Disappointments in Cheap Digital Sketching

Despite my minimal artistic skill, I’ve long been fascinated by the possibility of using pen-based screen input for a digital drawing sketchbook. But I could not justify buying the good gear. Which meant a long string of experiments in more affordable approaches filled with frustration and disappointment.

My earliest experience was doodling with a small iPAQ (a Windows CE-based device) which used a sharp pointed stylus on a resistive touchscreen. These early PDAs like PalmPilot and Apple Newton barely sufficed for note taking. Given their low resolution, poor responsiveness, and no pressure level sensitivity, they compared poorly to contemporary Wacom drawing tablets.

Following Apple’s trailblazing iPhone, cell phones moved to higher resolution screens and capacitive touchscreens. Any phones with ambition to be competitive must deliver instant visual response to touch input, which is great for drawing responsiveness. But those capacitive touchscreens also eliminated the ability to use stylus for fine point accuracy. There existed “capacitive touchscreen stylus” but every unit I had tried merely delivered a wide touch surface as inaccurate as a finger. And finally, capacitive touchscreens introduced a new problem: I could no longer rest my hand on the screen for stability, as that would be treated as additional touch input messing things up.

I had high hopes for my next step: a Samsung 500T Windows 8 tablet with integrated pen digitizer using technology licensed from Wacom. The screen was much larger than a phone, and the Wacom digitizer delivered pressure data. Unfortunately, overall system responsiveness (not just to pen input) was intolerably slow. Just one of many problems which made that tablet into a big sack of sadness.

After that disappointment, I went upscale and upgraded my laptop to a Microsoft Surface Pro. It also had a Wacom-licensed pen input digitizer, and much faster hardware for better responsiveness. I could mostly use it as the digital sketchbook I always thought would be neat to have. The biggest complaint was that I never mastered a posture that would keep my hand off the screen. The Surface Pro had a basic form of “palm rejection” like the 500T: touch input could be disabled when the pen is active. But this required keeping the pen in range of screen digitizer. If I lifted the pen more than a few millimeters, it would fall out of range. Which meant the tablet reverted to touchscreen input and immediately engulfed in chaos caused by my palm.

After that era, consumer level tablets moved away from Wacom technology. Microsoft’s Surface Pen has since switched to a different technology, and Apple launched their own take with the Apple Pencil. In addition to pressure sensing, both of these technologies added the ability to sense tilt angle, literally opening up a new dimension in digital sketching. When I tried floor demonstration units at Best Buy and Apple Store, I was quite impressed. But with my drawing style and posture, they both still suffered from unwanted hand input. This will be an ongoing problem on anything designed primarily for finger touch input. What I wanted is a product primarily designed for pen input and ignores my fleshy parts, but that is a very limited product niche. I didn’t think I could ever justify the cost of that niche until Monoprice decided to clear out some inventory.

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