Vertepac XTR backpack review: carry heavier loads with less effort

Searching “backpack” on Amazon yields over 200,000 results, of which 199,998 are utter crap. Materials, pockets, and fasteners might differ, but they’re all iterations on the same theme.

That’s why the backpacks from Vertepac are so compelling. Instead of making yet another boring bag, the Dutch startup is trying to solve a problem as old as humanity: how can we carry more stuff with less effort?

And you know what? They’ve cracked it. But innovation ain’t cheap.

8.5

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Makes heavy loads feel light
  • Good load stability for outdoor athletes
  • Modular carrying system works with other Vertepac bags

Bad Stuff

  • Bulky
  • Expensive
  • Untested startup

Vertepac builds its bags around a carrying unit composed of a lightweight frame and an extendable spine attached to a hip belt. The carrying unit is designed to be modular, whereby it can be inserted quickly into any Vertepac bag. When worn, the backpack rests on your hips like a regular internal-frame pack designed for camping. Vertepac says 95 percent of the load rests on the hip belt, with the rest on the shoulders in order to keep the load under control. That sounds about right. The so-called Parallel Spine is the star though, lifting the bag ever so slightly off of your back, while twisting, lengthening, and contracting in tune with the movements of your body, just like your own spine. The hip belt never moves, and the bag remains relatively still, giving you a greater sense of stability and balance as you walk, climb, ride, or paddle.

The improved weight distribution is felt as soon as you slip on the bag, with the three-pound (1.35 kg) weight of the carrying unit dissolving into your hips, not your shoulders. But it’s under heavier loads that the Vertepac’s carrying system really pays off.

My wife and I have been testing both the 35-liter XTR.35 and 18-liter XTR.18 bags over the last month, logging hundreds of hours and miles with the backpacks. The XTR.18 bag (minus the three-pound frame) weighs just 1.36 pounds (620 grams), while the XTR.35 weighs just a tad more at 1.65 pounds (750 grams). We’ve worn the bags fully loaded while slogging through the Scottish Highlands and pastoral Dutch dunes, bicycling through the streets of Amsterdam, and stand-up paddleboarding along its canals. The bags allowed us to carry heavier loads for longer, with a far greater degree of upper body mobility.

The Vertepac system requires a one-time setup whereby you extend the spine and lock it to match the belt with the top of your hips. You then put the Vertepac on like any other backpack, but you have to extend the spine and close the hip belt and chest strap to feel the benefits. I had to readjust the spine after my first hike because it wasn’t sitting correctly. It was too high on my hips which caused the hip belt to tilt forward and dig into my back. The hip belt can be closed with either a traditional buckle closure or an elastic-velcro closure, the latter offering a bit more comfort, I found. The spine can be retracted with a tug of a strap, causing it to retract up the channel.

The Vertepac system feels odd and cumbersome at first, but you quickly get used to the weight redistribution. The airflow through the gap created by the carrying system was certainly a nice-to-have feature on hot days. More importantly, not once did we feel any of the residual neck or shoulder pain that typically follows a long session with a heavy backpack. The bags also allowed for far greater freedom in the arms and shoulders than any backpack I’ve ever tried, something that was particularly beneficial when making the long deep strokes required for stand-up paddleboarding, or when grabbing onto rock faces while hiking steep terrain. I wasn’t able to test it, but I suspect these bags would perform very well when bombing down the slopes on a snowboard or skis. (Vertepac has testimonials on its homepage saying it does.)


Vertepac XTR.18 on the Amsterdam canals.

Let me be clear: the Vertepac XTR.35 and XTR.18 are not competing with high-end daypacks from the likes of Peak Design, Boundary, or Waterfield Design. There’s no padding or sleeve for your laptop, drone, or camera gear, and the few pockets available are too deep for fastidious organizers. I did regularly carry my DSLR, a few lenses, and my laptop, but they were in their own protective cases. Vertepac tells me that it’s actively working on a 42-liter camera bag with a hard cover for 2018, but they weren’t able to show me a prototype yet.

The Vertepac XTR bags are designed for outdoor use with a giant main compartment for your gear, a multi-function helmet carry, and a few outer pockets protected by waterproof zippers. The bags also feature a bag liner (for easy cleaning) in the cavernous main compartment along with accommodations for your favorite hydration bladder and hose (my three-liter Streamer bags from Deuter fit both bags nicely). Otherwise, the XTR.35 and XTR.18 are fairly typical top loaders, made of durable, lightweight material with tons of lash points, handles, and dangly straps to cinch everything down. Not that I’m complaining. We’ve been regularly stuffing the bags to their breaking points, typically carrying loads between five and 15 kilos (11 to 33 pounds) without a single tear, broken zipper, or other such malfunction.

