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Gear Review: Tom Bihn Tri-Star

It’s been two years since Brad posted a review of the Tom Bihn Tri-Star.. I guess it’s now my turn.

I’m going to cut right the verdict—this is a great bag. It is so versatile that almost anyone who wants to travel one-bag style would probably find this bag easy to use.

Slightly smaller than maximum carry-on size (19” x 13” x 8”) and weighting 3 lbs, 6 oz, the three compartment Tri-Star can be used for both business and leisure travel.

It’s refined look will have most people thinking it’s an oversized laptop bag. By using the middle compartment for “work” and the two end compartments for your “stuff,” the Tri-star will allow you to go from plane to meeting without a stop at your hotel.

For leisure travelers, it allows you to  stay organized and compartmentalized so you don’t have to go rummaging through everything to find that extra camera battery.

Made of 1050 denier ballistic nylon and lined with lightweight Dyneema nylon, the Tri-Star has both #10 and #8 waterproof zippers.

A true convertible bag, the hidden backpack straps include a sternum strap and can accomodate an optional waist belt. (I also use this compartment to hold a foldable light jacket.)

The padded backpack straps make it comfortable to carry for  a long walk although it’s doubtful you’d walk into a business meeting that way. So, you have two other options: the padded handles or the optional Absolute Strap. (I have a chronically sore shoulder and find it hard to carry most bags using it. However, with the Absolute Strap I seem to be able to carry everything pain free.) There are handles on three sides of the bag helping to make it easy to put in and take out of overhead storage  bins. 

Let’s take a look at the bag section by section:

The front of the bag has four zippered compartments. On the left are three vertical compartments that go from their zipper closure to the bottom of the bag. These are great for thinner items like keys, magazines, newspapers, a book, 3-1-1 bag , etc.

The zipper on the right can accommodate a water bottle but can also be used for storage as well.

When the bag is full, don’t expect too much give from these pockets.

The front section has an optional zipper that will split the bag into two compartments: one taking up 2/3 and the other 1/3. In this photo you see the medium sized Tom Bihn Tri-Star packing cube and a Tom Bihn Quarter Cube. (The small Tri-Star packing cube is cut to fit into the right side section but I prefer the two-sided quarter cube. One side for toiletries, the other side for my laundry kit. I could also add a small Tom Bihn pouch and connect it to one of the “o” rings. (Be careful if you use the dividing zipper. I was a little too rough and it ripped the first week I owned the bag. As I don’t use it, it wasn’t a problem for me.)

The medium sized cube in this photo is holding my undies, socks and a t-shirt.

This section zips down on three sides with the top capable of folding flat making for easy packing.

The rear compartment is meant for larger clothes. Here is the large size Tom Bihn packing cube holding 4 shirts and a sweater held down by the included luggage straps.Underneath the pack is an additional pair of pants. This section also opens on three sides for easy packing. 

 The Center section is the hardest to photograph as it only zips down halfway to prevent items from falling out. This section is my office/technology section. 

The center section also has clips to attach a Tom Bihn Brain Cell. These are computer sleeves that come in different sizes depending on your computer. 

Currently, since I want to travel with only one bag, I put my Tom Bihn Large Cafe bag into the certain section as well as a Tom Bihn 3D clear cube with all those miscellaneous items.

And here’s where it proves you can’t go by size alone to see if something will work for you. In the case, size does matter. I like to pack my day bag into my main carry-on for travel days. This way I only have to be concerned with one bag while traveling.

I thought the Large Cafe Bag would be perfect for this. However, there is one drawback to trying to pack it. The strap. I ordered the larger, heavier, Absolute strap—which is wonderful—but it can’t be detached. So, that strap takes up too much room. I will continue to use the Large Cafe Bag as a day bag at  home. 

Since a tablet is in my near future, I may have to substitute a different day bag. I’m thinking the Tom Bihn Ristretto. Not only will it fit my needs for what it can hold, the strap is removable. No need for two Absolute Straps. I can use the Absolute Strap from the Tri-Star to carry the Ristretto when my main bag is at my hotel. I’d take the included standard strap should the Ristretto not be that heavy.  (I’ll have to talk to the good folks at Tom Bihn to see what they think about this idea. I’ll let you know.)

One other thing. “O” rings. These are tiny round rings sewn into all of Tom Bihn bags. They are great. You can attach pouches, keys, packs, etc and they won’t fall out. There are plenty of them all over the bag. 

