Drawing Tablets vs. Touchscreen Laptops

Most new digital artists face a dilemma when it comes to picking which device to start their journey on. Not only is there a wide variety of brands to pick from, but there is also a variety of device types. Should you go for a drawing tablet? A graphics tablet? A regular tablet? Or a touchscreen laptop?

So much variety, can, understandably, seem overwhelming to a newbie, and some guidance would be appreciated.

Having gone through this and other dilemmas related to digital art ourselves, we think we can give some useful advice to help you choose where to invest your money. Make no mistake about it, the majority of the money you spend will be on your drawing device, so you might as well make a good choice.

In this article, we shall explore the different kinds of drawing tablets, their individual pros and cons, their similarities, and just what is possible with each of them. Hopefully, by the end, you will walk away with your mind made up on which kind of drawing device to get.

Pros and cons

Before we get into the pros and cons of each of these devices proper, we should get some working definitions in place. There are a few device options available to you when you decide to get something to do digital art with.

The first is a graphics tablet. A graphics tablet is a blank tablet with some function keys and a stylus which you use to draw on the blank surface. It has fine pressure sensitivity and configurable keys to make your workflow easier. You need to connect it to a computer, however, since it has no screen of its own.

The computer should not only have the necessary drives to process input from the graphics tablet (most of them have the drivers out of the box), but it should also have the necessary apps for your particular work, whether that is CorelDraw, or Adobe Illustrator or something else.

Once you connect the graphics tablet to the computer and start drawing on it, you will also have to master the hand-eye coordination required to do it well. You should unlearn the habit of looking down upon whatever surface you are drawing on and instead to look at the screen where the lines and strokes appear.

It takes a while to learn this, and your mileage may vary, but once you get the hang of it there is practically no limit to what you can do with a graphics tablet.

A drawing tablet is essentially a graphics tablet with a screen right on the tablet itself. You draw on the tablet and can watch your work on the surface on which you do it, just like you would if you were drawing on paper.

The screen is built to be pressure-sensitive, often with anything from 1024 to 2048+ levels of pressure. Most of them can sense the stylus but some are built with touch sensitivity as well. The main point is that, with a drawing tablet, you can look down on your work as you do it, so you don’t always need to hook it up with a computer.

The above two devices are specially built for digital art, and so are more special purpose than, say, laptops or regular tablets. Regular tablets are mini-computers that can be used for general purposes, such as texting, taking pictures, playing games, browsing the internet and digital art. The same goes for touchscreen laptops, which can often be folded into tablets if you wish. They are built for a general purpose but can also be used for the specific purpose of digital art.

To be entirely honest, the lines aren’t as fine as implied in the above definitions, especially when it comes to the distinction between drawing tablets and regular tablets. More and more drawing tablets are being given extra features to make them more general purpose and more and more tablets and laptops are being given specialized features to make them good for drawing.

Take the Surface Pro from Microsoft, for example. It is a tablet with Wacom technology that lends itself particularly well to drawing. Ditto for the Surface Book, which is a laptop that can be folded into a laptop, and the Surface Studio, which is a desktop that can be folded into a laptop.

All of them have been built with digital artists in mind, including Wacom technology and superior pressure sensitivity to make it easier to produce high quality works of art on them.

So what are the pros and cons of these different devices? Let us look at each of them in turn.

Graphics tablet pros

  • Graphics tablets are very affordable. They are the most affordable of the bunch, having been made for the sole purpose of drawing and therefore lacking most of the extra features the others have. This allows them to be priced low enough to be within most people’s financial reach. With a decent computer, a graphics tablet should enable you to get started in digital art right away. And, in fact, most beginners start here before they upgrade to more feature-rich and expensive devices later.
  • Graphics tablets are also the most accurate of all 3. Due to being purpose built for digital art, all the strokes and brushes you place on the tablet surface will be transferred accurately to the screen in front of you.
  • Of all 3, graphics tablets are the most durable. They have fewer fragile parts and are less prone to obsolescence. I’ve had mine for nearly 7 years now and it’s still as good as new.

