I have played around with this for a while and I think I have it down pat. You should note that I am not reviewing pens as a person on Fountain Pen Network would. I am not concerned, per se, with "exotic" resin barrels or rhodium nibs. As with all my reviews I am looking at pens with an eye towards practicality and use. I use my $500 flashlight and my $400 custom knife. I am going to use any pen I buy. I find collector's items to be a waste, especially if you are collecting something that is supposed to be used, like a pen or knife. Art is one thing, tools are something else.
Pens are significantly different than the other kinds of gear I have reviewed here. This is why it is has taken me so long to figure this out. Two big differences come to mind immediately: durability and appearance. Talking about durability on a modern flashlight or knife is really quite silly; they are essentially bombproof (comparatively speaking). Additionally, while looks are important for knives and flashlights, often times you will buy a pen SOLELY for looks, knowing that you can swap out a refill you like into a barrel that looks better. I would never specifically address looks in any other kind of product review, but with a pen, because it is quite often a statement maker, looks are critically important. Obviously looks are purpose dependent, as I wouldn't want an everyday user to look like a Montblanc Meisterstuck and I wouldn't want my high end, impress-people-pen to look utilitarian. There are some other differences between the scoring systems so I'll lay them out below.
Here we go:
As is the case with all of my reviewing systems, an item is scored 0 to 20. There are ten criteria or categories examined in each system, with a possible score of 0, 1, or 2 in each category. If a product does not perform in a specific category, it gets a score of 0. If it does okay, about par with the rest of the products in its category, it gets a 1. If it does exceptionally well, it gets a 2. A score of 20 out of 20 is a very good score, but it may not make something perfect. In order for a product to be perfect and get the EDC seal:
It has to both get a score of 20 out of 20 AND be something I would really care and use. For example, the TAD Gear Dauntless is probably the best or one of the best production knives I have ever handled, but it is simply too big for my tastes. Reviews are, in the end, always biased and subjective, and so, to get that perfect score seal, the product needs to both flawless AND match my tastes. In a rare instance, a product will be a total fail and still get a respectable score. In those cases I will note that in the review. This has happened only once, the Lighthound AA light, which did a lot of things right but had a completely busted UI, so much so that no matter the score, it was something I could not recommend. Finally, if you look at the review database, found here, you'll notice a very large number of products with scores above 10 (which should be the average, given the range of the scale), but since I am picking products that I am at least mildly interested in, you will see very few truly awful scores, like single digits. I am not bothering to review those things. On occasion something will look interesting and turn out to be TERRIBLE, but that is pretty rare (see Gerber Artifact). I do a good deal of research before I buy something for review, so most of the garbage is filtered out before I get a review sample.
The first three criteria are the same as on a knife or a flashlight and so I am not going to into detail on how I will approach these aspects of a pen. Here are the three common criteria. For definitions, see the flashlight scoring system here and the knife scoring system here.
Fit and Finish
The next seven criteria ARE different and so I am going to break them down a little bit more and talk about them individually, and if possible, provide real world examples.
Let's face it, a pen, in this day and age, is often used as much as a statement piece as it is as a tool. When you go to your doctor's office and he busts out a Montblanc, you take notice, especially if it is a Starwalker (image from Montblanc).
If you went to a financial advisory and they had only BICs you'd think twice. Maybe this person is thrifty because they are a financial advisor or maybe they are just broke. Either way a pen's appearance is important because pens are, like watches, often a statement. A barebones, get stuff done pen shouldn't be overly shiny and bejeweled, but a "deal signing" pen for a Fortune 500 CEO should probably be a little fancier. Use, as always, will determine what kind of appearance is appropriate. Ideally, you can find a pen that looks great in any setting.
This doesn't necessarily correlate with price, as this is a very good looking pen that sells for less than $30 (image from JetPens):
That is a gorgeous, simple black resin Retro 51. As pretty and as refined as this pen is and as nice as it writes it fails in another way. See the next category.
With flashlights and knives, the materials used are generally so tough that there is no real point in discussing durability. In 50 million years from now, when we are dinosaurs, our lights, or their body tubes will still be around. Not so, however with pens. These are precision instruments and the cost of that precision is durability. There are quite a few places to check--the knock (or clicky), the internal springs, the nib, and the pocket clip. The Retro 51 I had failed at the pocket clip, then the twisty failed as well. What do you expect for a $25 pen where all of the resources were spent on looks and sourcing a great refill?
