Cheap Pen Shootout
I've decided to do a shootout of my lower-cost new normal writing pens. I've wanted to review most of these before, but haven't been up to giving each one its own review. I will be reviewing these in approximate price order, from $0 to $30, and scoring them in these categories (each from 0-10 points): Aesthetics, Functionality, Value, Desire, respectively.
Pilot Varsity: A: 4, F: 6, V: 8, D: 3
These pens are the cheapest fountain pen money can buy, and are available in most office supply stores. The pen feels cheap, but sturdy. The nib is reasonably smooth and writes a nice medium wet line. Unfortunately, it's only available in a medium nib, which is fatter than I usually like to use. Some users remove the nib/feed and refill the pens, but I’ve tried this and won’t be doing that again after snapping one of the feeds. These are highly reliable pens.
Platinum Preppy: A: 5, F: 7, V: 9, D: 5
This is a great little, nearly disposable pen. It's the only commonly available pen at this price with a proper fine nib (and also medium). Aesthetically, it's a modern clear plastic-y pen, but it still feels nicer than any blister-pack BP or RB. The nib is slightly on the dry side, but extremely reliable, and the price can't be beaten considering that it takes cartridges or converters. That, combined with a removable nib/feed make it worth cleaning and refilling. I have also eyedropper-converted one, and it’s awesome and has probably about a month’s worth of ink in it. I've marked the Aesthetics category a 5 instead of a 6 for the annoying graphics wrap on the barrel. *note, the free Preppy that comes with Noodler’s Ink at Gouletpens does not have this wrap and looks MUCH better.
Pilot Petit1: A: 6, F: 8, V: 8, D: 7
This is functionally a Varisty (same nib/feed) with the following differences: mini-size, removable nib/feed, cartridge/eyedropper. These make a big difference to me. Also, the feed is made of clear plastic, so you can see the ink in/under the collector and feed. Well worth the $4 price tag, and available in many colors. Extra points to Pilot for molding small bumps on the back of the barrel so that the cap clicks firmly on the very back of the pen, extending its size and sturdiness.
Hero 626: A: 5, F: 3, V: 4, D: 5
This is an interesting Parker 61 quasi-knockoff. Much thinner and lighter than the original, and the little hood arrow isn't nearly as pretty. It feels like it's more expensive than it is, but not by a ton. Very light, and the nib is a tiny little pin. When it works, it's not terribly smooth, but writes a wet EF line. Unfortunately, it often doesn't write at all in my experience. I've only been able to make Parker Quink Black to work, not Noodler's black, or other inks. That said, with the Quink, it writes fine and even started up just fine after I forgot about the pen for a couple of months. It's cheap enough to play around with, but a pen that doesn't write and isn't worthy of a display case isn't generally worth having.
Hero 159: A: 7, F: 8, V: 9, D: 8
This thing is phenomenal. For $9 shipped from China, this is a great deal. It’s such a big, heavy pen that I cannot write with the cap on for more than a couple of minutes, but it feels perfect with the cap unposted. The nib is glassy smooth, even on cheap paper, and although the nib is a wet medium, I enjoy it enough to still write with it regularly even though it’s a bit too broad. The threads that hold the cap on are a hair rough, but that's a small gripe for a cheap pen. This is clearly a MB 149 rip-off, but it’s so well done for so little money. Overall, this is one of my best purchases. Also, if you don't like the nib, replacements can be found fairly easily.
Hero 001-360: A: 5, F: 3, V: 4, D: 4
This is a very interesting low-cost pen. Aesthetically, the pen is simple, and although not expensive looking, it is nice to look at. It has a lightweight aluminum body which is on the thin side. The cap clicks firmly on both ends of the pen, and the pen is best balanced with the cap posted. The section is a slick chrome, which is a little slick, but not bad. The clip is spring- loaded, which is a nice feature on such a cheap pen. Then there's the writing. This pen has been less than reliable for one big reason: the spring cap does not have an inner cap liner, so the ink can dry out through the slots cut in the cap for the clip. I haven’t figured out how to deal with this yet, but silicone, wax, and rubbery glues will be tested. When it’s working, the nib writes a very wet line, and I imagine that it would be nearly impossible. Aerometric Filler works best when the steel guard is removed. Overall, I imagine that the trident is a much better pen as the 90 degree slit angle in the 360 produces some starting or writing issues, but as a ~$10 alternative, it's a good carbon copy pen. I understand that there is a newer version of this pen that looks a bit different, so there are options there too.
