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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) 
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Zebra 3-Color Ballpoint Face-off (Surari 3C [0.7mm] vs. Clip-On 3C G Series [0.7mm])

3 Apr

While writing the review for Zebra’s Surari 3C last week, I was reminded of another Zebra 3-color ballpoint multi-pen in my collection: the Clip-On 3c G series.  After a slight pen expedition I finally located it so I could do a back to back comparison with its younger Zebra brother.

Siblings reunited at last.

Actually, its more like the Clip-On’s stepbrother because the Surari has a completely new hybrid ink forumla that promises the smoothness and consistency of gel with the  quick dry-time and bleed-resistance of a ballpoint.  Last week I gave the pen a less than a flattering review, but concluded that there was still a lot to like about the 3c.  The Clip-On is an old-school grease ballpoint with exactly the same color setup of black, red, and blue.  Nothing fancy here besides a pretty cool push-button release near the grip.

The question remains: which one is better (and for whom)?  I was very curious to see how the two pens stacked up against each other.

The difference is obvious.

The Surari clearly has the deeper ink of the two and far more line consistency.  There aren’t many spotting issues with the Surari and besides some pretty serious glob-action, it delivers on Zebra’s promise.  Well….almost–the ink takes almost as long to dry as a gel.  I know it’s probably hard to read my writing without double spacing my lines, but I chose this way so that it was easier to see how obviously different the two inks really are.  The Clip-On’s refills are pale in color and love to leave white spots, just like any other old-school ballpoint.

Top: Surari, Bottom: Clip-On (all three tests)

I got some very interesting results while testing these inks.  I found that when writing in slightly larger text, the inks almost look like they came form the same pen.  Neither skipped or looked faded.  If you look at the Surari’s line, however, it looks much shakier than the Clip-On’s.  This is another huge gripe I have with the new ink formula. The Surari’s ball rolls fast, gets slower, rolls fast, gets slow, etc.  While it is smoother when it is rolling fast, it doesn’t feel nearly as consistent as the Clip-On’s roller.

Normal, small writing is where the Surari really proves itself as a better ink.  It doesn’t often skip or leave small white spots in your writing–even if you are switching directions very quickly (usual cause with non-hybrid ballpoints).  The new ink stays dark too because it doesn’t need as much energy or time to completely coat the ball with sticky hybrid oil.  The pen still doesn’t feel as precise as the Clip-On though.  The tip tends to get away from you because it needs slightly different pressure inputs as the ball speeds up and slows down, making it easy to put too much or too litte force on the pen.  While I would nevertheless choose Surari ink over standard ink for taking notes in class and many other applications, I would not choose it over Pentel Vicuña or Jetstream ink.

 Now let’s talk about the barrel.

Why does the Surari's grip have to be so fat?

The Surari’s ink is definitely a step in the right direction and is in many ways quite an improvement over regular ballpoint ink.  But the body….what was Zebra’s design team munching on for breakfast when they decided on this?  It’s overgrown, has too wide of a grip, and feels very cheap.  They chose to make the clip into one of the slide knocks, but the whole unit rattles around while you write.  The tips sometimes jump back into the barrel a little while you write and have too much play at the nose.  There is an out of place chrome ring above the grip and strange molding at the end which makes the pen look like it was meant to post a cap.

Awful sliding clip vs. solid clip. Why does the top of the Surari look like it has been molded to post a cap?

The Clip-on is an entirely different story.  It is more compact, more solidly built, no stupid chrome, no sliding clip, and a little push button release as a bonus.  The grip is not too much narrower than the Surari’s fat rubber, but it feels significantly better because it is sculpted to fit in your hand.  There is very litte play at the tip with all three colors and they do not randomly slide back in a little while you write.  I can’t help but think that Zebra’s design team set out to make their new Surari multi-pen by starting off with a Clip-On and then thinking “how can we make this pen worse in every way besides the ink?”.

I don't even understand the purpose of this. Both pens came filled to pretty much the the same level, the Surari's just had extra empty plastic at the back end.

Suddenly I had an epiphany: if I throw the Surari fills into the Clip-On, all my problems will be solved!  I unscrewed both pens and pulled out the refills.  Guess what?  Zebra did not standardize the two refill sizes.  I’m sure I can get the Surari fills to fit if I cut the ends off of them but I’m not sure it’s even worth it.  The Vicuña and Jetstream multi’s are more comfortable and have better ink, making them my first choice when reaching for a ballpoint multi-pen.

If you want a really solid standard-ink ballpoint multi-pen, you can’t go wrong with the Clip-On series.  They are comfortable, cheap, and built well.  If you are in the market for a hybrid ink multi, though, I can’t say that I would recommend the Surari over Pentel’s (Vicuña) or Uni’s (Jetstream) hybrid multi’s.  I would, however, recommend it to fans of the Surari ink because it’s definitely still cool to have a multi-pen with your favorite type of ink.

