Tom Bihn Ristretto (New Version) review

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There are a few companies that consistently impress me with the design, functionality and quality of their laptop and iPad bags. Tom Bihn is one of them and, with the recent release of the updated Ristretto bag for iPad, 11″ MacBook air and 13″ MBA they have, yet again, proven why they are such a great company. For the past few months my “go to” bag has been the Skooba Design V.3 Tablet Messenger. It is a great bag that I continue to use and enjoy. It holds my devices in “landscape” and, as I note in the review, has an accent color that, at least for me, makes the bag feel a bit less professional. Still, it is such a well-made and functional bag that it quickly replaced the Padster (review here) I had been using for more than a year.

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The Company Promo Shot

Tom Bihn’s updated Ristretto has a lot going for it as well and is really a contender for “best new bag for traveling light”. It holds the laptop or tablet in profile, thereby creating a leaner, meaner bag and, at least in the case of the all-black review sample I have, it looks unassuming and professional. Throw in an amazing assortment of organizational pockets, a wonderful selection of shoulder straps and some great available accessories and you have a bag that is one of the most functional I have ever carried. Let’s take a look.

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From Tom Bihn:

The Ristretto is a vertical messenger bag designed to carry your 11″ MacBook Air and a minimum amount of accoutrements (power supply, pen, notebook, wallet, phone, magazine). Great for realizing the dream of a mobile office: work at the coffee house, on the light rail, at the airport or on the plane.

The Ristretto comes in three sizes. The is the version for the 11″ MBA, one for the 13″ MacBook Air/MacBook Pro and a smaller Ristretto for iPad/iPad 2. In the hopes of having the most flexibility in a bag that was still small I requested the 11″ MBA version. It is a good size but I’m rarely carrying a laptop these days and part of me wishes I had gone with the smaller and lighter Ristretto for iPad.

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We have reviewed the Ristretto previously. (You can find those reviews here.) It was a great bag already and they have now made it even better. Before we take a “new” look at this version let’s run down the changes the company made since they didn’t NEEd to make any of them (the bag was already great) but they made the improvements anyway. as they explain:

The Ristretto is now made with an exterior U.S. 1050d high tenacity ballistic nylon and an interior lining of our ultralight Dyneema/nylon rip-stop fabric from Japan. Both fabrics are made specifically for us. Previous, the Ristretto was made with an exterior of 1000d Cordura® and an interior of 500d Cordura®. For the time being, we will continue to offer one Cordura® color combination — Olive/Cayenne — in all three sizes of Ristretto. Why the switch in fabrics? Our 1050d ballistic nylon has a stiffer hand and a rich weave and we like the way it reflects light. We work with our fabric mills to get this fabric just the way we want it. Our Japanese ultralight Dyneema/nylon fabric saves weight and is as tough as nails. And it’s quite handsome to boot.

A curved, #8 YKK Uretek® splash-proof zipper on the front compartment (under the flap) replaces both the zippered front pocket and open-top pouch in the previous version. Inside of this front compartment is an organizer with pockets for pens, iPhone and passport or wallet. There’s also plenty of room inside this pouch for your power supply, phone charger, and sunglasses.

The back (or top) grab handle, previously a webbing loop, is now a 1050d ballistic nylon handle padded with Poron® foam. Poron® is our foam of choice for handles because it simply doesn’t break down, even after decades of use.

Behind the scenes, Tom’s updates included several rounds of new patterns and prototypes constructed by Tom, Lisa, and Fong in our Seattle factory. Using 1050d ballistic nylon as the exterior fabric means the Ristretto takes a little longer to sew, but our expert crew is up to the task.

And because of the change in fabrics, new color combinations are available in the Ristretto: Black/Steel, Steel/Iberian, Forest/Steel, Navy/Solar, Cardinal/Steel (Ristretto for iPad or iPad 2 only), and Olive/Cayenne (Cordura®).

All of these are great improvements to a bag that was already quite useful and “handsome”.

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Let’s take our look from the inside out starting with the main compartment. Like the earlier version, this Ristretto has a built-in padded laptop/tablet area. It will do a decent job of protecting your device from bumps and bruises. It you are the type who needs details here they are. The padded area is

made with .25″ (6mm) open-cell foam laminated with durable 4 Ply Taslan® on the outside, and features an interior of super-soft brushed tricot. The back side of the Ristretto is padded with 1/4″ closed cell foam.

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A padded flap goes over the top of laptop or tablet and behind it to “lock it” in place and gives added protection.

The interior also has a fairly roomy open area that is great for other items. Small, unassuming o-rings on the left and right (you won’t see them if you aren’t looking or them) are perfect for stowing smaller items but having them handy when you need them. There is also one in the front of the main compartment making for a total of three different ways to keep items packed but immediately accessible.(The company sells an assortment of small pouches that work with these o-rings. It is worth getting a few!)

