The battle of the minions

What’s the best affordable, sub-£4, student pen?

My last post on a terrible £2 pen from Sainsbury’s prompted several pen friends to suggest alternatives that I should try out. So this review is dedicated to fountain pens that can be easily obtained in the UK for £4 or less. (prices correct as of mid-October 2021).

TL;DR – Jump to the Conclusion

For the purposes of this review, I am not a fountain pen enthusiast. I am not a pen collector, I am not an author, I am not a pen repairer. I am a school kid. I spotted one of my friends using fountain pen, and pestered my parents to get me one too. They bought me something under a fiver to keep me quiet. This pen is my first fountain pen.

I will do a quick review of each of the pens, from the cheapest to the most expensive one, and then give you my conclusion. Bear with me, as these are reviews rolled into one.


Platignum Tixx V – £1.89 (Amazon)

The pen… Platignum is a well known brand name in fountain pens, but I don’t think that the brand (which is currently own by Snopake Ltd.), has any other relationship to the vintage Platignum pens, other than the name. Unlike most fountain pens, this is a “disposable” pen. In other words, when the ink in the pen is finished, there is no option to refill it, you need to throw it away and buy another pen. It comes in a simple blister pack, it’s filled with black ink, and – according to the packaging – it can write a line of over 2000m (not sure if that is meters or miles, but i presume it’s meters). It has an ink window which allows you to see the level of ink and, as far as I can see, the barrel holds a LOT of ink. It is a good size, fairly chunky and sturdy plastic pen, with a stainless steel nib (as are all the pens in this test). The cap clips on the section securely and has a flexible clip. It also has a spring-loaded inner cap, which seals the nib when the cap is in place (more on that in a bit…). You can feel the spring, just before the cap clicks into place. The cap posts securely and deeply and does not affect the balance of the pen. The pen is designed in the UK, and made in China. It weighs 13gr fully inked, and it’s almost 14cm long and 12mm wide.

Getting started… To use the pen after removing it from the blister pack, you just remove the cap and start writing. And it writes instantly without hesitation and with full flow. I presume that this is partly due to the fact that the section had enough time to transfer ink to the nib before it even left the factory, and partly due to the ingenious inner cap that ensures that the ink does not dry up on the nib.

Writing… The pen has a steel medium nib (rather on the thinner side of M, in my opinion), and was – surprisingly – extremely smooth! I know that at that price point Quality Control is not at the level you would expect from a much more expensive pen, but the experience of writing with this nib, was just ridiculously good. Smooth in every direction, with consistent flow, very little feedback, and absolutely no skipping, however fast I tried to write. The pen does not draw a line under its own weight, but given that it only weighs 13g, that did not surprise me. Even writing in reverse, gave an extremely fine line, but had absolutely no flow issues. An impressive performance for any pen, let alone at that price.

24 hours later… I picked up the pen after leaving it on the desk for 24 hours, and again it wrote instantly. Absolutely no issues.

10′ dry test… For this test, I left all the pens uncapped for 10-15 minutes (as a school kit is very likely to do) and then picked it up to use. The first letter was a little bit hesitant, but was still written. From then on the pen wrote without an issue.


Jinhao 991 – £1.99 (Amazon)

The pen: Jinhao is a well established Chinese brand, who manufacture pens under their own name and also for other fountain pen brands. I believe that this 991 is their most inexpensive entry level pen, alongside the “Shark”. The pen arrived without any packaging, but with a separate pack of 5 Jinhao branded ink cartridges. Jinhao pens use standard international cartridge and converters, and the standard Jinhao cartridges are rather more generous in size than the standard universal cartridges. I think for that price, the amount of ink alone is impressive.

The pen is made from clear “smoke” plastic and it feels sturdy but a bit brittle. It’s the kind of plastic that is likely to crack if dropped, rather than bounce. In fact, there were a couple of small cracks in the barrel threads already, although they did not affect the pen. The cap clips and unclips on the section securely, and has a metal clip which is quite springy and very usable. The cap posts well and deeply, and it does have an inner cap which seals against the section, although it’s not spring-loaded as the Platignum or the Zebra. The section unscrews from the barrel to allow for swapping ink cartridges and, even though it cannot hold a second cartridge in the barrel, the barrel is long enough to fit a standard cartridge converter, if you buy one separately, which is great for people who want to experiment with different inks. The nib and feed are removable (push-fit) for cleaning and to support using different inks. The pen weighs a mere 11gr (with ink cartridge installed) and is almost 14cm long and quite thin at 10.5mm thick.


