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The front flap/cover of the backpack has zippered mesh pockets on the inside and also includes a tethered soft cloth that you can use to lay on top of your gear to help prevent anything from scratching it while in transit. The soft cloth is not detachable so I wouldn't use this to clean your gear with as you cannot detach it to wash it or replace it.
Planes, Trains, and AutomobilesI decided to test and review the M-ROCK 525 while flying to Las Vegas to attend PMA, an annual photography trade show. There's nothing better than testing a product in an environment that it's meant to be used. It's the only real way to discover the little things that annoy you or that you fall in love with. If I had my choice, I probably would have chosen the M-ROCK McKinley 526 backpack, a roller version of the Zion 525.
First suggestion - get the wheeled version if you travel with your gear. As convenient as a backpack is, wheels are the only way to fly if you don't want to visit a chiropractor when you get home. With that recommendation out of the way the rest of this review pertains to both bags as they are identical in every other way.
When I started to pack the Zion 525 Backpack for the trip to Vegas, I thought a good test would be to transfer all of my gear from my current backpack, the Lowepro CompuTrekker AW. The M-ROCK Zion 525 is not as wide as the CompuTrekker AW, but it's a bit longer and 3.25" deeper. When placed side-by-side they really don't appear much different in size thanks to the tapered design of the M-ROCK 525. Initially, I was surprised when I couldn't fit everything into the M-ROCK backpack. The mistake I made was that I left the dividers in the 'default' position they came in, which for me wasn't the best option. After removing all of the padded dividers I then began to design what ultimately became the perfect layout for my equipment - and is very similar to option #2 above. You can view my layout at the bottom of this review. When all was said and done I was able to fit everything I owned into the Zion 525 with the added benefit of easily attaching my recently purchased Velbon Carbon-Fiber tripod.
Dual Access to GearWhile the M-ROCK backpack doesn't hold any more gear than the slightly smaller Computrekker AW, it does offer easier access to my gear. This was due to the fact that M-ROCK provides two methods of accessing the gear inside the bag. If you open the bag using the outer zipper and stop half way on each side, you'll be able to flip open just the top panel, which provides easy access to the accessory bag compartment or other gear that might be there in its place. Of course, if you keep unzipping the bag, you'll have full access to the entire contents inside. M-ROCK also designed a second zippered front entry, which provides access just to the LOWER inside section of the bag. These zippers are discretely hidden behind the zippers for the lower exterior pocket. This design works great as it allows you to expose only the gear you need. It also helps to keep the often weighted front cover of the bag (with batteries and other gear in its outer and inner zippered compartments) from flopping down due to weight. Although M-ROCK has already thought about that one as well. The bag includes velcro hinges that you can use to keep the front cover in more of an upright position when you open it. If a birds-eye view is needed - it's easy to temporarily remove the velcro from the side walls.
The top of the bag has a padded and durable carrying handle and also offers a velcro strip on top of the handle. This works in combination with the velcro strip at the bottom of the removable accessory bag, allowing you to connect them together at the top.
The rear of the bag features thickly padded backpack straps that help to reduce the strain of carrying 20-30lbs of gear. There is also a cross strap, that would normally be brought across the front of your body, again to help offset some of the gears weight. Unfortunately, if there is one design flaw of this bag, it would be here. The cross strap was designed a bit too high making it all but unusable for its intended purpose. This is important to note if you plan to carry your gear on your back all day. M-ROCK will have this corrected in any upcoming versions of this bag.
The rear of the bag is also where you'll find the nicely padded laptop compartment. This space is designed to fit up to a 15 inch notebook or Macbook. M-ROCK also makes a hydration bladder with insulated Neoprene Bag (Item #550) that can fit into this compartment for those that plan on hiking with this backpack. M-ROCK has included a rubberized port in the laptop compartment that can be used to pass through the water tube from their Great Lakes Hydration pack. I found it convenient to pass through my power cable to my notebook when I was charging it at the airport.
The front of the backpack offers two large padded compartments to hold additional accessories, power cords, reading material, or any other smaller items you want to carry with you. Both pockets offers a zippered mesh compartment and two mesh pockets. The upper compartment is ideal for MP3 players, keys and cell phones as it has a rubberized wire port that allows you to pass headphones through the outside of the bag into this compartment and a snap hook to attach your keys. You'll also find a neatly folded weather jacket that can be used to cover the entire outside of the backpack for additional protection against inclement weather.
The front of the bag also has integrated bungee style cords along with a small lower pocket that can help support a lightweight tripod. I slid one leg of my Velbon El Carmagne 530 carbon fiber tripod through the bungee cords and down into the lower pocket and was able to trek around without having to carry it in the other hand. The bungee are also a convenient way to carry a lightweight jackets, towel, reflectors, or other small lightweight items.
Each side of the backpack features a fairly deep lower pocket, great for convenience items such as a small water bottles, car keys, rolled up magazines, etc. You'll also find two square plastic connectors on each side of the bag. These make the Zion 525 compatible with M-ROCK's Modular Attachment system and allow you to connect one of five M-ROCK bags to each side of the backpack (#504, #505, #506, #507). This modular system is great for attaching smaller day bags that you might prefer to use once you reach your destination. M-ROCK even makes a lightweight nylon water bottle holder (Mississippi 533) that attaches to the side of the bag.
