Beginner’s Guide to Tablet Features – My Thoughts

When deciding what tablet to get, it’s important to figure out what features you should actually focus on, and what features aren’t particularly necessary to consider.
If you can figure out what features are important, you’ll be able to make a proper choice without paying extra for features that you won’t ever use.
(Please note, if you don’t care about price and just want what is considered “the best”, you should just buy a Wacom.)

For this guide, I will be listing all the main tablet features which I believe are the most important when looking at tablets, and my thoughts on how necessary they are for beginners and experienced artists. Hopefully, my explanation of each feature will help you decide whether the feature is important for your workflow or not.



Table of Contents



Graphic Tablet or Drawing Monitor

A graphic tablet is a tablet without a screen built into it (ex. Wacom Intuos). A drawing monitor is a tablet with a screen built into it, but only works when connected to a separate computer (ex. Wacom Cintiq).

I think beginners should try the cheaper graphic tablets before buying a drawing monitor so that they can get used to digital art and how drawing on a computer actually feels before making a bigger investment.
You can make the same level of art with both a graphic tablet and a drawing monitor so there is really no need to spend a lot of money on your first tablet by going for a drawing monitor instead of a graphic tablet.

Thankfully, even drawing monitors have become increasingly accessible with much lower prices than in the past thanks to the non-Wacom companies releasing good alternatives to the Wacom Cintiq line.
The entry price for drawing monitors used to be roughly 800 USD in the past, but now there are many good options at around the ~400 USD mark, and lower if you do not mind compromising on certain features such as screen quality, size, etc.

If you’re really adamant about starting on the pricier drawing monitors, then that’s your choice to make and your money to spend.


Price

Like I said in the opening paragraph, if you don’t care about price, just buy a Wacom.

The reason these alternatives exist in the first place is to accommodate people who cannot or do not want to pay the premium prices Wacom asks for with their devices, and the lower price obviously means there will be some sort of compromise to match.
For instance, all of Huion’s graphic tablets have much bigger active areas than Wacom’s equivalently priced tablets, but the trade-off is that Huion’s pens are mostly recharging type while Wacom’s are all passive (P.S. Huion’s newer tablets use passive pens so that example of a trade-off is becoming outdated). Whether that’s a worthy trade-off or not will be discussed in the Pen Type section.

If you just want to throw around money, then these budget alternatives will obviously not satisfy you and you will be best off buying only “the best” that you can get (although I will have to argue that Wacom’s current low-end Intuos tablets are not worth buying, but that is a different subject I cover in my Why I do not recommend the Wacom Intuos post).

Price ranges of alternatives

Graphic tablets = 30 USD ~ 160 USD
*Excluding small Osu! tablets like the Huion 420.
Drawing monitors = 200 USD ~ 1100 USD

Price ranges of Wacom

Graphic tablets = 70 USD ~ 500 USD
Drawing monitors = 650 USD ~ 3300 USD

My suggestions
-For a beginner, I suggest starting with something around 80-100 USD from any company besides Wacom. However, if you’re on a really tight budget, then the tablets around 40-60 USD can be fairly decent. I suggest against starting with a drawing monitor unless you have lax budget constraints.
-For an experienced artist, you should consider price as less of a factor and focus more on getting the features you need for your art. You should have a better sense of what you actually need from your tablet, so you should find a tablet which matches those needs.


Active Area

Active area is the area of the tablet surface which senses pen inputs. The simplest way to decide active area is the saying “bigger is better”.
I also think that “bigger is better” myself, but only up to a certain size which I will explain below.

Graphic Tablets

For graphic tablets, the size which generally fits the majority of people is around 9 x 5 inches to 11 x 7 inches of active area. Any bigger or smaller and many people begin complaining about either having to move their arm too much for each stroke, or feeling cramped and limited on a small surface.

It’s worth noting that it’s easier to control your strokes when using a bigger tablet as opposed to a smaller tablet. Why? Because on a small tablet a small motion will cause a fairly big stroke on the screen, while on a large tablet the same motion will cause a much smaller stroke in comparison giving you a better feeling of control over your lines.
Of course, you can get used to smaller tablets and their faster cursor movements by continually using them, but it appears to take slightly longer to get used to that as compared to getting used to a larger tablet which will give you a better feeling of control closer to that of traditional pen writing and drawing.

