Review: Xencelabs Pen Tablet and Quick Keys

Courtesy Xencelabs

Xencelabs’ new pen tablet may be exactly what you didn’t realize you were looking for. Designed with input from a bevy of artists and illustrators, the tablet offers a sleek and uncluttered interface. With a gentle curve to rest your wrist and a near invisible transition from edge to work surface, the entire tablet is an active area. Three small customizable buttons at the top can be programmed to do different things depending on the applications you’re running, and you can add any number of applications within the control panel.

The tablet takes up a generous amount of desk real estate but allows you to take advantage of every square inch—perfect for anyone using multiple screens or who needs to work with incredible detail. It’s similar in size to the Wacom Intuos Pro medium tablet, but the Xencelabs tablet is slightly thinner and narrower and doesn’t have the dials and buttons on the side.

The tablet surface is not interchangeable but has just enough tooth to create a smooth and pleasant experience. Your working area is bounded by four caret-shaped lights that provide a subtle clue in your peripheral vision of where your stylus will land when you put it down. To add a bit of whimsy, the color and brightness of those carets are programmable. Mine are currently green to show that I’m working with global settings but will switch to hot pink when I move to Photoshop. I’m inordinately amused by the ability to change the colors, and this feature absolutely convinced me that artists had been involved in the overall design.

©Danica Barreau

The tablet comes with two pens. Both include 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity plus tilt recognition and an eraser. Each pen is a different shape and weight to please various users and fit their hand size. Both are charged by contact with the tablet surface, so they have no battery and are relatively light. The larger one has three programmable buttons, and the thinner pencil-style one has two programmable buttons. The pen case includes 10 nibs (which are interchangeable with Wacom nibs), a nib extractor, a USB-C adaptor (in case your computer doesn’t have a USB-A port), and a USB dongle (for wireless convenience). The pens are extremely responsive, picking up the lightest strokes and translating them beautifully to the screen. I’ve always used the larger pen shape in the past but find myself switching between the two pens depending on the work I’m doing. The third button on the larger pen is designed for 3D applications, but it’s been useful in all of my 2D work as well. I appreciate having options. With the exception of the Wacom Pro Pen 1 (KP503E), Wacom pens will not work with the Xencelabs tablet. However, since the buttons on the Pro Pen don’t work well with the Xencelabs tablet, you’ll get the best performance by using the Xencelabs pens.

©Danica Barreau

While the tablet itself is great, the Quick Keys elevate it to superstardom. Available as part of a bundle or a separate add-on, this additional interface is endlessly programmable, allowing you to toggle easily through your favorite shortcuts and functions. The text on the OLED display rotates so that regardless of where or how you position the Quick Keys, you can change the orientation of the text so you can easily read it. You can also label the keys through the tablet settings panel in whatever way makes the most sense to you.

The Quick Keys interface includes a fast and precise raised dial that allows you to change brush sizes or cycle between layers at a touch. Here again, you have the option to change the LED colors based on the mode and application you’re in so that a quick glance lets you know you’re in the right menu.

While I initially missed my Wacom tablet’s inset dial on the Xencelabs tablet, the Quick Keys have been a game changer. I can place them in a comfortable spot near my non-dominant hand and find the dial without looking to change brush sizes while I’m painting. A quick tap of the button in the center of the dial moves me through different modes, and the keys mean I don’t need to reach over to a keyboard to access frequently used shortcuts. These were options that were available on the Wacom but I never bothered using because I couldn’t remember what I’d programmed. With the bright OLED display, you only need to glance down to know exactly which key does what.

The included wireless dongle pairs with both the tablet and the Quick Keys. Managing the cables became a little cumbersome, especially when I was moving the Quick Keys to the opposite side of the tablet. Being able to plug in the dongle and work wirelessly was a great option and takes only one USB-A port on my computer for both interfaces. If you need more ports, the tablet and Quick Keys will work with a powered hub. The charge on the Quick Keys lasts up to 52 hours, so you have to charge it only every few days. The charge on the tablet lasts 11 hours—long enough to get a good day’s work in, but you’ll have to recharge every evening.

There is no touch option on the Xencelabs tablet. Because research found touch was not commonly used, developers were free to focus on other features. Given that I’ve never used my touch option in all the years I’ve had a pen tablet, I can’t disagree.

©Danica Barreau

Installation was simple, with the appropriate drivers available to download online. There’s a robust FAQ and support forum for tips and problem solving.

In my testing, I’ve been using the Xencelabs tablet nonstop for painting, photo editing, and internet browsing. If I needed a new tablet, I would definitely put the Xencelabs pen tablet at the top of my list. And honestly, the Quick Keys might sway me to switch over sooner. The tablet drivers are compatible with PC (Windows 7 or newer), Mac (macOS 10.12 or later but not iPads), and Linux. The Xencelabs pen tablet retails for $279.99, Quick Keys for $89.99, and bundle for $359.99.  

Danica Barreau is the owner of Pouka Art and Photography in central Ohio.