The Vertepac system does have some minuses. First, it’s heavy and bulky, and the hip belt doesn’t allow the bag to stand upright even when the spine is contracted. The hip belt is also rather rigid, which is fine when you’re wearing it, but gets in the way when trying to store the bag in the footwell of a car or the overhead bin of an airplane. And sometimes the spine creaks a bit as you move. The fiddly carrying system also means that these aren’t bags you just toss over a shoulder when running out the door. None of those points are deal breakers, however. Although the price might be.


Vertepac Carrying Unit

Vertepac Carrying Unit.
Image: Vertepac

Vertepac’s bags are not cheap. The big XTR.35 bag and carrying unit costs $359, while the smaller XTR.18 bundle costs $339. Or you can spend $439 for a single carrying unit and the two bags. Most of the expense here is for the carrying system, and the R&D required to develop it.

Right now, the company only makes these two bags. But if things go as planned, Vertepac will be rolling out additional designs in the months ahead. Vertepac tells me that it’s actively developing a CAM.42 camera bag with a hard cover and a giant XTR.50 outdoor sports bag. And 2019 promises to be even bigger with five additional bags scheduled: a 100 percent waterproof AQ.25 roll top bag, a TAC.38 tactical bag, a TRV.42 travel bag, a URB.25 urban bag, and a QAP quick access add-on for your phone, wallet, and keys. The carrying unit (without a bag) is expected to be priced at $226, while the bags should cost between $103 and $289. On a long enough timeline, you can see how the Vertepac value proposition could pay off.

But this fledgling company, that only started shipping its backpacks in July, has to succeed with the products it has now, not on the promise of what might come. Fortunately for Vertepac, the XTR.18 and XTR.35 are outstanding backpacks for outdoor adventures. If that’s you and you can afford it, then these bags could be transformative.

And no, you can’t buy them on Amazon.

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A screen in your trackpad is more useful than you think

People don’t really like it when companies replace physical controls with touchscreens. Many modern cars are loaded with touchscreens for everything from climate control to stereo volume to the wiper controls in the case of Tesla’s Model 3. Most would argue that using a touchscreen for those tasks is more cumbersome and difficult than the tried and true buttons and dials of yore. Perhaps the touchscreen that has received the most vitriol is the Touch Bar on Apple’s MacBook Pro, which replaces the entire top row of function keys with touch controls that are constantly changing. Needless to say, the Touch Bar has been largely disliked.

So, I had few hopes for the ScreenPad in the new Asus ZenBook Pro 15 laptop. The ScreenPad is a full-color, 5.5-inch 1080p touchscreen jammed into the trackpad of the ZenBook Pro. Picture a smartphone turned on its side and embedded just below the keyboard of a laptop and you basically have the idea.

If you have had any experience with Apple’s Touch Bar or anything similar to this, you’d probably expect it to not work very well, not be very useful, and ruin the trackpad experience, which is so crucial when using a laptop. Reader, I’m here to tell you that the ScreenPad is none of those things. It works surprisingly well, it has some actually useful features, and, most importantly, it doesn’t get in the way of the trackpad doing standard trackpad stuff.

6

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • ScreenPad is cool and works well
  • Comfortable keyboard
  • Bright 4K display
  • Windows Hello fingerprint scanner

Bad Stuff

  • Greasy, flexible chassis
  • Terrible battery life
  • Poor thermal management
  • Expensive

Here are the basic things the ScreenPad can do:

  • Control music playback for either music stored on the laptop or streamed from Spotify
  • Launch some of your favorite apps
  • Display a number pad or calculator
  • Display a calendar with upcoming appointments
  • Provide quick access to commonly used functions in Microsoft Office apps, like Word or Excel
  • Provide easy controls for pause, timeline scrubbing, volume, full-screen, or even ad skipping when watching YouTube videos in Chrome
  • Act as a secondary display for Windows

Some of those functions are more valuable than others, and not all of them work spectacularly. My favorite feature is the YouTube controller that works with a special Chrome extension. It’s great to be able to just skip an ad without having to move the pointer over it or even take my finger off the laptop’s deck. The calculator, number pad, and customized toolbars are also useful if you do a lot of data entry or live in Office apps all day.

The ScreenPad whiffs on the music playback controls, but part of that is because Asus decided to remove the play / pause / skip media controls from the top function row of the keyboard, which basically every other modern Windows laptop has. That means that if you want to pause your Spotify music or skip a track, you have to either go to the full Windows Spotify app and do it there, or go down to the ScreenPad, select the app, and then tap what you want. It’s very tedious, especially if you have to do it often.

