Friday, March 27, 2009

Review: Bic ReAction Gel Pen

Bic pens - they bring back memories of the ubiquitous Bic Stic and the Bic Click - cheap ballpoints sold by the millions as far back as I can remember. I used Bic Stic pens in high school, with their thick, gloppy ink, scratchy point and the ill-fitting caps (which I tended to lose). They got the job done without syle or fan-fare. I do have a soft-spot for Bics, particularly the Bic Click, but I wouldn't list them as go-to writing instruments.

I was looking at pens at Target, when a pack of Bic gel pens caught my eye. A four-pack for $5. "Why not?" I thought, and bought a pack to test. I have to admit, I was intrigued by the claim on the packaging: "Shock absorbing spring system" for smoother writing. Shock absorbers? I wasn't planning on taking the pen off-road, but if it made the pen write smoother, sure!

The pen has a nice feel, tapering to a wider diameter at the grip. It felt firm and secure in my hand, but the barrel lacks any sort of padding. That wasn't an issue for me, but for anyone who suffers from writer's fatigue or arthritis, this pen might not be a good choice. Quality wise - it was okay, but not on the same level as a Uni-Ball or Pilot.

The pen is a retractable, which is the type of pen I prefer. I noticed that when I started writing, there was a definite rattle in the body of the pen. When I retracted the point, the rattle disappeared, even when I shook the pen. I tried another pen from the same pack and again experienced the rattle. Apparently the shock absorber spring is loosened when the point is extended.

As to the writing experience, I was well-pleased. The pen wrote in a fairly smooth manner, laying down a nice, dark line of black ink without skipping or scratching. I say fairly smooth, because there was a moment's hesitation with the pen when I first began, but this disappeared instantly and did not recur. Still, compared to Uni-Balls and Pilots, the Bic is just a step behind.

Overall, I can recommend the Bic ReAction Gel Pen as an economical choice for a work-a-day pen. It's a good value for a buck twenty-five per pen. The gel ink appears to be of good quality and the pen has a nice feel.

Now if Bic could only fix the rattle in the suspension.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: Field Notes & Doane Paper Memo Books

I enjoy using both Field Notes and Doane Paper Memo books. They are handy, well-made notebooks that fit very comfortably in a shirt pocket. They are similar in many ways, yet each has certain distinctions that I will address in this review. Let me say up front, there is no loser in this comparison. These are both fine products that will serve well. I like and use both of them in a myriad ways: task lists, mileage log, phone log, random ideas, etc. Still, the differences in terms of style and function are worth noting, so here goes.

First, the similarities - both memo books are 3.5 x 5.5 inches in size and contain 48 memo pages. Both utilize three-staple saddle-stitch binding with durable flexible covers. Both come in three packs for about $10. And, both are made in the USA! (Click on the links above for more product details.)

For all their similarities, there are some distinct differences. Field Notes brand offers three paper options: ruled, grid and plain. You can also opt to purchase a mixed pack that includes all three. The cover is tan (other color covers are available such as orange and blue, but quantities are limited) and includes some interesting and helpful printing on the inside covers - a place to add your name, address, etc., contact info to offer a reward if lost (or not!) a small printed ruler, and a list of "practical applications" that range from "to-do" lists to your last will and testament. The Doane Paper Memo Book, by contrast, offers only one paper option, but it's a good one! Doane's clever ruled + grid paper is included - some of the nicest writing paper available, in my opinion. It has bold blue horizontal lines with faint but legible blue vertical lines for the grid. The Field Notes paper is good, but not of the same quality or weight as the Doane Paper. I do like the tan grid lines which complement the look of the Field Notes tan cover. Field Notes also provides some nice freebies when you order - I received a pen and pencil, a nice touch!

I suppose the deciding factors are functionality and style. The Doane Paper Memo Book has a slight edge if one wishes to use a Fountain Pen. The heavier Doane paper is less prone to ink bleed-through than the Field Notes. However, the heavier paper makes the Doane Memo Book "springier." It does not stay closed as easily as the Field Notes (an issue easily corrected with a clip). I like how the Field Notes memo book tends to open flatter when writing. I understand that Doane Paper is using a more flexible 60# stock in their newest batch, as opposed to the 80# stock used in the one I tested - still heavier than the 50# paper in the Field Notes. I find I prefer the tan cover of the Field Notes to the black cover of the Doane. It's easy to write on the tan cover to identify the contents. On the Doane, one can write on the white inner cover, but the black does not lend itself to easy labeling.

