XP-PEN matures its Artist Pro line with usability upgrades, radical design changes and a renewed focus on quality (Part 1) – Innovator 16
For this review, XP-Pen was kind enough to supply digitalEPIGRAPHY an XP-PEN Innovator 16.
The Innovator 16 has a minimal footprint that easily fits in a work area with limited desk space.
We at digitalEPIGRAPHY are in a fortunate situation. Since the Epigraphic Survey started experimenting with utilizing digital tools in their documentation process, the computer industry has been in full swing producing better and better hardware for creating digital art. While years ago, when one needed a reliable, precise and well-made drawing display, there was Wacom and… well, Wacom. Nowadays, the picture is not that clear anymore. New/old contenders that used to produce “budget” options are reinventing themselves, creating better and better displays where quality and affordability are not at the opposite end of the scale anymore. One such notable player is XP-PEN, a company founded in Japan celebrating its 15th anniversary of constructing digital canvases for artists, graphic designers and alike. This is not our first review unit produced by the company. Towards the end of last year, we had the pleasure to play with the XP-PEN Artist 15.6 Pro and we walked away really impressed, wishing for the company to not lose focus on what works and improve on the few things that don’t. Not incidentally, their brand-new Innovator 16 can be regarded as the next iteration of said tablet, with a renewed focus on build quality and usability improvements.
The Innovator 16 has a larger screen at 15.6 inches, but - because of the 16:9 aspect ratio - it doesn’t seem to have that much more drawing area than the iPad Pro 12.9.
We’d like to say a few words in general before going into the details. Most of us, who are involved with digital documentation, already own pretty capable drawing devices. In recent months, Wacom released several new tablets. iPad Pros are getting more and more versatile, especially with the arrival of much needed professional-grade software. Even the cheapest iPads became regular drawing workhorses for some with the added Apple Pencil support. So, what would one want from yet another new device for it to be a valid alternative for the one that he/she already has? Well, for a start: mobility and professional applicability still don’t come hand in hand. If you want to work with full-fledged Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, you have to have a PC. If you’d like to take that PC on the go, you need a drawing display that is versatile enough to be taken with you. Of course, digitalEPIGRAPHY has a long-time commitment to using the iPad Pro, tethered to the computer by Astropad Studio, as such a device whenever full-on desktop Photoshop is needed on the go. Nonetheless, to create a tool that comes this close to tackling this principle is not a small feat from XP-PEN.
The display is “well-equipped” with a surprising number of accessories included in its compact box.
Excuse us for not elaborating on the unboxing and the inventory of the box’ content for too long. We’re confident that it has already been done by many other reviewers for your pleasure. Let us run you through quickly, though. XP-Pen was kind enough to send us their anniversary edition (we like the slogan “Identify your color” very much!) that has a few extras over the standard package. Gifts include a set of postcards, a pen, some stickers and a keychain with their mascot. Not to downplay the goodwill here, but we have found the drawing glove, the USB extension cable, the 3-in-1 connection cable we are already familiar with from our previous experience, and XP-PEN’s now standard AC 41 Display Stand that can also be purchased separately to be much more useful accessories. The stand is pretty bare bones. Nonetheless, including it in the box is very thoughtful of the company, but more on that later. Of course, the main stars are the display itself and its brand-new pen, arriving in an oversized protective tube rocking many hidden talents, such as having a cap that can be used as a pen holder and a hide-out, housing eight replacement nibs.
XP-PEN Innovator 16 First Impressions
(1) As we’ve seen with the Artist 15.6 Pro, the plastic protective film needs to be removed before first use. This is not to be confused with the matte screen protector that is preinstalled onto the display, hence the reason for the large warning sign!
(2) The Innovator 16 is so thin, it can be confused with a screenless pen tablet! In fact, at only 9mm, it’s the thinnest display XP-PEN has ever made. Putting it on top of a Wacom 16 provides us with a strong visual comparison.