My suggestions
-For a beginner, finding an 9 x 5 inch to 11 x 7 inch tablet is best. Wacom is not the best option for a beginner as their cheapest tablet options only have 6 x 3.7 inches of active area, and you have to pay a premium 200 USD to get the 8 x 5 inch version which you can so easily get from an alternative for less than 100 USD.
-For an experienced artist, finding the tablet with the size closest to what you are used to is probably best unless you have found that the size of your previous tablet was actually a problem for you.

Drawing Monitors

For drawing monitors, the size which generally fits the majority of people is a 15.6-inch diagonal screen. This is the size which sits almost directly in the middle of super small 10-inch screens and super big 22-inch screens, so it doesn’t feel too big or too small to the majority of people.
Of course, that is just my opinion and you may prefer bigger or smaller screens, but if you have no preference or don’t know your preference, I think 15.6-inch is the safest size to go for.
(Why do companies measure screen sizes using the diagonal? I have no idea, but that’s what most companies seem to use so you should try to get used to it.)

The “bigger is better” saying actually does not apply to all drawing monitors. This is because bigger monitors also need higher screen resolutions to match.
A 1920x1080p resolution on a 15.6-inch monitor is very sharp and clear, but that same resolution can look fairly pixelated on a 22-inch screen because the same number of pixels are stretched over a larger area. 1920x1080p is certainly “acceptable” on a 22-inch screen, but you can clearly make out the individual pixels on your screen while leaning in close to draw.
If you are looking for a large size drawing monitor, you may want to consider Wacom as they are currently the only company with resolutions higher than 1920x1080p on their newest drawing monitors. However, if you think you can handle seeing some pixels, then non-Wacom tablets are much much cheaper and well worth considering.

Another factor to consider is that larger drawing monitors cause less strain on your back because the center of your screen is higher up from the table than on a smaller drawing monitor. This means your head points more forward than downward, putting less strain on your neck while drawing.
In other words, bigger is better when it comes to neck and back ergonomics.
This is under the assumption that you are not going to buy extra features like monitor arms (which can cost a lot!) to raise your drawing monitor to a more comfortable position while drawing.

In terms of portability, a 15.6-inch drawing monitor is a good size, but it can actually be a bit too large to fit in standard carrying bags. A 15.6-inch drawing monitor with expresskeys actually does not fit in 15.6-inch laptop bags. As a matter of fact, you need a 17-inch laptop bag to fit it because of the extra length the expresskeys add to the whole device.
In terms of portability, a 13.3-inch tablet is the best because it is the size that will fit in most standard sized bags.

My suggestions
-For beginners, I suggest the tablets with less than or up to 15.6-inches diagonal.
In truth, I think beginners should try the cheaper graphic tablets before buying a drawing monitor to get used to digital art and how drawing on a computer actually feels. But if you’re really adamant about starting on the pricier drawing monitors, then that’s your choice to make and your money to spend.
-For experienced artists, I also suggest the tablets with less than or up to 15.6-inches diagonal. However, if you already have a preference for smaller or larger, then that is probably what you will want to choose.


Pen Type

There are currently 3 pen types for tablets: Alkaline, recharging, and battery-free.
-Alkaline pens use alkaline batteries to power them.
-Recharging pens use a separate cable to replenish their charge and do not require you to buy separate batteries like an alkaline pen.
-Battery-free refers to pens which do not require any sort of charging for them to work with their tablet, the best examples being any of Wacom’s pens.

If might not seem like it, but all 3 of these pen types are completely worthwhile. However, a battery-free pen is obviously the ideal because it requires absolutely no maintenance as long as the pen is well built.

