[UPDATE: Tom Bihn updated the Ristretto for iPad in 2012. Click here to read my review of the 2012 model.] If you haven't read my last post yet (my review of the BoxWave Encompass Urban Bag), especially the first two paragraphs, go read it right now. The Encompass Urban Bag is a great value at $50, and after I used it for a few weeks I really thought that I had found the bag for me. Then a free review unit of the Ristretto from Tom Bihn in Seattle showed up in the mail, and I started using it for a few weeks, and boy do I love this bag. For reasons I'll explain below, you really need to spend about $150 to get the full value of the Ristretto, but if you are willing to spend three times as much, you get a premium product that is a joy to use. If you are looking for a bag for your iPad to use to and from work every day and every time you travel, I encourage you to seriously consider spending the extra money for the Ristretto. It is fantastic.
Tom Bihn's Ristretto for iPad
Like the Encompass Urban Bag, the Ristretto is a vertical messenger bag that you carry over your shoulder. The Ristretto is nicely padded to provide protection to the contents, and the material used is thick and very durable, nicer than what you get with the Encompass Urban, and similar to (although somewhat more durable) than the material of a nice JanSport backpack. It comes in lots of different color combinations. I have the Black/Steel because I wanted something classic that doesn't stand out, but if you want to have more color in your life there are ten different color combinations. (Andy Chen of The Gadgeteer has some nice pictures of the Olive / Cayenne model along with a good review of the bag.)
Also like the Encompass Urban Bag, the Ristretto has large main compartment with a compartment in the back for the iPad. The iPad 2 easily fits with or without the Apple Smart Cover. Unlike the Encompass Urban Bag, which has a flap that attaches with velcro to hold the iPad in place, the Ristretto has a large flap that simply tucks behind the iPad to keep it secure. It works well. In the other side of the main compartment, you can fit another large object such as the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard. The compartment is larger than the similar compartment in the Encompass Urban, plus unlike the Encompass Urban which has a zipper on top, the large top flap of the Ristretto simply folds over. Thus, you are unlikely to have problems fitting even larger objects into the Ristretto. It might be a small bag, but it can hold a lot.
The front portion of the Ristretto has places to hold a few other items. First, there are two medium size pouches (about 3" wide and about 4.5" deep) to hold items like a backup battery or an iPhone. Next to those pouches are two small compartments for pens. Although the pen compartments work well, the two medium size pouches are my only real disappointment with this bag. I find that items that I put in them tend to easily fall out. I wish that there was a cover or some way to secure those compartments. Because there is not, I tend not to use them very much. The pen compartments don't have this problem because you can attach the clip of the pen, and each pen compartment can easily hold two pens, so I use those two compartments to hold two real pens and two styluses.
Second, there is a large compartment with a zipper. This compartment is very useful and I slide lots of different items in here such as power cables for both my iPad/iPhone and my external batteries, VGA adapters, smaller items that I don't want to fall out of those medium size pouches, etc. Third, in front of the pouches there is a large space where you can put something. When I go through security, I will often slide items like a wallet or iPhone in there to put them through the security conveyor belt so that they don't set off the metal detector or the new full body scanners.
Finally, the backside of the Ristretto — just like the backside of the Encompass Urban — has an open-top pocket that is a great place to slide a magazine, a receipt, a folded sheet of paper, etc.
One of the really handy features of the Ristretto is the inclusion of o-rings: small plastic rings attached to the inside of the Ristretto by a tiny strap. There is one o-ring in the front compartment of the bag just below the zipper, there is one inside of the zipper compartment, and there are two inside of the main compartment (one on each side). Any gripes I have about not being able to use the medium size pouches to secure smaller items (because they slide out) are compensated for with these o-rings because you can purchase accessories for the Ristretto that attach to the o-ring. The Ristretto comes with a keystrap, a handy place to attach your keys and know that they won't fall out of the bag. You can purchase additional keystraps for $2.00
You can also purchase a Clear Organizer Pouch, a zippered pouch that attaches to one of the o-rings. They come in various sizes, and the Ristretto can fit the $7 4" Mini (good for change or credit cards), the $9 5" Small (good for wallets, keys or makeup) the $11 7" Medium (good for a checkbook or pens) or the $11 9" Pen/Pencil pouch. Here is the Meidum size which I'm using right now to hold a MOBiLE CLOTH.
