If you’re looking to speed up your editing workflow, there are few pieces of hardware that can make complex masking, brushing and cloning jobs easier and more intuitive than a digital pen. I first picked up an active-style pen a few years ago as an optional extra for my new laptop, and while I’m no sketch artist, I quickly realized that it was much better than a mouse or touchpad for those fiddly tasks like making complex masks or cloning specks of dust out of product photos.
But active pens are really only an option for laptops, tablets or machines equipped with pricey pen-capable standalone displays like Wacom’s Cintiq series. That’s where standalone pen tablets come in, letting you get the benefits of a digital pen at relatively little cost and without replacing your current hardware if it lacks built-in support.
When you think of pen tablets, you probably think of Wacom since the company has long been the best-known brand in its field. But nowadays, it has quite a few rivals worthy of a closer look, and in early 2021 it gained another with the arrival on the scene of Xencelabs (rhymes with ‘senselabs’ if you’re wondering).
In this review, we’ll be taking a look at Xencelabs’ latest offering, the Pen Tablet Small, which is, as its name might suggest, a smaller and more affordable variant of the product with which it made its debut last year.
- Slightly smaller, lighter and more affordable than the Wacom Intuos Pro S
- Works tethered or wirelessly with a wide range of Windows, MacOS, Linux and Android apps from a built-in battery
- Battery-free pens that match the Intuos Pro’s resolution, pressure sensitivity and tilt detection
- Lacks Intuos Pro’s ability to double as a huge multi-touch capable touchpad
- Fewer controls on the tablet than on Wacom rivals
- Includes two digital pens in different sizes/button counts, whereas Wacom only gives you one and charges a premium for extras
- Includes nicely-made travel cases, handy if you edit on the road
Pen tablets are easier to use than I’d thought, and have their advantages
When I first opted for an active pen a few years ago, I went out of my way to choose one which would allow me to draw directly on my computer’s display. I reasoned that I’d find it much easier than dealing with looking in one place while drawing somewhere entirely different.
And for the first few hours I spent with the Xencelabs device, which was my first extended experience with a pen tablet, that was absolutely true. Initially, I found it trickier to use than my active pen and struggled to draw as accurately as I did when I could see my subject directly beneath the tip of the pen.
But I found myself surprised by just how quickly I got used to the standalone pen tablet, and having used one, I also discovered that they have their own advantages over drawing directly on your screen. For example, it’s much easier to see what you’re doing when your own hand isn’t obscuring what you’re working on. It also saves you turning your screen into a smudge fest, and I now prefer it to drawing directly on my screen.
|The Xencelabs Pen Tablet Small and its included pen/nib case, shown alongside my 15-inch Dell XPS 15 9570 laptop for size comparison. Xencelabs’s configuration app is shown on-screen.|
Since the pens draw their power from an electromagnetic field created by the tablet itself, there’s also no need for batteries in each pen. That saves you from replacing them at regular intervals and makes the pens lighter and less tiring to use. It did take me a little while to break the habit of setting the pen down on the tablet when I was done with it, though. Doing so interferes with the mouse pointer when subsequently using the touchpad or mouse.
The most significant annoyance I found–which is a definite drawback compared to the Wacom Intuos Pro S–is that the Xencelabs pen tablet can’t double as a touchpad. In contrast, the Wacom is not just touch-sensitive but multi-touch capable. Having touchpad support would resolve the issue of where to put a mouse if using one alongside the tablet, since if you’re not ambidextrous, you’re going to want both on the same side of your screen or keyboard.
It’s a pity that the Xencelabs pen tablet doesn’t use Bluetooth or double as a touchpad like its rival, the Wacom Intuos Pro S
It’s also a shame that while it uses the same radio frequency range as for standard Bluetooth devices, the underlying protocol isn’t actually Bluetooth, unlike Wacom’s tablets. Hence, there’s no way to connect the device without using one of the USB ports on your computer, whether it’s used for the USB cable or proprietary dongle. It’s a pity that the Xencelabs pen tablet doesn’t use Bluetooth or double as a touchpad like its rival, the Wacom Intuos Pro S.
