About a month ago I received a Volt XL backpack from Cory Barnes at
Spire USA. Based in Boulder, Colorado,
Spire manufactures a range of backpacks, courier-type bags and protective cases.
The Volt is not the first Spire product that I’ve tested; a few years ago I
bought one of the first of Spire’s Meta backpacks for my G3 PowerBooks. Some of
these computer bags and cases are very expensive and so many purchasers will
live with them for a long time. So I’ve often wondered how reviews would turn
out if they were written after a couple of years. Trouble is, this could be
unfair on the manufacturer (the better ones anyway) as they constantly update
their products. So, perhaps this review is a useful compromise between a fresh
review and a long-term test; where appropriate I’ll let my experience of the
Meta inform my review of the Volt XL.
In writing a review I try to make comments for a general readership, but its
useful for the reader to “know where I’m coming from.” I’m a lecturer at a
University. This means that I teach and research. As far as this review is
concerned therefore I need a bag to carry my gear to and from work, from office
to lecture theatre. The latter involves carrying a 5”+ stack of handouts for my
students. I also need to take my gear out on field research trips. To and from
work I travel by car or motorcycle. Field trips could also use bus, train or
aircraft. I’m tall, fairly fit but don’t like carrying heavy loads, especially
on the motorcycle. On to the review:
The Volt, like all Spire’s backpacks is modular. That is, it consists of a basic
pack which is customized to fit your laptop with a range of pocket / sleeve
combinations. My sample was all black but there are three other color schemes:
black-blue, black-grey, black-sand. The main components are pictured below; the
Volt XL, the R3 laptop pocket (top right) and the Boot laptop sleeve (bottom
right). Also pictured are the shoulder straps for both the main bag and the
The Volt XL’s nominal dimensions are 19” x 12” x 8.5”, but the depth (8.5”)
obviously varies depending on how you pack it. Empty its fairly light at just
over 3 lbs. The Volt XL has two main pockets, one, adjacent to your back for the
laptop and its protective sleeve, and another towards the front for all your
bits and pieces, gadgets etc. (For the remainder of this review “rear” will
refer to side of the pack with the shoulder straps, and “front’ the other side)
The front wall of the bag also sports two flat zipped pockets. The Volt XL is
primarily a backpack, but the straps also fold away to turn it into a shoulder
The Volt XL’s exterior is primarily of Ballistic Nylon. The pack has two sets of
compression straps, the lower pair have friction loop fasteners, and the upper
pair are the click type.
Some structure is provided by closed cell foam padding in the back, two layers
in the base of the pack, and also in the wall dividing the front and rear
compartments. Stitched to the front of the pack at 1.5” intervals is a strip of
webbing for attaching karabiners, bungee cord etc..
In the picture above you can also see a reinforced eye through which you can run
the headphone lead of your audio player. The backpack straps are padded; not too
much, like some sacks made for walkers and climbers, but just enough to be
comfortable. So when the straps are stowed away so that the pack can be used as
a shoulder bag, they fit neatly behind a false rear wall of ballistic nylon. The
waist strap also stows away here. Both the inside of the backpack straps and the
centre portion of the pack’s rear are lined with a breathable mesh. This makes
for a comfortable, low-sweat carrying experience. On the outside of the straps
are a couple of webbing loops and a D-ring for attaching keys, phone etc.
The backpack straps are permanently fixed at the top, but use some neat sprung
fasteners at the bottom. A small chest strap attaches to the main straps on a
piece of webbing that allows about 4.5 “ of vertical adjustment. If you use the
shoulder strap there are several carrying options (so lefties are accommodated),
one of the most useful being the vertical mode – very handy when moving in
crowds or china shops!
Unlike the usual cheesy “afterthought” shoulder straps one normally gets with
backpacks (see Judie’s
UPstrap review), Spire are to be congratulated for
providing a substantial, well-crafted and comfortable strap. The Volt XL also
has a lugging handle at the top, and this is made from nylon over a tube of
plastic. Though thin, it is very comfortable (many bag manufacturers make their
carry handles thick and chunky, but this actually makes the forearms work
harder). Zippers are sturdy but flexible and have neat custom-made tags.
Front exterior pockets
Two vertically zippered pockets form the front face of the pack. The innermost
and largest of these is lined with light grey nylon and will hold a small
magazine, or paperback book. The outer pocket is unlined, but contains a small
mesh pocket at its base. This is an ideal place for a personal audio player and
Spire provide a pass-though eyehole for the headphone lead.
Starting with the main front compartment; this contains a zippered cable-tidy
area in contrasting grey nylon at the front, and four small pockets at the rear.
Two of the pockets are ballistic nylon and two are of sturdy mesh. Also in there
are a couple of pen loops and a key lanyard. Adjacent to one of the mesh pockets
is another pass-through hole for personal stereo headphones. A neat bit of
detailing is the little rain-cover over the eyehole.
In the rear (laptop) compartment we again have light grey nylon, though that
which covers the dividing wall between front and rear compartments is the soft /
The soft nylon allows the attachment (via Velcro) of the semi-rigid “R3” sleeve.
This provides a suspension cradle into which slips either the “Dash” or “Boot”
laptop sleeves. The hard nylon inside the R3 also protects your laptop against
the impact of sharp objects within the pack. Most people would probably leave
the R3 in place though it can be removed if necessary.
My review sample came with a Boot sleeve which is a small bag by itself.
Sandwiched between ballistic nylon on the outside, and more light grey nylon on
the inside the Boot’s walls contain closed cell foam to protect your laptop. The
Boot also has a carry handle and removable shoulder strap. There is also a small
document pocket at the rear.
