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.