Ballpoint, Rollerball, or Gel: Which Pen is Best for You?

by TonyB on October 26, 2009

Pentel Hybrid Gel Grip

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.

But that’s good, too, because it means you have plenty of options when looking for a pen to fit your needs. All you need is an idea what the different pens do, then you can decide which one works best for you.

We’ll try to help you out with that.

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 generally are classed by the types of ink they use and the delivery system.

Ballpoint pens – These 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.

Examples of ballpoint pens are:

Uniball Power Tank

Rollerball pens – These 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.

Examples of rollerball or liquid ink pens are:

Jetstream RT

Gel pens – 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’s delivered the same, 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.

Examples of gel pens are:

Pilot G2

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?

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 greg October 26, 2009 at 1:56 PM

None of the above- why compromise when you can use a fountain pen?

greg

2 TonyB October 26, 2009 at 3:54 PM

What kind of fountain pen do you carry with you for daily use?

3 Alberto October 27, 2009 at 12:58 AM

Well written informative post that is sure to clear some misconceptions and faciliate selection decisions.

4 Tony Belding December 20, 2009 at 3:30 PM

If you peer closely at ballpoint writing samples, it’s remarkable just how messy and nasty they can be.

I haven’t experienced the clumping or skipping with good quality gel ink refills, unless they are getting old. Pilot G2s are good and available everywhere; Zebra JFs are better but harder to find. These are generally interchangeable with Schmidt rollerball refills, they can be used in the same pens. In my opinion, gel ink can and should displace liquid rollerballs completely.

My top choice is still for a fountain pen, though. The Pelikan 200 and Lamy 2000 are a couple of my favorite mid-price choices. You can move up or down from there, as your budget and preferences dictate.

There is also waterproof, archival and tamper-proof security ink now available for fountain pens, thanks to Noodlers. I suggest avoiding cartridges, as your choice of ink would be quite limited. All the really good stuff comes in bottles.

5 TonyB December 23, 2009 at 7:43 PM

I’ve heard quite a bit about Zebras, but haven’t used one yet. They’re on my list of pens to try. The problem I have with fountain pens is that my pen use is more often done on the fly than sitting at my desk — probably about 65/35 — and FPs don’t strike me as a “field” kind of pen. I prefer pens that I can mistreat, including occasionally chewing, and stick in a pocket without having to worry that it will leak all over me. So far, the G2 fits that bill pretty well. I just wish it had a wider grip. I think my dream pen would have the firm click-action and smooth flow of the G2, and a barrel the size of the Bic XXL, except with a gel grip instead of foam. And since we’re dreaming, it also would have a sleek black lacquer and stainless steel design, like a Parker, for the price of a disposable.

6 Prasenjit December 15, 2012 at 1:11 AM

Gel pens of good quality and from manufacturers of reputed cos. are really adorable, so is the Roller pens. They provide real comfort. But, while you are providing some sensitive info and or writing a cheque/check (US spelling), you must be , prone to, double check the instrument of transaction, so that , it can’t be tampered with or never smudged by sweat or water, it should preferably a ball point pen. And nowadays fountain pens are not in the vogue…it i s a passe.

7 Bill Zander January 16, 2013 at 1:22 PM

Gel pens are supposed to be the way to go as out have the best of both worlds. I use a uni ball jetstream SXN210 which I love. The only thing with this is that I would like the same feel with a more classier/ permanent pen. Is it the pen or the refill that makes the difference. If its the refill I would go and spend more money on a permanent pen and just buy the refills to get the same feel.

8 Jeremy February 18, 2013 at 6:48 PM

One note: the uniball jetstream is used as an example of a rollerball pen. The jetstream is not a rollerball (the uni vision is). The jetstream is a hybrid between a ballpoint and a gel pen. Also, the jetstream is by far my favorite non-fountain pen.

9 earl May 13, 2013 at 8:16 PM

as someone who has used & collected vintage as well as,premium fountain pens for years,they now all sit idle while i use my uni-ball signo with the UMR-80 blue ink refill;it is ,by far,the best writer i own,bar none; i ,also, would like to have a more upscale pen that would accomodate the UMR_80 blue refill;so far i’ve haven’t seen anything that fits that description;

10 katie June 21, 2013 at 10:46 AM

Personally i like the ballpoint pen best. Acroball or pilot rexgrip are perfect . I find ballpoint pens easier to write in than rollerballs actually. So thats just my personal preference from the view of a secondary school student. (:

11 AnOnYmOuS October 2, 2013 at 8:34 PM

I Think there is one is not listed there that is good, The LAMY Safari Fountain Pen is Really Good to write with!

12 ranganathan ravi November 6, 2013 at 3:19 PM

For good handwriting atpresent GEL pen is best one. Previously I used to write fax message with /gel / Black ink pen so that the receiver can get very good ligible copy of fax because of /gel/. For the last 25 years I am using different type of pens for articles writing and still writing. I worked as a steno/secretary for 13 years and I used to take dictation with Balll point pens only. My hobby also is pen collections. I also gifted Ball point pens for friends/school childrens for birthday/exam redults etc. thanks and regrds.

13 ranganathan ravi November 6, 2013 at 3:30 PM

Atpresent Gel pens are best for good handwriting. I worked as a Steno/Secretary for 13 years and I used to write dictations with ballpens enable me to complete without ommission. While taking dictation with pencil, ball point pen can write more faster than pencill. Everyday for the last 30 years) writing minimum two pages newspaper writing with ball pen or gel pen. I vermuch interested for gel pen only. For new collection of gel pen I request my brothers at Bombay to bring latest Gel pen everytime whenever they are visitng my place. FYI now my collection of balllpoint pens are morethan seventy including Gel.

Thanks and Regards
Ranganathan Ravi

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