PenBBS Model Guide

I’m rather a fan of PenBBS, but even for me it’s getting hard to keep track of all the different models!  So, here’s a quick reference table and some suggested starting models.

Quick Suggestion Lists:

Bread-and-Butter Models: 480, 309, 456

  • These pens check all the boxes, with a practical high-capacity filler, caps that post, clips, and the ability to swap nibs.
  • The 480 makes this list because the converter is a practical, easy solution and it can switch to eyedropper filling easily for maximum ink capacity & higher inkflow.
    • The 480 gets recommended over the 308 because it can accept any JoWo #6 nib, where the 308 has issues with many.
  • The 355 almost makes this list, but its bulk-filler is a bit tricky to use

Minimalist Models, the Clip-less Wonders: 267, 323, 350, 469, 471

  • The 323 and (aluminum) 350 are good everyday-carry options.  The former can be eyedropper-filled for high ink capacity (3.4 mL!)
  • The 267’s design echoes vintage desk pens.  Very ergonomic but it is impractical to carry around due to the length
  • The 469 and 471 are eyedropper-only

Specialty Models: 267, 355, 469, 471

  • The 267 is specialty due to being unusually long (won’t fit most pen cases)
  • The 355 is specialty because while it’s quite clever the filling system can be a bit tricky to use. It’s well-executed though, and combines massive ink capacity with a shut-off valve and the ability to fill as much or as little as you want
  • The 469 and 471 are specialty because they only feature eyedropper filling.

PenBBS Materials And Colors List:

A helpful Redditor has gathered a comprehensive list of the different acrylic materials

PenBBS Models Table:

ModelFillerShapeClip?Cap posts?Ink Capacity (mL)Dry Weight Uncapped/Total (g)Notes
267C/C/EyedropperLong-tail desk penNN0.714.48
/ 19.15
Due to the “long tail” at 185* mm this is too big to fit in most cases
268VacCigarYY1.1 mL basic fill, 1.9 mL maxed16.64
/ 24.07
#6 nib, includes ink reserve chamber and shut-off valve. Injection molded – only 1 style
266/308 – reviewC/C/EyedropperCigarYY0.7 converter, 3.2 eyedropper12.13
/ 20.31
Cannot accept most JoWo #6 nibs – tipping hits inside of cap unless the nib is ground down
309PistonStd penYY1.711.1
/ 19.3
All-plastic piston, safe for iron gall inks
322 Mian MianC/CCigarYY0.78.17
/ 12.85
#5 nib (smaller than norm), injection-molded, no O-ring to eyedropper
323 (resin)C/C/EyedropperCurvy, flaredNN0.7 converter, 3.4 eyedropper12.38
/ 18.11
323 (aluminum)C/CCurvy, flaredNN0.722.5*
/ 31.3*
/ 21.5
350C/CFaceted capN†Y0.715.26
/ 22.73
Accepts Delike Alpha slip-on clip (probably the Kaweco sport one too)
/ 22.7
Might be possible to eyedropper but not ideal – no O-ring, and rear of barrel screws on
355Bulk-FillerStd, conical topYY2.316.11
/ 28.09
Includes an ink reserve chamber behind feed and a shut-off valve
380C/CNakaya Decapod TwistYY0.721.8*
/ 36
Aluminum-only (so far, resin may be coming)
456 – reviewVacStd, conical topYY1.4 basic fill, 2.1 max-fill19.08
/ 29.72
Includes an ink reserve chamber behind feed and a shut-off valve
469Double eyedropperDouble-ended LozengeNN/A1.2 mL x 2 sides16.88
/ ~21*
471EyedropperPocket Pen – CylinderNY, screw-on???13* without ring
/ 17* with ring
480C/C/EyedropperTorpedoYY0.7 mL converter, ??? eyedropper (probably 3ish mL)10.53
/ 19.56

Key / Notes:

  • * = Values I haven’t measured myself, taken from PenBBS Etsy site or third-party reviews
  • † = Not available out of box, but may be added by third-party modifications
  • C/C = Cartridge/converter – unfortunately I haven’t seen their cartridges. See the compatibility guide for which other carts/converters will work with PenBBS.
  • Unless mentioned in notes (models 322 and 266/308), pens feature a JoWo-compatible #6 nib that can be swapped with custom-ground nibs
  • All models listed as “eyedropper” include O-rings for eyedropper use and do not require silicone grease

Updates & Versions:

  • 31 Aug 2019: Initial release
  • 31 Aug 2019: Cleaned up table formatting a touch
  • 2 Sep 2019: Added links for the list of PenBBS materials
  • 4 Oct 2019: More info in suggestion lists

PenBBS 456 Vacuum Filler Review

Update history:
  • Preliminary review 15 Nov 2018
  • Adding background on vintage vac-fil pens & comparison against Wing Sung 601 – 16 Nov 2018
  • Extended-use review and more precise measurements: 28 Nov 2018
  • Failed filling system on one model 456, and separate model 268: 29 June 2019

The hotly-anticipated new release from PenBBS fountain pen has finally arrived.  It is especially ambitious for offering a vacuum filler at an unheard-of price point.   The vacuum or “plunger” filler is something of a rarity in modern pens — the best-known examples are the Pilot Custom 823 and TWSBI Vac series (Vac700, Vac700R, and Vac Mini).  It is actually one of the oldest “self-filling” pen systems, originally seen in vintage pens from Onoto starting in the early 1900s.  It is commonly seen in models from the 1930s-1940s  by Sheaffer, and in the Conklin Nozac and some Wahl-Eversharp Doric variants.  This mechanism usually affords pens both spacious ink capacities and fast filling, which make them perfect for travelers or heavy writers that go through a lot of ink!

Unfortunately, vacuum fillers require careful manufacturing and design to work reliably. Was PenBBS able to pull this off with a pen costing under $40?  Is this the pen for you or should you opt for another PenBBS offering or a different maker’s vacuum filler?  Let’s dive in and take a look!

