The Pandigital Novel makes a valiant attempt at being a value-priced, full-color, Android-based e-reader that also doubles as a general-use tablet. Unfortunately, it falls short of its mark. At $175 (price as of August 10, 2010), the Novel is expensive compared with Amazon’s newest, $139, single-purpose, E-Ink-based Kindle e-reader. And as a tablet/e-reader combo that tries to compete with Apple’s iPad, the Novel is slow and inelegant, and lacks the full versatility that a true tablet user expects.
Physically, the Novel is chunky: It’s made of thick, white plastic, and feels heavy in the hand, even though at 1 pound, it’s lighter than the Amazon Kindle DX or the Apple iPad. That impression stems from the Novel’s more stout dimensions: You don’t expect a device this size (7.5 by 5.5 by 0.5 inches) to be this heavy. The unit has built-in Wi-Fi, so you can connect wirelessly for Internet activities. It also connects via mini-USB (but you must charge via the included charger, not your PC).
The Novel is marketed as an e-reader, and its intent as an e-reader is clear upon initial boot–widgets for an e-bookstore (with separate tabs for bestsellers, new releases, e-magazines, and e-newspapers) and My Library (where you can sort by date, title, author, and subscriptions) dominate the screen real estate. Each widget shows covers of books, though you may find it impossible to read the cover lines: In My Library, Barnes & Noble Classics like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility showed something on the cover, but the text was too small to be legible.
Readability is something you can expect to struggle with on the Novel. The 7-inch resistive touch, 800-by- 600-pixel LCD is mediocre, at best. When the screen is white (as it is normally is for reading books), the background sparkles to distraction; text is fuzzy, too, with the dots clearly visible. I’ve seen similar screen behaviors on cell phone handsets, but it doesn’t compare well with the iPad (on which I can discern mild screen flicker). For reading novels, the Pandigital will quickly frustrate. I actually found it easier on my eyes to use the night-read option, which turns the background black, and text to white–though the pixilation of the text was even clearer. The default font size is medium; you get five choices, and, as expected, larger sizes showed increased pixilation.
Screen quality isn’t the only thing that suffers. The device’s performance is sluggish, which makes basic navigation and even tasks like page flipping a chore (tap on the side of the page to go back or forward, or drag your finger in the direction you want to change pages). Some of the issues around responsiveness might be attributable to the resistive-touch display, which has an overlay to provide touch capability but proved incredibly frustrating to use, and unresponsive. But other instances, such as waiting and waiting for a spinning circle to disappear while opening an app or a book, are clearly indicative of underpowered guts.
While reading, you have a few options available to you. Tap at the top right to bookmark a page, or at the top center to bring up the context-sensitive menu; you can jump back to My Library or a book’s contents, view Bookmarks, go to a page in a book, or change the font size and background settings.
At any point, you can exit a book and go back into the pop-up menu, by pulling up the discreet, ever-present tab at the bottom of the screen; it provides a single-row view of app icons, accessible by scrolling left to right. If you access the menu in the home screen, you get two rows of apps.
The many preinstalled apps are useful. They include Barnes & Noble’s Reader; a Web browser; music, video, and photo players; e-mail; a “shop B&N” app for buying books and more; an alarm clock; a calendar; a search app; one for importing SD Card content; and others for stocks, Facebook, contacts, weather, games, Adobe eBooks, a dictionary, and upgrading (for firmware updates). But no Android Market app (you’ll have to get Android apps via non-Market sources).
While in theory I like the idea of having a tablet that does more, with such multipurpose functionality, in practice I found using the Novel tiresome enough that these experiences are better left to a smartphone handset than to this larger screen device. The photo viewer was especially frustrating–images looked mediocre, and were slow to read from, and transfer via, the SD Card slot.
If the Pandigital Novel were priced lower, maybe I’d be forgiving of its numerous faults. For those that need a portable device and who don’t have a smartphone, I can see where this might have appeal at first blush. It’s a first, positive step into the tablet universe, but it needs to be lighter, with a far better screen and a more-responsive touch interface to truly be a contender.