Trying to choose the right pen, but confused by all the different labels: ballpoint, liquid ink, gel, hybrid, rollerball? Yeah, we don’t blame you; it can get a little overwhelming.
Having such a wide choice to choose from though isn’t a bad thing as it gives you plenty of options when looking for a pen to fit your needs.
One of the questions that we are most often asked is what is the difference between these pens and how does this affect how they write?
Let’s start here: What all the labels basically come down to is ink. Even more simply put, thick ink or thin ink. Thicker inks dry quickly, last longer and make neat, but uninspired lines. Thinner inks dry slower and run out faster, but make sharper, more vibrant lines.
Pens are generally classed by the types of ink they use and the delivery system.
Ballpoint pens use a thick, oil-based ink that is essentially a paste. A ball at the tip of the pen picks up the paste and presses it onto the paper. The ink is carried in an alcohol solvent, which dries quickly, leaving the ink stuck to the paper.
Obviously, the advantage to ink that dries quickly is that it’s less likely to smudge. And, because the ink is thick, less of it comes out as you write, so ballpoints tend to last a long time. The ink is also far less likely to bleed through the paper.
However, the thick ink is more prone to clumping and takes more writing pressure to apply to the paper. Since you have to press harder, it makes for a less comfortable writing experience.
Our Top Ballpoint Pen Recommendations
Here are a few of our favourite ballpoint pens.
Paper Mate InkJoy ballpoint pens all feature Paper Mate’s unique low-viscosity ink combined with optimised tips, meaning these pens start to write quickly and smoothly with minimal pressure, giving you crisp, clean lines exactly where you want them.
Pilot ballpoint pens offer affordability with comfort, longevity and environmentally-friendly options. The Pilot BPS range of capped, stick ballpoint pens features a comfortable triangular rubber grip with refillable ink, making them smooth-flowing and easy to use.
The Pilot Acroball features a hybrid ink which combines the best qualities of fast-drying liquid ink with a quick-drying ballpoint pen, giving you smudge and water-resistant, archive quality writing in the ease of a ballpoint pen well suited for left or right-handed writers.
If you are looking for something a little more expensive, the Parker Jotter and the new Urban range are firm favourites of ours.
The Jotter has been one of the most popular pens in the UK since 1954, with good reason. Their sleek stainless steel style is combined with their unique ink system, ensuring a smooth, consistent flow of ink for your writing.
The new Urban line has a unique bullet-shaped barrel to make it smooth and comfortable for right or left-handed writers. Parker ink is water-based so it ensures a deep colour appropriate for any paper, making these pens an easy choice for many needs.
If you are looking for a pen which will relieve the strain of writing, PenAgain has an ergonomic Y-shaped wishbone pen specifically designed to let the natural weight of your hand supply the pressure needed to produce a smooth, vibrant line, alleviating writer’s cramp and repetitive strain injuries.
For a truly versatile pen, the Fisher Space Pen is a top contender, coming with a pedigree that includes actual space travel. This pen was designed for use anywhere. Being pressurised, it can write upside, under water, or on almost any surface, with a compact bullet shape that makes it fit handily in your pocket or purse.
Rollerball pens use a thinner, water-based ink that comes out as a liquid (which is why you also see them referred to as liquid ink pens). The design is basically the same as a ballpoint: a ball held in a cone-shaped or pronged tip that picks up the ink and rolls it onto the paper. The solvent, water, is slower to dry than alcohol.
Since the ink dries more slowly, it is more prone to smudging, especially for lefties whose hands drag over the lines as they write. The thinner ink also flows out of the pen at a faster rate, so the ink cartridges have a much shorter life than ballpoints. And paper absorbs the ink more readily, so bleed-through is a concern.
The main advantage of these pens over standard ballpoints is that the ease of flow makes writing extremely smooth, and the richer saturation is just more attractive.
Our Top Rollerball Pen Recommendations
There are many fine pens to consider in the rollerball pen arena, so here are a few of our top recommendations.
The Pilot V-System range of liquid ink rollerball pens all feature a regulator system for the ink flow, ensuring smooth writing to the very last drop of ink. Available in a range of widths and colours, the precision and longevity of these pens have made them a favourite for many years.
