Review – Pilot Opt (.5mm)

It’s always surprising how many innovations there can be for something as (seemingly) old, tried, and true as a mechanical pencil. The Pilot Opt is a fairy traditional and comfortably chunky mechanical pencil save for its unique advance mechanism. While a standard click-mechanism is available and quite usable (and necessary for retracting), there is also a sliding weight inside that allows the pencil to be shaken to advance the lead. But is this shake advance mechanism (that I don’t fully understand) a real improvement over the standard, or just a gimmick?

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The body of the pencil is fatter than the average mechanical pencil and relatively torpedo-shaped, with the thickest part being around two-thirds of the way toward the front and tapering down from there. Forward of this hump there is a (removable) rubber grip section and a metal cone, attached to which is a smaller metal cone that serves as a lead pipe. As far as I can tell, the farthest this pencil can be taken down by the user is removing these two bits, which gets you nowhere. Behind the grip section is a clear piece of plastic with a colored checker pattern (which is black, trying to mimic a “carbon fiber” look. Other syles come in other colors) below this, you can see the black tube containing the advance mechanism. Behind that is a correspondingly colored opaque plastic bit that contains just enough printed information about the pen and holds the attached spring-clip on a pivot. At the very end of the pencil is a(nother) correspondingly colored translucent plastic eraser cover, under which is a small white eraser that can be removed to access the lead tube.

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The lead and eraser are what you would expect from Pilot: that is, quite serviceable. The lead is a fine .5 and the one included feels like an HB. It’s a medium hardness and quite smooth, nothing to write home about but nothing wrong. The eraser gets the job done but like many mechanical pencil erasers is entirely too small (in my opinion). This is offset slightly by it not being they type that disappears easily. The push click mechanism is usable and gets thing done, but is a little underwhelming. And the clip is great, being smooth enough to not damage items but strong enough to hold on firmly, while the spring mechanism makes it easier to use and harder to break. But obviously the main attraction is the shake advance mechanism, which works as advertised. A good shake will advance enough lead for one to be able to write, though it might take two to get to a length most people are comfortable with. The advance per “shake” is comparable to the advance per “click” with minor length differences depending on some ethereal power (likely gravity and the external forces you apply). And the weight inside needs to reach both extremes in a short period of time with some force in order to advance the lead, this means that accidental advancement is a rare occurrence, but when intentionally done can be a surprisingly subtle gesture (though it’s still violent enough that people might give you strange looks). I haven’t had it advance in my bag, yet it’s always done so easily when I was using it.

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Without its gimmick this is still a solid pencil, though one could argue that its ¥200 (≈$1.75) price tag isn’t worth it without the shake advance (the same for its increased US price of $3.00-3.50) but even then it’s right on the line for the quality (though I wouldn’t get it without the mechanism because of its thickness). But with the mechanism it becomes a fascinating and usable utensil. The grip is comfortable, if wide, the lead and eraser are of quality, the clip is a step up, and the mechanisms work wonderfully. If you’ve been looking for a more convenient advance mechanism and other options like side advance aren’t doing it for you this is certainly something to look at. And while I probably wouldn’t have bought one for myself (it was a gift from my brother when he went to Japan), and indeed I won’t be keeping it in my daily use pencil bag, I had a fun time with it all throughout my testing.

Review – Kokuyo PS-FP102 Mechanical Pencil (.7mm) (DM)

In a time where a lot of companies are trying to re-invent the wheel with their pencils, Kokuyo from Japan has made a relatively inexpensive, minimalistic, and comfortable mechanical pencil. The PS-FP102 (Pencil Sharp {my guess from the website}) omits several things that could be thought of as standard, and uses that effort on a sturdy and comfortable design (that is, from what I understand, ostensibly for children in school). Is the trade-off worth it?

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The body is one of the simplest to be found on a mechanical pencil, being mainly a vaguely triangular-ized (at least the “frosted” versions are triangular) cylinder with a rubbery coating for the 4 ½” body. Sticking out a quarter of an inch on the back is the click-advance button, and five eighths on the front is a plastic cone, from which a smaller metal “lead-pipe” can emerge bringing the total length of the cone to three quarter inches. Printed (maybe stamped or adhered) on one of the facets is all of the information about the pencil (which seems like it will rub off in the future but has withstood use so far).

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The body can be unscrewed at the cone, revealing that the rubberized triangular barrel is just a sheath, and the cone mechanism can be pulled from the front. As far as I can tell no further takedown can be done and neither of these operation provide any real benefit that I can see beyond checking how much lead is in the pencil (through a convenient window {the view on my frosted black version from the outside is blocked}) and perhaps clearing out the front mechanism.

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Writing performance is good; the lead is a .7mm and presumably HB (there are also .9 and 1.2mm versions). It’s a bit too thick for what I usually like to write with (.5mm) but it is fairly break-resistant and smooth, which would be good qualities for a school pencil, and from what I understand that is what it was originally designed for. There is no eraser or clip (though there is a version of the pencil that comes with a stand-alone eraser and friction-fit clip) and instead of having to remove a back piece to insert lead there is simply a hole just big enough to fit the lead through that lead can be fed into. Once it has been pushed all the way in, it enters into a larger reservoir and will not likely find the correct angle with sufficient force to come back out of the hole. It’s honestly a pretty elegant lead-feeding system if one doesn’t care about having an eraser.

