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The Best Pen You Can Buy Today

By Tim Barribeau, Wirecutter

For an affordable pen that writes smoothly; dries quickly and indelibly; won’t bleed, skip or feather; and has the best ink flow of any non-fountain pen; grab yourself the uni-ball Jetstream. Available in a number of sizes and colors, it’s the best affordable pen around for taking notes at school or a meeting.

For an affordable pen that writes smoothly; dries quickly and indelibly; won’t bleed, skip or feather; and has the best ink flow of any non-fountain pen; grab yourself the uni-ball Jetstream. Available in a number of sizes and colors, it’s the best affordable pen around for taking notes at school or a meeting.

The uni-ball Jetstream is universally loved by our four experts (experts with 1,200 pen reviews between them and over 17 years of combined experience testing pens) for its exceptionally smooth writing ability. It dries quickly, which makes it good for left-handers, too, as it won’t smudge under their hands. This is thanks to uni-ball’s special pigment-based ink, which is designed to sink into the paper, which has the added bonus of making it much more difficult to wash away, preventing check fraud.

Photo credit: Flickr user mr_sir via Creative Commons

Who Should Buy This

The vast majority of people don’t particularly care what they write with, but given that the difference between an awesome pen and a mediocre one is just a couple bucks, perhaps they should. A decent pen is something that just about anyone can buy and if you do a lot of handwriting, a marginally better writing experience compounded over hours of scribbling adds up to a significant improvement. And god forbid you end up not liking it, you’re down just a few dollars—it’s not the end of the world.

A Pen Type Primer

There are pretty much three types of non-fountain ink pens currently on the market that you can get on the cheap: ballpoint, rollerball and gel pens. All three are closely related, but, generally speaking, each has some advantages and disadvantages over the others (there are affordable fountain pens, like the awesome Platinum Preppy line, but they’re harder to find in the USA).

A close-up look at the three main types of pen. Writing samples provided by @lillybellman

Ballpoint technology, invented in the 1800s, is the grandaddy of all of this. It was designed to be a better and easier way of dispensing ink—embedded in the point of a pen, a rolling ball transfers the ink to the page. Ballpoints use oil-based ink solutions, which dry quickly on the page, don’t bleed through much and don’t dry out easily in the pen itself. But ballpoints tend not to be very smooth to write with.

Rollerballs use water-based ink, which provides smoother, finer lines. They are available in a wider array of colors and require less pressure to use. But their inks tend to dry slowly on the page, can easily smudge and bleed, and can dry out in the pen itself.

Gel pens are technically a rollerball variant, but use a much thicker, more viscous ink. So gel pens don’t bleed as much as most rollerballs, and you still get very smooth, fine and vivid lines. But they still generally have smudging and drying problems, and the ink runs thick; a 0.5 mm gel pen will put down a wider line than 0.5 mm in other types.

Paper matters. These writing samples were on a Black n’ Red notebook.

A lot of these downsides have been mitigated with better ink technology, but you get the general idea.

What we want from a pen is smooth writing: a uniform line, even flow, and no skipping.

What we want from a pen is smooth writing: a uniform line, even flow, and no skipping. It has to dry quickly so that it doesn’t smear, a need for left-handers. We want one that doesn’t feather (spread into the paper) too much or spot through to the other side, doesn’t require excess pressure, and is comfortable to use. And it has to be reliable—if you fish it out of the bottom of your purse after a couple of months, you have to know that it will still be good.

How We Picked

In this guide, we wanted to look at affordable (less than $5), semi-disposable pens. Pens that cost just a couple of bucks. We’re not pushing into the world of high-end fountain pens, tactical pens or even the likes of the Fisher space pen. Just good, everyday pens that put down an excellent and smooth line without costing a bomb.

It also had to be relatively easy to find. There are a huge number of truly excellent, affordable pens that come in from Asia (seriously, check out Jetpens, they’re amazing) and are only available through specialty sites and maybe, if you’re lucky, an Asian stationary or general store in your neighborhood. But we needed pens that you could find at an Office Depot, Amazon, or even a Walgreens. That still leaves dozens of options.

To get our finalists, we consulted with the thriving network of bloggers who devote their time and effort to writing about pens. They try them out on every paper imaginable, sometimes separately reviewing countless variants in tip size, body style, color and availability. They’re the ones who are just as likely to special order pens from overseas as to buy one on a whim at a Target, and they’re a huge source of data on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to pens. We spent most of our time with four of the best.

