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.


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?"

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.

A related and far more dignified test was to determine how easily different caps came off by going through the day with all my pens thrown at the bottom of my bag. For one week I subjected the bag to its usual abuse and each night shook out its contents to see which caps had left their pens to leak and/or dry up.

The clips on pretty much all of the pen models made by Papermate (the Clear Point,Write Bros.,andWidemateamong them)tend not to be very strong; they were regularly among the first to lose their grip. Sanford Uniball clips also quickly got bent out of shape. The Sakura Gelly Roll, Uniball Gel Grip,andPentel Hybrid Gel Roller have caps that are so tiny that they 1) don't grip well, 2) are practically begging to be lost, and 3) make it work to single-handedly uncap the pens they belong to. Meanwhile,at the bottom of my bag, the caps of the Papermate Comfortmate and thePilot Precise V5,which you may remember from Test No. 1 as the critics' darling (how quickly the mighty fall!), were among the first casualties.

Teacher's pets
There was something almost poignant about the reluctance of the Pentel Energel,Staedtler Liquid Point 415, and the scrappy Bic Round Stic to relinquish their grips on my pocket. (I get a little choked up just thinking about it now.) As for the bag test, most of the caps (except for the two mentioned above) stayed on despite my best efforts (tossing the bag into the air, kicking it, and shaking it, as OutKast would say, like a Polaroid picture)to encourage them to do otherwise. Of course the best bet for those worried about losing their caps is a retractable pen—all ballpoints but the very cheapest models are retractable and quite a few gels—among them the Pilot G-2,theUniball Signo,and the Zebra Sarasa—are, too.

Test No. 3: How useful is it for underlining in a book?

I selected from my shelves three books that I was supposed to have read in college. I underlined numerous passages and occasionally recreated a late night study session by holding the point of the pen in one spot on the page, as though I'd nodded off to sleep. I hadn't anticipated just how transgressive it would feel to be underlining without actually reading, nor how exhilarated I'd feel doing it to Derrida's Of Grammatology.

The amount a pen will bleed depends, to an extent that surprised me, on the type of paper being written on. Rollerballs, almost all of which had been well-behaved on regular printer paper, bled like crazy through the pulpier pages of inexpensive books. Gel pens—with the exception of the Pentel Energel and thePilot G-2, which virtually drooled through my copy of Tristram Shandy—bled far less. On the other hand, all gel pens smudged pretty badly on the glossier paper found in many textbooks. Ballpoints are practically immune to bleeding and smudging, but they require more pressure than rollerballs or gels to draw their ink out, which means that they are prone to creating Braille-like raised lines on pulpier pages.

Teacher's pets
All things considered, I'd recommend a ballpoint that can be wielded with a light touch, likethe Uniball Jetstream.

Test No. 4: How well does it write against a vertical surface?

I held a piece of paper against a wall and wrote until either the pen or I refused to go on, whichever came first.

As a group, the ballpoints performed the worst because they rely on gravity to pull their ink out. The Pilot BP-S and Bic Round Stichad particularly poor showings, eking out less than 10 words each before shutting down.

Teacher's pets
Special kudos goes to the Papermate Comfortmateand Pilot Easy Touch—the only ballpoints to outlast me. Rollerballs are pretty dependable, but their lines come out thinner than when the pens are held normally. Gels (with the exception of the Zebra Sarasa Bold,which gave up the ghost after only a few lines)are best for this task; if you have a yen to write your novel longhand and against a vertical surface, do it with the Pilot P-700.

Test No. 5: Will it leak on an airplane?

This is a test only for rollerballs, which, because they don't respond well to cabin pressure, will potentially leak big globs of ink all over the place if you uncap them on an airplane. I hadn't known about this problem until I came across two different makes of rollerballs trumpeting the fact that they were "safe for airplane use" (i.e.,guaranteed not to leak).With a sinking feeling, I realized that the other 30-odd rollers in my collection would now have to be branded "not safe for airplane use." I perked up briefly at the idea of expensing a plane ticket to Slate so that I could study the effects of high altitudes on the uncapped rollerball pen, but the desire to be thought of as non-delusional by my editor got the best of me, and I outsourced this part of the testing to someone flying for a reason other than to see what would happen to her pens.

Shaking his head sadly, like a preschool teacher who has to report to a parent about a child's misbehavior, my deputy informed me that the Bic Roller Grip embarrassed itself with a messy accident on both of the flights he took. The Pilot V Ball also leaked, though on only one flight, which shows how unpredictable the problem can be. Neither the Zebra Roller 2000 nor the Uniball Vision leaked, but the former wrote more thickly and the latter with a much more wan line than at ground level.

Teacher's pets
Of the two rollerballs that are specially designed for airplane use (neither of which leaked on the test flights), the Uniball Vision Elite (not to be confused with the plain old Vision) is by far the preferable pen. The other, the Pilot Precise Zing,whose unfortunate barrel design looks like ink has been smudged all over it, writes so unpleasantly—noisily and scratchily and jumpily—on the ground that I'd rather run the risk that my pen would leak on an airplane than have to use this pen at all.

Test No. 6: How versatile is it?

In other words, what can it do for you when you're not actually writing? Does it twiddle well when you're gazing at a blank page? Does it tuck comfortably behind your ear when you want to keep it handy? Does it do the trick when you need to keep your hair out of your face and can't find a rubber band? Is it good to chew on?N.B.: I did not take into account a pen's usefulness in removing ear wax (thanks, though, to the friend who proposed this area of inquiry and whose pens I will try to remember not to borrow) or follow through on my mother's repeated suggestions that I test how well different pens would serve as weapons (thanks, though, Mom).

The Pentel RSVP ballpoint was too heavy and long to sit comfortably in my hand while I was writing, let alone put behind my ear or twiddle. The Zeb Roller 2000,a stocky brown pen with a black band around its cap, looks like a potato wearing headphones,and the yellow and black Staedtler Liquid Point,which looks like the costumes once favored by Stryper,is ugly enough that I would recommend against wearing it on your person.

Teacher's pets
Capped models make better hair clips (the discreet all-blackSanford Uniballgoes with any outfit)because you don't have to worry about pushing down the pen point and marking up your scalp. The Bic Round Stic cap, meanwhile, tastes the best to me, which is to say the least conspicuously like treated plastic. But, as we all know, you really shouldn't chew your pens.

Recap (as it were)

Standout ballpoints: Pilot Easy Touch, Papermate Widemate(for general writing and writing on a vertical surface),Itoya Xenon (for general writing), Bic Round Stic(for general writing, staying put, chewing).

Standout rollerballs: Pilot Precise V5 (for general writing),Staedtler Liquid Point (for general writing and staying put),Sanford Uniball Micro (for general writing and hair accessorizing),Uniball Vision Elite(for airplane use).

Standout gels: Uniball Signo and Pilot P-700(for general writing).

YiLing Chen-Josephson is a writer living in New York.