While we’re mentioning the Intuos Pro S, let’s take a look at how the Xencelabs Pen Tablet Small compares to its nearest Wacom rivals.
|Xencelabs Pen Tablet Small||Wacom Intuos Pro S (2017 model)||Wacom Intuos Small|
|Size||234mm x 185mm x 8mm (9.2″ x 7.3″ x 0.3″)||269mm x 170mm x 8mm (10.6″ x 6.7″ x 0.3″)||200mm x 160mm x 9mm (7.9″ x 6.3″ x 0.4″)|
|Weight||398g (14.0oz)||450g (15.9oz)||230g (8.1oz)|
|Communications||Proprietary 2.402-2.48 GHz dongle or USB cable||Bluetooth Classic or USB cable||Versions with or without Bluetooth Classic; USB cable|
|Active area||176mm x 99mm (6.9″ x 3.9″)||160mm x 100mm (6.3″ x 3.9″)||152mm x 95mm (6.0″ x 3.7″)|
|Resolution||5080 lpi||5080 lpi||2540 lpi|
|Pressure levels (pen)||8192 levels||8192 levels||4096 levels|
|Pressure levels (eraser)||8192 levels||8192 levels||No eraser|
|Tilt range||+/- 60°||+/- 60°||No tilt detection|
|Tablet controls||Three buttons||Six ExpressKeys, home button and touch ring||Four buttons|
|Touchpad support||No||Yes, multi-touch||No|
|User-replaceable tablet battery||No||Yes||Yes|
|Pens included||Thick three-button with eraser and slim two-button with eraser||Thick two-button only.||Slim two-button|
|Optionally-available pens||No other pen types available. Spare pens offered for $49.99 (thick three-button) or $46.99 (slim two-button).||Thick three-button ($99.95) or slim two-button ($79.95). Also spare thick two-button pens offered for $89.95.||No other pen types available. Spare pens offered for $29.95.|
|Nibs included||Eight standard, four felt||Seven standard, four felt||Four standard, no felt|
|Accessories included||Padded, felt-lined travel case, pen/nib case, medium drawing glove, nib removal tool, USB dongle, USB-C to USB-A adapter, USB-A to USB-C cable||Pen stand with built-in nib removal tool, four color rings to differentiate multiple pens, sample texture sheet, USB-A to USB-C cable||Nib removal tool, USB cable, USB-A to USB-Micro B cable, Clip Studio Paint Pro (2-year license)|
A choice of two different pens in the basic bundle
One place where Xencelabs scores over Wacom is its decision to include both pens compatible with the tablet in the base bundle. There’s a slimmer pen with two buttons on the side of its body, as well as a thicker pen that adds a third side button. The pair are stored in a nice (if somewhat bulky) travel case along with their spare nibs, a nib removal tool, USB receiver dongle, and USB-C adapter.
Either pen is detected, and its position indicated on the screen, when you move it about 12-14mm (0.5in) or less from the tablet surface, allowing you to adjust your position accurately before you start drawing.
Airbrushing works to some extent, but not that realistically
Since the location can be accurately detected at a distance, you can also use the pen as an airbrush of sorts if you configure one of its buttons appropriately.
With a real airbrush, you can typically control the flow rate on the fly and adjust the coverage area by controlling the distance between the nozzle and the paper. You can’t control flow rate with the binary buttons on Xencelabs’ pens, though, nor is the distance between pen and tablet detected and taken into account.
|Xencelabs’ pen tablets come with a choice of two different pen types and two replaceable nib types in a handy carry case. As well as differing in size, the larger pen adds one extra button.|
Tilt sensitivity works to some extent without the pen touching the tablet, but its accuracy quickly falls off as the distance between the pen and tablet increases, which again results in a less realistic airbrushing experience. With the top of the pen touching the tablet, its resolution, pressure sensitivity, and tilt sensitivity are all excellent.
Interchangeable nibs mimic the feel of pens or pencils
Both pens have a drawing nib at one end and an eraser at the other end. The drawing nib and eraser are equally pressure-sensitive, but only the drawing nib combines this with tilt sensitivity.
The nibs in both included pens will wear out over time, and the wear rate will vary depending on both the nib type and how much pressure you’re applying. The felt nibs give a feel that’s more like writing with a pencil, while the standard nibs are more akin to a smooth ballpoint pen.
I preferred to use a felt nib in the slimmer, more pencil-like pen and left a standard nib in the thicker pen. I found myself using the smaller of the two pens most frequently and switching to the thicker pen only when using it as a pseudo-airbrush or wanting the feel of a pen tip.
|The nibs can be pulled out with the provided tool and replaced when they wear down or if you want a different feel when drawing. Here we can see one of the pencil-like felt tips up close.|
The nibs will wear out, but do so quite gradually
During the course of my review, I spent many hours using both nib types and didn’t notice any significant amount of wear to either. The included nibs, of which you get eight regular ones and four felt ones, should be enough to last for quite a while.
Spare nibs can be bought in packs of 10 or 20. Depending on the type and quantity purchased, they cost just $0.55 to $1.30 each. (By way of comparison, Wacom’s nibs are all priced right around $1 each regardless of type or order quantity.)