To get our short list of pens, we consulted with the thriving network of bloggers who devote their time and effort to writing about pens.

Brad Dowdy, better known as the Pen Addict, is probably the biggest name in pen blogging. He got into the scene in 2007, and is probably the most widely read-and-respected pen blogger on the planet. He’s written around 700 pen reviews and probably has more knowledge about pens, from the disposable to the high-end, than most people on the planet. Hailing from Macon, GA, he works full-time as a UNIX engineer to be able to afford all of the fancy new pens he covets. He also tweets regularly @dowdyism and loves to hear from the similarly-obsessed.

Brian Greene runs Office Supply Geek, a blog nominally about all sorts of office ware, but mostly about writing tools. He’s been doing this since 2008, and has more than 300 pen reviews on his site. You can follow him on twitter @officesupplygee, and he also harbors a deep and abiding love for baseball, bow ties, investing, and any new or unique consumer products.

Elizabeth Price of No Pen Intended is has been writing about pens since she graduated college in 2010, and has around 80 pen reviews up on her site. She currently works as an emergency call-taker and dispatcher in a mid-sized Southeastern city, and she is a fountain pen addict. She provided us a look at pens from the valuable perspective of someone who is both left-handed and an artist. She’s on twitter @nopenintended.

Azizah of Gourmet Pens has been blogging about pens since 2010, and has a lifelong fascination and love affair with the things. Currently an all-encompassing passion, Azizah seeks to understand all aspects of pens, their inks, and paper. From the tuning of a vintage flex fountain pen to the finding the ideal gel pen, the quest never ends. To date, Azizah has reviewed 100 pens and counting, and over 150 stationery items.

Between the four of them, that’s 17 years of experience writing about pens, with more than 1,200 reviews. You do not often see a corpus of experience as impressive as that. And when you do, it’s not often that they all agree on what’s the best. In this case, they did.

Our Pick

The uni-ball Jetstream.
The response from the experts was unanimous: when it comes to a great pen for every day and everybody, you should get the uni-ball Jetstream.

The response from the experts was unanimous: when it comes to a great pen for every day and everybody, you should get the uni-ball Jetstream. It has a perfect combination of incredibly smooth, incredibly even ink; it dries quickly; it comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes; and it has excellent durability.

Brad Dowdy of Pen Addict called it “the best pen choice for someone who has never used anything besides what is laying around the office.” He said “For most people I would recommend the [u]ni-ball Jetstream. The ease of use and ink properties make writing a breeze for anyone who chooses to pick one up.”

Brian of Office Supply Geek said “I think the Jetstream line is the winner when it comes to an everyday pen for the masses. It dominates in its super smooth and solidly consistent performance, it dries very quickly, and provides all of the security benefits of being tamper resistant.”

And Elizabeth of No Pen Intended described it as the one she would recommend over all others, saying in a review that “[t]his is my favorite ballpoint pen; or, at least this series produces what may very well be my favorite ballpoint pen. The first time I tried a Jetstream, it was one of a friend’s pens, and I completely derailed all conversation around me to drool wide-eyed at the writing experience and reverently whisper ‘WHERE DID YOU GET THIS PEN?’”

In a review of the 0.7 mm version, Brian said “When I first wrote with this pen I was very surprised by how smooth the ink flowed, and how effortlessly the pen glided across the paper. I almost felt like if I didn’t focus on controlling the movements of the pen on the paper, I would end up experiencing something similar to what happens when you hydroplane in a car. It really was amazing to me that I was writing with a ballpoint pen “super super smooth” and saying it “is just the best ballpoint that I have ever written with, and it pretty much makes me want to toss every other ballpoint pen that I have on my desk because it will just be disappointing if I ever have to use one of them again.”

He complimented the 101 Bold for its comfortable grip and being ideal for left-handers. “As with any Jetstream I’ve ever used, these write flawlessly with no skipping or clumping, and the flow was steady and consistent. The most impressive thing about them though came when I tested the dry time, which is what I think makes these pens such an attractive pen for left handed writers.”

The Pen Addict called the Jetstream 101 version “almost obscenely smooth,” saying he’s “hopelessly hooked for life” on the entire Jetstream lineup. He mentioned the 0.38 mm version is “one of my favorite pens ever”, noting that it’s not too scratchy despite the tiny tip and “it’s hard to believe that a pen this fine can write this smooth.”

