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How do Drawing Tablets Work? (A Complete Guide)

How do Drawing Tablets Work? (A Complete Guide)

Those that plan to use a tablet to draw will first want to know “how do drawing tablets work?”. For starters, drawing tablets and graphic tablets both work in a similar manner regarding connectivity in order to draw lines digitally.

How do Drawing tablets work? Drawing and graphic tablets work by connecting an electronic drawing tablet to another device such as a laptop or desktop computer either wirelessly or through a USB connection. It works by using a stylus pen and drawing on the tablet, which will then digitally transfer the lines and strokes onto your main device.

See our post on the ultimate drawing tablet setups for Digital artists.

The drawing tablet will recognize the drawing stroke by utilizing either an active or passive stylus and then transmit the stroke using pressure sensitivity and other features to stimulate a true pen on paper experience.

Infograph on how drawing tablets work
The above photo explains how a drawing tablet works (infograph)

In this post, we’ll cover how drawing tablet work, and how graphic tablets and pen display tablets work by providing a full understanding of drawing tablets from start to finish. You’ll also learn how to use a drawing tablet to achieve whatever your drawing goals may be.

Related: Best wireless drawing tablets

How do you use a Drawing tablet?

Step by step guide on how to use a drawing tablet
  1. You’ll first connect your tablet to your laptop or computer, and download the drivers and software that the manufactures informs you. This is typically on their website.
  2. Next, you’ll ensure that your chosen drawing pad or graphics tablet is compatible with your operating system and drawing software/application needs.
  3. Then finally begin drawing on your preferred software such as adobe photoshop, Krita, TVPaint, Medibang Paint, or Toonboom.

There is a clear difference between a drawing and graphics tablet as some have a built-in screen and other are just a pad. Both drawing tablet types require a software you will install on your laptop or computer. 

Graphics Tablet vs drawing tablet infograph image

Using Procreate? See our post on which iPad is Best for Procreate. (Yes theres a difference).

How Drawing Tablets & drawing tablets with screens work?

In general, drawing tablets and graphics tablets are used by designers, artists, and photographers for digital tasks such as drawing, graphics, and animation. Drawing tablets and graphics tablets both work in the same way. 

All devices must be connected to a desktop or laptop. Once users connect the external tablet to the computer, they can draw, write, or edit on the tablet’s surface using an active pen. 

Related: Is the ReMarkable 2 good for drawing?

Those using a drawing tablet will be able to use adobe Lightroom, photoshop, scribble handwritten notes, draw graphs and utilize it for digital art, educational, and work purposes. Some even use a drawing tablet for digital white boarding ideas.

So if the technology behind all drawing tablets is the same, why are there so many different models? Well, it all has to do with the features. For example, a super expensive drawing tablet will have an integrated, high-quality screen and offers an amazing drawing experience with high pressure sensitivity technology and more. 

Related: Best digital writing pads (electronic notebooks)

On the other hand, the cheaper graphics tablets do not have an integrated screen and usually provide less advanced drawing features. 

Choosing between a drawing Tablets and a Graphic Tablet

Choosing between a drawing Tablets and a Graphic Tablet

Although most people confuse these two terms, there is a fundamental difference between drawing tablets and graphics tablets. Drawing tablets have an integrated screen that serves as a supplement to your computer screen. Graphics tablets, on the other hand, work as responsive pads and provide an active surface that automatically transmits everything to your computer screen. 

Apart from this difference, the logic behind all devices and the technologies involved are pretty much the same. You could say that professionals should opt for a drawing tablet and beginners or students should opt for a graphics tablet. However, that would be too simplistic a view. In fact, many professionals prefer to draw on graphics tablets, even if they do not have a display. 

View: How to use drawing tablets

Conversation between graphics tablets and drawing tablets

Since graphics tablets are usually much more affordable, we definitely recommend beginners to buy a reliable entry-level tablet like the latest Wacom Intuos.

Choose a software to use your drawing tablet with

Examples of drawing tablet software

Let’s say you just bought your first drawing tablet and plugged it into your desktop. What software should you use? Well, that depends entirely on your personal needs. There are many tasks that a drawing or graphics tablet can help you with. 

See our post on the best tablets for lightroom and photo editing

When it comes to drawing, most professionals choose either Adobe Illustrator (for Windows), Krita or Procreate (for Apple mobile devices). For photographers and photo editors, the best software are Adobe Lightroom (perfect for beginners) and Adobe Photoshop (for more advanced users). 

Finally, most 3D editors choose the latest version of AutoCAD and most animators use Autodesk Maya or Adobe Animate.

When learning how to use a drawing tablet with a screen, you will likely use a more advanced set of softwares to draw compared to using a simple graphics tablet for work purposes. For more on this see Autodesk Sketchbook vs Procreate: Which is Better for Drawing?

Choosing between Mac or Windows to use a drawing tablet with

Choosing between Mac or Windows to use a drawing tablet

When learning how to use a drawing tablet, the choice between Mac and Windows computers to connect the graphics/drawing tablet to has been a common debate for decades. As for drawing tablets, most devices are compatible with both Mac and Windows computers. So is there a real debate here?

