Zebra M-301 (0.5mm)

3 Apr

This is a Guest Review by Ezekiel Golvin

Before I settled upon the Pentel Graphgear 1000 (review still forthcoming), I tried a couple different pencils. The Pentel P205, naturally, was one of those; it was constantly being raved about online. However, in Hyde Park, it was not available locally, which was a hassle, and Amazon textbook orders were so infrequent that the I was constantly forgetting to toss a new pencil in with the batch order. After becoming bored with the P205, I managed to find a local solution in the Zebra M-301 0.5mm pencil. It came in a two-pack, at a Walgreens, for five dollars. It is not a pencil without flaws, but at this price point, it is a surprisingly good pencil that can hold its own against the more pricey (and admittedly better-engineered) Pentel offerings.

Again, I want to take an opportunity to note that pencil reviews differ in some very significant ways from pen reviews. Since I replace all lead immediately with a consistent type and brand, this M-301 puts no different a line on the paper than my Graphgear 1000, which puts no different a line on the paper than a standard BIC crystal mechanical. Unlike pens, wherein inks differ both in type and formulation, my pencils will in general write identically under every scenario. This leaves the review to only cover constructed aspects of the pencil; I try my best to cover every aspect that I consider in a pencil over a long period of use.

One of the first things I noticed about the M-301 is that is a short pencil. Tip-to-non-retractable-tip, the M-301 is approximately 133mm long, as compared to the Graphgear 1000’s 148mm. It is also thinner on the barrel, a scant 8mm to the Graphgear’s 9.5mm. This leaves slightly less room for the hand when writing. However, the pencil is noticeably lighter. The metal aspects of construction on the M-301 are thin and lightweight aluminum, and as the pencil is approximately fifty-fifty plastic-metal, its heft is not substantial. I have never run into a problem of stamina while writing for a long time with the Graphgear 1000, but any burnout issues are almost certainly less likely to occur when using the M-301. Again, it is worth noting that the M-301 has a non-retractable tip; while this is something to be generally avoided in mechanical pencil, it is a sufficiently cheap and available pencil that I would not feel especially bad if it were to become bent. Unlike the Graphlet, I have seen the M-301 at a wide variety of local stores, and at approximately $2.50 per pencil (compared to $10.00 for the Graphlet) it does not sting the wallet.

There is, however, issue that arises from a pencil of such a short length. The clip at the top of the pencil, while providing a respectable grasp to whatever it has been clipped, is fairly long, and it will intrude upon your grip as you rotate the pencil to avoid a chisel tip from forming. This is a small annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless, and frustrations may grow as time spent with the pencil increases. It is not very difficult to remove the clip from the top of the pencil. The metal inside the plastic has a serrated edge, which grips the interior of the slit in which it sits reasonably well, but a strong series of pulls and wiggling will eventually dislodge it. As one may see, I have performed this action on one of my M-301s in the second picture below; it definitely improves ease of use, as the clip no longer moves into your hand as you write. Unfortunately, there is also a downside to removing the clip. While I have never personally used a clip on a pencil to keep it attached to paper or a pocket, it is exceptionally good at keep a pencil from rolling along a desk. Given the circular barrel of the M-301, once the clip has been removed there is only a small plastic nub at the top which prevents it from rolling away when placed on a less than flat surface. This is an issue I prefer to writing discomfort, though, and at this price point I think it is okay to let it slide.
Note the difference in clip areas below.
Writing with this pencil is fairly nice. The knurled grip, while entirely plastic and fairly smooth on the exterior, grips to the hand very well and provides a writing environment for a long period of time. I have had fewer problems keeping the M-301 stable than I have with the Graphlet, although admittedly the ingenious grip on the Graphgear 1000 provides the best hold of the bunch. The grip is also constant, unlike the Graphlet, allowing for that reasonable hold in a variety of different grips. The M-301 is a fairly flexible pencil; the pencil has a drafting tip which allows for fine tracing, and the cone that leads up to it is strong and stable and gives the pencil good lines. The M-301 is surprisingly handsome for such a cheap and available pencil; while a set of two is approximately the same price as a set of BIC crystal mechanicals, these are significantly better writing utensils and look the part. However, there are some overlooked areas of design. The 0.5mm labeling on the barrel is fine, but it does not beat the engraved 0.3 on the cap of the Graphlet, and whatever printing process Zebra used on the metal barrel of the M-301 left it vulnerable to scratching. After much time in a loose pencil bag, one may find an M-301 devoid of lead size labeling, which may be a problem. Additionally, there is no lead hardness indicator; this is not such a problem for me, since I exclusively use HB 0.5mm, but to others who might want to use the two different M-301s in the pack for different types of lead, this poses a difficulty.
The lead clutch on the M-301 is far better than one might expect from a two dollar pencil. While the advancement is not as fine as the Pentel mechanisms (approximately 0.9mm of advancement in the M-301, compared approximately 0.8mm in the Pentels in 0.5mm lead), it is very accurate, giving that same 0.9mm with every advancement of the lead. Note in the picture below the small difference in lead distance over five clicks of each pencil; the Zebra is shockingly well engineered. The clutch has nearly no cushioning, giving a very firm writing surface, and allowing for a very consistent and dark line. I enjoy a firm writing implement, and the M-301 is essentially as good as any Pentel in this department. I have never had an incident of lead slippage in the M-301, even after many quarters of vigorous note taking and many, many pages of dense writing and drawing. As a quick note, before I settled on a constant companion eraser, I did use the built-in M-301 eraser; it is exceptionally mediocre, and small, and good essentially only for fine cleanup of light lines. It is not up to the heavy task of erasing a large amount of writing, nor will it handle dark lead and a heavy writing hand very well.
Overall, I still prefer the M-301 to the P205. The metal casing is very good looking, and the constant barrel diameter, I think, suits the look of a pencil more than the swelling at the center of the P205. While there are a few flaws of the M-301, notably in the clip coupled with its short length, and its lack of firm lead size and lead hardness identifiers, they do not detract from a very good (and very cheap) writing experience. At $2.50 per pencil available at a large number of local stores, it is a fine addition to a collection and an excellent stepping stone from cheap BIC crystal mechanicals to the real world of great mechanical writing implements.
JetPens carries the M-301 if you want to buy it online: Zebra M-301 Stainless Steel Mechanical Pencil (0.5mm) 
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One Response to “Zebra M-301 (0.5mm)”

  1. Nancy Grant April 16, 2012 at 5:27 PM #

    OMG — you have gotten Zeke into this too????? Hysterical!!

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