Now, what about the cons…well….there just aren’t  that many. If you pack too much, the bag will go over the 8” side. (I got mine up to nearly 9.5” by really trying.)

All in all, the Tom Bihn Tri-star is excellent for those who take short business trips and want to pack light, for leisure travelers looking for a smaller than maximum carry-on size case and still want quality, and anyone else wanting to go from maximum to less than maximum in carry on size. 

It may seem that I use a lot of Tom Bihn products. Guilty as charged. They’re high quality, made in America, and are  from a company that offers terrific customer service. I’ve been a paying customer for years. 

The Tom Bihn Tri-Star goes for $270. A set of Tri-Star packing cubes (L,M,S) will set you back an additional $55 but weigh only 10 oz. The three sized packing cubes come with a mesh top. The smaller size is also available in all fabric for shoes or anything else you wanted to keep separate.

For more photos and color choices, go to the Tri-star page on the Tom Bihn website.


(Frank II)

Tom Bihn supplied all accessories discussed in this review. I purchased the actual Tri-Star awhile ago with my hard earned weekly allowance. 

















Reader Comments (20)

Thanks for the nice review, Frank. Well done. Three things I'd like to ask. You say by really trying you got it to 11" deep. That's impressive. I suppose that means 11" at the deepest extension, most likely a central bulge. Correct? Or is the bag's material so elastic that it expands overall to 11 inches?

Thinking about it, it seems an elastic material like that would actually be quite smart. It could even be an elastic band all around the bag. This would work as a compression strap and it would keep the bag only as big as it has to be to hold the contents So to say a springloaded bag. :)

The second thing is the depth of the compartments. On the TB site they put a really big looking pair of shoes in the front compartment. But they don't show how it looks closed with the pair of shoes in it. Can you put a pair of your shoes in there? If so, what size are they, if you don't mind me asking?
Also, how well does a suit jacket pack?

Finally, can the backpack straps be detached. It would be really nice to make them completely detachable. This way one could use the compartment even for papers and things that have to stay flat and one wouldn't have to carry the added weight when one doesn't use them anyway.

It doesn't look like there is a slip-through feature to have the Tristar ride on a wheelie. Is there? That could possibly be integrated into the strap compartment.
July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTill
1) I actually made a mistake. It's not 11". It's really 9 1/2". When I measure a bag, I put one side against a wall and measure out. However, this time, the pad of the Absolute Strap was between the wall and bag and I didn't know it. That added the extra room.

When I tried to close the bag at even 9 1/2 inches it was a struggle. Ballistic nylon doesn't tend to bulge out the way Cordura does. It stays pretty much intact and keeps its shape. When you overpack a section of the Tri-star it tends to bulge inward taking up space from another compartment.

2) I wear size 11 1/2 shoes. The shoes fit fine but the section divider bulges into the center section taking up some of it's room. I only packed a jacket once, and that was just to see if I could do it. It can be done, but the jacket has to be folded a little more than normal. Very large sizes probably wouldn't work too well. (I used the inside out packing method but had to fold the jacket in thirds vertically. )

3) The backpack straps are not detachable. That would add more weight. And no, there is no roller sleeve because the bag was designed for one bag travel. It's too big to count as a personal item. So, if you know you have to check one bag, why bring a second bag of the same size. You might was well just check a larger bag.

The center section is meant to be the "business" portion of the bag. They even sell a "Freudian Slip" that fits in that section to keep papers and other office items neat and organized.

The Tri-Star's slightly smaller sister, the Western Flyer, comes with either hidden backpack straps or a roller sleeve. That would make more sense than a roller and a Tri-star.

I'll be honest. If you're packing a suit, an extra pair of shoes and using the center section for a computer and other "business" needs, then this is an overnight or two night bag. Lose the suit and you could pack an extra couple of days worth of clothes. Drop down to a netbook or tablet, and do laundry along the way and the travel time becomes unllimited. Even with the second pair of shoes.
July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrank II--Editor
Thank you Frank. While many tout the Western Flyer (WF), I think the Tristar can do more even though it is not that much larger than the WF. Excellent review.
July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlan
REI makes a sleeve that will also fit this bag:

It can take a shoulder strap and has pockets for papers and cords.

I had an earlier version of this and I liked it. A good solution if you want to take one and only one bag, and still have a computer bag for work. It is more of a laptop bag than a day bag though.
July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCindy H
It's a nice bag. My wife lived out of one for a week in Australia. (I'm borrowing it for a European trip later this year.)

