A few months ago when the Kobo Reader first hit the scene, its $149 price made it one of the most attractive 6-inch eReaders in the market. Yes, the device is pretty basic, but being more than $100 cheaper than the competition meant a few sacrifices. As long as the reading experience was up to snuff, right? But then the competition pulled the rug out from under Kobo: Barnes & Noble introduced a Wi-Fi-only version of the Nook for the same price, and Amazon announced a Wi-Fi-only Kindle for $139. So can this novice-friendly eReader still stand up to fuller-featured rivals?
With its minimalist design, Kobo's offering definitely looks the part of a budget eReader, but the device doesn't looks cheap. Instead, it gives the impression that it's easy to use, which will appeal to consumers who aren't as comfortable with technology as early adopters. Picking up the Reader, it's surprisingly light, just 7.8 ounces to the Nook's 12.1 ounces. Kobo's Reader measures 7.2 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches, only a little smaller than Barnes & Noble's device (7.7 x 4.9 x 0.5 inches). It's also comfortable to hold due to the light weight, rounded edges, and rubber-esque, quilted back.
The Reader has just two ports, an SD Card on top and a mini-USB port on the bottom for charging or connecting to a computer. Buttons for Home, Menu, Display and Back (not Previous Page) line the lower left edge of the device, and a five-way D-Pad for navigation and page turning sits on the right corner of the device. The five small raised bumps on this pad, one for each direction and another in the center, is a nice touch.
This simplicity in design continues on the inside of the Kobo Reader as well. The Home screen shows the most recently read books and your place in them. From the Menu you can access the Books and Documents screens, which list all available titles and files. Other than that, there's just the Settings and Sync options. There are no other features, functions, or games.
We found the Kobo Reader's interface easy to understand and navigate right off the bat, which should again please less tech-savvy users. However, we wish that the software gave us more options for sorting or organizing books, such as user-defined collections, as the basic By Title/By Author/By Last Read options can be tedious to browse, especially with a large library. Since the Reader comes with 100 public domain books preloaded, this is an issue right out of the box. At least the software allows users to skip to the letter they want when sorted by title or author.
The Kobo Reader's 6-inch eInk display is similar to the one found on the Nook and Kindle. However, on Kobo's device the text isn't as dark nor is the contrast as deep as on competing eReaders. At times the text looked faded, like a printer running out of ink. Turning the page eliminated the problem, and it didn't happen often, but it was definitely noticeable. Reading at the smallest font size wasn't as pleasurable as it could have been, since the font weight is so light.
The Kobo comes with five text sizes; medium offers the best balance between the amount of text on the page and font weight, but we ended up turning pages so often it was hard to immerse ourselves in the text. The good news is that wide margins and a generous line-height keep the screen from looking crowded, even at the smallest size. There are only two fonts offered: Serif and Sans serif.
The only way to turn pages on the Kobo Reader is with the D-Pad on the lower right side. Though the buttons offered good spring and feedback, the setup kept us from holding the device in a way that felt natural, with the bottom edges of the device rested in the cradle of our palm, similar to the way many people hold books. We much prefer eReaders with buttons under both the left and right thumbs like the Kindle or Nook. Since the Kobo Reader is so light, holding it by the bottom edges wasn't strenuous, but it also wasn't natural.
Reading PDF documents is a whole different experience. Instead of font sizes, the Display menu offers different magnifications, and users can pan in all four directions when the zoom makes the page larger than the size of the screen. This is also the only area where users can change the orientation of the screen from portrait to landscape (though you have to do it manually). We noted crisp fonts and slightly better contrast in PDFs, possibly due to better fonts within the document. Even images looked decent. However, the Kobo Reader slowed way down whenever we tried to view a PDF. It took up to 5 seconds between the time we pressed a button and the device responded.
Content and Apps
The Kobo Reader supports just two file formats: EPUB books and PDF documents. Because it also supports Adobe DRM, you aren't limited to the titles found in the Kobo or Borders eBookstore. Consumers can load any EPUB book that uses Adobe for content protection, including titles from Sony's store, Powells.com, and even local libraries (depending on the system). Kobo has more than 2 million paid and free titles available through its online store, with new eBooks starting at $9.99. eBooks bought through the bookseller are also transferable to other eReaders outside of the Kobo ecosystem, unlike Amazon's Kindle titles. However, there is no access to magazines or newspapers.
In addition to the Reader, Kobo also offers smart phone apps for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and webOS that will sync purchased books from the server, even if you've already downloaded them to your computer and transferred them to the Reader. However, this system isn't as robust as the Kindle's Whispersync, which keeps bookmarks, last page read, and notes in sync across apps and devices wirelessly.
Performance and Connectivity
One of the biggest drawbacks to the Kobo Reader is the device's sluggishness. The first indication of this weakness is the boot time. Unlike most other eReaders, the Reader doesn't have a separate sleep and off function; just off and on. Each time we went to read, it took the device 30 seconds or more to turn on, and opening books could take anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds, depending on whether we clicked on a book we were reading or a book we were opening for the first time.
As mentioned above, opening a PDF in the document reader slowed things down quite a bit, but even during normal usage there was sometimes a 1- to 2-second delay between pressing a button and the execution. Page turns took 2 seconds, which is not as fast as we'd like. The Kindle takes about 1 second.
It's no surprise that this budget eReader doesn't have 3G connectivity, but the fact that the lowest-cost Kindle and Nook have Wi-Fi and the Kobo does not is a major strike against this device. What the Kobo does have is the ability to connect to BlackBerry phones via Bluetooth. Through this connection, the Kobo Reader can sync books you've already purchased through the BlackBerry Kobo app. Sound convoluted? It is. Transferring books from your computer via USB is much more straightforward. Also, if you're transferring a large library from a BlackBerry, be prepared to wait. Beaming the Oprah biography by Kitty Kelly from our phone to the Reader took 1 minute and 32 seconds to complete.
The Kobo Reader's battery is rated to last up to two weeks or 8,000 page turns. We found that it lasted around a week and a half before needing a charge.
The Kobo is a creditable budget eReader, but it can't hold its own against the competition, which offer more features and better ease of use for the same price. Even if you don't mind the lack of Wi-Fi, you'll balk at the less than stellar screen and sluggish performance. Perhaps if the price dropped another $50 it would be a good choice for less tech-savvy people just getting into eBook reading. For everyone else, though, the entry-level Kindle and Nook remain better choices.