History and Context:

This particular model has quite a history, first surfacing in Nov-to-Dec 2017 labelled with prototype photos calling it the PenBBS 268.  At the same time we saw a sneak peek of a prototype PenBBS vacumatic filler labelled as the 348.  Both generated a lot of excitement in the fountain pen community, because it’s rare to see pen manufacturers venture beyond cartridge/converter and piston fillers.  Frank Underwater covered this in his Dec 2017 Chinese pen news post.  A small and early batch of prototypes went up for sale on TaoBao and sold out almost immediately, but there wasn’t much news for months aside from teaser photos.  All PenBBS would say is that they were working on it and it would take a while.

Finally, in late October, after nearly a year of development and several other model releases, the first PenBBS vacuum filler launched worldwide as the PenBBS 456.  Update: in June 2019 PenBBS launched the model 268 as a cheaper, injection-molded vacuum filler.  I will be reviewing this separately.  So far we don’t know what the status is on the vacumatic fillerUpdatethe vacumatic model 348 is expected some time in 2019.

As a study in contrasts, Wing Sung, another Chinese pen company, also announced around the same time as PenBBS that they were experimenting with new filling systems for their fountain pens.  After a few months they managed to launch their model 601 featuring a “vacumatic” pump-filler that used a rubber diagram to provide suction.  Unfortunately this model had a very rocky launch, with early buyers complaining of leaks and problems from unreliable manufacturing quality.  Wing Sung did several rounds of improvements to the model 601 to address various manufacturing problems, and ultimately replaced the rubber diaphragm (which could wear out or break) with a superior pump mechanism using spring-loaded piston rings.  While the first iterations of the Wing Sung 601 had a lot of problems, I have the later model (without the diaphragm) and have been quite satisfied with it.

Wing Sung released early and then quickly iterated to improve their design — a business model we see a lot in my line of work (software).  PenBBS did the reverse, by polishing their design over a long R&D cycle before launching a refined final version.  But, was the wait worth it, and who won overall?



Clearly a lot of thought and refinement went into the filler final design — as you’d expect for PenBBS and for a pen that’s been in development for the better part of a year.   I haven’t tried enough of the other vacuum fillers for comparison, but the plunger system on the PenBBS 456 works quite well:

  1. Unscrew the knob and pull out the plunger
  2. Fully submerge the nib in your inkwell
  3. Press down the plunger with a fast stroke, and wait a few seconds for it to suck up ink. Now you have an initial fill (about 1/2 to 2/3 of the barrel), about 1.4-1.5 mL of ink.  To give some context, that’s quite a bit more than a converter (0.7-0.8 mL) and about the same as a full piston-filler.
  4. To get a 100% fill, pull back the plunger while submerged, invert the pen, and and press the plunger to squeeze out the air (holding down the plunger so it doesn’t suck back out).
  5. Re-insert the nib in the inkwell and press the plunger down all the way to finish filling.

Ink capacity is one of the big selling points for this filling mechanism, because it takes up less of the pen barrel than piston fillers do.  I measured it holding over 2.1 mL (!) when filled completely, and even a quick pump will suck up more ink than a converter can hold.  Of course, if you want the absolute maximum ink capacity possible, the PenBBS 308 and 323 come with O-rings for reliable eyedropper filling and will hold over 3 mL and there are a handful of oversized eyedropper-filler pens from India which will squeeze in over 5 mL of ink.

The plunger moves smoothly and easily, and when the knob is fully screwed in the plunger appears to seal off the feed by acting as an ink shut-off valve (a refinement also present on the Pilot Custom 823).  In theory, this seals the ink chamber to make the pen safe for flying,  but for extended writing you will want to unscrew the knob a little bit to allow ink to flow into the feed.  Unfortunately, either the pen holds a ton of residual ink or the plunger isn’t creating a full seal; I haven’t been able to exhaust the ink after screwing in the plunger, even after pages of writing including some dense scribbling. Perhaps a flaw, but a minor one anyway;  I have had good luck flying with PenBBS pens and even eyedropper-filled models as long as I keep the nib up during takeoff and landing.

Emptying the pen out is actually quite easy: you simply depress the plunger when it’s not in ink a couple times, and it’ll force out the ink and the pressure will even blow a fair bit of the residual ink out of the feed.  I haven’t had to flush the pen fully and change inks yet though — we’ll see how easy the process is then, because vacuum fillers have a reputation for lingering droplets of ink.

As far as manufacturing, the filling system feels robust, with no wiggle to the plunger rod and a tight seal all around.  (Update:) We did have problems with one specific pen out of a batch of 4.  The two weaknesses this filling system has are unavoidable with the mechanism.  First, you do have a plunger head that is physically moving and it may wear out over time (a problem with vintage vacuum fillers) — the place where the rod enters the pen is another place where wear or damage could occur. Second, because the steel plunger rod is in contact with the ink you should not use iron gall inks in this pen to avoid risks of corrosion. I know, I know: “stainless steel can be quite corrosion resistant.”  That’s fine for steel nibs that can be easily and inexpensively replaced. I routinely use modern, milder IG inks with some of my steel nibs; however I would not want to try to replace the plunger rod, if it’s even possible.

Update: problems with the filler on one pen?  After a few months of use, one of the pens developed a mild leak at the end where the metal piston rod enters the pen.  That’s a natural point of stress for this kind of filler — strain on it can crack the barrel or damage the seal… and that appears to be more or less what happened.  My partner carried the pen in their tightly-packed backpack, without screwing in the knob so that the metal rod applied strain against the seal causing this leakage.  Unfortunately this seems to have triggered a second failure that caused the plunger to come off the end of the piston rod somehow, and I can’t find it anywhere.  I think it’s fair to say that user mistreatment played a clear role in these problems, but this left me a bit concerned.  However nobody else has reported issues with this model so I’m going to chalk this one down as a freak occurrence unless something else happens.

