Best drawing... thingy
September 5, 2021 3:25 PM   Subscribe

I want a thingy that will plug into my laptop and that will allow me to (1) have images from my laptop appear on its screen, (2) doodle on them in various ways, and (3) save the new layer as an image file on the laptop. What's the best but not too expensive thingy you've encountered to achieve these ends?

I obviously don't know what I'm talking about so please feel free to educate me.
posted by goatdog to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The name of the thingy you seek is 'drawing tablet', but the best and least expensive version is actually not a drawing tablet that you plug into your computer at all, but an iPad with an Apple Pencil. I can't personally speak to how well they play with non-apple computers, though.
posted by rodlymight at 3:57 PM on September 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

The name-brand thing you want is a Wacom Cintiq, but you're looking at around $650 to start there, with their entry-level 16" tablet. There are off-brand versions too, but I don't have experience with them. You'll also need drawing software -- I use Krita, which is very good free software, but you can also use software from Adobe, Autodesk, etc. (The Krita forums may have recommendations on budget screen tablets, too!)

That said, the simplest approach is an iPad Pro/Apple Pencil and ProCreate, if you're willing/able to work within the limits of that ecosystem. An iPad is also more generally useful than a tablet with a screen, if that matters to you.
posted by Alterscape at 4:10 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

The exact product you described is the Wacom Cintique, but it’s possibly overkill for what you need.

If the ease of getting files back onto your laptop is important to you, consider a Wacom intuos/bamboo tablet (or generic/knock off, which can be had for under $50).

The old style of tablets don’t have screens—they’re just an input device like a mouse or trackpad. But the user-experience of moving your hand on your desktop and moving a cursor on the screen isn’t necessarily a terrible combination.

Yeah, iPads are slick and do a lot, but I find file management to be pretty high friction.
posted by itesser at 4:12 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you give up the requirement to have the image displayed on the drawing surface, then the price drops dramatically, which might be nice for a non bank-breaking experiment for something you aren't totally certain you are going to love to do. In that case, the non-screen having drawing tablet displays the image on your regular computer screen, in your case presumably your laptop. This is how lots of illustrators get started in the industry and develop their portfolios before they get hired by a company who will pay for their professional $6000 Cintiq tablet.

The consumer level lower price ones are often sold under the brand name of Wacom or Bamboo. Almost all of them are made by the same company I think. You can almost certainly get one for less than $100, perhaps half that.

If you absolutely must have a tablet with a built in screen, there are cheaper ones than an Ipad (that's a really easy bar to cross, Apple products are hella expensive nowadays). Here is one example-- I have no idea how good it is, my suspicion is, not very. Well I hope that gives you some more information if you decide to go forward. Good luck!
posted by seasparrow at 4:13 PM on September 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you're looking for relatively inexpensive, the Huion Kamvas and XP-Pen pen displays (like the one linked above) are probably the cheapest way to get what you want. They may not be quite as good as a Wacom Cintiq in terms of specs, but they're still quite capable devices and I know several artists that use them as a daily driver.

(The only reason Wacom has been king of this particular hill for so long is because of patents, several of which recently expired, which is fueling the expansion of newer, less expensive offerings by competitors, so I'd take the advice of someone who hasn't tried a recent competitor with a grain of salt, as for the longest time competing pen displays were kinda awful.)
posted by Aleyn at 5:11 PM on September 5, 2021 [3 favorites]

Get this $82 Wacom Intuos drawing thingy. It comes with Corel Painter (which has layers) so you should be all set. I worked as a storyboard artist with an Intuos and a laptop for years before jumping to a Cintiq (where you draw on the screen). You don’t need a Cintiq or an iPad to do what you're describing.
posted by brachiopod at 7:40 PM on September 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

Seconding Aleyn - Wacom has a lot of very good, cheaper competitors. Here are two blogs that review a lot of alternatives, both of screenless graphics tablets and Cintiq-style ones, if you want to get a sense of what's out there.

One thing to keep in mind with any tablet is the size of the drawing area. In my opinion, 10x6 and up is usually going to be easier to work with.
posted by trig at 3:16 AM on September 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am very interested in the answers to this question but it seems that most of the devices mentioned in this thread will not allow the asker to do what they asked here.

My own imperfect solution is to connect my tablet (Galaxy Tab S6 Lite) and save the image first, then open it in a drawing app (like Huion sketch) and doodle away.
posted by M. at 8:21 AM on September 6, 2021

M., can you please clarify what you feel is not being answered here? A tablet with a screen behind it, like those we are discussing from Huion or Wacom Cintiq, allows the user to connect it to their laptop, mark it up using a pen and some software, and save it. An iPad or your tablet solution does the same thing, but with an independent device that only requires a connection to load/save.