The less expensive “Dash” sleeve has no carry handle, shoulder strap or pocket.
Its also a bit lighter. The Dash / Boot and R3 combination comes in a range of
sizes to suit different laptops and these are described on Spire’s website. When
specifying the review sample I had a G4 Ti-book, but half way through the review
I sold this and bought a 12” G4 PowerBooks. The R3 / Boot combination fit
perfectly the Ti-book, but is also fine for the 12”.
I used the Volt XL everyday for about two weeks before beginning the review.
Typical contents are pictured below (click for full size image).
Even with this lot the bag is by no means full. The stack of lecture handouts
could be replaced by an overnight kit; a change of clothing and a wash bag, or
as is often the case with me, my sports kit and wash bag. Note that I keep all
my cables in a separate padded bag. The Volt’s cable tidy is perfectly adequate
unless you happen to live in one of those countries with sharp and pointy mains
plugs – like the UK! This one is made by
Carrying this stuff with the Volt XL is just fine. I have a 1 mile walk from
office to lecture theatre and I arrive in comfort. When walking I tend to use
just the backpack straps. The only time I use the chest and waist straps are on
the motorcycle and bicycle. Besides stabilizing the load the latter appears to
make heavier loads a little more comfortable. Something perhaps obvious, but
worth thinking hard about when buying a laptop back is its overall length. I’m
not exactly short in the back area but I’ve noticed that longer packs,
especially those with rigid inserts, restrict mobility on the motorbike or cycle
as the bottom of the pack drags on the seat. Many readers get around on
scooters, cycles or motorbikes and if they want a backpack should go for the
shorter kind. Here the Volt XL is ideal (whereas my old Meta was a bit too
Not so much a problem, but something I miss from the Meta is a side carry
handle. I found it very useful when swinging the bag of my back to say, put it
in the trunk of the car. Its also useful for the airport check-in adventure. You
know the scenario; your carry-on bag looks small, but contains 15 tons of
gadgets to while away the flight. You really don’t want the check-in clerk to
weigh it, so you go into stealth mode: tuck away the backpack straps, and carry
it as if it was empty briefcase made from crystallized cobwebs. You smile
nonchalantly at the clerk, while under your shirt your forearm is pumped to the
size of Maurice Greene’s thigh.
Packing the Volt XL is easy though you have to take care not to put odd-shaped
items in the rear compartment. The laptop is well protected, but your back will
soon feel anything sharp. I tend to put flatter items such as paperwork in the
The compression straps do a good job of tightening up the whole thing, and these
coupled with the double layer of foam in the base make the pack look good
whatever you are carrying. The light grey liner really helps when trying to find
stuff, though I would not object to a louder color in here. The range of
pockets in the front compartment is ideal for my needs and does a good job of
tidying CD cases, hard drives, PDA etc. I’ve tried using the MP3 player pockets
for my iPod, and while these were perfectly acceptable, I usually prefer to keep
the iPod clipped to my waist. These pockets would obviously be useful in the
dodgier parts of town, keeping the iPod out of the way of pickpockets. I terms
of looks, the Volt XL is, I feel smart and understated. My black version looks
great; I think it would even look good on James Bond or Batman.
Build quality and component choice
Here I must make another comparison with the Meta. The Meta suffered from
several loose fibers. Irritatingly these never unraveled very far, just enough
to get caught in zippers etc.. The Volt XL is not perfect, but I only found two
loose bits of thread and these were just leftover bits, not structural or
anything. I cut them off with a scissors. All important seams are sealed. The
sprung fasteners that on the Meta clipped the backpack straps to the bottom of
the bag were a nightmare. If you wore a wool pullover then these were guaranteed
to cut a few holes in it. The Volt XL has much better items that have no such
snagging potential. In all respects the Volt is a well-built bag that looks like
it will last. I say this with some confidence. The Meta went everywhere with me,
and when I retired it by passing it on to my sister it was still perfectly
serviceable, and looked good. I took the Meta to the beach, skiing (not with a
laptop in the back) hiking and on many business trips around the world. I stuck
a drinking bag in the laptop compartment and went cycling up and down extinct
volcanoes in the Canaries. It was as good for taking stuff to lectures as it was
for the weekly food shop. One day while skiing in the French Alps I was getting
onto a chairlift with my Meta on my back. I got a ski stuck in something and as
the chair moved inexorably forward my right foot stayed put. However, the base
of the Meta had in the meantime caught on the back of the chair; on a bolt I
think. The ski eventually released my boot, but the lift operator was a bit slow
in reacting and I was now hanging there in the Meta’s straps some 20’ off the
ground. No problem, the Meta held me there until I was helped down. Furthermore
the Meta showed no signs of strain to the straps. The only sign of damage was
where the “bolt” got caught in the breathable mesh lining the rear of the pack.
This was just a tiny little hole that never got any bigger over the years. The
Volt XL seems to be built even better than the Meta, so I’ve no doubts about its
If you want a simple, elegant and robust laptop bag then take a serious look at
Spire’s range of bags. The Volt XL is at the bigger end of the range, but while
it holds a lot of gear, its not too bulky. When the compression straps are
cinched up, it’s very stable for either walking or riding. Its understated looks
do not scream “steal me.” Spire’s attention to detail is impressive, this bag
has been well thought out. I like it.
Price: $130.00 for the Volt XL (includes R3 pocket
and a shoulder strap)
$30.00 for the Boot
laptop sleeve (includes a small shoulder strap just for the Boot)
Thoughtful and mature design
No side carry handle(s)
One or two bits of loose thread