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Years ago, I started diving into my photography on a professional level. I started taking paying jobs and before I knew it, I was shooting my first wedding. I knew at that point that I needed to work with professional-level software and hardware tools to get the best possible results for my clients. After sifting through hundreds of photos from that first wedding I decided I needed to integrate a pen tablet into my workstation. I’ve been a Wacom fan for a long time so naturally, I turned to them first. I used them for many years and eventually, I got the Intuos Pro and for a while, I was happy with it…until I wasn’t.
Just a few months ago, when Apple macOS received the Big Sur (macOS 11) update, my Wacom tablet started malfunctioning and causing Lightroom to crash. After completing hours of troubleshooting steps, I determined it was time for a new pen tablet. Wacom wasn’t doing anything to support the connectivity issues or making efforts to update their software to make the tablet compatible with the latest version of macOS. Since the communication between my Wacom pen tablet and my MacBook Pro was so bad, I decided it was time to move on and fortunately, Xencelabs, a company that is made up of a group of creative professionals, stepped onto the scene with their Pen Tablet Medium.
Xencelabs specializes in the graphic tablet market and their team strives to develop tools “where details make the difference.” As it turns out, Xencelabs is made up of several former Wacom employees and from where I sit, they hit the ball out of the park with the Pen Tablet Medium. When I started working with it, I didn’t think I would be looking at a Wacom replacement. I thought I would end up discussing how the product fell short of the ‘market standard’ for pen tablets. I was pleasantly surprised to learn – very quickly, I might add – that I was not correct in my assumptions of the Xencelabs tablet. The small company made up of ex-Wacom engineers and designers created a pen tablet – and it’s a freaking winner.
The Pen Tablet Medium (PTM) is a professional digital design tablet with an active area of 10.33” x 5.8”. It has a true 16:9 aspect ratio and matches industry-standard displays. The PTM comes with two pens – the 3-button pen and a thin one. Both pens are battery-free and come with 8192 levels of pressure sensitivity, tilt recognition, eraser ends, and virtually no lag. The tablet has quick-access buttons on the top of it that allow users to reach the settings without digging into the software dashboard.
The tablet is only 8mm – quite a bit thinner than other industry-standard pen tablets – and it has eco-friendly packaging. The PTM can be connected using a USB-C cable or through a wireless dongle. The tablet is compatible with several operating systems including Windows 7 or later, macOS X 10.12 or later, and Linux. The PTM has an optional Quick Keys accessory that gives the user five sets of eight keys. They are all programable and customizable by application. The remote also features an OLED display.
There are two configurations of the Pen Tablet Medium – a standard kit and the bundle. I happen to have the bundle. So, unboxing the set was pretty exciting for me. The tablet feels solid and I really haven’t had any cause for concern that it won’t hold up over time and prolonged use. One of the things that I really like about the bundle that I think some people might overlook is the sleeve. I like this because it gives you a safe place to store the tablet when you’re traveling or even when you just want to set it in a drawer. The nice thing about this pouch is that even though the pens have their own case, there is a separate pouch for accessories so the entire set-up can be stored together. To me, this is the ultimate editing travel solution.
Set-up of the tablet was super easy. The software installation and set-up process is usually the bane of my pen tablet existence. I absolutely hate it when you have to download a bundle of applications and you have to go through numerous steps in order to get the tablet connected. Thankfully, Xencelabs knew my pain and they provide one application dashboard to download for management of the tablet and pen settings. Once that’s downloaded, you simply plug the cable or dongle into your computer and the tablet is automatically recognized. This feature is probably the one I was most excited about. I HATE cables and there are some tablets that claim to be ‘wireless’ but you ultimately have to use a cable in order to get a solid connection. I’ve had zero problems with connectivity with the PTM. It’s been a godsend for me.
The tablet surface is smooth but has the right amount of ‘bite’. It feels like a natural drawing surface and the active area is marked with lighted corners. Users have the option to change the color of these corners using the dashboard. The colors can be customized to match up with the application you are using so that you know by looking at the tablet which controls are currently active. The bottom of the tablet does taper off slightly so that users can comfortably rest their hands on the tablet.