You can also purchase a Padded Orgaizer Pouch in Mini, Small or Medium sizes ($8 to $12) if you want padded protection for the item in the pouch. Tom Binh sent me a small one, which I am using to hold an RSA SecurID fob and my Apple In-Ear Headphones.
Both of these are great for adding an additional, secure pocket to organize additional items in the Ristretto. Moreover, there are many other items that you can purchase to attach to your o-rings such as nylon pouches, an RFID blocking passport pouch, an organizer wallet either with or without a clear front, and even a light.
What really takes the Ristretto over the top is the amazing Absolute Shoulder Strap. The Ristretto comes with a Standard Strap (which I did not try) but for an additional $20 you can upgrade to the Absolute Shoulder Strap — and really, you must do so. This is hands down the best strap that I have ever used for any bag. First, the part of the strap that sits on your shoulder has a rubbery feel which provides amazing friction. Unlike most other shoulder straps that slip off of you shoulder, this one really stays in place.
Second, there is something about the engineering of this strap that distributes the weight to make the bag seem much lighter than it really is. The website says that it combines "a soft, durable neoprene pad with comfortable stretch backing to make bags feel 50% lighter and 100% more comfortable." I don't know how it works, but it is like magic. I can fit many more objects in the Ristretto than the Urban Encompass bag, so clearly the bag is much heavier, and yet with the Absolute Shoulder Strap it feels lighter.
Attorney David Sparks of the MacSparky blog reviewed the Ristretto for iPad last year and noted: "I’ve also found myself repurposing The Absolute Shoulder Strap with all my various bags." I may have to look and see if there is a way that I can get this strap to work with my briefcase the next time that I use my briefcase. It seems silly to say this, but this optional strap is truly as much a selling point for Tom Bihn's Ristretto bag as the bag itself is.
By the way, the Ristretto also comes with a waist strap that you can use if you are riding a bike or otherwise need to keep it very close to your body. I didn't need this, and it is easily removed.
As I mentioned in my last post, my research into a good bag for my iPad narrowed me down to the Encompass Urban and the Ristretto. Had I not had the opportunity to use both bags, I might have opted for the Encompass Urban simply because it is only $50. And frankly, I would have been very happy with the Encompass Urban because it really is a great bag. But now that I have had an opportunity to use both bags for a long period of time, it is clear that the Ristretto really is a much nicer bag. It is more durable, it has better compartments, the o-ring design gives you even more options for storing items, and the Absolute Shoulder Strap is amazing.
Keep in mind, though, that to really get the most out of the Ristretto you need to spend more than just the $110 for the bag. At a minimum, you are going to want to spend $20 for the Aboslute Shoulder Strap plus you will want to get two or three accessory pouches, which can run around $10 or so each. Thus, it is easy to spend $150 or more for the Ristretto with accessories, three times the cost of the Encompass Urban. It really is worth it, though. Much like the iPad and the iPhone, I have grown to consider the Ristretto to be my trusty companion. It has received a lot of abuse, going through countless airports, being tucked under lots of airplane seats, being stepped on and dropped many times, and the bag itself — and most importantly the contents such as my iPad — have held up just fine thanks to the durable materials and top notch construction (made in the USA). The Tom Bihn Ristretto for iPad is now my favorite third party accessory for the iPad, and I strongly recommend that you consider it if you are looking for a great way to carry around your iPad.
Click here to get the Tom Bihn Ristretto from the manufacturer ($110 + more for accessories).