Jan 30, 2010

Review: Lowepro Fastpack 250 camera backpack with photos

I returned the Kata 3n1-10 bag because it was just a little too small. I also realized that having the option to carry a laptop with me (without carrying a separate laptop bag) was valuable. So this led me to the Lowepro Fastpack 250, shown here behind a Nikon D90 with 17-55mm f/2.8 lens. Hopefully this brief review with pictures will give you a sense of the bag's size and layout in comparison to some common camera equipment.

This bag is a bit larger (mostly in width) and noticeably heaver than the Kata 3n1, given that it holds a lot more. The back has mesh padding which helps if you're sweating - this was a one nice feature that wasn't included on the Kata. Straps are thick and well padded.

Unlike the Kata, the Fastpack only has a quick access flap on the left hand side of the bag (from the perspective of someone wearing it). This makes sense if you're right-handed: slide off the right hand strap, pull the bag around with your left arm and pull the camera out with your right hand. Those wanting a flap on the right may prefer the Kata, since it gives you an option.

There's a flap with two quick release clips over the main camera/lens compartment, and a mesh pocket for water bottle on the right side. Underneath the flap, there's a slim zippered pocket which could hold filters or something else that's fairly flat.

Inside the main compartment, you can see the D90 with 17-55mm attached (no hood) and immediately to the right of it, the Nikon 12-24mm f/4. If I took the 12-24mm out, I could fit the 17-55mm with its hood attached. The D90 doesn't fill up the space for the camera body - I wish it were a little more snug but they've allowed room for larger FX bodies as well as DX bodies with a grip attached. Above that there's a narrow compartment that could hold a couple flashes, but for now I just have the battery charger and AC cord on the left and the lens hood for the 12-24mm on the right. Below, I've setup a divider between my 35mm f/1.8 on the left and the 18-105mm VR on the right (with lens hood attached). The dividers are sturdy and the compartment is well padded on the outside - equipment would be well protected here.

This photo shows my Dell Latitude D630 sliding in to the laptop pocket. This laptop only has a 14" LCD so there's a fair amount of extra room (the bag is rated for a 15" LCD). Even without a computer, you could throw some books or magazines in there.

The top section has a small zippered pouch on the outside. Not a whole lot of room in there.

The flap on the top section is not very well padded compared to the bottom section; I wouldn't put any optics or sensitive electronics in here. But there is plenty of room for other accessories, maps, lunch, etc. I've shown it with the 17-55mm for a sense of scale.

Overall, I like this bag. I could see that I was going to outgrow the Kata 3n1-10 very quickly, so this is a better solution for storing and carrying my gear. The 3n1-20 is probably closer in size to the Fastpack 250 (Kata also makes a model with a laptop compartment the 3n1-22) but I don't see the utility in having a sling bag option for a bag of that size (that much weight on one shoulder is not going to be comfortable for any length of time). Also, I felt that the clips and zippers on the Kata were not as easy to use as I expected, so I opted for the Fastpack instead. The only downside is that once you get it loaded up with gear (especially a laptop), it gets really heavy - not the sort of thing I would want to take an all day walking tour with. However, it'll get all your gear on the plane, and you can leave what you don't need for that day in the hotel.

Jan 28, 2010

Complaint: Progressive Homesite Homeowners Insurance

Summary: avoid Homesite Insurance like the plague.

For the last three years, our house in Dallas, TX was insured for about $200k. First with Amica, and more recently with Progressive's affiliated homeowners insurance company: Homesite Insurance. Everything was fine until we got our renewal bill for 2010 and Homesite had increased our premium about 50%. We've never had a claim. I looked at the premium detail and it turns out they had increased our home's replacement cost from $200k to $300k, and this increased the overall premium.

I called Homesite for an explanation as to how a home's replacement cost could increase by 50% in a single year. They said they had switched to new software and this is the estimate that it had generated. I told them that the market value for this house is around $200k and there is no way you could build a house on this lot for $300k. Their software put our home's replacement cost at about $150/sq. ft. when in fact, new homes are being built in our area for $100/sq. ft. Our house hasn't had any renovations or upgrades that would increase its value by 50% in the last few years. I told Homesite that we didn't want to purchase $300k of insurance for a house that could be replaced for $200k. They said we had no choice but to accept their appraisal.

I then called the Texas Department of Insurance to file a complaint against Homesite. I wanted to see a report from a licensed appraiser or builder who would sign his name to a report stating that our house would cost $300k to rebuild. The TDI said they would investigate and contacted Homesite. A few weeks later we received a letter from Homesite that repeated what we were told on the phone. They provided the detail of the $300k replacement cost, but the largest single line item was "Other/Misc" which was $70k. That was the level of detail they provided. This kind of "estimate" borders on fraudulent to my mind.

