Which pens are best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
June 10 2004 1:53 PM

To Put a Fine Point on It

Which pens are best?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Your pen may be mightier than a sword, but is it mightier than other pens in its price range? To find out, I gathered over 50 different inexpensive (all less than $5, most less than $2), basic (not specially designed to be erasable, defy gravity, smell like pineapple, etc.) ballpoint, rollerball, and gel pens and put them through their paces.

There are, first of all, pros and cons to each type of pen that you'll want to take into account when choosing your writing instrument. Ballpoints, which use the same mechanism as a roll-on antiperspirant, contain an oil-based ink, which is relatively thick and pastelike. They are water-resistant and last longer than rollerballs (a typical Bic is good for up to two miles of writing) but tend to spot and can take a while to get started. Rollerballs use a thin, water-based ink, which means not only that they write more smoothly and with less pressure than ballpoints, but also that they blur when wet and smudge and bleed in the best of circumstances. Followers of etiquette favor them over ballpoints for formal correspondence. Gel ink, developed in the 1980s, is a hybrid of oil- and water-based inks: Gel pens are water-resistant like ballpoints but write with the smoothness of rollerballs. They're fade-proof and thus good for archival projects, but they smudge egregiously before they dry.

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Methodology

Since my testing pool was so large, and since people have such a wide range of personal preferences (thick vs. skinny barrels, loose-flowing vs. more controllable ink, etc.), I didn't rate the pens individually. Instead I designed six experiments to test how good different models are at doing the sundry things pens are called upon to do: write, certainly, but also stay attached to pockets, work when held horizontally, underline in books, be tucked behind ears, and not explode on airplanes. I reported only the notably bad (Underachievers) and notably good (Teacher's pets) performers in each category.

Test No. 1: How well does it write?

I made a note of things I found scribbled on the scratch pads at stationery, art, and office supply stores and strung them together to create a writing test for the pens: "Adriana Adriana Adriana/ it's nothin' but sunshine/ Lucy/ whose woods?/ my boyfriend sucks/ I remember when these pens were awesome/ my name is Michael/ nah no good for my taste/ I love Do Keun/ el autor vive en Connecticut/ art sucks/ she came upon me like a sorry sailor/ Is this worth 40 bucks?"

Underachievers
My ideal pen glides smoothly and produces, with only the slightest pressure, a continuous (skip-free) line of consistent width and density. Neither the Pentel Hybrid Gel Roller nor the Pilot Precise Zing came close to fitting that description.The Gel Roller skipped and dragged so much that, writing with it, I felt like I was pushing the pen in a wheelchair, hitting curbs and pieces of wadded up chewing gum along the way. Also, don't be fooled into thinking, like I did, that the Itoya Paper Skater will glide like an Olympic champion across your page. Instead, think about trying to ice skate on a rink made of paper. It would be tiresome and scratchy, and you would wish you were doing something else, no? Welcome to thePaper Skater. The Sakura Sumogrip stood out as a particularly bad ballpoint. It took a while to start up each time I used it, and when it did get going, its line was more gray than black, and it faded in and out. Also, when writing with a pen, I like it to sound as close to silent as possible. I resoundingly do not like it to sound like an animal scurrying around on the other side of a wall (the Pilot Neo-Gel) or like that squishy noise that results when I rub my eyes too vigorously (the Pilot Precise Zing).

Teacher's pets
The Pilot Precise V5 is the literal teacher's pet—just about every teacher, not to mention writer or editor I know, uses one. The V5makes it all seem so simple: Why doesn't every rollerball write with such a fine and easy line?(The Sanford Uniball Micro and the Staedtler Liquid Point 415 come pretty close.) The V5's ink also dries the fastest among the rollers I tested, which means it barely smudges and was thus favored by the token lefty whom I had try out some of the pens. The retractable and rubber-gripped Uniball Signo was my preferred gel pen; it glides like a dream and produces a handsome, reliable line. The Pilot P-700 is a close second, though I docked points for the ugliness of its marbleized barrel. As for the cheapest no-frills ballpoints, I have a soft spot for the Bic Round Stic, which creates a richer, denser black line than the Papermate Write Bros.Of refillable (and thus slightly more expensive) ballpoint models, my favorites—for smoothness of writing, comfort, and blackness of line—were the Pilot Easy Touch, the Papermate Widemate, and the Itoya Xenon.

Test No. 2: How well does it stay attached to things?

I stuck each pen in the pocket at the side of my pants with the clip gripping the outside of the pocket. Then I assessed how long the pen stayed put as I kneeled, sat in a Goldilocks-worthy assortment of chairs, squatted, ran down a flight of stairs, and bounded back up. Sometimes I threw in a jumping jack. If anyone happened to pass by, I shot him or her an intimidating look, the upshotof which was I'm working.

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