Why I returned my Pandigital Novel

072310-pandigital-01.jpgLast weekend, I posted that I’d bought a new Pandigital Novel for $130 ($170 – coupon – mail-in-rebate), then hacked it to run Kindle for Android. Although I was excited by the prospect of a cheap full color Kindle tablet, I complained about the somewhat glitchy software and performance. And now I don’t own it anymore because I took it back. In that earlier post, I cursed Pandigital for not making a better product. It’s naive of me to lay any blame at Pandigital’s feet, though. The fact is, they’re delivering a lot of features and hardware for the price point: a decently sized color LCD screen, a touchscreen interface, a robust and open operating system, access to a major bookseller right out of the box, Wi-Fi access, a decent battery, and a durable shell, all for significantly less than $200. On paper, that is a pretty awesome kit. The reality, however, is that to reach that low price point, you have to cut corners. The technology just isn’t there yet to put top-of-the-line tech into such a cheap device. So the default ereader isn’t very polished or visually appealing, the touchscreen is the old-fashioned resistive kind, the processor stutters during bigger transitions or animations, ebook files take a long time to open, apps freeze and require a reboot.


And the thing is heavy. This is partly a psychological effect, a consequence of what you expect something that size to weigh. I’ve held both the iPad and the Novel, and although the Novel is significantly lighter than the iPad, oddly the iPad feels “less heavy” in the hand (not lighter–it’s a perception thing), because its larger size primes your brain to anticipate some heft.

You can see from the video demo below that I managed to get the Novel customized to my satisfaction. It was pretty easy; with the exception of a software hack that remapped the volume buttons so that they’d function as menu buttons, it was just a matter of installing programs that I wanted to run (the default interface is still there, but it doesn’t appear unless I want it to.)

(Also, my apologies for the low quality of the video. I’d already returned the Novel before reviewing this footage and didn’t realize how blown out the screens looked.)

It wasn’t all disappointment. I spent the weekend reading books and comics on it, and for the most part, I liked the screen and the size of the Novel.

For books, it’s a perfect screen size, and I loved reading on it. I think for casual reading the Kindle 2 eInk screen is too gray, and the iPad in general is too big; the Novel’s screen is what I want an ereader screen to be. For comics, it’s almost perfect, but just a little bit smaller than I like. Because I want to be able to view comics at full size, I’ll probably end up going with something iPad-sized (assuming I can afford it some day).

I had a lot of trouble deciding whether or not to keep the Pandigital Novel. For the first three days of ownership, the underlying firmware was annoyingly buggy: the keyboard was almost unusable, Wi-Fi connectivity was spotty at best, and it sometimes froze. Apple has raised the bar so high on “it just works” user experiences that I couldn’t see myself wasting time in the coming months constantly tinkering with a device when all I wanted was to turn it on and start reading.

Then the day before I returned it, Pandigital released a firmware update. I installed it and was happy to see it fixed the keyboard issue and improved overall speed, and the Wi-Fi spottiness seemed at least slightly better. This makes me optimistic that if you buy a Pandigital Novel in three months, you’ll find the overall experience much more user-friendly than I did. (But of course, remember that you’ll need some basic geek skills to install Kindle for Android on it; otherwise you’ll be stuck with only Barnes & Noble books.)

In the end, what finally convinced me to take it back was my iPhone. Every time I put down the Novel and picked up my iPhone, I was struck by the vast difference in user experiences between the two. It was like riding a pogo stick, then getting on a bicycle, then going back to a pogo stick.

Let’s be realistic, though. There’s no under-$200 iPad out there in the marketplace. If you want a cheap but functional tablet, this is pretty much your only choice–and I’m not sure another company would be able to come out with anything better at the same price point. If you’re a hobbyist or gadget geek who is used to coddling/customizing devices, it’s really not a bad value. If you’re just looking for a really smooth ereader experience, I’d suggest you keep waiting. The technology is only going to get better.

Via Chris Walters’ Kindlerama blog.

18 Comments on Why I returned my Pandigital Novel

  1. I own an iPad and a Nexus One smartphone with Android 2.2. While the iPad’s interface is still a bit smoother and more polished, if an Android 2.2 tablet with a comparable touchscreen came out I wouldn’t hesitate in choosing it over the iPad. (For many reasons which I won’t go into.)

    I consider Android 2.2 the “sweet spot” and wouldn’t recommend anything less to someone who has had their expectations raised by the iPhone and iPad.

    Ted

  2. install Kindle for Android on it; otherwise you’ll be stuck with only Barnes & Noble books.

    According to the manual, the Pandigital Novel works with Adobe Digital Editions. That would open it up to most e-book stores. Doesn’t it work correctly with ADE?

