This content originally appeared on Mashable for a US audience and has been adapted for the UK audience.
Paints pots and canvas are a thing of the past. Technology has digitised just about every art form. Though there are debates over whether newfangled concepts can truly be considered works of art (we’re talking about you, NFTs), it’s undeniable that technology has made art far more accessible.
Digital tech allow graphic designers and illustrators simulate a variety of mediums using a selection of devices and tools: A tablet, a stylus, a touch-sensitive pad, and some creative software like Adobe Fresco. That flexibility, in addition to a quick turnaround and the end product, makes digital art appealing from a commercial perspective.
Of course, the tablets, styluses, and pads can cost quite a bit. And it’s all a bit confusing if you don’t know your art-based tech jargon. As far as we’re concerned, the best place to start is a drawing tablet. And we can help paint a clear picture on how to choose one.
Why should you use a drawing tablet?
A good tablet — plus your software and pen — will affect how well you’re able to translate your drawing skills to the screen, or, if you’re a total beginner, the control you have over your artistic process. Meanwhile, different software — such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop — will offer different mediums and editing options.
What kinds of drawing tablets are there?
Most drawing tablets can be placed into the below categories:
Graphics tablet — The simplest of the bunch, essentially a touch-sensitive pad with a pen that you can plug into your computer so you have more control over your cursor (and therefore your digital pen) while drawing. The movement of your stylus on the pad will be reflected on your computer screen.
Pen display — Probably what most people think of in terms of drawing tablets, these panels will let you see the tracks of your stylus or pen as you go. Instead of having to plug into a computer, these are standalone tablets able to produce art themselves.
Tablet computer — iPads and their ilk are powerful minicomputers for which drawing is just one of many other functions. Often their use for art will require purchase of a pen or accessory of some sort for better control, and the creative software of your choice.
Keep these categories in mind when shopping around for a new tablet.
Do you need to be a good artist to use a drawing tablet?
Artists of any skill level can use a tablet. But do take your skill level into account before buying. If you’re not entirely comfortable drawing without looking at your hand moving across the paper, for instance, you might find a graphics tablet a bit difficult to use, since you’ll have to watch the monitor while drawing with your hand. In that case, a pen display or iPad might suit you better.
What’s the best type of screen for a drawing tablet?
A tablet’s screen is critical to its performance. If you’re trying to create photorealistic works of art, a high resolution is worth the price. But if you just want to practice your drawing skills on a more casual basis, a run-of-the-mill tablet with lower resolution will be more cost-effective. The thickness of a screen will affect parallax — the shifting of a line or object based on a person’s perspective, caused by the distance (however small) between pen and interface, separated by the screen. Minimising parallax will help keep your perspective consistent.
How sensitive are drawing tablets?
They can be different sensitivities, but once again consider what works best for you. Some might prefer a super touch-sensitive screen that will pick up on every feather-light brush of the pen, while others will want a less responsive tablet that they can press harder on to keep a line steadier, or prevent accidental marks.
The feel of a tablet is also crucial. Obviously, it won’t feel the same as drawing on paper, but the material and make of the tablet can determine how much give, friction, and glide it has. A tablet’s tactile aspect is very important to consider, especially if you’re someone who is very particular about your setup.
How big are drawing tablets?
Size and heft is one of the most important aspects to keep in mind — whether you want a tiny, portable thing to carry everywhere with you for sketching or a heavy-duty unit equipped with loads of extra features that will stay on your desk. The size of a tablet typically corresponds to the dimensions of its active area (i.e. the part of the tablet you can actually draw on), so in addition to portability, have a think about the size and detail of the work you intend to do. It’s never fun to run out of drawing space.
What is tracking speed?
This means the lag time between stroke of your pen and the corresponding line showing up on screen. The higher the tracking speed (measured in PPS — points per second), the less the lag, and the more instant the result. And while lag is annoying at the best of times — even just in things like loading our email inboxes — it can make finer work like drawing simply impossible.
