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 – Tombow Airpress

My Tombow Airpress was presented to me in Japanese packaging, and, as such, I had no idea what it was supposed to do. Upon careful inspection of the pictograms, I came to a conclusion that was reasonably close to the correct answer of: it is a pressurized ink pen (so it can write upside down or underwater and such {think: space pen}), but it only gets pressurized when you depress the click mechanism. If or why this would be an advantage over regular pressurized systems I do not know, but the pen does come with a set of other features to make it more usable in the rugged outdoors and whatnot, so maybe you’ll get a greater value out of it. I’m probably not the target market here (my pens lead a very relaxed life), but let’s take a look anyway.

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The body of the Airpress is cigar-shaped, with a rubber coating, and quite short at less than 5”. An eye-shaped indent in the middle of the pen and six plastic flutes on the section expose the inner mechanism so that you can see a little bit of what’s going on inside. At the front, there’s a removable cone (which is where the pen gets refilled) that tapers down to where the ballpoint gets exposed. Up near the back is a plastic area, attached to which is a weird-looking wire clip (with a plastic end for extra grip), and protruding from it is the click-button. Sitting opposite the clip is a clear-plastic lanyard hole. The identifying markings are hard to find, with “Airpress” being molded into the rubber and “Tombow” “Japan” very minute in the plastic around the mechanism. Still, there is enough there for refills or replacement if you need it.

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The tip is a little finer than the average medium ballpoint and writes smoothly enough, though I do find it has a problem with blobbing or bits of dried ink on the end like many of the pressurized ink cartridges. It is indeed capable of writing upside down (or without gravity) and underwater (which also proves that the ink is waterfast) with no noticeable effects on performance. The body is rugged and tough (though I don’t put my pens through terribly destructive situations) and the rubber coating allows you to maintain a solid grip throughout use. The clip is quite grippy, with the plastic attachment having several ridges that catch as it clips, and the wire design allowing it to open to almost a 45-degree angle without deforming or breaking. (I haven’t “tested” the lanyard hole, but it seems to be fine)

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Everything about this pen is pretty solid. It’s easy to write with, easy to hold (it’s quite chunky and a little thicker than I like my pens, but some people prefer that and it’s better for the use case of this pen in particular), and well built. The clip and the click mechanism are both satisfying to use and the rubber is solid while lacking that sticky-feeling rubber can sometimes have. All of this comes in a very portable package at a decent price (cheaper than your average Fischer Space Pen), which makes it something ideal to look at for someone in one of the various “rugged” professions or as a reliable EDC (everyday carry) pen.


 

Review – Muji Hexa Ballpoint (.25mm Gel Pen)

My handwriting is very fine, and I always gravitate toward finer and finer tipped pens in my quest to jam as much information on the page as possible. But there is a limit to how small the tip of any given pen can be. Too thin a felt-tip will simply break, and ballpoints or Rapidograph-style pens will either not allow ink flow or damage paper. Thus, even pens on the smaller end of the possible scale are hard to come by (being more expensive and relatively user-specific when compared to more standard sizes), with .25 being about as thin as one can find. Muji, in its characteristic minimalist style, offers a gel pen in such a small size. Is it a worthwhile purchase?

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As with many Muji products, the pen is outwardly pretty simple. The hexagonal black body is a little larger in diameter than a pencil, and covered in a matte rubber that is only interrupted by two slits in the plastic near the front (for seeing the ink level) and a set of bumps with the slightest of step downs for posting in the back. After a brief clear plastic part, the metal cone in the front quickly brings us to a very fine protruding ink tube that’s about an eighth of an inch long. The clear plastic cap is also hexagonal, with an integrated clip and matching color insert that both covers the tip and displays the sizing information where it can be read easily from a pencil cup. Other than this, there are no markings on the item itself, as the label comes off, stripping you of all its information(in Japanese).

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Performance is good. The pen is comfortable to hold and stays firmly in one’s hand (though the material can make capping and uncapping a bit more “frictionful”). When put to paper, ink flows relatively smoothly. At this size of tip, it is impossible to eliminate all of the scratchiness, but a good job has been done of controlling it. Likewise, another problem at this thinness is that a pen will tend to skip more if at any angle other than perpendicular to the page, but this too has been mitigated. I’d still recommend you write as straight as possible, but it shouldn’t have too great an effect on the writing. I don’t have much information on the ink, but I can tell you that it dries quite quickly (I almost can’t get it to smudge) and it’s waterfast and alcohol resistant (it does bleed a little, but remains legible, which is good for writing and bad for stains). Its spread isn’t too bad either, laying out on the average page about the same thickness as a .25mm (01) technical fineliner (though, with my handwriting both seem very close to a .7 ballpoint).

