Friday, April 13, 2012

Volume 7, Number 2: My First Tablet

Ten years ago, I had my first PDA--a Palm IIIxe with 8 MB of memory--and fell in love with it.  Here was this e-book reader/portable gaming device/occasional notepad that you could hold in your hand.  It was great for reading in bed, killing time with a game of Yahtzee or Mille Bornes, or that occasion when I had to jot down the name of a song (or at least some of the lyrics) so I could Google it on my home computer later.

I thought PDAs were the ultimate in portable computing. Like most other PDAs, in order to download stuff to the IIIxe, you would have to download it to your PC first, then transfer it to the PDA (usually by means of a cable). Sure, a few years ago, "smartphones"--basically cell phones with PDA functionality--were coming out and they could download stuff without any wires, but only obscenely rich people had those, right?

Besides, I hated smartphones for another reason. I hardly ever use my cell phone--it's there for me in case of an emergency (e.g. if I have car trouble and need to call AAA, or if someone needs to call me while I'm away from home). For that reason, I use a prepaid cell phone. Getting a smartphone would have entailed paying out the nose for a cellular service contract.

Tablets came out a couple years ago, of course, led by Apple's iPad, an overgrown version of the iPod Touch. Or was I the only person who read that? And wouldn't people rather want a computer they can hold with just one hand? Tablets have the same advantage over the old PDAs that smartphones did, obviously--the ability to download stuff anywhere you had WiFi. Oh, but up until January 2011, I didn't even have WiFi. I mistakenly thought only smartphones and other rich people's overpriced toys had that. Nope--all you need is to hook your existing high-speed Internet service up to this thing called a wireless router and voila, you have WiFi. My brother Josh gave me one that he had lying around, and so I got WiFi as well.  Thanks again, Josh!  :)

So, did I consider getting a tablet of my own, to fill the void the Palms had once filled (e-book reader, portable gaming device and occasional notepad)? Until a week ago, nope. Most tablets are still ridiculously expensive. And I wasn't about to spend hundreds of dollars on a form of computing that I didn't know much about and had been skeptical about for years.

A week ago, however, an eBay seller called 1saleaday had some "factory-refurbished" Pandigital Novel tablets on sale for $50 a pop. Obviously, Pandigital isn't the reputable maker of electronics that Motorola and Samsung are, but seeing as it ran the Android operating system (which I'm familiar with from my Google TV experience), and its hardware was much more powerful than that now-obsolete-and-hardly-used Palm Tungsten E2, it would be a huge upgrade. Especially if the WiFi worked.

While I waited for it to arrive, I did some research on it:

  • When the Pandigital Novel came out nearly two years ago, its makers thought that there was a market for unsophisticated customers that just wanted an e-reader, and nothing more; thus, they saddled it with firmware that both limited what it was capable of and failed to take full advantage of the hardware. They also sold it at stores like Kohl's, Dillard's and Macy's, stores better known for clothing, cookware and bedding than for electronics. Once people found out how to hack it, however, Pandigital realized that there was a much bigger market to tap--people who wanted a value-packed Android tablet--and released firmware that included the Android 2.0 OS.
  • But that wasn't the end of it. Some people--amateur software engineers, you might call them--are trying to get their PDNs to run newer versions of the Android OS.
  • Not all PDNs are created equal. They have come out with several different versions with varying degrees of hackability. To my great fortune, the one I received is one that is very easy to hack (the original white version).
  • Like most technology, the PDN's price has steadily slid over time, from $200 when it first came out in June 2010 to $114 last Memorial Day to $69 last Black Friday (and of course, $50 last Thursday).

Yesterday, I received my PDN.  And in just hours after getting it, here's what I've done with it:

  • Upgraded the operating system using the hack found in this SlateDroid online forum thread***
  • Upgraded the internal memory card from 1GB to 8GB (thanks to another present from Josh--an 8GB microSD card)
  • Got it to play streaming YouTube videos (the video quality may not be great and the audio's a little out of sync, but you can't have it all)
  • Installed a bunch of apps that were not originally installed on the Novel (Amazon Kindle, Amazon AppStore, Android Market, Dolphin HD Browser, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Gmail, TuneIn Radio, which lets you listen to thousands of radio stations from across the country and around the world, and so on)

*** The sort of hacking is not recommended unless you've read everything you can about hacking the PDN, such as this wiki. Do so at your own risk. Doing so voids your warranty and it is your responsibility if you decide to proceed this way.

Oh, and I verified that the WiFi works. It cuts out occasionally but that's OK with me. Long-term reliability and durability is still an unknown, but it feels solidly-built, and right now, I'm 1000% satisfied.

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