Tag Archives: review

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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Stabilo Exam Grade Ballpoint (Medium)

31 Mar

Stabilo’s products are unique to say the least.  They make a huge attempt to create more user-friendly and comfortable products, but it often results in very strange looking designs.  The Exam Grade ballpoint is a shining example and is one of the more bizarre pens I have ever owned.

What could "Exam Grade" possibly mean?

I was fascinated by this pen from the moment I discovered it on Stabilo’s website.  How can a ballpoint be made ‘exam grade’?  Is it a marketing gimmick or is the pen actually better for exams than other writing utensils?  Their site claims that these are “the pens that won´t let you down when you really need them.”  That sounds great but doesn’t really say much as to why.

Unexplained nub...?

Well, first of all this is an ultra-durable pen.  The plastic is thick and the metal nose is very substantial.  It feels like it was made to withstand years and years of hard abuse from sugar-smacked school children.  The cap snaps onto the front of the barrel with a thundering *CLICK* that is much louder and feels much stronger than any other pen I own.  Sometimes I find myself having to use two hands to pull the cap back off–it’s on that tight.  It has a very comfortable finger-grip with little holes cut out of it that help give the pen some extra traction during long in-class essays.  An unexplained nub juts out from the upper portion of the grip and I have yet to find any reason for it being there.  Stabilo products commonly use peculiar means to improve the user’s hand position so it may have something to do with that.  Then there is this chart on the side:

How very German of them.

The ink-viewing window running along the entire length of the pen has an infographic system to tell you how many pages you have left.  How quintessentially German is that?  The ink also lasts for an extremely long time and I have yet to break into the green ‘~80′ page section yet. In fact, the ink lasts so long that the Exam Grade ballpoint is sold as the “non-stop writing pen” in many parts of Asia. I’m not even sure why anybody would need this here in the United States for test taking, but if it’s useful in other countries, I can only imagine how intensive their exams must be.

Looks can be deceiving. This is not an ordinary ballpoint pen.

Even more bizarre than the page-meter graphics is the way this pen writes.  Then pen looks and feels like a normal ballpoint but there is something ‘exam grade’ about the way it writes.  The tip is INSANELY smooth.  Trying both back to back, the Stabilo actually feels just as smooth-if not smoother-than the free-gliding behemoth that is the Pilot Super-GP 1.6mm.  I am not quite sure how the pen manages to be so smooth with only half of the rolling surface of the Pilot.

Mind-boggling pens.

The ink is exceptionally dark for a standard (non-hybrid) ballpoint.  The pen does have some minor issues with leaving white spots in your text but it generally performs better than other standard ballpoints in this respect.  The strangest thing is the way the tip drags across the paper.  It takes a relatively large amount of effort to get the ball rolling, almost as if the ball was moving through a more viscous oil than other ballpoint inks.  The pen also needs to be primed more than most other ballpoints for this reason.  This is the exact opposite of hybrid-ink ballpoints, which attempt to lower rolling resistance by changing the ink compound.  Tiger Pens Blog says that the ink was specifically developed to work with scantron-type bubble tests.  It is my understanding that pencils are usually required for these sort of testing systems because graphite is reflective and blocks light from getting through the bubbles (which are detected by a machine as marked answers).  This may help explain why this ink is so dark and viscous, but please don’t go and try this on your next LSAT.  I have not put this feature to the test and Tiger Pens is the only place I have seen that makes this claim.

Very opaque, thick ink.

While I do not use this pen for bubble testing (or any testing for that matter), I do find that the slower tip forces me to think more about what my hand is writing.  I make noticeably less mistakes with the Exam Grade.  Also, the drag keeps my spastic writing tendencies in check and doesn’t allow my lines to go flying out in all directions when I write.  My biggest gripe with ultra-smooth ballpoints is the fact that I cannot feel the pen on paper, which causes my writing to be sloppier than it already is.  I do not run into this problem here.  I also really like the deep colors of this ink and the way it looks on the page.  The colors are deeper and richer than any other ballpoint inks I have seen in this price range–and even outside of this price range.

Logo detail molded into the cap.

I love these pens.  They are very strange but I like strange pens so I am alright with that.  I bought the blue one first and liked it so much that I picked up the black one as well.  They do not look, feel, or write like any other ballpoint I have tried.  Whereas many companies are trying to lower the resistance of ballpoint ink, Stabilo decided to increase it.  They also put a chart to let you know how many pages you have left to write with–a feature so bizarre that it is almost comical.  I could never picture myself taking a giant test and checking my ink window to see if is approaching the <!> range.  I shutter to think about an exam requiring more than 80 pages in one sitting (no friggen way).  While the Exam Grade ballpoints will always mystify me, I seem to gravitate toward them when I need a normal ballpoint.  I’ve had friends try them and tell me that they are just as baffled as I am.  This is by no means the best ballpoint available, and I’m sure many will find fault with it because the pen is just too different.  I like different, and if you do too, I highly recommend giving the Exam Grade ballpoint a try.

I was stunned to spot them in a local stationary store in Westwood (Flax–a personal favorite).  The woman at the counter said she has many Asian UCLA students buy these for school because they are very common pens in many parts of Asia.  I can’t say that I am surprised–it’s a great pen.  Thank you Stabilo, for providing the world with yet another unconventional design that breaks away from the norm.  They can be had online from Tiger Pens.

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…

Twins?

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.