Getting started… As there was no package to remove, the first task was to unscrew the section from the barrel and add a cartridge. In theory, you just push the ink cartridge in the back of the section, where the breather tube breaks the seal at the front of the cartridge and allows the ink to flow. In practice, that proved to be a very difficult task! Despite pushing, twisting and every other method I used on the Jinhao cartridge, it was only with sheer brute force that I managed to get the seal to budge. Enough force to worry me that I was going to damage the pen. Given that it is very unusual to try and install an ink cartridge with the section inside the cap, I would not trust a 10-yr old to install a cartridge on a new pen, without stabbing themselves! That for me is a design flaw that should have easily been solved. Ink cartridges have been around for decades, so there is really no excuse.

Writing… With the cartridge in place it took about 3 minutes of waiting before the ink reached the nib and the pen started writing. Once it got going, the writing was smooth. The steel M nib has quite a bit of feedback, but it’s not dry or scratchy. It’s smooth in all directions, but it does tend to skip when writing a bit faster. Reverse writing dried up very quickly.

24 hours later… When I picked up the pen again the next day, it did write straight away, but the skipping was significant. It took a couple of lines of writing before the flow was sufficient to sustain a normal writing speed.

10′ dry test… After leaving the pen uncapped for 10-15 minutes, it was a little bit dried up. It took 3 to 4 characters, before the ink reached the nib tip, but after that, flow was as good as before.


Zebra – £2.49 (Amazon)

The pen: Like the Platignum, the Zebra is a disposable fountain pen. It comes in a simple blister pack with very little information, other than a link to their Zebra Pen website which, ironically, has no mention of a fountain pen in their product catalogue. There is no reference to where the pen was designed or made (on the pen itself it says “Made in China”), and no model number.

Although the exterior design is slightly different, the Tixx and the Zebra have incredible similarities. The two pens are made from similar plastic, they are roughly the same size, similar inner cap mechanism, and even their caps are interchangeable. More importantly, comparing the section, nib, and feed, they look identical. I would be willing to bet money on the two pens being manufactured on the same production line! Cosmetically the exterior design is a little bit different, with the Zebra having a more curvy overall design and a clear indication where the ink level window is.

There also seems to be a bit of a difference in the way the ink behaves inside the barrel. On the Tixx, the ink seems to coat the inner sides of the barrel well, to the point where you have to wait to be able to see how much is empty, whereas the Zebra seems to have a different coating (or ink!) since it easily glides off the barrel walls. Like the Tixx, the Zebra weighs 13gr. and has the same dimensions and volume of ink.

Getting started… Quite predictably, given that it shares its design with the Tixx, the pen wrote instantly the moment I took it out of the blister pack.

Writing… The nib was again very similar to the Tixx, but with a little bit more feedback. Not enough to notice unless you do a side by side comparison, but nevertheless it was there. Flow was good and there was no skipping at whatever speed I tried.

Both the 24 hour later test and the 10′ dry test, had exactly the same response as the Tixx.


Manuscript Dodec – £3.25 (Cult Pens)

The pen: Manuscript is a long standing British manufacturer of calligraphy pens and nibs. The Dodec (named after the 12 facets on side of the body and the cap), is the pen that kicked-off this review. A friend who read my previous review of the Sainsbury’s pen, recommended that I should try it, and kindly sent me one in the post (which is why the picture of the original blister pack above has a different colour pen). It’s the only pen in this review that was manufactured in the UK.

The pen has definitely a more plasticky feel than the rest, as it seems to be made from the softest plastic. For a starter pen, this can be an advantage, as it can take quite a lot of physical abuse without breaking. It’s also the only pen in this review that has a screw-on cap. Threaded caps are not conducive to quick note-taking at school, and I am not sure how well these soft plastic threads will sustain constant use. On the other hand, there is no chance of the cap falling off by accident and ink leaking all over last night’s homework. The cap is clear and does not have an inner cap to seal the nib, it relies (I assume) on its threads to provide the seal. Unfortunately it is not designed to post at all, and if you try to force it it will definitely crack the threads. I can imagine a lot of caps rolling off under a desk, to be lost forever. The pocket clip does flex, but I get the feeling that it will easily either deform or snap off. The section has quite a deep and hard cross-hatch pattern, which can get quite uncomfortable if writing for longer periods. The pen is the smallest in this set, only 12.8cm long and under 11mm thick, weighing 11gr.

