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How Do Graphic Tablets Work? An Ultimate Guide for Digital Artists and Designers

Welcome to the marvelous world of graphic tablets! If you’re an aspiring graphic designer, UI designer, or digital artist, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’re going to explore “how do graphic tablets work?”

What is a Graphic Tablet and Why Do You Need One?

Ever tried sketching a masterpiece with a mouse or trackpad? Not so easy, right? A graphic tablet, also known as a drawing tablet or digitizer, is a hardware input device that lets you hand-draw images and graphics, similar to the way you would on paper. Think of it as the high-tech equivalent of a piece of paper and a pencil.

Why You Might Need a Graphic Tablet

The basic headline is accuracy and efficiency. It’s like the difference between trying to paint a mural with a broom and creating a masterpiece with a detail-oriented paintbrush. In fact, around 60% of professional digital artists use graphic tablets for their work.

  • Accuracy: With a graphic tablet, your hand movements translate directly into cursor movements. This means you get accurate control, making it much easier to create precise, detailed drawings.
  • Pressure Sensitivity: Most graphic tablets come with a pressure-sensitive stylus. This means the harder you press, the thicker your lines become – just like a real pencil on paper!
  • Efficiency: Graphic tablets often come with customizable buttons that you can set to execute certain commands. This can save you time, especially when working on complex projects.
person holding black ipad near macbook pro
Photo by Cristofer Maximilian on Unsplash

The Anatomy of a Graphic Tablet: Components and Features

Peering into the world of graphic tablets, we see two primary species: the tablet with a screen, and the tablet without a screen. They may seem similar at first glance, but their differences are quite stark, affecting their functionality, portability, and price point.

Tablet with a screen

Let’s start with the big kid on the block: the graphic tablet with an integrated high-definition screen. This lets you see your work directly on the tablet’s drawing surface, mirroring what’s displayed on your connected computer (which is often running your drawing software of choice).

This kind of graphic tablet offers a work environment that feels remarkably natural, like you’re sketching away on a good old-fashioned drawing board. The piece de resistance is the feel of the stylus on the tablet screen. Whether it’s a super AMOLED, IPS, or LCD screen, the sensation is akin to working on a multimedia tablet like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, Apple iPad Pro, or Microsoft Surface Pro.

But the graphic tablet with a screen outshines these multimedia tablets in key areas. Its panel’s sensitivity, brightness, and Full-HD rendering are tailored for graphics work, making it a favorite among professionals.

However, this heavyweight does have its downsides. It often needs to be tethered to a computer and a power outlet, which hampers its portability. Also, its high-grade features come with a matching price tag, making it the priciest tablet category.

There are also work arounds to use multimedia tablets like the iPad as a drawing tablet for Mac, which may be worth testing too if you already own a compatible model, before you consider purchasing a dedicated graphics tablet with a screen.

The Screenless Tablet

Then we have the screenless graphic tablet. This humble companion lacks the on-board screen of its counterpart, instead showing your work on the connected computer’s display. Working without the direct visual feedback on your tablet may take some getting used to, but the learning curve is well worth the benefits.

Screenless graphic tablets are generally more portable and affordable than the screened versions. Despite their lower price, they still offer quality performance, making them an excellent choice for hobbyists and emerging artists. You also have wireless options which are becoming increasingly popular, with over 30% of graphic tablet users opting for wireless models.

While those with a tighter budget or need for mobility might lean towards the screenless tablet, it’s important to remember that both types of tablets have their strengths and are capable of producing great art.

Stylus Pen

Think of the stylus as your magic wand, an extension of your creative thoughts. It features pressure sensitivity which allows for variance in line width and opacity based on how hard you press. Some styluses even have tilt recognition – oh yes, it’s as cool as it sounds!

Express Keys

The express keys on the tablet are your personal shortcuts to creativity. They are programmable to perform specific tasks, such as zooming in/out or undoing changes, speeding up your workflow and saving you precious time.

Other Features

Some tablets come with additional features like a touch ring or a radial menu that provide even more customizable options, further refining your artistic process. Then there are the multi-touch capabilities – pinch to zoom, anyone?

Understanding the anatomy of a graphic tablet is the first step to mastering digital art. Armed with this knowledge, you’re now ready to embark on your creative journey. Happy designing!

How Do graphic tablets work with Different Programs and Applications

Graphic tablets can work with an array of software, available on Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS. The most popular ones, however, are independent software compatible with any operating system.

Contrary to popular belief, graphic tablets are not exclusive to a particular operating system. They are highly versatile and compatible with a wide range of OS.

