Graphics Tablets Vs. Drawing Tablets (Pen Displays)

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As an artist looking to break into the digital space, you have probably heard the terms “graphics tablet” and “drawing tablet” thrown around. If you’re confused about what they mean, and what the distinction between them is, then you’ll be glad to know you’re not alone. 

Many beginners often have no idea what options are available to them in terms of digital drawing devices. As a result, they don’t know which ones will be most beneficial to their journeys as artists. 

We certainly faced the same conundrum when we were starting out, and had to do plenty of research before figuring out which tablet to get.

Here we’re going to save you the time and frustration, and potentially hundreds of dollars of misspent money by diving in-depth into the topic.

In particular, we’ll be looking at graphics tablets and drawing tablets, including broad descriptions of both, their key features, advantages, disadvantages, and a discussion of which one is best for you, depending on your needs.

What is a graphics tablet?

A graphics tablet is a type of hardware input device. It is a way for artists to be able to do their work in digital form. Most graphics tablets have a pressure sensitive surface on which artist do their drawing work. The graphics tablet itself has to be connected to a computer or laptop in order to be fully utilized.

That’s the only way you’ll be able to see whatever you’re drawing. 

Because of the way they work, graphics tablets have a bit of a learning curve. Once you connect the device to a computer, you have to learn to look at the computer and not the tablet as you draw.

Most people find this very counterintuitive since we’re used to looking down at the page as we draw. Having to look at another surface and intuiting where our hands should go as we trace out lines and shapes is somewhat foreign when we try it for the first time. 

Another aspect of a graphics tablet that you might want to get used to is orientation. While you can rotate your hand around on a piece of paper to draw elements that are not upright, you want to always be upright when you are drawing on a graphics tablet.

This makes it easier to orient what you are drawing properly in relation to what you see on the computer screen. When drawing elements that are not upright, you have to rotate the graphics tablet itself, rather than your hand.

That said, after a while you get used to it and it becomes almost like second nature. 

Graphics tablets are used in combination with many different kinds of software, including graphics, animation, and sketching software. As long as it is compatible with the graphics tablet, you can use the two together. 

Because of their versatility, graphics tablets are used by many different professionals, for example:

Designers – Designers who use design software, such as Photoshop or Illustrator have a lot to benefit from graphics tablets. Whether they are primarily sketch artists or more generally graphics designers, graphics tablets give them a lot of power to bring the objects of their imagination to the screen. 

Engineers and architects – While these professions are highly technical in nature, they do have a visual aspect to them that stands to benefit immensely from graphics tablets. Engineers and architects can experience a massive improvement in their workflow if they use graphics tablets to make quick sketches. 

So what, exactly, makes up a graphics tablet? While designs change from one manufacturer to another, and even between models from the same manufacturer, there are some elements which you will always find in a graphics tablet in one form or another. These include the below:

A drawing surface

Graphics tablets have a drawing surface, which accounts for the majority of the surface area of the top of the tablet. This surface is pressure sensitive , recording every line and curve that the designer draws upon it. It is often very large in order to accommodate drawing work without the artist feeling like they are lacking in space.

A stylus

Graphics tablets come with styluses, which are specialized drawing pens that trigger the sensitive drawing surface. The stylus will be your single most important tool, and so you should only buy one that feels comfortable in your hand. If it feels even a little clumsy, avoid it; it will only hinder your efficiency. A good stylus should be light and wireless so you can move it around freely.

Hot keys

Graphics tablets often come with hot keys which perform different functions. You will find hotkeys in every graphics tablet you buy. What may differ from one to the next is the function of the hotkeys. What matters most is that the functions that matter most to you when drawing are mapped onto the hotkeys.

Portability

A good graphics tablet should be light and small enough to be carried around without being too small to do any meaningful drawing work on. 

What is a pen display?

You’ll be surprised to know that we have covered most of the common ground between graphics tablets and drawing tablets, also known as pen displays, in the preceding section. The differences are few. However, they are important enough that you should know them so your purchasing decisions are better informed.

A drawing tablet, also known as a pen display, is also a form of input hardware. The drawing surface, however, is a complete screen where you can see your artwork as you draw it. 

Drawing tablets come with different designs. Some of them have a regular touch screen on which you draw while others have a special touchscreen that’s pressure sensitive and feels almost the same as paper. The idea is to emulate, as closely as possible, the natural drawing experience.

