Buying a drawing tablet

Introduction

I want to help you make an informed choice when purchasing a drawing tablet. My goals are to (1) save you money, (2) ensure you aren't disappointed with your purchase, and (3) prevent you from damaging your tablet or pen.

If you are new to drawing tablets, read this first: Beginner's guide to drawing tablets. This buying guide builds on the beginner's guide. If you also just want to quickly get to some beginner recommendations then go here: Recommended drawing tablets for beginners.

Video series (in progress)

If you prefer a watching a video ...

My recommendations

If you are ready to buy a tablet, go ahead to my tablet recommendations. Those recommendations should help you narrow your search. The recommendations cover pen tablets, pen displays, and pen computers across multiple price ranges.

I strongly urge you to read this buying guide and beginner's guide completely before you jump directly to the recommendations.

Choosing the type of drawing tablet

The most fundamental choice to make is the kind of drawing tablet you want:

  • pen tablet - does NOT have a screen and requires a computer to use

  • pen display - has a screen and requires a computer to use

  • standalone tablet - has a screen and can be used my itself without being connected to a computer.

Basic guidelines

Brands

If you want a safe choice, go with Wacom. They are also the most expensive. Competitors such as Huion, XP-Pen, and Xencelabs are closing the gap with Wacom. This guide on drawing tablet brands will help understand how to compare the brands.

If you decide on Wacom and want a pen tablet, read this guide: Overview of Wacom pen tablets. In the future, I'll add a doc covering Wacom pen displays.

Product info

I have links to information, reviews, and my notes on tablets in the product info section.

Core drawing tablet features

  • Size - Tablets come in a variety of sizes. The size has a BIG impact on the ergonomics of using the tablet. And different sizes serve different user needs. This guide on choosing the right tablet size will help you find a size size that works for you.

  • Pressure - The pen can detect how much pressure you are putting on its tip. All drawing tablets sense pressure. More info: pressure.

    • Initial Activation Force (IAF) is smallest pressure that activates the pen. In general you want a pen that has a low (<=3gf) IAF. Modern drawing tablet pens are around this value.

    • The maximum pressure is the most pressure the pen can detect. The pressure range is the difference between the maximum pressure and IAF. Higher maximum pressure means that the pressure range is wide and is better for drawing because it lets you have better control over how pressure affects your stroke.

  • Tilt can be very useful for for certain kinds of artwork. If you are just taking notes it may not be useful at all. Almost all modern tablets support tilt, except for some consumer Wacom tablets. More here tilt.

  • EMR resolution - This is how accurately the tablet can sense different positions of the pen. In other words, this is the tablet's ability to detect very tiny position changes. Most tablets have a reported LPI of 5080. 5080 lines per inch translates to 200 lines per mm. Without getting into details, Wacom tech is superior here, but if you are drawing you will not notice this.

  • Diagonal wobble - All drawing tablets all have some wobble when moving the pen at an angle - it is strongest at 45 degrees. Some have a lot and some have very little or almost none. You may be very sensitive to the wobble. Be aware of this affect and make sure the tablet you buy doesn't have too much wobble. More here: diagonal wobble.

Secondary features

  • ExpressKeys are additional inputs (buttons, dials, scroll wheels, etc.) on the tablet. Some tablets have them and some don't. They allow you to easily perform certain tasks without touching the keyboard. You should decide if they are important for you. Read more here: ExpressKeys

  • Touch - A few drawing tablets support touch. Overall touch is not great. I do not recommend buying a drawing tablet if you expect the touch support to be on par with an iPad. You will be disappointed. More here: Touch support

Pen display topics

  • Anti-glare sparkle - To prevent glare, pen displays have an anti-glare treatment applied to them. This will produce a kind sparkle effect. Some pen displays have a lot of it and some a little. Some people can tolerate it. Some people hate seeing it. More here: Anti-glare sparkle.

  • Display resolution - Choosing the display resolution.

  • Parallax - Parallax is the apparent disagreement between the location of the physical tip of the pen and the and where the computer thinks the tip of the pen is. This is another thing, some people are more sensitive to. Learn more here: parallax.

  • Lamination - Lamination can decrease parallax. I highly recommend getting a pen display that has lamination. Learn more here: lamination

  • NO SIGNAL - The most common problem with pen displays is something called NO SIGNAL. If you are interested in pen displays you should be prepared to deal with this topic. See Troubleshoot the NO SIGNAL problem.

  • Even though a pen display is meant to draw on you can use it exactly like a normal monitor. Learn more here: Using a pen display as a monitor.

Connections & cabling

Pen tablets can all be connected with a single USB cable. Most pen tablets even support wireless connectivity - usually via Bluetooth. Be aware that many tablet models have wireless and non-wireless versions with slightly different names and model numbers. Be sure which one you are buying.