As an aside, the plunger/vacuum filler is actually one of the oldest “self-filling” pen systems, initially patented in 1905 and used by Onoto from 1906.  In the 1930s-1940s, this filling system was used for the Sheaffer Vacuum-fil, Wasp, and some members of the Balance line, as well as the Conklin Nozac, and some Wahl-Eversharp Doric variants.  Richard Binder has a wonderful article on its history and how it was refined over the years.  Unfortunately, the materials used in vintage plunger-fillers often degraded and restoration is difficult due to the need to ensure the plunger and shaft achieve proper seals.  On the bright side, the techniques needed to restore these lovely pens have become more widespread over the years, and once restored with modern long-lived materials they are quite durable.  If you like the filling mechanism in the the PenBBS 456, it’s well worth seeking out one of the vintage vacuum fillers (from a reputable restorer, of course).

Overall, I think PenBBS did a top notch solid job executing the vacuum filler.  While we won’t know for years how durable it is, I don’t have any cause for concern yet.  Also, the gush of air and then ink as it fills makes it quite satisfying to use.


Let’s get the obvious out there first: although it is average in size, the PenBBS 456 is by far the heaviest pen they’ve manufactured (or at least up until the larger aluminum models).  Its dry weight of 29.7g capped and 19.1g uncapped make it roughly 50% heavier than most PenBBS models.  I find the extra weight is not excessive and gives it a sense of solidity that is satisfying, but fans of lighter pens will probably prefer the PenBBS 309 piston-filler over this model, tipping the scales at a comparatively featherweight 19.3g capped/11.1g uncapped.

If you feel the balance, it becomes clear that most of the model 456’s extra weight comes from the metal plunger rod.  Both the Pilot Custom 823 and the TWSBI Vac700R are similar in weight for this reason (within ~2g).  The PenBBS 456 works hard to balance out this extra weight toward the rear, but still ends up slightly back-heavy even when unposted. Initially this change in the balance made the pen feel awkward in hand (especially compared to the model 309) but I’ve gotten used to it and quite like it now. The pen does post securely, and although I prefer this one un-posted, thankfully it doesn’t seem to make the pen much more back-heavy.

Otherwise, the model 456 is true-to-form for a PenBBS release.   PenBBS manufacturing quality has consistently impressed me, comparing quite favorably to far more expensive turned-acrylic pens produced in the West.  That said, although they punch far above their price in terms of quality, they do lack a few refinements and adornments that you’d see with Franklin Christoph, for example.

The clips are one example: all PenBBS pens that have clips use bent-metal clips rather than fancier spring-loaded clips.  I haven’t had any issues with the clips so far, after carrying the similar model 308 and 309 clipped to my shirt pocket for a while — but some people strongly prefer the more refined experience that comes with a spring clip.  Nice to have, but it’s not a feature I’d pay an extra $100+ to get, especially given how well PenBBS clips have worked for me.

Anyway, for this model the fit-and-finish is generally excellent. My one complaint is that there is some roughness screwing and unscrewing the cap. It is hardly the first time I’ve seen this with metal threading, and a may be intentional to prevent the cap unscrewing accidentally; nevertheless this roughness is a bit jarring given the silky smooth threading on most PenBBS models.  The threads are not uncomfortable to grip however.  Otherwise the machining of the acrylic itself gives a smooth, perfect finish that feels lovely in hand.  It’s worth noting that a few of the PenBBS materials are somewhat softer and don’t produce as hard and smooth a surface — several of the cloudier materials have this flaw, including the one with bright blue veins.

Looking at the prototype,  which has plastic threading, I suspect the metal threading of the section was added to improve balance by adding some extra weight in the section.

Overall: quite happy with the construction, the weight is an interesting aspect, and while I have mixed feelings about the back-heavy balance the overall result is quite good.  It’s definitely not as bad as the Yiren 827 but remains to be seen how it impacts long-term use.


The model 456 pens feature the PenBBS F Waverly nib — I’ve reviewed them before for the model 308 (and smaller reviews for the 323 and 349 on reddit).  At this point I’ve lost count of how many PenBBS nibs I’ve inked and used, but it’s at least a couple dozen, and they’re quite consistent.  Almost universally they are moderately smooth, with perfectly aligned tines and a touch of pleasant feedback — not “buttery” smooth though.  Flow varies a bit depending on the filling mechanism, with the C/C fillers being slightly dry and the piston and eyedropper-filled models being somewhat wet.  Sometimes the nibs have a touch of baby’s bottom but never enough to be an actual problem in my experience.

The two-color nibs on the two model 456 pens I’ve inked feel a bit different than their normal F nibs and previous duo-color nibs from them.  I’d say they’re a bit smoother and wetter, and slightly broader writing. So far, flow is even and balanced on one pen and slightly irregular on the other, with less tendency than normal to show shading.  It is unclear if PenBBS has changed something small with their nib grinding at the same time as this model, or this is just the usual manufacturing variation.

Oh, and unlike the model 308, PenBBS has left plenty of room between the end of the nib and the cap.  This means if you don’t like the stock nib you can easily swap it for any of the other JoWo #6 nibs out there — including italics and exotic options such as flex and Zoom nibs.  Ink flow is generous enough that broad and italic nibs shouldn’t be a problem except for possibly extremely fast writing.


PenBBS also takes a semi-minimalist approach to ornamenting their pens, limiting decorations to the cap band and letting the material of the pen speak for itself.  Given that they tend to offer a large variety of lovely acrylic patterns, this seems like the right call to me; however, fans of more elaborate design elements may miss the engravings in the resin, medallions/jewels, or extra styling on the clip.

Here we should talk a bit about materials, because it’s a huge part of the PenBBS appeal. PenBBS generally produces their pens in a huge number of styles, and the pictured clear acrylic (“glass” in their store) is one of the simplest.  We’ve seen a handful of styles for this model so far (about 10 styles).  If past history holds, over the next few months we’ll see a variety of clear and colored demonstrators, marbles,  translucent swirls and ribbon materials, gradient marbles, and now a koi-fish pattern.  In my opinion the clear materials with ribbon or translucent swirls are especially striking, as are the marbles.  See a few examples from the PenBBS 308 & 323 family showing off the marble and swirl materials.