The Quick Keys is sold separately from the tablet, but it is included with the bundle if you choose to go with that set. This remote takes express keys off of the tablet itself and moves them into this wireless device. Again, this remote is 100% customizable and is meant to pull shortcuts onto this button-driven device. The remote has 8 shortcut buttons, a multi-function adjustment dial with a lighted ring, and an OLED display that calls out the function of each button. The lighted ring around the dial is customized to match the four different settings that the dial can cycle through. The remote can also be programmed according to the app that is active.
The pens have been very responsive. I know that two different pens are included for the digital artists, but I’ve mostly used the 3-button pen for my photo editing needs. I’ve used the pen tablet with two primary applications – Photoshop and Lightroom. Usually, I will start my photo editing in Lightroom, and depending on the needs of the photo, I might do additional finishing touches in Photoshop. The pen has made the fine detail work I need to do on photos super easy. I’ve included a few photos that I edited while using the PTM. I have also included some descriptions of the work I did on each along with the photos.
The first example is a portrait of my grandmother. I took this picture in my studio and wanted to show her passion for life. I did some light touchups of her skin to remove a few blemishes and to add some coloring/makeup effects to her face. Using the 3-button pen with the PTM, I was able to smooth out a few of the more pronounced wrinkles on her face and do the fine coloring around her eyes and lips. Using a mouse or touchpad would have made these edits nearly impossible to complete since I was working with such a small space. I didn’t want to smooth out her entire face so I was moving in between the spaces of her natural skin texture. The pen tablet made this photo possible.
The second image is another portrait – this time a friend of mine was the model. We took this photo just as warmer weather was causing flowers to start blooming. I had her lay down in a field and stood over her to capture this moment. In this case, she had applied her own makeup before the shoot and her skin is much younger than my grandmother’s. She did have a few small blemishes that I removed, but I primarily used the PTM to apply lighting effects. I focused the center of the effect on her face and I also enhanced the color of her hair so that it ended up being a bit darker. Again, I was working on some pretty tricky space since her hair was spilling into the greenery around her head.
The third example I was able to capture since I was in the right place at the right time. I caught this eagle staring at me and snapped the photo. I didn’t do a whole lot of touch-up work on this one since I didn’t want to alter the original image too much, but I did apply some slight lighting effects to the bird’s eyes. All this did was enhance their color and brighten the tone a little bit. The pen made this a super easy adjustment and a change that would have taken me 5 minutes or so using a mouse only took a few seconds thanks to the 3-button pen.
Finally, we come to our neighborhood duck. This little lady was moseying through our yard and I was able to catch her attention for one moment so that I could capture her. The background was blurred out thanks to the lens I used, but I did clean up her eyes with the PTM and touched up her beak a bit. I applied an overall lighting effect to soften the entire photo and focused a highlight on her face. Some additional photo examples are included below – all were edited using the Pen Tablet Medium.
Using the PTM to complete the specific edits I’ve called out in the photo notes above made my workflow run smoothly and efficiently. I’ve never had a pen tablet work as well as the Xencelabs has worked for me. I was concerned about using another pen tablet after the issues I had with the Wacom Intuos Pro, but I’m glad I reconsidered and installed the Pen Tablet Medium into my workstation.
I have a few companies that I become super fans of but I believe Xencelabs deserves to be one of these companies. Not only did they produce a stunning product but it’s very functional and in my humble opinion blows my Wacom and XP-Pen tablets out of the water. I’m a big fan of the Pen Tablet Medium and would recommend it to anyone who wanted to upgrade their equipment. It’s incredibly affordable ($280 for the standard and $360 for the bundle at the time of publishing) and very easy to use. I can also confirm that the PTM works well with the newest M1 computers from Apple. I started using the PTM with a 2018 MacBook Pro and moved it over to a 2020 M1 Mac Mini and I’ve had no problems with it on the new system. I’m incredibly impressed with this product and can’t wait to see what else Xencelabs comes up with.
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