This article tries to help artists who are looking for a portable drawing tablet.
There are many great tablets for artists, but only a handful that combine the ability to run graphically intensive programs, have sophisticated levels of screen sensitivity, are lightweight, and have the battery life to be called truly portable.
Why Get a Portable Drawing Tablet?
Whether you’re an experienced artist, a student just starting out, or reigniting your old artistic flame, it’s likely you’ll be bewildered when trying to choose a tablet to draw on.
There are as many tablets as they are drawing styles. So which to choose? This article is aimed at people who want to take their creativity into coffee shops and onto trains with a really portable device.
What Artists Need from a Tablet PC
First, take a look at the technical specifications. Graphics tablets need a good processor and you want to get as much RAM as possible. 8GB would be preferable.
Next, bear in mind that most tablets are more like your smartphone than your PC. They run apps, not full programs like Photoshop. Running the full versions of such programs requires a greater level of processing power only found on a few tablets. Fortunately, some of these are getting very affordable.
Do you want to draw directly on the screen or onto a separate pad? If you want a portable drawing tablet you’re going to end up drawing on the screen. That’s what I prefer anyway, but your mileage may vary.
The screen should have multi-touch capability so that you can manipulate the screen while drawing on it. (Multi-touch is what lets you pinch your smartphone’s screen to make a photo bigger or smaller.)
Finally, there’s the pressure sensitivity of the screen or pen. Devices come with levels of sensitivity ranging from 256 to 2048. Opinions vary about whether this makes a difference. Some experts insist a human can not tell the difference or make use of such minuscule variations. Others swear that having used a 2048-level device they could never go back to one with less range. Personally I agree with the former and think 256 is enough for everyone.
More important is the accuracy of the pen – some can’t be used if it is too perpendicular to the screen, and some have nifty features built in. In terms of portability, it’s also worth considering that some tablet pens need batteries to work – a small detail but potentially irritating if they run out an hour into your transatlantic flight!
What Counts as a Portable Drawing Tablet?
There are many great tablets for artists, but sadly most need to be plugged into a PC or Mac to work. If you’re going to lug your laptop around with you all the time then it might not be such a hassle to stick a drawing tablet such as a Wacom Cintiq 13HD in there too.
For true portability, a drawing tablet should feature the ability to draw directly onto the screen, have a place for the stylus so you don’t lose it while you’re out and about, and crucially, have long battery life. Last but not least, there’s the small matter of the weight.
That eliminates some otherwise superb tablets. The Companion 2, for example, is a thing of beauty, but with a battery life of only 4 hours it can’t be considered really portable.
Top Portable Drawing Tablets
The iPad Pro will appeal to many. Though it wasn’t in shops when this article was put together, it has many of the features artists want – great drawing apps, a pressure-sensitive stylus, true portability, plus it is much more than just a drawing tablet. Still, it is essentially a giant iPad (with a more powerful engine) so it can’t run full versions of software such as Photoshop.
Thus, we must continue our search. Fortunately, other top brands have great devices. Artists should seriously consider these tablets:
* Microsoft Surface Pro 2
* Microsoft Surface Pro 3/4
* Lenovo Yoga 14
* Toshiba Encore 2
Microsoft Surface Pro 2
It does a bit of everything (including whatever graphics stuff you throw at it) and being a slightly older model the price is very, very competitive. Its battery life is 8 hours and it weighs less than 1.5 pounds. The stylus is fine, but you might think about upgrading to a Wacom Bamboo.
The 2GB of RAM is on the low side for running some graphics programs, but it can run them. There’s a reason all the tablets released in late 2015 owe so much to the Surface template – they’re the future of computing.
Packing a Wacom digitiser, the Surface Pro 2 functions as an almost complete graphics studio. Not so long ago this was a thousand dollar plus device. Now you can sometimes find them with deep discounts, making the Surface Pro 2 the best all-round portable tablet for artists.
The artist in the following video has a somewhat heavy German accent but he knows his stuff.
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 or 4
The Surface Pro 3 is an expensive option, but one that is much more than a drawing tablet. It’s basically a powerful PC squeezed into a compact, portable unit. The keyboard is detachable and the tablet itself weighs 1.2 pounds. Battery life is a healthy 9 hours.
It’s the first in the Surface range to use N-Trig technology (instead of Wacom) which helps with the lightness. Is N-trig better than Wacom? That’d need a 2,000 word article to sort through! The main problem with N-Trig seems to be a weakness when slowly drawing diagonals. There are workarounds, but it’s something to bear in mind if you draw slowly (see video).
Artists who buy this are unlikely to use it as a dedicated drawing machine – it’s also more than capable of running games, business software, and whatever else you might use a tablet for. The same cannot be said of cheaper models.
It is pricey, though this would replace a laptop AND your drawing tablet. So from that point of view it’s a great piece of kit.
The Surface Pro 4 is new on the market and better than the 3 in almost every way. My favourite feature is that the pen attaches magnetically to the side of the tablet. Fun!
Note – you need the i7 version to run Autocad 3D. The i5 is enough to run all other major software, though you can expect it to get sluggish at times.
Lenovo Yoga 14
With good pressure sensitivity, this hybrid tablet PC (the keyboard is fixed to the screen by a hinge) is a viable option for artists who are buying a new laptop. The touchscreen, good specs, and NVidia graphics card make for a top portable artist-friendly setup.
Certain programs don’t have much luck detecting palm input, which will drive you crazy. Anything with a pen-only mode does much better.
Battery life is barely acceptable at 6.5 hours. Some buyers of the Yoga 14 can be found lamenting the overall battery performance in various tech forums. They seem to have been unlucky though – perhaps there was a problem with one batch. Most users are happy with their purchase.
Toshiba Encore 2
Creating art on the Encore 2 is very achievable. The pen is actually made by Wacom, so it’s great for artists. The device has a linear, predictable pressure curve and it is pretty good at detecting when your palm or a trailing finger is just resting on the screen. It doesn’t take much pressure to start drawing (3 grams, which is pretty good). Unlike some devices, there’s no interference when drawing near the edges of the tablet. It feels a little bit like you’re drawing on paper.
The main drawback is that sometimes apps will detect the initial touch on the screen as being heavier than it really was.
The stylus needs a battery, which is a minor nuisance.
It’s theoretically possible to run Photoshop on it (Windows 10 lets you run full programs on tablets at least 8 inches in size) but given the specs it’s likely to be somewhat laggy and slow.
It’s 1.21 pounds in weight and the battery life is an underwhelming 4-6 hours. The price is very low now but artists needing proper portability might need something with a better battery.