Kobo has a long history of producing low-cost eReaders that look good, but are reliably undercut by Barnes & Noble and/or Amazon shortly thereafter. The company's newest device, the $129 Kobo eReader Touch Edition, offers an extremely light, ergonomically sound reading experience with a touch-enabled interface. But at just $10 less than the competition, can the Kobo hope to compete?
The new Touch Edition is light and comfortable to hold thanks to the quilted, soft-touch back. Customers can choose from four colors: black, blue, lilac, and white. Measuring just 6.5 x 4.5 x 0.4 inches, the Kobo Touch Edition is a little smaller than the new Nook (6.5 x 5.0 x 0.47 inches). And at 7.05 ounces, it's lighter, too (the Nook is 7.5). However, the smoother lines of the Nook and its stylized Home button make it look and feel classier than the Kobo.
This Touch Edition has only two buttons: a power slider on the top edge and a Home button centered beneath the 6-inch Pearl E Ink display. Most functions are accessed through the touchscreen interface, including page turns. This allows owners to hold the eReader in the position they feel is most comfortable. Still, we wish there were physical page-turn buttons, which the latest Nook has.
Two ports interrupt the otherwise smooth edges. On the left is a microSD slot that will take cards up to 32GB and a microUSB port for charging and connecting to a computer.
Display and Reading Experience
The 6-inch Pearl E Ink display on the Kobo Touch Edition is on a par with the Nook in terms of contrast. At the smallest font size, text wasn't as crisp as we'd like, but upping it one or two notches resolved this issue. The Kobo's refresh rate is pretty fast--the same as the Nook and a millisecond behind the Kindle--with minimal flashing. However, the Kobo's display had more of a ghosting effect than the competition.
Like the Nook and Sony's Reader, the Kobo Touch utilizes infrared touch technology (in this case, powered by zForce), so it will respond to the pad of a finger, a fingernail, or even a stylus. In using touch to navigate the interface or turn pages, we found the Kobo Touch reasonably fast. However, about a fifth of the time the Touch Edition didn't register our taps or swipes. When holding it in our left hand and using our thumb to swipe left, the eReader didn't always interpret this correctly. This is why we like having physical buttons on both sides of the display.
Other than this issue, the reading experience was nice and immersive. We commend the 17 font sizes, especially as the smallest size is much tinier than most other 6-inch eReaders offer. Still, more customization options would make for a more comfortable reading experience. The main thing we wished for when reading the Welcome to Bordertown and Happily Ever After anthologies was more control over how books look. Kobo only offers two fonts: Avenir (sans-serif) and Georgia (serif). And there are no margin, line spacing, or word spacing options.
Moving around inside eBooks is very easy. Aside from browsing through the table of contents, users can use a slider to find specific pages or positions in a book.
Highlights and Bookmarks
To its detriment, Kobo has little in the way of annotation options compared to other eReaders. Users cannot create multiple bookmarks within a book; only the last page read is bookmarked. We do like that this will sync across Kobo's other apps, so users can pick up where they left off on a phone or tablet. Highlights are available and browsable, but users cannot make notes. This made sense on earlier Kobo readers as they had no keyboard, but the Touch Edition has an on-screen keyboard, so the lack of notes is now a glaring omission.
The Touch Edition can read PDF and RTF documents, but not DOC files. Still, if you don't mind making a small conversion, it's simple to transfer RTFs over to the Kobo and read them as you would a normal eBook. Reading PDFs wasn't completely satisfying, but it was still better than previous versions of the software. Text doesn't reflow, but users can drag a document around on the screen to read lines that go long. Here users can also switch the orientation to landscape to make this less of an issue.
Interface and Wireless
Kobo did a good job of designing a simple, basic interface that's easy to navigate. On the Home screen, users will see the covers of the last five books or documents they viewed, with sizes indicating which is most recent. This reminds us of the Home screen on the Nook Color, except it's not customizable in the same way.
From Home there are six places to go: into a book, Library, Store, Reading Life, plus Settings and Help via icons at the bottom of the screen. The last icon syncs the device to Kobo's servers, pulling down new books or newsstand issues and updating bookmarks.
The Library has three views from which to choose, including lists and cover grids, and it can be sorted by title, author, and recent. If your list of books is too large to browse, you can do a text search. Gone are the groupings by letter of previous Kobo readers, which helped with large libraries. Books and documents are now in the same place, which can get confusing and messy. However, we do like that free samples/previews have their own area.
The Touch Edition proved more responsive when navigating menus than when turning pages, though we did have to repeat taps every so often. The on-screen keyboard is serviceable and pretty fast, but we don't like that every non-letter character, including periods and commas, is relegated to the secondary keyboard.
One aspect of the interface that we found difficult to maneuver was connecting to Wi-Fi. There's no place to make this connection directly. The software only brings up the list of available networks if you attempt to connect to the Internet via the Shop, Sync icon, or the browser. Once you've connected to a network, the system says it will remember it. However, every time we went to reconnect, we had to find the same network again and input the password again. Very frustrating.
We also found that the wireless wasn't very strong. At about 25 feet from our router, the Touch Edition registered a low signal and transfers took longer than expected.
Hidden in the Settings > Wireless menu is a button to launch the Kobo browser, which is still in the beta stage. It's on a par with the browser on the Kindle, which is to say that we could use it in a pinch, but it wouldn't ever be our first or second choice for web surfing.
Web pages didn't load very fast, but that was due as much to the wireless as the E Ink, which doesn't refresh as fast as LCD screen. We were able to check our Gmail and visit laptopmag.com.
Kobo updated its desktop software for the launch of the Touch Edition, and in a curious move the company made it almost impossible to use the device without first connecting to a computer and connecting with this software. When you first turn on the eReader, it will tell you to set up your device by going to www.kobosetup.com and downloading the software for Mac or PC.
It's possible to read the free previews of books that come with the device, but if you want to shop for more books, you must first set it up with your PC. This is an unwelcome step, especially since other leading eReaders don't require users to have access to a computer.
The software has a better-designed UI than past versions--a big plus--and offers an easy way to manage libraries, shop, and sync books to the eReader. We found it pretty slow, though, especially the syncing.
Content and Shopping Experience
Currently, Kobo has 2.3 million books in its catalog, including 99 percent of The New York Times best sellers. Since the Touch Edition can read EPUB files with Adobe's DRM, users can buy books from Barnes & Noble, Google Books, Sony, and any other eBookstore that sells these types of files and transfer them easily to the device. Users can also read library eBooks from their local branch.
Thanks to the touch interface, shopping on the device went smoothly. We were able to browse the storefront and search for books without frustration. Once we purchased a title, it downloaded to our device within minutes and appeared on our Home screen, ready for reading.
Kobo claims that the Touch Edition should last up to one month on a charge. Barnes & Noble's Nook will last up to 2 months with the wireless off, and Amazon's Kindle boasts 2 months of usage.
The Kobo eReader Touch Edition is a major step up from the company's last device. The hardware is much improved, and the $129 price is attractive. However, the new Nook from Barnes & Noble Nook costs just $10 more, and it offers a more responsive touchscreen, a better interface, and more features.