Pen tablets vs pen displays


There are three kinds of drawing tablets:

  • pen tablets - that don't have a screen

  • pen displays - that do have a screen

  • standalone tablets- that have a screen and you can use them without being connected to a computer

This document is discussing how you might choose between a pen tablet and a pen display.


Choosing between a pen tablet and pen display is not easy. There is no single answer that applies to everyone.

This document will identify the different dimensions across which you can compare a pen tablet and a pen display. And it will identify those cases in which pen tablets have an advantage and those cases in which a pen display has an advantage.

And ultimately the goal is to provide you enough information so that you can make an informed decision.


This document summarizes many very deep topics. If you want more information, consult the buying guide which covers all these topics in detail.

Dispelling a common myths

A pen display is not inherently better

Pen displays look really fancy and cost much more than a pen tablet. And it would be natural to think that this means that pen displays are in some way fundamentally better than a pen tablet. That is absolutely not true. Pen tablets have their own merits. So do not think about a pen tablet as simply a lower cost option that you have to “settle for.” For many people it is the right answer.

Professional artists use both pen displays and pen tablets

Another common myth is that professionals only use pen displays. Again this is absolutely not true. There are many professional artists who use pen tablets out of preference and or doing high quality professional work with those pen tablets.

Not everyone prefers using a pen display

I see countless stories of people who love using their pen tablet but feel the need to get a pen display and then when they tried the pen display they realized that the pen tablet worked much better for them. And then they end up returning.

You can use both kinds of tablets

And there is no rule that says you have to use only one kind of tablet. There are many people who have both a pen tablet and a pen display. And depending on what they're doing they will switch between using one or the other. See: Using multiple drawing tablets at the same time

Quality of output

Some people worry that the quality of art they want to produce can only be produced by a pen display. You shouldn't let that worry you. People have been producing amazing art with pen tablets for decades. There are definitely some benefits to using a pen display, but the quality of art than can be made is not a factor.

Advice for first-time tablet users

If you are just getting started using a drawing tablet - for example maybe this is going to be the first tablet you own - my advice is to start with a pen tablet. And learn to use it and if you can't adjust to a pen tablet in a few weeks then return it and get a pen display.

Need to be used with a computer


Both pen tablets and pen displays need a computer to work. They can't be used standalone like an Apple iPad.


WINNER: Pen tablets

With a pen tablet you are drawing in generally a better posture. You will be sitting in a way such that your back is vertical and your head will be looking straight ahead at your monitor. With a pen display you will almost always have to lean over a little bit and look down at the tablet to draw. This can place strain on your lower back and on your neck. This is one of the most popular reasons why someone buys a pen display but then returns it. They just find using a pen display to be very hard on their bodies. More here: Body posture when using drawing tablets


WINNER: Pen tablets

Pen tablets cost much less than pen displays. Even the most expensive pen tablet cost less than the vast majority of pen displays. Generally a pen tablet will cost between $50 to $250. But pen displays start at around $300.


WINNER: Pen tablets

Pen tablets are the clear winner for reliability. Pen tablets are very simple devices compared to pen displays. They have far fewer components. And so there's just less of a probability that something will go wrong with the hardware of a pen tablet. And the components they have are not as delicate.


WINNER: Pen tablets

Pen tablets work with a single USB cable (And some are wireless). Pen displays are more complex. Depending on your computer and which pen display there are multiple cabling options and sometimes they can be difficult to configure. More here: Connecting a pen display

Pointer lag

WINNER: Pen tablets

All tablets have some amount of pointer lag. But in my observation pen tablets have less pointer lag than pen displays.

And on top of it even if they have the same amount of lag you will notice it more with the pen display because you can see the tip of the pen and the pointer next to each other. And justice seeing them next to each other highlights the pointer lag. More here: lag

Wireless connectivity

WINNER: Pen tablets

Many pen tablets support wireless connectivity. These days that is via Bluetooth.

However no pen displays support wireless connectivity. You will always have at least one wire connecting your end display to your computer. And if you have a larger pen display - anything at 16 inches and above - it's almost guaranteed you'll have at least two wires - one going to your computer and one for power.

Taking notes

WINNER: Pen displays

In general I do not recommend taking notes with pen displays. I think that standalone tablets are much better for no taking. But compared to a pen tablet a pen display is certainly much better because you can see what you're doing with the pen and so it's just more intuitive and feels like you're working with pen and paper. More here: taking notes with drawing tablets.

Surviving a fall

WINNER: Pen tablets

If you knock a pen tablet off your desktop and it hits the floor almost certainly nothing bad will happen. Pen tablets generally don't have any moving parts aside from maybe some buttons. But if you drop a pen display almost certainly that pen display will be severely damaged by the drop. This could shatter the glass of the pen display. Or it could do some severe internal damage to the display panel that's inside the tablet. And this damage to a pen display is not user repairable and it's often extremely expensive to have it repaired if it is even possible to repair.

Most of the time when I've seen someone have significant damage to their appendix display the cost to repair is as much as a new pen display.

Power requirements

WINNER: Pen tablets

A pen tablet doesn't require much power. If connected to your laptop it won't drain the battery as much. A pen display requires much more power. If connected to your laptop, it will draw much more power and run your battery down faster. More here: powering a drawing tablet.

Hand covering what you are drawing

WINNER: Pen tablets

In many ways a pen display mimics how it feels to draw with pen and paper. Usually this is an advantage. However it also has some of the same limitations of pen and paper. In particular with the pen display your hand and arm are between you and what you are drawing. So quite naturally you have to accommodate for this. You might have to draw from a different angle or rotate the canvas.

A pen tablet of course separates what you see from where you draw. And so your hand is never in the way of what you are drawing.

Physical size and weight

WINNER: Pen tablets

Pen tablets are considerably thinner and weigh less.

Drawing experience

WINNER: Pen displays

  • Pen displays have a more natural feel because you looking at the same place your are drawing. With a pen tablet you are drawing in one place but looking somewhere else.

  • Most people feel like they have press UNDO much less frequently with a pen display because the stroke more often goes where they intended.

  • With a pen display you do have to ensure you configure the tablets active area to map to your display so that there is no distortion. With pen displays you don't have to do this.

More here: The drawing experience


WINNER: Pen tablets

Given their size and weight and need for a single cable (or even wireless capability) pen tablets have a lot of advantages for carrying around with you.

Also with a pen display, you will need to protect it more because it is more sensitive to damage. See protective cases.


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