4+1 Multi-pens: A Survey

My increasingly absurd 4+1 multi-pen collection, left to right:
Dr.Grip 4+1, Uni Style Fit Meister 5, Zebra Clip-On Multi, Zebra Sarasa, Hi-Tec-C Coleto 5, Uniball Jetstream 4&1

I’m a little obsessive about my everyday objects, in that stereotypical engineer “determine an optimal solution and stick to it” sort of way. For about a decade I carried a little (handmade, periodically replaced) sleeve with a Bic MatiC grip 0.7 pencil and Black, Blue, and Red Uniball Vision Elite pens in 0.5mm (plus a chapstick and flash drive).

Trusty old Pocket Organizer

That utensil set is for a note-taking system where my own work and other temporary or uncertain things are in pencil, notes and other reference material are in black, provided examples and commentary are in blue, and corrections and attention points are in red. Diagrams are multi-colored for clarity.

I have a ritualized paper-handling (I carry a clipfolio and periodically file into binders), page-labeling (Top right,Topic/Date/Sequence Number), bullet hierarchy (A little drift over the years, but mostly ⊕ > • > ⁃) , and archiving (Rarely-used topics get twist-ties through the binding holes and stored in boxes) system that I’ve been using for decades at this point.

Since 2019 I’m primarily teaching labs, so in addition to my own note-taking I do a lot of drawing examples and correcting solutions where a variety of colors is useful, and I kept wanting more than the 3+1. Carrying around a whole stack of writing utensils seemed unreasonable… until I found a 4+1 multi pen I got as conference swag, and it set me off on an expedition.

I tried my conference-swag Zebra Clip-On Multi for a few weeks, liked it for the most part but missed the writing quality of my Vision Elites, got slightly obsessed, and bought examples of most of the 4+1 pen bodies on the market to compare. Then I used each for a week during the Fall ’19 semester to get a feel for them.

My current favorite 4+1 multi-pen body is the Pilot Dr. Grip 4+1, loaded with Uniball Signo D1 refills and Pentel Ain Stein HB lead. It’s only major weakness is the covered tiny eraser.

Best: Pilot Dr. Grip 4+1 (~$14)
It has a nice, weighty (metal) front section which offers a good feel in the hand. It is neither bothersomely pointy (like the Uni Style+Fit) nor blunt (like the Zebra Sarasa). The tabs are clearly labeled, but not obtrusive.
The only weakness is the included refills are not quite a good as the Uni offerings — but it takes the same D1 refills as the Uni Style Fit line, so I just replaced with Uni Style Fit Gel refills as they ran out.

Runner Up:
Uni Style Fit Meister 5 (~$18 : body $8.25 + inserts 1x$3 + 4x$1.65)
+ Absolutely excellent writing feel and ink saturation
+ Extremely configurable with standard D1 refills, including the pencil slot
– Tabs are clear, so you have to remember or look closely at the clear ring for color selection
– Tip of pen tapers uncomfortably sharply

Tested competition in decreasing order of preference:
Zebra Clip-On Multi (~$7)
+ Surprisingly comfortable body
+ Writes well.. for a traditional ballpoint
– It is a traditional ballpoint, and drags like it

Zebra Sarasa Multi (~$7)
+ It’s… fine in every way.
– A little plasticy/rattly
– scratchy and slow-to-start cartridges
– Unpleasantly short/blunt tip

Hi-Tec-C Coleto 5 (~$15 : body $4.20 + pens 4x$1.80 + pencil $3)
+ Most flexible design, even the pencil is an interchangeable module
+ Available eraser module fits in a utensil slot
+ Smooth saturated lines from the pens
– Bulkier than the competition, and the pencil tab protrudes quite a bit
– Eraser, if added, takes up one of the 5 utensil slots
– Very plasticy and rattly
– Ink is a little clotty and smudge-prone

Uniball Jetstream 4&1 (~$11)
+ The body itself is fairly comfortable
+It has pleasing subtle color labels on the tabs and generally looks appealing
– The ink cartridges it comes with are disappointingly scratchy and light/uneven
– The cartridges flex in the body, which feels pretty unpleasant.

I also tried a Bic 4-color + a separate pencil, but the Bics are deeply not in the same class of pen as most of the other options, and I really wanted the all-in-one solution.

Not tried: Sakura Ballsign / Ballsign Premium ($14/$24), Zebra Clip-on Multi 2000 ($20), Uni Multi 5 ($6.50) I’m sure eventually my curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll buy more to try, but it’s been over a year since I got another body because the remaining offerings all had something I didn’t like about them, and I’m quite satisfied.

Since I switched my pocket utensils, I also made a new pocket organizer to hold them.

New Pocket Organizer

This one holds my Pilot Dr. Grip 4+1 as the reigning winner of the 4+1 Multi-Pen selection, a Staedtler Stick Eraser because none of the multi-pens have decent erasers, a chap-stick, and a small flash drive. It’s not perfect (I especially don’t love how the open edge between the stacked items came out), but quite serviceable.

Draw on Kraft Paper, Cut, Fold, Test, Swear, Repeat. This one worked.

Like last time I put one together, it was an exercise in being bad at pattern drafting (I went through like 6 drawn out 1:1 on kraft paper before I got something acceptable), and also like last time, I got to the end of making an upholstery fabric muslin to try out, and decided I didn’t want to fuck around with re-making it in leather.

Since the pandemic I’ve been running one or more of my classes remote, so I went on a much shorter search for the ideal pen for writing under a document camera. There aren’t a ton of options in that space, and the answer to the prompt is the Staedtler Triplus Color in 1mm. I’ve had several colleagues buy sets for use with document cameras after seeing my system, because they really are the perfect tool for the job. Most things in the 1mm tip range are permanent markers that reek and dry out, or alcohol inks that reek and smudge. The Triplus are basically perfect: no smell, very slow to dry out when open, very fast to dry on the page, good saturated lines.

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