  3. I had to return 2 of the Pandigital Novel units to get one that worked, but I really like the unit. It is going to be my back up for reading. The shorter battery life is a drawback, but when I got a working unit it ran better that I expected for the price. The ipod is too small and I haven’t worked with the ipad yet, but I like the size and clarity of the screen on the Pandigital novel. I might someday hack it to run the Kindle app, but for now I like what it does. My wifi connection was great and ran as smooth as my netbook. If you want an extra reader, I think this is a good option.

  4. I still think that the Droid X or HTC EVO 4G might be the best Android solution right now.

    You get the phone stuff but a big enough screen running on current technology and then using the Android OS. Then you get the cell phone company subsidizing the thing.

    Until someone figures out a better tablet solution.

  5. Your blog is spot-on and I’ve been teetering on whether or not to return my Novel, for the same reasons. Right now, I’m leaning on keeping it because:

    – It’s the cheapest Android 2.0 tablet out there, period.
    – The new firmware did improve functionality, especially the WiFi.
    – It’s really a decent nightime ereader versus eInk (the latter still wins in daylight)
    – It’s only going to get better, I believe. Sooner or later someone will probably create a 2.1 or 2.2 ROM for this thing. There’s a pretty active community on SlateDroid right now.

    But then main reason why I’m leaning on keeping it is the possible resale value. Even in 4 or 5 months when better tablets are released, I should still be able to sell this thing for close to what I paid for it. So, assuming I don’t drop the thing on concrete, it’s a cheap way to play with Android for now and then sell it later to pay for the next great thing.

  6. I’ve updated to the latest firmware available as of 7/24. It didn’t change the WiFi version, but the App & Framework versions updated, the latter to 0718. Time will tell if it addresses the annoying WiFi – seem to have to keep reconnecting, when all other devices (laptop, netbook, Wii) have no problem.

    I do know it still doesn’t display multi-frame GIF images, which are supposed to cycle through, such as with weather map displays. This is one of the frequent uses for us, displaying the weather! It doesn’t support all of our commonly used websites, such as Twins.mlb.com and of course Gameday.

    The keyboard could use the row of number keys above the alpha keyboard, which would eliminate most back-n-forths between the abc/123.

    As a reader, it is still slow to turn pages. The Novel Menu ‘arrow’ at the bottom obscures the last line on the page of some books in portrait mode, at least for some font sizes.

  7. Doug, there are times when I doubt that ADE works with ADE. The last version update to ADE happily wiped out my entire library and associated notes and bookmarks; recovering those from my backup drive required some technical skills which would be beyond most casual users. IMO, Digital Editions is far from stable or reliable. Sniffing what it is doing is illuminating and I have “sand boxed” it to just one of my computers, giving it access to the Internet but not to my in-home network devices.

  8. Not all Buttons (links) on facebook pages work correctly.

    “Back” should be swapped with “*” on the browser’s bar.

    WiFi choked again, had been testing Facebook (touch), then the Web browser couldn’t find a site (while I’m using my laptop on this review site). Fixed by restarting the browser.

    Unit froze 4-5 times in a row, usually while web browsing.

    Scrolling is flakey at times, esp in browser.

    Email app doesn’t delete messages read/deleted from server, there doesn’t seem to be a setting for it, so what good is that?

    Unit made an app palette selection ‘ding’ noise while the ‘ringer’ volume was turned down to off.

    Ted was close – it’s not just less polished, basic ‘services’ and reliability of operation are just not there. I’m not buying it as a fixer-upper toy, it was to be a tool, and used as well by the wife and kids.

  9. I picked up one of these for 100 clams before tax since I’ve been favorably impressed with my samsung vibrant which is an android 2.1 device. I also own a 3rd gen ipod touch.

    It’s by far the worst of the devices, though also the cheapest. Apple wins the prize for best/smoothest user experience. The vibrant has a great screen and is more fun than the ipod since it’s not so locked down.

    This reader has potential since android can be good when it’s implemented well in hardware, drivers/firmware and software.

    Unfortunately it’s too laggy/slow to feel nice to use. Maybe for really casual users who are willing to put up with it, or hackers willing to tinker, it may be ok. I will keep mine for tinkering and future improvement, but wouldn’t recommend it for most people.

    Your assessment was right on. It feels like a pogo stick or toy. Though this wasn’t the fault of the android os, since other well-designed android devices are pretty decent.

  10. After downloading the firmware update, I can’t even turn the pandigial reader on and there is no customer support.

  11. I bought one the other day, I loved everything about it except that I couldn’t download java or flash-the two games it came with looked terrible- plus the keyboard didn’t work. I would try to hit the delete button and the “l” would show up. It was typing in the letter above it. IS this a problem on all of the pandigitals just that one? I went ahead and took it back, but after looking at the other choices available I am rethinking- IF I find out the keyboard glitch was on my only or a problem with the device altogether. It worked really fast- Does anyone know if or when they will be able to upload android apps?