As to style, I could see Indiana Jones reaching for a dusty and battered Field Notes memo book, jotting some quick notes with a pencil stub before rushing off on his latest quest. In contrast, I could easily see James Bond pull a Doane Paper Memo Book from the inside pocket of his tux, a combination Mont Blanc pen / laser in hand as he writes down the phone number of an attractive woman. But that's just my impression. In my more mundane world, I use them both. They are practical, durable, affordable and gosh-darn it, they're kind of cute too! Sure there are other options - the Moleskine Cahier or the Rhodia version. But I really like the two I've reviewed here. Maybe it's because they're made in the good 'ol USA. Maybe because the people behind them are passionate about their products. Maybe because both companies have cool websites. My advice? Buy a 3 pack of both - you won't regret it!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Odds & Ends (Mostly Odds)

The town where I live (Prattville, Alabama) has an abundance of antique and thrift stores. Some might say an excess number. The distinction tends to blur as one might find some nice antiques in one of the thrift stores and some pretty tacky junk in the antique stores. On occasion, I like to make the rounds in hope of finding some nice, vintage writing tools - fountain pens, pen holders, blotters or even an old manual typewriter.

I was off on Thursday, so I decided to check out three spots I frequent - the Old Courthouse Antique Store, the Goodwill Store, and a "giant flea market" that's located in an old grocery store.

Our local Goodwill Store is somewhat small, and their stock of items other than clothes was slim. They had some interesting small kitchen appliances that looked like they came from a mad scientist's laboratory, but no writing implements. Not that I really expected such at Goodwill, but they have been known to receive the odd typewriter. No luck this week.

The Old Courthouse Antique Store is an interesting place in itself. It actually was the Autauga County Courthouse from 1870 until the 1920s when the "new" courthouse was built one block up Court Street. It even has a historical marker in front. Entering the tall, white brick edifice you're greeted by a nice lady at the front desk. She smiles and tells you to "make yourself at home," which I do. The old heart-pine floorboards creak, but the building is in very good condition. Glass cabinets, racks of shelves and stacks of eclectic items lead you into a maze of the old, the forgotten, the unwanted and the occasional treasure. I spent a pleasant hour wandering through - no writing instruments, alas, though the proprieter said she had some fountain pens last month . . . or was it last year? I found an interesting toy typewriter, still in its original box, but it was of a more recent vintage and made of plastic. Pass. The nice lady said her husband was bringing in a portable typewriter. Manual? I asked. Yes. Does it have a case? Yes. She wasn't sure of the brand, but I can swing back by on a lunch break next week. (The Old Courthouse is only two blocks from the church where I serve.) I did find a nice, olive-green canvas satchel with numerous pockets. It will make a nice camera bag with some added padding. Three dollars poorer, and with satchel in tow, I headed to the flea market.

The Old Court House Antique Store is fairly large. The flea market, by comparison, is huge. As I progressed through the hap-hazard aisles, I wished that I had brought bread crumbs to drop along the way, or at least a compass. The flea market is a wonderful conglomeration of odds and ends - most of it odd. It's easy to experience a degree of sensory overload in such a place. Moldering old books share space with baby furniture. Carpet remnants lean against old outboard motors. Glass cases of baseball cards, cheap pocket knives and old vinyl LP albums are surrounded by the rotting carcasses of old computers and grimy printers. In the middle of the flea market, I was surprised to find a barber shop! "Doc," the barber in residence was not to be found (perhaps he got lost), but I was quite impressed by the ancient barber chair that took center-stage in his eight-by-eight cubicle. I expected to see a sign proclaiming, "shave and a hair-cut: two bits." Instead, there was a hand-written sign advertising $10 haircuts. Again, pass.

Unfortunately, I had no luck with fountain pens. The twenty-something young woman who was at the check out apparently had never heard of such a thing. I did find five typewriters - mostly recent vintage Brother electrics that looked like they had been buried in a field for several decades, though they couldn't have been more than ten to twenty years old. There was also one decent Smith-Corona electric, but it held no interest for me. It was, however, sitting on a very nice, metal typewriter stand that caught my eye. $10 was a reasonable price, but good sense prevailed and I moved on. I just don't really have room for a typewriter stand. At least, that's what my wife says. Still, if it's there when I return . . .

All in all, I spent a pleasant few hours digging through the detritus of other people's past. To be honest, I sometimes shook my head in puzzlement and bemusement over the vast array of tacky items I encountered - black velvet paintings of matadors (no Elvis paintings this trip), cheap Ninja swords, faded plastic flowers and faux-leather jackets. Yet, there were some genuine antiques in the midst - nice, sturdy furniture of a by-gone era, old hard-cover books, green depression glass-ware, coffee grinders, even an old leather football helmet like the Gipper wore. No pens, no pen-holders, no blotters . . . this time. But who knows when I'll find that old Esterbrook or Parker 51 or maybe that Smith-Corona Silent Super, just waiting for me to take it home and make it useful again?