The uni-ball AIR features a unique rollerball tip which continues to roll smoothly at any angle, providing a dense line which is water and light-resistant. Combined with its comfortable feel, this makes the AIR an ideal pen for documents or any long-term writing.
If you are looking for something a bit more upmarket or sophisticated for yourself or for a present, then the Waterman Hemisphere pens are excellent choice.
OK, this is where it can get kind of confusing because this ink is used in both ballpoint and rollerball pens. The ink is a water-based gel that isn’t quite as thick as typical ballpoint paste, but isn’t quite as thin as rollerball liquid. It is delivered in the same way via a rolling ball.
The idea of gel ink is to achieve a balance so that it dries quickly and is less likely to blot or smudge, but still flows freely enough to write more smoothly than a standard ballpoint. Because gels use pigments, rather than dyes, there also is more variation in the colours available.
Gel pens, like liquid ink rollerballs, create bold, rich lines and tend to write quite comfortably. But the thicker ink also tends to clump occasionally, like ballpoint ink, and doesn’t always coat the ball evenly, leaving skips in the line.
Our Top Gel Pen Recommendations
With these considerations in mind, we have some recommendations for you in the gel pen arena – pens which we feel deliver the best combinations these pens have to offer.
Today’s much-loved gel pen craze started when the renowned company Sakura introduced the first gel pen with the Gelly Roll pen in 1984. Since then, their innovations continue with gel pens available in pastels, vibrant colours, metallic, glitter, even 3D inks – countless options which make them a favourite brand for anyone doing arts and crafts or just bringing a spot of colour to their writing.
The Pilot G2 07 pens are probably the most famous and written-about gel pens in the world. They use a fluid gel ink and are available in a wide range of vibrant, intense colours so you can add a dash of colour to your work or art. These ergonomic pens have a rubber grip and a retractable tip to add comfort and ease to your writing.
Another popular option in the gel pen range is the highly versatile Pilot Frixion. This line of erasable gel ink pens means that you can select the vibrant look you desire for your writing and then easily correct any undesirable mistakes that may occur – the best of both worlds!
The Pentel EnerGel range is another popular option, especially for left-handed writers. The EnerGel ink is specially formulated to combine liquid and gel ink for an intense colour line which dries quickly and helps prevent smudging. If smudge-free writing is a priority for you, check out our post here with additional information and recommendations.
Hybrid Ink Pens
Hybrid ink pens represent a fairly new development in ink pen technology. Taking the best features of a ballpoint pen, namely the ability to write on most surfaces with a quick-drying ink, combined with the intense colours and smooth, dense flow of gel ink, hybrid pens cover all of the bases. The ink produces a line which is as even as the line provided by a gel rollerball pen, but resists drying out, also giving you the longevity of a ballpoint pen.
Our Top Hybrid Ink Pen Recommendations
There are several ranges of pens available now which feature this hybrid ink, but there are a couple of standouts which we recommend.
Uni-ball was the first to introduce this new hybrid ink in their Jetstream range of pens. The pigment-based inks make the Jetstream range fast-drying with dense, vibrant colours that do not smudge, making them ideal for left-handed writers. Their intense colour also bonds with paper, making the Jetstream pen terrific for signing documents or using when you want archival quality and longevity for your writing.
The Zebra Z-Mulsion range is another line which features an emulsion of oil and pigment to give you an ink that is the perfect balance of a gel pen and ballpoint pen with vivid, bold colours to add flair to your writing or art.
So which one is best for you? That really depends on the type of writing you do the most, and what your priorities are when choosing a pen – the cost, the writing experience, or the way it looks on paper.
Expense: Ballpoints use less ink, which means buying fewer refills, and they're less prone to dry out when not in use. They’re dependable, inexpensive everyday writers that will get the job done.
Feel: Rollerballs float across the paper nearly as smoothly as fountain pens for the most graceful, comfortable writing experience. You can use them for long periods of time without cramps or fatigue.
Appearance: Gels produce the cleanest, most precise lines without sacrificing vibrancy. They’re perfect for adding bold signatures to documents, for writing journal entries, or for artwork.
Your best bet probably is to start out with a good ballpoint or gel pen and try using it for a while. You can always trade up if you want a smoother writing experience and don’t mind the added expense. But we’re betting that once you pick up the right gel pen, you’ll be perfectly happy to stick with it.
That's our take – but we want to hear from you. Which pen is working best for you right now?