Xencelabs is for the first time in a long time giving Wacom a run for their money in the artist tablet market. This is not totally unexpected, as it was started by a group of former Wacom employees. What is nice is that this is not a race to the bottom. We don’t need more cheap and ugly tablets, what VFX needs is innovation, quality and choice.
With Xencelabs’ new Pen Tablet you have a slick well-made professional alternative. We have been test driving it for time here at the fxguide tech compound and it has performed very well, but it does have some quirks.
The build quality is really great, about as good as the Wacom tablet, if not better in some respects. We also use the Intuos Pro M professionally and at home. The drawing area is slightly wider than the Intuos Pro M, the same height, but the Intuos Pro M has a much higher spatial resolution (44800 x 29600) than the Xencelabs (2060 x 1165). This is not noticeable in normal operation, but it will be a factor for some texture artists. On our old system, if we try and hold the pen perfectly still, just hovering over the tablet, we can see the cursor move a little with our Wacom, but not with the new Xencelabs. Low spatial resolution is not good if you’re only mapping a small part of the tablet to full screen.
While on the Xencelabs website, it’s stated that it works fine when you have a Wacom tablet installed as well, when we had them both installed, there seemed to be some conflict. For example, one would lose pressure control in Photoshop. Once pressure control is gone for the Wacom, we had to uninstall and re-install the Wacom software to get it back.
The feel of the Xencelabs is pretty much exactly the same the Intuos Pro in terms of drawing and painting. The surface of the tablet is very smooth, but not slippery. Xencelabs doesn’t have a touch feature, ie you can’t paint with your finger on the tablet, unlike the Wacom Intuos Pro, (but seriously, who ever actually uses that feature?). The 3-button pen feels just like the standard Wacom pen, but with an extra button. The thin pen feels a bit too thin, but this may just be years of using something thicker.
The functions on the Quick Keys are customizable, just like the Intuos Pro’s ExpressKeys and Touch Ring. Quick Keys has 8 buttons with a 2-set toggle button and a dial with 4 modes. The dial is very smooth. It is really nice to have the Quick Keys on a separate device. Quick Key’s orientation can be set in the Xencelaps software. But like many people who use Wacom tablets, we normally don’t use any of the buttons or dial when in Photoshop or many other programs. We usually disable all the buttons/dials on the tablet, especially when typing, as accidentally touching the button and/or dial will add unwanted characters to whatever you’re typing.
We mainly tested the tablet with Adobe Photoshop and Krita (which is a popular open-source painting/drawing software). The Xencelabs’ tablet worked very well, the brush strokes felt very smooth and natural. One problem we found was in Krita painting was odd, and maybe a Krit issue. If we turn off the tablet because we leave my computer, and then later turn it back on, the cursor would disappear and doesn’t want to come back, until one restarts the tablet. The tablet doesn’t work at all with PaintTool Sai another popular painting software, but the majority of our time is in Adobe software, which worked the most reliably of any software. We tested the tablet on a range of Macs and PCs, but as most of our texture work feeds into an NVIDIA pipeline, it was primarily on the PC.
The Xencelabs tablet is a good alternative to the Wacom Intuos Pro series. So if I don’t already have a Wacom, it is very worth checking out the Xencelabs tablet with the 3-button pen. Competition is a good thing, but if you already have a much-loved high-end Wacom, it may not be worth replacing it, – yet.