Because of the fact that you can see your work while you do it, drawing tablets are far more portable than graphics tablets. While you need to connect a graphics tablet to a computer in order to use it, you can use a drawing tablet on the fly and save the work to it.

It’s almost like a regular tablet. In fact, regular tablets, like an iPad, can sometimes pass for drawing tablets when coupled with the right software. 

In terms of parts, drawing tablets have the same ones as graphics tablets. The only extra bit is the touch screen replacing the pressure sensitive drawing surface. The hotkeys are also typically on the touchscreen instead of being actual physical buttons.

Drawing tablets are also used by the same exact professionals as graphics tablets. They are often touted as the better option due to the added quality of visibility. 

Drawing tablets came on the scene a little more recently than graphics tablets. Because of that, their adoption has been a little slower than that of graphics tablets, though they are picking up with time. They are also more expensive than graphics tablets for obvious reasons. 

What is the difference between a graphics tablet and a drawing tablet?

Similarities

First, let us talk about the similarities, of which there are quite a few.

The greatest similarity between graphics tablets and pen displays is that they both employ some kind of touch technology. Graphics tablets use the stylus to implement touch technology while drawing tablets have more flexibility. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, however, as there are newer graphics tablets on the market that are capable of recognizing your hand.

Drawing monitors are a little more equally split. The more specialized models require a stylus to register touch while others recognize your hand. In particular, if you’re using a regular tablet PC, such as an iPad, you are guaranteed that it will recognize your hand.

Drawing tablets are also more likely to recognize foreign styluses (ones they weren’t shipped with) than graphics tablets.

Both graphics tablets and drawing tablets use pressure sensitivity technology. That way, the more pressure you put in the heavier your strokes. You should also be able to calibrate the tablet so it is more or less sensitive to pressure, depending on your needs and preferences. 

Another similarity between many graphics tablets and pen displays is tilt sensitivity. This is an art-specific feature. What it allows you to do is to mimic more than just a drawing pen. You can mimic airbrushes, paintbrushes, and so on, emulating their strokes perfectly.

This is more common among graphics tablets and specialized pen displays than it is on tablet PCs like iPads, though it is not unheard of.

And lastly, most graphics tablets and some pen displays are designed to mimic the natural feel of real paper. This is to give an experience that is as close as possible to that of actually drawing on paper.

Differences

The greatest difference between these two is that one has a screen on which you can see your work while you do it and the other one does not. Graphics tablets need to be connected up to a computer to be used. Drawing tablets can be used on their own as the screen shows you what you’re drawing as you draw it. 

Other differences include cost. Drawing tablets cost more than graphics tablets because of the superior technology. This is often a major factor in purchasing decisions for beginning and amateur artists who would rather have a drawing tablet but have a budget that only allows for a graphics tablet. 

Of course there are also tablet PCs which can be used as drawing tablets. These are more like fully fledged computers which you just so happen to use for drawing.

They are not built entirely for the purpose of drawing, and often require extra software to be used for that. Because they are general purpose computers, they are often also more expensive than both graphics tablets and drawing tablets.

Graphics Tablets Vs Drawing Tablets (Pen Displays).jpg

Are drawing tablets with screens better?

Graphics tablet

Advantages

  • They are more accessible as they are more affordable. They can also be used by anyone and interface well with the majority of design software.
  • Graphics tablets are also super accurate. Because they respond well to the pressure and movement of your hand, they can emulate your lines and shapes exactly as they would appear if you have been drawing on paper instead. Besides that, graphics tablets also give you features that you wouldn’t get with just pen and paper. You can draw perfect circles, straight lines, and all manner of exacting shapes by tweaking the settings a bit. This allows you to do more than just sketch with a graphics tablet. This is part of the reason why these devices are good even for highly technical professions like architecture.
  • Graphics tablets feel very much like regular pen and paper. Most professionals attach their paper or canvas to a hardboard and do their artwork like this. This is almost exactly how a graphics tablet feels. Most artists say that working on a graphics tablet feels almost exactly like working with pen and paper.
  • Graphics tablets are virtually limitless. When you are working with pen and paper, you have to be careful about the type of paper as well as the type of ink or other medium you are using to work on the paper. No such limitations apply on a graphics tablet. It is the universal pen and the universal paper.
  • Graphics tablets are also eco-friendly. If you’re concerned about the amount of paper we waste and the trees that have to be cut down to produce it, not to mention the environmental pollution contributed by paper manufacturing plants, then a graphics tablet should be on top of your list of priorities.
  • Graphics tablets are highly durable. Part of this is the fact that they don’t have many fragile parts and, if high quality, will have parts that resist dust and water. The other part is the fact that graphics tablets are more resilient to obsolescence than other tech devices (including pen displays). A graphics tablet will easily remain relevant and useful for up to 10 years.

