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Pen Tablet vs Pen Display: Which is Better for Photo Editing?

When it comes time to up their photo editing game, most photographers reach for a pen tablet like Wacom’s Intuos Pro series. But what about pen displays? Wacom, XP-Pen, and Huion all offer displays that let you draw and edit right on the screen without sacrificing any of the features you get from a tablet. They’re typically used by artists, but we wanted to know: are they worth it for photo editing?

Earlier this month, we shared a quick comparison of three popular photo editing tablets, pitting the expensive Wacom Intuos Pro against affordable alternatives from XP-Pen and Huion. But lots of creative professionals prefer to use a pen display instead, working directly on the screen instead of staring at their computer while drawing on a tablet they’re not even looking at.

The truth is that there are pros and cons to both options, and after three weeks alternating between the tablets we tested last month, a 16-inch pen display, and a 24-inch pen display, we wanted to share our thoughts and explain why you might ultimately want to stick with a pen tablet…

Full Disclosure: Wacom and XP-Pen both provided us with review units, knowing that they would be used for this article and other related reviews and comparisons. Neither had/has any input on the content that follows, but we appreciate their cooperation.

Pen Tablet vs Pen Display – The Pros and Cons

For years, the pen tablet has enjoyed a monopoly in the world of photo editing. Partly because they’re (usually) cheaper and partly because pen displays are mostly marketed to digital artists, most photographers just buy a photo editing tablet without considering the alternative. But with the rise of affordable displays from XP-Pen and Huion, and the release of Wacom’s own entry-level Cintiq displays, the price gap has narrowed… or in some cases disappeared entirely.

As the top-voted comment on our pen tablet comparison aptly pointed out: “For what you’d spend on a [Wacom Intuos Pro Medium], you could already get a tablet with display from the Chinese competitors.”

For the past month, we’ve had two pen displays on hand to use for daily photo editing tasks: a Wacom Cintiq Pro 16, and an XP-Pen Artist 24 Pro (full review incoming). We won’t dive into the differences of these specific models here; instead, we want to touch on the Pros and Cons of using a pen display instead of a pen tablet for your photo editing needs.

We’ll start with the positives.

Unsurprisingly, it’s much easier to get used to using a pen display than a pen tablet, because you’re actually interacting with your image directly. It doesn’t take long to get used to using a tablet, but it’s nice to have the immediate feedback of using the display in front of you as your canvas.

Installation is also easier–or it was in our experience–with fewer drivers to install and a pretty seamless one-cable setup if you have access to a proper USB-C port. Finally, you also get some bonuses, like an SD card slot (Wacom Cintiq Pro) or a built-in USB hub (XP-Pen Artist 24 Pro) that works as a pass-through. In theory, you could use a large pen display as your main monitor… but you probably shouldn’t.

Which brings us to the cons.

The most obvious cons are simply size and cost. If you want to get one of the nicer options out there with reasonable resolution and color accuracy, you’re going to pay more than you would for a tablet… and you’re going to be stuck using it at your desk. A pen tablet can go in your backpack and travel with you no problem, and some connect wirelessly so you don’t even need to bring a cable. No such luck with a pen display.

The bigger issue, however, is that you need to spend a lot of money before you can get one that could theoretically compete with your main monitor.

The affordable options are usually 1080p or QHD resolution, not 4K, and their color accuracy only hits about 90-92% Adobe RGB at best… all of this at peak brightness of just 200-250 nits. Even the nicest pen displays that are 4K and get closer to 100% Adobe RGB are pretty dim by modern display standards, and they cost a lot more than even the most expensive pen tablet and a really nice photo editing monitor put together.

Don’t get us wrong, using a pen display is a really nice editing experience. Much nicer, in our opinion, than using a pen tablet because you get the immediate feedback. If you properly calibrate the display to avoid parallax and you set up your express keys just right, you can forget you’re even hooked up to a separate computer because you never even have to touch your keyboard.

But if you’re going to go with a display, you need to consider the trade-offs.

What About the iPad?

Now that Apple has added “Sidecar” to iPadOS and MacOS, someone is bound to ask: what about using my iPad and Apple Pencil? Ignoring the fact that you’re limited to using a Mac if you choose this option, this is actually a great question… after all, you can get a standard 32GB iPad for less than either of the displays we tested.

So… we hooked up a 2nd generation iPad Pro and first generation Apple Pencil to a 13-inch MacBook Pro and ran it through a few quick edits for good measure.

The experience was surprisingly smooth and responsive for a wireless display setup, but there are a few big reasons why a dedicated pen tablet or display is just plain superior.

First of all, our fully loaded 13-inch MacBook Pro had the fans going full blast the entire time we were using Sidecar with either Lightroom Classic or Photoshop. Pushing that many pixels wirelessly seems to really strain the integrated graphics. But that’s just a minor annoyance…

The main issue is the iPad’s screen, which isn’t well suited to being used as a secondary photo editing display. Any size of iPad is smaller than most of the pen displays on the market, and the ~12:9 aspect ratio (12.9:9 if you use an iPad Pro) is poorly suited for desktop photo editing apps because of the chunky sidebars they all use. The 16:9 aspect ratio of most pen displays and pen tablets are far more conducive to this task, giving you enough room for your Photoshop layers panel or Lightroom sliders without squeezing your photos into a prohibitively small piece of the display.

Finally, one more minor annoyance. Using the Apple Pencil somehow removes the mouse preview, so when you do something like change brush size, there’s no preview until you actually tap the screen and use the brush. If there’s a way to bring this back, please feel free to let us know in the comments because it gets really annoying.

In short: if you want to edit on an iPad, we recommend using the dedicated Photoshop or Affinity Photo apps that are designed for the iPad. The interface is just better, allowing you to take full advantage of what the iPad has to offer, instead of trying to make it act as a second screen it was never designed to be.

Verdict and Final Thoughts

We’re gonna level with you: this is not a Sophie’s Choice situation. Although any gear decision is ultimately a matter of personal needs and preference, after a month of using both options, we would recommend that most photographers stick to a pen tablet.

It’s a matter of priorities. Used together, an extremely color-accurate display and a pen tablet–even a really cheap one–can genuinely revolutionize your photo editing workflow. Trading out that pen tablet for a pen display, on the other hand, is just a “nice-to-have” upgrade that comes with some trade-offs: it takes up a lot of room on your desk, it’s far less portable (if it’s portable at all), and it will cost you more money if you want to get something color accurate, high-resolution, or both.

If you can afford to purchase both, it’s definitely convenient to have a dedicated pen display as your second monitor for hardcore retouching sessions. The editing experience itself is superior when you get right down to it. But if you have to choose one or the other, we’d recommend going with a nice pen tablet… or buying a cheap one and using the extra cash to upgrade your monitor.

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