The main problem is that PenBBS sells the pens in small batches for many of the styles so you need to grab them quickly once they go for sale on the PenBBS Etsy store before they sell out.  By “quickly” I mean sometimes a matter of minutes — one of the model 456 styles sold out completely in under 10 minutes and limited editions usually sell out within a few hours for popular models.  The best way to find out what is coming up is by following the Instagram of the lady that runs the store.

Clear demonstrators are not my preferred pen style, but I wanted one for the new model to better show the workings of the new filler.  Although I prefer the more interesting materials, the result here is quite handsome.  I especially like the shape of the cap’s top, which elegantly splits the difference between a flat-top pen and cigar-shaped pens.  The cap seems like a small touch, but it just really sets off the look of the pen somehow. The plunger’s knob also has a nice taper to it. The overall shaping of the pen is both modern and refined, and I have to say it is quite lovely.

But since looks are in the eye of the beholder, I’ll let you judge.

Comparison vs. the Wing Sung 601:

I’d promised to compare against the Wing Sung 601, which was announced around the same time and also offered an unusual high-capacity filling mechanism.  Let’s be clear: these are radically different pens.  The Wing Sung 601 is a lightweight hooded-nib pen at less than half the price of a PenBBS 456, and it lacks the polish and refinement of the PenBBS.  The plastic is softer.  The hooded nib on the Wing Sung is acceptable but has a squared-off, angular feel to it that can make it scratchy when not in the sweet spot; although I quickly sorted that out by polishing with micro-mesh and now quite like the nib.  Although it’s a fun to use, the pump-filling mechanism on my late-generation 601 is a touch sticky.  It also inherits one of the flaws from the historical vacumatic fillers: it is an unholy pain in the derriere to clean out, because you have to slowly squeeze out individual drops of water to empty it between inks.  Plan on picking a single ink you love and sticking with it in the 601!  The arrow clip is cheap and a bit fragile — mine became permanently bent out rather quickly.  Overall, the Wing Sung 601 does not feel anywhere near as polished and refined as the PenBBS 456.

BUT (and this is a big “but” — I cannot lie) despite its flaws the Wing Sung 601 is a solid workhorse pen in its own right and I think you should buy one.  More accurately perhaps, it is the metaphorical dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant; this is a precise homage to one of the greatest pens of all time, the vintage Parker 51 Vacumatic.  This means you get the extremely comfortable ergonomics and balance of the classic Parker 51, and the hooded nib resists drying out when left uncapped.  It is close enough that one member of the /r/fountainpens Reddit created a Frankenpen with parts from both a Parker 51 and a Wing Sung 601.  Wing Sung  improved slightly on the original filling mechanism by replacing a fragile rubber diaphragm with more durable spring-loaded piston rings.   Finally the ample ink capacity (somewhere between 2 and 2.5 mL) is hard to beat, and means that the pen that also lends itself to extended travel.   Hopefully Wing Sung will continue to address the remaining flaws of the Wing Sung 601 — but in the meantime I think it’s a solid buy at just $15.  Even if you have a vintage ’51, this is a pen you won’t worry about losing when you carry it around with you.


The PenBBS 456 impressed me with its general quality and how successfully they executed the ambitious new filling mechanism.   Yes, one of my pens had problems, but there’s no reason to think that’s the manufacturer’s fault in this specific case.   My initial reservations about the back-heavy balance of the pen in-hand also gave way to general satisfaction with the long-term writing experience. Beyond that, there are some definite advantages to the vacuum filler for travel, due to its high ink capacity.

If you have smaller hands and the filling mechanism isn’t a must-have for you, I’d probably suggest opting for the lighter and better-balanced PenBBS 309 piston filler or a 308.  The latter can be eyedropper-filled for an extremely large ink capacity (although nib swaps can pose problems).

None of that is to detract from the accomplishment represented by this fountain pen model however!  At a time when Chinese pen makers are still infamous for producing knockoffs, PenBBS has created something that feels truly original.  They’re part of a new breed of Chinese fountain pen makers that are doing exciting things to shake up the pen market.  I think that’s something we should all aim to support.

Key Stats:

  • 29.7g overall, 19.1g uncapped
    • Compare to the PenBBS 308 at 20.3g/12.1g
  • Ink capacity: 2.1 mL
  • Length (metric):  145 mm capped, 130 mm uncapped, 160 mm with cap posted
  • Length (imperial): 5.7″ capped, 5.1″ uncapped, 6.3″ with cap posted

PenBBS Cartridge/Converter Compatibility Guide

After seeing a lot of conflicting information floating around, I decided to do some testing of which PenBBS pens will work with which cartridges and converters.  What I found is a bit odd.

Using PenBBS Converters In Other Maker’s Pens:

  • At least some Lamy pens will accept PenBBS converters (tested with Lamy Aion).  You may need to hold the converter with one hand while turning its piston knob – they lack the nubs that hold the Lamy Z24/Z28 in place for Lamy Safari, Al Start, etc pens.
  • At least some Parker pens will accept PenBBS converters – I am using one in my vintage Parker 45.


Using other converters/cartridges in PenBBS pens:

Here’s where it gets a little crazy!  Some models have a narrower inner diameter for their sections and will not accept Lamy or Parker cartridges.  Unfortunately I do not have a modern Parker cartridge or converter to test with – maybe someone can volunteer to do the experiment with them?

