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Holiday Gift Guide: Portable cases

Welcome to TUAW's 2011 Holiday Gift Guide! We're here to help you choose the best gifts this holiday season, and once you've received your gifts we'll tell you what apps and accessories we think are best for your new Apple gear. Stay tuned every weekday from now until the end of the year for our picks and helpful guides and check our Gift Guide hub to see our guides as they become available. For even more holiday fun, check out sister site Engadget's gift guide.

One of the first purchases to make for your new MacBook Air or MacBook Pro is a good case. It'll be invaluable both for storage at home or toting it around town while keeping your precious portable safe. There are several styles to use from, and don't be surprised if you find yourself alternating between a couple of them.

Backpacks

A backpack should be the first choice to consider if you're a student, deal with a lot of books and papers on a regular basis, or find yourself needing to tote a lot of gear and needing to run through an airport.

My current backpack of choice is the Tom Bihn Synapse (US$130). The entire Tom Bihn line is fantastic, and this particular backpack is the smallest on offer. It holds my 11-inch MacBook Air, iPad, Kindle, gear and books with ease. I've carried a full load in the Synapse on daytrips in New York City and have flown internationally with the Synapse with no weight issues. All of Tom Bihn's bags are built extremely well, and my Synapse still looks like new nine months after buying it. There are no built-in laptop pockets here, so you'll need to pick up a sleeve (covered below) to protect your MacBook.

The Synapse is good for up to a 13-inch laptop, which means it covers both MacBook Airs and the smallest of the MacBook Pros. If you want more capacity for a 15-inch or 17-inch MacBook Pro, the $150 Brain Bag can fit up to two laptops and the $140 Smart Alec is the midrange bag between the Synapse and Brain Bag.

I'm also a fan of Incase backpacks, which also wear well and have an insane number of pockets. The Apple Store sells the Incase Compact Backpack for $79.95, which appears to be the successor to an older Incase backpack I used for several years. The bag was well-padded and protected my electronics well. This particular model will carry a 15-inch or smaller MacBook Pro or MacBook Air.

Messenger

A pick from Engadget's list is the Timbuk2 Snoop, which is a fantastic multitasker for keeping a lot of gear at your fingertips. The company bills this bag as a camera bag, and it also has a laptop sleeve. If you tote a camera around, the different compartments are good for its accessories, or you can tailor the pockets to suit your own needs. It's $150 through its site or you can find it starting around $103 on Amazon.

If you have the money to spend, a Muzetto from WaterField Designs is worth considering. These sumptuous vertical messengers maintain a slim profile and are good if you're toting the basics and want to look stylish. They range from $219 for the MacBook Air to $259 for 15-inch MacBook Pros. For 13-inch and 15-inch laptops, however, you will need a protective sleeve like with some of the Tom Bihn bags.

Briefcase

If you're heading to a business meeting and want to look your most professional, these cases are the ones to check out. Space is sacrificed for a slim profile. Brenthaven has a number of briefcases for a good price that are durable and fit an office setting. The ProStyle III-XF is one of these and can be custom fit up to a 17-inch MacBook Pro. It has an X-Ray Friendly design, meaning you do not have to remove your laptop while going through airport security. These bags range from $99.95 to $119.95.

For more rugged gear, Thule has a line of attache cases available through the Apple Store that allows you to use your Mac while still in the case. These run about $79.95.

Sleeve

For the absolute basic protection, picking up a good sleeve will allow you to toss your laptop in any bag. If you want to grab something while still at the Apple Store, the Incase line is there for you to peruse, and the cases cost roughly $40. If you're willing to wait a few days and want to order something online, the Tom Bihn Cache is $30 and dispenses with zippers. Waterfield has elegant-looking Sleevecases ranging from $37-45 and has a number of other sleeves geared toward the MacBook Air. Or, if you want your laptop to blend in with the books on your coffee table, TwelveSouth's BookBook cases are always a conversation piece.