Getting started… The Dodec officially comes with a single ink cartridge, but since I got mine sent without, I used a standard international blue cartridge. The standard cartridge fitted in place without a simple push, but it took a lot of effort to get the pen to work. After waiting about an hour with intermittent attempts, the pen refused to write. Eventually I had to resort to vigorously shaking the pen forward, until it spat a drop of ink on the paper. Then the writing started. That is not a good first experience for anyone.

Writing… The steel nib on the Dodec feels quite sharp and toothy. It’s not a bad nib, but it’s definitely more of an F than an M, and writes fairly dry with a fair amount of feedback. It had a bit of skipping to start with, which seemed to calm down after a bit of writing. The nib has no flex, and I would not be expecting it to. However, a little bit of extra pressure does add some character to it, which is a positive experience and hints to the company’s background in making calligraphy nibs.

24 hours later… Picking up the pen after a whole day (capped), it refused to write again. It took several attempts and a little bit of shaking to get the pen going. Having said that, I repeated the test another day later, and this time the pen started quickly.

10′ dry test… Writing with the pen after leaving 10-15′ left uncapped, the first 3-4 characters did not come out, but after that the pen behaved alright. However, it still skipped quite a bit when writing fast.


Oxford Helix – £3.99 (Amazon)

The pen: Helix Oxford is a well known brand amongst school kids in the UK. Pens, pencils, rulers, compasses, and many other school year basics carry the brand. This is their entry level fountain pen, and it comes in many finishes. I ordered the brushed steel one to test.

This pen is very different than any of the others in this test, despite being in the same price bracket. First of all it’s a metal pen, not plastic. That immediately feels a lot more luxurious and substantial in the hand. Quite simple and classic in style, it feels solid and well made. Despite its very English sounding name and the “Local British Brand” logo, the pen is actually made in China, and the feel in the hand is very reminiscent of other modern metal Chinese pens. The cap clips onto the section with a nice springy action, and has a clip which is functional but quite stiff. The cap also posts very securely and since it has an inner plastic cap, it is unlikely to scratch the barrel finish. The section is nicely tapered and not slippery. Like the Jinhao, and other similar Chinese pens, the nib and feed are push-fit, and are easy to remove to clean. The barrel is long enough to easily take a cartridge converter, but it does not come with one. The pen comes nicely packaged in a very presentable carton box, which boasts of “Plastic free packaging”. Being metal, the Helix is the heaviest pen on the review with 31 grams, but it does not feel heavy in the hand as it’s very well balanced.

Getting started… The pen comes with one ink cartridge (stored loose in the barrel). Like the Jinhao, it took a lot of force to get the cartridge seal to break. However, once the cartridge was in place the pen started writing very quickly without any particular effort. Overall, a good start.

Writing… The nib on the Helix is smooth in all directions, but writes a little dry. As a result, it has a bit of a drag on the page giving a faint feeling of writing with a wax crayon. However, the ink flow is consistent and it did not skip, however fast I tried to write. It is possible though that with a slightly wetter ink, the feel on the paper will be different. The pen does draw a line under its own weight, which is an indication of good ink flow.

24 hours later… Absolutely no drying issues. I uncapped the pen and it just wrote as well as it did the day before.

10′ dry test… After 10-15′ lying uncapped, the pen wrote a little bit dry for the first couple of letters, and very quickly got back to normal after that.


Conclusion

I wanted to like the Dodec, but I found it disappointing. It was really hard to get going, which is not a good experience for a first pen. The Jinhao is a good cheap pen once you manage to get the cartridge in place, and the fact that it comes with five ink cartridges is a bonus. The Helix makes a great present. It looks good, feels much more expensive than it is, will last a lifetime, and it offers the complete fountain pen experience.

My recommendation for a first pen, however, has to be the Platignum Tixx (only because it was cheaper than the Zebra and between the two the Tixx had a slightly better nib. They are effectively the same pen). I know that disposable fountain pens are not the most cost effective (although at that price you can’t buy much ink on its own, never mind a pen), you can’t use different inks, and disposable plastic pens are not great for the environment, but… hear me out! If the purpose of a first pen is to get a kid to fall in love with fountain pens then this is, by far, the best first experience you can give them at this price range. It writes instantly and consistently, it comes with a ton of ink, it needs no preparation, and it has an excellent nib. If the kid doesn’t like writing with a fountain pen, then you can throw it away or pass it on. If the kid does enjoy it, you can then progress to the Helix Oxford, or even a fountain pen in a higher price bracket. But even for adults, it’s a great pen to have lying on your desk for a quick note or two, but you run the risk of someone “borrowing it” permanently.

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