Pandigital’s new color eReader, the $219 Novel 9, is a 9-inch sequel to the 7-inch Pandigital Novel released last year. This time around, the company has addressed several of the concerns and frustrations we had with the original eReader and added a few stand-out features to tempt digital book lovers. But in a world with $139 eReaders and Honeycomb tablets on the horizon, is the Novel 9 novel enough?
Measuring 9.5 x 5.75 x .05 inches, the Novel 9 is long and thin, more like an oversized Galaxy Tab than an iPad. Coupled with its 1.3-pound weight, the eReader feels a little heavy for its size. This becomes even more noticeable when you hold the Novel 9 on the bottom near the page turn buttons, as you would when reading a book; it throws the balance way off.
The resistive 9-inch, 800 x 480 screen on the Novel 9 has a lower resolution but is more responsive than its predecessor (7 inches, 800 x 600 pixels), but it only works really well if you use the included stylus or have fingernails. Trying to scroll or swipe with the pad of our finger required much more pressure than we liked. On a positive note, the screen didn’t exhibit the problems common to resistive screens, such as accidentally registering swipes as taps, as login as we used the stylus.
Like the Novel before it, this version runs Android 2.1. However, Pandigital lets the OS take center stage this time, instead of the customized design and UI on the previous model. The stock Android 2.1 interface isn’t terribly slick, but it’s familiar and simple enough that users shouldn’t have a hard time picking it up.
Pandigital also ditched its custom buttons on the earlier Novel for the standard Android buttons–mostly. Along the bottom are Back, Home, and Menu. There’s no dedicated search button, though; instead, there’s Forward button on the right for turning pages in eReader apps. When users are in a non-eReader app, the button usually doesn’t do anything. While we’re glad that Pandigital found a clever way to meld the tablet and eReader functions, having the page turn buttons in the middle of the device would be better.
If not for this problem, the reading experience on the Novel would be fairly immersive. Users can swipe to turn pages, but can’t tap to turn. Having such a large screen means that, even with font sizes on the large side, there’s still a decent amount of text on the page. That’s a boon for readers with weaker eyes.
Turning the Novel 9 to landscape mode doesn’t activate a two-page layout — the book’s text just goes all the way across the wide screen. We would have liked the option to see either one or two columns, especially on a screen this size.
Options are basic: Users can choose a text size but not a different font. There are just two themes — Day (normal black on white) and Night (white text on black) — with no other options for text or background color. There’s no brightness control from within the eReading app, though you can do so in Android’s settings. Though they won’t sync or export, users can add bookmarks, notes and highlights to books and browse them from a pop-up menu.
The Novel”s performance wasn’t blazing, but we didn’t note lag or sluggishness in our time with it. Taps registered immediately, apps opened in good time, and websites loaded fast. Definitely an improvement over the previous model.
We found the multimedia experience acceptable, though this tablet wouldn’t be our first choice for listening to music or watching videos. The small, single speaker on the back pumped out average volume, but there’s no depth to the audio. The sample video included with the device was standard definition and still hitched a bit during playback. Since the Novel is only Android 2.1, there’s no Flash available.
We’re used to devices like this not coming with the official Google Android Market. But, with so many third-party app stores, it’s frustrating that the Novel 9 doesn’t come pre-loaded with any of them. Less tech-savvy users (who will likely make up most of this device’s audience) may not know how to side-load apps or find alternate app stores. We’d like to see AppBrain, SlideMe, or GetJar pre-loaded so that users can easily find and install new apps, even if the selection isn’t as large as the official market.
Aside from the stock apps that come with open-source Android, Pandigital also included a dictionary app, ES File Explorer, MediaSearch, the ImportSD utility, and both the Adobe eBooks app and a Barnes & Noble eReader app.
While similar to the interface on the original Novel, the B&N app on the Novel 9 differs from the official one available for Android smart phones and even other tablets. We like that the app can link to your existing B&N account, sync your library and browse the bookseller’s eBookstore from the same main screen. However, when inside eBooks, the app is far less robust than Barnes & Noble’s official offering. For example, you can’t change colors on the background, text, or highlights, and you can’t sync notes or bookmarks.
Another drawback we noted is that the Novel 9 can’t handle all B&N formats. We tried to download a copy of Women’s Health we’d been reading only to find out that the device didn’t support it. This was only a partial surprise; Women’s Health is one of a handful of eMagazines designed to work with the Nook Color. However, it surprised us that the Novel 9 couldn’t even download a simplified or text-based version of it. We encountered the same thing when we tried to download a NOOKkids book. Even though the Novel has the benefit of the color screen, it’s not as capable as the Nook Color.
Aside from the B&N app, there’s an Adobe eBooks app that allows owners to load eBooks that use Adobe’s DRM scheme (This includes Kobo and Sony but not iBooks or Kindle). When we plugged the device into our PC, Adobe Digital Editions recognized it right away and asked us if we wanted to authorize it. (Click here to see our instructions for loading books onto Adobe Digital Editions-compatible devices such as the Novel 9.) We like that Pandigital included this extra feature so readers who have books from several different stores can read them all on one device. However, savvy users will likely just side-load the free apps from Kobo, Sony, and Amazon to accomplish the same thing.
Is the Pandigital Novel 9 eReader worth the $219 price tag? As an Android tablet, it offers more flexibility than the Kindle or original Nook and has a bigger display than the Nook Color. However, each of those eReaders has a more robust feature set out of the box. The Nook Color has a higher resolution, a more refined UI, and access to everything in the Barnes & Noble catalog. Plus, it’s due to get an app store soon. Given all that, we’d recommend Barnes & Noble’s official offering over this satellite eReader.