(3) The pen case holds eight pen nib replacements. The battery-free stylus has a tapered design with a wide rubbered grip, including two programmable buttons on the side. It supports 8,192 levels of pressure and can be tilted at up to 60 degrees.
(4) There are eight programmable buttons aligned on the side accompanying the dual wheel. The controls and the ring feel firm and are easy to operate. The buttons are flush with the metal surface distinguished only by protruding bumps.
(5) The tablet connects to your computer via a proprietary 3-in-1 USB Type-C to USB type-A (2x) - HDMI cable. The power button is obscured by the cables unless the plug is connected reversed. Brightness is adjusted by the side buttons.
(6) The included stand is well-known from previous models. It is very sturdy with anti-slip rubber pads and a clamp to hold the tablet in place. However, it only facilitates one drawing angle that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.
(7) Although hunching over a tablet is not the most advisable position but is essential for the precision required by the Survey’s inking procedure. Placed on our desk, the Innovator 16 is almost flush with the surface, acting like a “real” drawing paper.
The Innovator 16 has a narrow, elongated body that immediately pops out when compared with the Wacom 16. Both have the same screen size and ratio.
XP-PEN’s newest device has a fabulous design; it is easily one of the best-looking drawing displays we’ve ever seen. Its thinness is still striking, even with weeks spent drawing on it. The metal housing on the back and around the button area screams quality, and maintains an industrial design comparable to Apple’s most recent iPad Pros. One of the downsides to this clean look is the utter lack of any rubberized areas on the back. We are reminded of this handicap every time the tablet starts sliding down on our angled drawing table. The Full HD (1920 x 1080) 250 nits IPS screen with its 13.5 by 7.6 Inch drawing area provides a comfortable canvas for most drawing projects, while it is still not too pixelated for the size. The laminated display, known from the previous model, eradicates the gap between the pen tip and cursor, resulting in a gratifying drawing experience with very minimal parallax. The pre-applied anti-glare matte screen protector is not overly grippy but still delivers just enough resistance to eliminate that “drawing on glass” feel cheap tablets are often riddled with. We can’t help but wish for XP-PEN to have opted for etched glass instead though, in order to minimize glare and parallax even further.
One can’t get much better in minimizing the distance between the pen tip and cursor. Pixels start to become visible when fine-tuning lines in a zoomed-in environment.
Unfortunately we don’t use our tablets for photo modification and heavy-duty color art, therefore, we are not the best to judge the display’s color accuracy. What strikes us, though, is just how vivid and life-like hues appear on the screen, right out of the box, even before fiddling with any color settings. It is good to know that XP-PEN takes good care of their customers in the color department! Viewing angles are also very good with no noticeable color shift when looked at from different angles. The slight dimming effect might come from the applied screen protector. XP-PEN claims for the screen to have 88% NTSC /125% sRGB, 92% Adobe RGB, and 92% P3 color gamut when properly calibrated, which seems very ambitious. Nonetheless, color accuracy looks very good out of the box, with the option to manually fine-tune color temperature and the main individual color channels, as well as brightness and contrast if necessary. (If you're left-handed, you can also choose to rotate the desktop 180 degrees through the same software panel.)
Buttons and wheels
Being long-time Wacom aficionados, one thing we just can’t get over when working on their more recent displays is the utter lack of buttons. Their principle is well understood (let’s dismiss on-screen shortcut buttons as a non-option for serious work). There are plenty of remote options out there to choose from if one has such specific needs which an external keyboard can’t fulfill (digitalEPIGRAPHY has the best of them reviewed here and here). That said, we’d rather have our shortcut/hotkey options right at our fingertips than to have to reach out for another device, especially when they are as well-executed as the silver dial on the Innovator 16. The so-called “dual-wheel” is a novel idea from XP-PEN, combining a physical ring with a touch-sensitive center. Of course the concept of rotating a wheel for zooming in/out or changing brush size comes naturally. However, having two of these options combined into one single dial is a little problematic since the dial is easy to “bump into” while operating the center. It is not a significant issue, but – like all things new – needs getting used to. They are both very responsive in registering your movements and do their job well without a hiccup. One can also assign multiple functions to these wheels, five each to be precise; however, pressing another button to pick your wheel function seems to defy the purpose. Nonetheless, we’ll get back to this in a moment at the software section.
