Pen Review: Retractable Gel Pens

Review by Tina Koyama

A few months ago I compared three gel pens that were known to have “dry” inks. My goal then was to find one that might help this lefty reduce the smudging and smearing that often occurs while writing. You can read that review to learn that I wasn’t altogether satisfied with any of the pens I tried, but I was resigned to accept smudging as a normal part of my writing life.

Obviously, I wasn’t resigned at all; in fact, I continued my search. This time, however, I went beyond gel inks that were classified as “dry” and decided to compare five retractable pens – my favorite pen style – from the broader perspective of build quality and overall writing experience. The smearing factor, of course, would be considered, but since this isn’t as much of a concern for righties, I didn’t weigh it as heavily. Unlike last time, I chose a consistent point size for all five pens, which would make the smudging comparison more apples-to-apples.

Like last time, for real-world testing, I wrote a page with each pen in my daily-use A5 Leuchtturm 1917 journal.

The five contenders are:

Pentel EnerGel RTX Conical Point (0.7mm), $2.80
Zebra Sarasa SE (0.7mm), $1.80
Pilot Juice (0.7mm), $1.80
Uniball Signo 307 (0.7mm), $2.10
Pilot Dr. Grip (0.7mm), $8

Pentel EnerGel RTX

I’m showing some favoritism toward the Pentel EnerGel; the alloy-body model was included in the last review. This is a case in which I like the pen’s style and knock so much that I keep wanting to love the ink, too, so that it can become my favorite gel pen. A pen’s knock is obviously a very subjective thing, but it’s large, solid and satisfying – my thumb does not slip off.

Interestingly, I like this less-expensive plastic model better than the alloy version, which is heavier and colder (an important factor on these winter days when my hands are already chilly). The pleasantly textured grip and the barrel’s medium size are very comfortable. The metallic-looking cone looks like the ones on more expensive pens, but the EnerGel RTX is priced like its plastic competitors.

Alas, the smooth-flowing ink is the same, and it still smudges (though not as badly this time as in my first review).

Zebra Sarasa SE

I have used and loved various versions of the Zebra Sarasa, which comes in such a wide range of beautiful colors. This SE model, however, was new to me, and it is definitely an esthetic upgrade compared to the “dry” version I reviewed previously or my heretofore favorite Push Clip – but costs only 5 cents more. The SE’s metallic-looking and conventionally styled clip feels more substantial, and I prefer the textured grip area to the Push Clip’s smoother grip. The SE’s drawback, however, is that it isn’t available in as many colors as the Push Clip (though the same refills fit). Also, the solid knock is slim and slippery, and my thumb occasionally slips off.

I thought the writing experience would be familiar to me, since I use Sarasas frequently. For some reason, however, this 0.7mm green ink looked and felt quite a bit wetter than other Sarasas I’ve used. In fact, at spots where my pen point paused, the ink bled through the page slightly. Paradoxically, however, I got very few smudges; it seemed to do better than the “dry” version I tested previously. I really enjoy how well this ink flows.

Pilot Juice

Available in a bajillion colors and in the same price range, the Pilot Juice is probably the closest competitor to the Zebra Sarasa Push Clip. I know the Juice has a lot of fans, but I have to say, I’m not impressed.

The Juice has the narrowest barrel of the five I’m reviewing here, so that’s already a minus for me, as I tend to favor heftier barrels. The push clip feels like it doesn’t open far enough (I never clip a pen to anything myself, so perhaps it’s perfectly useable for a shirt pocket), and its springiness is not satisfying. I am mildly entertained, however, by the pen’s transparent barrel offering a great view of the knock mechanism, which would probably get me through five minutes of a boring meeting.

My biggest complaint, though, is the ink. I chose the pretty Leaf Green, which is a bit pale but serviceable. But look at the strange mess on my journal page! Not only did the ink smear readily; it apparently reactivated the black ink that had been transferred to my hand from prior test pages and deposited it onto the Juice’s test page.