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The click-advance mechanism is very smooth and workable, but unsatisfying. The metal “nib”/lead-pipe at the front does retract and advance with the lead, neatly preventing any damage that it would cause but being a bit fiddly (it’s easily possible to retract the lead and not the metal piece, which is a bit of a strange situation). And the rubberized, triangularized grip is very easy to hold, not slippery at all, and quite comfortable (though not my preference), especially for hands just learning to write (it keeps fingers in the proper orientation). I must say, though, that it only barely resists rolling off the table more than its round counterparts.

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So instead of an eraser or clip, this pencil provides an elegant lead-feeding system, comfortable and chucky triangular grip, and a stow-away point. All of which make it a good fiddly-bit-free pencil for students, and with a slide-over clip and external eraser (the integrated ones are never enough) it might also be a preferable one for artists or in the office. For the mostly reasonable price of ¥180 (≈$1.55) it’s a solidly designed, well built little pencil that seems like it would last under a bit of stress and is certainly worth checking out if you want a triangular grip or to forgo the standard integrated eraser for greater lead convenience.

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.

Review – Pentel GraphGear 1000

My favorite mechanical pencil is the Pentel GraphGear 500, but its MSRP is a bit close to my usual ceiling budget for new pencils, so I was reluctant to pick up its “big brother” the GraphGear 1000, until I saw one for a good deal. There are a lot of upgrades and features the 1000 has that the 500 does not, but is it worth the extra price (it usually costs)?

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If I was to give an example of an over-engineered pencil, the GraphGear 1000 would be that pencil. The body starts out pretty simple, with the back half being mainly cylindrical and having all the necessary information printed on it. The front half has the (grip) section that is very lightly knurled and has 24 embedded rubber ovals to increase comfort and grip. The “cone” in front of the section that steps and tapers down to the “lead pipe” screws off, allowing the section to be removed and reoriented. A small cutout at the end of the section (near the middle of the pencil) can then be oriented over a scale of hardnesses that are printed (stickered) around the inside barrel to show the correct hardness of the pencil (mine was preset at HB). Then the cone can be screwed back down to lock in the selection. (Otherwise the inner barrel is a smooth black plastic with a matte finish that isn’t really intended to be seen).

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The lead pipe usually featured on “drafting” pencils is curiously absent when one first inspects the item. It can be found by pressing the clicking mechanism on the end, at which point it pops out and is locked in place via a locking mechanism on the clip. Further clicking of the mechanism will extend the lead (or, by holding it down, allow the lead to be retracted) and pushing the top of the spring-loaded clip will release the simple locking mechanism and cause the lead pipe to quickly hide away in the cone again. The clicking mechanism cap can be removed to reveal an eraser, which can be removed to reveal lead storage. Both are friction fit with nice tolerances. And the mechanism’s cap has the lead size (.5mm for mine) printed on the top for easy reading when in a pencil cup.

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How well does all of this work? Very. Everything is solid, most of the important parts being made out of metal, giving it quite a heft when compared to the 500. The clicking and locking mechanisms are smooth, quick, solid, and satisfying to use. There is no play at all when using the pencil, and it tucks away perfectly (when the lead is retracted). The HB lead it comes with is standard. It’s bordering on the hard side of HB, but it’s still pretty smooth, and from using the same variety in other pencils for quite some time I can say it is reasonably break-resistant for the .5 size. The grip is surprisingly comfortable and the rubber ovals hardly noticeable (in fact they might not be necessary, or may even make it a bit more slippery than I would prefer). The clip does a very good job of clipping (mostly because of the cutout and spring present for the locking mechanism), and it slides off with very little damage from its well-polished edges (my model has a chromed-out clip for extra smoothness and flair I guess) and it being the locking mechanism means the lead pipe will retract as soon as it’s clipped on to something, preventing damage. The eraser is the same as the one on the 500, and it does a decent job getting rid of marks while being firm enough to not disappear completely.

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With that multitude of features and solidness of performance is it worth the price? Assuredly. But do you really need all of those features? Probably not. This is a great pencil and I’m really glad I was able to get one (even more glad it was at what I consider to be a really good price) but it just won’t be replacing the 500 for me (at least at the moment: only time will tell). I’m not really sure what it is about it, since it’s got a nice weight, a satisfying feel, good writing capability, and it isn’t ugly (though my model {the PG1015} is a silver color with chrome clip and button and I wouldn’t call it the most handsome pencil in my collection) but it’s just not right for me. Still, it is an astounding pencil at a very good price and if the features I’ve talked about interest you, or you want to move up in the world of mechanical pencils either as a hobby or an artist I can heartily recommend this as an excellent next step.

