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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) 

Excuse me, can I ‘borrow’ a pen or pencil?

29 Mar

We have all been in this situation once or twice (or 2o0 times) in our lives.  We are trapped on a pen-less and pencil-less island and it’s the day of an interview, a big meeting with the board, or a huge exam.  We turn to our neighbor, our classmate, our fellow intern with that deer-in-the-headlights look in our eye.  “Can I borrow a pen or pencil? I owe you one!”  That huge meeting passes us by, that scantron has long been turned in, yet the free writing utensil has somehow found its way onto our desks and into our backpacks.  Don’t try and tell me it hasn’t happened to you.   

The veteran borrower (or one particular about his writing tools–but not particular enough to remember to bring one along) scans the horizon quickly.  Hmm… looks like there are a few BICs in a cup on the secretary’s desk… I know Molly always has a spare wooden pencil on exam days…

First, let’s go over what sort of selection we are looking at exactly.  You need to take your head out of the inky clouds if you think your boss is going to just lend you his vintage Cross desk pen he got as a Christmas gift four years ago (even if everyone knows he doesn’t ever use the thing).  In reality, we are usually looking at something like this:

The infamous assortment of rejects. They were probably 'borrowed' to begin with.

Ballpoints are a go-to pen for lending out to people.  They commonly come in packs of 144 and cost less per unit than tissue paper.  You would be hard-pressed to find yourself in an office or classroom without somebody offering to lend you a ballpoint.  Lets break down some of the most common giveaways/throwaways.

I love the smell of ballpoint ink in the morning. Smells like...desperation.

Cheap Japanese ballpoints, such as Pilot EasyTouch pens, are a huge score.  Apparently in Japan, cheap is not a code word for horrendous.  Go after these whenever possible.  I worked with a lefty intern who always had a box of Uni Jetstreams in his drawer because he would get ink on his hands otherwise.  The next step down is a BIC.  The BIC Crystal was an easy office favorite but I see less and less of these beauties as time goes by.  BIC Pro’s are pretty common but people get greedy with them because they have the word “pro” in them (that must mean it’s good right?).  The most common BIC is the roundstick and nobody is heartbroken to have one taken off their hands.  Beyond that you have branded ballpoints such as hotel or corporation pens.  These are a HUGE hit or miss, but if they are in the reject pile you should assume the ladder.  Avoid staples stick pens like the plague.  They leak, they skip, and they go dry really fast.  Only opt for a knock-off BIC stick as a last ditch method.

The ballpoints should have most of us covered, but there are times that call for an emergency pencil.  For example, scantrons require a #2 so many are faced with a pencil dilema (or lack thereof).  Let me break it down.

You can't deny that this all looks somewhat familiar.

BIC crystal mechanical pencils are everywhere.  People seem to get crates of them at a time.  A tried-and-true performer in the clutch but be careful not to put too much pressure on the tip–the lead will slip back into its sleeve under stress.  PaperMate Sharpwriters have a classic look and that old-school twist mechanism at the tip to feed out the lead.  Unfortunately, the lead is so cushioned (the word that got smudged in my written review) that the pen is extremely difficult to use properly.  There is a laughable amount of play between the clutch and the lead, allowing you to literary push the lead down and use the tension to launch the whole pencil off of your desk.  Staples’ BIC ripoff is awful.  The lead feeds out in huge quantities per click, the lead is brittle and breaks frequently, and the system allows more slip than any mechanical pencil should ever allow.  There are always good ol’ Ticonderoga wood-cased pencils or something similar, but remember: these need constant sharpening!  The situation can turn from OK to frantic in a split second when you realize that your pencil tip is just a stump of ceder and unusable without sharpening.  Unless you have sharperners handy (and if you are getting to this point I’m going to go ahead and say you don’t), opt for a mechanical when possible.

I threw that sharpie on there last because I know they are very easy to find around the office for signing boxes and other odd-jobs.  Sharpies are good for many things but general writing on crappy office-supply paper is not one of them.  On the Staples brand 50 cent notepad (used for reality’s sake), I was already bleeding through three layers of paper with an ultra-fine!  Imagine what a broad would do to this poor chinese-made paper.  It might just reach through the whole pad.

So there you have it, the official papericide guide to ‘borrowing’ pens and pencils.  Let’s hear about your borrowing or lending experiences in the comments section!

