You have to give credit to the Zebra Pen Corporation. Its F-301 ballpoint is probably the most popular stainless steel pen in the United States, and any other company might put all its energy into maintaining that status quo. Zebra, on the other hand, continuously makes an effort to innovate and improve the F-301, even when most of those attempts fall flat (see: Zebra’s G-301, 301A, and F-301 Compact). Most recently I picked up the Zebra R-301, which is ostensibly the rollerball version of the F-301, but aside from the black and silver aesthetic, it’s really an entirely different pen.
To start on a positive note, I love the R-301’s barrel size, which is thicker than the F-301, making it a much more comfortable pen to hold. The R-301 also uses a cartridge refill, which is essentially a disposable ink receptacle (instead of a typical refill that also replaces the pen’s tip). This is a fairly unique feature for a pen commonly found in convenience stores, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the average consumer were a bit put-off by it. Although, there’s really no reason for concern, as it turns out to be a fairly simple system.
The R-301’s rollerball ink is noticeably darker and writes much smoother than the F-301’s ballpoint ink. Unfortunately, the 0.7mm tip is far too big on the R-301, allowing the ink to flow much too heavy and making bleed-through a major problem. In addition, the F-301’s retracting mechanism has been replaced with a standard cap, which is fine except for the rattling that occurs when the cap is posted to the end of the pen.
Tightening the cap and giving the R-301 a finer tip are probably easy changes for Zebra to put in place, yet fixing these problems would make the R-301 a substantially better pen. In fact, without these changes, it’s hard for me to recommend the R-301. Instead, you’d be better off sticking with a rollerball like the Pilot Precise V5 RT or, if you’re willing to spend a bit more money, a Retro 51 Tornado.
- A review at Office Supply Geek was mostly positive, though he mentioned the issue with the cap wiggling and rattling while posted. He also mentioned that the ink is quick to dry, which it is – smearing and smudging is minimal.
- A review at Pen Addict also mentions that the cap posts loosely. I’m glad I’m not the only person annoyed by this.
- A review by Rhonda Eudaly. She mentions that the ink takes awhile to get flowing the first time you pop the cartridge in. In fact, I remember thinking this pen was a dud when I first used it because I was scribbling for a full minute before the ink started flowing.