When reviewing the 0.5 mm basic series version, he commented “You would think with such a fine ballpoint tip there would be a lot of drag and friction when writing, but I can lightly move the pen across the page and the line is just as good as if I was using my regular writing pressure.”

He said the Sport Color 0.7 mm version “writes exceptionally well” and the “ink flows smoothly and is very dark.” For the Alpha Gel Grip version, he spent a lot of time complementing its looks, but even then noted “the standard excellent [u]ni-ball Jetstream performance applies, making this a great addition to any ballpoint pen collection”.

In case you’re keeping track at home, that’s the most prominent pen blogger around espousing his love of this thing on five different reviews and then telling us personally. That should give you some thought as to how dedicated these reviewers are and how good of a pen this is.

No Pen Intended’s series of reviews were equally effusive and especially noteworthy as she’s a lefty. She also calls the pen “ideal for lefties,” saying “[t]he ink also dries very fast, or at least, does not leave wet blobs anywhere. I’ve had other ballpoint pens that would leave my hand spotted with ink after a writing session of dragging my hand across the page, but never with the Jetstream. The ink gets on the page and it stays there. Even trying to deliberately smudge a line immediately after making it, I only got a tiny bit to give the weensiest smudge. It’s barely even noticeable.”

She also complimented just how little pressure was required to write with it, which makes writing that much easier and relaxed.

Azizah of Gourmet Pens told us that she prefers the dark colors and finer nib versions of the Jetstream (an opinion contrary to the one above), saying “I would stick to the darker ink colors as they are more versatile and are less likely to skip. Skipping is infrequent but at certain angles of writing, it can happen. In my experience, the thinner the nib, the less likely this skip is to happen. Ink dries fast, and the Jetstreams are very comfortable to write with.” She also recommended the Jetstream as best for most people, notably because “[i]t does not bleed or feather, and very little pressure is needed to write. They are just very comfortable to write with and are available in different models to suit a variety of users.”

The other cool thing that the Jetstream has going for it is a special ink, which is meant to be more resistant to check washing and associated identity theft.

Other sources are likewise taken by the Jetstream line. Well Appointed Deskcommented that “for the price, it outperforms just about any other ballpoint on the market” and “Every time I use a Jetstream, I marvel at how smoothly they write. They never skip or glob like those ballpoint pens of the past.” In another review, the author confessed to having a long-seated dislike of ballpoint pens, but that these are different: “It writes smoothly, dries quickly, does not stutter or smear. It has a fine delicate nib. The pen has a simple casing with just subtle graphics on a white case. Could it be that not all ballpoints are created equal? It writes more like a cross between a rollerball and a gel pen which I suspect is really what it is — the ink color is bright and clear like a liquid ink or gel ink and not at all the consistency of those Bic Stics that still make me cringe.”

Another reviewer, over at Pen and Design, thought the 1 mm version was even smoother than other sizes of the Jetstream, saying “The pen writes well. What Jetstream doesn’t? (Well, I didn’t like the 0.5 mm model.) The [u]ni-Ball Jetstream is known as the smoothest ballpoint pen in the world. I don’t know if that’s true, but this is a smooth pen…This pen seems smoother than any other Jetstream I’ve tried.“

The other cool thing that the Jetstream has going for it is a special ink, which is meant to be more resistant to check washing and associated identity theft. uni-ball explains on its website that the ink bonds to the paper’s fibers, making it resistant to the chemicals that wash dye-based inks from checks. I can’t say I write an awful lot of checks, but it’s a bit of security that not everyone else offers.

So Which One Should You Get?

The problem here that you might have noticed is that there are so many variants of the Jetstream that it can be hard to know which one to opt for. They range in size from 1 mm down to 0.38 mm tips, there are a range of colors (depending on where you look) and there are different form factors to boot.

What size is right? For most people, you’ll probably want the fine, 0.7 mm version.

What size is right? For most people, you’ll probably want the fine, 0.7 mm version.

The 0.7 mm retractables (black, blue, multipack) are probably the ones that fits the most handwriting styles.

