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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hands On with the Kata Mini-Bee UL-111

One thing I've noticed while reviewing Kata products. They always hold much more than it would appear initially. It may take a little monkeying around with the configuration but it's always a pleasant surprise to how much gear their bags can actually hold.
The first question I investigate with any bag is: Can it hold my camera with the grip attached? The second is: Can it hold the same gripped camera with the 70-200/2.8 attached? I was able to answer yes to both. In addition to that combination, I was able to carry two more (albiet smaller) lenses and a flash. The upper compartment of the MiniBee is sufficiently roomy that if I wanted to carry one more lens (because I ALWAYS want to bring along one more lens . . . ) I can carry it there in a protective pouch or case.

All the usual suspects come along with this Kata backpack: The all-weather cover, the tripod holder and straps to affix it to the bag, and the camera strap that allows you to attach your camera directly to the shoulder straps, taking the weight of the camera off your neck.

My favorite part of exploring new Kata products however, is the unexpected surprise features. In the case of the MiniBee, its the zipped mesh cover that is INSIDE the flap covering the camera compartment. Now, this backpack does have a somewhat unsual entry arrangement. The top, non-camera portion opens in an over-the-top zipped fasion, while the lower, camera portion, opens in an under-the-bottom type of manner. This extra mesh flap that covers the camera gear is an excellent insurance policy agains accidental spillage of expensive and fragile equipment.

Another fun little feature discovered are the little plastic loops with the little plastic hook on the left side in between the upper and lower sections (see pics). The intended use for this isn't immediately obvious and there is no mention of it in the information card that comes with the bag. But after messing around with it it was found that the upper and lower zipper pulls can conveniently be threaded through the plastic loops and secured against accidental un-zipping with the hook. Very clever.

This particular backpack has a lightweight aluminum frame incorporated into the design. This frame is apparently an essential part of this bag, giving it additional structural support and integrity, as well as support against the back of the wearer. It also creates a space between the wearer and the main body of the bag, with the fabric covering over the frame going next to the wearer.

While in theory it is good idea, in practice, it might not be perfect for everyone. The lower flared portion of the frame appears designed to fit around the contours of a person's body, with the hip belt attached a the widest points. However, I personally am narrower than that lower flare and I found that it caused some discomfort and ill-fit issues with the width of this lower flare. The hip belt did not really wrap as I felt would be most beneficial to support a heavy load and I found that the lower portion/bar of the frame caused discomfort.

For a smaller person it is essential to distribute this load. Fortunately, the frame is held in with a zippered compartment and can be removed. When the frame was removed, the area that held the frame wrapped around my hips better with the belt and the load felt more supported. If I were larger in size, and the frame did not extend out wider than me, I do not think this would be an issue. Or if there was an option to add a padded hip belt that went between me and the back of the pack. For many this may not be an issue. Just for me personally, the pack is just more comfortable without the frame. And it is indeed quite comfortable to carry. But be aware, if the frame is removed, it fits into it's place tightly and can be rather difficult to put back in correctly.

Removal isn't actually recommended so only do so if necessary.
If I had a wish list for things to add to this bag to make it perfect there would be three things I'd like to see. First I would love to have a wider hip/waist belt. The narrow belt tends to be a bit uncomfortable when tightened to a supportive amount. Second, I would love an additional side entry option to the camera compartment. Now, it is still quite possible to get into the camera gear part of the bag without completely removing the pack, and the wonderful additional mesh cover helps to prevent accidental spillage. However, having a side-entry as well will only make it that much easier for the user to get to the gear. Third, the top, non-camera gear compartment is very large and roomy but it is just that. As a fan of many pockets, I would love to see an simple zipped pocket in there. The small exterior pocket has an organizational divider and it perfect for storing small items that require ready access. But sometimes one needs a little separation and safety for smaller items that may not need ready access. I like to have options. 

Overall, I rate this an excellent backpack. Kata products are exceptionally well-made, offer great protection for equipment and lightweight as well. There is ample space for gear and personal items.  The handles on the top provide extra convenience in quick transport options, the laptop/tablet compartment is well sized to carry either type of computing equipment.  The Mini-Bee comes in two colorways: black and two-tone gray.

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