While we may go on and on extolling the virtues of woodcase pencils, fountain pens, gel pens, and rollerballs, something must be said about the universality of the humble ballpoint. When you think of a pen, the first thing that comes to mind is the ballpoint, and it's easy to see why; they're everywhere.
But that was not always the case. Back before the invention of the ballpoint, every bit of ink writing needed to be done with a fountain pen. Though many enjoy using fountain pens, the need to fill, clean, and maintain them is seen as a hobby to some and a chore to others. To cater to the need for a self-contained ink-filled writing instrument, one that could write on nearly any paper, no matter how cheap (try writing on newsprint with a fountain pen), and anywhere, including an airplane, Laszlo Biro introduced the ballpoint pen in 1938. After buying the patent from him in 1945, Laszlo Biro introduced the Bic Cristal in 1950. The "Biro," as it is known in many countries, is the archetype of the "pen." And, at only $1 for ten of them, it's the cheapest good writing instrument out there, to this day. Pencils in this range include the woodcased Dixon #2, which has been accepted as one of the worst pencils out there, and the Papermate Write Bros mechanical, which bends, cracks, and breaks in less than a week. I will acknowledge that in terms of overall writing experience, you can do much better with the likes of a fountain pen or rollerball, or even a premium woodcase pencil, but that's not the real point of the Bic Cristal. The Cristal is versatile, dependable, and really, really cheap, and that's what makes it classic.
Fit/Finish: The hexagonal shape and long, thin body are tributes to the traditional woodcase pencil, and makes the pen comfortable to hold while simultaneously resisting rolling off a desk. Mold lines are visible, but not too sharp to the touch, and the clear body makes it easy to see when you'll run out of ink. The pen is surprisingly robust, and will not bend or crack in the hand.
Performance: For the price, nothing even comes close. The line is smooth, legible, and consistent, unlike the $20 Caran d'Ache 849. According to Bic's website, the pen will write for 2-3km (1.2-1.9 mi). Not too shabby for 10 cents!
Overall: Inducted into the MoMA's permanent collection, the Cristal is timeless, made to precision standards, and performs well. Anyone looking for a classic writing instrument with a ton of history behind it need not spend $40+ on an original Blackwing 602, nor $100+ on a Waterman, Lamy, or Mont Blanc fountain pen - the humble Bic Cristal has what you're looking for.
I got this pen for my birthday three or four years ago - it looks amazing, with all-metal build and that awesome yellow color, which happens to be my favorite. It's even shaped like a pencil! What's not to love? Well...read on.
hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZZSf14
Fit/Finish: The pen is built like a tank as its Swiss construction implies. The paint does not chip off and the clicker mechanism is near-silent and silky smooth. Branding is understated - literally, it's under the clip - and overall the 849 exudes quality. One thing I don't particularly care for is the length - it feels a bit too short for my taste, at five inches. The clip looks removable but isn't, with a nice angular design that doesn't seem ready to detach. So, a 5 in the fit/finish department, but...
Performance: Here's where the pen loses its marks. The Goliath refill may be high capacity, but it's not a rich black, nor is it consistent. The pen performs like your average disposable black stick pen, albeit a little smoother. Inconsistency and white spots in the line have plagued this refill since I got the pen. This refill is just BAD.
Overall: Not a horrible pen - actually, a great one - if not for the refill. Parker-style refills can be hacked to fit (they're a tad bit too long), but they, especially the Fisher refill - are loads better than the included one. Still, the quality of the metal body and clicker mechanism are good enough to give this pen at least a cursory glance.
Here is another special series of the 207 that I'd like to share! I picked this one up at Wally World for $5, and these colors are pretty much the antithesis of the loud "colors" series from a few posts ago. They are billed as "black infused with color," and indeed unless you look closely, they seem like black, especially the green and purple. The bodies are stealthy, with the nose cone and clip matching the rest of the black look, as opposed to their customary silver.
Check them out below!
hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZZfvMp
Yet another classic from Fisher, the Bullet was immortalized by induction into the MoMA's permanent collection due to its iconic design. The #1 best-seller in Fisher's lineup, the Bullet is popular thanks to its low price, excellent build quality, and of course its infallible refill. This is my second one - I lost my first one, a chrome Bullet, after five years and only one refill change. Here's to the next five years!
Hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk1zUptj
Fit/Finish: The pen is built in the USA to very high standards, and it shows. The refill writes smoothly with no issues starting up, and will write upside-down (I tried) and underwater. There is no rattling or wobbliness at all, and the clip is securely attached. The stealthy matte-black finish stays pristine, even where the cap attaches to the back of the pen when posting. Once the cap is posted, transforming the Space Pen into a full-size (5.25 inches) instrument, and the cap doesn't come off unless pulled off. When closed, the Space Pen makes a great pocket pen, at 3.75 inches, making it the pen many EDC'ers recommend, including Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage.
Performance: Excellent, as the refill never fails (until it runs out, of course). Speaking of which, it will write for 2-3 miles according to Fisher's spec, and I had one write for four years until needing replacement. The supplied black medium refill works fine, but the blue fine refill is even better. Upside down, or at any angle, the pen is just as smooth.
Overall: At only $15 on Amazon, the Fisher Bullet Space Pen is a steal. Reliable, portable, and solid, this one can go with you anywhere, and once you try one, you'll want to take it with you! An excellent, practical ballpoint for any occasion.
Ever since I tried one a few years ago, I've been a huge fan of the uni-ball Signo 207 gel pens. Available in many different colors and designs (i.e. the BLX series), they're awesome for those who want a huge variety of colors without delving into the world of fountain pens.
Made in Japan, they perform smoothly and reliably, with the "thin lining" common with other rollers (Bic Grip Roller, for example) nearly nonexistent. With this set I wanted to show you the vibrant colors of the "colors" series. I picked up this pack for $3 from Office Max. The notepad is a standard Rhodia 5x5 (80gsm) and I chose it because its bright white stock shows inks' true colors.
Link to hi-res images: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZXgdE9
link to hi-res images: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk1kVqBJ
A true American icon, the classic Space Pen needs no introduction. Since I was already a fan of the Bullet Space Pen, I knew the actual astronaut model would be a great addition to my collection. This is the same pen flown aboard the Apollo missions, and was developed independently by Paul C. Fisher in the late 1960s.
Fit/Finish: Upon opening the gift box and seeing the gleaming chrome of the AG7, you realize that his is about as far from a typical ballpoint you can get. The mechanism is a classic button-on-the-side retractor - and it feels very solid, with a satisfying click upon operation. The clip is plenty tight, with a very "space-age" styled engraving of the pen's make and model. At the middle of the body, the engraving "AG7 SPACE PEN by FISHER ... USA ---" can be seen, and the textured spiral grip etched into the bottom of the pen makes for a controlled writing experience. The pen is quite top-heavy, similar to a woodcase pencil with eraser, so keep that in mind.
Performance: The #PR4 black medium refill which ships with the pen is smooth and lays down a consistent line. Fisher's marketing claims it lasts for 2-3 miles of writing, and it took me about 4 years of use to run the one in my Bullet Space Pen dry. This pen, while thin, has more heft and length than the Bullet Pen and is therefore more suited to long writing sessions. I personally have no issues with the thin diameter and top-heavy build, but that's definitely something to consider when purchasing this pen. Try before you buy!
Overall: This pen is classic, and the build quality ensures that it stays that way. Unlike some other pens/pencils that have fallen from grace (i.e. Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph, Dixon Ticonderoga, Rotring brand), this AG7 is still made in the USA to the high standards that earned it its official NASA pen title. I got mine for $35 from Amazon, and am glad I did.