  • PenBBS 308
    • Does not accept Lamy converters – section inner diameter too narrow
    • Might accept Lamy cartridges – didn’t pierce it but it feels like it would fit although maybe not perfectly
    • Accepts modern Parker converters (confirmed by redditor).  For the slide converters, it may require trimming a bit off the end of the converter (reported in comments, I have not been able to verify myself).
    • Should accept modern Parker cartridges — the shorter ones at least, and the longer ones may require snipping off piece of plastic from the end (but not tested yet).  It has been reported that they will not be pierced though (I haven’t been able to verify).
    • Ready to eyedropper-fill.  O-rings even included!
  • PenBBS 309
    • This is a piston-filler, so no cartridges or converters, silly!
  • PenBBS 323:
    • Accepts Lamy converter
    • Should accept Lamy cartridge (seems like it should work but I didn’t go as far as piercing the cartridge top)
    • Should accept modern Parker converters
    • Accepts modern Parker cartridges — the shorter ones at least, and the longer ones may require snipping off piece of plastic from the end
    • Ready to eyedropper-fill.  O-rings even included!
  • PenBBS 349: Does not accept Lamy or Parker cartridges/converters, section inner diameter too narrow
    • Should not be eyedropper-filled due to metal section (also lacks O-rings).
  • PenBBS 267:
    • Accepts Lamy converter
    • Likely accepts Lamy cartridge (seems like it should work but I didn’t go as far as piercing the cartridge top)
    • Should accept modern Parker converters
    • Accepts modern Parker cartridges — the shorter ones at least, and the longer ones may require snipping off piece of plastic from the end
    • Ready to eyedropper-fill.  O-rings even included!
  • PenBBS 350: Does not accept any other maker’s cartridges/converters — inner diameter of section too narrow
    • Should not be eyedropper-filled because it is a metal pen.

I can mention that I tested with a vintage Parker 45 aerometric converter — unfortunately there’s a band where the converter broadens that will prevent the converter from fitting in PenBBS barrels even if the section accepts the converter

*Modern Parker converters/cartridges don’t have that band so they seem like they should fit if Lamy cartridges/converters fit the pen and the vintage converter fits into the section.


PenBBS 308 Review

So, spoilers up front: after a month of regular use, I think you should buy a PenBBS 308. It doesn’t matter whether you are just starting to explore fountain pens or a seasoned collector with a drawer full of treasures. Why?  PenBBS is the Chinese forum for fountain pen enthusiasts, the equivalent to the international FountainPenNetwork.  So, these are pens made by fountain pen lovers for fountain pen lovers, and it shows in many ways!  The quality-to-price ratio is also the best I’ve seen so far — they’re ridiculously good values.

PenBBS 308 Style #2 – Blue Swirl/Marble

Continue reading “PenBBS 308 Review”

Pen Review: Yiren 827

2017-12-06 12.12.28

First thing to get out of the way: this Chinese pen is unabashedly hefty at about 50g listed weight.  I measured it at 57g total with ink and 39g uncapped.  It also has an amazingly smooth nib with a flat-bottomed feed and no breather hole (see below).  The Yiren 827 is a very consistent and slightly wet writer, with no issues skipping, dropping ink blobs, and not so wet that feathering and bleed-through are big concerns.

Continue reading “Pen Review: Yiren 827”

Review: Lamy Aion

2017-12-06 11.59.43.jpg

First off, I’m going to gush a bit about the body of the Lamy Aion. The photos and descriptions truly don’t do justice to the hard-anodized black finish; it makes you just want to hold the pen, and adds a satisfying amount of grip. The section also has a more velvety texture that adds to this. The anodized coating feels incredibly durable and functional but is also more elegant than you’d think, in a satisfying minimalist way.  It feels like this pen will hold up to every day carry and punishment for years without showing any sign of wear thanks to the tough coating — but I have heard reports that people are able to chip it or scratch it with metal-bodied pens.  I think it’s a pen that might actually benefit from a little wear to give it the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Do be careful not to put the Aion in a pocket with soft plastic pens though or it might scratch them.

Now, it is a large and moderately heavy pen, but balances perfectly unposted so you don’t feel the weight or size. It just settles naturally into your hand and the relatively thick section helps with ergonomics. It posts (not very firmly), but you probably won’t want to — the balance becomes back heavy and the unbalanced extra weight makes it awkward.

Continue reading “Review: Lamy Aion”

Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 1 of 2: Outstanding Thinkpads for Most People

How can you get a $200-500 laptop that is better than new machines costing 2-3x as much?

As the title indicates, the answer is used and refurbished Lenovo Thinkpads.  Thinkpads offer some of the best values in modern laptop due to excellent keyboards, solid durability, plus simple repairs and upgrades. By installing a SSD and upgrading to 8 GB of memory, even old machines become modern powerhouses.  Some are even sold pre-upgraded, but if not I highly suggest the Samsung 850 EVO SSD.

Unfortunately there are a bewildering array of configurations, so I’ve put together a short list of suggested models for most people, to help pick!

See also:

X230: A Lovable Compact For Mobile and Everyday Use

Specs to look for: IPS screen (mandatory), i5-3320M CPU (or i7-3520M for +20%  performance) – avoid the slower i5-3210M CPU.

Price estimate: $150-250 depending

There are few laptops that one could truly describe as “lovable”, but the X230 is one of them.  Its appeal comes from a compact and satisfying-feeling chassis, top-notch keyboard, high-contrast and fairly bright IPS display, light weight (3-3.7 lbs, or 1.3-1.7 kg), and shockingly high level of performance.  The performance comes from using a more power-hungry 35W mobile CPU rather than the 15W ultra-low power chips now standard in most laptops.  This enables it to compete well with 2016 laptops.  The generous 9-cell battery also permits it to achieve over 8 hours of battery life with web browsing or light use.  All of this is despite being half a decade old!

Other perks include the ability to use the ExpressCard slot for external graphics enclosures and a number of other mods and custom upgrades.

Cons: low-resolution 1366×768 screen – this is far better than you’ll expect due to the good contrast and viewing angles on the IPS version, but does limit the amount of content on-screen somewhat.