TDI later sent us a letter stating that Homesite can use any replacement cost they want. Who am I to argue with the Texas Department of Insurance? So we cancelled the policy and went to another insurer who gave us a $200k replacement cost estimate and a much lower premium. The new insurer suggested that Homesite may not have been able to get a rate increase past the regulators, so instead they're just jacking up everyone's insured value to increase their premium revenue.

Now, I fully understand that my homeowners' insurance premium will probably increase from year to year. I also understand that my home's replacement cost will also increase over time due to inflation. But for Homesite to think that any homeowner should accept a 50% increase in replacement cost in one of the worst housing markets in decades is ludicrous. I guess they haven't noticed that demand for home building services isn't exactly in high demand right now.

We still have our auto insurance with Progressive from when we switched to Homesite, but I'm going to look around for a better rate on that as well. If Progressive wants to associate with Homesite, neither company deserves my business.

Homesite Home Insurance: the worst homeowners insurance company in Texas.

Jan 23, 2010

Review: AF-S DX Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

This lens is considered by many to be a potential upgrade from the 18-105mm VR that comes in the Nikon D90 kit. On paper, it has several advantages:
  • Better build quality with metal lens mount (18-105 has a plastic mount)
  • Second generation VR technology
  • Slightly wider field of view (2mm doesn't sound like much, but it's actually 7 more degrees in your field of view)

However, you give up some reach on the tele end, and the 16-85 costs almost twice as much as the 18-105 (the incremental cost is even more if you consider that the 18-105 costs about $200 in the D90 kit, and if you already have the 18-105 you'll have to sell it on eBay or Craigslist). Expectations for image quality from the 16-85 run high given its price, and the lens is generally well reviewed. However, I did an informal test of the 16-85 against the 18-105 over their common range and found that the 16-85 was sharper from edge to edge at close focus distances (less than 30 feet) on the wide end. However, for shots at 85mm with focus distances greater than 30 feet, the 18-105 was noticeably sharper. My informal test shots were taken at the same aperture and shutter speed in outdoor lighting conditions. At 100% crop, it was easy to identify the 18-105's shots based on the center of the frame, and things worsened at the edges. This was really surprising to me and not at all what I expected, but I ended up returning the 16-85. The relatively high price of this lens could've been justified based on its features, but I was unwilling to spend more money for lesser image quality. Ultimately, if the wider angle is what you're after, you'd be better served by buying the Nikon 12-24 f/4, which can be had for about $500 on the used market.

Jan 9, 2010

Review: Kata KT D-3N1-10 sling/backpack camera bag with photos

I recently purchased the Kata 3n1-10 camera bag to hold my burgeoning collection of camera equipment. I originally started looking at the Lowepro Slingshot but came to realize that a sling bag with a body plus multiple lenses puts a lot of weight on a single shoulder. Okay for short periods but not all day walking. The Kata converts between a two-strap backpack and a single strap over-the-shoulder sling bag but I expected to use it in backpack mode most of the time. Here's the 3n1-10 next to the D90 and some lenses. Hopefully this brief review with pictures will give you a sense of the bag's size and layout in comparison to some common camera equipment.

Back of the 3n1-10. For sling use, you connect the red strap to the red hook. It can be reversed for left handed individuals as well.

Inside, there's a fair amount of room, but it's the smallest of the 3n1 series, so even with my gear the fit is tight. From left to right in the photo, you can see the 35mm f/1.8, D90 with 12-24 f/4 and lens hood, and the 18-105VR with lens hood. One improvement would be to extend the zippers an inch to the left as it can be difficult to reach lenses stored on the left hand side of the bag - this is a real annoyance. The bag came with a couple more foam dividers but I've taken them out for the time being as it was just too cramped. The quick draw feature works well although I'm not sure yet if it would fit the D90 with the 17-55mm or 70-300mm VR mounted. Probably possible but a close fit.

There's two side pockets next to the top compartment. They might barely hold the 35mm f/1.8 but clearly they're designed for smaller accessories.

The top compartment is as well padded as the rest of the bag and I have no reservations about storing a lens in that section. You can see it here with the 18-105VR for scale.

Overall the bag is well designed, solidly built, and comfortable. The bright yellow interior is a nice touch. As you can tell from the photos, it's a relatively small bag so if you have more than a couple lenses, you'd be better served by the 3n1-20. Don't even think that you could get a lens like the 80-200 f/2.8 into the 3n1-10. However, for a light travel bag, it's not bad. Ultimately I ended up returning the 3n1 because the single-strap mode just wasn't practical for a bag of this size. It's caught in the middle - too big to be a good sling bag, too small to be a useful backpack. Another issue was that the zippers didn't feel as smooth as I expected for a bag of this price, and was concerned that they would jam over time. Plus, there's no reason this bag needs to have 4 quick release clips on it - they almost defeat the purpose of having a quickdraw flap in the first place. I thought about trying the 3n1-20, but instead I ordered a Lowepro Fastpack 250. We'll see how it works out.