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The front of the bag now has a curved front pouch that opens wide to reveal a good amount of interior space and an organizational area with pockets for pens, phones, a passport or other items you need protected AND accessible. The larger portion of the space is big enough for chargers, glasses or other items you don’t want to keep in your pocket but also don’t want to toss into the main compartment only to need to fish them out at a later date. Inside this area you will find yet another o-ring. That makes for a total of four different ways you can secure keys, pouches or other smaller items and know exactly where they are. Here’s how the company describes the o-rings and their usefulness.

This front pouch has one o-ring. The main compartment of the Ristretto features three o-rings. Attached to one o-ring is an 8″ Key Strap. (Additional and extended length Key Straps can be purchased separately.)

The Key Strap is useful for keeping track of your keys (many folks leave their keys attached to the key strap.) It can also be used to clip a pocket watch or Swiss Army knife to the bag. One can also clip a Guardian Light, Clear Organizer Wallet, or Clear, Padded, Cordura, or CorkOrganizer Pouches to the interior o-rings.

The front pocket is secured with a “#8 YKK Uretek® splash-proof zipper”. I’m not quite sure what that first part means but I do know it has something to do with “it is well-made, tough and waterproof”.

The main space and the smaller front pocket are protected by an “asymmetrical flap that closes with the distinctive TOM BIHN off-set buckle”. That buckle may be made of plastic but it is heavy-duty, easy to close and even easier to open. I’ve never had one of their buckles fail on my and I am pretty rough on my bags.

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On the back of the Ristretto you will find an open pockets that is perfect for papers, a magazine or, when I know I will need it soon, even my iPad. The top is slanted which makes it easier to grab whatever is inside.

One of the best changes Tm Bihn made to this bag is found above the open magazine area. The Ristretto now has an even better handle that is easy to grab, comfortable to hold and even looks more substantial. It looks that way because, quite frankly, it is. This was one of my main issues with the Padster bag. Having a “grab and go” handle is important if you are planning to carry your bag with you day in and day out.

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I have two other Ristretto bags here are home. One is for the iPad while the other is for the 13″ MacBook air. All of the Ristretto’s have a removable waist strap. It is described as being “great for use if you ride your bike while wearing the Ristretto (motor bike or push bike)”. The bag actually has four different points where it can connect. That means the strap can be high, low or can “cut” at an angle if that is more comfortable. The idea is that the bag’s weight is taken by your shoulder and the waist strap keeps it from swinging to and fro. As the company explains, “If you don’t plan to use the waist strap, it is easily removable and leaves no hardware behind.” Well I had never used the waist strap but I had never removed it either. Until last week. Elana and I were meeting friends for dinner. I got to the town were we were meeting a bit early so I decided to go for a walk. (Okay, that’s not quite true. I misread the address and parked a good distance from the restaurant. Since I had already parked my car I decided to walk it.) For the first time I unbuckled the waist strap, adjusted it and “locked” the bag around me. It was amazing how much more comfortable it was to carry the bag with it secured to my back this way. That’s how I ALWAYS carry it now.

I stress the issue of the waist strap because it reflects the kind of detail that goes into designing a bag like this. The folks at Tom Bihn through through every detail with regard to looks, functionality and comfort and it shows.

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The final detail that is worth mentioning is the shoulder strap. The details show here as well since the company ships the Ristretto with an “already quite nice” Standard Shoulder Strap. It is 1-1/2″ wide, made of heavy nylon webbing strap and features a comfortable, wide foam pad. For an extra $20.00, you can upgrade to their Absolute Shoulder Strap (shown above). It offers even more comfort and padding although I’m not quite sure which I actually prefer. The Absolute Shoulder Strap IS more comfortable but it is also thicker and heavier.

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My bottom line on this bag is this- the Ristretto was already a good bag. These updates make it an even better bag and the fact that I was able to get this one in black on black means it looks more professional than many of the other bags I carry. I really don’t think you can go wrong with a bag from Tom Bihn, Waterfield SF Bags, Skooba Design or Timbuk 2. I do, however, think you are doing yourself a disservice if you are in the market for a new bag and don’t give the Ristretto a look. Sure, it might not be for you but it might and, if it is, you are going to love it.

You can find details, color options and ordering information here on the Tom Bihn website.


MSRP: Starting at $125

What I Like: Well made; Comfortable; Designed to carry a lot, protect the contents and make them easily accessible; two strap choices; o-rings make for better organization; waist strap is GREAT

What Needs Improvement: Nothing, this was already a good bag, now it is a great bag



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2 replies

  1. Thanks for the thorough review.


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