Bag Review: Tom Bihn Ristretto

Bag Review: Tom Bihn Ristretto
Sunday, 26 June 2011

A very long time ago, more than a decade I think, at a time when the exchange rate between New Zealand and US dollars was very much not in my favour, I took a gamble on a bag to carry my laptop. The bag I bought was the Tom Bihn Brain Bag, paired with a Brain Cell.

Tom Bihn Brain Cell and Brain Bag.

Tom Bihn Brain Cell and Brain Bag.

Back in January 2009 I wrote in Choose a bag for your Mac laptop:

The two bags I’ve used for probably a decade now continue to work well for me. I bought a Tom Bihn Brain Bag with a Brain Cell.

The larger Brain Bag backpack is extremely comfortable, and holds clothes, toiletries and other ‘stuff’ for away trips, as well as the laptop, if I want it to.

The Brain Cell is a padded, hard-sided, close fitting bag for the laptop itself, with handles and a shoulder strap. It has a pocket sufficient for a slim book, or even a power supply.

The cunning thing is that the Brain Cell can snap in to the Brain Bag, so that the laptop is suspended inside the backpack, providing extra protection.

Both bags are hard-wearing and well-made. They’ve given me good service for the last many years and I expect many more years from them.

Minor problems because of the superb quality

In fact the only problems I’ve struck with these bags in more than a decade of use are:

  1. Newer models of the MacBook Pro are slightly larger than my old laptop and the Brain Cell I have is almost not quite big enough. There are newer models of the Brain Cell though to cater for that.
  2. In spite of a great deal of use, including using the Brain Bag as an all-purpose travel bag in trips that have included sundry places in New Zealand, Vanuatu, Fiji and Hawai’i, the bag still looks pretty much brand new. It’s in perfect condition, which means I have no excuse to replace it.

It’s a good thing I don’t live close enough to the Tom Bihn store to just go and buy bags on a whim or else I’d own one of everything they produce. Shipping costs and my budget mean I have to choose bags carefully.

Nevertheless, I keep a close eye on their products, and have a standing wishlist.

Tom Bihn Ristretto * 2.

Tom Bihn Ristretto * 2.

The Ristretto

Last year I bought an iPad, succeeded recently by an iPad v2. My partner also bought an iPad, and with her birthday around the same time I found a sufficient excuse to buy not one, but two, of the Tom Bihn Ristretto for iPad.

Mine is Conifer and Steel (shown in the photo with my iPad balanced on top), while my partner’s is Steel and Wasabi. I also bought a couple of 8-inch keystraps.

It’s a handy ‘every day’ bag

I’ve now been using the Ristretto for more than 8 weeks and I’m thrilled with it, though I’ve since supplemented it with a couple of useful accessories.

Ever since the devastating Christchurch earthquakes (magnitudes 7.1 in September 2010, 6.3 in February 2011, and 6.3 in June 2011) I like to keep my iPhone clipped to my belt and my iPad close to hand. After all, Wellington was supposed to get ‘The Big One’, not Christchurch and we will get our turn sometime. Having to hand devices that can communicate in a disaster seems a good idea to me.

The Ristretto means I can easily carry my iPad with me when I do errands in town, go out to dinner or the movies or visit friends (where the iPad is also handy for showing off photos of the cats and dogs).

It’s big enough to fit the tiny Apple Wireless Keyboard if I think I might be doing some work, and has pockets for items like wallet, tissues, muesli bars, papers, and small purchases, along with the main padded iPad pocket. Another pocket on the back can hold a magazine or similar item. The zippered pocket in the main compartment offers some security for precious items.

The Ristretto has 4 o-rings inside to which you can clip items like keys, using the one included keystrap.

The Shoulder Strap’s a winner

I chose the Standard Shoulder Strap included in the price:

… a 1-1/2″ wide heavy nylon webbing strap and features a comfortable, wide foam pad that won’t slip off your shoulder and is designed to conform to your shoulder and back.

And you know what? It doesn’t slip off your shoulder! And that is a delight.

The waist strap removes cleanly

I removed the waist strap and haven’t yet tried it out. I like the design though that leaves behind a couple of flat fabric tabs, leaving the hardware on the waist strap itself.

The waist strap uses a special Gatekeeper clip that’s a bit tricky to undo. Luckily though there’s a video that shows how, and once you get the hang of it, it’s fine.


The bag’s capacious

Using the bag on a few errands I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how many smaller items it can hold, alongside the iPad. There’s quite a bit of room at the bottom of the bag, and things like letters fit quite nicely between the iPad cell and the divider.

My partner sometimes comes home from work with a thick wad of papers in the front pocket — you can see some in the photo above.

