A budget friendly drawing display packed with features: XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro (Holiday Edition)

Reviews December 02. 2019

For this review, XP-Pen was kind enough to supply digitalEPIGRAPHY an XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro.

The XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro (Holiday Edition) offers a lot of bang for a reasonable price

We often find ourselves between a rock and a hard place whenever it comes to recommending a budget-friendly option for any steps of the documentation process. As you all know by now, digitalEPIGRAPHY favors investing in devices and software that deliver the desired result with the least compromise on quality. We must confess that for this very reason, we use pricey Wacom drawing displays almost exclusively for all our studio needs. Nevertheless, buying a Wacom Cintiq Pro takes a serious financial commitment, especially considering their larger displays, ideal for working on more extensive canvases. Naturally, Wacom has never been the only company competing for the digital creatives’ attention, with HuionParblo and XP-Pen offering a plethora of budget alternatives in this segment. Using these cheaper solutions used to be riddled with issues and workarounds starting with their low resolution, high latency displays to be continued through fiddly software and connection issues, not to mention jittery pen performance. Eventually, as Wacom pushed the industry forward with their professional, fully laminated 4K displays and 8K pen sensitivity, budget displays started closing the gap, offering an increasingly better experience. Thanks to this evolution, today’s drawing display market is full of capable devices tailored to anyone’s needs and budget. As Wacom answered this market challenge with their newly established “budget” line (The Wacom Cintiq 16 and 22), rival companies came out with stronger contenders and even more favorable pricing. 

It rarely happens that a single device can represent the maturing of an entire category. However, the new XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro, with its especially low pricing (only available through the Holidays!), can be worthy of anyone's attention looking for their next studio device. Luckily, we received a demo device (curtesy of XP-Pen) to put through the test while inking a Ramesside door lintel from Medinet Habu. Read on to see what’s so special about the Artist 15.6 Pro.

XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box

XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box
XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box

(1)The box the Artist 15.6 Pro arrives in has an unusual amount of extra content, including little “gifts” specific to the Holiday Edition.

XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box
XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box

(2)The free stand included in the box is a quality item with rubber padding to prevent any slipping around the table.

XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box
XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box

(3)Holding the XP-Pen sideways, its incredible thinness becomes apparent. The Artist 15.6 Pro can be easily confused with a standalone tablet.

XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box
XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box

(4)While the pen display is connected through a single USB-C plug, there are many ports required on the computer’s end.

XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box
XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro – what is in the box

(5)The feel of the pen, with its customizable buttons, has a close resemblance to Wacom’s styli, that is no small achievement in the budget category.

Upon opening the sleek box, we are immediately overwhelmed by the extras packed with the drawing display. The usual cables and instructions aside, we are greeted by a lightweight and portable drawing stand, a smudge-preventive drawing glove and a sleek pen holder enclosing extra nibs. The materials used for both tablet and accessories seem to be of high quality with no plasticky creaks or other discrepancies in quality that often affect similar products in this category. Additionally, our version being a Christmas edition, there is a pin, a calendar, a greeting card, a cleaning cloth and a phone stand included in the package. This is a nice touch from XP-Pen and although they don’t add much to the drawing experience, the extras were cherished by our much younger associates. The stand that comes with the Artist Pro is made of sturdy plastic and can be propped to only one angle. Despite its small size, it supports the device well. Although we appreciate the inclusion of this stand for no extra cost, we would only consider it as a quick solution on the go, and rather prefer the metal-made and adjustable DraftTable for serious studio work.

A significant part of our documentation process takes place in Egypt; therefore, we need to be constantly on the move and the same flexibility is required from our equipment. As we pointed out in our review, one of the main selling points concerning Wacom’s Cintiq Pro 16 is its portability that makes the device an ideal travel companion for a mobile studio. With a device this small and light, and given the same screen size, it was only natural for us to expect the same portability from the Artist Pro. Being only 443 x 280 x 12.6 mm, the XP-Pen’s housing is thinner than any of Wacom’s displays or even most laptops, being almost as slim as an iPad (although it shouldn’t be confused with tablets as there’s no touch support aside from its own stylus). Nevertheless, regarding connectivity, we immediately ran into an issue: apparently, right out of the box, the drawing display can’t be used with more recent MacBook Pros or PCs that have only USB-C ports. Although the XP-Pen communicates through a single USB-C port, the computer it is connected to needs to have separate data (USB-A), power (USB-A) and graphics (HDMI) ports to power up the device. According to XP-Pen, some computers can provide adequate power through a single USB, however, we had no such luck connecting our MacBook Pro. Although adding a $69 dongle to the mix solved our port problem, carrying around the massive lump of cables while connected to a wall plug faded our enthusiasm for its portability. The XP-Pen is certainly not meant to be moved about while connected. Luckily, you can easily forget about the cables once it finds its rightful place on your desk. Nevertheless, it would have been neat for the company to provide a single USB-C solution like we have with the Cintiq line. Upon inspecting the actual drawing devices, the first items that immediately impress are the pen and its case. The case not only has a solid and premium feel but is also very practical, housing both nib replacements and the pen when not in use. The cap, mounted with a rubbery anti-slip bottom, also functions as a pen stand. The pen itself has 8192 levels of pressure sensitivity, supports tilt all the way up to 60 degrees and doesn’t require a battery or any other charging methods.