How do you choose a stylus?
A tablet sometimes comes with a stylus. If not you’ll need to buy one separately. Either way, be sure to choose a stylus with a grip you like and features you need. Plus, styluses have their own distinct types: Battery-powered (thicker, needs extra batteries), rechargeable (slimmer, less reliable), and the newest EMR (wireless charging from tablet itself).
What is the best tablet for drawing?
It’s always a good idea to try before you buy with a product like this. The feel of it is extremely important. But here are some ideas for you to at least start to get an idea of the kind of tablet you might want.
These are the best drawing tablets in 2023.
If money is no object, the Wacom MobileStudio Pro 16 is an illustrator’s dream. Wacom is the OG brand and the main market player in terms of drawing tablets, and this is its most premium model.
The MobileStudio Pro 16 is designed for (in Wacom’s words) “complete creative independence”. It’s perfectly functional on its own or you can plug it into a computer if you prefer. Resolution, processing speed, colour, and precision are all top-notch, as one would expect of a tablet at this price.
The screen will respond to the included Wacom Pro Pen 2 — a battery-free, pressure-sensitive stylus — and your fingers, so you can zoom as you draw. The pen also has side switches, and the tablet has shortcut keys at its sides for optimised workflow (home button, touch ring, radial menu, Precision Mode, display toggle, dedicated pan, scroll, zoom, and brush size).
And Wacom’s not kidding when they say pen computer. It’s powerful, with front and back cameras, dual mics, GPS, fingerprint reader, and an SDXC card reader (helpful for photographers). Not that it makes the splurge any less painful, but the tablet also comes with an adjustable stand and a six-month subscription to Fresco, Adobe’s app for drawing and painting.
If you have the kind of budget to splurge on a tablet for drawing, you could always get a tablet that does other things as well. The Apple iPad Pro gets more powerful all the time. The newest models are computers in their own right.
There’s no need to transfer your drawings anywhere with this tablet — you can email them straight to clients. Plus, iPads allow you to watch videos on drawing techniques, take reference photos, and do just about anything. It’s little wonder: Apple is the brand that revolutionised tablets.
Though just about all iPad models are adequate for drawing, the newer ones are particularly great. The newest iPad Pro has Liquid Retina XDR display with TrueTone tech (great for high contrast and high brightness content) and an M2 chip that provides super-fast processing speed.
If you opt for an older model to save money, be sure that it runs the software you want to use, and keep in mind that battery life and resolution, among other things, won’t be as impressive. The only downside is that iPads typically aren’t specifically designed to be for drawing, so you’ll have to buy an Apple Pencil to provide the control you need — and those aren’t cheap.
If a graphics tablet is more your thing, the Xencelabs Drawing Tablet Bundle is one of the best options available. It gives you the whole package for an excellent price. If you prefer a pen display model, however, there’s no need to feel left out. Xencelabs also make an excellent 4K pen display that costs a fair bit more — but still not as much as other models in this roundup.
The Xencelabs Drawing Tablet Bundle, however, has it all. Quite literally. The bundle is packed with handy accessories. It comes with an Express Keypad — essentially a little remote with eight quick keys and features to control your workflow. Set the quick key functions yourself, and they’re clearly listed on an OLED display. Also included are two battery-free styluses, 10 extra nibs, a pen case, tablet sleeve, a dongle, and drawing glove.
The tablet itself has been praised for the drawing surface, which reviewers rate for being so satisfying to draw on. Other bonuses include a sturdy, reliable build — though handily portable at the same time — plus drawing action that’s smooth, lag-free, and responsive. It really is excellent value for money.
The Wacom Cintiq line is a staple in every drawing tablet conversation for a reason. It comes in three sizes: 16, 22, and Pro 24, which can be very helpful for different budgets and drawing needs. The 22 is a comfortable midway for most artists — it’s definitely large enough to accommodate the broadest of brushstrokes, so if you don’t want to splash out £2,000 for an extra couple inches, it’s probably a safe choice among the Cintiqs.