Airport TravelI flew to Las Vegas on Continental Airlines with a stop over in Cincinnati. The first leg of the flight was on a very small Embraer RJ145 plane. This small plane is called a 1+2 with individual seats on one side with two seats across the isle. The overhead compartment was just as small as the plane was. The M-ROCK 525 was packed with gear, the outer pockets stuffed with everything else (food for the flight, contact lens cases and solution, and anything else I didn't want to pack). As I walked down the ramp to board the plane I noticed a large selection of carry-on's that were being 'tagged and checked' since they didn't fit in the overhead compartment. I was really concerned as my backpack wasn't much smaller than what I was seeing - and the last thing I could ever imagine doing was having to check my camera gear and notebook. My first attempt at trying to fit the bag in the overhead failed. I then removed everything from the outer pockets (contact lenses, candy, keys, sunglasses) of the bag and tried again - still a no go. Out of sheer desperation I removed my 13" Macbook from the laptop compartment and figured I'd hide it under my coat during takeoff. With the notebook removed I was able to squeeze it into the overhead. This is wear the padding of the case is both a blessing and a curse.
The next leg of the flight from Cincinnati to Las Vegas was a breeze. The plane was a traditional Boeing 737-900 (3+3) with a "standard" size overhead compartment. The M-ROCK 525 had no problem sliding into this space with laptop and goodies in all their respective pockets.
Since the M-ROCK Zion 525 backpack is not a roller bag I went out and purchased an inexpensive metal dolly from Walmart ($29-$39). I didn't get it for the airline portion of the trip, rather for walking the show floor. I could not imagine walking the expo floor all day and meeting with manufacturers with 30lbs of gear on my back. Instead I sat the backpack onto the base of the dolly and secured it using stretchable bands around the shoulder straps and metal arms of the dolly.
ConclusionIf you have a growing selection of cameras, lenses, remotes, flash triggers, chargers, etc. then like it or not you ultimately need a decent size camera bag to carry it all. A photo backpack is one of the most convenient ways to keep all of your gear together and safe while traveling, whether it's in a car, bus, train, or plain. It isn't light, but it is a necessity for many of us. M-ROCK is not a name that many photographers have heard of but Michael Rockwell, the companies founder, is quickly changing that. He personally designs these bags and puts his heart and soul into making the best photography bags available and prices them very affordably.
The M-ROCK Zion 525 is a well thought out backpack through and through. The material is tough, the zippers are tough, the layout is very flexible, and the size is bearable. The dual open design allows you to access just the top or bottom sections of the bag - or the entire bag all at once. There are plenty of internal mesh pockets, external padded pockets and side pockets to hold all of the smaller accessories, cables, chargers, remotes, batteries, and more.
The fitted accessory bag is another nice touch. Place an extra lens or two inside and when you get to your destination - just remove the camera/lens combo to wear around your neck and take out the accessory bag and use it to carry that extra lens and/or flash you feel you might need. On my trip to Las Vegas I opted to remove the accessory bag and replace it with extra dividers that are included. This extra room provided me a way to carry all my audio/video and photo gear I would need for the trip (See photos below).
As I say in virtually all reviews - nothing is perfect - even one that is carefully thought out. I feel that the backpack could easily be about 2-3" thinner without giving up too much functionality, if any. Sure, for the lucky few that have a handful of long (and expensive) lenses - they might have to look elsewhere, but for 98% of users that need a backpack, the extra depth seems a waste of space. A thinner bag would also make it fit more easily into the tighter overhead storage spaces of smaller aircraft (1+2). The small optional strap that connects in the front to help offset back weight is mounted too high, making it pretty much unusable. I personally don't put a ton of "weight" on this annoyance since I have never used this strap on my Lowepro in the many years that I have owned it - and it IS located in the right place.
In the future I hope that M-ROCK considers adding a removable dolly system. Something we can slide in and take with us when needed and leave behind when not. My custom dolly system that I put together with the help of an inexpensive dolly from Walmart worked for me, but it was cumbersome and really more than the case needed.
All in all - the M-ROCK Zion 525 backpack grew on me. While I never found fault with the CompuTrekker AW that I have been using for years, I'll find it difficult to go back now that I've spent some time with the M-ROCK. As the saying goes "little things can make all the difference" and the M-ROCK Zion 525 has those little things that add up to a very good experience.
M-ROCK Grand Canyon 517 - For those with less gear!span style="line-height:1.5em; font-size: 12px; font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif"> For those with slightly less gear I highly recommend the M-ROCK Grand Canyon 517. This is an incredible bag and one that I would use on a daily basis if I had slightly less gear. You can get the details on M-ROCK's website but this fairly compact bag will hold a Full-Frame (5D/5D MKII) DSLR with 24-105mm F/4.0L IS Lens attached and supports the lens with a thickly padded lens cradle. The inside then has room for multiple lenses - or a large hot-shoe flash with another extra lens plus battery charger, cables, and more. The bungee cords on the bottom will hold a light jacket or towel and includes two carrying straps that allow you to wear the bag as a backpack (2-straps), slingback (1-strap) or shoulder bag (1-strap). It also includes a weather jacket for further protect your gear inside during inclement weather.
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