I've been using Tom Bihn Ristretto messenger bags for a few years now. When my original was stolen, I promptly bought another. I've used them for everything from going to the local coffee shop to going to Macworld and WWDC. 99% of the time, my Tom Bihn Ristretto goes where I go, because it carries most of the stuff I need to do my job.
The only problem I've had with the Tom Bihn Ristretto is the front organizer. The models I owned all left it open, barely covered by the flap that secured the two main and single zippered top pockets. That meant, while the pen holders and iPhone compartments were convenient, I couldn't store anything in them for fear it would fall out.
Now, based on similar feedback, Tom Bihn has redesigned the Ristretto and attempted to make a great messenger bag even better. Did they succeed?
The Tom Bihn Ristretto comes in 3 sizes, one optimized for the 9.75-inch iPad, one for the 11-inch MacBook Air, and one for the 13-inch MacBook air or 13-inch MacBook Pro. If you only ever want to carry around your iPad, or similar sized tablet device, the smallest of the Ristrettos is a slick, sophisticated option. I need both my iPad and my MacBook with me, so I've always gone with the 13-inch Ristretto. That they have options is the important part. You get only exactly the amount of messenger bag you need. (I've even used the 13-inch Ristretto to cart around my 15-inch MacBook Pro in a pinch, though it's not ideal and I wouldn't recommend anyone trying to get regular use out of that scenario.)
The Ristretto is a vertical messenger, which I far prefer. The outside is made of U.S. 1050 denier ballistic nylon, which Tom Bihn claims has "twice the abrasion resistance of 1680 denier fabric". After two years of heavy use, my original Tom Bihn looked as good as when I'd bought it.
There's a pocket on the back of the Ristretto, suitable for some papers or analog reading material -- they type you're forced to endure doing takeoff and landing. It's open, so don't put any valuables in there.
A flap folds over the top and buckles to keep the Ristretto closed. It's a good, strong plastic buckle that holds securely. I did once have one break but after contacting Tom Bihn they sent me an immediate replacement.
The main, laptop pocket is padded, according to their website, with 6mm of open-cell foam laminated with 4 Ply Taslan on the outside, with super-soft brushed tricot inside, and 6mm of closed cell foam on the back. An extra, internal flap folds over to hold everything snug as a bug in a rug. If you buy the proper Ristretto size for your iPad or MacBook Air, the fit is excellent.
The secondary pocket, the one I use for the iPad, doesn't have the same padding and soft interior, and it's far roomier than an iPad requires, but it's the most secure, most convenient place to put it. I've occasionally snuck a friend's Air in their when we travelled together, but I wouldn't recommend doubling up regularly.
The third, zippered pocket on the Tom Bihn used to have the organizer open in front of it, leading to the problems I mentioned above. Now the organizer is back inside the zipper where it belongs, and instead of being a single linear zipper, it's now a bigger, rounded compartment with a pair of zippers. That's right -- it's all grown up. It even uses a #8 YKK Uretek splash-proof zipper.
This is where I keep all my secure-ables: MagSafe power adapter, iPad charger (which I use for both iPad and iPhone), USB ethernet adapter, headphones, etc. While my main iPhone 4S is always in my pants or jacket pocket, I do sometimes have my old iPhone 4 in the Ristretto iPhone pocket, if I need it with me for some tests or reviews I'm working on. I also keep extra business cards and Mobile Nations and iMore stickers for serendipitous giveaways. A regular pen (to fill out analog forms like customs declarations) and a stylus (currently the Jot Pro) fill out the compartments.
There's an O-Ring in the zipper pocket as well, for which Tom Bihn offers a couple of optional extras, including a variety of wallets, pouches, and key holders. I've gotten one of the pouches and tried it, but stopped. It didn't fit my use case.
Regardless of the pocket, the new Tom Bihn Ristretto holds everything securely yet still keeps it readily available. The included waist strap can be used to keep the Ristretto secured for long term walking or riding, and can be positioned high or low on either side. There's also a strong handle at the top to make it easy to pick up or hold when you have to.
For the shoulder strap, you can choose between the standard and the absolute. The standard is 1.5" wide and nylon. The absolute is a bigger, thicker, better padded version. I prefer the absolute, especially when I'm spending 12 hours walking during a trade show. It's an additional charge ($20) but well, well worth it. (Just make sure you change shoulders regularly so you stay Superfunctional.)
For colors, you get your choice of black/steel, forest/steel, olive/cayenne, steel/iberian (gray). Green and blue options are also shown on the website but don't seem to be available to order (yet?). This review unit is black/steel. The ones I've bought myself were olive/cayenne. They all look great,
- Excellent design and craftsmanship
- Organizer secured inside zippered pocket
- Extremely comfortable, even for prolonged use
- Nothing left for me to complain about
The bottom line
The Ristretto doesn't fit everything I need -- it's way too small to hold my DSLR and lenses, for example. But that's the point. Hiking packs are hiking packs for a reason. The Ristretto is what you use when you want something light and essential -- something to carry only what you need, that doesn't make you regret buying an Air or an iPad because of the bulk and weight the bag adds right back to it. It's zen.
If you're looking for something in old worn leather, or something with loud patterns, look somewhere that is else. If you want a comfortable, stylish, svelte way to carry around your iPad, iPhone, and optionally, your MacBook Air, get the Tom Bihn Ristretto.