The only drawbacks are the lack of the pass-thru, but the Air Boss doesn't have one either and we have used both bags on top of a roller, and the main compartments are a little small for the big folder that I use.
July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert
I think of my Tri-Star as a computer bag on steroids. If it were a max sized carry on it would be my only bag. My only complaint with the Tri-Star is the limited functionality of the three front pockets. With my Kindle, inside the Amazon case, in the tallest pocket, the other two are very limited in capacity.

Maybe it's just me, but I think bags like the Air Boss and Tri-Star are replacements for a wheeled bag, not an additional second bag. On a recent trip with my 14yo she was getting lazy before things even got started and I carried her Tom Bihn Brain Bag and my Air Boss down the jetway and I was challenged by airline personnel.
July 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndy
Thanks for the in-depth answer, Frank. VEry helpful. :)

I think a review of the Freudian Slip, especially in comparison to the Grid-it, would be nice. It's one of the TB products I find quite fascinating.

As for the Absolute Strap, it has a padding of 1.5 inches? WOW! Doesn't look like that on the pics. Or was it doubled up?

Detachable backpack straps would add VERY little weight and it would be so worth it. The straps on my BB107 are detachable. They actually weigh less than the shoulder strap. They use quick plastic clips that fasten a bit like a seat buckle. Works like a charm. Heaviest I had the BB107 was around 7kg (filled with books and laptop). There was no hint of the quick snaps giving up. They could have taken more.
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTill
1) The padding on the Absolute Strap is not 1 1/2 inches but the way it was positioned on a slight angle pushed the bag out 1 1/2 inches.

2) I can only review what companies are willing to send me. It gets way too expensive to start buying things.

3) You can't compare the BB 107 to the Tri-star. The BB 107 is much smaller, discontinued, and was meant as a computer briefcase. The Tri-Star is a carry-on bag. and is expected to carry much more. And, according to your review, the BB 107 weighed about 5 lbs--also much more than the Tri-star. So the extra buckle did add some weight.
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrank II--Editor
I'm wondering how this bag compares to the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. Does anybody have both the Aeronaut and the Tri-Star who can comment on how they compare in terms of packing capacity, convenience, durability, and so on? My impression from reading separate reviews is that if you want to add a laptop, the Tri-Star is a better choice; but if you keep your laptop separate, it's probably more flexible to have the single large compartment in the Aeronaut. (I only own the Aeronaut.)
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew H.
Nicely done Frank! As a Tristar owner I appreciate the balance of your review approach.

In regards to Till's statement about the Freudian Slip vs the Grid I have both and I find the FS to be a office organizer approach. This is nice since the Tristar does not have the various pen pockets and various small pouches as well as the paper folder slots that are on the Slip. The handle/hook on it makes it easy to move from bag to bag if I am switching from a briefcase to my Tristar for Onebagging a trip. Also great for hanging up at a desk when I get to my destination

To me the Grid It is best for small electronic widgetry like USB drives and such but the bigger devices like phones and chargers make it less appealing to me...
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Mac
Thanks, Frank.

The added weight of the plastic buckles for removable backpack strap on the BB107 is probably around 1oz for all four of them, each having a male and female part. The backstraps themselves are, as I indicated, lighter than the shoulder strap. I thus use the backpack straps only. They are also easier to stow than the rather bulky shoulder strap when I take them off to hand carry the bag.

I think a similar solution could be installed on the Tristar making it just the better. I am sure it should be possible to find clips that weigh only 2oz but can hold 25lbs. It would be easily possible by using D-rings and carabiners. Not very elegant but lightweight and effective. Otherwise using similar fasterners to the ones on the BR but a bit sturdier should do the trick.

Otherwise I didn't compare the two bags. Just using the excellent strap solution as an example of something the Tristar could profit from. The weight of the the BB107 stems from its material which is much heavier than what TB uses. TB uses 1050D ballistic, a monofilament. Very good material without a doubt. Briggs Riley uses 2520D ballistic, three 840D monofilaments spun together. The weight is also explicable by the incredible detail and complexity of the bag compared to the Tristar and by the included padded computer case. I usually leave that at home and use a padded envelope as a computer sleeve.

Jeff, thanks for the note on the Freudian Slip.

I don't expect you to buy the thing for OBOW. But when TB wants something reviewed for them next time (free advertisement), I'd ask to also send along a Freudian Slip for review. If you do that is up to Brad and you, of course.

