Graphic tablets have become an essential tool among creative professionals and hobbyists alike, even more so now that working from home has become the norm for months—or years to come. There is also no shortage of brands from cheap points of entry that offer satisfactory performance, to industry-grade staples like Wacom that everybody knows.
However, a new brand going by the name Xencelabs is eager to turn their upstart into a full powerhouse geared towards committed digital artists with the debut of their own Pen Tablet Medium. Okay, so the name might sound odd and it’s hardly sexy, but the actual product is anything but lacking.
Background and Expectations
Some background: I’ve been drawing and doing illustration off and on for a long time now, supplying much of the original design and artwork on the Popzara website since this all began in a damp basement. Probably not the most fairy-tale of beginnings, but thanks to the advent of pen tablets I was able to evolve a self-taught talent into something legitimate, and privileged enough to test many design tools that have come along ever since.
My first model was an Intuos4 from Wacom and it continues to have a strong influence on me, even after reviewing their latest graphic offerings that are priced between hundreds or a thousand dollars. As far as I’m concerned, there’s always room for competition where scores of individuals are finding their imaginative .
Form and Function
This is one reason why I find the Xencelabs Pen Tablet attractive, because it mirrors the current Intuos Pro lineup where it truly counts. The overall design is deliberate in minimalist functionality with nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary. The dimensional footprint is slender at 12.6 x 9.13 x 0.3 in and comfortably featherweight at a 1.57 lbs (711g). The body is comprised of hard black plastic and firmly pieced together so it doesn’t feel flimsy, with the rear sides sporting tapered lips possibly for easier grip when traveling and working abroad.
Aside from the quick-function buttons, ports and switches can be found on the top with just a USB-C port and power switch which turns the device on or off.
Speaking of connectivity, Xencelabs is generous with getting you set up and ready to draw. This medium tablet is wireless and utilizes proprietary Bluetooth through the supplied USB dongle, or you can hook the tablet directly with the USB-C to USB-A cable; or if you are fixed to the MacOS camp with only Thunderbolt 3 ports, Xencelabs graciously includes a USB-A to Type-C adapter as a workaround solution. Other niceties like the EMR-based regular 3-button pen, thin pen and hard/soft nibs are presented in a neat clamshell case.
Another thing I appreciate is that Xencelabs gives you a polyester drawing glove and cloth carrying sleeve on top on everything else provided. I wasn’t expecting them to give me anything beyond the necessary tablet and pens, but it’s very cool on their behalf if you’re traveling and need to bring along your gear in style.
Performs Like a Wacom
All these additions make for a great first impression that could win many artists over—but like your average Instagram/OnlyFans model, looks can only go so far without substance. Fortunately, Xencelabs did their homework and equipped this with expert-level drawing technology. From this point I’m going to be making a lot of comparisons between this tablet against Wacom’s own Intuos Pro models as they both share the exact same specifications to a tee. Specifically ±60° tilt recognition, ±0.01 accuracy, 5080 per inch line resolution, and a robust 8192 levels of contact pressure come standard.
The engineers optimized their active area to replicate the feel of a everyday sketchpad, meaning that pen to surface performance is adequately matted so there is minor friction to compliment most drawing styles. I cannot differentiate anything between this Xencelabs tablet versus my current Intuos Pro, other than appearance they both have similar tactile feel and response suitable for quick doodles or all-day projects. The Xencelabs variant feels a little smoother in terms of pen-to-surface contact, but nothing that will negatively affect any artist long-term.
The EMR pen performance is also equal in range and accuracy, so again nothing is lost if you cross-shop these brands. Again, if you’re a illustrator familiar with programs like Abode Photoshop (CC 2020) or Corel Painter 2021 the responsiveness should be second nature here. I jumped in blind when testing this Xencelabs tablet and aside from not programming any assigned functions to top buttons there was absolutely nothing that held the Xencelabs tablet back when matched against its rival.
However, there are slight distinctions on the main (3 button) pen in that it comfortably feels old-school in the physical sense, reminding me of the Intuos4 grip pen with the same rubberized material while improving the functionality by adding that third face button right below the dual rocker-style button. As for the thin pen it operates as well as the standard pen, minus the third button, just not as ideal in larger hands like mine.
Different Form, Slightly Better Function
My favorite feature (or lack thereof) is that Xencelabs did not try to shoehorn redundant touch/gesture controls on the active area. While Wacom lauded its inclusion on Intuos Pro models it was a pain in the ass to live with, because whenever you rested your palm on the tablet while drawing is that the cursor would randomly jump to that position or initiate some click. It has always been a gimmick I am glad that Xencelabs didn’t imitate it on this tablet. This also doesn’t have the ability to digitize ink drawing for export like the Intuos Pro Paper Edition, but that might be a novelty for most users anyways, so no huge loss there.
That said, I do wish that Xencelabs did not make the Quick Key Remote an à la carte accessory. I understand that the advantage of this tablet is its compact build, but it would have been nice to get that extra functionality out of the box to streamline workflow. Studio designers will appreciate this more than casual artists, but this option can be bought in a bundle or separately if you really want it.
Conclusion: Premium without the Price
Career artists on tighter budgets should put Xencelabs and the Pen Tablet Medium on their immediate watchlist. You are literally getting the same quality, performance, and toolset of an equivalent Intuos Pro tablet while saving some much-needed cash. I doubt this is a coincidence, given Xencelabs was founded in Portland too – the exact city where the North American Wacom HQ calls home. It is also very probable that former engineers and passionate artists migrated from there to form Xencelabs, a definite win-win choice if fresh competition makes technology more attainable.