There are also 1 mm versions if you want something larger, and 0.5 mm and even 0.38 mm versions if you have extra fine requirements. But No Pen Intended tends to prefer the 0.7 mm and 1 mm versions, saying “Writing–compared to the larger nib sizes, the 0.5mm isn’t AS smooth–meaning that, instead of writing as smooth as liquid melted butter it writes as smooth as soft-but-not-totally-melted-yet butter. This is just an observation from having used the 0.5mm, 0.7mm, and 1.0mm Jetstreams. Bigger nib rolls a little more smoothly, but can also be a bit messier.”

Brad Dowdy leans towards the pen and size we like (or the similar, but slightly sleeker-and-harder-to-find “Sports” model), saying “I prefer the 0.7 mm Jetstream Sport or RT. I think the 0.7 mm provides the best of everything this pen has to offer, while the 1.0 mm is a little more inconsistent.”

From there it’s easy to branch out if you find you want more sizes, colors or bodies. But when we chatted with the experts, some of them also recommended higher-end variants that they like for one reason or another—so if you’re looking to drop a couple of extra bucks, here are some options.

If you favor a bolder line, bigger body or softer grip, check out the Jetstream Premier. It was recommended by The Office Supply Geek who said it’s his pick “because of the body design, comfortable grip, and super smooth feeling of the bolder point.” But he also mentioned that “I don’t think there are any versions of this pen that you should steer clear of. It just comes down to your personal preference for grip, color, style, and tip size, and luckily this is available in a huge variety of each of those variables.”

If you still want a softer grip, but don’t fancy a large body or fat ink, Elizabeth of No Pen Intended pointed us in the direction of the Alpha Gel Jetstream. It not only has a soft grip to make writing more comfortable, but also a mostly metal body, so it should last a bit longer. She discussed the strengths of this grip in one review, and pointed out how useful it is for long writing sessions (like college lectures).

On the other hand, if you want to combine two of our top picks for pens, she also told us about the uni-ball Style Fit: you can slot refills from both the Signo and Jetstream into one body and use both as needed. She told us “I prefer the Alpha Gel grip Jetstream, or the Japanese multipen Uniball Style Fit (Jetstreams and Signos together in one pen!), or the colorful body black ink sport models. Note: the larger the tip size, the smoother the Jetstream in my experience. I’d avoid the American Jetstream Premier (it looks gaudy and the black hard grip isn’t comfortable like the squishy-style Alpha Gel Grip) and, if they bring the colored-ink Jetstreams in the sport body to the US, avoid them. They don’t write as well for whatever reason.”

Testing

The three top picks and the super-popular Pilot G2.

Rather than testing this ourselves, we decided to rely on the experts and their decades of experience with pens and how they handle. We asked them to rate the three most widely loved pens on the following factors: Smoothness of writing, uniformity of line, fineness of point, flow, skipping, comfort, pressure required, feathering, bleeding, drying time, reliability and design.

The Jetstream was the best pen overall based on these important factors. Every expert we talked to gave it a perfect score for feathering, bleeding and drying time, and it also either came first or equal to the top in smoothness of writing, flow, comfort, reliability and design. That put it at the top of the pack for eight of the twelve factors we asked about.

The Competition

Our friendly experts also recommended two other pens for general use: the uni-ball Signo 207 (a gel pen), and the Pilot Precise V5 (a liquid ink rollerball). While both are widely praised and respected, they didn’t quite measure up to the Jetstream.

The Signo 207 outperformed the Jetstream in uniformity of line, pressure required and fineness of point, but did less well in other categories. Writing isn’t as smooth as with the Jetstream; it’s worse when it comes to bleeding and skipping; and, most problematically, it was the slowest of the lot to dry. Brian of Office Supply Geek did an excellent deep look at drying times for this pen on different types of paper, the area where it struggles the most.

The Signo 207 wins points for its bold lines and bright colors, and it is probably the lead pick for people who prefer gel pens. But it’s just not as smooth as the Jetstream, and it takes longer to dry.

The Pilot Precise V5 (and to a lesser extent, the thicker V7) are considered classics in the pen world. They were a lot of people’s first introduction to a better type of pen. It’s been the bestselling rollerball pen in the USA since 1986. However, it does show its age a bit, and the V5 doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the other two entries on the list (though apparently the click versions of these are pretty neat).

It features a design that’s either a classic or dated, depending on who you ask, and since it’s liquid ink, it is more prone to fuzzing, feathering and drying out in the body according to Elizabeth of No Pen Intended. Also, according to our experts, while it stands up to the competition in flow and skipping, it bleeds, feathers, lacks in smoothness of writing and uniformity of line, and is the least comfortable to hold.

