Wacom has been at the forefront of tablet tech for decades. They have perfected their “game.” Their products set the bar high. And if your name is Frank Miller, you’re sketching the next Sin City and decided to do it digitally this time, they’re what you’d use.
But not all of us are Frank Miller.
With that, we’re not only talking “talent” but, more importantly, cost. An established professional artist can afford the luxury of a pen tablet that costs thousands of dollars and expect not only the best possible performance but also the niceties that come with a premium product. Instant response times, ultra-smooth lines, absolute color accuracy. Their pen gliding on the tablet’s surface precisely like a 2B pencil would sail on a piece of paper, while a Mac Pro – that cost some more thousands of dollars – hums in the vicinity.
Then, there’s the rest of us.
The ones using an old Mac that should have been upgraded years ago if it weren’t for that annoying thing called “the rent.” Or a PC with a mid-level CPU, GPU, and just enough memory to tackle your designs, but where you can feel Photoshop pausing when applying more than one demanding filter. And the monitor doesn’t come with an Eizo sticker.
That’s the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro intended audience. An updated and improved take on the beloved XP-Pen Artist 15.6, this is the tablet for everyone who’s not yet able to justify the cost of a Cintiq Pro, but would like something most would deem as “close enough.”
It’s options like the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro that forced the release of Wacom One, the first truly affordable entry-level screen tablet at a fraction of a cost of what you’d expect from such a product that comes with Wacom’s branding. As we’ll see, though, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro and Wacom One differ enough to make the choice between them easy depending on your priorities.
At first look, it seems like XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro‘s new features over the previous non-pro model are only small upgrades. Some nice-to-have additions, but not anything revolutionary. Two more buttons. Tilt support. A dial. And since as visual artists we appreciate aesthetics, I should point it’s not just “a dial”: it’s also… red! It’s an aesthetic detail but also hints towards a well-thought-out upgrade over the “plain” version.
As you dream about how you’ll use this red dial when sketching your next almost-masterpiece, you take the tablet’s pen out of its case and try it out on its surface. The pen glides smoothly on the tablet, thanks to both its nib and the filter covering the screen, protecting it from scratches. It’s light but balanced. Two buttons are ergonomically placed at the exact spot where you’d expect them to be. No awkward finger-bending to get to them. At 15.6”, the screen/drawing area isn’t as small as entry-level models that would confine your artistic urges in a little rectangular sandbox.
Everything feels… good? And yet, you know that what matters most is not its admittedly appealing looks, but how it will perform “in action.” So, you reserve judgment for later as you dive into the package. You remember the reason for the success of all those “unboxing” videos, the fresh smell of new gear engulfing you, as you lay the contents of the box on your desk
What’s in the Bundle
Mere minutes later, the box lying on the floor has served its intended purpose. On your desk, you have strategically arranged, almost in alphabetical order, everything you found inside.
At the epicenter of your attention, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro tablet and its pen. The pen’s case also works as a holder/stand, so it won’t be going back in the box any time soon. It found its permanent place somewhere on your desk – and in it, there are eight more replacement pen nibs, for when you need them.
Before checking the rest of “the essentials,” you try on the included black drawing glove. Well, black goes with everything, and this should prove useful in the long run, keeping on-screen smudges to a minimum. You don’t need the cleaning cloth, but you guess you will soon, so you place it on the pen holder. You flip through the included quick guide/mini manual. Really, who reads those?
Unlike your former entry-level cheap tablet, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro comes with a stand. Unfortunately, it’s not adjustable, so if you’d prefer a smaller angle… Well, this is a budget-conscious product, and we can’t have everything, but it’s better than nothing.
And that’s it. Time for the more mundane stuff.
A 3-in-1 cable should be all you need as far as “connectivity” goes. A USB (type A) cable can be used both on one of your computer’s powered USB ports (if available) or on the provided USB power adapter, to “feed” the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro’s electrical hunger. You’ll also find four “adapter plates” for the power unit, that will allow you to use it while on your globe-trotting adventures. They render the tablet compatible with US, European, UK, and Chinese power outlets.
