The best drawing tablets of 2023: Expert recommended | ZDNET

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The best drawing tablets of 2023: Expert recommended | ZDNET

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You can create rich visuals and show-stopping artwork with a drawing tablet. Whether you're a novice or a seasoned digital artist, these tablets make illustration easy and creativity endless, with every pen display and brush stroke at your disposal for customization that matches your artistic vision. 

Also: The best stylus pens

Contrary to typical tablets, some drawing tablets don't have screens. Rather, they are essentially a virtual piece of paper that sends pressure from the pad to the computer that powers it. These tablets come in many forms, including computers, basic drawing pads, or typical tablets.

No matter what material artists draw on, they have to be willing to adapt to that surface. But the best drawing tablets make it incredibly easy to get used to them. My top pick is the iPad Pro (6th generation) , but I also included drawing and graphics tablets from Wacom, Huion, and more before you begin the newest phase of your artistic lifestyle.

iPad Pro tech specs: Dimensions (L x W x H): 11-inch: 9.74 x 7.02 x 0.23 inches, 12.9-inches: 11.04 x 8.46 x 0.25-inches | Compatibility: iPad OS 16 and Apple Pencil 2nd Generation | Display: 11-inch Liquid Retina display or 12.9-inch Liquid Retina XDR display with ProMotion and True Tone (both have 264 ppi)

Apple's most powerful tablet is the best drawing tablet, thanks to its ease of use and superb display that provides crisp detail while drawing. Apple gave the iPad Pro a notable upgrade in early September with an M2 chip that delivers better performance and battery and a brighter display. Both the 11-inch and 12-inch iPad Pros feature a Liquid Retina display with True Tone, 224 ppi, and a fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating. If you are planning to do a lot of professional drawing work, you will have more than enough power with the Apple Silicon M2 chip and high storage options.

According to Juliet Dreamhunter, an entrepreneur who side hustles as a digital illustrator creating stock illustrations, anyone interested in digital illustration should work with the iPad Pro, especially since the popular Procreate app is only available for iOS. "I have also used the Affinity Designer app for vector illustration, which has a desktop version as well. But the ease of drawing on an iPad cannot be compared to drawing with a mouse or using a Wacom tablet with no screen," she said.

Review: iPad Pro (2022) review: I'm cautiously optimistic. Or foolish

She added that perhaps the best part is the Apple Pencil 2 compatibility, as it gives you a professional feel while still allowing you to draw by hand like with a normal pencil.

You can use your Apple Pencil to hover over the iPad Pro's screen and move between tools such as the pencil, brush, eraser, and colors, or you can even preview before making a mark on the screen. With some drawing tools, you can even tilt the Apple Pencil to change the angle for different effects.

Wacom Intuos Pro tech specs: Dimensions (L x W x H): 13.14 inch x 8.54 x .31 inches | Active area: 8.7 x 5.8 inches | Compatibility: Mac OS X 10.12 or later / Windows 7 or later | Pressure levels: 8,192

Wacom is one of the industry leaders when it comes to drawing and graphics tablets. With virtually no lag and 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity in the included battery-free Wacom Pro Pen, the Wacom Intuos Pro is the best drawing tablet on the market for professional artists.

The tablet's lightweight design makes it easy to use on your desk or lap, and you can customize everything from the tablet's ExpressKeys to the Pro Pen 2's buttons, depending on your favorite shortcuts.

My experience with this tablet was fairly easy and enjoyable (especially for someone who is not a professional artist). The pen makes it easy to fine-tune details and brush strokes in any drawing program you are working on.

Read the review: This Wacom drawing tablet feels like putting pen to paper

However, this tablet is made for professional artists. Neil Chase, a digital artist, said that the Wacom Intuos Pro is his preferred drawing tablet.

"One of my favorite projects involved creating a series of intricate illustrations for a children's book. The Wacom Intuos Pro allowed me to achieve the level of detail and precision I needed, thanks to its impressive 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity," Chase said. "This made it possible for me to create incredibly lifelike drawings and easily control the thickness and transparency of the lines."