JetPens carries both: Zebra Surari 3 Color Emulsion Ink Multi Pen – 0.7 mm – Clear Body and the Zebra Clip-On G Series 3 Color Ballpoint Multi Pen – 0.7 mm – Black Body

Zebra Surari 3C Multi-pen (0.7mm)

27 Mar

The Surari 3c had so much potential to be great.  Zebra makes some very well built, standard ballpoint multi pens (such as the clip series) with comfortable grips and smooth actions.  Surari Ink, a hybrid ballpoint-gel ink, promises to deliver more smoothness and less skipping than a standard ballpoint.  Simple: put the two and two together and you have yourself an awesome multipen!  Well…

I’m not sure what they were thinking when they decided on this barrel.  It’s too fat.  If the pen had 5 or 6 interchangeable components then I would not have a problem with the width, but this has only three.  The tips rattle around in the nose-cone because there is some definite play where the tip is held in place when knocked.  Then there is the sliding mechanism, which ironically feels much worse than zebra’s other clip multipens that cost less (I’ll do a comparison in another post).  It jams when switching between colors, the springs are weak, and the whole system does not feel up to spec.  Slide the knock down on a Pentel Vicuña C3 and you will see what I mean.

Wasted talent. What a shame...

“But but,” I hear you all saying, “this is a Surari Ink multipen!  The barrel doesn’t matter so much as long as I have three awesome Surari colors in one pen!”  Well, this is the reason I bought the pen even though I didn’t like the barrel design.  I am a sucker for multipens and a Surari 3C was a rare bird I wanted to catch.  I hate to say this though (and I do not mean to bash all the Surari ink fans out there): Surari is the worst of the Japanese hybrid ballpoint inks.  I’ve tried many variations of the Surari cartridge in different colors, sizes, etc. but it has never quite stacked up to my personal favorite, the Pentel Vicuña or the gold standard of hybrid ink pens, the Uni Jetstream.  Though the ink is dark for the most part skipping is eliminated, there is quite a severe globbing issue here.  Please note, I am not one to care about globbing from pens.  I take it as a side-effect of ballpoint systems.  This is something far worse.  The red ink is amazing and the black and blue are ok but the pen globs so much that you can literally see strands of ink connecting the tip to the paper as you lift off (imagine Teenage Mutant Nina Turtle pizza cheese) and they come down wherever they want onto the page.

You can see the red glob strands leaving ink in the nose cone.

Now, I have a regular 0.7mm Surari Blue retractable pen with the same hyperglobular issue that I bought before this pen.  I was hoping that it was just a defect of the one I had.  Its beginning to look like the Surari ink is just stickier and messier than regular old grease ink.  I do use this pen sometimes and I get a kick out of it.  I love the red–its one of the best I’ve ever seen come out of a pen.  Had I known beforehand, I would have just purchased retractable red Surari.  I LOVE the barrel of the regular Surari’s too so I may do just that.  If you happen to adore the Surari ink or wide-body pens, then this may be the pen for you.  I, however, suggest getting a Vicuña or Jetstream multipen  over the 3c.

I really wanted to like this pen.  Here’s to hoping for a redesign!

JetPens has many variations: Zebra Surari Multi Series

Zebra F-701 Ballpoint

25 Mar

I always forget just how hefty this pen is until I decide to pick it up and write with it.  The F-701 is the top-end model in Zebra’s F-series of writing utensils that includes a huge cult favorite, the F-301.  Unlike the sensibly small and light 301, this thing is a behemoth to hold in one’s hand.  It is also (almost) completely made of metal, whereas the F-301 has a a plastic grip and other plastic bits.  The 701 is not just made with metal–it’s made with very thick and sturdy metal.

Just look at how wide the metal casing is!

The only metal piece that stands out to me is the plastic ring around the base of the knock slider.  This is not a complaint because I imagine it’s there to keep the mechanism from freezing up (metal on metal would be a difficult task to make reliable especially if one were in very cold temperatures).  The slider mechanism is dead silent and incredibly smooth, almost as if there was a miniature hydraulic cylinder instead of a spring.   Interesting that the pen is made in Indonesia because you wouldn’t have guessed from the build quality.

Made in Indonesia

The F-701’s ink is very average for a pen if you are comparing it to modern hybrid-ink ballpoints (such as the Jetstream Vicuña) or fancy Japanese ballpoints, but as an old-school greaser it performs fairly well.  The 0.7mm tip leaves a nice, thin line and the the pen has no trouble starting or stopping up.  Yes, there are some white spots in the text, the pen does glob quite a bit if you aren’t careful, and it needs quite a bit of pressure to write, but these are all standard qualities of regular ballpoints.  You should not be buying such a pen if you think any of these would be a deal-breaker. WARNING: if you have never used a pen or pencil with this type of knurled, hexagonal-patterned metal grip, you should definitely try to find something similar and test it out first.  It would be ideal if you had a friend that would let you try it out for a day–but even holding this type of grip in the store will tell you a lot.  Some people find these pens so painful that the grip renders the pen unusable for them (I’m looking at you, Alpha-gel/Dr. Grip fanatics!).  Others, such as myself, do not mind.  The pen’s grip and point area remind me a lot of my GraphGear 500, which has a very similar size and feel.  Zebra’s site hilariously claims that the pen has an “innovative textured steel grip”–they have been around longer than plastic pens (see  Staedler Mars models circa 1950’s).

Looks very much like a GraphGear 500 from the waist down

I highly recommend the F-701 if you like technical or drafting style writing equipment.  I do not think you will be disappointed if you can accept the less-than-exciting ballpoint ink.  Its incredible that they sell these pens in Staples everywhere, next to a sea stick ballpoints and cheap-o mechanical pencils.  I give Zebra a lot of credit for providing this kind divergence from the pen-norm at local office supply shops.  Great pen.

JetPens is currently sold out, but they tend to restock quickly: Zebra F-701