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The world may be going digital, but pens aren't going anywhere. People still use these little ink tubes until they finally give out. If you're going to use an object day after day until it breaks, then it might be worth putting some thought into it. After all, it's going to stick around in your life for quite some time. Why not enjoy that time?
That's what I figured when I started giving my pens a closer look. I've been using cheap plastic pens for years, but after getting myself into a journaling habit, I started getting annoyed with those pens. They wrote inconsistently, or they bled through the paper, or the ink feathered out. Even more frustratingly, my favorite pen at the time wasn't refillable. I hate creating more waste than I have to. It was time to go hunting for a better pen.
I've tried a handful of pens since then, and I've got opinions about them.
I'm using a simple 1-5 rating system to rank these pens and their ink fills. There's a lot of flexibility, but each rating is generally as follows:
- Absolute garbage. Barely deserves to be called a pen.
- Pretty bad; has notable issues that make it worse than average.
- Nothing special; it's not great, but it's not bad either. It's just a pen.
- Pretty dang good. Might have one or two minor niggles, but it's well above the rest in quality.
- A gift from the gods. Absolute perfection as far as pens go.
These ratings are absolutely subjective and you probably have different tastes from me, so read the actual reviews to get a better idea of where my ratings come from. I've tried to cover all the essentials.
Cartridge Ink: 4.5/5
I don't think I can go back to non-fountain pens now. The Metropolitan spoiled me. This is a fountain pen- specifically, the fine nib- and it performs noticeably better than even rollerballs. It takes almost no pressure to write on the page. If I tried to treat this like a ballpoint by pressing down hard, I might break it. Despite the tip being fine (and Japanese, so it's more like extra-fine), it writes more smoothly than any non-fountain pen I've tried. There's just a touch of feedback when writing. I wouldn't want any more feedback, but the amount this pen offers is surprisingly nice.
Contrary to popular belief about fountain pens, it's also been very easy to use. It takes pre-filled cartridges if you'd like to avoid hassle, but you've also got the option of using a converter to fill it with ink from any bottle you'd like. That can be a little messy, but it's been smooth sailing for me once it's in the pen. As for the cartridges, their ink is pretty dang good. I've had no problems with clogging or feathering (even on cheap copy paper), and it's been dark enough for my needs. Unfortunately, it's much more expensive to buy this ink bottled, so cartridges may be hard to avoid if you don't want to switch inks.
The body is a lovely metal with an accent section in another material- I'm fairly sure it's plastic of some sort, but I'm not sure. It certainly doesn't feel cheap. It's well-balanced for the most part, though it's a bit top-heavy when posted. The clip is impressively sturdy! It's hung on for weeks of daily use without complaint or slippage.
All in all, I can see why this is recommended as a starter fountain pen. It's surprisingly cheap for the quality (and if this is still too expensive for your liking, check out the Platinum Preppy). If you've never tried a fountain pen and want to, I'd definitely recommend it!
Normally, I hate ballpoint pens. They write on almost anything, but writing with them takes so much pressure that my hand is in agony before long. This pen is my one exception. It still takes more force to write with than a gel or rollerball pen, but it glides across the paper instead of scratching. It manages to feel smooth. The ink isn't pure black, but it's definitely darker than a lot of ballpoints, which is another plus in my book. It writes reliably, too.
The metal body feels lovely in the hand despite its rugged appearance, and it's definitely not breaking without a fight. I'm fairly sure that I could use this as a weapon if I really wanted to. The grip is rough enough to be easy to hold without making me feel like I'm about to shred my hand. With ink refills, you can keep using the same body for years to come. This is a solid option if you need a ballpoint pen.
Fisher Space Pen
Portability is the main perk of this pen. It's small enough to chuck into a pocket, but posts to a comfortable size for writing. I suspect that's a large part of why it's popular in everyday carry communities.
The Fisher Space Pen's ink is fascinating in its own right. Its pressurized ink cartiridge lasts longer than a standard cartridge while writing upside-down, underwater, and yes: in space. I've yet to be unable to write with it in any condition. The writing experience is comparable to the Zebra F-701, though I have found that it tends to write less nicely- it's almost clotted on paper sometimes, and it's not quite as dark. The versatility of the Space Pen more than makes up for the occasional ink issue, though.
Its body is impressively compact while posting out to a usable size, and it comes in a variety of materials and finishes. I went with the unfinished brass because I'm a sucker for a good patina. It's solid in the hand and pocket, and I'd feel comfortable chucking it at a wall if I had to. There's no grip to speak of, though. This pen is smooth metal (or whichever material you go for). That's not a problem for me, but I could see this becoming a problem in the tough conditions this pen claims to write in.