The Wacom Intuos Pro with the included Wacom Pro Pen comes in three sizes (small, medium, and large) to suit all sizes of artwork and editing.

Note: The Wacom Intuos Pro is currently up to $80 off on Amazon.

Huion Kamvas Pro 12 tech specs: Dimensions (L x W x H): 13.78 x 7.82 x 0.43 inches | Active area: 10.09 x 5.68 inches | Compatibility: Linux(Ubuntu), Mac OS 10.12 and above, Windows 7 and above | Pressure levels: 8,192 and ±60 pen tilt support

If you're shopping on a budget, Huion drawing tablets have come a long way in the last decade or so. While some of its models can go up to $600, this pen display tablet is an excellent budget option that costs just $250. 

This tablet has four user-defined express keys and a touch bar to control canvas zooming, brush adjusting, and page scrolling. Like the Wacom Intuos Pro, you can customize these express keys.

The display's 120% sRGB color gamut volume presents 16.7 million colors vividly, and the anti-glare technology reduces glare while working in a brighter setting to shorten the distance between the pen nib and the cursor.

Chuan Shin, a freelance concept artist, told ZDNET that he works exclusively with Huion tablets. "Huion makes the best tablets when it comes to value and cost," he said. "Huion also does not have issues with driver updates, which I appreciate."

Even though this is a pen display tablet, this model still requires you to connect it to a computer or laptop for it to work.

Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 tech specs: Dimensions (L x W x H): 26.6 x 15.5 x 1.9 inches | Active area: 20.6 x 11.6 inches | Compatibility: Windows 7 or later, macOS X 10.11 or later | Pressure levels: 8,192

Artists who are Wacom fans but prefer a pen display over a pen tablet should look no further than the Wacom Cintiq Pro 24. Although expensive (starting at $1,900), you get what you pay for, which is an incredible display, reliable software, and an excellent drawing experience.

The Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 comes in four sizes, depending on your drawing needs: 16", 24", 27", or 32". No matter what size you get, you can expect a 4K resolution display with industry-leading color accuracy (including 99% Adobe RGB coverage) so that you can see every tiny detail and stroke of your artwork, design, or photographic projects.

Jim Mortensen, a director, storyboard artist, and writer for animation, said he only uses Wacom tablets. After using the Wacom 21UX for 15 years, he upgraded to the Cintiq Pro 24 and said he couldn't be happier.

"Wacom products have been incredibly reliable for me," he said. "Their driver software is consistently reliable compared to other companies, and their software and hardware support have always been great. It will take a LOT for me to switch away."

The tablet utilizes the same Pro Pen 2 as the Intuos Pro, so you'll still get that pen-to-paper feel even on a tablet screen.

Xencelabs tech specs: Dimensions (L x W x H): 12.61 x 9.16 x 0.3 inches | Active area: 10.33 x 5.8 inches | Compatibility: Windows 10 and above, macOS 10.12 and newer | Pressure levels: 8,192

All of these drawing tablets come with a stylus pen to create with, but this tablet from Xencelabs lets you add more accessories to make your experience even better. You'll get combo nibs, a drawing glove, a Quick Keys remote, and two battery-free pens for 2D and 3D design.

It's a pen tablet, so there is no display, but it is built with a gently curved armrest on the sides and is only 8mm thick, making it comfortable to use.

Nick Saporito, a graphic designer of over 10 years, who teaches how to use design software and drawing tablets on his YouTube channel, likes the precision and surface area of the Xencelabs Pen Tablet.

"The feature that stands out to me the most is the programmable controller it comes with," Saporito said. "It can be used to create custom key bindings for whatever features you most commonly use. For example, you can program one of the buttons to 'Undo' by binding it to Control + Z."

He added that the glove that comes with the bundle makes it so the tablet won't accidentally register your hand as a pen stroke and that the pens' various removable tips allow for different types of brush strokes and detailing.

Overall, the iPad Pro is my top choice when it comes to the best drawing tablets for most people because of its ease of use and Apple Pencil 2 compatibility. However, here's a chart with key specs for all the drawing tablets so you can better compare the iPad Pro to all the other drawing tablets on my list.