You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to put everything together, and soon-ish it’s time for the real fun to begin.
As with most computer peripherals, you need a driver for your OS to take advantage of XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro’s features. I downloaded it from its official website and, minutes later, I was fooling around with the available options.
XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro’s configuration panel is simple to understand and ultra-accessible. You can assign different functions to the two buttons on the pen, the eight shortcut buttons, and the dial on the tablet. You can tweak the click sensitivity, calibrate the display, and… switch between an absolute and relative mouse mode?! The reason this last point seems strange is that the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro is obviously, undoubtfully, 100% positively equipped with a screen. That’s why this option makes-no-sense. At least, to me.
If it was a typical, screen-less tablet, this option could be useful. But not for one where you draw directly on the screen. You see, the “absolute mode” means that “the on-screen cursor is always where you’re pointing with the pen.” The “relative mode,” though, makes the tablet work like a laptop’s trackpad. When buying a tablet-with-a-screen, you’re doing it because you want to see the results of your pen touching its surface exactly underneath the point of contact. Not to use it as a larger trackpad for a laptop. As expected, I went with “Absolute Mode.”
As I was using two screens with different aspect ratios, my primary having a 1920 x 1200 pixel resolution and a 16:10 aspect ratio, I set the tablet to replicate my second one, with which it shares a 1920 x 1080 and 16:9 aspect ratio.
Unlike the Wacom One, that comes pre-calibrated, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro needs some initial setting up to show its true colors – literally.
So, after an initial calibration, and exporting my configuration – in case I ever wanted to come back to my original settings (I’m always cautious like that), I fired up Photoshop for the first test drive.
NOTE: For anyone wondering, I tested the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro under Windows 10, but it’s also compatible with Windows 8 and 7 – both 32bit and 64bit of all versions – as well as Mac OS X (10.10 or later). It officially states support for “Photoshop, Painter, Illustrator, Clip Studio, and many more,” and I didn’t run into any incompatibilities in any app I’ve tried.
Controls and Functionality
Every story has a beginning, and in the realm of visual arts, it’s almost always a “File>New…”. Next was my favorite BFF – and I mean the actual keys on the keyboard, shortcuts for Brush – Fullscreen – Fullscreen, to select the Paintbrush tool and have Photoshop’s canvas take up the whole screen.
The first lines I tried felt a bit “off,” so I visited Photoshop’s Brush panel (F5 on the keyboard). I tweaked some options and played with some values. To avoid getting into boring details, initially, I considered the tilt support useful only for when mimicking tools like a paintbrush. Yes, I know “I had selected the paintbrush tool,” but I mean an actual one since its digital equivalent in apps like Photoshop is an umbrella term for many different tools. You use a different one for sketching with a virtual pencil, inking with a pen, or coloring with an airbrush.
When drawing, I create drafts with a custom pencil brush, and for that, I only needed the pen’s pressure sensitivity. With tilt detection disabled (as in “not mapped to anything”), the pen performed great. Both when replicating a pencil for drafts, and a pen for inking. Depending on the project, for the inking part, I sometimes even disable pressure altogether. I have no use for a varying-anything brush when I need plain, vivid lines – especially when working on the tiny details of a sketch.
To fully take advantage of the pen’s pressure and tilt support, I decided to go for a quick Giger-inspired sketch with a custom ink brush. I’d use it as a mix between a typical fountain pen and a paintbrush. Why restrict ourselves trying to mimic real drawing utensils when with digital the sky’s the limit? I mapped the pressure to the brush’s width and assigned some extra shape dynamics to tilt. In less than two minutes, I had a stickman-equivalent of Giger’s Alien on my screen.
And here’s the gist of it: you’ll simply love the pressure & tilt combination. It brings the brushes that try to approximate real ones closer to The Real Thing but also opens doors for experimentation. If you were thinking of going for the older non-pro XP-Pen Artist 15.6 that lacks tilt support, don’t. Except if you only want it for tracing and basic inking.
Since this doesn’t tell the whole story, I should probably mention some of the other details you notice when using the tablet. The texture of its surface leans more towards a smooth glass instead of fine sandpaper but has enough texture to offer some resistance. It provides enough tactile feedback to feel like you’re drawing on a sheet of paper.