Pen displays ALWAYS require at least 1 cable. As the pen display size starts getting to 16" and above, they tend to require at least 2 cables due to the increased power required by the display. Pen displays have many more connection options. Its a common mistake to buy a pen display and then realize you have no way to connect it to your computer. So please invest time understanding connection options BEFORE you make a purchase. More here:

OS and device compatibility

Drawing tablets well work with computers and laptops running popular operating systems. More here:

Drawing tablets work to some extent with other kinds of devices. More here:

Ergonomics

  • Thickness - Pen tablets are very then these days - about 8mm. Pen displays are thicker. Smaller pen displays can be around 10mm but as their size grows they get thicker - for example 35mm. Lately (2024) some pen displays are starting to use OLED display panels and are getting very then. For example the Wacom Movink 13 (DTH-135) is about 6mm thick.

  • Surface texture - If you are drawing, you might have strong preferences of what the texture of your tablet feels like. All drawing tablets have some surface texture but there is quite a bit of variation. There are even ways to achieve the texture you want. For example, many people want their tablet to have a rougher texture like paper. Learn more here: Surface texture

  • Body posture - With a pen tablet, your torso will naturally have a more vertical posture. This is because you will be looking at your monitor while you hand rests on the pen tablet which is on your desk. With a pen display, you will be leaning over a bit to draw since you must look at the pen tablet on you desk. You may experience lower back pain or strain on your neck from looking down. More here: Body posture when using drawing tablets

  • Arm mounting - Pen displays are essentially monitors, and many (but not all), pen displays have a VESA mount on the back that you can put the pen display on. This will allow you to use keep the pen display away and use it like a secondary display and then pull it close when you want to draw. Pen tablets do not have any kind of built in ability to be mounted like that. See: Using monitor arms with a pen display

  • Legs - Many pen displays (not not all) have foldable legs on the back. This allows you to keep the pen display at a slight angle on your desk which makes it a bit easier to see and draw on. Pen tablets do not have legs. If you want to place them at an angle, you will need to find and purchase some other solution.

  • Right-handed vs left-handed use - All drawing tablets work for people who are right-handed or left-handed. In some cases (usually due to the layout of the tablet buttons) you may need to configure the tablet to be used correctly in a left-handed way. See handedness of drawing tablets.

  • Noise - You may have strong preferences about noise. Generally drawing tablets are considered very quiet, and some are completely silent. More details here: Noise

  • Heat - Drawing tablets are either room temperature or slightly warm depending on the kind of drawing tablet. More here: Heat

Use Cases

  • Drawing - Drawing with a drawing tablet very similar to but different from drawing on paper. And there is a big difference between how it feels to draw with pen displays versus pen tablets. You must understand the differences to help you choose between a pen tablet or pen display. More here: The drawing experience and here Learning digital art

  • Taking notes - I don't typically recommend pen tablets or pen displays for note taking. But some people really do like doing this. Instead I suggest standalone devices like an iPad which I think work much better. More here: Taking notes with drawing tablets

  • Educational videos - You've probably seen those Khan academy videos. Those are done with a drawing tablet. More here: making educational videos. More here: Making educational videos with a drawing tablet

  • Gaming - some people actually play games with drawing tablets. More here: Gaming with a drawing tablet

  • Playing osu! - If you want to play osu!, there are very specific drawing tablets you should consider. More here: Buying a drawing tablet for osu!

Applications

There are a lot of applications that work well with pen tablets depending on what you want to do. More here: Applications. Here are the apps I specifically use: Recommended apps

Buying used drawing tablets

If you buy a used tablet, you could save yourself some significant money but you should be prepared for the issues you might face buying a used tablet. More here: Buying a used tablet

Power

Depending on the kind of tablet it will draw different amounts of power. Pen tablets requrie very little. Pen displays need much more. Some pen tablets even have batteries so that they can work wirelessly. More here: Powering a drawing tablet

Picking tablets with more recent tech

Drawing tablets have been released over many years. That means when you shop online you are going to be seeing many models both old and new and that can get very confusing.

  • Wacom - Wacom models from any year are good quality. However keep in mind over time their latest drivers will drop support for older models.

  • Huion & XP-Pen - Huion and XP-Pen have so many models and some that use older pen tech are released in the same year as tablets that use newer pen tech. The easiest way to know whether you are getting a truly more modern tablet is be looking at the pen it is compatible with.

    • XP-Pen: Look for tablets that have X3 in their name

      • These are the X3 Elite, X3 Roller, and X3 Pro

    • Huion: Look for tablets that use more recent Huion PenTech versions:

      • PenTech 3.x: PW517, PW515, PW110, PW500, PW500S

      • PenTech 4.0: PW600, PW600S

      • The PenTech 4.0 Pens are better than the PenTech 3.x pens

      • More here: Huion pens

Preparing for a drawing tablet

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