During a trip to Poughkeepsie, NY to teach a technical course (which was an emergency instructor replacement in the middle of my 2010 summer vacation...) several of the class members were discussing the eBook readers that they had gotten for their kids. Some of them admitted their kids may not get as much time with the new device while Dad (or a Mom in one case) uses/plays with it! Many of these eBook readers are very useful as virtual paper for working reviewing documents while completing docs on laptops. Two in the class found KMart, of all places, had a sale on several eBook readers:
  • Augen The Book- good eBook reader, color screen, but not so great support
  • Augen Gentouch 78- an Android tablet that includes an eBook reader app. OK reviews, hard to find, not so great support
  • Aluratek Libre - interesting B/W reader, very visible in bright light, no WiFi or 3G network

My family looked at them a few months ago and found the black-on-white eBook readers to be very limiting and expensive, and the LCD/TFT iPad clones just didn't have the battery life for long car and airplane family trips. One daughter really can use the font resizing capabilities of the eBook readers, but we just couldn't justify the iPad price.
Pandigital Novel tablet
Pandigital Novel tablet

Just a couple of weeks after this venture during vacation and travel, we found an excellent eBook reader and tablet device in the Pandigital Novel (pictured to the right) from Bed, Bath, and Beyond brick-and-mortar stores also available in their online store. One big problem cropped up with putting work material on many of these book reader/tablet devices: most of them cannot be password protected! The Pandigital seems well suited for the book reading, especially for the younger daughter, To meet minimal document security requirements for business documents, we've picked up a second one, a Sony PRS-600.

First eBook Reader: TB

I picked up the Augen The Book (TB) the day after some from the class had gone to a Barnes & Noble across the street from the building where class was held and looked over the Nook which had just gone on sale for $149. Next day one fellow found some of the Aluratek Libre ($129 sale) and TBs ($89 if enroll in Kmart e-mail) available in the local KMart. The Augen Gentouch was supposed to be available, and at a discounted $149, but those tablets sold out immediately day before we got there. The other two guys liked the Libre, I liked the TB with good backlighting and decent battery life. This was a winner for my daughter over the next two weeks, even with the glitches! Our younger daughter did read quite a lot more while we were traveling this trip for days in the car. This is something that isn't comfortable for her with a hard copy book. Resizing the font to a comfortable size was so easy with the TB!

Yes, there are quirks that I hope Augen or Calibre updates fix in the near future. Calibre is the open source eBook file manager that works with most current eBook readers. The eBook document formats I've downloaded so far have images and nice formatting of chapter headings, etc, in the PC reader, but don't transfer those formats to TB. When I found out that PDFs and other forms of documents could be read on these eBook readers, including the TB, I was hooked! No longer do I have to print out a copy of part of a document to use as reference while working on the laptop, or sometimes awkwardly try to arrange a laptop next to a desktop PC.

The Book (TB) has some really nice features:
  • Handles PDFs consistently and allows bookmarks within them
  • The integrated WiFi and browser actually work! I was a bit surprised it worked at all, but slooowly.
  • Color LCD display is a big improvement over digital paper displays from early in the year.
  • TB plays MP3 audio and AVI videos. Very primitive player, though. Some fixes are available in the update that is available from links in forums, but not on Augen support site.
  • Battery lasts over 5 hours with nearly constant use (verified on long vacation trip in car).
  • Full SD card slot

Two weeks after picking up a TB, we find the following quirks really aren't acceptable:
  • epub format books don't carry over their cover or formatting well into TB (PDFs are fine)
  • no way to add notes to an individual book, must add to one notepad, which cannot be saved as unique name (or restored from external changes to an exported version, in our tests)
  • TB loses the list of selected "Favorite" eBooks (or URLs from its browser) for no reason, then they come back!
  • Bookmarks disappear on occasion
  • Upgrades of Calibre left some eBooks in different folders in the TB Library viewer. Not TB's fault, but fixing this hasn't been easy.
  • Browser is agonizingly slow and sometimes just stops for long (15-20sec) periods
  • PDF reader is very finicky: basic function is OK, and the bookmarking works, but can't add text with the bookmark and can't manage bookmarks
  • Quirky cursor and enter key combinations are not consistent between apps
  • No access to underlying system, is this an Android platform?
  • Time/date keep getting reset after power on/off to far in the future so I'm resetting this at least daily
  • Just stops working after power off occasionally requiring a reset using a paper clip in the rear of the unit.
  • Power on cycle is at about 30s, not "instant on" at all like Nook or Kindle
  • You must power down the unit or the battery drains completely, there is no "standby" setting.
  • If you use a micro SD to SD adapter, there is no cover for the SD card slot so microSD card can slip out!
  • Augen has not supported this device well at kickoff. Seems they are swamped with the nearly concurrent release of TB and the Gentouch 78 tablet which looks to be a nice tablet but very low battery life compared to most eBook readers and reportedly runs too hot to be on your lap or in your hand as an eBook reader.

We thought about still keeping the TB as it is a decent portable AVI video player that accepts SD cards up to at least 16GB. Then I looked at Craigs List in our area where several Barnes & Noble Nook and Amazon Kindles are for sale. I was leaning toward the Nook as modified code (mods) is available so that other apps may be added to the underlying Android platform. The Nook also has an external micro SD card and seems to have better overall support for multiple eBook formats. We'll lose the AVI video player, but we have a portable DVD player for the kids, so do we really need a "personal" video device?

Then I saw the notices of the special deal on the Pandigital Novel and the simple hack to turn it into a usable Android tablet.

