Beginner's guide to drawing tablets


If you are new to drawing tablets, after reading this guide you'll understand how these devices work and be prepared to use one or to purchase one.

If you are interested in buying a tablet, read this beginner's guide first, then take a look at my guide to Buying a drawing tablet. It has links to my recommendations. If you want to get to beginner recommendations go here: If you are beginner then consider these specific models which are great introduction to drawing tablets. Recommended drawing tablets for beginners.


A drawing tablet is a device that lets you use a digital pen (also called a stylus) as an input device. As you move the pen on the tablet, your operating system pointer around (a.k.a. your mouse cursor) will match that same motion. This demonstrates the first key feature of a drawing tablet - the accurate tracking of the pen's position.

Note that the pens position can be tracked when the pen is making contact with the tablet and even if the pen is not touching the tablet - to a distance of about 10 mm away from the tablet. This ability to track the pen's position at a distance is called pen hover.

A drawing tablet knows how hard you are pressing down on with the tip of the pen. This is called pressure sensitivity. Pressure is very important for creative applications. For example, in painting application it can enlarge the size of your brush strokes based on the pressure. So small amounts of pressure result in thin strokes and pressing down harder will make the strokes thicker.

Most drawing tablets also detect how the pen is tilted relative to the surface of the tablet. This pen tilt detection is also useful for creative applications. For example, it can also be used to alter the size of stroke such that increased tilt results in an thicker stroke.

Device options for drawing tablets

Pen tablets

Pen tablets are the simplest and least expensive kind of drawing tablet. They are often called: "screenless tablets" or "non-screen tablets".

  • They DO NOT have an embedded display

  • They REQUIRE A COMPUTER to be used.

  • They REQUIRE A MONITOR attached the the computer or that the computer is a laptop.

The key skill required to use a pen tablet is that you must adjust to your hand drawing on one surface (the tablet) while you are looking at another surface (your monitor). Most people can adjust to this immediately or within a few days, but some people find this weird and for them one of the other device options may be a better choice.

Pen tablets cost between $50 to $500.

Pen displays

Pen displays are drawing tablets that have an embedded display panel. They are also called: "screen tablets", "display tablets".

Key attributes:

  • They DO have an embedded display

  • They REQUIRE A COMPUTER to be used.

A pen display may look like a laptop or an iPad. However unlike those devices you should be aware that the tablet will always have to have at least one cord coming from it that is connected to a computer.

Pen displays cost between $300 to $3500.

Standalone tablets

Pen computers

Pen computers are essentially laptops with an embedded pen tablet. You don't need them to be connected up to a separate computer to work. Because pen computers have a CPU, they are running an operating system and all current pen computers use Microsoft Windows. Some people love using pen computers but I don't recommend pen computers. Instead, I recommend you choose a mobile computer with pen support.

Pen computers cost between $1000 to $3500.

Mobile computers with pen support

These are NOT drawing tablets, but because they are very very similar to pen computers in that they are standalone and you can use a pen to draw with them - we can talk about them as an viable alternative to a pen computer.

But the key difference is a pen computer is intended for drawing, whereas a mobile computer with pen support is meant for general purpose use, but also you can use a pen do draw.

Sometimes the drawing experience with a mobile computers can really rival that of a pen computer. Sometimes they even use the same pen technology. But other times, they use a different technology and the drawing experience is not as good or may be missing features. So you have to carefully choose which devices you pick here.

In this category I think the Apple iPad provides the most compelling experience, followed closely by a Samsung Galaxy Tab S9.

More here: Using an iPad as a drawing tablet

What people do with their tablets

  • Drawing - Of course, many people use drawing tablets for drawing, sketching, painting, photo-editing etc. All the fundamental creative tasks.

  • Gaming - Drawing tablets are popular for some games. More here: Gaming with drawing tablets

  • Mouse replacement - Using a drawing tablet as a simple mouse replacement. Some people find a pen more comfortable to hold than a mouse. More here: Using a drawing tablet instead of a mouse

  • Whiteboarding - especially with so many online meetings and remote learning. Many people use a drawing tablet with virtual whiteboard software.

