It's our guess that the Pandigital Novel has been turning quite a few heads at retailers across the US during the last few weeks. How could it not? It's got a full-color, 7-inch touchscreen, 2GB of on-board memory, runs a skinned version of Android and is priced around $180 (depending on where you're shopping). Oh, and it's got access to Barnes & Noble's e-book store. About one-third the price of the iPad, we sure can see the attraction, but after attempting to read an entire novel on it we can't help but wonder how it found its way past product development and into the stock rooms of Walgreens, Bed, Bath & Beyond and JCPenny, to name a few. Hit the break for our full review and to see just exactly we're talking about. %Gallery-99816%
Access to Barnes & Noble e-book store
Nice size for a e-reader / tablet
Decent for visiting websites
Crappy resistive touchscreen
Interface not all that intuitive
Look and feel
The Pandigital Novel joins the Augen GenTouch 78 and the Archos 7 Home Tablet at the sub-$200 tablet table, which means it's also made entirely of plastic. The black Novel (there's also a white one available) doesn't feel as cheap as Augen's tablet or like it's going to break anytime soon, but we're certainly not full of praise for the build quality. Actually, the Archos 7 feels noticeably better than Pandigital's product. On a design note, we really do wish that the bezel wasn't made of a glossy plastic -- it should just match the rest of the matte device.
We have fewer complaints about the size and weight of the .73-pound reader or tablet. As we've said many a times, the 7-inch screen size is ideal for holding the device in hand when reading a book while lying down and is certainly more manageable than the 9.7-inch, 1.5-pound iPad. Surrounding the .5-inch thick device is SD card slot, a 3.5mm headphone jack and a mini-USB port. There's also a volume toggle, a WiFi on/off switch and a small black stylus that ejects from the bottom right edge. We do wish there were physical home and page forward / backward buttons, and you'll understand why after reading the next sections.
Screen and speakers
The Novel, like most of the other cheap Android tablets we've seen, has a 600 x 800-resolution, 7-inch resistive touchscreen. And yes, at this point hearing that a tablet has a resistive screen is on par with the sound of nails on a chalkboard. It is nice that Pandigital throws in that stylus, but have you ever dreamed of reading a novel with a small stick in hand to turn pages? Didn't think so. Still, it was helpful for surfing the web and making selections in smaller menus. Obviously, we found it more natural to use a finger when reading and, unsurprisingly, we had to press fairly hard to make selections or horizontally drag a finger across the screen to turn the page. Here's actually where we found the touch experience to be extremely frustrating -- repeatedly we couldn't turn the page of a book by swiping a finger on the screen. To be honest, we're not sure it's the screen or the slow processor, but regardless there's really nothing worse than being in the middle of a gripping novel and having to drag a finger across the page multiple times to get to the next words. We don't wish it on anyone, and the poor screen and the lack of the physical page back and forward buttons truly stands in the way of letting the device accomplish its main purpose.
We don't have much praise for the matte screen either -- it's fairly washed out and the viewing angles aren't all that good. We were able to see the black and white text of Jennifer Weiner's Best Friends Forever when reading at angle, but when we tried to look at images, slightly changing the angle caused colors to significantly fade. Additionally, there's an accelerometer, but it takes a good two seconds to switch the orientation. The star-shaped speaker on the back of the tablet is loud enough for personal listening and sharing with another, but it's extremely tinny and we preferred to plug in some headphones.
E-reading and software experience
As its name indicates, the Novel is really first and foremost an e-reader. And we do have to say that the process of downloading books is actually quite seamless. After logging into our B&N account over WiFi, the covers of our previously purchased books popped up in the My Library section of the home screen. The top of the home screen displays Barnes & Noble's new releases and bestsellers and we had no problem selecting the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and downloading a sample. If you do want to search for a new book you are taken to the Barnes & Noble website, but even from there we had no issues shopping.
So, yes, the process of getting books onto the Novel is rather pain-free, but the process of actually reading them isn't pleasant. As we mentioned above, turning pages is extremely flaky. At times we had no issue dragging a finger across the screen to turn the page, but other times the page would just not turn. Additionally, many times when we tried to turn the page we mistakenly highlighted text and a menu to add a note or highlight popped up. Then there's also the issue of figuring out how to get back to the home screen while in a book. It took us (and a few other guinea pigs) close to a minute to figure out that you must tap the top of the screen to pull up a menu with other reading controls. The Barnes & Noble software does support lending books with other Nook owners. Also, we should note that we had no issues sideloading an ePub version of Little Women and opening it on the reader.
While we've heard that some have been able to hack and root the Novel, it does come skinned with a rather simple UI that hides most of its Android 1.5 core. While the reading features are front and center on the home screen, the bottom pane contains shortcuts to applications like the web browser, music and video players. The browser is the typical Android variety and is just fine for visiting sites -- though we had to clear the cache to get it to load Engadget. The resistive screen does get in the way of scrolling a bit -- we found ourselves selecting links by accident -- but it's tolerable. Unsurprisingly, there's no access to the Android Market -- there are preloaded Facebook, stocks and weather shortcuts, but they all just take you to websites.
Performance and battery life
The Novel is powered by a 533Mhz Samsung ARM 11 processor and 128MB of memory, and to anyone that's used a higher end smartphone or the iPad will find the experience to be slow. And we mean slow. We got used to having to wait about a two to three seconds for an app to open or a book to load. And like we mentioned a number of times now, it takes time to turn a page and can be extremely unresponsive. Have we mentioned how frustrating that is? A short standard definition video clip played back without much of an issue, though it took a few minutes to fire up. Still, the device requires more patience than we had at most times.
The battery life of the 7-inch device turned out to be better than Pandigital let on. When just using it in e-reader mode we got through an entire 6.5-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles and still had about a 40 percent battery left. On our video rundown test that loops the same standard definition video we got about 5.5 hours of battery life, which is shorter than the Archos 7 but still better than we expected.
As we stated at the start, we actually can't believe that Novel has made its way onto so many shelves across the country -- just Googling the product name shows that it's being sold at tons of popular retailers. The poor touchscreen, sluggish processor and sometimes confusing interface cripple the device to the point where it can't even manage its main task of turning pages and providing a comfortable reading experience. There's no beating around the bush on this one -- those looking for a cheap e-reader will be better suited by the WiFi-equipped $149 Nook or $139 Kindle. As for those looking for a solid performing, cheap tablet that can manage e-books and surfing the web in full color, well, for that we all still wait...