Originally meant as a budget Wacom Intuos, the XP-PEN Deco 03, part of XP-Pen’s mini series, offers a good compromise in terms of size – not too small, nor too big. XP-Pen generally makes graphics tablets and pen displays with a pretty decent drawing experience, and it is quick on the uptake, and consistent when it comes to offering good alternatives to more premium brands.
The quality in graphics tablets seems to have plateaued somewhat over the past year or two as more focus on the future of pen displays. Though a few years old now, the Deco 03 still looks the part, but does the budget graphics tablet still have a place in today's market? To weigh it up compared to the competition, see our best drawing tablet guide, or the best XP-PEN tablet deals.
XP-Pen Deco 03: work area
The XP-Pen Deco 03 has a work area of 10”X 5.62”, which seems a happy medium considering the small and medium sizes of its main equivalent – the Wacom Intuos. It’s a good size to work on, big enough for a 21” screen and still fine for working on a 13” laptop. If you had the budget for a Wacom Intuos the size of your screen might be more of a determining factor in whether you go for the small or medium Intuos – their respective prices mirroring the difference.
The Deco series from XP-Pen are supposed to be the ‘mini’ series of their range, and compact and portable, which they are. The Deco 03 in particular is not the smallest of this range either, and a good compromise if you are unsure about whether to go bigger or smaller.
XP-Pen Deco 03: power and drawing experience
Out of all the XP-Pen pen tablets I’ve used, this was by far the easiest to install, as far as installing on a Mac anyway. Perhaps this is because It’s a basic graphics tablet and not a pen display. Anyway, within moments it was connected wirelessly using the wireless dongle that's included. There's also a USB cable you can use (type C - type A) to charge it up with.
The drawing experience of the Deco 03 is okay, it works in the way you’d want and expect it to, considering it’s a few years old now. Using it to draw in Affinity Photo on an iMac I found it responsive with no discernible lag, the cursor moved accurately with the movement of the stylus and I got some nice lines, and colour coverage.
Making marks in quick concession didn’t seem to make it ‘sweat’ either. In actual fact the drawing experience is rather good. Customising it with Affinity Photo seems easy enough, and I'd expect the same with ArtRage 5, and many others. Most other reviewers have used it with PS and no one to my knowledge has pointed out any cons in this respect.
XP-Pen Deco 03: stylus/pen
When the Deco 03 was first brought out it was XP-Pen’s debut of the P05 stylus – a battery-free, rubber-gripped, two-buttoned tapered pen that sits comfortably in one's hand for long periods of time, compared with its previous thin, uncomfortable offering. The stylus is pretty much as standard now, with 8,192 levels of pressure sensitivity. You’ve probably read that stat a lot for most other styluses, too. It’s a rather boasty and techy way of saying you can be as light or heavy handed as you like – like with a proper pencil, and it’ll show up on your screen.
I found this didn’t translate too well at first in Affinity Photo, or ArtRage 5, but after upping the hardness levels of the stylus in the settings, the range and quality of line work suddenly became much more apparent. Perhaps I’m more heavy handed than I thought.
The all-important pen tilt and rotation is missing from this model but unless you’re a pro artworker who is adept enough to utilise this function, or who only practices calligraphy, then not having it isn’t going to make a huge difference.
The pen does come in a very nice case though. One end doubles as a pen holder, and the other end unscrews to reveal 8X spare replacement nibs and a USB-A wireless receiver. It’s all very tidy and well made.
XP-Pen Deco 03: design and build
On release, a few years ago, the main selling point of the Deco 03 apart from its wireless capacity, was the red dial on the top left corner. Fashioned from “anodic oxidation aluminum, for a satin-like finish" – basically a decorative and somewhat durable coating for the aluminium dial, which has a very satisfying clicking sound as you turn it.
The dial was/is advertised as multi-functional, and technically it is, though in order to change the function whilst working you’ll need to assign one of the six shortcut buttons, which are snugly positioned beneath the dial, close to the work area, for ease of use. Assigning one of these buttons to that function though only leaves five others. This might be okay for someone who doesn't mind using mainly keyboard shortcuts, but some artists prefer plenty more shortcut buttons.
The centre of the dial/wheel seems to act as a button, though it's unclear if this is just coincidence or a design fault. It certainly makes a clicking sound, but there is no evidence of being able to customise it, nor is it mentioned in the included quick guide. Our question would be – why couldn’t it actually be a button and act as a way of changing the dial’s functionality? Leaving all the other buttons free?
Overall though the build quality is pretty solid considering what you get for the price though the shortcut keys do seem a little cheap, and click quite loudly.
It is quite good looking, compact at only 8mm, and a big enough workspace whilst remaining portable. The edges of the tablet don’t curve down like many others do, and this can be a little uncomfortable on the wrist if you’re drawing for any length of time. Rubber feet keep the tablet in place and the drawing surface has a good texture to it, a nice 'tooth'.
XP-Pen Deco 03: should you buy it?
The XP-PEN Deco 03 is not a bad purchase, particularly if it's in the sale. It performs well for what you need it for – drawing, and it does this well. The whole dial thing is okay, but it could really do with a few more shortcuts, and overall the build quality is somewhat lacking. With a similar budget the Huion Inspiroy H1060P would be a safer bet. It feels more solid, has a very similar drawing experience (i.e great), is ever so slightly bigger, has twice as many shortcut buttons, and is more ergonomically minded with nicely curved edges. It doesn't look quite as sexy as the Deco 03, though, nor is it wireless.
Read more: The best tablets with a stylus