Everything Else

The elephant in the room is the Pilot G2.

The elephant in the room is the Pilot G2, the insanely popular gel pen that is often what people first think of when they want a better-than-average pen. However, according to our experts, it’s actually pretty mediocre.

No Pen Intended did an excellent roundup of office pens that included the G2 and the Jetstream. She summed it up pretty nicely: ”Let me show you what the G-2 is good for. ANYTHING BUT WRITING.” She told us “the G2 is ugly and unreliable. I actively convert people away from the G2, unless I don’t like the person… Pilot makes good pens, good gel pens even, but the G2 isn’t one of them.” There are a few other reviews that she’s done of the G2, and they’re all in the same vein.

Brad Dowdy was slightly more positive, saying “The ink is very dark, but the pen can be scratchy sometimes. I was very happy when the 0.38mm G2 started appearing on the store shelves though. That said, I think its primary competitors – the [u]ni-ball Signo 207 and the Pentel EnerGel are both superior to the G2.”

Brian from Office Supply Geek said “The Pilot G2 is an incredibly overrated pen in my opinion. I’ve done tons of tests with it, and the performance is just way too inconsistent for me. It is actually one of the pens where I’ve found that different colors and tip sizes perform pretty differently. I’ve had one or two that performed ok, but many that were just horrible. You can see in this review that I did, where I call out some of my issues with it, but most importantly there is a picture of a writing sample where you can see how poorly it performs.”

That picture he mentions in the review is particularly enlightening, and once you realise these issues, you start to notice them on your own. Picking up a G2 after talking to these people, I noticed its tendency to skip, feather and glob—and how it just wasn’t as smooth to use as the Jetstream. To put it simply: it’s better than horrible, but there are many, many other options out there that are better still.

A look at some other popular ballpoints.

But what about everything else? There are a swathe of solid, affordable and smooth pens out there that we haven’t delved into. In our research, we came across the Zebra Sarasa, Zebra Surari, Pentel Slicci, Pentel Energel, Pentel Vicuna, Pilot Acroball, Pilot Dr. Grip, Pilot Hi-Tec C/G-Tec C, and Sharpie Pen, all of which are well respected and affordable.

The reason we didn’t go through and give each of these a ludicrously in-depth review is because when we started talking to the experts, their views were unanimous. Everyone likes the Signo 207 and the Pilot Precise, and they all put the Jetstream at the top of their list as a recommendation for everyday folks. They told us that completely independently, without any info on which pens we were interested in or what others had recommended.

Especially given their many combined years of experience and hundreds of pen reviews, the fact that the people who do this because it is their passion all recommended the same thing should be a pretty clear indication that that’s the way we should go. These are people who seriously love pens, and they all think the Jetstream is the best option for most people. We agree.

The Pilot Hi-Tec C/G-Tec C, for example, is famed for its incredibly fine tip, and you can find them down to just 0.25 mm thick—but since they top out at 0.4 mm, they’re just generally too thin for most folks. Not only is the pen super thin, but it has a needle tip, so you have to worry about not bending the tip or scratching the paper.

The Zebra Surari is a great ballpoint pen that uses an emulsion ink, but it’s hard to get hold of in the USA. You can get it cheap through specialist stores, but you won’t find it in a Staples, and on Amazon it’ll cost you a stupid $18. The same is true of the widely respected Pentel Vicuna. We needed something that you can easily get in stores in the USA.

The Zebra Sarasa is a gel pen that’s right up there with the Signo 207 in quality. But Brian of Office Supply Geek points out that the Zebra is scratchier and spottier to write with than the Signo 207.

The Sharpie Pen (not to be confused with a regular Sharpie) which you can even get in stainless steel, is a very fine porous tip that you can use for everyday writing. But, since it’s a porous tip, there are issues with the tip drying out, fraying, and bending with heavy or long-term use. Brian Greene also told us that while it’s “awesome”, it does suffer from drying slowly on some papers, and can’t be used to sign the back of credit cards, or with carbon paper.

The Pentel Slicci, when reviewed by Elizabeth and No Pen Intended was called out a little for not being as smooth as the buttery lines that some other pens provide (like our picks of the two uni-ball models), and for transferring color to her hand after they dried—a no-no for lefties. Apparently it’s an even bigger problem with the Pentel Energel line, which transfer ink quite badly.