Handy accessories: long keystraps and a wallet

I bought a couple of extra keystraps with the bags, which was handy for dividing out my house keys from my car key and keeping both lots permanently attached to the bag.

While I remove the car key from the strap when I need it, I was trying to unlock the front door and the letterbox while the keys were still attached to the bag via the strap. That didn’t work very well as the strap wasn’t quite long enough.

With a subsequent bag order I added a few 16-inch straps. They’re perfect, offering plenty of length for unlocking the door.

I also couldn’t resist buying a couple of Clear Organizer Wallets. If I don’t have my bag with me when I walk the dogs I at least like to carry a little cash for an emergency, a small Swiss card and a business card. Now I can keep the wallet in my pocket at all times, and clip it into the Ristretto when I take that with me.

The clear front on the wallet means I can keep my Snapper bus card in there and just press it against the reader on the bus. Having it on a long strap means it’s secure in my bag and easy to access.

My partner finds the keystraps and o-rings very valuable for keeping track of her keys and Organizer wallet with Snapper card too, given that she leaves the house every day to go to work.

It’s not dog proof

Ok, so I don’t actually expect any bag to be dog-proof, but I had an unfortunate experience just after receiving the bag. I left the bag, with iPad and miscellaneous ‘stuff’ in it, on the floor beside my chair while I went to cook dinner. Oshi the drug thief and his brush with harm tells the story of why that was a very bad idea. Now I keep the bag in a room he doesn’t have access to until I go out.

The negatives and positives

Look, to be completely honest I love the Tom Bihn products I’ve used, without reservation. If I had the money I’d just buy one of everything they have. The quality’s superb, and a lot of thought has gone into their design and construction.

For us here in New Zealand the biggest negatives are the vagaries of exchange rates and the flat US$55 international shipping cost.

But the shipping cost isn’t unique to Tom Bihn — it’s a pain with anything we order in from overseas as New Zealand is a long way from anywhere.

On the up-side though, the shipping is quick and reliable. And the Tom Bihn staff are friendly and helpful.

In the subsequent order one small item was omitted. I sent off an email 5 minutes after opening the parcel and the missing item arrived within the expected week or so. No fuss, no problem, just friendly service.

Our opinions

My partner says:

It’s a good size, that holds A4 papers, so it can double as a document bag. I would have liked a brighter colour [uh oh, that's my fault — it was a surprise gift from me]. Because it’s so deep I’m constantly losing my two cellphones, my wallet and so on in the bottom.

I say:

I agonised over this purchase and am thrilled with the bag. I’ve managed to drop it a couple of times from a low height and the iPad hasn’t suffered. I’d quite like the iPad portion to be removable and to stand alone in its own right as a protective iPad cover.

Would I buy this bag again, or recommend it to others: absolutely!

Would I buy other bags from Tom Bihn? I already have. I couldn’t hold out against the lure of the Aeronaut (and the favourable exchange rate) for a trip I’m planning next year.

Do you have any Tom Bihn bags? Tell us about them in the comments.

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  1. Betty said:

    Can I find a Ristretto Bag
    Ipad in Mexico?

  2. gmanedit said:

    I have a fair number of Tom Bihn products: Aeronaut (with packing cubes and Absolute Strap), Brain Bag, Smart Alec, Synapse, Large Cafe Bag, Small and Large Shop Bags, Swift, and pouches in the various sizes.

    Normally, I don’t buy items I can’t look at and handle. After my first purchase, I realized this was a company I could trust for design, quality control, and customer service.

    Honestly, I feel bad that I can’t buy any more bags—as you noted, they last a good long time, which at my age means forever—because this is a great company and I want them to stay in business.

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      That’s an impressive list!

      I bought the Aeronaut, but my budget means I have to wait a while before buying the packing cubes and Absolute Strap. Do you think the packing cubes are helpful / essential or just handy? I’ve added them to my wishlist…

      • gmanedit said:

        I would say just handy, especially as the current Aeronaut has internal tie-down straps (I have the previous, strapless version). However: The Aeronaut Large Packing Cube happens to fit each Brain Bag compartment, so that makes it very handy for carrying clothing in the Brain Bag.

  3. Paul Johnson said:

    I have a Ristretto for my iPad and I concur entirely with all the good things said in this review. I also use the waist straps when I am walking any distance. I can lean over to pick something up and the bag stays put.

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      Thanks Paul. It’s good to know about the waist strap.

      Maybe I should put mine back on and use it when I walk the dogs – I usually have to bend over a couple of times to pick up poop, or deal with a tangled lead, or take away some morsel they’ve scooped up but shouldn’t have.

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