  12. So this kid goes and buys a Pandigital, turns around and hacks the device voiding the warranty on the product.
    Now he returns the Pandigital for a refund, the retail store that sold him the Pandigital should be ashamed of themselves I know if he would have purchased it from one of my stores he would still own it.
    So my point here is This kid buys this; hacks (destroys) it and people are to believe one word this kid says.
    Wake up people you are listing to the next generation of our prison population.
    Very sad!!!!

  13. Just tried doing a firmware update from the 10_28 version Black-Canada to their February release. The update transfers to the Pandigital, but freezes when attempting to load the new firmware. Anyone else with this problem?

  14. A little “Pandigital” surfing on Google will come up with an update to the update that tells/shows you to take the little darling apart, remove the Micro SD chip, install the zip file on the SD and reinstall the chip (carefully). Then power up the ereader with the Vol + and the “on” slider simulteously for about 8 seconds. Then put it down and go drink a Coke, when you come back it should be all done and up and running. Worked for me the first time.

    The only glitch was the update file (zip), for the unanointed, the Micro chip is very small, smaller than a camera chip and is 1 Gig and while it needs 100MB to load, you should have something like 700MB unless you have loaded a ton of books. Point being that most folks do not have a micro to mini adapter. What I did was load it to my flash drive from my desktop PC, then carried the flash to my local wizard and had him copy from the flash, through his laptop to the micro chip (Easy for him, impossible for me). He had an adapter that he would have sold me but I didn’t think I would be doing this very often. Please note that this process wipes your data, you will get to reload your books, contacts, favorites, etc. I am still playing and learning, I think I need an Android Book to read.

  15. Must have bought my novel after many of previous owners complaints were addressed…no freezing,speed o k, not that heavy, support prompt. So does anyone know why email disappears from inbox unless i put it in the trash and how do you turn off the feature that types words automatically that you do not want?

  16. hi my name is desiree
    and my question is can you sent message from a pandigital novel tablet to a phone ?
    i just can find that you can you use yahoo messager and text them by useing there email and phone .

    p.s. please help me and find it

  17. Dear Dave: Hacking a tablet is not illegal. It will not put you in jail. It voids your warranty. That’s all. I think you know this, but was unsure because of your association between prison and modifying a tablet. Every modify a car? Hear of a Hot Rod? Same concept.

    Why am I thinking your stores must have a terrible customer service policy and far fewer return customers than the one that accepted the Pandigital? I would totally buy from the author’s store just knowing they accepted his Pandigital back.

    And I would TOTALLY believe someone who has hacked one over the store that’s trying to sell it about what the tablet’s capabilities are and are not.

    Dear Desiree: There are many different “apps” that let you text from your tablet to your phone. Each one has their pros and cons. You can get apps from different places, I had no luck using the Android Market Place to get apps on the Pandigital. On my Pandigital Tablet, I can download apps from the Amazon.com app store – which has android apps for your Pandigital Tablet. First, go to Amazon.com, open an account, then download the amazon app store app. Once you have the amazon app store on your tablet, there’s different texting apps to choose from, I have a free one but forgot the name. Make sure it’s for android and not kindle fire. (The descriptions are pretty good on Amazon.) Not all apps will work on your tablet, so don’t get discouraged if one doesn’t work, another one might. Make SURE you have “allow unknown applications” or something like that checked on under your settings!

    To other prospective buyers: I bought mine for $69 from Big Lots, then saw later for $59 on Groupon (months after the Skypad was $100 – fyi Pandigital much better then Skypad). Definitely worth 70 bucks though. I HATE the touch screen. Not responsive and aggravating. If you’re used to finer tech, you’ll throw this thing in the garbage. But, I’ve been dying for an ebook reader and audiobook player for nighttime and this is perfect for that. And my daughter and I are real rough on things. I have the “see the glass as already broken” philosophy. We travel a lot, so my 11 year old using the tablet for games and movies instead of my laptop while traveling was VERY enticing. Was frustrated cause I couldn’t download anything from the Android market, but found pretty much the main apps I wanted were on Amazon as well and very pleased I can use their app market. SOOOME DAAAY I’ll get a REAL Android tablet, preferably with the new Gorilla 2 Glass coming out by Corning, but until then, this buggy annoying tablet serves it’s purpose and was worth the cost. Can’t wait to get a real one so I can hack this one! Smartphones aren’t a a practical option to me because I just need a phone for my kids and emergencies, and too small for reading. But I wish the Pandigital was more Android Market friendly!

  18. I HAVE A FRIEND THAT BOUGHT THIS TABLET IT’S NOT MUCH FOR GAMES NO ANGRY BIRDS NO YOU TUBE THAT SUCKS. I BOUGHT A COBY 8 INSH 8125 TABLET FOR I89 AT OFFICE DEPOT ON LINE LOVE IT. 1G PROCESOR 4 GB BUILT IN MEM. YOU CAN ADD A KEYBOARD WATCH YOU TUBE E MAL AND THE WEB. I GIVE IT 5 STARS

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