In offering an answer to this question, I'll grade pens according to four main criteria.
Price (P):If you're new to fountain pens, it is simply asking you to bear too much risk to plunk down a sizable sum on a first pen. On the other hand, if you're perusing this guide, you're probably looking for something a bit more upscale than something you'll find in Wal-Mart. So, the review criteria will be pens whose street price (which is typically at least 20% below MSRP) is $20 -$60. At this price range, you can get attractive pens that are quality writers, but without a huge up front investment.
For the remaining items, the grading scale is: Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor. As a general rule, you should avoid purchasing any pen that is fair or poor in either the reliability or writing categories. Aesthetics are, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder, so you're on your own there.
Reliability (R): If you're new to fountain pens, you do not want is a pen that has problems. When a Bic has problems it's no big deal, you simply throw it away. If, on the other hand, you've just plunked down $50, the last thing you need is the hassle of exchanges and repairs. I'll try to highlight pens that have caused such headaches for others and tell you to avoid them.
What the grades mean:
Excellent: Rarely if ever are problems about this pen reported. The pen should work perfectly straight out of the box and should keep working perfectly for years afterward.
Good: Occasional quality problems reported, but nothing systematic. Most pens in this class work perfectly straight out of the box and require repair rarely.
Fair: Some quality control problems reported, often for the same part of the pen. For example, many users might report problems with the converter used to fill ink in the pen. The pen may require tweaking to get proper ink flow, etc. It's a risk for someone new to pens to choose a pen in this category.
Poor: These are pens where, if you actually get one that works perfectly on the first try, you jump for joy. Typically one or more parts on these pens will show systematic design flaws. It is unlikely that the pen will work well out of the box and may develop more problems later on.
Writing (W): Presumably the quality of the writing is one of the main reasons you're even considering a fountain pen. The beauty of the fountain pen is that it relies on capillary action, rather than friction, to write. As a result, fountain pens at their best effortlessly glide over the page and give your handwriting a unique character. Of course, that's at their best -- at their worst -- a whole other story.
Excellent: An excellent writing pen should start up immediately (write the first time, every time), never skip, be smooth and effortless on a variety of writing surfaces, produce a reasoanbly wet line, and work with a wide variety of inks.
Good: A good writing pen will be missing at most one of the qualities of an excellent writing pen. For instance, it will be a smooth writer, but occasionally skip or not start on the first try. It may not work well with certain ink types. It may be slightly less silky in writing but otherwise be hassle free.
Fair: A fair pen will typically have multiple flaws compared to an excellent writer. For instance, a pen where there have been a number of reports of systematic skipping or startup problems would fall in this category. A pen that has a rough feel or is inconsistent in inkflow would fall in this category. Finally, a pen that requires a fair bit of nib tweaking to write effectively would fall in this category.
Poor: Pens with a history of being sent back for nib repair/replacement are poor.
Aesthetics (A): If price, reliability, and quality were the only factors, there's really no reason to spend more than $10. In my experience, Sheaffer No Nonsense pens and Pelikan Pelikanos are very capable, reliable writers and cost little. However, they're not all that attractive. I think the look of the pen is a key ingredient in the overall experience of using a fountain pen. (it's probably part of the reason you're interested in the first place), so it gets a grade.
The grades are my subjective evaluation of the attrativeness of the pen. Often a pen will be downgraded aesthetically if a close up look at it reveals low quality components. For instance, accents might look good at a distance, but cheap close up.
With that in mind, on to the reviews.
1. Levenger True Writer. P: $50; R: Poor; W: Fair; A: Excellent
This is a very attractive pen, but sadly it has a long history of quality control problems. Here are some lowlights: poor cap posting, converters that come loose and drip ink everywhere, balky nibs, accents that fall of the pen, and so on. Too many headaches here. Stay away.
2. Aurora Idea. P: $30; R: Excellent; W: Good; A: Good/Fair
I've heard no bad reports about quality problems with this pen. In translucent colors, they're reasonably attractive. The nib, is a plain steel number with little decoration. It's a nice enough writer, consistently good but not great. One annoyance - the pen does not come with a converter, so using the off the shelf version of the pen with bottled ink is not an option. That's the bad news. The good news is that for about $5, you can get a Parker converter that fits perfectly in the pen and you're back in business. Bottom line: if you are drawn to the looks of this pen, it's a good choice.
3. Waterman Phileas. P: $40; R: Good; W: Good; A: Good
I've heard some reports of balky nibs and skipping problems with the Phileas, but given how many of these guys have been sold, the quality problems seem isolated. The nib itself is a pretty two-tone gilt number, but, be warned, it tends to run wider than usual. A medium nib Phileas is like a broad for a lot of other companies. The overall look of the pen is nice, if a little stodgy. Somehow, the writing seems less crisp in the Phileas and the Idea. For the same money, you can do better with the Lamy Al Star (see below).
4. Lamy Safari. P: $30; R: Excellent; W: Excellent/Good; A: Poor
This pen is a workhorse. I've heard ridiculous endurance stories about the pen starting up immediately after being put through all sorts of torture tests. In short, reliability is not an issue for this guy. The writing experience is generally viewed to be very good. My own experience is that the nib is smooth and absolutely hassle free as a writer. There is also some nice character to the line (although no flex to the nib at all). The nib itself is incredibly boring. Mine is black with no decoration whatsoever. The body of the pen keeps with the utilitarian theme. It's virtually unbreakable ABS plastic and looks it. If you like the looks of the pen, then by all means buy it.
5. Lamy Al Star. P: $40; R: Excellent; W: Excellent/Good; A: Good
This is a safari with a pretty aluminum body. The metal makes the pen a lot more attractive in my opinion while not robbing it of any of the good performance characteristics of the Safari. The only downside is that the Aluminum tends to dent easily, so it doesn't pay to handle this pen roughly. This pen is a very good choice if you like the Bauhaus style.
6. Pelikan M200. P: $60; R: Excellent; W: Excellent; A: Good
There are a large number of folks on the net who swear by Pelikans. They are incredibly reliable, provide superb writing experience, and are nice looking in a timeless sort of way. There are three potential drawbacks of this pen. First, it is somewhat small, so if you have big hands, it might not be comfortable. Second, it is very light. Again, if you are looking for a heftier pen you might be disappointed. Third, it uses a cool piston-filling system. If you HAVE to use cartridges, this is not the pen for you. Apart from these caveats, this is a superb pen. You may have to look around a little bit to get the $60 price for this pen. At the end of the guide, I offer a link to a dealer who sells it for this.
7. Visconti Avantime. P: $45; R: Fair/Poor W: Fair; A: Good
The general knock against Visconti pens is that, while they look pretty, their reliability leaves a lot to be desired. Although I know of no specific horror stories with the Avantime, it still seems like a risky choice. Most have characterized the writing experience with this pen as being only average. Probably not a good choice.
8. Lamy Accent. P: $60; R: Excellent; W: Excellent/Good; A: Good
The Accent is the steel nibbed cousin of the Lamy Brilliant. Both pens share the same body. The Brilliant has drawn raves from folks on many pen lists. There have been no complaints about quality that I've heard and the nib is boring, but up to Lamy's usual high standards. One amusing thing about this pen is that the grip section is removable and comes is several different colors. This is a good choice.
Bottom Line: I'd recommend the M200.
There are a number of other pens in this category that I either do not have or do not know enough about to form an opinion. I would welcome reviews for each of these pens: Waterman Hemisphere, Waterman Harley, Sheaffer Prelude, Parker Inflection, Aurora Satin Ipsilon (not the Deluxe).
Got an oPENion? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org