s bigger and badder than everything else, and by golly, it’s not going to let you forget that. This works pretty well, and the Hybrid turns out to be a decent—and very roomy—pack.
The oversized Hybrid is one of the largest day packs out there, and a true leviathan in the laptop backpack market. At 2671 cubic inches, it’s almost as voluminous as a kid-sized frame pack. Obviously, this pack was designed from the ground up for 17" PowerBook users, and the included sleeve confirms that idea. A 15" PowerBook will fit loosely in the sleeve, shaking around a bit but safely padded from any bumps and scratches. Those of you with smaller ’Books might want to trade the sleeve for a smaller one from another manufacturer.
That sleeve deserves a mention. It’s designed much like the $20 Brenthaven iBook sleeves on the Apple Store for Education, or like a Brain Cell rotated 90 degrees. It isn’t reinforced with plastic, so it’s not as stiff or as protective as it could be, but it’s well-padded and lined with soft fleece. Like the Hybrid itself, the sleeve is bulky. To be fair, the sleeve looks like it was designed to hold large, thick Wintel laptops, too, which accounts for the bulk. Despite its size, it integrates very well into the pack. It attaches to the bottom of the pack (with hook-and-loop fabric) and sides (with snaps), so even if the pack gets tossed around, the sleeve will stay in place. Axio could take a page from Booq’s, ah, “book” here and offer sleeve options for its customers. The integration of the included sleeve is so nice that you hate to give it up, but closer-fitting sleeves give a feeling of greater security.
While not a true hard-shell, the Hybrid has a very stiff exterior that undoubtedly provides better protection than a limp nylon pack. There are two main compartments, both closed by nearly circumferential zippers, which make loading and unloading easy. The outer portions of the pack’s clamshell hinge also come apart, which allows the bag to open a full 180 degrees (handy when you’re trying to dry it out; see below). Lots of little pockets and zippered compartments make sorting your gadgets a breeze. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture here, though. Backpacks are primarily for carrying around a lot of stuff. The Hybrid can swallow the largest laptops on the market, a binder or two, a bag lunch, and a couple of textbooks and still have room left over. This backpack surely carries the endorsement of the Future Chiropractors of America.
Medical jokes aside, the Hybrid is actually very comfortable even at full load. I threw two binders, three large textbooks, and a host of smaller paperbacks in it, and I nearly forgot I had 30 pounds on my back. A waist/hip belt and a chest strap combine with very well-padded and contoured shoulder straps to make the load seem much lighter than it really is. Those with shorter torsos may find the Hybrid too big, though; I’m 5' 10", and I have the shoulder straps tightened almost all the way down. Anyone under 5' 5" should definitely try the Hybrid on before making a decision.
Like Axio’s other packs, the Hybrid comes standard with a cell-phone pouch that clips on either shoulder strap, and nearly any cell phone that’s not a Zach Morris Special will fit. You can fit an iPod in there, too; just don’t expect to control it through the thick padding. Most pocket-sized PDAs will fit, too, if that’s your thing.
Also like Axio’s other packs, the Hybrid has a headphone cord pass-through hole at the top of the pack, and this hole can’t be sealed against the elements. The results from the Official ATPM Worry Wart’s Wild and Wacky Western Washington Winter Weather Water WorkoutTM (full details in the Swift review above) aren’t encouraging, either. The “waterproof” zippers still leaked fairly badly through the pulls. My advice is the same as for the Swift: don’t zip it closed with the pulls at the leading edge of the pack, and most of this problem will go away. The headphone pass-through is another matter entirely. I poured fully three cups of water from the CD player pouch after the test. While the presence of this pouch did minimize the amount of water that got inside the main compartment of the pack, neither the pouch nor its seams are totally waterproof, so the headphone pass-through is basically a slow leak. It’s better than the setup on other Axio packs, whose headphone pass-throughs empty directly into the main compartment, but it’s still leaky enough to render the CD player pouch useless in the wet. Again, get some black duct tape or a rain fly if you expect you might ever get caught out while riding, and most importantly, don’t keep anything in that pouch that isn’t 100% waterproof.
The biggest flaw aside from the utterly useless headphone pass-through is that the waterproof zippers are very stiff and will require some break-in before they slide smoothly. There’s some individual variation here, and not all Hybrids have horribly stiff zippers. Pulling outward on the zipper pull as you’re operating it seems to help alleviate the problem too.