I also understand that the Tristar is not a personal item size bag. But that doesn't make a pass-through feature less useful. Imagine one travels with one big checked suitcase plus the Tristar. The Tristar can then ride on the suitcase easily making maneuvering so much easier.

All that is needed to realize that feature is to move the position of the backback strap pocket zip to the long side and install one more zip on the opposite long side. Many companies like BR and Tumi construct their slip-through pockets like that. It doesn't hurt the integrity of the bag, adds perhaps 1oz in weight for the additional zipper and gives you the option to use it as an additional pocket. You said you already use it as an additional pocket so you wouldn't lose that possibility. But you would gain some ergonomic utility because the pocket would now be accessible from the same direction as most of the other pockets.

I think some solutions are just so well thought out, and not patented, thus several companies use them and one would be well-advised to learn from them, if one is interested in making one's products more competitive.

For those interested in convertible bags, I'd also recommend looking into the Briggs Riley Travel Tote 224 from the Baseline collection.

It is within carry-on specs but offers 30% more volume than the Tristar at only 20% more weight. Thus has a better volume to weight ratio DESPITE the thicker material. Not to mention that it is only $200 not $270. The $200 includes a really nice BR shoulder strap. Add the Absolute to the TS and you are looking at $300. Which makes it 50% more expensive than BR despite the fact that it is direct sales only. The TS is made in the USA, the BR probably made in far east. But BR offers the better warranty (unconditional lifetime) and repair centers and shops around the country.

It also has the slip-through feature. :) Otherwise there are just as many intelligent detail solutions, if not more, on the BR as on the TB, pen loops, document pockets, water bottle holder, magnetic handle wraps, bright interior to name a few.

The packing style is different but if one knows how to pack, one can work with both styles, though some might prefer one style over the other. The BR offers more contiguous space, the TB more compartments.

If I were in the market for a convertible bag I'd seriously look at the TB and the BR. Though, I must say I find the features, cheaper price and better warranty of the BR appealing.
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTill
First, all 1050D Ballistic Nylon is actually a double weave so the weight of the bag would be similar as if it were a 2100D Ballistic Nylon.

You wrote: "I think some solutions are just so well thought out, and not patented, thus several companies use them and one would be well-advised to learn from them, if one is interested in making one's products more competitive."

But that's the opposite of Tom Bihn's philosophy. He has said many times he is not trying to copy anyone else but find his own niche markets. He wants to fill the void.

It's just possible that the people who buy the Tri-star aren't interested in detachable backpack straps and pass thrus. You suggested that a pass through would make sense if someone was traveling with a full sized suitcase and a Tri-Star. Well, the first thing you read on the Tri-star web page is: "Ideal carry-on travel bag for one bag or light travel". It's designed for the light traveler in mind. (And considering this is a light travel website, we won't even discuss full sized checked bags.)

Tom Bihn is not interested in mass producing his bags or becoming a major competitor to B & R or Tumi. He is filling a specific niche and wants to continue manufacturing his bags in his small factory in Seattle. I doubt B & R or Tumi is worried about competition from Tom Bihn and he's fine with that.

Lastly, as a proud American, I'd rather give my money to a quality U.S. company making their product in America rather than to a company who jobs its manufacturing out to some country halfway around the world.
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrank II--Editor
My only wonder about the Tri-star is the size/volume compared to a chief competitor: Air Boss.

To me both bags appear to function equally well, with the main difference being slightly more space/size/volume of Air Boss versus more utility from Tri-star shoulder straps.

And the size difference isn't even a bad thing. It is a trade. Advantages to different sizes could be listed. In theory the Tri-star can fit into smaller spaces.

My wonder is from considering the old idea of "measure twice, cut once" or "taste as you go". If you screw up and the Air Boss is too big, you can under-pack it to fit where a Tri-star can. But you can never make a Tri-star as big as an Air Boss. This loss of flexibility concerns me when considering a bag.

Frank: Have you ever thought about this flexibility difference? Maybe you've chosen a slightly bigger bag over the Tri-star before, or maybe you've never noticed the difference...
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterogo
One big difference between the two bags is that the Tri-star has backpack straps. The Air Boss doesn't.
The two are made of different material but that's really more preference than anything else.While I don't own an Air Boss, I've only heard good things about it.

I have numerous bags of different sizes, weights and functionality. I fit the bag to the trip.
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrank II--Editor
Between my wife and I we own four carry-on size bags, one wheeled, 3 not. All are different, so we can pick the right bag(s) for the trip.