Comparison – Wite Out Quick Dry/Extra Coverage/Super Smooth

Previously I’ve compared the two major brands of correction fluid: Liquid Paper and Wite Out. Back then I didn’t take a look at the fact that Wite Out comes in a few different kinds (but there is one that is basically “regular”), so I’ll attempt to rectify that this time. Now, the various “flavors” of Wite Out do go in and out of production, with the majors being “quick dry” (regular) and “extra coverage”. I also have a bottle of “super smooth” that I picked up second hand and surprisingly still works (it’s old enough to have the previous graphic design) but that type is currently out of production. How do they compare?

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Quick Dry – The standard of correction fluids and one that I’ve looked at before. Quick Dry is fairly “standard” in properties; it dries shiny and little warm in hue (yellow-ish). It is a bit finicky and tacky, sometimes making it difficult to get a smooth finish with multiple strokes. It covers regular pen, pencil and stray marks well (though it sometimes leaves a divot where the ink “repelled” it. But on darker lines like those made by Sharpies it only minimizes the effect.

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Extra Coverage – The other currently (easily) available Wite Out, Extra Coverage is smoother, dries matte, and is colder (and much more white) in hue. From my experience it layers well, always being fairly flat, even minimizing visible strokes. It covers pens and permanent markers with ease (though it’s still got that weird divot displacement thing going on) but doesn’t blend in as well with the paper. And, though I did no super thorough testing, it actually seems to dry faster than the “quick dry” or at least not remain tacky as long, but that could be because my “quick dry” bottles are older.

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Super Smooth – Being no longer available I have no idea what a “brand new” bottle of Super Smooth would be like, but I would hope it’s better than what I’ve got here. The bottle is old enough that it has a brush (not a sponge) applicator, and that’s not an asset since this particular type is very fond of clumping up. It’s visually similar to “quick dry” but more matte, and it doesn’t cover nearly as well (it just makes things look kinda hazy) forcing one to reapply it, causing many clumps and visible brush strokes. It dries much slower than the other two as well (maybe that’s why it lasted this long) and while it may be “smoother” in the technical sense I don’t see that as much of a positive either in the abstract or the comparison.

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If I had to pick a winner it would be “extra coverage” as the only flaw I see in it is that it doesn’t quite match the color of the average sheet of paper. The “regular” “quick dry” is still a good product but one I will be using less often now. It depends on whether or not you want the correction to blend in or completely cover up the mistake. But if there is one thing to take away from this, it’s that I now understand why “super smooth” was discontinued.

 

Review – Swingline Tot (Mini) Stapler

I’ve been using an old Swingline CUB stapler at my desk for years now. The combination of small size and standard staples makes it perfect for me, a person who doesn’t have to staple often. I also have the super small Tot-50 stapler in my pencil case, and while the size is good it does use a different type of staple to most other staplers. But now Swingline has a middle ground even between those two with the Tot, a stapler that is just about as small as you can get while still using regular sized staples. But how useful could that be?

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The Tot is about 2½” in total length, 1¾” tall, and 1¼” wide. These measurements are a bit larger than they could have been due to the rounding of the stapler body; there are no sharp edges on it. At the back there is a curved piece of metal sticking out to serve as a staple remover. It works fairly well, though unlike the standard “jaw” type it does have the tendency to fling used staples across the room. On the top and bottom of the main body there are relatively comfortable divots in which to place your fingers when stapling. And the entire thing is a sort of teardrop shape, narrow in the back and widening near the front before suddenly dropping off.

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Underneath is a small rubber “plate” (for lack of a better word) covering with a handy mark representing staples stamped into it (in the previously mentioned divot), though if I didn’t know they were supposed to be staples I wouldn’t have figured it out. Peeling this back from the nice little nail nick (it’s held in place with tabs in slots) reveals a small storage compartment with enough space for a regular block of standard sized staples, and enough space for (someone with smaller) fingers to get in and grab it. Below these staples is the general information about the product, save for the brand name which is proudly displayed on top. This rubber piece is fully removable, though it is a bit finicky to get it past the staple remover on the back both when getting it on and off. I can also say, from a spill on my desk, that the rubber seals well enough to be water resistant (but I wouldn’t count on it).

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As with most Swingline products stapling is as easy as can be. There’s a surprisingly good amount of leverage in this design and it connects pages cleanly and neatly together. Its use of regular sized staples and a mouth about as wide as your standard desk stapler means that it will basically perform the same function, with its only limiting factor being capacity (and durability since it is made of mostly plastic and most staplers are metal). My only general complaint is the top; it’s quite easy to open and hinges back far enough to make loading a breeze, but the tab that holds it in place when it’s supposed to be locked down is very weak and I’ve found it to pop open with slight provocation, or even without provocation at times. And that’s slightly worrying: I don’t want staples everywhere. But the spring holding it down is fairly strong, and if kept on the desk or in a case this shouldn’t be a problem.

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So, if you’re not one that staples often, have limited desk space, or want to carry a stapler with you but not special staples (but maybe with a bag or case) this little guy will work great. It’s small, easy to use, and gets the job done. It isn’t as durable as the larger versions (or its metal predecessor the Tot-50), but with care it will work for a long time (but maybe not as long as my CUB) and for how inexpensive they can be I’d say they’re definitely worth it (and they come with a box of staples, which is cool).