Shoot-out Review: 3 Cheap Fountain Pens, Part II - Bic Select X Pen
Woe betide my wife. Whereas she prefers things to follow the more classical stylings so common to those fashionable books, magazines and television shows (which we will here define as "good taste"), my leanings are far more into those odd accoutrements so common to the dusty backrooms of pawn shops, hidden behind a musty curtain, and we here define such things as "tacky" (if cheap), "strange" (if medium-priced) or "eccentric" (if a second mortgage is required). Lavender walls backing mahogany furniture is apparently tasteful, while Superman wallpaper and faux-Lego tables are apparently not, even if it's an ultra-cool riff on Siegal and Shuster's original covers. I say this not to demonstrate my nerd cred, but to give fair warning as to the unique side of my tastes.
The look of the Bic Select X Pen fountain pen, which seems to have arrived as a lonely and mis-shipped item in my local small office supply store, leans towards my definition of tasteful --which is to say, not that of my wife's. This odd little pen seems to have emerged form the Bic assembly line --a place not normally associated with fountain pens, at least in North America-- as a bastard child of an economic writing utensil with Captain Nemo's Nautilus.
The shape of the pen is quite unusual. The barrel is a tapered cylinder with a rounded end and an oblong viewport to see the ink cartridge. The ergonomic section (what many people refer to simply as a grip) is a textured rubber formed with a slightly triangular cross-section, not completely unlike the Lamy Safari. The rounded cap sports a curved clip that rather reminds me of mid-19th century girders, and the nib has a slick industrial feel to it. Taken together, it engenders a funky retro-modern look that I find quite tasteful. If it went beyond looks into being a useful pen, I'd certainly use it. But unfortunately the unique look of the pen doesn't quite translate into either quality or utility.
The barrel and cap, molded of plastic painted silver-grey, feel rather cheap to my hands, and it occurs to me that a dollar or two worth of construction materials (such as the PVC plastic used in the Safari) would have made a world of difference. The cap is painted on the outside, instead of dipped, and thus a glance into the cap reveals a sloppy paint job and a lot of bare white plastic a few millimeters in. The whole cap, including the clip, is molded from a single piece of rigid plastic, and the result is a stiff clip with almost no give. And, while the ergonomic form factor of the section seems to be a great idea, the section seems far too short for my hands --my middle finger invariably wound up slowly sliding within a minute of writing to the uncomfortable base of the nib (where the cap snaps on).
The pen has a decent steel nib, but the flow of my particular pen was inconsistent. First, it was a little difficult to get the pen started; it required a dampening of the nib and some very tight squeezes of the cartridge to get the capillary action going. Then, each time I used it, it took about a page of writing before the flow was consistent without skipping. Owing to the shape of the nib, the best flow seems to come when the pen is used at a steep angle (I like a medium one myself), along with a little more pressure than I'm used to. When the flow does come, the ink is very nice and dark and about a medium thickness. One minor note of caution: the ink can take a fairly long while to dry on certain papers --the ink on my lined Moleskine took up to 45 seconds before there was no risk of smearing. If you're the type who often finds the edge of your little finger running over a line you've just written, expect a mess if you're using a less porous paper. The good news is that the Select uses a regular international cartridge (it comes with a short, not sure if the long will fit) and so you can use easily available and inexpensive ink cartridges, or even a converter. The pen is thus quite economical and environmentally friendly in the long run, and you can use it to experiment with hundreds of different colours.
Speaking of ink, in my tests where I left the pens standing for a week in disuse, the Bic Select would not write at all afterwards. It was necessary to take a damp cloth to the nib to restart the ink flow.
Ultimately, though, the ergonomic issues are the biggest strike against the pen, outweighing both its design and its practicality. I wrote this entire article using the Bic Select, and found I needed to rest my hand every couple of pages. The shortness of the section grip, the steep writing angle that the pen encourages, the added pressure to get a consistent flow, and the middle finger sliding... all of these conspired to induce frequent cramping. Then again, I'm a "pincher" and tend to hold a pen a little tighter than I should. Your mileage may vary.
My cost for this pen was $9.99. Apparently, it was previously known as a Stypen, and the quality --as mentioned on various online forums-- seems very inconsistent, to the point of completely different materials used in construction. For example, the one used for a FPN review clearly has different attributes: real polished aluminum instead of painted plastic, a smoother nib base, a different nib, and so forth. (That review was also gushingly positive, unlike mine.) There also seems to be some confusion regarding where this pen is commercially available. Even the Bic catalogue implies that it's only available in Europe. Where --I hasten to add-- I am not.
It's a pity. I really wanted to like this pen, but in the end the ergonomics really got in the way. With some slightly higher quality materials, more consideration for the section grip, and a bit more testing (especially for ink flow), this would have been a winner. I still quite like the design, but --as you no doubt suspect by now-- my wife doesn't.
Pros: Very unique look; inexpensive; decent nib and barrel; can use widely available ink cartridges and adaptors; short ergonomic grip not bad for smaller hands (though it may be too wide for them).
Cons: Cheap-feeling cap; clip is hard plastic and inflexible; included ink can take a while to dry; can induce cramping and uncomfortable positions with larger hands; flow can be inconsistent.