Review – Zebra F-701 Ballpoint

For quite some time now, my go-to ballpoint pen has been the Zebra F-301. I carried one around with me every day and have one in each of my various bags. To me, they are a very good compromise between writing performance, durability, availability, and expense. But recently I managed to crack off the plastic grip in my daily carry pen (in quite the unremarkable way, I just fidgeted with it too much and was popping the threads) and even though it is a problem that I’m not likely to replicate in the future, it set me on a quest to find an all-metal replacement that won’t have a similar problem. I’ve been fairly happy with other Zebra products in the past (with the exception of their fountain pen) and I ended up finding the “upgraded” version of the pen I was currently using, the F-701. This all stainless-steel pen with a knurled grip is supposed to be durable, elegant, and precise. Does it live up to its own advertising?

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The body of this pen looks simple even when compared to the already minimal F-301. A 3/8ths tubular body uses more than 4 of the pen’s overall 5 ¼ inches in length. The last inch or so from the tip is very finely knurled to form the grip section, after which is a stainless-steel cone with some cosmetic step-downs. This cone screws off, providing the only access to the refill or inside the pen at all, allowing you to see that the walls of the body are about 2mm thick. On the other side of the pen there is a highly polished clip in the bent-spring steel fashion with “ZEBRA” and “F-701” stamped into it that is joined to the top of the barrel with the only bit of exposed plastic on the pen. Above this is a clicker button, which is, in fact, a plastic plunger with a metal sheath. You can theoretically remove this sheath, but there is no reason to (it doesn’t give you access to anything) and it doesn’t look like it will come off under normal conditions.

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The refill is exactly the same as the refill for the F-301, which means it is fantastically smooth for a ballpoint, with a black that’s dark enough and generally resistant to wear (I believe you could also swap in one of their gel refills if that’s more your thing). This smoothness is added to by the weight of the pen, which is almost twice that of the 301, and it really shrugs off the common complaint that ballpoints require too much pressure to write with comfortably. I can write in cursive with one of these pens as fast and as easily as I could with any of my fountain pens and I get the benefit (or detriment) of that thin, precise line.  The clip is almost identical to that of the 301, but it seems to be attached more securely and doesn’t have as much of a problem with bending away and losing its grip over time (but this is still an area that can be improved: I wouldn’t clip on anything thicker than a piece of fabric). The knurling on the grip is superb, completely removing any slipperiness while being fine enough to not dig into the skin to be noticeable. This, combined with the larger size, will probably be good news for anyone who has cramped up trying to hold onto the 301 series. And finally, the click mechanism is very smooth with a nice amount of back pressure. Despite claims that it is “silent” there is still a noticeable click, but it is much less satisfying. The overall mechanism feels much more structurally sound and is nicer but ever-so-slightly more difficult to push.

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I would consider the 701 an upgrade in almost every way. It is heavier, thicker, and more expensive. But the all-metal body is (even more) rugged, and the feel of the writing experience from click to page is smooth and seamless. My complaints are limited to the clip still being a problem if bent out even just a little, and the habit the shiny metal body (especially the polished clip) has of collecting scratches (some people might also be displeased about the grip being not-grippy enough for them, or the body feeling cold/heavy because of its metal construction). For the price, I’d say this is the best you could do for a ballpoint, and I might even go so far as to put it up as one of the best ballpoints I’ve ever used.

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Review – Muji Portable Scissors (35mm)

Scissors are one of the most useful tools the average person can have at their disposal. And, until I began looking for a more “travel-safe” option, were the main reason I kept a Swiss-Army Knife in my pencil case. My quest for an option that was a full scissors without a knife attached eventually led me to Muji’s minimal, compact, spring-loaded design. But how well do they actually shape up?

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When the cap is on, the entire device is a 4½ inch cylinder with a diameter of a little over a half inch and a thin wire clip attached on one side. The clear plastic cap is about 2½ inches in length. It snaps over a small ridge in the handle, and has an inner cylinder to keep the point of the scissors roughly on track. When it is removed, the scissor springs open using a wire spring mechanism and the white handle portion splits into two (with roughly 1/3 and 2/3 of the volume in either handle). There is virtually no written information on the entire device, save for a warning in Japanese (which I can’t read, but it has a caution triangle).