The XP-Pen Artist 15.6 Pro fully assembled and ready for drawing

Getting started

Before getting to the drawing experience, allow us to have a few remarks on connecting and setting up the Artist Pro for the first time. There is nothing tremendously unique about this process, downloading and installing a driver, calibrating the pen and customizing the shortcut buttons were all fairly standard affairs. Nonetheless, we must express our gratitude for XP-Pen for including physical express keys with the Artist Pro (it has 8, upping their previous model). Once turned on, the screen is extremely bright, and brightness can be conveniently adjusted by buttons on the side of the tablet. They respond quickly, feel tactile and just nice to have at our fingertips, whenever needed. All together a much better solution, than relying on a Remote or virtual buttons. The Artist Pro’s fully laminated HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels) is made with a new optical bonding process that greatly reduces parallax (more on that later) and has a higher color accuracy at 120% sRGB to provide vivid hues with enhanced image quality. The display has a protective film that needs to be peeled off in order to reveal the matte drawing surface underneath. It’s also worth mentioning that this second layer is in fact a pre-applied anti-glare film cover that can be replaced later if necessary. 

Peeling off the protective film reveals an anti-reflective matte drawing surface 

In order to operate the device, the latest driver (Mac and Windows users are greeted by a slightly different interface) needs to be downloaded from XP-Pen’s website. Essential for our configuration, Artist 15.6 Pro already supports MacOS Mojave; however, some of the interface elements and settings are rather simplified in comparison with the PC experience. Nonetheless, the software allowed us to set up software-specific function keys for both pen and tablet, adjust click sensitivity, pen pressure etc., as it was expected from a modern pen display. One can also alter color temperature, RGB, brightness and contrast, and rotate the interface 180 degrees for left-handed use. One of the features that significantly accelerated our workflow was the inclusion of the Red Dial, a programmable rotating button placed with the shortcut keys, comfortably sitting in the center. It’s in the perfect spot, easily maneuverable by your left hand, providing a plethora of options, such as zoom in and out, scroll up and down, increase brush size etc. depending on your settings. In our experience, the knob spun exceptionally smoothly, wasn’t overly sensitive and was just a pleasure to use. However, assuming you set up more than one function for the dial as we did, it can be a little fiddly at times. 

The Red Dial well earned its prominent placement and accelerated color as it is the single most useful feature of the Artist 15.6 Pro

Since perfect color calibration is not essential for our work, we did only a basic color adjustment and the results were close to our MacBook Pro screen, also providing a very good viewing angle without much color shifting. The readouts at 85% Adobe RGB color gamut support were even higher than the Cintiq 16, making the display appropriate for photo editing, reconstructing painted wall scenes or adding color information to our epigraphic work in general. 

Drawing experience

To test out the display’s drawing capabilities, we started inking a Ramesside door lintel that required very precise outlines using the Survey’s standard brushes in Photoshop. The 334.16 x 193.59 mm active screen real estate available on the Artist 15.6 Pro provides just enough canvas for serious studio work and hits the sweet spot between usability and portability. While we wouldn’t risk traveling with a much larger screen, working in the studio on even smaller displays, such as the iPad Pro or the Wacom Cintiq Pro 13, can feel claustrophobic in comparison. Once all shortcuts, pen and dial functions were properly set up, drawing in Photoshop worked surprisingly well, delivering just the right amount of pressure and tilt sensitivity. 

Setting up pen functions is a similar affair to Wacom’s procedure, with one exception: there is no additional button to calibrate on top 

We were especially keen on seeing if there was any jitter affecting line quality while drawing slow diagonal lines, that is often the case when adding damage texture to line drawings. Regarding our previous experience with jiggly brush strokes that plagued Huion’s similar displays, we are happy to report that the Artist 15.6 Pro doesn’t seem to have that problem. The fully laminated display eliminates most of the parallax effect, up to the point that the pen tip appears comfortably close to the brush cursor. During our short drawing course, we didn’t notice any unexpected pen behavior with the rocker buttons always working properly and shortcuts getting executed immediately. Brush strokes, painted in Photoshop, rendered properly and tapered well, offering enough precision for adjusting anchor points when drawing vector paths.

Luckily, with XP-Pen’s latest device, there is no noticeable jitter when drawing straight lines or slow diagonals

As can be seen on this extreme close-up, the brush cursor appears extremely close to the pen tip thanks to the improved display 

Conclusion

In conclusion of our short time spent with XP-Pen’s Artist 15.6 Pro, we’d like to reaffirm our statement from the beginning of this review: to create quality digital drawings one needs to own quality tools. However, with today’s accelerating evolution in drawing display technology, one doesn’t have to settle with Wacom as the only option in order to do so. The Artist 15.6 Pro found the perfect balance between affordability and performance and doesn’t require you to make much compromise for the low asking price. We must emphasize that it’s not without faults as, taken its fragile connection into account, it’s not suited for fieldwork, but rather to be used exclusively in your studio. However, once properly set up, it provides a satisfying experience with the added confidence that you’re investing in a professional device that’ll stay with you for a long time coming. XP-Pen is currently running a Holiday promotion on the Artist 15.6 Pro that reduces its already fair price by 30%. You can purchase the device for $299.99 ($429.99) plus taxes, wherever applicable, right now through XP-Pen’s online storefront in the USUKAU and DE.

Our sincere thanks goes to XP-Pen for supplying the display and to Júlia Schmied for testing and taking photographs of the Artist 15.6 Pro

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