Graphics tablet cons

  • Graphics tablets are harder to learn to use than the others. The hand-eye coordination issue is something a lot of artists struggle with at first. Some get the hang of it in days, some months, some still find it a little weird years later. The only solution is plenty of practice. 
  • Graphics tablets are generally larger and less portable than the other devices. They can only be used when connected to a computer, and have to be plugged in at all times, so don’t expect to be able to use one on an afternoon in the park or when the lights go out or something like that.

Drawing tablet pros

  • Drawing tablets don’t require you to learn any special hand-eye coordination. You look down at the surface you’re drawing on as you draw, which is how most of us are used to drawing.
  • Many drawing tablets can be used without a computer or laptop, and have batteries, making them more portable than graphics tablets.
  • Graphics tablets often have a lot more features built into them than graphics tablets.

Drawing tablet cons

  • Drawing tablets are expensive, with many of them costing several hundred dollars. This hefty investment might be out of the reach of many beginning digital artists.
  • Drawing tablets may not feel nearly as natural as graphics tablets to draw on, depending on the design of the screen. Some of them feel strange and far-removed from that familiar feel of canvas or paper. This isn’t true for all of them, though, and they are still far better than laptops and general purpose tablets.
  • Drawing tablets are more fragile than graphics tablets and therefore need more care as they can more easily be damaged.

Touchscreen laptop and tablet pros

  • They are multipurpose mini-computers, and can therefore be used for far more than just drawing.
  • They are often more powerful and can do demanding work, depending on the model you buy.
  • They are portable and can be used without a connection to a power supply.

Touchscreen laptop and tablet cons

  • They are very expensive. While drawing tablets cost hundreds of dollars, a decent laptop or tablet that you can use to draw on costs thousands of dollars.
  • They are not specially built for drawing, and so they might not feel as natural. Many users complain of a lag between drawing something and seeing it on the screen. Note that the surface on which you draw on a touchscreen laptop is above the actual screen underneath in most laptops, and so this creates a lag and displacement in your drawing.
  • They are far more fragile than either drawing tablets or graphics tablets, as their screens are more prone to damage if roughly used.

Similarities

The greatest similarity between all of the devices above is that they rely on some kind of touch technology. Graphics tablets mostly rely on a stylus, with the rare model recognizing touch by hand. Drawing tablets also use a stylus, though more of them than graphics tablets will also recognize your hand. Tablets and touchscreen laptops, on the other hand, mostly recognize touch by hand and typically require extra software to recognize a stylus.

Graphics tablets and drawing tablets both have pressure sensitivity as well as tilt functionality (the ability to recognize your tilt and map it onto paint brush strokes, pencil lines, etc). This pressure sensitivity isn’t so common among general purpose tablets and touchscreen laptops, unless they are high-end ones like the Surface Pro that have been built specifically for the job.

Could you use a touch screen monitor as a graphics tablet?

The general answer here is no. Mostly because all but the most high-end laptops have the graphics power and the pressure sensitivity on their screen to mimic a graphics tablet. But these would cost you thousands of dollars while an actual graphics tablet would cost you under a hundred dollars.

Of course, if you already have a high end laptop like the Surface Book, or are going to get one anyway, then yes you can use it as a graphics tablet. However, if you’re still choosing whether to buy one as opposed to a graphics tablet, my advice is to go for a graphics tablet and pair that up with a mid-priced desktop or laptop. You’ll get a lot more bang for your buck.

Do drawing tablets work with laptops?

Yes they do. Most of them can be hooked up to a laptop via a USB port. Sometimes, depending on the laptop you have, you may need to update your drivers and perhaps install some extra software to work with the drawing tablet, but most of them don’t need this.

Moreover, you don’t even always need a laptop to work with a drawing tablet. Owing to the presence of a screen, most drawing tablets can be used to draw in the absence of a laptop. Some of them even have their own local storage and also connect to the internet, allowing you to save your work locally or to the cloud. 

Summary

And with that, we come to the conclusion of this article. As you can see, it’s easy to see which is the better choice between drawing tablets and touchscreen laptops. It mostly boils down to a question of purpose and price.

Laptops cost a lot more and are more general purpose, while drawing tablets cost less and are designed for a specific purpose. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Hopefully by now you have a better sense of which to get. Until next time, happy drawing!

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