Now that you can pick up a Kindle for $139, the heat is on for competitors to justify charging a dime more, nevermind a $60 premium. In the case of the $199 Pandigital Novel, you get a full color touchscreen, access to the Barnes & Noble store, and the ability to play a wide range of media, making this device--on paper, at least--a good value-priced alternative to the iPad. Does this $199 Android-powered eReader have what it takes?
The Novel's plastic casing (in both black and white) keeps the 7.3 x 5.3 x 0.5-inch device light, and we appreciated that the glossy front didn't betray smudges or fingerprints too easily. The slight curve of the edges makes holding the eReader comfortable. Because our test device (the black model) weighed a manageable 0.75 pounds, our wrist never got tired while holding the Novel, even during marathon reading sessions.
Ports and buttons line the top and upper left and right edges: A Volume button, SD card slot (which takes up to 32GB cards), wireless switch, and headphone port are on top; a Power button is on the left; and a miniUSB and power on the right. Pandigital tucked a stylus into the bottom right corner, which is not a good sign for touch performance.
The Pandigital Novel features a 7-inch, 800 x 600-pixel resistive matte touchscreen. It exhibited decent color depth and brightness. Text and images were crisp, and even watching video was a pleasure. However, the resistive technology employed isn't the best implementation, which we've sadly come to expect from low-cost touchscreen devices.
Though not as frustrating to use as the Augen Gentouch78 or the Archos 7 Home Tablet, we still had to press hard or multiple times to make selections on the Novel. The screen registered taps when we meant to scroll, which is a common problem with resistive displays. And we were often frustrated because our taps either didn't register or the Novel reacted so slowly that it took a while to execute the requested action (such as returning to the home screen).
Viewing angles were wide for both text and media, but in direct sunlight the screen was hard to read, unlike a device with a good ePaper display.
We were surprised that even though the Novel is a Barnes & Noble eBookstore device, it doesn't utilize B&N's Android eReader app. Instead, there's a very generic app that has even fewer options than Amazon's Kindle app, which we consider pretty bare bones. Users can change the font size (to small, medium, large, and x-large), but not the font face. There's the standard black text on a white background and a "night" theme that inverts this. No other colors or themes are available. Adjusting brightness does mitigate the eyestrain associated with LCD screen reading, but to do that users have to go into the device settings, whereas many smart phone eReader programs offer that function within the app itself.
Still, users get basic functions such as Bookmarking, Go To, Dictionary Lookup, Highlights, and Notes. Plus, you're able to listen to music in the background as you read.
Other major disappointments included page-turn methods and speeds. As with the Sony Reader Touch and Daily editions, users have to swipe a finger (or a stylus) across the screen to turn pages. Unlike almost every smart phone eReader app, users cannot just tap the edge of the screen to perform the same action. A flick won't work, either. Though this more closely mimics real page turning, we find this conceit annoying. Users don't want to take their hand off the device every time they turn the page. Plus, it makes it harder to use the device one-handed.
Page turns took what feels like too long but is actually about a second. Though about as fast as e-Ink eReaders, it's not as fast as what other LCD devices, such as smart phones, offer. One of the advantages of LCD eReaders (besides a full-color screen) is instant page turns. That page turns take as long as e-Ink readers lowers the Novel's desirability.
The Novel runs a heavily modified version of Google's Android OS (the company hasn't shared which version) that offers a somewhat familiar experience while limiting consumers in frustrating ways. For instance, users cannot load their own apps on the device unless they hack it. And even then, the lack of physical buttons for Home, Back, and Menu prove a challenge. Because users can't modify the software, they're stuck with the limited functions Pandigital offers.
Most of the apps on offer are stock Android: photo viewer, video and music players, e-mail, contacts, alarm, calendar, and browser. There are icons for Weather, Stocks, and Facebook, but those just launch the browser and aren't self-contained apps. Forget about accessing the Android Market.
At the bottom of the home screen are the aforementioned apps, at the top of the screen is a portal to Barnes & Noble, and in the center are two rows devoted to the user's B&N library. We like having the covers up front like this, and we also like the ability to scroll and surf our library as well as the bookstore right from the home screen.
We found the software sluggish, but it was hard to tell sometimes if it just hadn't registered our taps due to the touchscreen or was just taking a while to move along; we suspect it was a little of both. This, coupled with the lack of physical navigation buttons, made the eReader frustrating to navigate. Simple things, such as backing out of the book we were reading to the Library or another app, took far too many taps, since finding just the right spot to bring back the menus wasn't easy. A tab at the bottom of the screen brought up a drawer with all apps listed, but getting this to open and stay open wasn't always easy.
All of the included apps open at full screen, including the browser. This stock Android app offered nothing we haven't seen before on similar devices running the OS. And since the Novel isn't running Android 2.2, there's no Flash for video or browsing rich websites (not that the processor could handle it).
The keyboard is stock Android as well, but you won't be using the Novel to type, ahem, novels: Between the mediocre touchscreen and slow software, taps were always far behind our typing speed, if they registered at all.
Users with existing Barnes & Noble accounts will be able to import already purchased books to the Novel as well as buy books directly from the seller via the device. This goes for eMagazine and eNewspaper subscriptions as well. The book giant has more than one million titles available, but around half of those are free, public domain books. Still, B&N usually has about 95 percent of the current New York Times bestsellers, so you won't miss out on what's new. Plus, the store offers more than two dozen digital periodicals.
Though there's an option to import eBooks to the 2GB of internal memory from an SD card, we weren't able to load any non-B&N eBooks on the Novel. We attempted to import DRM-free ePub files of Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl to no avail. The Novel did place the books in the internal memory, but the files wouldn't show up in the Library. And as there's no File Reader app on the device, we couldn't even access and open them that way.
The Novel can play music and videos, which adds to its versatility. The small speaker in the back didn't pump much volume and produced tinny audio, which is to be expected. Listening via headphones was better, but we still wouldn't trade in our MP3 player, or even our smart phone, in favor of the Novel.
When playing video, color depth and viewing angles were good, but clips wouldn't play full screen. At best they filled about 75 percent of the display in landscape mode, no matter what size the clip. Playback was mostly smooth, though we noted hitching in the clip pre-loaded on the device as well as an episode of Criminal Minds we imported from an SD card.
Pandigital says the Novel will last around 4 hours with the Wi-Fi on and 6 hours with it off; our experience with the Novel lived up to those claims. We were pleased to see that with the screen off and in a nominal Sleep mode, we could leave the device on for more than 24 hours and still come back to more than 30 percent battery life.
Whether or not you fall on this side of the LCD vs. e-Ink eReader display debate, the Pandigital Novel is not the best exemplar of the former category. The device has some potential, and perhaps upgrades to the firmware and software can improve some of the frustrating flaws we encountered--after all, that's what Barnes & Noble did with the Nook. Until then, consumers will be better off with the Kindle, Nook, or iPad.