Here are a few examples of software commonly used with graphic tablets:

  • Adobe Photoshop CC: the go-to software for digital artists worldwide. It’s a treasure trove of tools, from basic text to pencil to a myriad of different brushes. The learning curve might seem steep, but the stunning results you can achieve make every moment spent learning worthwhile.
  • Adobe Illustrator: a vector-based software that thrives on the precision a graphic tablet offers. Whether it’s crafting curves, tracing lines, or shaping forms, Illustrator makes it a breeze when paired with a tablet.
  • Affinity Designer: this vector graphic design software is the epitome of precision, speed, and smoothness. The meticulously engineered pen tool gives you incredible control over your curves. Plus, the latest wide gamut displays ensure your colours are vibrant and captivating. Affinity Designer boasts a wealth of customizable live shapes for crafting various geometric patterns – a key component of your design. It even lets you switch to a pixel environment, where vector and pixel coexist in harmony. With Affinity Designer, you get to work in a responsive environment where items are automatically scaled and moved for different devices.

Factors to Consider Before Buying

Let’s dive into the factors you should consider before buying a graphic tablet.

Size Matters

When it comes to graphic tablets, the size does matter. Bigger isn’t always better though. You’ll want to consider the size of your work area, how portable you need your tablet to be, and, of course, your budget. The active area of a graphic tablet can range from 4 inches to 24 inches.

Pressure Sensitivity

Pressure sensitivity is a major game-changer in the graphic tablet world. More levels of pressure sensitivity allow for more precision and control, giving your work a more natural and fluid feel. Typically, the pressure sensitivity of a graphic tablet can range from 256 to 8192 levels.


The tablet’s resolution, measured in lines per inch (LPI), impacts the quality of your work. A higher LPI will give you a more detailed output.

Stylus Type

The stylus is your sword. Some are battery-operated, others rechargeable, and some don’t need power at all. Each type has its own pros and cons, and the best one for you depends on your personal preference.


Last but not least, price. Remember, more expensive doesn’t always mean better. It’s about finding the right balance between what you need and what you can afford.

Choosing the right graphic tablet is a personal journey. Take your time, weigh your options, and choose wisely. After all, this mighty tool is about to become your new creative partner.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use a graphic tablet without a computer?

Stand-alone tablets, such as the iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, are on the rise. These devices function as a traditional tablet and a graphic tablet combined, allowing digital artists to create masterpieces without the need for a computer. Check out our article on the best tablets for Procreate to see some examples.

Even some non-stand-alone tablets have started to offer connectivity with smartphones. For instance, Wacom’s Intuos Pro can be connected to certain Android devices. This feature gives artists the freedom to work on their projects from virtually anywhere.

Before jumping onto the standalone tablet bandwagon, there are a few key factors to consider:

  1. Software limitations: While stand-alone tablets come with their own drawing apps, they might not have the full features of desktop programs like Photoshop or Illustrator.
  2. Storage space: Stand-alone tablets typically have limited internal storage compared to a computer.
  3. Price: These tablets can be quite pricey, especially top-tier models like the iPad Pro.

In a nutshell, while it’s entirely possible to use a graphic tablet without a computer, it’s essential to weigh the pros and cons based on your specific needs and budget. Who knows? You might find that the freedom and convenience of a stand-alone tablet is just what you need to let your creative juices flow!

How is a graphic tablet different from a regular tablet?

First off, graphic tablets are designed with a specific purpose in mind – creating digital artwork. They’re not built for browsing the internet or watching Netflix. Instead, they’re filled with features that help bring your creative ideas to life.

On the other hand, a regular tablet is the jack-of-all-trades. It’s a device for entertainment, web browsing, and indeed, digital artwork with apps like Procreate (I’ve reviewed a few tablets for Procreate in this article). But when it comes to detailed, professional-level design work, a dedicated graphic tablet may be better for most.

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

Graphic tablets, also known as digitizers, are typically used to digitize hand-drawn artwork or handwritten text. They are nifty tools favored by graphic designers, architects, engineers, and the like. These tablets track the motion of the stylus across the surface and translate it into digital information that can be manipulated on a computer.

On the other hand, drawing tablets (think of names like Wacom, Huion, or XP-Pen), are essentially graphic tablets with an added feature – a screen. Yup, you sketch directly onto the screen, giving you a more traditional drawing or painting experience.

So, in a nutshell – all drawing tablets are graphic tablets, but not all graphic tablets are drawing tablets. It’s a little like that square-rectangle relationship, you know?

  • Graphic Tablet: Great for converting hand-drawn stuff into digital format.
  • Drawing Tablet: Your go-to for a more ‘real’ drawing experience, right on the screen.


In the thrilling world of digital artistry, understanding how a graphic tablet works can unlock new paths of creativity. Deciphering its intricacies serves as a foundation for mastering the art. It’s a fascinating amalgamation of pressure sensitivity, resolution, stylus tech, and software. So, keep doodling, sketching and designing; a graphic tablet is your magic carpet to the enchanting realm of digital art.

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