Links: Set-up & tweaks guide, Upgrade/mod options listPlatform Specifications (PSREF), and NotebookCheck review

T430: A Compromise Between Power and Mobility, Excellent for Students and Developers

Specs to look for: HD+ (1600×900) screen, Nvidia graphics (if you game), i5-3320M processor or i7 — or buy a cheap model with the i5-3210M CPU and upgrade to quad-core

Price: $150-300 depending.  Items without a hard drive can be great deals at ~$120, since you’ll probably be upgrading to a SSD anyway.  Windows users will want to make sure it still has a license though.

Think of this as the big brother of the X230 above.  It adds a couple big perks in exchange for a heavier weight (5.1 lbs/2.3 kg with 9-cell battery) and larger size.  For one, the larger and higher-resolution 1600×900 resolution screen offers more usable pixels for text or content, which is especially a benefit for developers.  The T430 also has a socketed CPU that can be upgraded by users from a dual-core M-series processor to blazing-fast quad-core QM-series processor for twice the speed.  The i7-3720QM processor is an especially good value for under $100 used from eBay.  Finally, the optional Nvidia graphics make it suitable for light gaming and CAD or 3D work – comparable to the Intel integrated graphics in the 2017 dual-core laptops.

Cons: low-contrast screen (TN) with poor viewing angles and color representation – the X230 IPS screen is easier on the eyes, and the T530 Full-HD (1920×1080) screen is also far superior.   Screen may be upgraded with the somewhat better AUO B140RTN02.1 panel, with improved contrast, brightness, and viewing angles. But even with the upgrade, this is still a TN panel and inferior to the later IPS options.

Links: Platform Specification (PSREF), NotebookCheck review

T450s: A Sleek Premium Machine

Specs to look for: FHD (1920×1080) IPS screen, and avoid touch screens unless you’re dying for that feature, because they add ~0.5 lbs/200g and significantly reduce battery life. Strongly prefer the i5-5300U or i7-5600U processor for better performance.

Price: $450-700

This model offers the full modern ultrabook experience and modern ports/connections.  Nearly the same size as the X230 (just an inch wider) and almost the same weight, the T450s packs even more into the package, featuring a full-HD IPS screen with excellent color representation — one of the two display panels is even suitable for semiprofessional photo editing.   It also boasts ~10 hours battery life under light use and hot-swappable rear batteries, which make it extremely friendly to mobile use.  Finally, the addition of Intel 8265 wireless card more than doubles the network speeds with the 802.11ac standard — critical if you use file sharing/network storage or are lucky enough to have a fiber Internet connection.

Cons: cost and lack of an eGPU option, 4 GB soldered memory and only 1 expansion socket for additional RAM, somewhat slower than the other options here due to a low-power processor.

Upgrade limiter: For the T450 & T450s, there is a display panel whitelist — if you use a panel without an FRU (field replaceable unit) number, brightness control is broken in the Windows driver.  This limits you to panels that originally shipped with this laptop.

Links: Platform Specification (PSREF), NotebookCheck review

X230t: All the X230 Goodness Plus Pen-Tablet Perks

Specs to look for:  multitouch (not outdoors screen) – the outdoors model only takes pen input, not fingers.  i7-3520M processor gives +20% performance.

Price: $125-300, depending on condition and upgrades

Extremely versatile, a mobile all-arounder that shares most of the wonderful aspects of the X230 above.  Let’s talk about what’s different!  Compared to the X230 above, it adds a multitouch screen with a pressure-sensitive digitizer and a fold-and-rotate convertible display.  This makes it exceptionally useful, because for reading pages of vertical content you can convert to tablet mode to show almost double the content.  I love mine for reading books, comics, or whitepapers — although the weight means you’ll want to prop it against something.

For diagrams or notes, the on-screen digitizer with pen is extremely useful;  I highly suggest it for students or software engineers to hold notes or technical diagrams.  It handily replaces a notepad or whiteboard. It’s also a frugal way to dip your toe in digital painting/artwork; however, serious artists will find the limited screen resolution and color range restrictive, and will probably fnd the pen less useful than more modern premium models (Thinkpad X1 Yoga, Microsoft Surface Pro, 15″ HP Spectre x360, Thinkpad Yoga 370).

There are a couple small sacrifices vs. the X230:  it’s heavier at 4 pounds vs. 3.3 with a 6-cell battery – and the X230t does not have a 9-cell battery, so you’re limited to about 6 hours of practical use.  The rotating single-hinge design is also more fragile and prone to a bit of wobble.

All this said, you are getting a full and capable laptop plus tablet features for less than the cost of a normal Android tablet.  It’s an unbeatable deal.

Cons: limited battery life, limited screen resolution (1366×768), and if you don’t use convertible features the X230 is superior as a mobile laptop

Links: Set-up & tweaks guide, Upgrade/mod options list Platform Specification (PSREF) and Notebookcheck review

NEW: T440p: A Lighter And More Modern Powerhouse?

Specs to look for: FHD (1920×1080) IPS screen, Nvidia 730M discrete graphics card, preferably already featuring an i7-4xx0MQ quad-core processor

Price: $400-500 for higher-end configs – prices have been dropping rapidly though, check eBay for the latest!

This is a laptop to buy for upgrade potential as a powerhouse machine usable for photo, video, and graphics work or development.  The Full-HD IPS screen gives it an excellent display (albeit suffering somewhat from backlight bleeding) with full sRGB color coverage for photography/graphics and excellent contrast and viewing angles.  Discrete graphics enables it to do CAD, light gaming, and provides GPU acceleration for Adobe products.  The processor is a socketed and thus upgradable 4th-Generation Intel core processor, which means it offers much higher efficiency than the previous generation and modern instruction sets for dense mathematics.  It can be upgraded to a very speedy quad-core i7-4700MQ, i7-4800MQ or i7-4900MQ (max) that stands up well to some of the fastest 2017 options.  Furthermore, the model will accept an Intel 7260 AC wireless card, enabling fast performance on home networks.  Finally, excellent battery life of up to 10 hours is possible even with quad-core CPUs.  The cons are a completely unusable clickpad (which should be swappable for a superior later-model one) and fairly heavy weight at ~5 pounds.  Also there are some reports that the chassis is not as rigid as other some other full-sized Thinkpads.