Pilot Dr. Grip is another well-liked ballpoint, but to quote Brad Dowdy: “The ink cartridge is very nice, but it is impossible for me to not compare it to a Jetstream, and…it falls short of that.”

The Pilot Acroball is almost on par with the Jetstream, but the ink isn’t quite as good, as it has a slight tendency towards skipping and is apparently a bit slower to move across the paper.

A number of our readers are big fans of the Uni-Ball Vision Elite. This didn’t come up in our looking for recommended pens from the experts, and as No Pen Intended points out, the Vision Elite tends to have more drag than some pens, it’s slower to write, and is heavily dependent on good paper, as it can otherwise smudge or spot through to the other side.

How To Use Pens Better

Let the smooth ink do its thing, and just glide around the page.

If you’re used to cheap, scratchy or spotty pens that flow poorly, you might want to try easing up on the pressure when using something that’s a bit better to write with. In all honesty, you probably don’t need to grip the pen as hard as you do, or push down on the paper with as much force—especially with a very fine tip. Let the smooth ink do its thing, and just glide around the page.

Also, a lot of how a pen behaves depends on your paper. As Brad Dowdy told us: “I think the best advice I can give is that paper matters as much as the pen. No matter how nice the pen is that you are using, it is going to perform differently depending on the paper you use.” Thinner paper is much easier to bleed through, and rougher paper gives you a less-even line. So whatever experience you have is going to be mitigated by what you’re writing on. Shitty paper can bring down a great pen, and great paper can elevate a crummy one. And sometimes, a combination just works well together (like we mention in footnotes with the Pilot Precise and Moleskine). So be aware, your mileage might vary based on what you’re writing on.

Photo credit: Flickr user orqwith via Creative Commons

The world of Kickstarter has also brought interesting changes to pen markets. While we usually avoid Kickstarters at the Sweethome, many pen-funding projects are designed to take refills from a pen that you already love but in a new body. As Brian Greene told us, “Keep an eye on sites like Kickstarter because if you don’t like the body, grip, or design of a particular pen, but love the way it writes, there are lots of custom designed pens that can take multiple brands of refills. Although they are obviously going to be a bit more expensive, they can be great in improving the user experience in terms of how the pen feels in your hand.”

Wrapping It Up

The uni-ball Jetstream is a fantastic, affordable pen. It has incredibly smooth ink, performs reliably, lasts well and dries on the page quickly. It’s equally suited to the office or classroom, for the left-handed or right. We suggest grabbing a pack of the 0.7 mm ones, as they’re suited to most handwriting, and then sizing up or down if you want something bolder or more fine. But the pen reviewers all agree: this is a fantastic pen for just about anybody.

Footnotes

Our two also-good picks, the Uni-ball Signo 207 and Pilot Precise, are both excellent pens. Rather than bog down the main review with detailed discussions of both pens’ strengths and weaknesses, we opted to include them in the footnotes.

The Signo 207 is a bit easier to find in smaller sizes, like a 0.5 mm or 0.38 mm (though apparently the 1 mm version takes too long to dry, and is worth skipping). It’s also found in more interesting colors. Like the Jetstream, it has a special ink that impregnates the page more permanently.

It outperformed the Jetstream in uniformity of line, pressure required and fineness of point, but was behind it in the nine other factors we took into account. So it’s not as smooth; it was the worst of the pens for drying time; it bleeds a bit more; and has a slight tendency towards skipping.

That’s not to say it’s a bad pen—it’s still very good. Elizabeth of No Pen Intended is a fan of getting combo pens that allow her to load both Signo 207 and Jetstream refills into one body, so she can alternate (and you can also swap the refills between bodies if you like one more than another.

Brian of Office Supply Geek told us that “These pens are great if you are looking for a variety of bright bold colors to stand out from the usual standard colors. They can be found in a very wide range of colors.” In a review, he also said “the colors are so bright and solid when you write and you don’t see any of the whiteness of the paper coming through where you have just written…It’s nice to know that this pen has a great look and feel as well as writing very nicely.“

He also did an excellent deep look at drying times for this pen on different types of paper, which is the area where it struggles the most.

