Review: Kobo Arc reinvents pinning content to folders
At a Glance
Sub-$200 tablets are commonplace today. Kobo’s Arc, a 7-inch Wi-Fi-only tablet, is the latest entrant to this party, but it's hardly revolutionary.
None of its physical specs, except for its built-in 64GB of memory, help it stand out against the competition, which includes the Amazon Kindle Fire HD, the Barnes & Noble Nook HD, and the Google Nexus 7. Where the Kobo Arc does stand out is in its software: It runs a skinned—but not totally transformed—version of Android 4.0. In other words, the Arc offers the full Android experience (including access to Google Play, unlike the Kindle Fire HD and the Nook HD), but with a couple of unique Kobo touches. Only the Google Nexus 7 can compete with that.
The Kobo Arc is best described as solid. It’s not an unattractive tablet, but compared with its competitors it looks and feels bulky and, well, sturdy. At half an inch thick, the Arc is thicker than the Kindle Fire HD, Nook HD, and Nexus 7; and at 0.8 pound, it’s heavier than the Nook HD and the Nexus 7. The Nexus 7 is about half an ounce (or 0.04 pound) lighter than the Arc, but that half an ounce makes a big difference when you’re holding the tablet in one hand. And ultimately, that difference weighs heavily against the Arc.
Kobo was going for rugged design, though: The company claims that the Arc can withstand drops from up to 1.5 meters (about 4.9 feet), more than its competition.
The Arc has a 7-inch IPS screen surrounded by a medium-width matte-surface bezel that houses the 720p, 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera and a small microphone (at the top), as well as two speakers (at the bottom).
Having the speakers on the front of the tablet, rather than on the back or the bottom edge, is convenient; the audio is much easier to hear, though it’s not quite as full as I usually like. The speakers get extremely loud for such a small device, but the audio is generally tinny and bass-less, and sounds a little distorted at higher volume levels.
The Arc has few buttons. The small power button at the top of the tablet (on the right side) sits next to a pinprick-size LED notification light, which pulses when you have new messages or notifications in the Arc’s Android notification center. Along the right side of the tablet, near the top, you'll find a combination microphone/headphone jack above a smooth volume rocker. The only port is the MicroUSB charging port located on the bottom of the device. The Arc has no expandable-memory slot, unlike its predecessor, the Kobo Vox. However, it does come with more on-board storage options—you can grab the Arc in 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB flavors (64GB is a rarity in this market, as only Apple's iPad mini goes that high in built-in capacity). Pricing starts at $200 for the 16GB model, right in line with the Kindle Fire HD and the Nexus 7; you have to add $50 for each capacity beyond that, which means you can get a 64GB model for less than what a 16GB iPad mini costs.
The back of the Arc resembles the back of Kobo’s other devices, with Kobo’s signature, soft-touch quilted interchangeable backplate. The backplate is attractive, but it’s prone to fingerprints. It pops off easily, so you can switch it out for one of Kobo’s other backplates, which come in different colors and are available for $20 apiece on Kobo’s website, should you care to change things up.
Display and core specs
The Arc’s 7-inch screen has 1280-by-800-pixel resolution, which gives it a pixel density of 215 pixels per inch; that’s competitive with the Amazon Kindle Fire HD and the Google Nexus 7. Text and images look crisp and clear, and the screen is bright. Overall, the Arc’s screen is quite good, with excellent viewing angles, bold and accurate colors, and responsive multitouch. It can throw back quite a few reflections, however.
Inside, the Arc has a dual-core 1.5GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 processor plus 1GB of RAM. It also has built-in Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n.
During my hands-on time, the tablet performed well: I noticed virtually no lag during app-switching tests, it ran multiple apps easily, and even graphics-intensive games (such as Dead Space) were fairly smooth.
Tapestries: A different face for Android
The Arc comes loaded with Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich. Kobo says on its website that it plans to release an Android 4.1 Jelly Bean update for the tablet “within a few months’ time.”
The Arc’s version of Android is skinned, but not so much so that you won’t recognize the basic Android environment. In other words, it’s not like the Kindle Fire HD or the Nook HD, which have totally customized user interfaces.
The Android basics are all present on the Arc. You have full access to the Google Play store and other Google apps (Gmail, Chrome, Play Books, Play Music, Play Movies, and so on), as well as the normal Android app menu and widget screen. As you'd expect, the Kobo e-reader app and bookstore are preloaded, as well.
Even so, the Arc's interface reflects a few changes. The home screen, for example, is a continuous scrolling screen rather than five discrete screens. As is typical of Android 4.0 and 4.1, the clock and notification bar are located in the lower-right corner, and the app menu button is situated in the upper-right corner.
As for major changes, Kobo has added some distinctive touches to the Arc’s version of Android that are intended to improve the user experience. The Discover bar, for starters, sits at the bottom of the home screen and offers book, movie, and music suggestions based on your interests (more on that later), as well as what Kobo refers to as "Tapestries."
Think of Tapestries as folders, but with more features. Unlike a folder, which lets you group together a collection of apps, a Tapestry allows you to group together a collection of apps, widgets, photos, and other “pinned” items. Your Arc comes with a couple of prebuilt Tapestries, including a Reading Tapestry, an Entertainment Tapestry, and a Social Tapestry. Each Tapestry takes up four spaces on your home screen, and opens an entirely new screen when you tap it.
Each Tapestry is like a miniature home screen. You can arrange widgets inside a Tapestry, place apps inside a Tapestry (and arrange them however you want—not just alphabetically), and pin photos and webpages within a Tapestry. Tapestries are scrollable, similar to your home screen, and you can create Tapestries within Tapestries. It’s a pretty cool feature, since you can group all like content—not just apps—together in one place.
At the bottom of the home screen and each Tapestry screen is the Discover bar. The Discover bar provides suggestions based on your interests, or on items that you’ve pinned to your various Tapestries. For example, if you have a Beatles Tapestry, where you pin photos, articles, and books about the Beatles, the Discover bar will offer Beatles-related suggestions from the Kobo store. The Discover bar changes its suggestions depending on which screen you’re viewing—although it will offer Beatles-related suggestions when you’re in the Beatles Tapestry, it will give you cooking-related suggestions when you’re in your cooking Tapestry, and so forth.
The Kobo Arc has everything you might look for in a tablet today: a high-resolution screen, a sturdy build, lots of memory, and the full Android experience. I really like the Tapestries, as well—they evolve the concept of a folder beyond merely apps, and I see a lot of potential there.
The tablet does have some drawbacks, though. It’s not quite as sleek or attractive as its competitors are, and it’s a bit heavy to hold in one hand for long periods of time. The headphone jack placement seems a little weird, since it sticks out the side, rather than the top or bottom of the device. Also, while the Discover bar is useful if you want to find new books, videos, and music, it can get annoying, and you can’t turn it off.
The only real standout feature of the Kobo Arc is the Tapestries interface, and although it is nifty, I don’t think it's enough of an incentive alone for someone to purchase the Arc over the Nexus 7.