Cons: expensive relative to Tx30 models, upgrade to next-generation touchpad is completely mandatory unless you use trackpoint or external mouse only.  Build quality and finish a bit worse than Tx30 models.  MUCH heavier than the T450s — that model with the largest battery is lighter than the lightest normal T440p builds.

Links: Platform Specification (PSREF), NotebookCheck Review,  NotebookReview forums post with a detailed display test and calibration for the IPS screen

T530/W530: The Q-Car of Laptops, an Undercover Powerhouse

Specs to Look For: HD+ screen (1600×900) or the FHD (1920×1080) screen for photography and programming use, discrete Nvidia graphics for gaming/CAD, many CPU options

Price: $200-550, with the highest-end options including quad-core processors and a full-HD screen.

Don’t be deceived by the clunky and old looking exterior — when fully upgraded, a Thinkpad T530 can mount a socketed quad-core CPU faster than this year’s gaming laptops!  Specifically, the 55W i7-3940XM processor, as well as other options including the more widely available and quite potent 45W i7-3720QM that can be had for under $100 and easily swapped in.  The NVS 5400M discrete graphics in the T530 offers some gaming capabilities; not enough to fluidly run modern games, but roughly equivalent to Intel HD 620 integrated graphics from 2017.  The W530 is heavier but features Quadro K2000M graphics that are significantly more powerful. Both can also use an ExpressCard eGPU rig for modern gaming.

Finally, it was sold with the best screen of that generation an: a optional full-HD screen option that is suitable for photo editing due to full sRGB color gamut coverage.  Although it is uses the  TN  technology (rather than the superior IPS), this screen has excellent contrast and fairly wide viewing angles.  The W530 even includes an integrated color calibrator in some models.  Combine this with a 9-cell battery good for 6+ hours of use, and you have a very powerful machine at an extremely reasonable price.

Cons: big and HEAVY – this is a full-sized 15″ notebook, not a modern ultrabook.  My T530 with a 9-cell battery weighed roughly 6 pounds.  The W530 models are even heavier but generally were sold with higher-end components.  Also had a chiclet style keyboard not quite as nice as some of the previous generation.

Links:  T530 and  W530 platform specifications, and T530 Notebookcheck review



Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this helpful!

Thinkpad Buying Guide Part 2/2: 2017 Models

Update: fully obsoleted by 2018 models

At the time this post was originally written, Ryzen processors were not out, and Intel had not responded to their threat with the Kaby Lake-R quad-core 15W (ULV) mobile processors.  Most people could not have anticipated how strong the overall offering is.

Fortunately (unless you bought a 2017 laptop), those processors came out, and the 2018 Lenovo implementations are excellent, with strong cooling systems and customization allowing the CPUs to use more power if needed and run at high temperatures.  The result is CPUs in the 2018 laptops can in some cases run literally twice as fast with appropriately multi-core workloads.   The models with less robust cooling or CPU tuning will still manage 50% higher performance, and there’s potential for further improvement by undervolting the processor, replacing thermal paste, and doing other aftermarket tuning.

NVIDIA’s MX150 discrete graphics is also available, and is roughly twice as fast as the (already obsolete at the time) 940MX graphics available on select 2017 models.  Further, this graphics option is more widely available, included on the T480 and T480s, where the equivalent T470 and T470s did not offer discrete graphics in most markets.

Finally, the T480 finally has a screen suitable for working with photos (the WQHD option) featuring full sRGB gamut.

For all of these reasons, even if they’re substantially cheaper the 2017 Thinkpads are not worth buying except in niche cases.  Buy a 2018 Thinkpad and call it a day.

Current Thinkpad Models Likely To Be Excellent Bargains in the Future

Today we’ll look at current Thinkpad models, highlighting specific models offering excellent combinations of features and engineering.   Given that they are either new or nearly-new, they are more expensive and do not offer the same level of value as older models, but in the future they will likely be stellar value buys.

All-Around All-Star: T470

Specs to look for: FHD (1920×1080) IPS screen, i5-7300U CPU as the sweet spot for price/performance (but all CPU options are solid), ignore Nvidia 940MX graphics option because that’s not powerful enough to bother with.

The Thinkpad T470 represents many aspects of engineering (new and old) coming together at once to make an excellent ultrabook.  These features make it a laptop likely to age extremely gracefully:

  • New 7th-Generation Intel Kaby Lake processor, which offers a flat ~15% boost to both performance and battery life and hardware decoding of the VP9 video used for YouTube and Google video chat offerings (battery savings).
  • Performance!  Due to excellent cooling and expanding the thermal design power (TDP) from 15W to 25W, the T470 can sustain its the maximum turbo-boost speeds on the i5-7200U processor indefinitely.  In the long haul it will outperform the 2017 slim models in benchmarks, even when equipped with a nominally more powerful i7 processor.
  • New Thunderbolt 3/USB type C port:  the all-in-one port wonder that will likely be the future standard.  Supports universal USB-C chargers and laptop power banks, plus potentially external graphics enclosures.
  • New chassis, starting at 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg) which makes this full-sized Thinkpad as light as previous slim models (the T450s is nearly identical).  Slightly heavier with the more common PPS top cover, but still quite light.
  • Deep-travel keyboard, for the best typing experience.  More key travel than most of the other models (T470s, X1, etc).
  • Keeps the PowerBridge battery system from previous generations, allowing rear batteries to be freely swapped without losing power, and trading the light 3-cell for the capacious expanded 6-cell
  • With multiple energy-efficiency boosts, amazing battery life – great for travelers. Tested and achieves 7+ hours of web browsing or 10 hours of HD video playback – with the smallest batteries!  Double that with the largest (72 Wh) rear battery.
  • Completely serviceable – the CPU and/or GPU are the only soldered parts, so it’s easy to upgrade RAM (up to 32 GB), storage, and network/WAN cards.  Likely the display can also be replaced (with more effort).

