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 – Zebra SL-F1 Collapsible Pen

Earlier this year, my Fischer Space Pen Stowaway finally had the accident I was worried it might all along (the two halves of the pen became separated, and now I only have a cap). So, I needed to acquire some new small, daily carry pen. The choice wasn’t particularly difficult, my go-to ballpoint pen company, Zebra, has been making a collapsible pocket pen for some time and previously I simply never had an excuse to buy it. But, now that it’s in my hands, does it actually hold up?

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When retracted the pen is absolutely tiny at just over 3¼ inches long. The rear part of the pen is a cylinder 7mm in diameter and just under 2 inches long. At the top of this tube is a flat chrome finial with a simple chrome clip extending just beneath it. At the other end of the tube is a slight polished step-down that leads to a smaller tube, at the end of that is a similar step-down leading to a polished metal cone. Grabbing the smaller tube and pulling forward slides it out from the larger tube about an inch. This action also retreats the cone a quarter inch into the pen and pushes the point of the pen out of the end (leaving you with an overall length of 4¼ inches). Both of these cylinders are constructed of metal with a matte black finish applied, and the only markings are the word “zebra” written in silver near the bottom of the larger barrel.

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The retraction and extension method is a bit clunky and sticky, but it is very solid feeling and doesn’t show signs of failing anytime soon. The only potential problem I can see is that you need to be holding the tube that extends in order to write or the whole thing collapses back up again. The fine, .7mm ballpoint tip is, like all of Zebras refills incredibly smooth for a ballpoint while still having minimal skipping issues and providing a consistent and dark line (it writes almost identically to their standard refills for the “F” ballpoint series, but is a smaller, specialty refill). The extension of the pen is just enough to place it in the crook of most hands, allowing for it to be supported when writing, but the barrel/grip section, even for a lover of thin pens like myself, is small enough that your hand will cramp up over longer writing sessions (but this pen obviously wasn’t meant for that).

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If you’re looking for a pen that maximizes space while still being rugged and usable, this is a definite winner. The metal construction is hardy, while the extending feature is handy. It is easy to refill by screwing out the front cone (preferably when collapsed) but remains safely in one piece throughout normal use. The clip is very grippy and sturdy while not being sharp or prone to rip fabric, and its situations so near the top allows for deep carry with very little sticking out above to get caught or seen (though this is actually a problem for where I use it, as I have a hell of a time getting it out of the loop I’ve stored it in on my belt pouch. Something like that shouldn’t be an issue for most people). The writing is very nice and smooth with a permanence suitable to most people even though it can’t write upside down or underwater. And the price, while certainly higher than most ballpoint pens, is not going to break the bank.

Review – Tombow 2558 Pencil

The Tombow 2558 pencil was introduced to me as a “favorite” pencil, so obviously I had to pick one up. Still, when you first look at it, it’s a pretty unassuming thing. It looks like your standard yellow pencil, with something a little… “off”. So how is it different?

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The body of the pencil is very similar to your average yellow (orangish) pencil. It is basically the same length: 7½” including the eraser attached by copper-colored ferrule. Like most, it’s hexagonal with the information stamped and printed on opposing facets. This information, rendered in a pleasant reddish-brown, is more than enough, giving you: the company (Tombow), the purpose (for General Writing), and the hardness (HB). But there is something to make the body of the pencil stand out: it is slightly thicker than your average pencil, about a millimeter more in diameter. Just enough that one can tell it’s different, but if they aren’t side by side you’ll scratch your head.

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photo 3-63In practice this makes the pencil more comfortable to hold (more material means less hand cramping), and with its super smooth HB lead it really is a pleasure to write/sketch with. And this lead does feel a bit softer than I usually expect an HB to feel. It produces darker lines with seemingly the same pressure (and surprising ease), but that certainly improves the ease of writing with it. And the eraser functions well; it doesn’t remove everything, but it doesn’t vanish either.

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This is, as advertised, a very nice pencil for writing. And everything about it is well-done. The finish is nice and evenly applied, the wood is sturdy as is the lead, and the ferrule is nicely fitted on a step-down so that it doesn’t catch and is unblemished by its crimping. If you’re a wood pencil person (I’m not as much) and are looking for something high quality but still standard looking, this is a nice option. It might not be a smooth as a Blackwing, but it’s surprisingly close, and if I’m ever using a wood pencil, it’ll probably be the one I reach for.


 

Review – Moleskine Softcover Pocket Book

Perhaps I lose a little bit of “reviewer credibility” when I say that my main notebooks for years have been Moleskine ones (specifically hardcover pocket and large). I know they’re not the best notebooks in the world, and I am phasing them out of my routine (since I’ve mostly stopped with specific daily uses, and uniformity is less of an issue for a while) but they are widely available, simple, and consistent books of decent quality. That being said, the ones I use have always been hardcover, and at this (192 page) size I prefer the rigidity of a hard-back, but am I being unfair to the softcover books?

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First off, all Moleskines come with a wrap-around paper “package”, and I’ll admit, my book is old enough I don’t know where it went, but I assume now they have updated it to the same useless “reusable” packaging that has vague blanks about travel to fill in if that floats your boat. The cover itself is a nice, flexible (black) pleather wrapped around the book in a single piece. On the back “Moleskine®” is stylishly stamped near the bottom and the elastic band is attached at two points. The cover has a pleasant texture that is relatively even and doesn’t scratch easily, but does show the binding and attachment points underneath and impressions from the elastic closure. It also easily divots and is structurally weak at the corners.