9.74 x 7.02 inches or 11.04 x 8.46 inches

To decide which drawing tablet to buy, you should first consider what you plan to draw. Size, express keys, and pressure levels all go into play, but it ultimately comes down to your personal preferences. 

Here is a decision matrix on the best drawing tablets for you to refer to before making your big purchase:

Choose this drawing tablet…

A powerful tablet that's easy to use. Its compatibility with the Apple Pencil 2 allows for even more standout features. 

A drawing tablet built for professionals. It has virtually no lag and 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity in its Pro Pen 2.

A budget-friendly drawing tablet with touch bar controls and express keys. 

A high-quality drawing tablet that's worth the splurge. Its four screen sizes have 4K display and industry-leading color accuracy. 

A drawing tablet that comes with accessories like a drawing glove and combo nibs to aid your creative process.

When looking to find the best drawing and graphic tablets, I began by testing the Wacom Intuos Pro myself and analyzing its performance. However, I knew that one tablet couldn't be perfect for everyone, so I also took into account the opinions of other ZDNET writers and their experiences with tablets like the iPad Pro, as well as researched and compared the existing competition. 

I also considered the following factors: 

Active area: The active area is the area in which you can actually draw on a tablet, and is important to consider. This will be the size of the screen (if it has a screen display) or the size of the area you can actually draw on that has built-in pressure levels (if it has a screen-less display). 

Accessory compatibility: I considered tablets that are compatible with a number of accessories, including different stylus pens, softwares, laptops and PCs, and more. 

Expert recommendations: I spoke to various digital artists who have used these tablets themselves for their work to gather their thoughts and recommendations on which devices they think are the best.

Price: Drawing tablets greatly vary in price--from $50 all the way up to $2,200. I made sure to pick devices from different price points so there is something for every type of artist and budget. 

You'll have to pay attention to different features when it comes to drawing tablets. For example, consider the size and portability, as well as a tablet's compatibility with your preferred software and operating system. 

Chase said it's especially important to pay attention to pressure sensitivity and resolution. 

"Higher levels of pressure sensitivity allow for a more natural and precise drawing experience, which is crucial for artists who want to create detailed and lifelike illustrations," he said. "Also, the resolution of the tablet impacts the quality of the images you create. A higher resolution ensures smoother lines and more accurate details in your artwork."

Perhaps most importantly, Mortensen adds that driver software (or how the tablet device communicates with other devices) is a big factor in deciding on a drawing tablet to work with. 

"Being motivated to make art is incredibly tough, and any little wrinkle to the digital art process increases the probability of being frustrated and giving up," he said. "I've been happy with Wacom software for many years." 

It all depends on your use case and personal preference. For example, Mortensen prefers tablets with screens (otherwise known as pen displays).

"Direct drawing changes your art and thinking in ways that you can't predict," he said. "Art is hard enough without not being able to look right at what you're drawing. Sure, they're more expensive, but if you have the means, I highly recommend it."

On the other hand, screen-less drawing tablets (also known as pen tablets) generally have a lower price point and are more portable.

"These tablets require a connection to a computer and can take some time to get used to, as you'll need to draw on the tablet while looking at your computer screen," Chase added. "However, they're a great option for beginners or artists on a budget."

Overall, the best drawing tablets allow you to digitally create in different ways based on the art and artist, so it's really up to your preference whether you want to work with a drawing tablet that has a built-in touchscreen or a special pressure-sensitive surface.

While the five best drawing tablets are included in this list, here are some other alternatives to consider before making your next purchase.

The base-model iPad is significantly cheaper than the Pro (starting at $449) and is still a great tablet to draw on. Just keep in mind that you'll have to use the first-gen Apple Pencil with this one.

With the included Wacom 2K pen, you get 2,048 levels or pressure sensitivity -- a high number for a drawing tablet that's just $50. 

The best drawing tablets of 2023: Expert recommended | ZDNET

Usb Graphics Tablet Why get a graphics tablet and a laptop when you can get 2-in-1? This tablet can serve as a computer with an attachable keyboard and is preloaded with Windows 11.