Disadvantages

  • Graphics tablets do not let you see what you’re drawing directly on the drawing surface. As a result, there is a bit of a learning curve to get through before you become proficient. Depending on the learner, it can take a long or short while to get used to a graphics tablet.
  • Another consequence of the fact that a graphics tablet doesn’t offer visibility is that you can’t use it on its own. This limits its portability somewhat. Sure, a good graphics tablet is small and light enough that you can take it with you wherever you go, but you’ll still need to hook it up to a computer to use it. Otherwise, it’s useless.

Pen display

Advantages

  • Drawing tablets offer visibility, which is a huge advantage over graphics tablets. With a drawing tablet, you can see exactly what you draw, just like you would when drawing with actual pen and paper. This makes them feel much more natural to work on than graphics tablets from a visual coordination perspective.
  • Also, because of the visibility offered, drawing tablets are much easier to learn to use than graphics tablets. Remember, on a graphics tablet you have to focus on the graphics tablet and the computer screen at the same time. With a drawing tablet, you’re only focusing on the tablet’s screen. This makes it much easier to draw on, especially for those who are beginners to digital art.
  • Drawing tablets are faster to work with than graphics tablets. The visibility aspect speeds up workflow, but also the fact that everything is in one workspace and your attention isn’t split helps you to achieve results faster.
  • Drawing tablets are truly portable. You can take it with you wherever you go and use it on its own without needing to hook it up to a computer.
  • Drawing tablets are overly more versatile than graphics tablets. While a graphics tablet is something that was built only for drawing, it’s’ possible to have a tablet PC and use it as a drawing tablet. This means you could potentially have a fully fledged computer in your hands that you can do other things with, not just draw.

Disadvantages

  • Drawing monitors sometimes have color sparkles that form on the screen due to too much pressure being applied or the degradation of the screen over time (or both!). This can be an unpleasant experience while drawing.
  • Drawing tablets tend to overheat after being used for a few hours. Sometimes the heat is so bad it makes drawing uncomfortable as you can sharply feel it in your hand. 
  • Drawing tablets are more expensive than graphics tablets due to the superior technology. Because of this, they are often out of reach of most budgets. 
  • Drawing tablets tend to be less durable than graphics tablets as touchscreens are more fragile than pressure sensitive drawing surfaces. However, even though they are less durable, they are still pretty durable in their own right. Provided you care for it well, a drawing tablet can serve you for quite a few years (up to 5).

Conclusion – Should I get a drawing tablet or a graphics tablet?

So how do you decide which one is best for you?

A beginner in the realm of digital art would do well with a drawing tablet. These are the digital canvases of the future. They feel more natural and they naturally speed up your workflow without having a difficult learning curve. 

On the other hand, drawing tablets are very expensive. Most beginners opt for graphics tablets for their lower prices, some of which can be less than $100

But that’s not to say that graphics tablets are bad. Provided you master how to use them and don’t mind the fact that they always need to be connected to a computer, you will find that they benefit your artwork immensely; far more than what you would have been able to do with mere pen and paper. 

If you want to venture into digital art, and have a modest budget, we would advise you to get a graphics tablet. This is a good investment in your education and improvement as a digital artist, and something is better than nothing.

You will get really good at it. Once you have saved up enough, you can move on to a drawing tablet.

However, if your budget is not a hindrance, we would advise you to get a good drawing tablet straightaway. Remember, this is an investment in your craft. A drawing tablet will benefit your work greatly and allow you to do things you didn’t imagine possible.

Ultimately, whichever you choose, our advice is to just start. Pick one, whichever your pocket will permit, and start doing some digital artwork with it. Over time you will get the hang of it and develop your own unique style.

The point is to become a great artist, and there are many routes to that destination! 

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