In addition to the Co-Pilot bag contributed as a MILOfest 2010 giveaway, Tom Bihn sent along two other bags for me to review. Specifically, they sent a Ristretto for iPad and an Empire Builder. (Great names, right?)
The Ristretto is a satchel bag meant to be worn over the shoulder for short trips, and this model has dimensions that an iPad in the main, protected compartment. <Incidentally, Tom Bihn has since released an updated version for the 11″ and 13″ inch Macbook Airs. I’d love to test it out with my new 11″ Macbook Air.>
The Empire Builder is the traditional business bag, which fits a laptop (large or small), a number of file, and just about everything you need for court.
Now, there are a number of videos and reviews that talk about all these bags can hold. One of my favorites is from Brett Burney, and you can read about it here. I don’t want to spend a lot of time going over the same ground, but I thought I might share with you my impressions about these bags from the perspective of an attorney that does mostly transactional work, and who travels to a lot of conferences.
Ristretto for iPad
This is an interesting bag in that’s best suited for a quick trip (maybe one or two days). First, you’re going to have to get over the fact that it’s a satchel, a man-purse of sorts. I’m comfortable enough in my masculinity to wear it just about anywhere, although my wife has requested that I don’t wear it in her presence.
If you can feel comfortable wearing it, and it’s very comfortable to wear, you’ll find yourself using it to go back and forth to work as your daily bag. Whether you use it with your iPad or get the model for one of the small MBAs, you’ll find that it fits all of your tech, pens, and cords with a little room to spare. That is, it doesn’t feel “stuffed” and it safely protects your tech with padded sleeves and a hard-core, canvas fabric outside.
I think the use case for this bag is for the ultimate paperless attorney that travels between work and home with just a laptop or an ipad, and not a lot of paper or files. Although you can slip some 8.5×11 papers into one of the sleeves, it’s not really meant to be use to transport files.
I’ve used this bag to travel to short conferences (1-2 days) where I’m just going to use my iPad and a keyboard, and not need my laptop at all. Although, if I had the model built for the 11″ inch MBA, I’d probably use that bag with my laptop and leave the physical files at home. In fact, if you pair the laptop with a travel scanner like the ScanSnap S1100 (which I’m reviewing now – and I’m very impressed), you can work entirely paperless-ly. I’d be interested to see if the Ristretto for Macbook Air fits the ScanSnap S1100 for a trip like that.
Now, this is a bag meant for attorneys. It’s got the traditional look of a briefcase (with a laptop insert) and a cavernous interior. You can fit plenty of files in here, whether or not you use one of the Tom Bihn inserts like the Brain Cell or Horizontal Freudian Slip. The bag comes with some heavy-duty dividers to keep loose papers separate and protected. If there’s a downsize to a bag that fits this much, it’s that it doesn’t roll. Lots of paper can get heavy and if you have a document intensive litigation case, that will start to make the bag unwieldy.
What I like about the Brain Cell insert is that it “locks” into the interior of the bag with tough clips. The lock brings the laptop sleeve tight against the back of the bag, maximizing the use of space in the rest of the interior.
Did I mention how much space this bag has? I’m always shocked how much I can fit in it and how well it all remains protected. In addition to the main compartment, there is a front section protected by a large flap & buckle. This front part is where you put your pens, cords, business cards and keys. I’ve even used it to hold an additional keyboard for my iPad.
On the front of the flap are two pockets I use in travel all the time. All. The. Time. Here’s how it works: When I’m ready to go through security, I open the top pocket (which uses a high-quality zipper) and drop in all of my metal in my pockets. Then, there’s a mini pocket that holds my boarding pass. It’s super intuitive for making quick deposits and withdrawals as you pass through security (or as you’re hunting for your headphones from a comically small airplane seat).
The problem with this bag, for me, is that it causes me to bring more back and forth to the office. I’ve moved to the Empire Builder as my everyday bag, but I’ve got my MBA plus my iPad, a file folder that seems to just carry the same paper everywhere and other things that take the ride to work with me in the backseat of my car. I’d like to get away with less, but I’m paranoid to stop carrying the paper around.
About Tom Bihn Bags
There are some things about Tom Bihn bags that you should know. First, they are exquisitely designed. Everything about the placement of pockets, zippers, latchets, buckles and handles has been a deliberate choice by a top designer meant to benefit the user. There are no corners cut here.
Second, Tom Bihn uses the highest quality materials. Look, none of this is leather. If you want leather, buy a Saddleback Leather Company bag at 4 times the cost (and someday I might). But, the materials that Tom Bihn uses are best-in-class. That goes for the exterior to the zippers to the stitching to just about everything. I’ve been using these bags pretty hard for about 6 months and nothing has broken or given way in the slightest. One of the clearest examples of perfect marriage between design and materials (and quality) is the way the outside buckles work (on either bag) with one-handed operation. Simply elegant.
Third, you’ve got to spend the money on the Absolute Shoulder Strap if you get one of the bigger bags. I don’t think it’s necessary with the smaller bags (it might be overkill), but as you stuff more and more into these bags, they’re going to get heavy. The Absolute Should Strap will lighten the load by about 30%. It’s almost magical the way it works and I’m not smart enough to explain it, but I’ll never use another bag without this strap. It’s that good.
In conclusion, I like these bags a lot. I’m happy to have them in my life, and they’ve replaced a beautiful bag I got in Italy 8 years ago. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve moved from from the nostalgic to the practical. Perhaps one day I’ll switch back, but for now, these bags are my “daily drivers” and they come with my no-reservation recommendation.
Posted by Victor Medina
*Note: It seems to be in good taste these days to tell people when you’ve been given things for free. Tom Bihn sent me these bags for free and without any promise about what my review would say, and without asking for them back. By now, I either have enough credibility with you for you to believe this is my honest opinion and a trustworthy review, or you think I’m a shill who can be bought for cheap. I hope it’s the former, but I’ll understand if it’s not. Disclaimer over.