Both the Air Boss and Tri-Star are great bags, but they serve different needs.
July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert
Do you really need the packing cubes with the Tri-Star? I know TB carries a set of cubes just for this bag and I'm sure the company is happy that you mentioned them. Still, for me, one of the biggest appeals of three compartment bags is that you don't need any extras, especially when there are tie down straps inside. The Tri-Star is plenty heavy for it's size as it is. Is there a real benefit to having the extra 300 grams for cubes?
July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKalle
The way one packs, whether it be packing cubes, bundle packing, ziploc bags or nothing at all is strictly a personal preference.

You're right, with a three compartment bag, it is easy to go without anything. I included the packing cubes in the review because they were sent to me and I wanted to show what was available. And...that's how I pack so it comes naturally to me to use packing cubes.

For those who like packing cubes and have some from other manufacturers....you can make them fit. I've used Eagle Creek cubes in the Tri-star before the ones from Tom Bihn were sent. You push a corner in here, you push a corner in there, it works.

But again, how you pack is strictly a personal choice.
July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFrank II--Editor
Ogo, yours is a very sensible concern. I totally agree. I have way too many bags myself. One for each occasion and task, a highly specialized collection. I'm a bag freak. If you don't want to turn into a bag freak, too, your approach is a good way to stay on track and the logic behind it irrefutable. :)

It is particularly true that taking a bigger bag but underpacking it is not a disadvantage, if the weight is very close to the smaller bag. I like to calculate liters of storage to weight of bag. That's always an interesting efficiency number. As I did above for the BR. The only disadvantage in a bigger bag that's underpacked might be that the packed things will shift more and thus cause wrinkling. If you pack well, that can be avoided.

Kalle, I agree with Frank, whether or not you use packing cubes or other aides is quite a personal decision. Nonetheless there are certain considerations that can be made. In this thread you will find many tips for good packing and some of the considerations that might influence your decision to use cubes:

I use cubes for things that can actually be compressed and I may use one or a ziploc baggie for small items such as cables and adapters. I usually find the ziploc better for that from a price performance standpoint. I do however use an EC18 folder and love it, though I normally take out the heavier of the two boards.

Selling fitting cubes is just good marketing. I think they aren't really necessary. I do own a big Aeronaut cube that is convertible to a backpack. One of the more brilliant ideas by TB. I use it in bigger cases and in very open cases like my A. Saks 21" bag. Works like a charm.

The advantage of having a tri-compartment bag that already has good interior organization features like the TS is that you don't really need the cubes. But need and want because we are OCD are two different things. ;) As with stereo equipment (a dear hobby of mine) it is not really necessary to buy all the stuff from the same company. Yes sometimes there's a synergy and it looks better and it's easier. But it's less exciting and the biggest synergy is in that company's bank account. I prefer to optimize for price/performance and mix'n'match.
July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTill
I always thought the tri-star was the slightly smaller cousin to Red Oxx's sky train. If RO's convertible bag was the same size and weight, I would've gotten the RO bag instead.

I own a tri-star and have never used cubes or whatever when packing. Through experimentation and through reading this site and Dyment's, I found that bundle packing worked best for me.
The ironic thing is that now my tri-star is too big for my needs and I'm looking to a bag like the Western Flyer. However, because finances are going to be tight for a while, I'm settling for the Goodhope convertible bag for my upcoming trip to Canada.
I do use cubes to organize my travel gear at home, so my old cubes haven't gone to waste. :-)
July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEsther
Ester, I agree about the Skytrain - I sent mine back - just too big for me. And you have a good point about the Tri-star being a bit big for some trips. I waited for the Tri-star to come out because I thought the Western flyer was too small. The Aeronaut was too large for me. By the time the Tri-star came out I came to an important realization: I can't carry more than 10% of my body weight because of a shoulder problem. So having more room in the Tri-star wasn't going to help me UNLESS I just used it to put in something very light like a coat. I'm short and the Western Flyer works for me size-wize on my back. My bad shoulder doesn't allow for using a shoulder strap - no matter how padded. Tom Biln was great in that they made a custom strap for me so I could use only one of the two shoulder straps. I tuck the one I don't use away and use the waist strap (they could do this for the Tri-star and Aeronaut as well). I have been trying to go wheel-less for years and the Western-Flyer is the bag that finally allowed me to do it. However, there are times I do wish for the larger area of the Tri-star - but I know I'd then get over weight for what I can carry. I've always packed "compact" but not very light. Because of this site you've helped me get my weight down. Thanks for the great review Frank!
July 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie

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