E-reader roundup: 8 devices compete for the crown

We look at the current state of the market and review 8 of the most popular e-readers

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Pandigital Novel

Is Pandigital's Novel a slightly oversized e-reader or a scaled-down iPad-like tablet? Or, perhaps, it's a smartphone without calling capability? The answer is yes -- it's a bit of all three.

Pandigital Novel

Pandigital Novel

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This Android-powered device comes packed with classic tablet/smartphone features, like a bright high-resolution 7-in. color touch screen, Wi-Fi, multimedia and e-mail capability, the ability to run thousands of third-party apps, stereo speakers, and a Web browser. As an e-reader, it allows you to browse and buy wirelessly from Barnes & Noble, use B&N's 14-day lending library, read any ePub or PDF file, and expand the number of books in your library via optional memory cards. All this, and more, for the price of a Nook or a Kobo.

Overall, the Novel has a solid feeling of quality construction and attention to detail. The all-white, all-plastic device is wider and heavier than the dedicated e-readers we tested; it is also thicker than the iPad.

On its left side is a small, round port for the AC charger, surrounded by a squared-off bezel that allows the e-reader to stand on its side without tumbling over. On the bottom are twin stereo speakers and a small, round earphone port. (If you don't look too carefully and see the tiny embossed earphone icon, you could quite easily mistake it for the power port, since the AC adapter plugs in as if it were made for that purpose.)

On the left side is the volume control, and on top are the power switch, Micro USB port, SD memory card slot and reset button hole. Don't assume you can trickle-charge the Novel by connecting it to your computer's USB port -- that simply doesn't work.

What's interesting: While not as fast or powerful as the iPad, the Novel is almost as versatile and can run most Android apps (alas, Netflix is not one of them -- apparently, streaming video is not supported by the device). Like with the iPad, the page auto-rotates to whatever orientation you're holding the e-reader. Besides being able to change font sizes, you can switch from black-type-on-white to a white-type-on-black background, for better night viewing.

What's good: Powering up and switching between modes or apps is speedier than with most e-readers. Although its tap-and-slide navigation isn't as slick or sophisticated as the iPad's, it's a bump up from the Kindle's pimple-like keyboard. Because its touch screen isn't as sensitive as the iPad's, an accidental finger pass isn't as likely to inadvertently turn a page or blunder into an unwanted mode. A light brush of the thumb is all that's needed to turn a page forward or backward.

What's not: Like the iPad, the Novel's touch screen is glass, and therefore highly reflective, fragile and hard to read in direct sunlight. The touch screen requires a lot of juice, so the battery lasts only about six hours, far less than the other e-readers we tested. And because of its weight, reading one-handed is a test of strength and stamina.

Bottom line: While dedicated book lovers may be put off by its weight, reflective screen and limited battery life, for most readers, Pandigital's dual-purpose Novel hits all the right notes: price, performance and versatility.

Conclusions

Choosing a favorite from among the e-readers we tested is a difficult task. Some models offer advantages and features that the others do not, but no single device has clear superiority.

For sheer versatility, the iPad would win hands down, but its high price and weight, and the difficulty we had in seeing the screen in bright sunlight, make it a less-than-ideal e-reader.

We liked Pandigital's e-reader very much for its iPad-like features and relatively low price, but its short battery life and highly reflective screen are deal-breakers for serious readers.

The Nook's dual screens deliver excellent readability with touch-screen convenience, but it can't handle Microsoft Word or standard TXT files, and we don't care for B&N's lending and in-store reading restrictions.

The Ectaco jetBook Lite and the Aluratek Libre eBook Reader Pro are reasonably good e-readers but have been outclassed in both technology and price by the competition.

Which leaves Amazon's Kindle. The Kindle is a trouble-free, transparent piece of technology, very easy to use, quite convenient to hold and carry, and a pleasure to read on.

So for now, the Kindle is the e-reader of choice -- but this is a market that's evolving almost daily. Stay tuned.

Daniel Grotta and Sally Wiener Grotta are a husband/wife writing team. Together, they have written over a thousand feature stories, reviews and columns for major magazines, plus they have co-authored eight nonfiction books.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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