Lowepro Fastpack 250
A variation on the company's side-opening, single-strap Slingshot models, the Lowepro Fastpack series integrates the clever top-and-side camera compartment approach with a more traditional backpack design. Middle of the line, the Fastpack 250 offers an attractive, relatively comfortable option for a weekend traveler who likes to wander armed with a midrange-to-large camera body, several lenses and accessories, and a Photoshop-worthy laptop.
I and the 250 ventured out with a Nikon D3 plus the AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens, the AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens, and the SB-800 AF Speedlight. It was a tight squeeze because of the exceptionally wide (physically) 14-24mm lens.
The top compartment is large enough to hold a hardcover book, sunglasses in a case, and other miscellany. There are a couple spaces to slide in pens, a mesh pocket that can handle a largish MP3 player, a small pocket sized for a typical cell phone, and another flap pocket that I use for holding business and credit cards. A few free-floating pouches or dividers and a way to Velcro them in place would be useful to keep random items organized, though. On the front is a free-form zippered compartment.
I really like the side-opening camera compartment design. I found I didn't really use it as intended--you're supposed to keep the left strap on and swing the bag around to the front of your body--and when loaded with a pro dSLR, lenses and laptop, it can get too heavy. But side access comes in handy in a lot of circumstances. You can easily slide the camera out without having to open the entire top section, grab media from the camera without removing it from the backpack, and even review your images without taking the camera from the bag.
I'm not as crazy about the side-opening-only laptop compartment. I prefer a zipper that goes all the way around, or at least over the top as well as the side, which makes it much easier to remove and repack the computer as I wend my way through airport security. And given the amount of stuff you can cram into the bag, and how heavy you can make it, the plain rough woven grab handle at the top comes as an unpleasant (and uncomfortable) surprise.
There's a pocket on the strap that accommodates my BlackBerry Pearl. Since the pocket doesn't cover up the USB connector, I can even charge it in-pocket. Nor is the pocket so snug that it accidentally makes phone calls, as I've occasionally experienced.
As I mentioned in the review of the 250's smaller line mate, the Fastpack 100, I'm not really fond of Lowepro's divider system (based on years of experience with an otherwise great backpack, the Micro Trekker. The dividers are well-padded, but I find the flap-based attachments difficult to align properly, the placement of the loop patches (of the hook-and-loop fasteners) too limiting, and the fasteners themselves a bit too tenaciously tight. They stay where you put them, but configuring and reconfiguring the system always feels like a fight. Many users are fine with the design, however, so don't take my word for it; in general, it's always a good idea to try to configure any bag before you buy, anyhow.
If you're going to be carrying equipment like I mentioned here on a regular basis, you should probably consider going up a level to the Fastpack 350, which is rated for a 17-inch notebook and has a slightly deeper camera compartment. Though it's a solid bag for weekend shooting excursions, the Lowepro Fastpack 250 feels a bit bulky and awkward compared with similar models such as the Kata DR-467 Digital Rucksack; the latter can't quite accommodate a 17-inch laptop, however, which may be your primary consideration. In any case, check out our selection of best five camera bags before committing.