Last year it seemed like the hot new item was ebook readers. Everyone and their brother seemed to be offering one, but those projects quickly gave way to a veritable army of Android-based tablets after the iPad was released. Some of these are relatively generic tablets, but lately we’ve seen a rash of tablet-esque devices designed around the reading experience. One of the newest (and most budget-conscious) of these devices is the E FUN NEXTBOOK tablet, a reading-oriented tablet with Borders eBookstore integration. Is it worth pursuing over a NOOKcolor or an iPad? Read on for my full review!
Let’s start with the hardware. The E FUN tablet is a bit of an unusual Android device. Instead of physical home, menu and back buttons, those are virtual and built into the custom home launcher. However, the E FUN does have physical page turn buttons on the left and right side, making it a bit easier to read than with usual resistive touchscreens. There’s also a power button, headphone jack, charger and mini-usb ports and a slot for an SD card as well. For a resistive screen, it’s not terrible with just your fingers, though it’s not great either. I had a few instances where it seemed like it took more than one touch to register. The NEXTBOOK did come with a small stylus, but in a fit of perplexing design there’s no place to store it in the device or the included case.
The device itself is thin and nicely weighted. It’s made of plastic, but it feels nicely built. There’s nothing that creaks or juts out. The screen, as I said, is acceptable. It’s not going to match what you might get from a NOOKcolor or an iPad, but it has good color depth and books look great. The biggest issue is that anything other than viewing it head on looks pretty bad, so I wouldn’t use it for shared video watching or anything where you might be viewing from an angle.
One nice feature is that the NEXTBOOK comes with a pleather protective case. It has clips on three sides and closes with a magnetic clasp. While it drives me nuts that the NEXTBOOK doesn’t stay secured (it falls out the unclipped side), a bit of velcro would fix that nicely. And since there isn’t really a big case market except for brand-name devices like the Dell Streak and the Galaxy Tab, I always appreciate when manufacturers include one as an accessory.
So that’s the NEXTBOOK hardware; what about software?
The NEXTBOOK runs Android 1.5 with a proprietary interface; it’s a cross between a traditional Android homescreen and an ebook reader. The top third is Android-esque, with a weather feed along with links to browser and settings. Amusingly, the browser icon looks like Internet Explorer, but it leads to the stock browser. Since there are no physical buttons the home, menu and back shortcuts are all along the top software bar.
Below all the Android shortcuts, there’s a middle panel with the most recently read books, and below that panel is your library. The eBook reader is powered by Borders, and it comes with several classics to get you started. If you want more detail than the library panel/widget, selecting the “my library” title brings you to a full page version where you can sort by title, author and size. And below the library is the typical android app drawer, giving you access to all the installed applications.
There’s no official app store for these types of tablets, but several unofficial stores are available. The AndAppStore comes preinstalled, and you can always install others like SlideMe. They aren’t going to offer the full depth of apps that the official marketplace offers, but it’s a way to expand what you can do with the tablet.
As far as the built-in apps, there are some standbys like YouTube, calculator, etc. YouTube is a bit slow and not optimized well for the screen. You either watch vidoes in a tiny size or stretched to the point where they’re practically unviewable. Part of that is due to Android 1.5 not being optimized for a 7 inch screen, but it’s important to note. On the other hand, I did test the built in video player using the sample NEXTBOOK video, and it worked great, so at least some of the video software is set for the screen size.
Most important for an ereading-centric device is the reading experience! The built-in Borders software is actually very good. Books open quickly, and the side buttons make ereading much easier. Personally I’m not a big fan of swiping the screen to turn the pages, so having the buttons is a big plus in my book. There’s a page turn effect that I thought would be irritating, but doesn’t slow down performance. Reading options were a bit thin; there’s bookmark, font size, and a go-to page number choice. No highlighting, dictionary, etc. It’s thin, but accomplishes the basic plan of reading.
New books get automatically added to your library when you add them to memory. I added a PDF file, and it opened in the default book reader with no problems. Just like regular books, it included the page turn animation. PDFs offer some zooming options, though too much zooming means lots of panning and dragging. There is an accelerometer, so if you prefer reading in horizontal over vertical mode the NEXTBOOK has you covered.
Out of curiosity, I installed Aldiko, my personal favorite Android ebook reader. It worked, but the page turn buttons obviously did not. Incidentally, despite shipping with a non-standard market preinstalled you still need to check off “install non-market sources” in settings to install any apps. Given the deep integration of the Borders app, I wouldn’t bother to use another ebook app, but it’s helpful to note that you can if you want to, or if you desperately need features like highlighting and dictionary.
I did have one glaring issue with the NEXTBOOK. For some reason, the screen became unresponsive and decalibrated when the on-screen keyboard was in use. It was fine otherwise, but when the keyboard popped up everything went a little nuts. This was only when using the vertically oriented keyboard; the horizontal one did not have that issue. However, that was the only bug I encountered. Wifi connected without a problem, I didn’t see any unusual battery drain, and it did not have any problems waking from sleep. If you rarely use the keyboard, this bug would be far less of an issue, and if the stylus could be stored somewhere in the body of the device or in the case it would be even less of an issue.
I know it seems like I’ve picked on the NEXTBOOK a fair amount in this review. Admittedly, there’s a lot of compromises to using it. It’s running an older version of Android, it isn’t the greatest screen and the software is a bit buggy at times. At the same time none of the bugs are showstoppers, and while there are some things I find irritating they are balanced by some positives as well. For one, the NEXTBOOK came with a decent number of accessories and documentation. The stylus was useless, but the inclusion of a case is great. And it came with a full manual, in a well made package. If you were to buy a NEXTBOOK knowing fully well you were buying a cheaper device, and not something on the level of a NOOKcolor or iPad, you would not be disappointed. It’s optimized to be a decent ebook reader, and it’s priced at near-impulse territory.
For a tech-savvy ebook fan who wants something cheap to read ebooks, play around with minor web browsing, and is ok with a bit of bugginess, it’s a fun device. Out of all the “android tablets” flooding the market, I think it’s one of the better designed ones, and the only one I can reasonably say is worth purchasing for the price. It’s obvious that someone thought through how an ebook-oriented tablet should work, and given the restraints of Android 1.5 and the relative low cost, it’s a very good choice.
The NEXTBOOK Next2 is available atfor $159.90.
It will soon be available at Sears.com, ABC Warehouse, Walmart.com, Bonton.com, Amazon.com, Kmart.com, Duckwall, Conns, Rcwilly, Brandsmart, Electronic Express, Ultimate Electronics, Nebraska Furniture Mark, AAFES/Nextcom…so keep your eyes peeled!
What I liked: Solid build quality, good integration of ebook reading, includes a case in the package.
What Needs Improvement: Screen touches lagged, calibration was off, screen had poor viewing angles.