Pentel Graphlet 0.3mm

27 Mar

This is a Guest Review by Ezekiel Golvin

An advantage of being past grade school is being the master of my domain, with respect to school supplies. With college came paper and pencils on my own terms, and after four years my opinions have become sufficiently developed to give to others. This is a review of the Pentel Graphlet in 0.3mm from the perspective of a mathematics student who takes copious notes and does the occasional doodle.

To begin with a disclaimer, my pencil use is mildly unusual. In my past two years of note-taking, I have not ever used the onboard eraser on any of my mechanical pencils (to which eraser I entrust the job to will come as a later post). I immediately throw away any lead that comes in a pencil and replace it with the suitably sized HB lead, almost always Pentel Hi-Polymer Super HB (although Uni HB NanoDia lead has recently been given a shot at the big time). I hold my pencils rather unusually, which will be explained further down. These aspects color my review, and as such one’s mileage may differ from mine.

The Pentel Graphlet is one of the better Pentel offerings. Personally, I have never been taken by the hype of the Pentel P205; while the mechanisms of the pen are quite good, I find the styling dull and the all-plastic body a bit low-rent. It is certainly not a bad pencil; I just consider any mechanical pencil better than the P205 to be a “good pencil.” The Graphlet is a good pencil that brings along many of the features that (apparently) make the P205 so popular, such as incredibly consistent lead advancement (in very small, approximately 0.08mm distances) and no slip in the clutch.

One aspect the Graphlet maintains from its younger brother is a non-retractable tip. This is a risk that I personally do not care for at ten dollars per pencil; however, I understand that the inclusion of a retraction mechanism would add bulk and size to this quite svelte (0.8mm diameter) and handsome pencil. The tip design is quite lovely, too; I love the discrete step from the fine tip that expands to a metal cylinder to the body of the pencil. The pencil, as stated, is quite easy on the eyes. While admittedly the brown finisher on the end of the pencil is not the ideal color, the smokey gray barrel complements the silver accents very well.

The grip is where I and many others have a departure of opinion. I hold my pencils very close to the tip; upon inspection, my normal writing style places half of my pointer finger and thumb below the bottom of the knurled metal grip. I find that in humid environments (or when my hands are otherwise not entirely dry) this may cause some small but uncomfortable slipping of the pencil. Naturally, this directly follows from my odd hand placement. An acquaintance who holds the pencil slightly higher than I remarked that the knurled portion of the grip makes for quite a good hold. However, the knurled portion only makes up about two-fifths of the total grip length; readers of this post with high writing grip will almost certainly find the un-knurled section of the grip problematic to consistent writing. The Graphgear 1000 (also saved for a later review), pictured above the Graphlet, provides a much larger usable grip area. Another small note to make here is the fair ease of adjustment to the lead hardness indicator; unlike on the Graphgear 1000, the pencil does not threaten to unscrew on occasion when the lead hardness needs adjustment, nor does it twist after a long period of writing.

The brown plastic cap at the top of the Graphlet indicates that the pencil is of the 0.3mm lead size; the large, white “.3” printed on the cap is both easy to see and feel (it’s carved into the plastic). On the Graphgear 1000, the metal cap only had a sticker indicating its lead size, which I promptly removed because it ruined the looks of the pencil. I enjoy small touches like this, and I think Pentel chose a wonderful font both here and on the barrel’s labeling. The clip portion is also sufficiently far from the grip that I never have it pressing into my hand, no matter how I rotate the pencil, which is another aspect of a pencil that I think is very important.

Onto the writing. This 0.3mm-style pencil is a new purchase for me; I have long adhered to 0.5mm for general notetaking and drawing, as its versatility is fantastic and the lead is the proper mixture of fine lines and sturdy structure. On the left of the above picture is a homework assignment done in 0.5mm, and on the right are notes in 0.3mm. The 0.5mm is darker, which is largely due to the fact that I am less confident in my ability with the thinner lead. In 0.5mm lead, I broke the tip once every week or so; in 0.3mm, that frequency is increased to once per two days, which is still not extremely high but it does make me more wary of pressing more firmly into the paper. However, I absolutely am a big fan of how fine the 0.3mm line is; my notes have rarely looked cleaner, and this is after a comparatively short time using a lead this size. One final note: on regular paper, this Uni HB lead feels slightly scratchy; my guess is that this is due to the size of this lead, the tip forms a chisel point more quickly and as such the pencil must be rotated with a higher frequency. I imagine that as I continue to use this pencil the more frequent rotations will occur on their own and this problem will eventually disappear.

