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Kobo eReader

April 10th, 2010
Kobo leads a push towards simple

E-readers lately have been engaged in a feature war. 3G, touchscreens and Wi-Fi have become so commonplace that it's actually a surprise when they don't. Kobo's eReader seems to revel in just the opposite: it thrives on a very simple design and makes its $149 price as much of a selling point as anything else. In our early review of the eReader, we'll check whether that purity pays off. Design and the e-paper display

What defines the eReader is precisely what isn't there. The front is devoid of controls except for a distinctive directional pad; al the secondary features are tucked away in buttons on the side. While the control isn't as elaborate as on a Nook or Kindle, after prolonged reading we started to prefer Kobo's method simply for ergonomics' sake. There are no front buttons or paddles to accidentally hit; the blank space on the bottom can be gripped tightly without hitting a touchscreen.

About our only complaint, other than some slightly misaligned buttons on our pre-release unit, is that the design is very much skewed towards right-handed users. That's somewhat necessary as it's easier to thumb to the next page, but it does mean that left-handed readers will either have to grow accustomed or reach over to change options.

One unusual touch is the back. Kobo has been touting a "quilted" back as a selling point. The truth is that it's actually patterned rubber, but the effect is the same. Even moreso than with a device like the Nook, the grip is surprisingly solid. You can hold the eReader over your head or to the side without worrying that it will slip out of your hands. Moreover, and it's an odd statement to make, it simply feels good; it encourages grabbing on where the Kindle's aluminum back can be too smooth and feel too precious.

Ports and so on are kept basic, as there's just a mini USB port and an SD card slot. Thankfully, there's 1GB of built-in storage onboard, which is enough to hold about 1,000 typical books.

Like most e-readers, Kobo's example has a six-inch E Ink display. While it's nothing exceptional, it does have reasonably good contrast and is definitely easy on the eyes when well-lit. Fonts are sharp and do feel closer to print than to an electronic device's screen. And since it only needs power when it's refreshing the page, you can comfortably leave the reader idle without worrying about shutting it off. Kobo estimates about two weeks or 8,000 pages of reading, either of which is a massive amount of time to go between charges.

As a result of that, though, the eReader suffers from the same drawbacks as any other E Ink device. E-paper of any kind can't refresh quickly using current technology, and so quick page turns aren't possible. Naturally, animated games and video are also ruled out. Many of these are almost non-issues because of the price, but if you want Internet access or apps, there won't be much choice but to go to a device like the iPad -- not to mention that Apple's tablet can be read in the dark without a separate light.


The simplicity of the hardware extends into the software; the interface is down to its bare essentials. That's not to say it's unintuitive, however. We didn't need to consult a guide to use it, and it's fairly easy to jump back into a book once you've temporarily interrupted it for navigation. We especially liked the simplicity of the "I'm Reading" menu, which keeps track of any in-progress books, and how Kobo handles changes to the display. Unlike some readers, many of the menus don't have to consume the entire page, so you can change font size or style with a preview on the text you're reading.

Speed, however, is the real weakness and arguably the biggest flaw of the eReader. Navigating through menus and basic options are quick enough, but we've noticed that the eReader can take a long time to initialize or resume after exiting a book. It's difficult to say if it's the processor, flash memory or software, but at least in the early unit we've tried, there are still slight moments of irritation as it loads a book.

Our other concern with the interface isn't so much with how it controls as what it supports. At present, it only recognizes ePub and PDF. That's a very small list and could rule the eReader out entirely for those hoping to take a Word or raw TXT file on the road. Ideally, Kobo would recognize at least more unprotected formats and also address competing standards such as Mobipocket.

Buying and syncing books

Kobo's approach to getting books is about as direct, if conventional, as possible. Books are purchased through an online Kobo account and synchronized with other devices. Any text you own is automatically synchronized on a reader that can link to the Internet, so it's possible to get and continue a book on a BlackBerry or iPad. The eReader supports the regular Adobe copy protection on ePub files, so it can also grab books from some competing stores if you suddenly develop an aversion to Kobo's. Unprotected books will work as well.

Pricing is not surprisingly very good; we've seen titles at $10 that would normally cost well over $20. The question remains whether this is sustainable -- Amazon and some rivals have knowingly sold books at a loss -- but the costs are low enough that it's easy to snap up more titles.

We'd add that the eReader is one of the few readers to actually come with books preloaded. There are about 100 titles onboard, and while they're all public domain, it's good to know that you can start reading Nietzsche or Sun Tzu without an initial transfer process.

Without an Internet connection on the eReader itself, syncing has to come through software. Kobo will have its own app before long, but for now the only self-contained app is Adobe's Digital Editions for the Mac or Windows PCs. It behaves somewhat like an iTunes for reading, complete with separate bookshelves (essentially playlists). It's easy and visually pleasing, but it doesn't have especially advanced controls; Digital Editions mostly amounts to a visual representation of dragging and dropping.

Bluetooth is a unique touch and makes it possible for a BlackBerry to synchronize its library wirelessly. We found it hard to justify using, however. When at home, we're more likely to hook up the USB cable than to pair with and transfer books, especially since Bluetooth is limited to a range of 33 feet at most . The Android, iPhone and webOS versions also don't handle this sync, making it less than useful for someone with an Apple-centric home.

Thankfully, the Kobo device isn't locked into particular desktop or mobile apps to transfer books. It mounts on a computer like any USB drive, making it possible to load up on at least unprotected content by dragging and dropping files on to the e-reader's storage. With relatively few formats supported there isn't much that necessitates a raw file copy, but just having the option is valuable in itself.

Wrapping up

The best approach to a product is often to focus on doing just a few things very well rather than as many things as you can. As might be obvious by now, Kobo's inaugural eReader follows that former approach. Misgivings about speed aside, the reader's singular attention to no-frills book reading works in its favor. There's little to distract you from your task, whether it's actually reading or getting those books onboard.

We also appreciate the platform-agnostic approach. You don't need a particular computer OS or program just to get books. If you switch stores, you can still use Kobo's device; if you have to switch devices, you can still use the store. While an increasing number of e-book retailers now have multi-device sync, few of them can still guarantee quite as universal flexibility as Kobo does right now.

The one issue that would give reason for pause is the feature set. Keeping the design simple puts the price safely below that of the Kindle, Nook or just about any of the existing most popular devices, but those who insist on Internet access or non-reading features will have to look elsewhere. In an iPad era, though, that's not necessarily a bad thing. A single-purpose device should have a cost that reflects this fact, and at $149 there's an entire high-end reader's worth of money between Kobo's entry and a basic iPad. In many ways, that's the only advantage the eReader needs.

- Very good price.

- Simple, comfortable interface.

- Universal ePub support; some drag-and-drop.

- E Ink battery and eye benefits.

- Part of multi-device ecosystem.

- SD card slot.

- Sometimes slow to load.

- No file support beyond ePub and PDF.

- No Internet; Bluetooth of limited help.