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 – Uni Kuru Toga Roulette

I’ve previously looked at one of the most liked (and according the to the Wirecutter the best) recent mechanical pencils, the UniBall Kuru Toga; I was under whelmed. Recently I was able to get a hold of the upgraded version, the Roulette. Is it worth the upgrade? Should you skip the regular model and get this one? Let’s take a look.

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The back end of the pencil is a plastic and metal lead advancer; it works and doesn’t dig into the skin. There is a rubberized ring around it for reasons I don’t quite understand. Removing the advancer reveals a super tiny eraser that won’t last long but does indeed erase. Below that is a clip, which is fit onto the barrel in a way that would allow removal, but with difficulty. Japan is stamped into the side of the clip, and the name and size of the pencil is written on the barrel just beneath the clip. The barrel is plain until one gets to the section, which is metal and extended, the bottom half is knurled, but not aggressively so; it provides a good grip. There is a small hole in the grip that allows one to see the fact that the pencils mechanism is turning (but no the mechanism itself). Down from that is a tip very similar to the regular Kuru Toga, but extended is some ways. On this model this oddly designed step down cap is still not necessary, but covers up an otherwise ugly portion.

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Now on to the part everybody loves, the mechanism. I mentioned that I was under-whelmed by this previously, and I still am, but I know why now. The window in the grip section allowed me to see clearly when the mechanism was turning and when it wasn’t. And while it was possible to do this in the cheaper versions I was a bit harder to see. The mechanism itself by the way, as far as I can tell, is identical in both pencils, but there is no way to open them and find out exactly without possibly rendering them inoperable. But the answer to when the mechanism was turning when I was writing with the pencil was… never. I tested it, the mechanism works, it just never moves when “I” write with it. My writing, and drawing, are much too light to get it to rotate the lead, and thus I never see the affects. The packaging (for the inexpensive one, my roulette came in all Japanese packaging) says that the mechanism helps with the point of the pencil, and to prevent breakage. I really have never had a problem with either of these things, partly because I flail the pencil around compulsively when writing and drawing, and that rotates it such that my lead is always at a point. Now I guess I know that I write far too lightly to have a problem with breakage. But man, if I write lightly, some people must really press down on the things. So yes, it works flawlessly, but if you write like I do it isn’t really a selling point. And finally I wouldn’t worry about the mechanism wearing out, it is extremely well made and there have been no complaints about such a thing occurring, so if it does by that time you’d be able to just get a new one, it’s popularity means it likely isn’t going anywhere.

So, it is a good pencil? Yes. Is it worth the money for the upgraded version? Yes, even without the mechanism. The pencil is solid, well made, and solves the comfort issues I had with the less expensive version. The weight is good, the feel is good, the metal gives one a good grip and the writing is nice and fine. And if one does press hard enough to activate the mechanism I’ve heard nothing but good things. I wouldn’t take it over my Graphgear, but that’s just personal preference. I like the thinner body a little better on that one. So if you write with a lot of pressure, the Kuru Toga is the pencil for you, if you don’t you have other equally good options within the price range in my opinion. Even then it’s definitely worth a look.