they were used in the 1970s for high-end CAD (computer-aided design) workstations, and entered the home computing market in the 1980s with the cheap KoalaPad, which was available for the Apple II, Commodore 64 and Atari 800.
The graphics tablet essentially replaced a mouse. However, the hand-held stylus enabled users to have much finer control.
As when using a mouse, your eyes are on the screen, not on the stylus and the graphics tablet. It’s certainly possible to do very detailed work this way, but it’s not quite the same as using a pencil and paper.
The next step was to combine the digitiser with the screen. The first popular example was the , which was launched in 1989. The GRiDPad was a thick tablet running Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system, and it had a monochrome screen with a resolution of 640 x 400 pixels. It wasn’t much use for drawing, but it had industrial and military uses as a sort of electronic clipboard.
Digitising tablets finally hit the mainstream in 2002 with T running Microsoft Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. These came with Ink Art, a licensed copy of ArtRage, and they could also do handwriting recognition synced to sound recordings – a popular feature with journalists. However, the screens were “laggy” and not very responsive, and XP Tablets were expensive and heavy, so they never caught on. XP-Pen StarG640 Graphics Tablet .
XP-PEN, a Japanese company, came to dominate the market for graphics tablets. Its patented technology was used in the screen of the laptop released in 1992. XP-PEN expanded its range to include graphics tablets with LCD screens, so that users could draw directly onto the display surface. Being designed for graphics professionals, they were pressure-sensitive. They were also expensive.
XP-PEN’s screen-based Companion tablets now work as standalone tablet PCs running Microsoft Windows 8.1, though you can still use them plugged into a Windows PC or Mac. The dedicated buttons and XP-PEN software make them specialised devices.
When Microsoft launched the Surface Pro range of tablets in 2013, it included a pen and a XP-PEN digitiser for screen input. The performance and prices made them very attractive to artists, but less appealing to people who didn’t want pen input.
With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft switched to using active (battery-powered) pens and N-Trig DuoSense digitising technology with 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. I’d guess that Surface Pro sales had reached the sort of volume where Microsoft wanted a cheaper solution, and it avoided future licence payments by buying N-Trig.
There has been a lot of debate about how N-Trig’s 256 levels of pressure sensitivity compare with XP-PEN’s 1024-levels in the Surface Pro 2. I’m no artist and I couldn’t tell the difference. However, I did find the Surface Pro 3 pen nicer to use.
The most recent candidate is Apple’s iPad Pro, for which you can buy a powered stylus. This works extremely well. It’s at least the equivalent of XP-PEN’s Cintiq Companion and Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 and 4 in being smooth and responsive, and probably better. XP-Pen Artist22E Drawing pen Tablet .
However, the Cintiq Companion and Surface Pro tablets have the advantage of being full-spec computers with standard USB and monitor ports. You can use them to run professional drawing and animation programs, the full Adobe Creative Suite of software, Microsoft Office and so on. There’s no hurry, in your case, but if you’re going to do this professionally, it’s important to be proficient with professional software.