Kobo eReader Is Value-Priced, but Requires Patience to Use
At a Glance
E-reader is easy on the wallet, but expect to make compromises on performance and usability.
Somewhere between the premium e-readers and the bare-bones, low-cost models lies the Kobo eReader. Kobo has its sights set on delivering a satisfying e-reading experience, without the cost premium of blue-chip competitors like Amazon and Sony. In this mission, Kobo only partly succeeds. At $150, the Kobo eReader is almost half the price of an Amazon Kindle 2, and one of the least-expensive E-Ink devices available (price as of June 7, 2010). However, in spite of its refreshing interface, its usability suffers from sluggish performance and stiff buttons.
The Kobo eReader is brought to market by a division of the big-box bookseller Chapters-Indigo in Canada, though the north-of-the-border connection is not evident anywhere on the surface. Instead, readers are greeted by a well-thought-through user experience that marries the Kobobooks.com online store--home to 2 million plus e-books--with a value-priced e-reader. You can access your account via the Web, or via an app you can install off the e-reader.
Unfortunately, that's where my bumps started with this product. It's not clear from the included start guide that there even is an app to install, and the app lacks an autolauncher or other clear means of installation. After two crashes during installation, I got the app up and running, and found a visually pleasing, albeit a rough-beneath-the-surface shopping and e-book mangement interface. Still, it is far better than most such interfaces--and provides a better shopping process than you get with competitors like Aluratek, Cool-er, and Cybook. In the future, Kobo intends for consumers to fully manage their libraries through this app--including which e-books are stored on the device itself.
But that leads to another gotcha. The device has 1GB of onboard memory, and accepts SD Cards (up to 4GB) in a card slot on top of the device. However, the onboard memory is not fully accessible for the consumer. Instead, the memory includes a hidden partition that's accessible only via this app. And for now, you can't touch the 100 preloaded classics because they live on that partition. So if you really don't want Anna Karenina popping up in your library every day, you don't have the option to delete it. Kobo says this may change in the future, but the company wouldn't put a timeline on when.
Many specs of the Kobo sound familiar: a 6-inch E-Ink screen with 8-level grayscale, ePub and PDF file support (the latter is fairly useless, though, since the pan-and-zoom PDFs are hard to read and navigate), and two-week battery life. You get two font choices and five different font sizes (the largest is suitable as a substitute for large-print books). You can get content on-board either via the SD Card, or by directly transferring from the app or Web site to the device via USB. One extra: You can also sync wirelessly with a RIM BlackBerry phone.
The specs seem familiar in part because Kobo eReader is based on a more generic hardware design already available in other e-readers. The buttons (four along the left, plus a five-way nav button beneath the screen) are all in the same location as other e-readers we've reviewed; ditto the SD Card slot and mini-USB jack at the bottom. Sadly, in spite of Kobo's clearly enhanced aesthetics (a comfy rubberized back and rubberized five-way nav; flat, rubberized buttons along the left), the buttons still provide enough resistance that my hands fatigued after using them for more than a 15-minute block of time.
Where Kobo excels, though, is in its user interface. The text is easy to read, logically and attractively presented, and genuinely friendly (more so than even more mature devices, such as the Amazon Kindle 2) with clear directions. For example, press the center nav button while reading, and you'll invoke the fly-out menu options; on-screen, you get a note as to which button to press to close the menu. The device's speed limits how facile the interface can make your tasks, but I could see Kobo applying this design to a second-gen device with improved hardware, and the combination could be compelling. Not this time out, though.
Given Kobo's low price and integration with shopping, it's one of the better value e-readers on the market today, and a good choice for those looking to dip a toe into the e-reader waters, without spending a fortune on hardware. However, I would be inclined to point users to the bargain-priced Aluratek, which uses a monochrome LCD and lacks store integration, but is much more responsive during navigation.