  • Educational videos - They are popular for creating videos in the same style as "Khan Academy".

  • Document markup and review - They are useful for going through documents and annotating them with other notes and corrections.

  • Note taking - Especially with pen computers, students for example, take them to their classes and write down their notes digitally. More here: Taking notes with drawing tablets


Wacom is THE UNDISPUTED LEADER of drawing tablets and have been for 40 years. They are the best and also the most expensive. But there are many other brands out there. You should familiarize yourself with them before you buy a drawing tablet. Learn more here: Drawing Tablet Brands

Core features

  • Tracking pen position - any modern drawing tablet does a good job with this. Learn more here: Pen tracking

  • Hover - Tablets detect the position of the pen even when the pen does not touch the surface of the tablet - usually up to a distance of 10 mm. All drawing tablets support hover. More here: Pen hover

  • Pen pressure - The pen detects how hard you are pressing on its tip. All modern pens detect about 8192 levels of pressure. But even 2048 would be enough for any creative use. Learn more here: Pen pressure.

  • Pen tilt - Pen tilt is useful if you work with a creative application with brushes respond to tilt. Learn more here: pen tilt.

  • Pen buttons - Pens usually feature two buttons. By default these buttons will act as a left mouse click and a right mouse click. You can configure the buttons to perform other actions. More here: pen buttons

  • ExpressKeys - These are buttons or dials on the tablet. Not all tablets have them, but many do. You can configure express keys to perform actions like undo, change brush size, change zoom, etc. Learn more here: ExpressKeys

  • Touch - A small number of tablets support touch. In summary, touch for tablets has never come close to how well it works with the iPad. More here: touch support

The active area

The active area is the region on the tablet that your draw on. More here: active area.

Tablet size

When we talk about the "size" of a drawing tablet - we are referring to the size of the active area. Different people have different needs for size. To learn how to find the right size, look here: Choosing the right tablet size


When you connect a tablet to your computer, the computer needs to know how to use that tablet with a special app called a "tablet driver". If you do not install the driver, then the tablet will not work correctly. Installing the tablet driver requires administrator permissions on your computer. More here: drivers.

Connecting the tablet to the computer

All pen tablets can be connected with a single USB cable. Many pen tablets (but not all) can be connected wirelessly - for example via Bluetooth.

Pen displays do NOT have any wireless options. There is always at least one cable used with a pen display. Pen displays are more varied than pen tablets in how the cabling works. In truth, connecting a pen display can be very complicated. It's very important you understand how a pen display will connect to your computer before you purchase a pen display. More here: connecting a pen display to a computer


Any application on your computer, will treat the pen just as if you have a mouse. So, broadly speaking, all applications are compatible with drawing tablet. If the tablet driver is installed, then Pen-aware applications take advantage of special features of the pen such as pressure, tilt, etc. Great examples of pen-aware applications are Krita and Clip Studio Paint, which are popular drawing applications. More here: applications

Pen nibs

At the end of the pen that touches the tablet is a little replaceable nib. Mostly these nibs are plastic and sometimes felt. Nibs wear down over time. Fast fast it wears down depends on a lot of factors. If it wears down too much, it might scratch the tablets. So, before it wears down too much you should replace your nib with a fresh one. More here: nib wear

Drawing with a tablet vs a mouse

A drawing tablet uses absolute positioning and a mouse uses relative positioning. They behave very differently. More here: absolute versus relative positioning. Using the tablet driver, you can mmake the tabletke tablet and pen work more like a mouse by using mouse mode.

EMR technology

Drawing tablets typically use a technology called Electromagnetic Resonance (EMR). One key benefit of EMR is that EMR pens don't need a battery inside, the pens get their energy just by being near the tablet. More here: EMR tablet technology

Other topics to explore

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