Somewhere between the $99 Kindle and $500 tablets, there's a market for budget-friendly slates. That's why there's so much buzz around the $199 Kindle Fire. For $10 less, the Pandigital Nova delivers some features Amazon's slate lacks, including dual cameras, HDMI, and a microSD card slot for expansion. However, this tablet is inferior in every other way.
The first thing you realize when you get a hold of the Nova is that the device is certainly not an iPad competitor, and it shouldn't be held up to the same standards--after all, it's almost three times as cheap. The exterior feels like it was the first to get hit with the budget axe, as the Nova has a hard, black body that's made of cheap plastic which looks and feels like the kind used for your average desktop keyboard. The resistive touchscreen is slightly recessed, which makes it hard to press icons near the edges.
At 13.8 ounces (or 0.9 pounds), the Nova is pretty light for a 7-inch tablet. The Kindle Fire weighs a heavier 14.6 ounces, and the Nook Color weighs an even heftier 15.8 ounces. Regardless, the Nova's 7.6 x 5.24 x 0.5-inch dimensions feel clunky. Both the Fire (0.45 inches) and the Nook Color (0.48 inches) have slimmer profiles.
Four physical buttons at the bottom of the Nova are used to navigate: Home, Options, Back, and Search. All the buttons, along with the power and volume keys on the right side of the device, feel cheap and even jiggle around in their sockets. A lot of the time we ended up pressing extra hard or having to press a button twice.
Along the top are USB and microHDMI inputs, the left side has a microSD reader, and on the bottom is a headphone jack. Since the Nova has only 4GB of internal memory, a microSD card will be needed if you want to store lots of content.
Display and Audio
Colors on the Nova's 7-inch, 800 x 600-pixel display were generally accurate and satisfactory, but don't expect to be impressed with vibrant or immersive high-definition visuals. When we watched a trailer for John Carter on YouTube, the dark areas were hard to see at times, and the image was quite pixelated. The Nova's display looked especially poor when placed side by side with Vizio's 8-inch tablet, but its quality is about the same as the Velocity Micro Cruz.
Don't plan on setting the Nova flat on a desk or on your lap, because colors start to wash out at angles greater than about 15 degrees. The reflective screen makes it difficult to use the Nova outside, so those using it as an eReader may find its mobility disappointing. Pool-side reading won't be easy on a sunny day. The Kindle Fire has a 1024 x 600-pixel IPS screen that's sharper and boasts wider viewing angles.
The single speaker on the back of the Nova didn't put out top-notch sound. When we streamed the John Carter trailer on YouTube, audio was fairly loud, but very tinny. While the audio was better than on the Cruz, it paled in comparison to the Vizio.
Traditionally, one of the first giveaways of budget tablets is a resistive touchscreen. Happily, the price for capacitive displays has decreased enough for them to be included on lower-end devices. That's why we're hopeful that the Nova will be one of the last tablets to feature this inferior technology.
We frequently found ourselves having to double-tap or press down fairly hard on the Nova's screen to get our inputs to register. This also made gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom, difficult to execute. Zooming in and out of Angry Birds so we could see where to fling them was an awkward task, as we had to push both fingers down with considerable pressure. We also had to restart levels frequently due to slow responses to our taps. This carried over to other applications. The Nova frequently misinterpreted a press-and-hold as a click.
The Nova is equipped with a rear-facing 1.3-megapixel camera and a front-facing VGA camera. Images taken with the rear camera from a rooftop in the Flatiron neighborhood of New York displayed accurate colors and good lighting. Edges of buildings were a little jagged, though, and brick building material was blurred. The quality is about what you would expect from a low-end camera phone. The front-facing camera captured images that were more pixelated and washed out.
Recorded video (which maxes our at 352 x 288 pixels) was a bit jumpy, and a lot of artifacts lingered around the edges when we shot a movie of our surrounding neighborhood. The building edges were jagged and the roofs blurred. We tried to use the front-facing camera for a video chat, but could not install any video chat apps on the Nova.
Running Android 2.3 on a 558-MHz ARM 7 processor, the Nova performed fairly well in our benchmark testing. On An3DBench, the Nova scored 7,218, about 300 points above the category average and well above the Vizio 8-inch tablet (5,885). However, the Velocity Micro Cruz T408 notched an even higher 7,454. On the CPU portion of the Benchmark test, the Nova returned a score of 2,576, just below the average (2,607) and nearly 1,000 points higher than the Vizio (1,527). During everyday use, the Nova wasn't the fastest at loading screens or opening apps, but it was more than respectable for a $200 tablet.
One of the biggest limitations of the Nova is that it doesn't access the Android Market. Instead, the device is equipped with GetJar, an alternative app store. Compared to Android or even Amazon's store, GetJar's collection is fairly limited: We couldn't get the Crush the Castle game, Google Chat, The Wall Street Journal, or Bloomberg apps. GetJar is also filled with annoying sponsored ads.
Some of the pre-loaded apps on the Nova are helpful. Barnes & Noble's app downloads books straight into your library. Facebook is also here, along with a dictionary, a calculator, e-mail, YouTube, Weather, and OfficeSuite, which allows document viewing but not creation.
One of the positives is that apps installed quickly over Wi-Fi.
As an eReader, the Nova is just a tweak away from being a good product, and it appears this function was Pandigital's main focus. As soon as the home screen boots up, you'll see the books, magazines, and newspapers that have been downloaded to your library.
Downloading from the Barnes & Noble store was simple and quick. The selections go straight into your bookshelf in the B&N app, so you can easily access and see all your items in customizable shelves. Reading books was a pleasant experience. The text was crisp and clear at every one of the five sizes, and old historical photos in Bill O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln looked pretty sharp.
Readers can adjust the brightness--though unless you're in a dark room, you'll want to keep it at full--and invert the black text and white background. There are also convenient functions for searching the text and bookmarking multiple pages. Tapping and holding a word will launch a menu to write a note, highlight the word, look it up in the dictionary, or do a Google search. This was a very helpful feature.
We encountered one odd glitch. Turning the Nova from landscape to portrait mode caused the Barnes & Noble app to reflow text to fit the page. This feature worked fairly well, but on more than one occasion, it caused the book to flip back a page.
If the Nova was more visible outdoors, it would be a solid eReader.
The Nova's browser was fairly speedy. Laptopmag.com loaded in about 10 seconds over Wi-Fi, and Google searches were quick. The browser is easily navigable. The only problem we ran into was an occasional mis-read of our fingers by the touchscreen, making zooming on websites sometimes troublesome.
The biggest issue holding the Nova back from being a viable eBook or tablet alternative is its weak battery. The device lasted 4 hours and 37 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, falling well short of the 6:50 tablet average.
At just $189, the Pandigital Nova had the potential to fill a market void and provide newbie tablet users with an affordable solution for casual computing and reading on the go. Unfortunately, the Nova's chintzy design, finicky resistive touchscreen, short battery life, and anemic app selection are all big strikes against this slate. We suggest waiting for the Kindle Fire.