Dolce Vita Naranja: A: 9, F: 7, V: 8, D: 9
This is a great, albeit a knockoff. This is easily one of my best looking pens at any price, and it's a reasonably smooth and reliable writer. Like most cheap/knockoff pens, it's only available in a medium nib, but again, I’m told it takes a standard #5 nib (not verified). It's a heavy pen, though not nearly as much as the 159, but it still feels good to write with. The nib is a bit small, but not totally disproportionate. Other users have complained about the cap taking a lot of force to pull off, but I've had the opposite problem. The cap doesn't slip off for no reason, but it has dropped the pen in my pocket, which is no good. Best for shallow shirt pockets, not pants pockets.
Pilot 78G: A: 5, F: 8, V: 7, D: 4
This Pilot is a wonderful pen. The nib/feed is the same as many other Pilots in the $10-$50 range, but the rest of the pen is very cheap in look and feel. I very much enjoy writing with the slightly dry, very fine F nib. The stub nib is a great medium for the price. The design of the pen makes it look like it’s trying to keep up with an MB or something, but the cheap plastic and gold trim rings and clip are gaudy and cheap looking. I've even tried sanding the pen down to give it a matte finish and make it look more honest about its price range (which helped). If you don't mind the looks, this is an incredible pen for the money, but I can't get over the looks and will either retire or give away at least one of mine. FYI, my Prera is in my top 5 rotation.
Nemosine Singularity: A: 8, F: 8, V: 9, D: 7
This is definitely a great pen. Good size, good looks, good writing. I don't like how this looks in anything but demonstrator (I normally don't like demos), and is a light, slightly above average sized pen. The plastic body and cap are very crystal clear and don't feel cheap at all. The nib is very large, but properly sized for the pen. I have the EF and 0.9mm stub nib, both of which are great. The EF is a proper EF, (think Pilot/Sailor F), and the stub is very smooth. Both write a hair dry, but adjust easily. This uses standard INT cartridges and comes with a converter. ED conversion looks like a strong possibility. Replacement nibs are available all over and for cheap. This pen is an incredible value that I would recommend to anyone.
Lamy Safari: A: 6, F: 9, V: 5, D: 6
Probably the #1 default newby pen, the Safari has earned the title. It's a perfect tool; it's reliable, writes a fairly smooth wet line no matter which one of the many available nibs you have, and is a cartridge/converter. You’ll need Lamy-specific cartridges or converters. It's also quite comfortable; slightly larger than normal girth, fairly long pen, but light enough that the cap feels good posted on the barrel. The triangular grip section is very comfortable in my hands. On the down side, there isn't much to look at. Weight distribution is good, and although the plastic is a hair on the cheap side, it feels sturdy. This is a true German no-frills tool of a pen and a perfect workhorse. Also, they come in many colors, including the Vista demo and Al-Star aluminums. Despite everything, I have a hard time taking this over one of the other pens as it makes no fashion statement whatsoever. $30 isn't steep as pens go, but it's almost 3 times the price of everything else here, and I don't think that I can justify that. One last thing, the EF nib is unusably broad for small hand writing; I would probably rate this a medium, MAYBE a fine. Oddly enough, the 1.1mm stub that I now use regularly writes much more legibly in my hands.
In general, I'd say that I have a hard time deciding between the Preppy ED and the Petit1 ED if I'm limited to $5, and either the Dolce or the 159 for under $15. I've heard that some people don't have such QC luck with those two Chinese knockoffs, but that's slightly less of an issue if you don't mind fiddling and polishing the nibs and feeds.