The same goes for the more conventional shortcut buttons of which the Innovator 16 has eight. Although you won’t be able to assign any macros to these, there are still plenty of preset options to choose from, or – alternatively – you can easily design your own commands. Having eight shortcut options seems plenty and is certainly a step-up from XP-PEN’s earlier devices of similar size. Nonetheless, we could imagine having even more. Once you start adding the Survey’s standard command sets (Step Back/Forward, Smoothing On/Off, Deselect, Stroke Path, Deselect, Transform, etc.), you quickly run out of options. It is hard to go back to such limited sets when being so spoiled by Wacom’s Express Key Remote, which offers 18-20 (!) programmable buttons. But again, it’s admirable that XP-PEN remains dedicated to adding physical buttons to their devices, and there is always the option to use an assigned keyboard if one needs more than what's offered right at hand.
The Innovator 16’s tablet driver gives us plenty of preset shortcut/hotkey options to choose from.
The Innovator 16 is connected, calibrated, and controlled by XP-PEN’s regular tablet driver, which is as easy to download and install as ever. Our pen display was up and running in a few minutes after initiating a quick calibration. As we stated earlier, the company did a pretty good job of eliminating the need for spending too much time with the driver. Nonetheless, this is the place to go for adjusting color attributes and pen pressure (this time around it is a curve instead of a slider). One can also set up the buttons and wheels with a custom set of shortcuts or with such specified commands as Switch Monitor, Brush/Eraser Toggle, and Fine Detail Mode. All seems very straightforward.
Talking about software, we noticed some misbehavior when switching between screens and moving the tablet around. Sometimes when the Innovator 16 reconnects, the pen doesn’t register unless the driver is running in the background. This behavior might be specific to Macs, since the Mac version of the driver is a slightly watered-down version of the Windows software. Nonetheless, we got mildly annoyed by the fact that sometimes we couldn’t start drawing right away. Yet another setup issue that came up during our brief encounter with the display was the occasional flickering of the screen when connected through USB Type-C using Apple’s USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter. Fortunately our 2018 Mac Mini had a USB-A and an HDMI port for a more stable connection. Nonetheless, it might become an issue for you when connecting the device to a modern laptop.
Each of the Pen buttons can be set to the most common pen commands or associated with user-specified tasks by choosing the “Reset Customer Defined…” option.
The software gives excellent responsiveness to the battery-free stylus; however, the amount of force needed for the pen to output a line (the initial activation force - IAF) could behave more favorably to our drawing style. What it means is that the brush strokes don’t start registering when the nib touches the screen unless you initiate slight pressure on the pen. It’s not Earth-shattering and something that one can certainly get used to, but it’s worth mentioning when one is used to Wacom’s feathery light pen interactions.
Hotkey setup on the Innovator 16
(1) One might run out of customizable buttons quickly as there is no toggle function to be assigned. Nonetheless, there is a nice set of preset options to choose from, and each application you use can have its own specific set predefined.
(2) Both the physical and the touch wheel can accommodate six individual tasks, but one has to assign a dedicated button to switch between these options. Considering their sensitivity, adding toggle-type commands to the wheels is not recommended. Canvas rotation is absent which seems like an oversight.
One of the most prominent claims XP-PEN has about the Innovator 16 is its unparalleled portability. According to the company, this is the device that finally attributes the user with the kind of “freedom” drawing should be about. With the Innovator 16, one should not be tethered to a specific corner of his/her studio anymore, but, instead, enjoy infinite portability. Well, aside from the unfortunate fact that portability and freedom are not the top features one might be looking for in these virus-ridden times, no matter how thin and light this device is, it still needs a computer to connect to. In this regard, it can’t be called portable in the sence of the iPad Pro or Wacom’s Mobile Studio Pro. Nonetheless, we decided to “play out” a specific scenario where one might want to use the display both in the office and in the field (at the monuments, in another studio, etc., there are plenty of other options).