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Inside is the same-old Moleskine stuff: a “belongs to” page at the front, a cheap ribbon bookmark (mine unravel more and more often these days), and a sturdy pocket in the back that I’ve never personally found a use for. The paper is a pleasant off-white with a nice smooth (but not slick) texture that takes ballpoints and pencil very well (if you’re using it one sided {so no 192 pages, as advertised}). With anything more significant you get a lot of show-through, and with fountain pens or markers you’ll get bleed-through. I find it pleasant to write or sketch on, and the fact that it’s acid-free means your work is safe over time, but it is fairly fragile stuff (I wouldn’t erase too much).

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In the end it’s what I expected, the same Moleskine quality with a cover that is more easily bent and damaged (I do care about how my books look). It will probably hold up to most types of use, but it won’t look pretty at the end (the pocket at the back does mean it maintains support for off-the-table use, though). It’s a fine notebook, with decentness all-around, from page feel to binding, but it seems like less and less of a deal as things progress. One can find books at WalMart (potentially of dubious archival-quality) that do the same things cheaper these days, and they might not have the same quality control, but they are so much cheaper. I like the Moleskines for their ubiquity and uniformity, but they’ve always been overpriced, and this cover just doesn’t do it for me.

Review – Mont Blanc Ballpoint Pen Refill (In G-2 Body) (Blue Medium)

In the past, I have looked upon the Pilot G-2 more favorably than some other online reviewers, but I’ve still never used one for any time beyond the review period, and it isn’t exactly a pen I would be recommending to anyone. The best things about it are that it’s cheap and well-built. So, of course, someone came up with the idea of combining those features with a better-writing tip. With a few simple modifications you can get the G-2 to accept Mont Blanc ballpoint refills, but is it worth the hassle?

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The actually “modding” process is pretty simple once you have the components. Remove the ink cartridge from the G-2 (obviously leaving the spring inside). Then open up your Mont Blanc pen refill of choice. These refills come with a plastic sheath to prevent accidental markings (and probably some damage); cut a thin, short tube out of this material and to slide around the refill like a collar. Then cut a longer tube out of the rest to fill in the space between the click mechanism and the refill (more detailed instructions can be found with a quick internet search). These two bits should ensure that the refill is long enough to work with the mechanism, and keep it straight enough to operate.

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In terms of usability, I like the Mont Blanc refill, but not as much as many others do. Comparing it to the G-2 is a little apples-to-oranges, since my refill is a ballpoint one, and the G-2 is a (gel) rollerball. While the G-2 with its liquid ink and precise point, could feel slippery, scratchy, and blobby, this refill is super-smooth and easy-to-handle. It is buttery, and much smoother than your average ballpoint, but that’s also its biggest problem. Sometimes it feels like the tip is holding you back, or you’re writing in oil. Other problems, like startup issues and some blobbing that are common to all ballpoints are present, but more minimal than you’ll find in pretty much any other pen. It’s a very good writing experience.

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If you want the nice feeling of a good Mont Blanc refill for a cheap price, this is about as low as you can go. The actually assembly can be a bit fiddly (there are a few places where the new pieces of plastic can scrape and lead to a sticky feeling mechanism) but at less than $30, even if you need to buy a cutting mat and hobby knife, it’s miles below the nearest Mont Blanc (and I don’t know any other pens that use the refills), with the G-2 still being a super sturdy and comfortable body for the refill to live in. If you don’t believe that Mont Blanc has the best refills ever (like me) or you’re comfortable with your Cross and Parker refill pens (also like me) then you needn’t go anywhere near this trick, but if someone hands you one to try out, I’d at least try it out.

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 – Rhodia Pads

I’ve been using Rhodia products for years now, and the way that I was introduced to them was their famous pad-style books. I got one as a gift and used it almost every day in school (only almost because I wasn’t taking notes with it but writing down ideas). And I’ve had a few around ever since. Let’s take a look at what made them so widely used and praised.

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The pads themselves are simple, and have very few differences between the sizes. They are an orange rectangle, with one or two heavy-duty staples in the top and 3 creases on the cover to allow it to be folded over the spine easily and cleanly. Both the front and back have the Rhodia tree logo, with the back one being smaller and above some of the book’s specifications (in metric and imperial) and usually a price tag/bar code. Inside there are perforations on the top of each page, and with the thickness of the paper and the quality of the perforations, tearing out pages is easy, but they do not tend to fall out with hard use.

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The size of the paper in each book varies, and it comes in line or graph versions (dot in the premium editions, and unfortunately no blank). The ink used is a light blue-ish purple that doesn’t interfere with ink or pencil, the line paper is a bit darker. The paper is vellum and very ink resistant, meaning long dry times but little feathering, bleed through, and page crinkling. Show through can still be a problem, but most ballpoints and fountain pens write very well on the paper with almost no side effects. Paints and markers such as Sharpies are where the paper starts to not hold up as well, but the minimal crinkling, and the lack of bleed-through is still a very good performance. The coating on the paper also allows for very smooth writing, but one might have to press down hard with less wet pens.

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I might have already given away my opinion of the books in the first paragraph, but they are lovely. The writing experience is super smooth and pleasant; the worry that one might have with other papers when writing with liquid ink pens in non-existent. The binding is hardy and the cover wears very well with minimal things to be problematic. I’m generally not a fan of covers that fold over the top of the book, but I make an exception here. They make great traveling journals, school notebooks, coffee shop list makers, etc. And they can survive both fountain pens and being tossed around in a backpack. If the styling was a bit more my speed I would carry one around all the time. Still they are very versatile, and for the smaller ones, fairly inexpensive.