I'll be back to continue my quest. (Cue "Indiana Jones" theme music)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: Uni-Ball Signo Premier 207 Retractable Pen

I'm a fan of the Uni-Ball Signo 207 retractable pens. A Signo with black ink is usually found riding shotgun in my shirt pocket. They write well, are comfortable to hold and are inexpensive to boot. Recently, while perusing the JetPens site, I came across an upscale version of the Signo 207, the "Premier." Click on the above link to JetPens for a photo.

Like the standard Uni-Ball Signo, the Premier uses the 207 "archival safe" gel ink, which is purported to be fraud resistant when writing checks. The ink bonds with the paper, making removal or editing difficult, if not impossible. I can attest that the ink dries quickly and is not prone to smearing.

I purchased a Premier with a 0.5 mm tip and blue ink. Although I don't normally use blue, I really like the bright shade of this ink. Back to the writing experience in a moment. First, some observations about the pen itself. The Premier is somewhat larger in circumference than the standard Signo 207 retractable. In addition, the finger grip has a cushier pad - a translucent gel grip to provide added comfort and reduce fatigue or writer's cramp. I found the grip a little squishy for my tastes, but not overly so. Many writers will probably appreciate the extra degree of cushion.

The Premier has a more up-scale look than the standard Signo 207 retractable. Rather than a clear barrel with black accents, the barrel is available in either a light blue, silver or gold matte finish. I chose the matte silver which contrasts nicely with the chrome plastic accents. The clip is nearly identical to the standard Signo clip, except for a gold-tinted clear plastic accent in the middle of the clip. The plunger is chromed plastic and slightly larger than the standard Signo. The Premier feels a tad heavier than the standard model, but not to the point of causing writer's fatigue. I thought it had a nice balance when writing.

That squishy gel grip has the added bonus of allowing one to maintain a firm purchase on the pen. It showed no tendency to twist or slide when writing. The fine point worked very well with the blue gel ink. I experienced no skipping and the ink flow has remained constant and smooth on cheap and premium paper. It is a very nice pen!

With that being said, I cannot say that the Premier is a superior pen to the standard Signo 207 retractable. I purchased my Premier for $9, but I have seen them listed for $15 and up. By contrast, the standard Uni-Ball Signo 207 retractable averages under $2. Aside from a less cushy grip and less glitz, the standard version writes just as well as the Premier.

So, do I like the Uni-Ball Signo Premier 207 Retractable pen? Well, sure. It's a good-writing, comfortable pen and refills are available. But I don't think it is nearly as good a value as the standard Uni-Ball Signo retractable. Unless you really need an extra-cushioned grip or like slightly more heft, the Premier simply does not have an appreciable edge over the standard model.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Seeing Red with the Pilot G-2

The Pilot G-2 is one of my main go-to pens. I love how it writes, how smoothly the ink goes down and how well it works in a Moleskine.

Oh, but I'm speaking of the black ink version.

The red ink G-2 has left me, well . . . seeing red.

One of my responsibilities at the church where I serve is to edit our weekly newsletter. The newsletter is created on a computer, but I prefer to edit a hard-copy. I'm old school - it's part of my charm.

And, being old school, I use red ink to make corrections. Why red? Simple, it stands out clearly from a sea of black print (ignoring the overabundance of color graphics, but I digress). I know that some people think of red ink in a negative light - connoting a degree of hyper-criticism, etc. To me, it is merely an efficient and time-honored editing medium.

I used to use red pencils (actually designed for editing) but these are somewhat harder to come by these days, so I switched to red pens. Red ball points have all the charm and utility of their black and blue cousins (not much), so I've searched for a good red gel-ink pen. The Pilot G-2 seemed the logical choice, as I've been so pleased with the black ink versions. (In case you are wondering, no, I have not tried the blue ink.)

My first attempt started well enough, the red gel ink flowed smoothly from the 07 medium/fine point - just like the black ink G-2's. I thought I had discovered the perfect editing pen. After a short period of usage, I began to experience some skipping, followed by a marked scratchiness. Assuming I merely had a defective pen, I pulled a fresh, red G-2 out and began again - with similar disappointing results.

"Perhaps it's the paper," I thought, so I went to a black G-2. No problems whatsoever. Puzzled, I found yet another red G-2 (one that came packaged with a set of black pens), thinking that I had stumbled upon a bad lot of the reds. To my dismay, this red G-2 also started well, only to skip and scratch after a few minutes usage.