The Hybrid is great for people who have to carry a lot of stuff, simply by virtue of being about the biggest laptop backpack out there. If you need a big pack or simply find true hard-shells too small, give the Hybrid a look. It’s a good pack, but if your only vehicle has two wheels and no cab, buy a rain fly and save yourself a lot of headaches.
Axio Fuse Backpack
Axio has taken the shotgun approach to the hard-shell backpack market: make a bunch of slightly different bags and there’s bound to be one for everybody. The Fuse is the largest of their true hard-shell line, and follows the Henry Ford Rule of Color: anything you like as long as it’s black.
The Fuse has a fairly understated design, with black nylon fabric covering a polyethylene shell (Axio’s other hard-shells use polycarbonate) and a splash of Tennessee orange-and-white on the back pad. The shell is more flexible than that of the Swift (reviewed above), despite its extra thickness, due to the difference in shell material. The signature Axio hard-shell design elements—adjustable chest strap, ergonomic shoulder straps with reflective piping, a clip-on cell-phone/PDA/iPod holster, circumferential zippers for easy laptop ingress/egress—are all present and accounted for. The attendant benefits of these elements are also noticeable. As with other Axio packs, the Fuse is eminently comfortable to wear and fairly easy to use.
As backpacks go, hard-shells tend to be on the small side. The Fuse, at 1300 cubic inches, is pretty big for a hard-shell, though it’s still under half the size of Axio’s monster Hybrid (reviewed above). Though the Fuse claims a 100-cubic-inch advantage over its shiny cousin, the Swift, it feels somewhat smaller. This feeling is deceptive, because it’s actually easier to pack more stuff in the Fuse.
This probably arises because the internal layout of the Fuse is, well, backwards. The pack is divided into two primary compartments. One is obviously intended for the computer, some pencils, and a CD/DVD or two. The other compartment, lined entirely with soft felt, houses a wonderful compartmentalization scheme that I’ve only seen in one other product: my Targus digital camera case. There are four dividers—one long, three short—that have the hook portion of hook-and-loop fabric on their lower face. You can place them anywhere you want, in virtually any arrangement you want, to customize the layout of the compartment to your precise needs.
The problem with this otherwise very useful arrangement is that it places a laptop immediately under the hard shell with almost no padding between the computer and an impact to the shell. If the custom compartment had been on the outside (just inside the shell), with the computer sleeve/compartment on the inside (sitting on the wearer’s back), this design would be far better. As it is, the flexible shell and computer placement absolutely dictate the use of a sleeve ($20 to $50 extra) if you’re going to use the compartments as they’re intended. If you’re willing to give up most of the flexibility of the custom compartment, you can put your laptop in there and arrange the dividers to keep the laptop from sliding around. There’s nothing really wrong with this arrangement, and I recommend it for maximum protection, but you do lose the organizational benefits of that wonderful custom compartment. Either way is a far cry better than the internal layout of a Megalopolis, however, and for this flexibility, Axio is to be commended. Furthermore, the internal division of this pack into two main compartments makes it easy to toss a computer in one half and notebooks and such in the other half. This is why it’s easier to cram more into the Fuse than the Swift, and the Swift could take a design lesson from the Fuse here.
Like the Swift, the Fuse struggles to swallow a 17" laptop in a sleeve, but will gobble up just about any laptop out there if you’re willing to risk strapping it in “naked.” Smaller laptops are no problem, sleeve or not, though a 15" Brain Cell is a tight fit in the designated laptop compartment. It fits easily in the other compartment with all dividers removed.
Those well-conceived signature Axio hard-shell design elements have a dark side: “signature” Axio design quirks. There’s a nice cloth storage bag included with the Fuse but, like the Swift’s storage bag, you would have been far better off with a rain fly. That incomprehensible headphone cord pass-through is present here too, and it let about half a cup of water through during the OATPMWWWaWWWWWWWTM test. The zipper is identical to that used on the Swift, so the same warning applies: don’t leave the zipper pulls mated on the leading edge of the bag if you’re riding. Since there’s another zipper inside the Fuse enclosing one of the compartments, make sure the two zipper closures don’t line up with each other. Making those two mistakes (intentionally) in the simulated torrential downpour added an extra half-cup of water to the contents of the pack. Also like the Swift, the Axio’s brightly colored back pad can bleed onto clothing when wet, so washing it with warm water would be a good idea.
The Fuse would be very nearly the perfect hard-shell if it had a bit more style, a stiffer shell, and innards that hadn’t taken a trip through the Revers-o-Tron. Oh, and please, fix the headphone pass-through with a cover. Marware can do it on their SportSuit Convertible, and duct tape is only so much fun.