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The pen’s a good one. It’s nice and sleek with a rugged body (I might be worried about the longevity of the cap. though) and a good writing feel. It’s slightly more expensive than a gel pen of comparable quality in the States (the price tag says ¥210, or about $2, but they sell it in the US for $3), but not enough to be out of their range. The tip is noticeably more fine than other ballpoints and gel pens you’ll find, but in my opinion almost awkwardly so (I’ve never been a fan of how gel pens look on the page {when written with my hand}), and there can be potential issues with the pen drying out. Still, if you’re looking for a functional and minimal super-thin writing pen (that isn’t as finicky or fragile as a technical pen) this is one to look at.

Review – Bic 4 Color Original Pen

For as much as they are almost “looked down” upon in the world of writing implements, and for as cheap a product as they are, Bic pens are very sturdy and reliable line-making machines, with newer ink formulations making them smoother than any pen in the price range seems to deserve to be. Their simple and effective designs have endured the tests of time, making the Cristal ubiquitous, and others, like the 4 color pen, an oddity many have toyed with and some people swear by. Is combining 4 pens into one really necessary? Probably not. But does it have convenient uses for those who still write thing down? Let’s take a look.

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The body of the pen is quite simple, with a retro vibe that probably comes from the design being relatively unchanged from its introduction decades ago. The main barrel is a light blue (or orange for the fine version) cylinder making up 2/3 of the length that begins to taper as it gets closer to the writing end. On top of this is a black band, which connects to the white top. This top section has a very “angular” molded-in plastic clip, a lanyard hole/rotary telephone dialer on top (rather intrusively), and 4 slots in which 4 plungers of different colors sit. When one of the plungers is depressed, a pen tip of a corresponding color pokes out of the front. Unscrewing the blue portion reveals that the mechanism here is quite simple: the 4 ink tubes (with tips) are situated equally distanced from each other inside the barrel. When one pushes the plunger, an ink tube is moved forward and bent via the barrel taper to come out the hole in the center, and a catch holds the plunger down until depressing another one causes it to spring back up. Unfortunately, the way things are constructed, the ink tubes are not replaceable, so if you run out, you’re stuck. The only other thing on the body is the Bic logo and “made in France” molded into the side of the white upper portion. It’s nice that it won’t rub off, but it doesn’t give you very much information to go on.

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The performance is decent. The inks are quite smooth for a ballpoint, and don’t cramp the hand too much, but there is more blobbing than I would like and some of the lesser-used colors (like green) often have startup problems from dried ink on the tip. Despite being a shiny plastic, the pen holds well in the hand. Being a bit larger than your average pen to accommodate 4 ink tubes, it has more surface area to hold on to and it isn’t slippery. It might not fit in some smaller pencil holders, though. I’ve taken a look at the more common Bic colors before, and they aren’t changed here. All are a bit more wimpy than I would like, especially the green, followed by the red, but they go down well and are recognizable while having the standard ballpoint advantages like being water-fast. The clip is pretty bad if you ask me, having almost no flex, but it will probably do its job.

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For art, this pen probably isn’t worth considering unless you’re challenging yourself. But for those that like stay organized with different colors in their planners, need a red pen and don’t want to keep track of 2 pens, or don’t want to run out of ink on the fly, this is a pretty good option. It’s got a nice retro feel if you’re into that sort of thing (understanding that it’s a little unprofessional) and even through it’s disposable, the materials are quality enough it won’t fall apart on you. For someone like me, who carries around 4 pens in 4 colors this might be a lifesaver. It’s not the end-all pen, but it’s a nice office-weight pen, designed to be inexpensive and get things done, which it does quite well at.

Review – Faber-Castell Grip 2020 Ballpoint

Sometimes the basic problems of a cheap ballpoint pen can just get to you. Many ballpoints have a round or hexagonal design that can lead to hand cramping or slipping while trying to write with thick, uncooperative ink. You see additions like silicone rubber grips occasionally as a remedy in the US, but apparently in places like Peru they have attempted to remedy these problems directly in the design of the pen. The Faber-Castell Grip 2020 boasts an ergonomic triangular design, with as studded grip and “smooth writing” ink. But how well does that improve performance?