On to Pandigital Novel

UPDATE 2010-08-04: chose to go with the Pandigital Novel and got one during the NC Tax Free back-to-school sales in our area this weekend. Tried to setup the B&N MasterCard and get a Nook earlier that week, but that takes a week to complete setup, so unlike with Amazon you can't setup the card and use it within the same day. Too bad, B&N lost a sale that week! New versions of the Nook are quite adequate displays, but I really do like the color screen on the Novel at LOWER price than the Nook (after rebate at Bed, Bath, and Beyond) for a tablet with 6 hour battery life.

Found that Bed, Bath, and Beyond has a rebate on Pandigital Novel. The Novel is selling for $169 and there is a $20 rebate. These are NOT eligible for the NC State Tax Free days 6-8Aug, so says the store (like B&N Nook and Kindle, rats!). Went and picked one up and I'm using it now, have to switch off to my laptop, as this Novel integral browser is very slow (better than TB's browser though!). Went to the nearby B&N store, sat down with the mint Novel in hand started to connect while working on some business material that evening on my laptop.

One curious thing, this was obviously a repackaged, returned Novel. There were no fingerprints on the screen, but the transparent "seal" tape on the box had obviously been replaced and the foam wrapping around the Novel itself was hastily and not very snugly wrapped around the Novel tablet. Both the USB cable and the charger cable lacked their twist ties and weren't neatly arranged in the box. In the network section after first boot there were hot spots in the network list that are from areas on UNC campus, but not anywhere near the store, so this must be a return! Aren't returns supposed to be clearly labeled and not sold as "new", rebate or not? After testing I found this Novel tends to hang every few hours, and is far less responsive than the display sample. I took it back and exchanged for a clearly "new" Pandigital Novel, this one was far more responsive, hasn't had the hangs, and readily accepted the Novel firmware upgrade available online.

These are the white case versions of the Novel loaded with the 07-08 firmware. One down side, the Novel does not charge its batteries from the USB port, sigh. The charger cable can be inserted into a small included stand so that you drop the Novel onto the charging stand when not in use. Putting the Novel in standby was easy, and no amount of screen manipulation brought it out of standby, only using the power on/off switch (or having an alarm or other auto-start app kick off). That is good IMO. The Durham Bed, Bath, and Beyond store had at least a dozen new Pandigital Novel units, each with copies of web pages on how to bring up, troubleshoot, and upgrade the Novel!

After buying the Novel, went over to the Pandigital eBook partner, Barnes & Noble (B&N) bookstore. Connecting to B&N network with the Novel was simple, though it took about 5 minutes to synchronize with My Library on B&N -- all of 10 eBooks at this point! However, with the AT&T hotspot at B&N, I wasn't able to connect with the Internet in general, only with the default B&N page. Clicking on "See Options" was fruitless. The AT&T login window never opened (not good) as it does on my laptop with Windows 7. Also, within 45min the Novel "lost" all the default books and was unable to download my paid for eBooks on B&N site. On reboot, the local books reappeared. I'll go back to B&N after upgrading the firmware again and see if I can get past the initial screen at B&N.

NOTE: all of the above network problems were fixed with the mid-August firmware update from Pandigital.

Page turning for an epub book was reasonable and consistent. WiFi reception was good, not great, compared with my Lenovo T400, with the Novel losing the B/G/N connection from time to time if I walked to where it showed only 1 bar. After a reboot, the download of a book from my B&N collection worked, then the bookshelf showed a blank space. Hmm, clicked on the blank space and sure enough, the eBook loaded. Not a good first experience! Later code updates did indeed fix this problem; an install of the update package from the Pandigital site fixed most of the glitches noted above including the general web access at B&N.

Summary of Pandigital Novel

In every way, except one, the Novel excels as a reader and as an introductory level tablet. That one exception is poor high intensity light performance, just like the iPad that this device resembles. This is the area where eInk readers shine!

Bed Bath Beyond Novel Rebate

Excellent deal through 15August: there is a 20% off coupon good for your first in-store purchase, go to this link on the Bed, Bath, & Beyond web site. Then at the store, you will get a printed rebate coupon good for $20 more off the Pandigital Novel, or click here for the online copy (good for purchases through 15Aug).

Hacks for the Pandigital Novel

Sony PRS-600
Sony PRS-600

Reference Docs suited for Sony PRS-600

The Pandigital Novel is great for our daughter, has decent WiFi connectivity, etc, but is is lousy in any kind of bright light for reading eBooks. I happened across a local listing on Craig's list for a Sony PRS-600, then another in the MobileReader.com forum for a Sony PRS-600 with the lighted cover. The PRS-600 doesn't have wireless, no browser, but excellent performance as a reader in bright light, especially for PDFs which is the bulk of my reference material for work. The PRS-600 is an eInk reader, so goes for weeks without recharging, and also includes password protection for the device and supports password protection on the PDF files themselves. There is an excellent review video posted here in MobileTechReview.com, Not much hacking on this one as Sony has kept it closed, sigh :-( This is a very reliable reader with some other built-in features for allowing freehand drawings and quick memos, typed or scrawled, that synch with the Sony eReader application running on a host PC/Mac. Built much more solidly than Android tablets available today and with a replaceable battery.

Essential: eBook reader Cases

After trying out several eBook readers, we found that the enclosed "case" with many a reader is really not much more than a soft neoprene sock around the case. To protect the glass screen on these eBook readers from being bent and thus broken there is a niche market for durable eBook reader cases. One that rates consistently high and is a very solid design is the Book Armor line. The Book Armor Delta 6 fits iPad tablets and all the eBook readers tested by our family (except Augen The Book which had its own sturdy case). The Delta 6 also holds the PRS-600 with cover and built-in light as well. The click strips which attach the reader are a special velcro fastener, and replacement fasteners are available to attach different eBook readers to the same Book Armor case. Highly recommended security to keep from cracking the screen on these eBook readers!