I admit I didn’t use the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro‘s eight buttons as much as I initially expected. I’m sure others will map their favorite functions there, but for me, a left and right click on two of them, menu access and scrolling on two others, were more than enough. As buttons go, they were more clicky than mushy, with a small dot on every other one to assist in telling them apart by touch.
I can’t praise the dial enough, though, that proved exceptionally useful when mapped to zoom and layer selection. I initially expected it to be more of a gimmick, but I ended up loving it. More tablets should follow XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro’s example. Could I have a version with two fewer buttons but one more dial, for even more versatility, pretty please with sugar on top?
Screen Look and Feel
I’ve talked about the actual drawing experience, but not about the primary feature most people would be interested in: the actual display. And the simple, all-encompassing question about it is “well, how is it?” In a word, fine.
To expand on that, I consider it one of the best, if not the best, considering XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro’s price. Admittedly, pricier Wacom alternatives looked better to me, but the keyword to keep in mind is “pricier.” It’s an IPS display, which means it has much better color reproduction than ultra-cheap TN screens. According to XP-Pen, it offers 88% NTSC color accuracy, translating to 120% sRGB color coverage. I don’t have access to professional screen-testing equipment to test this claim, but as I said, to my eyes, it looks like the best one at its price point. I didn’t notice any annoying color stepping in gradients, and color reproduction felt faithful enough to look identical to what my printer produced on actual paper. The colors popped more than on my primary monitor, and it was bright enough to use under any lighting conditions. When assisted by lighting conditions, it looked better than the Wacom One, with better color range producing a more vivid image. At high brightness settings, though, the colors on the screen looked somewhat washed-out, and I found its sweet spot to be in the 30% to 50% range for a dimly lit room, and 50% to 70% under daylight.
If I were to directly compare, I’d say that the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro looks better under optimal conditions, but the Wacom One for when out and around.
For an IPS panel, it has excellent viewing angles and color uniformity – much better than both my main monitors. I have no reason to question XP-Pen’s claims of a 178 degrees viewing angle. According to XP-Pen, it’s covered by a replaceable anti-glare optical film, but I cannot tell you how it affects the screen and how it would look and feel without it. Nor how easy it would be to replace. First, because I wouldn’t be able to tell there was such a film on it if I hadn’t read about it, but also because I didn’t try to remove it. Although officially “replaceable,” there’s no spare included in the package. And I didn’t want to try to remove it, since then I’d be afraid to draw directly on the screen without this protective layer, without having a spare at hand to replace it.
I left its best feature for last, though: the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro follows Wacom’s footsteps and clones their much more expensive offerings by coming with a fully laminated screen. This means that the protective layer on top of it has almost zero distance from the screen underneath. The longer the gap between the screen and its protective layer, the more the pen feels hovering when you draw. By reducing this distance between them, the pen feels like it’s actually in contact with your work, like if you were working on real paper. The smaller gap also reduces the halo/ghosting effect noticed when working at wider viewing angles. Wacom was the first to laminated screens to drawing tablets, reducing the impact of those problems. And yet, they remain a feature of their more expensive products – no such feature on the Wacom One, and one extra point for the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro.
For those interested in numbers, it’s a 1920 x 1080 “full HD” screen, 5080 LPI, with a reading height of 10mm and a 25ms response rate. At 25ms, theoretically, it could feel laggy, but I found out that in practice, that wasn’t the case. It’s more probable any lag when working is because the computer or software is unable to keep up with a fury of fast strokes. In short, it felt buttery smooth.
Unlike the uber-mechs in Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro is not made of metal, but plastic. Like Kojima’s main protagonist, though, it’s solid.
Although the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro is plastic and I wouldn’t expect it to survive a drop from the third floor (kids, don’t try this at home), it also doesn’t look like a device that would break if you sneezed next to it. It’s like the mid-range smartphones available today you’re probably familiar with: they might lack the metal finish of premium models, but they don’t feel like a cheap remote you’d buy for ten bucks.