Writing Performance/Refill Compatibility
There are four major types of pens: ball points, roller balls, gels, and fountain pens. There are, of course, other types of pens, but these are the major groups. Fountain pens, for all of their old school feel and design, are still the cutting edge in terms of writing performance. Ball points, roller balls, and gels merely improve the convenience and the performance of the ink, but in terms of actual writing, the Old Lady is still the premiere tool (image from penfountain.org):
The fountain pen can do it all, writing wise. It can vary line thickness with ease, it can provide significant shading (the difference between the writing at its darkest versus its lightest), and it provides unrivaled physical feedback. The down side is that fountain pens tend to be more messy, more fragile, and more expensive. But if writing experience alone is your top criteria, there is nothing better.
Ball points (and roller balls) disperse ink via a small ball at the type of a long cylinder filled with ink. The inks in ball points are usually oil based, allowing them to dry faster than other inks, and to go on more surfaces more easily. The problem from the perspective of pen addicts, is the feel and look of ball point ink. They tend to be much more muted than the inks found in fountain pens or gel pens. Additionally the high viscosity oil-based inks tend to dampen feedback, making it virtually impossible to have the same feel for the paper that you get with other pens. Roller balls are essentially ball points that use gel ink and gel pens are the traditional "needle tip" pens. These two pen formats have bold colors and better "page feel" than ball points, mimicking in some ways the best features of a fountain pen with less maintenance and care.
A good writing experience, regardless of pen type, focuses on a few things--a lack of skipping, good "page feel" without scratchiness, and the ability to vary line thickness and allow for shading. A fountain pen typically does all of this well, and good fountain pens are untouchable in terms of these traits, but good roller balls and gels can get close. Other formats, like felt tips (such as the Sharpie pen or the Mont Blanc Fineliner) also do well. Ball points, however, fall behind all other formats in terms of skipping, page feel, and variability of line.
That is writing performance.
But in some pens, you can swap refills making writing performance not dependent on the pen but the refill. In pens that have swappable refills, the brand or type of refill is important. The Fisher refill, one widely preferred in the gear community, is a ball point refill in the Parker format. Cross has a different and incompatible refill. Mont Blanc has its own refills as well. The most widely used refill format is the Parker format. You can find a huge variety of ball points and roller balls that work in pens that accept Parker refills. The Pilot Hi Tech C, a Pen Addict favorite, is a new, up and coming refill format, probably the favorite gel refill on the planet.
A good refill then is one that is flexible, one that has a lot of options or one that does something really well. A Parker-style refill is probably the most versatile, while the Pilot Hi Tech C is probably the best performing. A warning though, some refills aren't really compatible with anything other than their original pen, such as the Zebra F-701 refill. In order to make that pen compatible with Parker-style refills you have to mod the interior of the pen itself. Its worth it, but something you should be aware of going into the purchase.
Balance/In Hand Feel
The pen as a unit has a certain balance and feel. When writing a lot, you quickly learn that certain pens, while nice looking and great for the occasional signature, just aren't acceptable for long term writing. Its not just about being light or heavy, in fact, some of the most well-regarded pens are heavy, it is about how that weight is distributed. Thus, a well-balanced pen can write for hours without producing more than normal hand fatigue. As a trial lawyer that takes lots and lots of notes every day, I have quickly found the pens that do well and do poorly in this respect.
The first part of the pen body that is important is the grip, the area where your hand holds the pen. Some grips are covered in gushy rubber, others are nothing more than knurling cut into a pen's metal body. Here is one of my favorite grips, found on the TuffWriter Ultimate Clicky:
Neither rubber grips, specially shaped grips, nor knurling is inherently inferior. It is more about implementation than design. Ideally the grip will allow for a variety of hand positions and not cause any hot spots. Its also good if the pen isn't overly slippery.
The barrel of the pen is the part between the grip and the tail (or knock on clicky pens). This part of the pen is usually just for aesthetics, having very little impact on the performance of the pen. A bad barrel can impact how the pen feels in the hand and screw up the weight. I can also impact how well the pen carries negatively interacting with the pen's clip, if there is one.
This criteria looks at how well the actual writing piece comes out of the pen. I prefer capless designs, but I can see why some folks don't. Caps are another part that can be lost or break. A good cap should post (mount on the non-writing end of the pen) securely and click into place to protect the writing end. A good twisty should be smooth and require only a few twists. A good clicky should provide tactile feedback and work each time, every time.
I hope these categories or criteria make sense. I will be applying them for the first time in the Prometheus Alpha Pen review, coming on Friday.