Well, there is. The main difference concerns the software you can use on Windows and Mac devices. For example, although you can use a Wacom Cintiq on both Windows and macOS, it all depends on the tasks you want to use it for. 

See our full post on Wacom One Creative Pen Tablet 13.3 for Students and Designers.

Although Adobe’s Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.) is available for all operating systems, many professionals argue that Macs and Macbooks are generally faster when it comes to photo editing and drawing. See the Best Drawing tablets for Mac.

On the other hand, Windows computers can be fully customized for drawing. When a Windows PC is equipped with a top-notch graphics processor, it automatically becomes the more reliable choice for demanding tasks like 3D modeling or animation. 

However, in recent years, MacBooks have stepped up their level of efficacy and I’d rate them as fairly equal depending on what the artist or user prefers.

Features of a Drawing Tablet

Features of a Drawing Tablet

Below are the features of a drawing tablet. These will vary greatly depending on which model and type you choose.

Pressure Sensitivity

Pressure Sensitivity

Pressure sensitivity is crucial to the overall drawing and editing experience of a drawing or graphics tablet. With this technology, the active pen of a tablet offers the ability to give the feeling of drawing on a traditional paper. 

Therefore, the higher the pressure sensitivity, the better the overall experience. Most professionals look for drawing tablets that have more than 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity (8192 is ideal). But for beginners who do not want to spend a lot on their first tablet, there are also affordable graphics tablets with high pressure sensitivity. 

Note: If you’re using photoshop, see our post on How to fix Photoshop Pen Pressure not working.

Tilt Sensitivity

Tilt Sensitivity

Tilt sensitivity is one of the most important features for drawing tablets. This technology allows the tablet to detect the angle of your digital pen on the surface. This means that with tilt sensitivity, you can use an active pen just as you would a real pencil. 

The Xencelabs Pen Tablet Medium Wireless for example has tilt recognition and is aimed to be tailored for the digital artist.

For example, if you want to add shading to your drawing, all you have to do is hold the pen as you would a traditional pencil. Of course, most drawing software includes plenty of brushes that help you do such strokes, even if your tablet doesn’t support tilt sensitivity. 

For this reason, tilt sensitivity could be characterized as a must have feature only for professional artists. For those looking into the technical aspects of data inking and making lines on a computer using one of these digitizers, you can view a good source here.

Shortcut buttons

Shortcut buttons

Shortcut buttons are one of the most innovative and useful features that drawing and graphics tablets include. Most brands include shortcut buttons on the active pen and on the side of the tablet. A shortcut button provides instant access to numerous features such as eraser and brush by simply pressing a button. 

Programable buttons will vary depending on which tablet you choose. The higher priced standalone drawing tablets, like the Wacom standalone model, will typically have more buttons or configure allowing for a more tailored experience when drawing. This is not required, but is a benefit for those who are creating high-level designs and drawings on a tablet/laptop combination. 

For example, the XP-Pen and Huion models typically have between 4-8 programmable shortcut keys & buttons depending on the model you choose.

Although this addition is mandatory for professionals, it is also extremely useful for beginners who are yet to get used to the way the tablet works and the software it uses. That being said, shortcut buttons are a feature that everyone should look out for when buying a new drawing or graphics tablet. 


Screen Display

As we mentioned earlier, the display is the most important difference to understand when learning the unique properties between a drawing tablet and a graphics tablet.

Recently, there have been Standalone options to draw. See our post on these portable drawing tablets: Best Drawing Tablets that Dont Need a Computer (Standalone).

If you choose a drawing tablet with an integrated screen, you will obviously have the advantage of being able to draw directly on your tablet’s display. However, this is the main reason why drawing tablets are many times more expensive than graphics tablets. 

Which drawing tablets work best and how to use them

Accordingly, most beginners choose to start drawing or editing on a graphics tablet. We totally agree with this approach, because it’s not that hard to see on your computer screen what you are drawing on your tablet.

Stylus Pen

Stylus Pen

All professionals would agree that a top-notch stylus pen improves the overall drawing experience. All brands focus on designing reliable pens that work perfectly and remind you of a traditional drawing experience. 

Apart from pressure sensitivity, a top-notch active pen has a great size, integrated shortcut buttons and low activation force to detect each stroke. Just a few years ago, only the most expensive active pens offered a flowerless user experience. 

Related: Best Stylus for Drawing on Android Devices

Today, however, with advances in technology, even the least expensive models ( i.e. the XP- Pen Star, Wacom pens) are equipped with super responsive, reliable pens.

The Apple Pencil 2 is often used for iPads, which can be considered a drawing tablet if you are specifically using procreate or you are connecting your iPad to your Macbook and using a software like Astropad to mirror or extend your display. To learn more on this we’ve written a post on the Apple Pencil vs Stylus: What Are the Differences?