And yet, just like mid-range smartphones also have an upper and lower end, in direct comparison the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro feels like it leans more towards the affordable lower-end – as far as construction and materials go – compared to the Wacom One.
The eight shortcut buttons on the top and the three power and brightness buttons on its side are clicky, responsive, and easy to find. I can’t vouch for the longevity of the available ports since they didn’t feel different than those on a typical laptop. Just like any similar device, though, I’d personally avoid constant connections and disconnections of cables – ports can and do wear out with continuous (dis)connections.
I found its pen a joy to use thanks to its lack of a battery. It’s a passive pen, making it lighter to hold, closer to a classic “analog” wooden pencil than an expensive fountain pen. Some people, though, prefer heavier tablet pens. It’s a matter of personal taste, and if you can, I’d suggest you try it out before buying the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro. It might very well be the reason you decide to go for the Wacom One, whose pen I found somewhat more comfortable.
In a perfect world, everything would be free, and we’d all have huge 8K drawing screens that could magically change their size when we wanted to take them with us. From a realistic standpoint, though, hardware-wise, the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro offers more than you’d expect for its cost, both when looking at its feature set and its construction.
If I could change something, it would be its cabling. I mentioned how “you can use a powered USB port” instead of an actual electric outlet, but you shouldn’t mistake it for “a USB port.” Powered USB ports aren’t widely available in all PCs and laptops. I’m not an electrical engineer and can’t explain the “whys,” but the simple version is that, for most computers, you’ll have to connect the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro to a wall socket to be able to use it. And that also severely restricts its portability. Yes, you can take it with you in your backpack or a laptop folder, but you’ll also have to bring with you its somewhat convoluted cables. It’s not a single-cable solution, and you’ll have to connect it to one of your computers USB ports for data exchange, and an available HDMI-out port for image – and if there isn’t one available, buy a DVI-or-VGA-to-HDMI converter to do so. And also to a wall socket, if your computer doesn’t have a second, powered USB port, like those advertised as “able to charge your smartphone.” Thus, I consider it more of a stay-at-home solution, since I don’t like carrying an octopus-like mess of cables with me. Thankfully, those three cables connect to the device itself through a single USB-C port instead of being separate (hence the “3-in-1”).
When seeing XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro’s price, you might double-check if you’re looking at the wrong product. Then, you’d have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming, while resisting the urge to buy two of them, in case XP-Pen realize their “mistake.” And that’s because you can get it for as low as $399.99. Yes, that’s not a typo.
A decade ago, you’d probably pay as much, if not more, for a mediocre CRT monitor. Today you get a 15.6” ultra-thin monitor with 120% sRGB range and almost 180 degrees viewing angle you can directly sketch on. There’s not much more anyone could ask for that price. Except, maybe, for a magical single-cable solution.
In many regards, XP-Pen managed to one-up Wacom.
The XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro comes with a larger screen than the Wacom One, offers shortcut buttons and a dial instead of demanding you buy a separate “remote”, and best of all, has a more sensitive (but not as comfy) pen with 8192 levels of pressure and tilt support, and a laminated screen. It’s not as portable, though, doesn’t feel as solid as the Wacom One, and its cabling can look more like a spider’s web, making the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro more of a “set it up and leave it where it is” option.
If it wasn’t apparent, I loved the XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro. I should stress, though, that all my praise reflects its price. Not only did it exceed my expectations considering it costs $399.99, but I honestly think it punches higher than its height, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better if you’re not prepared to pay significantly more. Yes, the Wacom One is a viable alternative, but although both products are tablets-with-screens-you-draw-on, each is better for a different audience. The XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro features make it a budget Cintiq alternative for the stay-at-home (or studio) artist, whereas the similarly priced Wacom One seems like a better, “more compact” option for the younger artist who’s constantly on the move.
From my point of view, it’s the best option currently available for strapped-for-cash artists who demand an-almost-pro-level product, and can also give some of Wacom’s more affordable models a lesson or two – “look, Wacom, a red dial, it’s super effective!”
If you can afford them, though, and you have the money to spare, there are better options available.