Review: Tom Bihn Ristretto MacBook Air bag Mark II

Posted on by Mike Evans

I absolutely love my itsy-bitsy little Tom Bihn Ristretto. The vertical messenger bag for the 11in MacBook Air has has hardly been off my back in a twelvemonth. Its coffee colour and distinctive looks even helped the police trace it after my unfortunate bag theft in Athens

But the original Ristretto does have one, just one, problem. I mentioned this in my original review. The large front compartment is open and it is surprisingly easy for heavier items to fall out if the bag is placed on its back—for instance on a chair in a cafe. I also complained that the loose-fitting messenger flap offered an invitation to thieves, particularly when you are standing on a crowded escalator in the London tube system.

Ballistic nylon

This problem has been addressed in the new Ristretto range as I found when my sparkling navy bag with yellow lining arrived yesterday. There are two main differences between this Mark II and the original version. The most obvious is the splashproof zip which securely fastens the outside pocket, thus salving all my security reservations.

The second is a change of material from Cordura to ballistic nylon. I am assured the ballistic nylon is just as durable as the Cordura, but it also feels a little stiffer and I prefer it. If anything, the material of the old Ristretto was not stiff enough. I’ve had ballistic nylon bags in the past and the material wears incredibly well. It looks good; better, I think than the original bag.

I chose the bright yellow lining for a good reason: it lights up the inside of the bag so you can find your stuff more easily. I would recommend a bright interior over a grey or black material any day.

Boring strap lore

As usual, the Ristretto comes with Tom Bihn’s standard strap (of which I now have a large collection). It’s a good strap, but I would recommend splashing out the extra $20 for the Absolute Shoulder Strap. I now have several of these, used on my Ristretto and my Empire Builder, so I just purchased the bag with the standard strap.

The Absolute strap (not shown in the pictures) has a much wider shoulder pad and incorporates improved elasticity to give the bag a little bounce. The heavier the bag, the more effective is the Absolute strap in creating an impression of lightness.

Zipped front compartment

Inside the newly zipped front compartment it is business as usual. There is one O ring to attach your pouches and accessories, and organiser compartments for notebooks, pens and other smaller items.

Gone is the zipped pocket above the accessory organiser. That was previously the only location for important stuff such as wallets and passports. Now, with the large zip protecting the entire outer pocket, it is no longer needed. The zip itself is a heavy duty splash-proof YKK design which looks great, a bit like the seam of a wetsuit, and is similar to the zip on my Empire Builder bag.

The main compartment contains a fixed, foam-equipped laptop sleeve tailored for the 11in MacBook Air. There is a larger edition of the Ristretto for the 13in Air. A third version, slightly smaller than the 11in, is made for the iPad. However, in my humble opinion, the 11in model is also perfect for the iPad and offers more storage space without adding much to the overall size.

In front of the laptop sleeve is a larger open compartment equipped with no fewer than three of Tom’s wonderful O rings. You can attach all manner of pouches and gadgets to these beauties.  One of the rings is pre-fitted with a key strap but you can buy more straps, in two different lengths, from the accessory store. This main compartment accommodates a surprising amount of day-time requirements despite the small overall dimensions of the package.

Pouch mania

Filing away your bits and pieces in little pouches is probably a symptom of obsessive compulsive behaviour. But never mind, we all have our problems. I confess I am obsessed with Tom Bihn’s wonderful zipped pouches which clip on to the bags’ O rings and allow you to organise all our stuff.

If you own more than one Tom Bihn bag you can shuffle your pouches around to your heart’s content. Just remember the Air charger is in the red pouch, the earphones and iPhone sync cable in the blue and you are in business. 

These delightful little pockets come in many colours (which enable instant recognition of the right pouch) and in various sizes and configurations, including a wallet and a clear-plastic organiser. See the website for full details. Sadly no pouches are included with the Ristretto. Fortuntely I have a sufficiency to sink a battleship, without adding to the collection. Caveat emptor: Once you order your Ristretto for $125 and start ticking the accessory pages you will soon need a stiff whisky.  Or even a stiff whiskey if you are Irish or a Colonial.

Pockets, fasteners, handles

At the back of the Ristretto is a slanted full-width slot which can take magazines, newspapers, a writing pad or similar. The carry handle, at the top rear of the bag, is now a more substantial padded affair and it makes the bag much easier to carry. Also on the back of the bag are four fabric loops which allow you to fix the supplied waist strap. This is very useful if you intend using the bag while cycling. I have never used the strap on my old bag, however.

The main messenger flap, which covers the laptop and main compartment and fastens down over the front zipped compartment, has also had a bit of tweaking. It is now firmer and holds the flap more securely than on the old Ristretto.

Better bag

I thought my original Ristretto was pretty darn good, except for that open front compartment. Tom Bihn has now produced the ideal travelling companion and the perfect day bag. It is much better all round and I can recommend it unreservedly.

Unlike my MacBook Air, which is made in China and merely designed in California, Tom Bihn’s wonderful creations are both designed and manufactured in Seattle, USA. That’s a plus point by any reckoning. The 11in Air Ristretto will set you back $125 (£79) plus $20 (£12.50) if you go for the optional Absolute strap. It doesn’t sound so bad in pounds sterling.

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