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First Look: Tom Bihn Ristretto bag for iPad


I blame Steve Sande for my newest iPad-related purchase. Well, there's a lot of things to blame Steve for, but it was his reviews of the Tom Bihn Western Flyer and Checkpoint Flyer that had me checking out the company he bought the bags from last year.

Tom Bihn
is based in Seattle and has the distinction of being among those rare companies that still makes its products in the U.S. using mostly U.S.-produced materials. Only a few components are sourced from overseas, but those parts are fully disclosed.

Tom Bihn was also had gear designed specifically iPad right off the bat, announcing its offerings -- The Ristretto and the Cache for iPad -- just hours after the original iPad announcement. The US$110 Ristretto, which also comes in a larger size designed to hold a MacBook, is a vertical messenger bag with a padded area that is large enough to hold a netbook or an iPad.

After having my iPad and accessories bounce around a larger bag for a few weeks, I caved and placed a Ristretto order to see if it suited my needs. I could have gone cheaper, I could have used a regular netbook case, but I'm glad I held out for the Ristretto.

The pros

Pull the bag out of the box and the first thing you'll think is, "How is it supposed to fit everything I carry on a day to day basis?" While I'm not one of those women who tend to carry everything but the kitchen sink in my handbag, I do want to have specific things at hand.

The Ristretto is constructed with a curved organizer compartment that gives you easy access to four sewn-in pockets -- two for pens and pencils, one that perfectly holds an iPhone and one more that is slightly larger than that, but will not hold the smallest-sized Moleskine flip notebook. It will hold most point and shoot cameras.

Behind this is a zippered pocket, designed to hold your wallet or other things you don't want in public view. Then there is a larger compartment and finally the sewn-in padded case that's just large enough for an iPad in a case -- depending on the case. A magazine pocket is sewn to the back of the bag. There are three O-rings attached to the two main compartments and a fourth inside the zippered pocket. These hold Tom Bihn's organizer pouches, which come in various sizes and can be clipped to the O-rings. If you plan to spend the money for the Ristretto, go ahead and toss a few pouches in your order. You won't regret it.

You can actually get a lot in here. I popped my currently caseless iPad into the padded pouch. In the main compartment, I have the Apple wireless keyboard, my Nintendo DSi, a small organizer pouch containing both iPad and DSi chargers and the small stand I use for the iPad. There is enough room here for a small paperback book, though the compartment itself is large enough to hold a regular-sized hardback. My wallet and personal items went into the zippered pocket. The organizer pockets hold a pen, pencil and my iPhone with a pocket to spare. Finally, in the smaller open compartment, I have a mini organizer pouch with my iPod nano and a pair of earphones and a small Moleskine notebook, and I still had room should I need it.

I was carrying all of the above, plus a camera, on a series of recent outings that included a tour of Disney in Burbank and a week in Sedona, Arizona. During my Disney tour, I carried the Ristretto for a couple of hours and it never felt heavy. The bag comes with a very comfortable padded strap, but with can upgrade to the company's Absolute Shoulder Strap for an additional $20 with the purchase or $30 if you decide to buy one later.

Another huge pro for Tom Bihn is the customer service, which is top-notch. The Ristretto for iPad is on back order due to the huge demand for it, and I ordered mine in May for an expected end of June delivery. But the Tom Bihn crew worked to make sure I got mine just in time for planned trips to California and within Arizona to tie off loose ends before my move to Pennsylvania in July. Tom Bihn also has an active community forum that features a number of customer-produced videos showing off how much a Tom Bihn bag can hold and how well they are constructed. (Full Disclosure: I am a member and have posted there, but not on the Ristretto itself.)

The cons

There's not a lot, but no product is perfect. You can't remove the padded case, but if you wanted to do so, then the Ristretto isn't for you to begin with. If you want to tote around a camera, make sure it's not a bulky SLR-like model, or else the bag won't be able to hold it (which happened to be the case with my Canon S5 IS). Some won't care for the limited color palettes for the Ristretto, but one of the great things about Tom Bihn is if you wait a few months, the color pallettes usually change.

The Ristretto can hold an iPad that's in the Apple-branded case, however it won't hold all iPad cases. The bulkier the case, the less likely it will fit the Ristretto. If you really want the Ristretto, but also want a thicker iPad case, you may want to consider the Ristretto's MacBook-sized sibling or the Co-Pilot.

The other con for some is the expense. Ristretto is $110 plus shipping, which varies worldwide. If you want the Ristretto for MacBook, it's $120. Is it pricey? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes, it was for me. I wound up having to use a Tom Bihn ID as an emergency secondary bag for my return trip from Liverpool in October. My primary bag emerged from the trip so dilapidated that I'm going to have to replace it. The ID emerged good as new and nothing inside was damaged. Steve likewise had an equally good experience with his Western Flyer after hauling it around Africa for several weeks.

If the Ristretto isn't for you, but you do want an iPad-specific bag, there are alternatives. Booq has its own vertical-style messenger case for $79.95 and a briefcase-style bag for $69.95. Skooba Design has a horizontal messenger bag for $49.95. The blog also has a dedicated area of its site that will let you know what bags are available out there.

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