Cons: Just the display – it is unsuitable for photo editing due to inaccurate color representation and being limited to 61% of the sRGB color gamut.  It’s quite likely that more ambitious users can solve this with an aftermarket screen upgrade.  Otherwise, the earlier T450s offers a full-HD IPS screen with slightly less than full sRGB coverage.   The current T470s or X1 Carbon (5th Gen) offer WQHD screens with full (or nearly full) sRGB coverage.

Links: Specifications (PSREF) and NotebookCheck review

Gorgeous, Light and Adaptable: The X1 Yoga (1st and 2nd gen) Convertibles

Specs to look for: WQHD (2560×1440) OLED screen, maximum memory you will need because the memory is soldered and cannot be upgraded, don’t bother with faster i7 CPUs (cooling issues).

This is a machine for artists, offering a convertible with Wacom stylus support and absolutely gorgeous OLED display.  The display shows a pure blacks affording the maximum contrast and a huge color gamut covering almost the entirety of the AdobeRGB colorspace, plus an ultrafast response time.

Cons: 1st Gen lacks the Thunderbolt 3/USB-C support that was added in the 2017’s 2nd gen version, and neither can achieve the full performance from the faster CPUs due to cooling limitations.  Also has less than amazing battery life at ~5 hours of web browsing (2nd Gen not tested yet).

Links: Specifications (PSREF) and NotebookCheck review


A Cheaper Alternative to the X1 Yoga: the Yoga 370

Specs to look for: i5 CPU (no benefit to the i7), and MAKE SURE it has the socketed memory slot and no WWAN card – you only get one or the other

The Yoga 370 promises a Wacom digitizer with active pen, enabling use for diagrams and artwork, and has a FHD display with full sRGB color spectrum.  This makes it suitable for art and photo editing.  The light weight (3 pounds) and small form factor make it highly portable and versatile.  Support for Thunderbolt 3 connections offers external GPU connectivity for graphics-intensive needs.  This is especially useful because the models with socketed memory only have a single slot (like the X270 does).  This prevents use of the faster dual-channel memory configurations to get improved integrated graphics performance.  Also boasts excellent battery life, of 8+ hours with the integrated battery.

Cons: CPU performance somewhat limited by temperature throttling, models with WWAN cards have just 8 GB of soldered memory and can’t have this upgraded

What about the others???

These are of course just a few of the many Thinkpad models offered this year.  While others are perhaps solid machines, they just aren’t as compelling as some of the other offerings.  Let me run through some reasons:

Most 2016 Models (T460, T460s, X260, X1 Carbon 4th Gen, etc):  lack USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports, which is likely to become the standard for connecting devices.  This also limits future expansion capabilities.   The 6th Generation Intel Skylake processors are significantly (~15%) less performant and power efficient than 7th Generation versions, giving shorter battery life.  You may as well get the cheaper previous-gen or superior next-gen models.

L-series and E-series lines (ex L470, E460):  inferior build quality and durability.  Given how cheap and reliable refurbished Thinkpads are, you may as well get a previously-owned T or X-series model for the same price.

X1 Carbon 5th Gen: This is by all accounts an excellent machine, with many of the perks the T470 has, including Thunderbolt 3.  Super-slim, super light, and getting rave reviews. The 2017 model has issues with heat buildup that limit the ability to take full advantage of processor performance (especially with i7 processors), but you wouldn’t expect a laptop this thin to replace a workstation anyway.

So why isn’t it a future value?  Simple!  If you’re paying the premium for this model, you want the latest!  The X1 series improves incrementally with each generation, and because there is limited upgrade potential due to soldered components, you’re best off with the latest.

T470s: Not a bad machine but it is stuck in-between the T470 and the X1 in size and capabilities.  There’s not much to suggest it over one of them (aside from being slightly cheaper than the X1 and having half-upgradeable RAM).

X270: A dud with some engineering flaws, including a tendency to run dangerously hot and use fans heavily.  Stick to the X1 if you want something portable, unless you absolutely need a specific feature.

Other Various Yoga variants:  just don’t hit the right combinations, in my opinion.  They’re *generally* not light and cheap enough to replace a tablet or smartphone for reading, web browsing and web surface.  They often don’t offer a gorgeous high-gamut screen and digitizer for digital art or diagrams/note taking (like the X1 Yoga and Yoga 370).  Finally, for basic use, the X230t is an unbeatable value at <$250.  Exceptions may exist, but none compelling at the moment.

T470p: Not a bad machine, but it fills a very narrow niche of people needing a powerful quad core processor without support for similarly powerful graphics capabilities or futureproof connectivity.  Unlike many models of this generation, it lacks the modern USB-C port, which limits future usefulness.  The result of this is no Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and since the old ExpressCard standard has been dropped, there is no way to connect an external GPU.  Finally, it is heavy enough that you may simply want to bump to the P50/P51 line.  If there’s a model next year with Thunderbolt 3, that will be far more desirable — but it’s not impossible that this line will be dropped entirely.

T570:  Similarly niche.  The biggest selling point of this model is pairing an optional 15.6″ 4K display with a mobile form factor offering portability and solid battery life.  It also has Thunderbolt 3 for future-proofing (or external graphics) and optional 940MX discrete graphics to offer a little more graphics horsepower for all those pixels.  Unfortunately it lacks a quad-core processor to put those capabilities to full use.  If you don’t absolutely need such a capable display when on the go, you’re far better off with a T470 and external 4K display.  If you do need the display and don’t mind sacrificing size/weight, the P50/P51 are more capable options.

P50/P51:  If you need one of these, you know it.  Solid mobile workstations for people who can afford them, with Thunderbolt 3 for expansion options.  Otherwise the T430/T530 offer better values for most everyday people.  Especially when paired with an eGPU rig to offer high-performance graphics capabilities.  I hate to say it, but the Dell XPS 15 is also a solid competitor.