Once upon a time in 2016, I was getting ready for my first trip to the United Kingdom, and I found myself in need of a proper daypack. It would need to not be awful to carry through airports, manage a laptop, a small camera, and limited supplies like a water bottle and small snacks, stow a light jacket, hold some modest souvenirs that the kiddo would inevitably insist on, and stand up to the springtime rains. Bonus points would be awarded for not looking horrible or presenting me as a theft target. I spent a week or so agonizing over online research and eventually narrowed the field to two final and very similar contenders: Borealis by The North Face and Quasar by Osprey. I ordered both from Amazon and spent an evening doing an in-depth comparison, the results of which, dear reader, are at long last yours to behold.
Buckle up--there's going to be a lot of pictures.
So that's the Quasar on the left and the Borealis on the right. Both bags are 28 liters and are remarkably similar to one another.
Both bags feature a bungee cord for external storage of things you might want easy access to. The Quasar's matches the rest of the bag, for a more subtle look, while the Borealis offers a splash of color (and in fact comes in a nearly ridiculous number of available colors).
Both bags were easily capable of corralling a light jacket that I jammed in not very neatly for a quick test, giving me confidence that they could support my layering needs. I really didn't want to wear a wet rain jacket indoors, so this external, easily accessible storage was a huge win for me.
Both bags terminate this cord with a little plastic hook that you can attach to this webbing to keep things nice and neat. The Quasar's hook is a little larger and seemed both more robust and easier to work with. I also preferred the mechanism on the Quasar that's used to adjust the tightness of the web.
Both bags fit a modest water bottle with ease in the stretchy side pockets. But we have a major point of differentiation here: the Borealis has only one compression strap per side, while the Quasar has two. On the Borealis, the compression strap and its hardware interfere with the top of my bottle, while on the Quasar the bottom strap goes over the outside of the pocket (meaning you can over-tighten it and make the pocket difficult), and the top compression strap is far out of the way. Points here (for me at least) go again to the Quasar.
The side pockets are also a great place for an umbrella--another late March London necessity. This also gives us another look at the placement of those compression straps.
The Borealis has a little molle strap sewn into three segments that you can use to hook stuff onto the bag. The Quasar has two mount points featuring a sort of rubber tube. I kind of liked the molle material better, and it was easier to clip things on there, but I can also see the value in how Osprey has arranged things on the Quasar.
Both bags have an adjustable waist strap that you can use to shift some of the bag's weight onto your core and hips. (Also great for feeling self-conscious about the proportions of your belly.) These straps need to be fairly snug for you to really enjoy any of their benefits; to make this easier, there are nice little loops on either end that. While these are functionally equivalent, I thought the loops on the Borealis were finished a little better, and the waist strap on the Borealis was a little wider/thicker, and so slightly more comfortable when worn and also slightly nicer to adjust.
The Borealis and the Quasar both feature sternum straps that can be raised and lowered as well as tightened. They're basically identical, and both have whistles built into the clips. You may not think that's all that novel, but I hadn't shopped for backpacks since the 90s, so I commend bag makers for this very cool safety addition. Good job, y'all!
There are some additional mount points on the shoulder straps of each bag. I found the little molle straps on the Quasar easier to work with.
Both bags feature a small pocket near the top that's suitable for sunglasses and small electronics. The pocket on the Borealis is lined with super-duper soft material to prevent scratching up your specs, while the material on the Quasar is adequate but not quite so luxurious a home for its contents. These pockets are essentially identical in terms of size, so if pampering your stuff is a goal, the Borealis gets the points here, but I'd be willing to bet that this pocket on the Quasar does a little better in wet conditions.
Each bag has two major compartments, accessible from a panel-style zipper that goes up and around like an upside-down U. The outermost of these compartments features each maker's take on some organization features, while the innermost is home to the bulk of the bag's storage.
Looking at the Borealis first, we have a nice variety of pockets in various pratical sizes, some padded and some mesh, with one zippered. The zippered pocket includes a little strap and clip to attach your keys; I appreciated being able to conceal keys in this pocket. The narrower of the two padded pockets is just right for a mobile phone, and the wider is a lovely home for a tablet (like my old, old iPad 2). There are also a couple more molle strap mount points to let you customize things a bit. Down at the bottom are spots for pens and pencils and mesh pockets just about right for a little pocket notebook.
The Quasar, by contrast, is a little more barebones. Yes, there are some pen and pencil slots; yes, there are a couple of miscellaneous pockets; yes, there are a couple of stretchy mesh pockets; yes, there is a clip for your keys. But the clip doesn't hide away with the elgance of the Borealis, and nothing feels quite as well thought out as on the Borealis. I like that the color here makes it easier to find things, but the Borealis seems better organized in practically every other regard. That said, the Quasar does one thing here far, far better than the Borealis--access. Remember those compression straps? On the Borealis, the compression straps interfere with the zippers of both compartments. By contrast, the Quasar's straps only impede access to the main compartment, making access to this organized compartment far easier than on the Borealis.
Finally, we come to the cavernous main compartments. Both bags have plenty of room here for you to load them up however you see fit. Here, though, the Borealis is the more spartan of the pair, with just a single, fairly plain laptop pocket with no additional padding. Even then, this slot was a disappointment, barely capable of holding my 13" Macbook Air clad in a neoprene sleeve. The Quasar shines here, including not only a padded laptop sleeve, but a second slim pocket for papers or a notebook, and a zippered mesh pocket that's great for power cords and video dongles. It was a breeze to insert or remove my Air, neoprene sleeve and all, and that mesh pocket is just the right size for my 7-inch Grid-It organizer. The Quasar wins here, and it wins by a lot.
I don't have photos of the next bit, but I zipped both bags shut and sprayed them with water from a spray bottle, with particular emphasis on soaking the zippers themselves. Both bags admitted a little water, but the Quasar's zippers fared noticeably better than those on the Borealis. I was planning to get a rain cover regardless of which bag I selected (and I'm glad I did, because I needed it on a soaker of a night in London!) so this wasn't a big deal, but was definitely a point in the Quasar's favor.
At this point I was still vacillating between the two bags, mainly because of how both bags were great at one compartment but not at both. The deciding factor turned out to be something I can't capture in pictures: the carry. The feel of the bag, properly fitted and holding a typical load, on my body. The Borealis has much thicker padding for your back, but both that padding and the straps felt much stiffer than the Quasar. I'm sure that the Borealis would improve with time, or that I'd get used to it, but I was a little over a week out from flying to the UK, so that was time I didn't have. By contrast, the Quasar felt broken in from the moment I put it on. The straps were just right, and the padding didn't press into my back in weird ways like the Borealis did. So the Borealis went back to the warehouse and the Quasar went with me to England and Wales, where it performed marvelously.
I was so pleased with the Quasar that I've since picked up similar Osprey bags for my wife and daughter: the Questa for Liz, better fitted to feminine anatomy, and the Pogo for the kiddo, because the other child bags lacked the waist strap. The Pogo in particular has been nothing short of a miracle for the kid; the sternum and waist straps mean that she can carry her bag through the airport without complaint. As a parent, this is huge.
Ultimately, though, both of these bags are great choices, and I am not at all surprised by how many of each bag I've seen at tech conferences in the past year. It's a lot like the photographer's dilemma of choosing Canon or Nikon--it's hard to go wrong with either one, but you should try them out and decide for yourself.
Good luck, and happy daypacking!