Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rosetta North Star - Sedona

So far my reviews have been very arbitrary and undisciplined, so I have decided to adopt the format used on the Fountain Pen Network - a format that I wish the marketers of fountain pens would adopt. It is very frustrating to try and find some basic data about a fountain pen that you are considering ordering when even the web site selling it does not post that information.

1. First Impressions: I admit to being a little disappointed at first. This is because the way the photo of the pen appeared online, it seemed to have this amber iridescence to it which it does not have so much in real life. Once I got over that, I think it is a handsome pen - nothing to ooh and awe over but nice. I purchased this pen for $40 as a pen that could go anywhere: One that if it got dropped or lost, it wouldn't devastate me. I have a toddler, who occasionally pulls my pen out of my pocket. So, for the price and the purpose, I am pleased. My numerical ratings throughout will based with that goal in mind and compared to other steel-nibbed pens (not gold). [5/10]

2. Appearance and Design: The barrel has a warm reddish amber appearance that compliments the large gold plated Schmidt nib. I am guessing the cap was designed to be a universal cap for a number of different pen colors because the chrome and black don't look like a planned match for this barrel color to me. But I am pleased with that because I prefer chrome details over gold, even if it means bad color co-ordination. For those of you who want the nib and clip color to match, or want a consistent warm theme from top to bottom, this is not the pen for you. One small detail that I really like is the Northstar compass logo on the top of the cap. The clip on the cap is well designed. It has just the right amount of tension to go easily into your shirt pocket securely without shredding the fabric. The clip is solid - not fold over metal, so ther are no sharp edges and the clip "hinge" is flexible. Nicely done for an inexpensive pen. The cap is threaded and seats firmly and stays put. This is a difficult rating because I wouldn't give it much for appearance but for design function, it is well done. The pragmatist wins: [7/10]

3. Weight and Dimensions: The cap is heavy with a lot of chrome. The pen is very top-heavy and uncomfortable with the cap posted. However, the barrel is long enough to write with very comfortably without the cap. Length: [capped] 5 7/16"; [w/o cap] 5"; [posted] 6 3/8" Diameter: [below cap] 9/16" and tapers down to 3/8" at the tip. Weight: Sorry I can't list the actual weight but apart from the heavy cap, the North Star is comparable to any average resin/celluloid pen: a comfortable medium-light weight. The barrel is longer than most and has a fairly thick wall - that combined with a converter gives it a solid feel - not flimsy at all. The only pen that I prefer writing with the cap posted is a Lamy Studio, but that is because the cap snaps on securely, never gets in my way and the balance is perfect. Apart from that I avoid writing with caps posted. So, I am very pleased with the weight and dimension of the Rosetta North Star (sans cap). [8/10]

4. Nib Performance: The nib is a gold plated Schmidt iridium fine point and I am very pleased with the one I have now. The first one was terrible. (More on that below.) It is a very wet writer, and is always ready to write without skipping at a moments notice. It never dries out. (In fact it is one of the few pens that I have that writes well Noodler's Burma Road Brown, which dries out quickly in most of my other pens.) It writes smoothly with a light hand. It has some flex to it with pressure but then you get considerable feedback. For overall readiness to write, I tend to pick it up when I am in a hurry and don't have time to coax one of my other nicer pens. For convenience and reliability it fullfills my goal (listed under #1) perfectly. So, for steel nibs in this price range: [8/10]

5. Filling System: One of the features of this pen that I love is the fact that the barrel is long enough to easily accept the long Waterman cartridges, which is great when you are travelling and you don't want to mess with bottles. The pen comes with a nice universal full size converter that seats firmly into the nib's receiver. The only way to get more ink into this pen would be to convert it into a dropper fill. Considering the size and length of the barrel, that's not a bad idea. (If you were interested in doing that, the barrel is somewhat transluscent so the ink color would effect the amber coloring.) [10/10]

6. Cost and Value: I purchased this on eBay from Streetfair for $40.00. I don't think you are going to find very many pens in this price range that function as well as this one does. The only exception would be Levenger's Truewriters when they are on sale. [9/10]

