Design December 2002

Hand Tools

Today's most noteworthy pencils, styluses, and pen scanners
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"Mechanical pencils rule," my fifteen-year-old grandniece, Genevieve, declared when I invited her to be her generation's voice on school supplies. "Nobody sharpens anymore." Then, continuing with a fashion maven's hyperbole and arbitrary imperatives, she gave a passionate disquisition on types of clickers, new grips, smaller lead sizes, and other niceties of pencil selection. As she consigned the yellow-painted wooden pencil to the wastebasket of history, I felt a rush of nostalgia for the perfumed sharpener shavings of my youth.

In fact the classic wooden pencil is hardly extinct, but one need only take a quick look at the array of vibrantly colored, subtly textured, high-attitude, low-priced mechanical pencils widely available to see that this writing instrument has become a part of contemporary youth culture.

The emotional appeal of pencils is that they are the instruments of works in progress—the quick sketch of the artist, the lines drawn by the carpenter, the notes and speculations of the scientist. Often they are the tools of people who are themselves works in progress: those in school, trying to figure the world out. Many people never quite get over the allure of school supplies, those first tools of intellect. Throughout their lives they continue to seek out and acquire pencils and pens—and now newer items such as Palm Pilots and pen-shaped scanners.

I had long thought of the mechanical pencil as the dandy of the desk set, an ostentatious substitute for the modest, perfect wooden pencil. In fact the mechanical pencil has changed, though so gradually that its progress has gone largely unheralded. Today you can spend just a few dollars and get a pencil that is easier and more comfortable to use than one that was top of the line, and expensive, two decades ago.

Most contemporary mechanical pencils have clickers or ratchet systems to advance the lead in very small increments, which reduces the likelihood that you will break the point. They make a fine yet dark line because they use slimmer leads that have been engineered to reduce breakage. The most recent innovations involve ergonomic hand grips that have been softened in some cases and reshaped in others to increase comfort and decrease the possibility of doing damage to one's hand. The mechanical pencil that finally won me over was a Sanford PhD, which has a fashionably large body; a tapered, textured, three-sided grip; and a sleeve into which the lead can retract. It costs about $8.00.

You can pay hundreds of dollars for a pencil, but its mechanism will be essentially the same as that in the pencils that cost much less. "There are a couple of factories in Japan that make the works for everybody," Marilyn Brown told me. She runs the "fine writing" department at the New York specialty writing store Art Brown (www.artbrown.com), named for her husband's late uncle. "But the guys who shop here aren't going to use a two-dollar pencil. They want to show off."

Brown took from her display case a mechanical pencil by Faber-Castell, a leading maker of traditional wooden pencils, and let me examine it. Its barrel was made of ribbed Pernambuco wood. "This is just like an old wood pencil," she said of the elegant object in my hand, "except that it costs $195." Then she handed me a $26.95 model from the same manufacturer, called the E-Motion. It had a wooden barrel, a brushed-metal clip, and an extra-thick 1.4mm lead, thus evoking both mechanical and wooden pencils of bygone days in a smoothly contemporary form. "This," she said, "is a real pencil pencil."

Whereas the pencil is more than 400 years old, the Palm Pilot—the product that made personal digital assistants (PDAs) cool—has been around for only six. It comes with a stylus for tapping on the screen and writing notes in the modified alphabet that the device requires you to use. Nevertheless, many people want a different kind of stylus.

The high end of this market is defined by Montblanc's Royal line of styluses, which are virtually identical to the one that comes with the Palm Pilot except that they are encrusted with forty-one diamonds and made of stainless steel ($1,465), solid gold ($2,930), or solid platinum ($3,910). Having gems on surfaces you grip is about as ergonomically sound as having diamonds on the soles of your shoes, but nevertheless there are buyers.

"The steel and gold models are selling," Marion Davidson, the senior vice-president for marketing at Montblanc North America, told me. "And we know exactly who is buying them: the very rich." Montblanc also offers gold- or platinum-plated styluses for $45. All its styluses are designed so that the company's snowcap logo peeks discreetly from the top of the PDA's holder.

Most other styluses look like pens or pencils. In fact, tips are available to transform a writing instrument into a stylus, and Brown says her store performs a lot of these retrofits. But the styluses that are the most fun are the multifunctional ones. At least one model, for example, has a laser pointer, though most just incorporate other writing instruments. The Rotring Quattro data pen (about $60) is the most enticing of these that I have seen. Its trim black body holds a PDA stylus, a ballpoint, a fine-line mechanical pencil, and a yellow highlighter, each of which can be refilled separately. Its only decoration is a trademark red ring and four icons to help the user select the function desired. The reticence of the design makes the pen's versatility all the more amazing.

"The guys love gadgets," Marilyn Brown said about the multifunctional styluses, which are now her hottest sellers. "The Palm Pilot is a gadget. It makes people want more gadgets."

As a writer who sometimes has trouble reading his own notes, I am greatly intrigued by the pen scanner. The idea here is that you can run the device across a text like a tiny vacuum cleaner and suck up the words you need. Another kind of pen scanner does instant word-by-word translation, either on a tiny screen on the pen or aloud; and one model, the $199 QuickLink Super Pen, introduced in the fall of last year by WizCom Technologies, combines the transcription and translation functions in a single device.

I haven't tried the QuickLink Super Pen, but I own the QuickLink Pen ($169), another WizCom pen scanner, and have used it with only intermittent success. When I returned from the library, there were always just enough inaccuracies in the text, often in the vicinity of a crucial name, date, or number, to make everything suspect. Previously I had been jotting notes I couldn't decipher. The QuickLink Pen merely automated the process.

Unlike competing products, the IRISPen II Executive (about $200), from Image Recognition Integrated Systems, must be attached to a computer. The company claims that the pen can use the computer's greater processing power to achieve better recognition of the text. But it has trouble with closely spaced lines, and although it is capable of reading aloud, when it does so, English sounds like Swedish.

WizCom has sold about 700,000 of its pen scanners worldwide, with few complaints or returns, according to Raz Itzhaki, the executive vice-president and CFO. The IRISPen has won good reviews for its accuracy. But all of today's pen scanners demand that users adapt to their technology, rather than the reverse.

Still, if their makers can devise improvement after improvement to overcome the pens' shortcomings and deliver on their promise, these companies may one day come up with a product—like today's improved mechanical pencil—that no savvy fifteen-year-old can do without.

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