The nib removal tool is very flimsy and the metal used isn’t sufficiently springy, so I accidentally squashed it out of shape after just a few uses. It’s easy enough to bend back, though, or you can pull the nibs out with tweezers instead.
All of the tablet and pen buttons can be customized to taste
You can change the configuration of the buttons built into both the tablet and individual pens, changing their functions either on an overall or per-app basis. You can also adjust the sensitivity curves for each pen type’s drawing nib and eraser separately.
|You can change any of the individual pen buttons to perform different tasks on an overall or per-app basis and change the mapping of the pen’s pressure level to that in your apps.|
|If you want greater control, you can also directly adjust the pressure curve mapping for the pen tip and eraser of either pen individually.|
Any of the tablet or pen buttons can be customized to transmit a mouse click, a keyboard stroke, a modifier (shift, alt, control, space, or a mouse button/wheel), or to launch an application or perform a variety of interactions with your operating system. Individual buttons can also be disabled altogether.
By default, the leftmost tablet button calls up Xencelabs’ settings app, and the middle button accesses the pressure settings page for the three-button pen. The rightmost button defaults to selecting whether the tablet’s active area should be mapped to span all of your displays or to just one specific display.
|The three buttons above the drawing area on the tablet can also be customized.|
The customizable, backlit drawing area markers aren’t very useful
The tablet’s active area – that is, the portion on which you can draw – is indicated by four markings at its corners. These can optionally be illuminated at any one of three different brightness levels and in eight different colors, but they’re easily visible even when not illuminated or powered off.
That being the case, their location can’t change even when the tablet is configured to use a smaller area. And you tend to look at the screen when drawing anyway, so honestly, I didn’t find the illumination terribly useful.
The brightness and color of the corner markers can be customized too, but their locations don’t change to match the active area currently configured, only the outer limits of what’s available.
The tablet can map to all screens, just one, or mapping can be tweaked
Xencelabs’ tablet offers two different modes: pen or mouse mode. In the default pen mode, positioning is absolute, so for example, the bottom left corner of the tablet always maps to the bottom left corner of the active screen(s). In mouse mode, if you raise the pen beyond the range with which it can communicate with the tablet and then set it back down on a different part of the tablet, the mouse pointer won’t move in between times.
If you’re set to span multiple screens or use a display with a non-16:9 aspect ratio display, then by default, the mapping will differ on the X and Y axes. That is to say that unless you’re using a 16:9 aspect display, a square drawn on the tablet surface will map to a rectangle on the screen.
You quickly get used to that, though, paying attention to the location of the on-screen pointer and not worrying about your hand position, so it’s not as confusing as it sounds. And if you need a 1:1 mapping, you can instead configure the tablet to change its active area to correspond with that of your screen’s aspect ratio, leaving part of the active area unused as appropriate.
If you want even more control, you can also change the mapping to define just one specific area of the screen you want the pen tablet mapped to, or a specific area of the tablet surface to map from, or both at once. However, this is done on an overall basis and not a per-app one.
|The tablet’s active area can be mapped to span all of your active screens or just locked to one specific display as you prefer.|
|If you need more control over the active area, you can also map a specific pixel area of the tablet surface (left) to a certain area of a specific screen (right).|
Battery life is more than sufficient, but it can’t easily be replaced
Finally, you can also configure how long the tablet should remain active before it puts itself to sleep in 30-minute increments from 30 to 120 minutes. An option is also provided to keep the tablet active until it is manually powered off.
The great news is that I found battery life to be superb. Xencelabs officially rates the Pen Tablet Small as capable of 16 hours use from a 2.5-hour charge time, and in my real-world use I’d say this is, if anything, conservative. I easily managed two to three days of use between charges. And of course, even if the battery is entirely drained, you can plug it into your computer and start using it immediately.
Do note that, unlike Wacom’s tablets, the battery in the Pen Tablet Small isn’t designed to be user-replaceable. Once it reaches the end of its service life, you’ll still be able to use the tablet when tethered, but replacing the battery will be more involved than with the Intuos Pro, where you can slide off an access panel and replace the battery.
Compatible not just with Mac and Windows, but even with Android
The Xencelabs Pen Tablet Small is technically compatible with Windows 7 or later, Mac OS X 10.12 or later, or Linux (types and versions unspecified).
The bulk of my testing was done on Windows 10, but I was surprised to find that the tablet also worked fine with all of the Android devices I tested, including Google, Samsung and Sony devices running versions of Android as old as 2016’s Nougat. And that includes not just compatibility as a pointing device, but also both pressure and tilt-detection.