Have any of you experienced a similar problem? I know nothing of how gel ink is formulated, but it seems odd that the black and red inks would behave differently on the same type paper from supposedly identical 07 points. This isn't really a review, nor even a rant. I'm genuinely puzzled as to why I'm having problems with Pilot's red G-2. I'd appreciate any insights you might have.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Review: Lamy Safari Fountain Pen

My first fountain pen was an inexpensive Schaeffer I received when I was in the third grade. I liked the little blue and chrome pen with its cartridges of blue ink. Sure, it tended to leak and the nib scratched terribly on cheap notebook paper, but I felt that my fountain pen gave my writing a sense of gravitas, though I had no idea what that meant at the time.

In the years since, I've owned several fountain pens - some family heirlooms, others more modern incarnations of classic pens. Though I don't use a fountain pen daily, I keep two Levenger Tru-Writers (one with a fine nib, one broad) and a Cross with a medium nib nearby. All use converters so I can write with a variety of inks (the real fun of writing with a fountain pen!)

I began to wonder what the ideal starter fountain pen would be today that would allow a person to experiment with different inks and nibs. Cartridge-only pens and disposables were eliminated by default. A bit of on-line research led me to the Lamy Safari. I've read several reviews that were generally favorable. The Safari seemed like a promising candidate, so I ordered a bright, tomato red Safari with an extra-fine nib. I paid under $25 for the pen and an additional $4 for the converter.

The pen arrived packed in a sturdy gray cardboard box with a muted "made in Germany" printed on the side. In the box was the pen and a Lamy ink cartridge. Note - Lamy pens must use Lamy cartridges if you choose not to use a converter, a cost and convenience factor to consider. (Our local stores do not carry Lamy products.)

The pen has a plastic body, molded in the pen's color. The clip is a rather heavy black wire loop - functional if not elegant. I thought the look of the clip fit the overall simple design well. The barrel is rounded with two flat sides and windows to view your ink supply. The cap clicks into place nicely. The steel nib is blackened rather than shiny. The pen is not heavy, but it feels well made even if it is mostly plastic.

I set aside the included ink cartridge and installed the Lamy converter. Please note that there are tiny plastic nubs on the converter that click into "ears" on the pen. It's easy to install this incorrectly, so pay attention to what you are doing. The converter worked smoothly, drawing a supply of Private Reserve "Orange Crush" ink into the reservoir.

The pen fit well in my hand - the flat sections preventing the pen from turning and aided me in holding the Safari in the proper position for writing. The Private Reserve ink flowed smoothly from the nib with very little scratching or skipping. To be honest, it wrote every bit as smoothly as my more expensive Levenger pens. I wrote on a variety of paper from Doane, Levenger and Rhodia. The results were pleasing in each case. I then pulled out a cheap note-pad of recycled paper. I experienced some scratching and the ink bled somewhat, but I attribute that to the cheap paper rather than the pen.

I highly recommend the Lamy Safari to anyone wishing to take the plunge into fountain pen writing. In fact, I would recommend this pen to anyone who likes fountain pens. It may not be a Mercedes, but I'd liken it to a dependable Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic - not fancy, but it certainly gets the job done. I plan on buying a few more of these pens - at under $25, I might buy one in each color!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Calendar Crisis!

I've been using the Franklin-Covey Compass system for about four years, after switching over from their larger, ring-bound planners. The Compass uses spiral planners for each month of the year (2 pages per day) in conjunction with a spiral bound 12 month calendar (2 pages per month).

I like the system as it allows me to schedule appointments, maintain a task list, yet still have plenty of room for note-taking. The paper is of good (not great) quality, allowing me to use most of my favorite gel-ink pens. You can use a fountain pen, if you use a fine or extra fine nib. Otherwise, expect some bleed-through.

This post is not exactly a review of the Franklin-Covey Compass system. Actually, I'm writing this to both criticize and praise Franklin-Covey.

First, the criticism: On Monday morning, I pulled down the storage container where each of my monthly refills for the Compass are kept. I was about to put February back in storage and insert March. March . . .March . . . March? Nope, no March. No June, either, though I found I had an extra August and September. No great consolation there.

Thankfully, I still had my 12 month calendar, but I was bummed! A call to Franklin-Covey proved to be fruitful (here's my praise of F-C). They apologized and are shipping me a complete set of the monthly refills for 2009. I should have it in a few days. Good customer service!

In fairness, this is the first time I've ever had a quality control issue with Franklin-Covey, and I've used their planners since 1995. Still, this got me thinking about alternative planners out there. Nrepose just posted a nice review of the Moleskine Daily Planner on his "Unposted" blog. Hmmm. A quick check on Amazon (Yes! On sale!) and I should have one of the Moleskine planners in hand very shortly. Booyah!

I'm not saying that I'm abandoning Franklin-Covey. I like their system and I've worked with it for 14 years with nary a problem. But maybe it's time to try a new system.

I'll let you know how it works out.