Uniball Signo 307

An older model of the Uniball Signo had been my go-to gel pen for many years before the Sarasa became my favorite, so this 307 model was new to me. Although only my first photo shows it at all, the clip end of the barrel has a unique basketweave pattern that would be ever-so-much cooler if it were textured (but for $2.10, I wouldn’t expect it). The grip is comfortably textured. Again visible only in my first photo, the clip has an attractive cutout feature that probably looks good clipped to a shirt pocket in a contrasting color, but I’d worry that it might snap off after a while (not tested, however).

Of the pens in this review, the Uniball is the only one that was described by JetPens as having pigment-based, water-resistant ink. I generally don’t expect gel inks to be water-resistant, so I was interested in that characteristic. In my test, however, they all performed about the same (test scribbles made in Stillman & Birn Alpha sketchbook, which is sized for wet media and therefore shows water-solubility better than the Leuchtturm; see results at end of review). The Dr. Grip was slightly more water-soluble than the others. However, as far as smudging goes, the Uniball fared relatively well. It blobbed at the end of my test, which did smudge badly, but the blob did not bleed through.

Pilot Dr. Grip

Slightly higher than the price range of the other pens in this review, the Pilot Dr. Grip has a hefty plastic barrel. For years, I have happily used the mechanical pencil version (which I couldn’t find currently at JetPens), so I already knew that the identical body shape would be comfortable in my hand. The metallic cone, clip and knock are all sturdy and substantial. (The clip, in fact, is so stiff and sturdy that I can hardly budge it.) Though I’m not sure these features are worth four times the cost of the other pens, it feels like a solid upgrade.

The ink, of course, is the same as the refill in the Juice, which smeared a bit (though the black not nearly as badly as the Leaf Green). When I finished writing the page, I saw that a blob at the very beginning of the writing sample still looked wet, and I was able to smear it deliberately.

Final Impressions

Because I tend to favor large-barreled writing instruments, the Dr. Grip is my favorite in this bunch for its comfort and all-around good design. None of the inks were standouts, but the Sarasa’s refill seemed to dry the fastest and therefore smudged the least. In my perfect world, I’d put a Sarasa refill into the Dr. Grip and be very happy! And guess what? I did! As Ana’s epic refill guide indicates, they are interchangeable. Well, not quite: The Sarasa SE refill fits in the Dr. Grip, but the Dr. Grip’s refill doesn’t fit in the Sarasa SE. (But I’m sure I have a Sarasa refill somewhere that will make the Sarasa SE serviceable again.)

Today’s moral? It’s one Ana knows well: If you like the ink of one pen but the body of another, it’s always worth swapping refills to see if they are compatible.


DISCLAIMER: Some items included in this review were provided free of charge for the purpose of review. Please see the About page for more details.

tina-koyamaTina Koyama is an urban sketcher in Seattle. Her blog is Fueled by Clouds & Coffee, and you can follow her on Instagram as Miatagrrl.

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2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I did my own comparison study of gel pens recently.
    My fave is the UniBall Signo 207, which is currently available in lots of colors.
    After that it would be the Pentel EnerGel-X models, which come in
    .3, .5, .7, and 1.0 mm tips, needle-nose and conical.
    Pilot G-2s are ‘America’s #1 selling gel pen’ for a reason,
    but I don’t like the Pilot Juice pens ink or feel.
    G-2s also come in .38, .5, and 1.0 mm tips, as well as the most common .7.

  2. The Pentel Energel model you reviewed here is my favorite pen to take out on inspections. But like you, I found the 0.7mm tip put down a bit too much ink a lot of the time. So I bought a box of 0.5mm refills ($10 for a dozen or so on Amazon) and switched the 0.7mm refills out. No smearing but just as smooth as the 0.7mm tip. Plus, I get to write in colors that no one else on my team has, making it easier to see who wrote what.

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