Luckily, one of our current drawing projects (based on the Northern Outer Wall of the Ambulatory at Medinet Habu) contains both a precise line drawing and a digital color texture applied to represent paint traces. The line drawing needed to be done in a more controlled studio environment, and the Innovator 16 didn’t disappoint! The laminated display was a joy to work on, brush strokes were straight on with no jitter detected, even when drawing on a magnified canvas at a slow pace. Using the Innovator 16 without the stand was particularly enjoyable as - thanks to its unbelievable thinness - the device is practically flush with the desk. Being able to rest your arms flat on the table while drawing shouldn't be underestimated, and, in this regard, it brings the Survey’s digital “inking” experience close to inking with Rapidograph on photo paper.
You better look for a larger messenger bag to be able to tuck the pen display and its accessories all in (not to mention your computer).
Once the line drawing was finished, we wanted to move on to a less tethered environment in order to apply the color layer. In the name of social distancing, we picked our terrace on a cloudy day, which seemed well-suited for a little outdoor sketching (although it might not have been as authentic as being at Medinet Habu in Egypt). In a couple of minutes the Innovator 16 was set up with a Mac Mini and ready to go.
The absolute minimal setting that is needed for a truly mobile office: XP-PEN Innovator 16, Mac Mini desktop computer, and a compact Bluetooth keyboard.
We liked the versatility of this setup; the Innovator 16 with its cable extension gave us just enough room to occasionally switch position while, given its ideal size, not overly obstructing from drawing. However, just like with all IPS panels, brightness was an issue, with the white haze caused by the matte screen protector further complicating the outdoor visibility. Nonetheless, sitting outside and sketching in color using full-fledged Photoshop was an utterly enjoyable experience, thanks to the Innovator 16 feeling like a giant iPad Pro only with shortcut buttons.
The connection stays secure outdoor despite the constant shifting of the device. Screen brightness could be better for outdoor use.
One can argue of course that the same set up can be achieved by using an actual iPad with Photoshop accessed through Apple’s Sidecar or Astropad Studio. All true, but none of these options gives us such a seamless experience as using XP-PEN’s newest pen display. Now if we could only wish for fewer cables or perhaps a wireless option for its future iteration…
Holding the pen display on your lap while drawing feels entirely natural, almost as if it were a giant iPad Pro.
Even after a very positive first impression, XP-PEN’s Innovator 16 has still managed to grow on us during the two short weeks we have spent together. With its fresh design and impeccable build quality, it is undoubtedly a head-turner among today's plasticky pen displays. Its thinness resembles the iPad Pro; its size suggests portability, yet it still needs a computer to function. If you’re aiming to work from multiple locations (as we usually do) and draw using desktop software, this is definitely the best option available. To be sure, brightness could be better, the screen resolution could be higher, the software (especially for Mac) could be a little more polished, and the stand could give us more angles. In the end, when it comes to the overall drawing experience, the XP-PEN Innovator 16 certainly appears to be a mature device, made by a well-established company with 15 years of experience and on the top of its game. We can’t wait to see what the future brings to the XP-PEN Innovator line.
The XP-PEN Innovator 16 is an outstanding pen display that is certainly worthy of your consideration if you’re on the market for a new drawing device. For those who find the company’s retail price at USD 499.99 rather steep, we recommend checking out XP-PEN’s website for discounts. The company, celebrating its 15thbirthday, is currently running a promotion, including a massive price drop on many devices with the brand-new Innovator 16 among them. The Anniversary Edition is available for purchase through XP-PEN for a limited time, now discounted to USD 399.99 (US), AUD 566.99 (AU), GBP 359.99 (UK), EUR 399.99 (EU) and USD 469.99 (SEA) respectively.