The Intuos or other tablets without screens do not allow the user to view the image on the tablet while drawing (you have to build a mental mapping from the pen input area on the tablet to your screen) but in exchange for that extra mental complexity, they're less expensive because you aren't paying for the display hardware and integration.
posted by Alterscape at 9:10 AM on September 6, 2021

Maybe I'm misunderstanding but here:
I want a thingy that will plug into my laptop and that will allow me to (1) have images from my laptop appear on its screen, (2) doodle on them

The screenless devices do not display anything, right?
posted by M. at 9:20 AM on September 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

The screenless devices do not display anything, right?

That's true, and an important distinction, but several of us have been recommending devices that do meet the asker's exact requirements, and the folks who mentioned the screenless devices were, I thought, fairly clear in describing that limitation and the tradeoffs therein.

To be absolutely clear:

The Wacom Cintiq line I linked, and the Huion option that seasparrow linked, do meet the asker's request for a device with a screen behind the pen input surface. They require both a video input and a USB output. (The Wacom device uses USB-C, so if you have a compatible computer that's only one cable, but it's sending video one way and USB input the other way).

The Wacom Intuos device that brachiopod linked, and some of the devices on the blog trig linked, do not have a screen behind the pen input surface. I think it's within the spirit of the ask to mention lower-cost options that are not quite what the asker requested, since they did mention a desire for low cost. However, since these devices lack one aspect that the asker originally requested, I think you're right that we need to be very clear about that since it's somewhat confusing if you aren't already familiar with the ecosystem.
posted by Alterscape at 9:32 AM on September 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

The screenless devices do not display anything, right?

Right. The only reason people are recommending them here is that there's a huge price difference between the drawing tablets that do have screens, and the screenless ones that don't do exactly what's described, but do nonetheless work very well for drawing on pictures on your computer.

(Unconnected tablets like iPads or Android tablets, where you'd have to either transfer the image back and forth between devices or have it stored on the cloud, and additionally install separate drawing software on the tablets, also don't exactly fit the brief)
posted by trig at 9:34 AM on September 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Ok,… “have images from my laptop appear on its screen” I honestly took it to mean they wanted laptop files to open on the laptop screen. Still, an Intuos type device is very easy to figure out and was used successfully by tons of professional illustrators before the introduction of the Cintiq or cheaper alternatives. I think a pen display is overkill for the purpose described.
posted by brachiopod at 11:59 AM on September 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I occasionally use my partner's iPad as a secondary monitor. With Illustrator (or whatever drawing software you already have on your computer) open on that screen, you can use the Apple Pencil as your input device. It's not necessarily a better solution than many of the ones already mentioned, but I haven't seen it here yet. (For me, it's a great solution because I can use software I'm more familiar with, but a better input device than a mouse.)
posted by knucklebones at 12:30 PM on September 6, 2021

If by laptop, you mean "laptop running Windows as the OS" then for the price of a Cintiq you could probably get a 2-in-1 laptop such as a Lenovo Flex, which has a touchscreen, and if you like you can fold the screen over the back of the keyboard to use it as a tablet. I'm doing well with mine, but I am not a professional artists so your mileage may vary as we used to say. A good fine point stylus would be worth looking into as well. I use this one but again it may be a matter of personal preference.
posted by TimHare at 1:23 PM on September 6, 2021

brachiopod: "Ok,… “have images from my laptop appear on its screen” I honestly took it to mean they wanted laptop files to open on the laptop screen."

A newish iPad will function as a second screen for a newish macbook, you can use it to view and edit a file that's on the laptop.
posted by signal at 4:39 PM on September 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. Yes, I meant appear on the thingy's screen, not on my laptop's screen (they already do that). Seems like this is going to cost a lot more than I expected if I want what I originally envisioned.
posted by goatdog at 8:06 AM on September 7, 2021

If you have an Android tablet somewhere, or can borrow one from somebody, you can check out some second-screen apps to see if it could work as an external display for your laptop. (Androids can be gotten secondhand for relatively cheap). It's a cool idea that I hadn't considered, though I'm curious as to whether lag would get in the way.
posted by trig at 8:47 AM on September 7, 2021

Lateral thinking: Depending on how much control you're after, you could maybe try a $10 capacitive stylus with any drawing app on an existing smart phone. These things just simulate the electrical characteristics of your fingertip and fool the touch sensor in the screen into believing you're touching it, when you're moving the tip across it. They should work with any Apple or Android device, since it's passive. You won't get any fancy pressure/angle sensitivity, but you will get finer control than drawing with a fingertip, and you won't need to buy any expensive hardware.
posted by Alterscape at 8:48 AM on September 7, 2021

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