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Despite only having to do two things, the functionality of this little guy is slightly underwhelming. The clip is far too tight to be useful in most situations, though it doesn’t have any sharp edges that might cause catching or tearing. And the default sharpness of the blades is basically tolerable. They cut paper, tape, and blister plastic just fine (so more than 90% of situations are covered), but they struggle with cloth or more cellophane type plastics.

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These little guys are probably the best set of folding travel scissors I’ve found that haven’t been attached to a multi-tool. They’re relatively compact, substantial feeling, and efficient, despite being unergonmical and lacking significant cutting power. Sometimes the spring is a bit overzealous, but it’s a convenient feature since there are no finger-holes and I like having a body that doesn’t feel like it’s going to shatter every time pressure is applied to it. If I could, I’d still probably want my old Victorinox (multi-tool) scissors back in my bag, but as a portable, checkpoint-friendly option, these guys get the job done fairly inexpensively and without having to fold out stupid finger-holes.

Review – The Fine Touch 3-Brush Set (1-,2-, and 3-inch Flat)

I’m not a painter, or at least, not very often. Painting is expensive, time consuming, and space requiring. But nowadays there are budget products that are easing the “pain” a little bit. Bopping in to your local superstore and buying a set of brushes with a canvas or two for less than $20 is incredible. And “The Fine Touch” is one of the more visible brands (in my area at least) selling inexpensive painting supplies, like a set of three 1-inch increment synthetic brushes. Do they really work though?

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Despite the common wisdom for years being that natural hair brushes are superior to synthetic nylon ones, they have made some improvement in quality over that time. I don’t know if the best synthetic brushes are better than the best natural ones, nor would I claim that these are better than any other brush, but I personally prefer the little extra “bounce” the nylon provides, and they’ve worked quite well for me over several painting projects.

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The basic structure is the same as virtually all paint brushes: a wooden handle with information printed on it (varnished in this case) shaped like a paddle with a ferrule on one end that holds in a set of bristles. Conveniently, these also have a hanging hole at the end for easy storage. Everything about them is cheap; the wood is lighter than the bristles, with brush strokes in its finish and burs on the drill holes; the ferrules are a flimsily metal (which will likely rust) that has either cracked or slightly splintered each handle in the fastening process, and the bristles have a bad habit of falling out during the first few uses.

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So obviously they aren’t “forever” brushes, but for what they are (cheap superstore brushes) they are entirely adequate to paint with. If you only have a couple projects, just want to get some paint down, or feel the need to ease into things you might not know you want to do “forever”, then they will work just fine for that. You won’t become a master using these, and you might get frustrated with the bristles in your paintings, but they work, and for just getting started, that’s enough.

Review – HŌM (Home Essence) Black Linen Journal (Pocket book)

Sometimes, my weakness for inexpensive notebooks does actually lead me to a bad one. In this case, I was aware starting off that the HŌM Linen Pocket Notebook was only a serviceable notebook, and just barely above the many unusable notebooks that one can find on the shelves at Wal-Mart. But maybe I’m a little harsh sometimes. How bad could it be?

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It’s a standard little black book: 3½ x5½, with 100 sheets. Most of the “luxurious” features are omitted (no pocket), but there is an elastic band attached via a grommet on the back cover. The cover has a slick “linen” finish that is easy to scratch but hides it well. It’s a soft cover with straight corners that get dinged easily. The whole thing is nice and springy, but the finish quickly starts separating from its cardstock backing with use. The whole edge is “gilded” in a neon color (mine’s green) that matches the elastic band.photo 2-66

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The paper is an off white and ruled at close to ⅓rd inch (which is way too big). The ruling doesn’t go all the way to the edge of the page (which I really dislike), and the margin is wider at the top and less wide at the bottom (which I don’t really care about). The paper feels quite thick, and the grain is pretty boring (it’s not slick, it’s not rough, it’s just… weird feeling). It performs fine with ballpoints and pencils (minimal showthrough), and it does better with fountain pens than one might expect, but bleedthrough is still present. Smaller felt-tip pens do fine, but, not surprising to anyone, it can’t handle Sharpies.