Alkaline Pens

Alkaline pens are completely usable as they usually last for around half a year on a single battery. All graphic tablets and drawing monitors with alkaline pens use AAA batteries, but sometimes other pens like the Microsoft Surface Pen use hard to acquire AAAA batteries. It’s best if you check the battery type before purchasing a tablet just in case.
Anyhow, the pros of an alkaline pen is that it has a heavy weightiness which no other pen type can offer. There are certainly people who prefer heavier pens and those people should concentrate on the tablets with alkaline pens to get the experience they want.

It should be noted that Alkaline pens are becoming less and less common though, and most graphic tablets and drawing monitors which use them are very old and at the end of their production cycles.
You may want to avoid alkaline options simply due to the fact that the tablet may stop being supported very soon.

Recharging Pens

Recharging pens are completely fine and usable because all current recharging pens last at least 2 weeks (336 hours) of continuous use on a single charge. If you assume that someone only draws 4 hours a day, you can draw for 84 days without having to recharge. That’s almost 3 whole months!
There are two cons to a recharging pen. One is that you need to recharge it every now and then, and the other is that the battery will hold less and less charge the longer you’ve used it. Think of a phone battery. The more you use it and recharge it, the shorter the battery lasts overall.
However, the battery life should not really change for a few years so it should not pose a problem. After using your tablet for that long, you will probably already be considering getting a new tablet anyways. Replacement pens are quite cheap as well.

Battery-free Pens

Battery-free pens are the ideal because they require absolutely no maintenance. However, they are usually very light due to the lack of an internal battery so people who dislike light pens will dislike most battery-free pens.
There are no real cons with a battery-free pen aside from the lightness which is just a personal preference type of thing.

My suggestions
-For a beginner, I suggest looking for battery-free options (there are a lot now!). Recharging pens are acceptable as well if you require the slightly lower price they offer.
I personally think tablets with alkaline pens are not worth it simply because only old tablets have alkaline pens, and old tablets are more likely to be at the end of their production cycle.
-For experienced artists, I suggest that you look for battery-free options as well. There are a lot of great battery-free options now, so I don’t think you need to settle with recharging pen or alkaline pen options.


Pen Buttons

Pen buttons are the buttons on the side, and the pen eraser tip if the pen has it.
For the most part, all graphic tablets and drawing monitors come with pens that have 2 side buttons, but the eraser feature is quite rare on alternative tablets and basically only Wacom’s higher end tablets have it.

Oftentimes, alternatives will not have very many options for side button functions. For example, Ugee tablets can only map mouse clicks to the side buttons on the pen.
Unfortunately, this is not information that you can find in a specification sheet, so you will have to rely on reading reviews to figure out the extent of the tablet drivers in question.
This shouldn’t particularly be a problem for beginners who have no previous tablet driver experience to compare to, but it will often be a problem for experienced artists who have experience with more customizable tablet drivers previously.
This is less of a problem nowadays as most companies give the pen buttons the same amount of customization as the shortcut keys.

The pen eraser can certainly be a useful feature when you are trying to do all your art solely on the tablet without using other peripherals like a keyboard. However, it is fairly useless if you use your keyboard for functions and shortcuts because clicking a keyboard button for eraser is much quicker than physically flipping the pen to use the pen eraser.

My suggestions
-For a beginner, it is not particularly important how many pen buttons you have, and the pen eraser should not be an important feature as you are most likely going to use the keyboard for shortcuts as you try to get used to drawing digitally.
-For experienced artists, you should try to read reviews to understand the extent of the pen button customization before deciding.


Pen Pressure

This is a feature which is severely overvalued.
It was certainly a very important feature back in the times when pen pressures were still under 1024 levels, but with the current standard being 2048 levels, there is almost no reason to even worry about pen pressure levels as basically no one can even tell the differences between pen pressures above 1024 levels.
(Disclaimer: I say “basically no one” because there are people who claim they are sensitive enough to feel the differences. However, those people are most likely feeling the differences in line smoothing quality due to the tablet drivers, and not the actual pen pressure itself.)

The important part of pen pressure is the quality of it, not the quantity. The number given as the pen pressure level means nothing if there are problems like non-linear pen pressure curves, high IAF (initial activation force), issues keeping up with quick strokes, etc.
The best way to gauge the quality of the pen pressure is by looking at as many reviews as you can. A lot of reviews will only parrot the number of pen pressure levels, but you should at least be able to find some useful reviews which talk about how it actually feels and whether there are any issues with it.