In summary, Pentel has a very good pencil in the Graphlet. However, the Graphlet’s charm is insufficient to dethrone my personal favorite pencil, the Pentel Graphgear 1000 in 0.5mm; the Graphgear has many more features that I like in a mechanical pencil and was only two dollars more. Do not let this dissuade one from a Graphlet purchase, though. If the Graphgear 1000 were an A-grade, the Graphlet is almost certainly a B+. Additionally, I have heard that Pentel is planning on discontinuing the Graphlet line, and since I consider this pencil to be superior to the P205, I highly recommend the Graphlet in its stead before it goes the way of Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Graphlet can be purchased online through JetPens

Pentel Graphlet Series

Face-Off: Pentel Sharp P205 vs. Dartz Smart Jedo

26 Mar

I love the Pentel Sharp P205.  It is built very well, reliable, comfortable, precise and everything else great about a Japanese drafting pencil.  I find the plastic to be much more comfortable to hold than a heavy knurled grip for any long period of writing and it also helps to keep the weight down.  The lead-extension mechanism is built to last.  It has a very linear feel, projects EXACTLY the same (~0.08mm) line, and never allows the lead to slip through its clutch.  Perhaps I am not the best judge because I am a bit obsessed with utilitarian designs, but I think the Sharp also looks fantastic.  It means business.  I can do anything pencil related with the P205, such as drafting, technical sketching, and writing.  It never skips a beat or lets me down.  Any time I am reaching for a pencil (which is admittedly not very often), there is a very high chance I grab the p205 over the rest.  Many of my pencil-loving friends agree that the Sharp is one of the best, if not the best, all-around mechanical pencils.  No, the tip does not retract into the barrel of the pencil and yes, the tip can get bent if you drop it.  This is a drafter’s pencil–it needs to be able to trace around objects with ease.  It would be nice to have a retracting mechanism such as the GraphGear 1000’s, but such luxuries would weigh the pencil down and add more bulk to the icepick-like design.  The P205 is so universally popular that many try and imitate the Sharp’s greatness…


Enter the Korean-made Smart Jedo.  A sticker on the side claims that a company called “Dartz” makes this model but I have seen similar (and likely the exact same from the same factory) pencils made by Morning Glory and Dong-A, and a host of other Korean brands.  This Smart is the most interesting Sharp clone I have come across to date and at $1.25 I picked it up without hesitation.  Just look at that silly little oven-mit logo!  The dimensions and barrel are practically identical to the P205 as if it was cast in the same injection mold.  Unlike the smooth-plastic pentel, however, the Smart Jedo is coated in a matte, non-slip material.  The grooves are also cut deeper into grip, and the plunger-cap has been replaced with a lead-hardness dial.  I commend this “Dartz” brand (whoever they are) for attempting to update the design a little bit instead of merely copying the Pentel.

Lead-hardness dial 'upgrade'

Unfortunately, the Smart Jedo is no P205.  While the non-slip coating is a nice touch, the hardness window isn’t even lined up correctly and rattles around a bit when I write.  The lead-extension systems are night and day.  The Smart’s mechanism is imprecise and unreliable, sometimes shooting out too much lead (~0.5cm) and sometimes not extending any lead at all.  Here is what happens when you press the knocks down 5 times in both pencils:

This is usually what happens. Sometimes the Smart's lead is even longer, or much shorter than the P205's (which remains exactly the same length every time).

I certainly cannot call the Smart Jedo a bad pencil.  On the contrary I actually rather enjoy using it.  The non-slip material works very well and is comfortable in the hand.  The lead does not slip back into the barrel as far as I can tell.  But when comparing the original Sharp to the Smart, I have no choice but to notice the obvious flaws form the first click of the plunger.  It feels cheap, flimsy, and imprecise whereas the P205 feels sturdy, precise, and has a mechanism that would be welcomed in far more expensive pencils.  If you ever happen to be in Koreatown or some other Korean marketplace (or Korea…) and have some change to spare, I would say go for it.  I did, and I think it’s a fun little pencil.  If you want a workhorse, save your money and get a P205.

Note: I used the included leads for both pencils.  The Smart’s lead feels softer than HB and is more prone to breaking than Pentel’s lead.  Easy fix though.