Downloading your drawing tablets driver

A graphics tablet driver refers to the computer program that works in the background to ensure that the device is reliable and ready to use. Therefore, it is important that the drivers for your drawing tablet are always up to date. 

Downloading and installing the latest drivers for your drawing or graphics tablet is relatively easy. Regardless of the brand of your device or the model, you can find any tablet driver online. All you need to know is the brand of your device and the model name. 

Laptops and desktops with drawing tablet

Whether you have a Wacom, XP Pen, Gaomon, or Huion device, all brands have a library of all drivers online. So just type the name of your device into Google, followed by the word driver. Then you can visit that brand’s website and download the drivers quite easily. Most well known drawing tablets and pads will provide these instructions on downloading the driver, but when in doubt visit the manufacturers support section of their website will work well.

Different types of drawing tablets

Different types of drawing tablets

Although there are many categories of drawing tablets, we can differentiate them based on the features that a tablet offers. For example, drawing tablets have an integrated screen.

Graphics tablets, on the other hand, do not have a display and are viewed as a digital drawing pad by many artist communities. Also, the more expensive a drawing tablet is, typically the better the features and software it contains for the consumer utilizing it for art or education.

To be precise, a premium drawing tablet like the Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 has everything a professional needs: an amazing 4K screen, a top-notch active pen, numerous shortcut buttons, high pressure sensitivity, etc. Of course, all these advanced features are not necessary for an inexperienced user who wants to experiment with digital drawing for the first time. That’s why there are more affordable graphic tablets like the Huion H610. 

If you’re using a laptop or tablet for AutoCAD, then a stylus pen will almost always be required to create this type of sensitive work. See the best laptops for AutoCAD (Designers guide).

Alternative Tablets to draw on

Alternative Tablets to draw on

Even though most professional artists prefer drawing and editing on graphics and drawing tablets, they are not the only option. In fact, you can always use a different combination for digital drawing. Combining a regular tablet like the Microsoft Surface Pro or iPad Pro with an active stylus is becoming increasingly popular. 

Besides these flagships, other brands like Lenovo and Acer have also developed more affordable touchscreen tablets that support digital drawing. The biggest drawback to this solution is that you can not use the full version of advanced software like Photoshop with most of these tablets. 

Related: 7 Best Tablets for FaceTime, Video calls, and Skype

However, most of these tablets are great to use for drawing and can be a great hybrid solution for beginners, teachers, or students. 

Do you need to be able to draw to do digital art?

Do you need to be able to draw to do digital art

While digital art is not as easy as it might sound, it does require dedication and willingness. You do not need to be exceptionally talented to start digital drawing. However, you should know that it takes a lot of time to learn how to use a drawing tablet and software like Illustrator or Procreate. 

Nevertheless, many of the best professional artists and graphic designers have skipped the traditional way of drawing completely. Therefore, take some time to learn and apply new techniques, and who knows, you might become a modern day Picasso! 


FAQ drawing tablets

How do drawing tablets work for computers?

Drawing tablets work thanks to a technology that allows the tablet surface to recognize the position and gestures of the active pen and automatically transfer all the data on a computer screen. Most tablets are connected to computers via a USB port or Bluetooth.

What about regular tablets? These are different – see How Long do Tablets Last where we go over how traditional tablets work, how long they last, and more.

How do drawing tablets work without a screen?

To understand how a graphic tablet works, you should know all of its components. A non screen drawing tablet consists of a drawing canvas (surface) and a stylus pen. The pad acts like a responsive pad. 

For this to be more clear, you can imagine that the tablet works like a laptop’s trackpad. Likewise, by identifying the movements and pressure of the pen the tab transfers all the data from the surface to the computer screen. 

Can I use a drawing tablet without a computer?

Although most drawing tablets cannot be used without a computer, there are some standalone ones. For example, Wacom has recently introduced its brand new Wacom Mobile Studio Pro and Huion its KAMVAS Studio 2. 

Still, most of those standalone devices are ultimately expensive and mainly addressed to professional artists, animators and photographers. 

Bottom Line

Those who are aiming to learn how to use a tablet to draw should know that you can use a drawing pad, drawing tablet, or graphics tablet to draw digitally by connecting your preferred drawing device to your laptop computer or desktop. This will allow you to draw lines with pressure sensivity, palm rejection, tilt sensitivity, and do so with accuracy. 

If using 3d animation you’ll likely be using advanced softwares like blender or Maya and windows is likely an ideal choice regarding the laptop in which you’ll connect the drawing pad to.

You’ll use a drawing tablet by learning how to setup and connect your graphics tablet, utilize shortcut buttons, adjust tilt and pressure sensitivity, and finally draw on the tablet after opening the drawing software of your choice.

About the author:

Photo of Paul Michael, Founder of MediaPeanut

Paul Michael

Paul Michael is a media and technology expert whose research reveals how technology and media are being used in the world today. He has expertise on computers, the internet, streaming, Roku, electronics, and education. He also enjoys graphic design & digital art. Paul has his Bachelors of Arts and Science(s) from Rutgers University-New Brunswick, NJ