I also tested with a wide range of apps on Windows, including current versions of Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom Classic, ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate 2021, Capture One 20, DxO PhotoLab 5 and Exposure X7. ACDSee, PhotoLab and Exposure don’t support pressure-sensitivity, but all of them otherwise support the pen tablet well enough to make it useful for making localized adjustments, drawing masks, cloning and the like.
|Pen tablets make very light work of complex selections, and it took me all of 20 seconds or so to outline this hippocamp statue in Exposure X7. Sadly, this app doesn’t support pressure sensitivity.|
Not every app proved to be as usable, though. For example, Nikon NX Studio would only work if switched to the relative mouse mode. When using pen mode with the image zoomed in, it had a tendency to randomly jump around the image instead of applying the auto retouch brush or tweaking sliders for control points.
But if your chosen software supports other tablets like those from Wacom, it should work just fine with the Xencelabs tablet.
The one-size-fits-all glove looks weird but helps your hand slide better
Xencelabs also includes a rather funky-looking two-fingered drawing glove in the product bundle. This leaves your thumb, index and middle fingers uncovered for comfort while gripping the pen but covers your ring and pinky fingers and reduces the friction between the tablet surface and the side of your palm.
It’s labeled as being a medium-sized glove, but no other sizes are available. I have pretty large hands and didn’t find it terribly comfortable myself. I preferred instead to slip a piece of paper beneath my hand when I wanted to cut the friction a little. But if you have smaller hands and don’t mind looking a little bit silly, the glove would work well too.
|It might look rather silly, but Xencelabs’ bundled glove helps cut the friction between your palm and the pen tablet’s surface, at least if your hands are small enough to fit it comfortably.|
A surprisingly nice travel case will keep your tablet safe on the road
As well as the hard plastic storage case for its pens, nibs and other accessories, the Xencelabs Pen Tablet Small comes with a travel case which is far nicer than I was expecting. It’s nicely sized to fit alongside your computer in a laptop case or other bag, with dimensions of around 20cm x 30cm (8″ x 12″).
It’s padded, has a velcro closure, and as well as the main felt-lined pocket for the tablet itself, it also has another large pocket that would fit a moderately sized notepad, two deeper pockets that nicely fit the pen case or a smartphone, and two half-height pockets that are good for things like cleaning cloths, USB cables and the aforementioned glove.
|Xencelabs’ provided travel case is surprisingly nice, with generous padding and a felt-lined interior.|
I have to admit, I came into this review expecting to prefer the experience of using my existing active pen directly on my screen, but in the end, I didn’t. I found the experience of using the Xencelabs Pen Tablet Small to offer some very worthwhile advantages over smudging up my laptop screen, and it also proved to be basically free of lag and very accurate in use.
It worked reliably with all of the leading imaging software I threw at it and provides loads of scope for customization to your tastes. And thanks to a nice travel case and an optionally cable-free design with very generous battery life, it works just as well when out on the road as it does back at home.
While I’d love to see Xencelabs add multi-touch functionality, the Pen Tablet Small is nevertheless a great tool with which to edit your photos.
While I’d love to see Xencelabs add multi-touch functionality, the Pen Tablet Small is nevertheless a great tool with which to edit your photos
Are there some things I’d like to see improved? Absolutely. I’d like to see Xencelabs include touchpad functionality like that of its rival, the Intuos Pro S, and in our increasingly environmentally-conscious world, I also think the built-in battery should be made user-replaceable. And it would certainly be nicer if a standard Bluetooth protocol was used, freeing up a USB port on my machine.
But at the end of the day, none of these concerns are showstoppers, and I found the Xencelabs pen tablet to be a great addition to the digital darkroom. That Xencelabs has not only managed to better Wacom’s list price but also do so while offering a better base bundle and lower spare parts prices than its better-known rival is the icing on the cake.
If you can afford it, Wacom’s multi-touch capability might be worth spending a bit more to get. But for the budget-minded photographer who wants Intuos Pro-like accuracy while getting a travel-friendly product bundle, including a choice of multiple pens, the Xencelabs Pen Tablet Small comes highly recommended!
What we like:
- Intuitive tool with which to edit your images
- Works with a wide range of Windows, Mac, Linux and Android software
- Two pen types included in product bundle
- Pens don’t need any fiddly, oft-replaced batteries
- No lag and good resolution, pressure and tilt-sensitivity
- Plenty of scope for button and pressure customization
- Operates wired or wirelessly with generous battery life
- Nice pen case and great travel case
- More affordable than Intuos Pro S
What we don’t:
- Tablet can’t double as a touchpad
- Battery isn’t user-replaceable
- Only three physical controls on the tablet
- Doesn’t work via standard Bluetooth protocol and requires a free USB port for dongle
- Flimsy nib removal tool
- No pen stand provided
- Tablet shows fingerprints quickly, and pen case inlay is a dust magnet