And then there’s the secondary display feature. This is perhaps the most show-offy part of the ScreenPad: you can literally have it be the world’s tiniest secondary display for your laptop. You can move Windows down there and play a video if you want, but the size of buttons, icons, and text is so laughably small, I can’t imagine why anyone would do this. Also, in this mode, the touchscreen part of things doesn’t map directly to where your finger touches, so in order to click something on the secondary display, you have to move the mouse pointer over it and click, which is laughably tedious.

Aside from the obnoxious Spotify controls and the silly secondary display feature, the ScreenPad doesn’t force you to change anything else about how you use the trackpad. The trackpad is still a smooth, matte finish Windows Precision trackpad that supports all of the usual multifinger gestures you’d expect. You can even turn off the “screen” part of the ScreenPad, and it will just look and act like any other trackpad on any other laptop.

Not forcing you to change how you use a laptop or interfering in how basic computer input functions work is the smartest thing Asus did with the ScreenPad, and it’s what separates it the most from Apple’s Touch Bar.

The one thing that the ScreenPad doesn’t (and, if I’m being fair, can’t) do is make up for the rest of the ZenBook Pro 15, which is an overpriced, not-very-good laptop. The panels are flexible and get covered in fingerprints in seconds, the battery life is abysmal, and even though it has a beefy Core i9 processor and discrete Nvidia GTX 1050Ti graphics card, its poor thermal management means you don’t get to take advantage of all of that power. It’s not a laptop I’d recommend anyone spend $2,300 on.


On the other hand, the ScreenPad is interesting and works surprisingly well. Right now, its functions are limited and there isn’t a ton you can do with it. But the basics are here, and if Asus is able to figure out some more uses for it, the ScreenPad might be something you’ll want on your next laptop.

Hopefully, that next laptop is a better one than the ZenBook Pro 15.

Waterfield Design’s latest backpack won’t make you look like a teen at the office

If you need to carry any significant amount of stuff around, a backpack is the way to do it. Compared to a briefcase, messenger, or duffle, a backpack is more comfortable to wear, better for your back, and can likely carry more stuff around. The only problem with most backpacks is that they look like they belong in the gym, on a hiking trail, or roaming the halls of a high school. They certainly don’t look professional.

That’s where Waterfield Design’s $349 Pro Executive Laptop Backpack comes in. This awkwardly named backpack is designed specifically for the commuter that needs to bring a fair amount of items to the office every day and wants something that looks as professional as the rest of their wardrobe. It has a clean, understated design that incorporates both high-quality nylon material with real leather accents available in four different colors.

7.5

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Stylish, conservative design
  • Easily accessed compartments
  • Stands on its own
  • Comfortable to wear

Bad Stuff

  • Expensive
  • No side pouches for umbrella or water bottle

Alongside the Pro Executive Laptop Backpack is an optional $89 Executive Folio, which can hold a laptop or notepad and a few accessories. The Folio is made from the same materials as the backpack and can be color matched to the leather accents. It slots in the back of the bag, in the rear laptop compartment. I haven’t found the Folio to be very useful for my needs and I think it’s probably not worth the $89 for most people.

I’ve been using the Pro Executive Laptop Backpack every day this summer, for both my daily commute to the office and on a couple of longer travel trips. It’s a near perfect commuting bag, with plenty of room for a laptop, tablet, charger, camera, headphones, accessories, and whatever else you need to carry around every day. It’s also very comfortable to wear, even on the sweltering summer days we’ve had in New York City this year, thanks to the breathable mesh padding on the straps and the back panel. The straps appear to be rather thin, but I’ve found them to be comfortable and supportive even when I’ve got the bag fully loaded with gear.

One of my favorite parts of this backpack is its ability to stand up on its own, so I don’t have to worry about picking it back up every time it tumbles over, as I’ve experienced with many other backpacks.

The Pro Executive Laptop Backpack has a couple of side pockets for accessories like pens, keys, USB batteries, phones, business cards, and other small items, but it doesn’t have any outside or waterproof pouches for a wet umbrella or sweaty water bottle. You can fit a bottle or small umbrella in the side pouches, but they will get whatever items you have stored in there wet, so it’s not an ideal solution. Those side pouches are the only ones on the bag that are ideal for organizing small items, so there isn’t really a great place to move that stuff to if you want to put a wet umbrella or bottle in them.

The lack of a water bottle / umbrella pouch is really my only complaint with the bag, but there are numerous upsides. The pockets are roomy, the bag is lightweight and comfortable, the zippers are logically arranged and sturdy, and the design works with jeans and a t-shirt or a button down and a blazer. The Pro Executive Laptop Backpack certainly isn’t cheap, but if your budget for a daily work bag is a few hundred dollars, it’s definitely worth considering over a traditional briefcase.

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