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The body is a simple, translucent, subtly triangular-ized cylinder with 150 small rounded “studs” for grip evenly positioned on the faces. The cap is round, with an integrated clip, and it has the relatively unique feature of sliding “under” the barrel rather than over it with the required step down being about the last quarter of the cap. Underneath the lip holding the cap in place there is a slightly tapered cone, friction fit over the ink tube; this cone can be removed, allowing the ink tube to be replaced. At the back there’s a stopper that steps down near the end, forming a space between it and the body where the cap can be posted. Over this stopper, on two sides of the triangle, there is written material: stamped in silver lettering is “Faber-Castell” and printed on a label is the barcode, model number, ink (and pen) color, and “Made in Peru”. I’m a bit disappointed by that, since, even though it’s on the back, labels on writing instruments have a tendency to get damaged and if that happened you wouldn’t know the model to get a replacement.

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Functionality is quite good. The cap both caps and posts securely while maintaining the “lines” of the pen (the pen flares out ever so slightly in the back so it doesn’t match up as well there, leaving a step down instead of a {relatively} smooth transition). The clip is fine but isn’t very tight and it slips on thin material (its attachment point and the plastic it’s made of are surprisingly rock-solid, though). The ink is smooth as promised, coming out of a very medium tip (broader than I like, to be honest). For all intents and purposes it is the same as the other Faber-Castell made-in-Peru pens, maybe a little bit darker, and with blobbing being present, but not nearly as frequent as the other models I’ve looked at (counter-intuitively {usually wider tips on ballpoints leads to more blobbing}).

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It’s a very nice little pen. For my personal daily use I prefer something shorter and with a finer tip, but this pen is comfortable, easy to hold, smooth writing, and doesn’t slip. I also really like the cap and how it doesn’t expand the circumference of the pen (save for the clip) and is probably less prone to crushing or cracking. If they managed to make the clip a little better, and offered the top in a fine I would seriously be looking to import some to use all the time. So if you’re looking for a simple, relatively inexpensive, comfortable, and durable (the plastic is very solid feeling) pen, and don’t mind importing, I’d certainly give this one a try.

Review – Faber-Castell Trilux 031 (Black, Blue, and Red)

Some time ago I reviewed the Faber-Castell Lux (034), an inexpensive Peruvian pen comparable to cheap Bics or Paper:Mates. They were pretty decent pens but they had small, round bodies that could easily become uncomfortable (I personally don’t have much of a problem with the size, but I can see how some people might not like it). Their bigger brothers, the Trilux (031 in this case), have larger, triangular bodies, in an attempt to remedy this problem and provide a more ergonomic experience while still being inexpensive. But are they actually more comfortable?

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“Probably” is the answer. The body is a very rounded triangular shape (in green for the 031, the back of the package indicated different numbers are different color barrels) with a cylindrical cap in the back and the slightest of step-downs in the front third, followed by a quick tapering to a point. The step down and end cap are just for the single-piece cap-with-clip to be able to grip since it’s still round for some reason. Both the cap and end-cap (finial?) are color-coded to match the ink color of the pen. Printed/embossed in black on the side is enough information to identify the pen.

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The section is comfortable to hold: the triangular shape fits well in the hand (with a standard 3-finger grip), the plastic is easy to hold, being slightly less polished after the step down, and said step down isn’t an issue at all, barely being noticeable. The cap is post-able (I only mention that because with the triangular shape and round cap they had to go out of their way to make that so) and the integrated clip does a fine job but I would suspect it’s easy to snap off.

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The inks seem to be the same as those used in the Lux, which are fairly comparable to any other set of inexpensive ballpoint inks, with the red being on the darker rather than the lighter side, the blue being quite dark, and the black feeling warm and grey-ish. My set in particular is fine-tipped, and writes fairly smoothly, but with more blobs than I would like. When I first opened the package the red and blue pens worked while the black was dried up. Warm water and/or rubbing alcohol didn’t unclog it and I finally had to resort to using a lighter, which I wouldn’t recommend, but it did work and was likely the only way to get it to write as it is “non-disassemble-able” (unless you want to destructively disassemble it).

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In the end they’re a solid pen, and a comfort upgrade with their thicker section and triangular design. They’re not the perfect office pen, but they feel well made (even if the plastic feels ever so slightly less flexible and/or solid when compared to some other similar pens), they write, they’re comfortable, and are inexpensive. I wouldn’t be seeking them out, and with them being “Producto Peruano”, finding a steady supply in the ‘States would be hard, but they are an increase in comfort to an already well-performing pen for the price.