My suggestions
-For both beginners and experienced artists, the number of pen pressure levels isn’t important. Instead, try to look at as many reviews as you can about the tablet which you’re interested in to see if there are any issues with the pen pressure.


Pen Tilt/Rotation Sensitivity

This is currently one of the features which separates Wacom from the alternatives. There are a few non-Wacom brands which have pen tilt on their devices, but only Wacom offers both pen tilt and barrel rotation (with the purchase of a separate 100 USD pen).
If barrel rotation is an important feature for your art, Wacom is currently your only option. Otherwise, it’s really not worth paying the massive Wacom price premium to get it.

Pen tilt is meant to simulate the use of a real life brush where tilt and tilt direction (tilt direction always comes with pen tilt) are often important factors in getting the particular stroke you are looking for.
Barrel rotation is meant to supplement pen tilt in simulating a real life brush where rotating the barrel of a brush would also change the direction of said brush.
In other words, these features are more important if you are looking to simulate traditional art on a digital medium.

As someone who was never much of a traditional artist in the first place, I never had a need for pen tilt and barrel rotation because I never expected digital art to imitate traditional art in the first place. However, they will be helpful to any painterly type of artist who knows how to effectively use pen tilt and barrel rotation for effects.
It should be noted that your art program must also support these features for you to use them in the first place.

My suggestions
-For a beginner, pen tilt/rotation is completely unnecessary. It will most likely confuse you instead of help you. Only once you have figured out your drawing style should you start thinking about whether these features are necessary for you or not.
-For experienced artists, if pen tilt is important for your type of art, buy a tablet which has it. If you also need pen rotation, buy a Wacom and the 100 USD rotation pen.


Expresskeys

Expresskeys are the buttons and switches built into the tablet itself. They are there to make it so you can operate and draw with just the tablet itself and nothing else.
*The term “expresskeys” was created by Wacom and they have licensed it, so the alternatives are not allowed to use that term, but I will still generalize all shortcut buttons as expresskeys for this section.

For Graphic Tablets

My opinion is that expresskeys are useless on graphic tablets due to the reasoning that any person using a graphic tablet will have access to a keyboard, and a keyboard is much more versatile and has way more keys than any tablet with expresskeys.
However, if you plan to use the expresskeys instead of your keyboard, some tablets have better expresskeys than others in terms of comfort and customization.

You will usually be unable to find decent graphic tablets without expresskeys, so it should just be accepted that they are an unavoidable extra cost at this point.

For Drawing Monitors

Expresskeys are fairly useful when you have a giant drawing monitor (19-inch to 27-inch) because you often cannot reach the keyboard comfortably when reaching around a giant screen, but you can often fix this problem with an expresskey remote like Wacom’s Expresskey Remote, or a half keyboard like Parblo’s PR200w.
For smaller drawing monitors (10-inch to 15.6-inch), expresskeys are much less necessary because you should still be able to comfortably reach your keyboard around the monitor and that is slightly more efficient than using limited expresskeys, but having expresskeys built into the tablet allows you to draw on just the tablet if that is what you prefer to do.

Alternative tablets often cut costs by having no expresskeys built into the tablet, but that should not be a problem for the most part until you get into the bigger drawing monitors.
If you plan to draw by only using the tablet and nothing else, then expresskeys are necessary to replace the keyboard, but otherwise, the keyboard should fulfill all the functions that you need.

My suggestions
-For a beginner, expresskeys are not a feature which should affect your buying decision unless you are aiming to only use expresskeys and not keyboard shortcuts.
-For experienced artists, expresskeys should be considered based on whether you are used to using a keyboard or not.


Multi-touch

Multi-touch refers to finger touch inputs such as pinching for zoom in and out. This is a feature that only Wacom has on their tablets (with the exception of a few Yiynova tablets).
Basically, if you want multi-touch on your tablet, you have to buy a Wacom.