It’s applauded for its paper-like feel and durability, as it’s built with scratch-resistant (and anti-glare) materials. Complaints about the drawing aspects of the tablet are rare. The few cited issues are the size of it — taking up precious desk space — and the wires. But if your job involves illustration, chances are this won’t be an issue.
All Cintiqs come with Wacom’s Pro Pen 2, one of the best in the market in terms of pressure and tilt sensitivity, but are also compatible with the Pro Pen 3D, which has three buttons set right in the pen and was designed for easy navigation between dimensions. Purchase also includes 6-months of Clip Studio Paint EX for illustrating.
If you just want a pen display to set up at your desk space for daily use, the Huion Kamvas 22 Plus is a less expensive alternative to Wacom tablets. And there’s plenty to recommend: A laminated 21-inch screen with anti-glare glass, plus a higher colour gamut and minimal parallax. It also has a stand that tilts 20-80 degrees, so it’ll suit a standing desk as well as more typical setups.
While its resolution can’t compare to the fancier (and more expensive) tablet computers, this pen display is large enough that it might not even matter. What that means though, is that if you want to carry it around, those 4 kilograms will feel increasingly heavy. It’s not great for a commute, unless you’re trying to lift weights on the way, but leave it in one place and you’ll be fine.
The pen that it comes with is a pretty good deal as well — it’s battery-free, which saves you loads of time, pressure-sensitive, and supports tilted use, so you don’t have to arch your wrist in unnatural ways to get the tablet to recognise the stylus tip. Huion also produces a selection of accessories that you can add on and create a full digital artists’ kit.
XP-Pen has a good rep for offering up cheaper alternatives. Indeed, the brand continues to produces drawing tablets of an always-increasing quality — and for a fraction of the price of higher-ticket brands.
The XP-Pen Artist12 is a case in point. It’s part of XP-Pen’s broader Artist line, which consists of pen displays at varying sizes and with varying numbers of express keys (and even dials and trackpads). It features a touch bar in addition to your standard express keys, which means you can be more specific in zooming, scrolling, or your preferred customised setting.
Unlike other pen display models at this budget-end price point, the Artist12’s pen is completely battery-free. That means you don’t have to deal with the hassle of running out of juice when you’re midway through a drawing session.
The tablet itself isn’t Bluetooth-enabled so you’ll have to live with its 3-in-1 cable (two connect to your laptop, one connects to a power outlet), but that’s a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.
The Artist12 isn’t only recommended for art, but also online learning and more general work. It’s compatible with plenty of apps, so all bases are covered.
Just because graphics tablets don’t have the screens that pen display models do, that doesn’t mean they’re any less effective. Take the Wacom Intuos. For those who like working with a graphics tablet, it comes highly recommended.
There’s also an Intuos Pro model, but the classic Intuos is probably the more cost-effective option. The Pro upgrade is more expensive, though it does have a more textured surface, better pressure sensitivity, and more buttons. The Pro also comes with a newer pen that has an eraser on the end, which can help with workflow and might ultimately justify the higher price.
Otherwise, the classic Intuosis is a perfectly good graphics tablet in itself. It has impressive pressure sensitivity, four customisable ExpressKeys, and features to accommodate both right and left-handers. It includes a 90-day trial of Corel Painter Essentials and Corel AfterShot Pro 3 (not available on Chromebook) and two years of Clip Studio Paint Pro (unless you’re on a Chromebook, in which case you still do get three months). Overall, it’s a bargain.
Joseph joined Mashable as the UK Shopping Editor in 2018. He worked for a number of print publications before making the switch to the glittery world of digital media, and now writes about everything from coffee machines to VPNs.
Kristie Chan is a Shopping Fellow.
Matt Ford is a freelance contributor to Mashable.