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This notebook strikes a few bad chords with me: poor (neon) color choice, easy to damage softcover binding, and wide ruling (I didn’t expect it to play nice with fountain pens, but it didn’t impress me). And the rest of the features don’t really make up any ground. It’s far from the worst notebook you can find on the shelves of your local department store, but it’s not really worth looking at.

Review – Kum Pencil Sharpener (Magnesium 1-hole Wedge)

For some time, my preferred on-the-go pencil sharpener has been a (older) Kum brass single-holed design. Recently I wanted another (it’s so tiny you might as well put one anywhere within reach), and, as it turns out, the brass ones are hard to find in the States (possibly because of something to do with lead?); so the next best thing was the same design, by the same company, but in a lighter-weight silver-colored magnesium alloy. At the price, this is a pretty good sharpener, but I’m also gonna mentally compare it to the brass version, which I do find is the superior of the two.

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The design is a super-simple “wedge” shape; a box with a slanted top where the blade is screwed in. On either side, there are ribbed divots for you to grip when using, and besides that there aren’t a lot of “features” (no shaving containment for sure). The labeling is clear and there is a little bit of “decoration,” but the whole thing is pretty bare.

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Sharpening is lovely: the contraption is as small as can be but still easy to hold, everything is machined well for precise angles and the blade is sharp, cutting through all the pencils I tried with ease. The points it produces are slightly shorter than I prefer, but that is a minor consideration: they are still well pointed and easy to use. Here I should note that the sharpener is very light, and feels almost flimsily in the hand. This doesn’t affect the function in any way, and the sharpener is indeed rock solid, but at about 4½ grams when compared to the brass’ 19 grams, it just feels feathery and unpleasant in my opinion. (The edges are also much sharper when compared to the brass version, but that might have to do with wear).

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If you’re looking for an inexpensive, no-frills pencil sharpener that gets the job done well, I’d look into picking one of these little guys up. They are hardy, usable, and portable. In some cases they’re cheap enough to be “disposable” (I got mine for $2, which is half what I was seeing them go for online), but they have easily replaceable blades for a guaranteed lifetime of use (though, in some cases it seems like the blades cost more than the sharpeners). And, even though I think the brass version is superior, there certainly isn’t anything wrong with the newer magnesium one.

Review – Maped Globe Pencil Sharpener

I’m a sucker for globes. I see a globe and I buy it. Well… that might not be necessarily true, but it was in this case. I saw a globe on the shelf and bought it. It was only later that I learned it was a pencil sharpener (and more expensive than the dollar I thought it was worth). I was actually unaware that Maped was an office supply company, but does that say anything about the quality of their globe pencil sharpener?

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With such a cheap and small product, one can’t expect a large degree of accuracy, and that is certainly the case here: Great Britain is fused to the rest of Europe, islands in the Pacific are comically uniform (and poorly labeled), Kamchatka is colored as if it is part of North America, and Mexico south is apparently South America. Beyond that, the actual quality of the product isn’t held to a high standard either. Mine came with a few paint chips and scuffs; while that isn’t the worst thing, it is very noticeable at the small scale.

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But, none of that matters unless the sharpener works, which it doesn’t… very well. Obviously, any blade screwed into a cone will sharpen a pencil, and this technically does that, but out of the box it is dull enough to tear at the wood, and the cone misshapen enough to turn the pencil tip into a fragile needle. Technically, it does sharpen a pencil (and I’ve had some “sharpeners” that didn’t) but it makes an ugly and fragile mess. The position of the hole isn’t much better, being in the “stand” part of the globe, and thus, pointing down, it dumps little bits of graphite onto whatever surface you set it on.

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I can’t really recommend this one, even if you’re a globe fan. The illustration is poor, the metal is nothing special, and the sharpener is of shoddy quality while being badly positioned. I’d only really get it as a curiosity if it was on sale for 50¢ or so.