The 207s are also favorites of doodlers and sketchers, thanks to their bold, vivid lines. As Brad Dowdy told us “This is a great note taking and sketching pen. Students love it for its versatility and range of bright gel ink colors.” In a review of the 0.7mm version, he said “The pen looks and feels fantastic, and the black gel ink in most of my 207s lays down a very nice, dark line.”

Azizah of Gourmet Pens is a fan of the 207s for more worklike settings as well, and she told us “Excellent for a professional setting – unalterable, unique ink. The ink rarely bleeds through paper and the gel ink is offered in professional colors.“ She also mentioned that it’s her preferred recommendation for people who prefer a gel ink over a ballpoint.

No Pen Intended told us that she thinks the 0.7 mm version is “a little messy”, and wasn’t a fan of the bumpy grips on some versions, but also said, “I like using the ultra micro tips for technical writing, designing experiments, and generally making my handwriting look more neat and clean. I also like using the Signo ink when writing checks.” In a review of the BLX models she mentions they are “good smooth pens with rich inks, and I’m a big fan of the colors.”

The Pilot Precise V5 (and to a lesser extent the thicker V7) are considered classics in the pen world. For a lot of people, they were a first introduction to a better type of pen. It’s been the bestselling rollerball pen in the USA since 1986. However, it does show its age a bit, and it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the other two entries on the list (though apparently the click versions of these are pretty neat).

The design of the Pilot Precise is either classic or dated, depending on who you ask. Elizabeth of No Pen Intended falls into the latter camp, saying “The design of the regular Precise V5 is irretrievably stuck somewhere in the 90s. I much prefer the Pilot Precise V5 RT model: looks nicer, being retractable is more convenient, with no cap ridge is more comfortable.” She went on to say “The design of the regular Pilot Precise V5 is mind-numbingly uninspired. That is my greatest dislike,” and in a review mentioned “My only problem with this pen (aside from the slight (ever so slight) drag while writing) is the body. Look at it. It looks like the 1990s distilled into a single writing instrument. I mean literally, I’m pretty sure I have some of my mom’s POWERFUL BUSINESSWOMAN pens from the 1990s, among those several old Precise V5 or V7 pens, and they look exactly the same.”

She also said liquid ink pens aren’t the best option for most people. She told us that “[s]mooth liquid ink writing is really the domain of the fountain pen, not the liquid rollerball.” and that “Liquid ink is finicky, compared to ballpoint or gel. It can dry up. The ink is more inherently prone to fuzzing or feathering. I am not a good advocate for liquid ink rollerballs.”

However, she was a fan of a number of things about the V5, saying it’s “fun to sketch with,” “[t]he ink comes out in a nice Goldilocks ratio — neither too thick nor too thin” and that “I loved drawing with this pen–ink flow was perfect, though when writing I did feel some slight friction drag.”

Brad Dowdy, on the other hand, falls more into the classic camp, though he admits the ink isn’t quite perfect. He told us it’s “an old standby and still the best in my book”, and in a review said “ It is one of the best writing, best looking, best all-around pens to have ever been produced.” He also called it “one of the all time classic pens.” But in our interview, he also mentioned that “It is a classic design but doesn’t nearly as much use as the other two pens due to the failings of liquid ink. Mainly bleed and feathering on the wrong kinds of paper.”

In its favor, he also said “Another plus – this is one of the best Moleskine pens I have ever used. Moleskine paper is generally crappy, especially with a lot of fine tip gel pens, but this one just glides for pages and pages.” So if you’re part of the cult of Moleskine, these classic pens might be right up your alley.

Azizah of Gourmet Pens is a big fan of how little effort these take to put a line down on the page, saying “Somehow, the design of these pens require very little pressure for ink to flow, so these pens are very comfortable to write with, especially for extensive writing sessions. They are not the most aesthetically pleasing pens, but they are comfortable and reliable. On the other hand, they are liquid ink, so one must be aware of feathering, uniformity of the line (it can spread on different papers), and bleed through or show through.”

Brian Greene of Office Supply Geek was more firmly in the purely positive category saying they are “great for everyday use and for situations where you need some basic vivid colors like marking charts or notes.” He’s also a big fan of the RT clickable version, which is more comfortable.

When these four experts rated the three pens, the Pilot Precise came out first equal in flow and skipping. But it lagged behind in the others, coming last in smoothness, uniformity, comfort, feathering, bleeding and design.

Writing samples provided by @lillybellman.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on Sept 12, 2013 and is republished here with permission.