My opinion about multi-touch is that it’s just like expresskeys. It’s useless for graphic tablets, but useful for bigger drawing monitors where you want to do all your actions solely on the tablet without using the keyboard.

My suggestions
-For a beginner, this is a completely unnecessary feature and should not be a remotely important aspect when choosing a tablet.
-For experienced artists, this is a fairly unnecessary feature unless you intend to make use of it. Just ask yourself whether you need it or not and decide based on that.


Tablet Drivers

Like I mentioned in the pen buttons section, tablet drivers are unfortunately not given in the specification sheets. You have to read lots of reviews to find out the extent of their configurations as most reviews gloss over the tablet drivers and only talk about the actual drawing experience.

In the past, alternative tablet driver problems were all about whether the driver even worked or not. However, in recent times alternative tablet driver problems focus mainly on how much configuration is available for the pen buttons and expresskeys while basically all drivers will work unless it somehow turned out to be incompatible with your computer, or you just installed it wrongly.

For instance, installing the driver from the included CD creates many problems and is the main culprit for most “The tablet is crap, the drivers don’t work!” comments. You should instead be downloading the driver from the tablet company’s official site to get the latest drivers which run way better than the outdated drivers included on any installation CD.

My suggestions
-Whether you’re a beginner or experienced artist, read reviews about the tablet you’re interested in to find out how good the drivers are. But make sure the reviews are fairly recent, otherwise they might be talking about outdated drivers which have already been fixed or improved since the review was released.


Screen Type and Screen Colours

Screen type and screen colours only apply to drawing monitors, but I believe they needed to be addressed or at least mentioned.

For screen types, the drawing monitors out at present are only TN or IPS.
TN monitors are cheaper, but have bad viewing angles with colours looking different at different angles.
IPS monitors are pricier, but they display colours the same when viewed from all viewing angles. IPS is recommended for creatives for choosing colours consistently.

For screen colours, unfortunately, there is no legitimate way to find out the range of display colours and brightness/contrast without actually trying the specific drawing monitor yourself, or finding a rare review of the actual colour capabilities using a colorimeter.

A Blurb About Colorimeters

If you are an aspiring digital creative working with colours, I wholeheartedly recommend investing in a colorimeter. Factory calibration can only last so long before the monitor colours start to drift and become less and less accurate, so it is extremely beneficial in the long run if you invest in a colorimeter. Even Wacom’s factory calibrated tablet monitors are no exception to this and their colours will drift over time because colour drift is an unavoidable aspect of monitors as they age.
Having a colorimeter to calibrate your monitor every month or so is vital if you want to have complete confidence in your colours at all times.

My recommendation for the best cheapest option is the Datacolor Spyder5 Express paired with the free software DisplayCAL. I do not recommend the cheaper X-Rite ColorMunki Smile because it is an old type of colorimeter which loses its reliability very quickly, whereas the Spyder5 Express and pricier models will work for many years to come.
You can read great reviews of these colorimeters at this site:
https://www.color-management-guide.com/spyder5express-review.html
https://www.color-management-guide.com/colormunki-smile-xrite-review.html
And here’s a really simple guide on how to calibrate with DisplayCAL:
https://www.pointsinfocus.com/learning/digital-darkroom/displaycal-and-argyll-cms-quick-start-guide/
As well as how to get the Spyder5 colorimeter to be detected by DisplayCAL:
https://hub.displaycal.net/forums/topic/spyder5-not-detected/

Author: Nikage

I am a hobbyist artist. Ever since I bought my first Wacom alternative tablet, I've become interested in finding out what other alternative tablets are good, and trying to guide people to see that there's more than just Wacom on the market.

2 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide to Tablet Features – My Thoughts”

  1. “Only Wacom has pen tilt and rotation sensitivity, so if it is an important feature for your art…”

    you should update your post! Kamvas 20 is literally GT-191 v2 (2019)

    Like

    1. Oh, thanks for pointing that out!
      I haven’t looked at this post in a long time, so I didn’t realize how outdated it has become. I’ll give it a look over when I can.

      Like

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