In less than a year, Kobo has made some major changes to its eReader. Shortly after Amazon and Barnes & Noble dropped the prices on their flagship devices, Kobo announced both a price drop and a new model with Wi-Fi connectivity. At $139, the Kobo Wireless is just as affordable as the Kindle and Nook, but it comes up short.
The updates to the Kobo Wireless are mostly internal, leaving the outer design much the same as the original. This is a good thing, as we liked the original Kobo's slim profile--7.2 x 4.7 x 0.4 inches--and very light weight: just 7.8 ounces. The reader also retains the soft-touch, quilted back that makes it so comfortable to hold. One nice addition is a range of color choices beyond the original's white front and silver backing. Now customers can choose from all black (Onyx) or white with a lilac back.
The ports remain the same; an SD card slot on top (up 32GB capacity), and a miniUSB port on the bottom for charging or connecting to a computer. The only small change is to the buttons that line the left edge of the device: Display has been replaced by Shop, which pops up a menu that takes users to the Kobo storefront screen or, if already in the store, offers further navigation options.
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The only way to turn pages is with the D-Pad on the lower right side. Though the pad offered good spring and feedback, the setup kept us from holding the device in a way that felt natural. We much prefer eReaders with page turn buttons under both the left and right thumbs, as on the Kindle 3G or Nook. Since the Kobo Reader is so light, holding it by the bottom edges wasn't strenuous, but it also wasn't comfortable.
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Kobo has made a few tweaks to the software that runs the Reader, mostly having to do with the new functionality. Most functions are only one or two button pushes away, which we appreciated. Within any screen, users can hit Menu for more options (including the Display functions, as they no longer have a dedicated button). The Menu also shows the battery life and Wi-Fi status at the bottom.
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 pre-loaded, 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.
Unfortunately, the Kobo Wireless still suffers from the sluggishness we noted with the previous version. We noticed the lag most when moving from different areas (such as from within a book to the Home screen) and we found ourselves pushing buttons more than once because we weren't sure the first press registered.
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Wireless Store and Content
Gone is the awkward Bluetooth-to-BlackBerry connectivity of the original Kobo Reader, replaced by 802.11 b/g wireless. Though it's limited to one function--accessing the store--and doesn't offer any other benefits such as web browsing, at least owners can buy and download books without having to connect to their computers.
The first time users access the Store on the Kobo Wireless, they're prompted to enable the wireless radio and connect to a network. This process doesn't take that long, but it forces you to step through several screens when it could just involve one.
If the device falls asleep or the user turns it off, the Wi-Fi turns off and doesn't come back on automatically when you turn the device on again. Instead of assuming you want to turn the wireless on and connect to a known network when you choose "Shop Now," the Reader makes users go through each step every time.
Once we actually got to the Store, the experience was mostly straightforward. Kobo has more than 2.2 million paid and free titles available through its online store, with New York Times best sellers starting at $9.99.
New to the store is the addition of periodicals. Currently, there are only 13 newspapers and 13 magazines, including The New York Times, The Vancouver Sun, Reason Magazine, and The Nation.
The Reader is also able to access eBooks from Borders Books natively as that bookseller utilizes Kobo's catalog and software. Due to its support of the ePub and PDF formats, users can buy eBooks from other stores and public library systems that sell/loan books in these formats that utilize Adobe's DRM technology.
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The Kobo Wireless Reader's 6-inch Vizplex E Ink display isn't as crisp as the Nook's, nor is the contrast as deep as the Kindle 3G. However, the contrast is improved over the original and we no longer experienced the faded-looking text we noted in our initial review. Still, we wish the Reader offered more size and font face choices, as we saw on the Sony Readers. The option to adjust margins and line height would also be welcome. Though this is a budget eReader, these features don't strike us as something only premium devices should have.
On the previous version of the software, each time we came to a chapter break in our book, the device would flash a literature-related quote on the screen while it loaded the next chapter. This was disconcerting, especially in books with short chapters. The Kobo Wireless doesn't interrupt the flow with a quote anymore, though there is still about a 3-second pause each time we moved from one chapter to the next.
Page turns are faster than before, taking just a hair over a second. This isn't as fast as the Nook (with the 1.5 version update), but about the same as the Kindle 3G.
One major omission in the Kobo experience is that of bookmarks. The software will mark the last page read of any book, but users cannot create any other bookmarks. There are no notes or highlights, either, but as the Reader doesn't have a keyboard, this isn't a surprise.
Reading PDF documents is a whole different experience from reading books. Instead of font sizes, the Display options offer 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 Wireless 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.
Software and Ecosystem
A few weeks before the Kobo Wireless Reader hit shelves, the company finally released its first desktop software. Here, users can link their Kobo accounts, download books already purchased (but not periodicals), and access the Kobo Store. The software will recognize the Kobo Wireless once it's plugged in to a PC or Mac and will sync the libraries, but won't allow users to choose specific books to upload to the Reader. There are also no advanced management options such as making collections, custom bookshelves, or archiving books to Kobo's servers as is available for the Kindle and Nook.
Kobo keeps track of all the books customers purchase, and allows them to download them to any device that utilizes Kobo's software. This includes apps for the iPhone and iPad, plus BlackBerry (including the PlayBook tablet, when it's released), Android, and WebOS. With the release of this software, users will also be able to sync the last page read across Kobo apps, though it doesn't work as smoothly as Amazon's WhisperSync.
Now that the Reader has Wi-Fi, Kobo can push updates to the software over the air and have done so once as of press time.
To test the Wi-Fi radio's strength, we downloaded several books from Kobo's store, including Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, Oprah by Kitty Kelly, and How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu. The average download speed of 1.8 Mbps is slower than the Kindle Wi-Fi (2.7 Mbps) but faster than the Pandigital Novel (1.7 Mbps).
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Power Management and Battery Life
Left alone for a few minutes, the Reader will automatically go into Sleep mode to conserve energy. However, if a user presses the power button on top, the device sometimes turns completely off, and you'll have to wait 28 seconds for it to power up again.
The Kobo Wireless is rated to last around 10,000 page turns or around 2 weeks. We used the Reader intermittently for a week, leaving the wireless radio on purposefully, and noted that the battery was a little less than half empty by the end of our testing.
The Kobo Wireless Reader represents an improvement over the first generation, but some of the core issues still remain. While the addition of Wi-Fi connectivity is welcome, mediocre ergonomics coupled with somewhat sluggish performance are still turn-offs. Then there's the price. At $139, the Kobo Wireless costs the same as the Kindle Wi-Fi, but doesn't match its design, feature set, or speed. And even though the Kobo's content system is more open than Amazon's, so is the Nook Wi-Fi, which costs only $10 more and also beats this device in most respects.