7. Customer Service: The first nib on the pen that I got was terrible, and scratched horribly. I hated writing with it. I emailed Street Fair and they sent me a replacement nib right away, no charge and no questions asked, with a postage paid envelope to send back the faulty nib. Customer service doesn't get any better than that: [10/10]

8. Conclusion - Final Score: I am surprised; I ended up rating the North Star pen higher by writing out all of the individual features and benefits, then I would have had I just given a gut rating based on my feelings about the pen. For a reliable pen that you don't have to worry about his is a great choice - not quite as nice as a Levenger Truewriter but still a good buy. [8/10]

Note: Detail photos are from Street Fair

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Wacom Tablet MTE-450 (Refurbished)

For Christmas my wonderful wife bought me a Wacom Tablet - she let me pick out the one I wanted. I've been looking at them for years but they were too expensive and so never got one. I had hoped to be able to get a larger one but when Amazon offered the Refurbished MTE-450 at $40 just before Christmas, and the reviews were so encouraging, it seemed like the size might not be that important. In fact, one reviewer on Amazon stressed the fact the size of the tablet wasn't as important as the quality of the tablet, because the you don't generally make long sweeping movements and the tablet scales to match your screen size. While I haven't used the tablet very much yet, I am finding that review to be true. I have used the (less than) 4X5 tablet with a 22" widescreen monitor and not felt the least bit inhibited by the small tablet. The greatest difficulty I have experienced so far is trying to get the software to completely recognize the pen sensitivity. All of the software will recognize the pen but it is difficult to get the pen sensitivity settings working. I am using the pen tablet with three programs - trying to figure out which one I like best between Paint Shop Pro 8, Corel Photo-Paint 12 (CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 12) and GIMP 2. Suprisingly, the oldest program, Paint Shop Pro 8 was the easiest to calibrate for pen pressure variance. GIMP is the newest and so far I can't get it to recognize the tablet. Even the solutions on the two discussion pages that describe this problem, didn't solve it. I am not impressed with the GIMP help files, even though I suspect that GIMP is good software - especially since it is free! I am surprised that GIMP seems so graphics tablet unfriendly when it is being presented as a graphics program more than photo manipulation program. [See update below.] And I would guess that the open source geeks who are developing it are probably using it with pen tablets rather than mice. I suppose they are my own geek deficiencies that have kept me from uncovering GIMP's full potential. So, for now I am getting the best results with Corel Photo-Paint 12, once I finally figured out how to adjust the very obscure pen variance settings. The auto-detect feature was not very helpful. And, I am considering buying Corel Painter X, which simulates a paint mixing palette and has rave reviews.

So, why all the obsolete software? Who can afford the new software? - Not me!

I had wanted to upload a charcoal drawing that I spent a couple of hours drawing on Corel Photo-Paint 12 but the default save settings mysteriously changed to one pixel per square inch and my drawing turned into a crossword puzzle when I saved it. So, that was unpleasant. I used the Wacom tablet to render a quick color version of the "Bird on a Wire" to see if I had successfully repaired the save settings, which I've included above. The original print is presented in the post below.

The bottom line is: the Wacom tablet is great - unbeatable at $40 (refurbished was just like new), but the tablet is only as good as the ability of the software to enable you to draw and paint as you intend to. So far, I have spent much more time calibrating than actually drawing - but that is a necessary learning curve. However, it does give me an increased appreciation for my fountain pens!

UPDATE: [01-12-09] After using GIMP2 with my notebook, I tried using it with the Wacom tablet on my PC and discovered that it recognized the Wacom tablet by name and model and eve has a dockable menu which gives you a visual indicator of the settings you are currently using with the pen. The remarkable thing is that it continuously updates the menu as you change colors, brush styles, or even when you turn the pen upside down to use the eraser. So, of the three programs mentioned in this review, GIMP is clearly the best, with the exception of the help files. However, it is fairly intuitive. I'll write more on GIMP and the tablet set up later in a separate post.