All things considered, I do think the Zebra F-701 is better value. It's a third of the price for a slightly better writing experience and an equally sturdy body. I'd go with the Space Pen if you need to write in unusual conditions or need an especially compact pen, but I prefer the 701 otherwise.
Zebra Sarasa Grand
This is my absolute favorite gel pen. It's solid metal, giving it a bit of heft that makes it a delight to write with. The ink is dark, smooth, and flows onto the paper like butter onto hot toast. It dries almost as soon as it's written! There's minimal skipping, no feathering, and no bleeding. Highlighting isn't an issue in the slightest. My only complaint is typical for all gel pens: as the cartridge empties, skipping becomes more common.
The body is glorious to hold. It's smooth, sleek, and feels like it costs more than it actually does. The grip in particular may be a little too smooth for some people: it's barely there, just a few shallow ridges on the barrel. I don't mind it, but other people might. If it's not an issue, then this pen's body feels like the height of luxury to hold and I can't recommend it enough. I might be in love.
I know a lot of people recommend the G2, but honestly, I'm not a huge fan. This pen feels cheap to me. The casing is plastic and rubber, but not in a way that feels elegant or remarkable. It's just a pen. Even the nicer-looking G2 Fashion series (pictured) doesn't stand out much. I've warmed up to the G2 after using it for a while. The body still feels cheap, but this pen writes more reliably then the other gel pens on this page. I've yet to see it skip or clog. While it's no metal beauty, the functionality of its fills is excellent. This is the ballpoint of the gel pen world.
The ink does take a bit to dry. My test pages smeared while I was working on them, and I didn't run into that issue with the other gel pens on this page. I can also feel noticeable friction against the paper when I write,
and when the whole appeal of gel pens is their smoothness, that's an issue for me. but the feedback has grown on me while using it, and I wouldn't say it's a bad thing at this point. It's just odd.
The G2 does write well for its price point. I've used far worse pens for the same price, and I'd gladly take the G2 over other options if I only had $5.00 in my pocket. It doesn't skip or have notable problems doing its job. I'd rather spend a dollar or two more for something that looks and feels nicer to use, but if you're looking for a cheap gel pen, this is a solid choice. It's better than average if nothing else.
The S-Gel is in the same price range as the G2, and I'd say they're pretty comparable. The S-Gel has less scratchiness when writing as compared to the G2, but the inks seem similar otherwise- I haven't tested the S-Gel enough to be sure, though. I found myself preferring the G2.
The main difference aside from scratchiness is the pen body. The S-Gel seems a bit more refined to me, likely because the spring isn't visible. It does still feel like cheap plastic. It's not as cheap as the mass-produced red pens I used in elementary school, but it certainly doesn't feel exceptionally nice to use. It's a body that feels designed to throw away rather than refill.
Pentel EnerGel Pro
This pen is nothing too special in the hand, but the ink is impressive. It's dark, reliable, quick-drying, and supposedly archival quality. There's a little skipping (typical for gel pens, so no surprises there) and no feathering. Writing is easy and smooth. As a nice bonus, you can swap it out with the Sarasa's refills if you'd prefer a hybrid pen. I tried putting this pen's fills into the Sarasa's body and it works perfectly.
As far as pen bodies go, it's okay. It's mostly sturdy plastic with a few metal bits. It's very easy to hold, which is nice. I could see it working well if hand cramps are a frequent issue. While it feels alright to use, it's nothing too special- maybe a bit nicer than most plastic pens, but it doesn't have the same feel as a solid metal or wood body.
This was my favorite pen before I started trying anything else out. I'll start with its positives: it's cheap, the ink is some of the darkest and most reliable I've seen for this price, and it writes so smoothly that people have asked me where to get it (you can buy them at the Dollar Tree in some places!). It's a fantastic pen for artists and it still serves me well when I need it. There's a good reason I've used it for years! I've got three boxes of these under my bed at the moment.
All that said, there are also some issues that led me to migrate to other pens. The ink may be dark, but it takes a long time to dry and smears constantly. It also tends to blot the paper if you're not paying attention. It bleeds through thinner papers, but that may be because it's a rollerball (and a wet one at that). One of its biggest problems in my eyes is that you can't refill it. This is a use-and-dispose pen. As a result, the body is plastic and nothing to call home about. The grip is a decent rubber, but again, nothing special. The only notable feature is the cap, and I'm sure that's just because it's a rollerball pen. Wouldn't want the ink to dry out and clog it, especially since taking it apart isn't an option!
If that all sounds fine to you and you want a pen that's both cheap and good, this is still a great choice. I regularly use it for art because I find it's perfect for sketch paper. It's a lovely wet-feeling pen for a low price.
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