When it comes to the e-reader market, Kobo has largely lived in the shadow of Amazon's Kindle Fire HD and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD. Kobo made the move from E Ink to LCD touch year with its Vox tablet, but its newest offering gives us everything the Vox was missing. With full access to the Google Play store and longer battery life, the Kobo Arc is ready to face the competition.
The most distinguishing aesthetic feature you'll find on Kobo's Arc e-reader is its diamond-patterned soft back, which makes it comfortable to hold. The back is available in purple, light gray, dark gray and deep blue. The front features a white bezel around the e-reader's 7-inch display, while the dual front-facing speakers are situated underneath the screen.
You'll find Kobo's logo in between these two speakers, but no Home button. In fact, the only physical buttons on the device's body are the volume key on its right-hand side and the power button on its top. The microUSB slot for connecting the charger is located on the bottom of the tablet, and a 3.5mm headphone jack sits just above the volume button.
Measuring 7.45 x 4.75 x 0.5 inches and weighing 12.7 ounces, the Kobo Arc is smaller and lighter than Amazon's 7-inch Kindle Fire HD (7.6 x 5.4 x 0.4, 13.9 ounces). The Nook weighs less (11.1 ounces), but comes with slightly larger dimensions (7.65 x 5 x 0.43 inches).
Kobo also claims that the Arc can withstand drops from 1.5 meters, or roughly 5 feet.
There's no SD card slot for expanding memory, but users can choose to purchase the tablet with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of internal memory.
The Kobo Arc runs a skinned version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which is two generations between the most recent edition, Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. Although Kobo has tacked its own interface on to Google's mobile OS, this still feels like an Android ecosystem. Many of Android's hallmark aesthetics are here, such as the navigational buttons on the bottom of the screen, the device's clock and its on-screen keyboard. We prefer this to the heavily skinned Android software on Barnes & Nobles' Nook HD, which makes the Android software barely recognizable.
Kobo implements its own literary-focused Home screen, which features a Discover tab along the bottom with reading suggestions catered to your taste based on your current library. The rest of the Home screen is divided into four quadrants: Reading, Entertainment, Social and Browsing.
Another section of the Home screen is dedicated to apps, including the Kobo Store, Help, Browser, Get Apps, Gmail, Quick Tour and Google's Play Store. Pressing the App symbol in the top right corner directs you to device's full selection of apps, which is where you'll find your Camera app, Google+, Maps, Google Search and Zinio, among others. We found the Arc's interface to be easily navigable and intuitive, and enjoyed Kobo's unique flavor of Android.
The Kobo Arc comes with a new feature known as Tapestries, which lets you create personalized folders based on your interests. Borrowing a page from Pinterest, Kobo allows you to "pin" anything you find interesting. This can include music videos, photos and books. The Arc lets you create multiple tapestries catered to different themes on your Home screen or in other areas of the device, such as Reading or Social.
Pinning items is simple -- just press the thumbtack symbol. If it's a URL, the device will ask if you want to pin a Web page or bookmark it, and then asks you where to place the item.
You can pin items to your Home screen or to other sections such as Reading, Entertainment, Browsing or Social. Swiping to the left when on the Home screen will reveal any tapestries you've created
Moving and managing tiles in your tapestry is also very simple -- just hold your finger on the item you wish to move and then place it elsewhere on the screen.
To create a folder in a tapestry, just drag and drop one item over another, and Kobo will prompt you to enter a name for the folder. From there, you can also choose to delete an item by dragging it to a trash can at the bottom of the screen.
Reading Experience and Display
The Kobo Arc 7-inch screen features a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels, which is the same display quality you'll find on the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD 7. However, the Arc's display brightness averaged 393 lux, outshining Google's Nexus 7 tablet (314 lux) and beating the 369 lux category average. Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 7, however, boasts a brighter 436 lux display.
Although the Kobo Arc's color touch screen is susceptible to glare (unlike e-readers with E Ink displays), text was still easy to read. While viewing the display from angles, however, we found that the screen attracted some glare.
Pinch-to-zoom works very smoothly on the Arc's multitouch IPS display, creating a seamless reading experience. Swiping to the left turns the page, and a tap on the screen will call up Kobo's toolbar and settings menu, which enables font and page layout customization. You can adjust the font size by dragging a slider to the right of the screen, and choose to either scroll up and down or turn pages to the left and right when reading.
This side menu also comes with an Advanced Settings option that allow you to manage social features, such as choosing to display comments on a certain page or share reading activity on Facebook. Additionally, you can set either Landscape or Portrait mode as your default, or let Kobo choose for you each time you open a book with the Automatic option.
Audio and Video
Videos looked clear and crisp on the Kobo Arc's 7-inch display. When watching the trailer for "The Hangover 3" via YouTube, fine details came through vividly and vibrantly. From close-up dialogue to action-packed sequences, each scene translated sharply through the Arc's IPS screen.
The dual SRS TruMedia front-facing speakers boast loud, boisterous sound. Listening to Of Monsters and Men's "Little Talks" felt full and deep. Turning the speakers up to their full capacity easily filled our testing room while maintaining the same high-grade audio. You can literally feel sound vibrate through the tablet when the volume is turned up high.
The Kobo Arc comes with social features deeply integrated into its user experience. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Skype are natively included under the Home screen's social section, although it's strange that Google+ is missing from this subset, considering the Arc is an Android-based tablet. You'll have to access Google+ through the full selection of apps or pin it to your home screen.
The Kobo Library comes with a feature called Reading Life, which debuted on Kobo's Vox e-reader tablet last year. This function allows users to interact with other Kobo owners while reading, share books and passages on Facebook, and earn awards by tracking reading stats. The stats page tells you how many pages you've turned, which books you're reading and your total reading time, along with other stats.
Swiping to the left of this stats screen reveals the full list of available awards in the form of tiny round badges. You can earn these awards by unlocking different accomplishments, such as reading for extended periods of time, starting new books, highlighting passages of your favorite text, and sharing content via Facebook. Reading Life will alert you when you've earned a new badge.
Tapping a pink splotch at the bottom of each page launches Pulse, which displays any comments users have made on a particular page, shows how many times the book has been read by other users and how many likes it has on Facebook.
The Kobo bookstore sports a backdrop with the same argyle print you'll find on the back of the device. Books are arranged on a shelf in front of this diamond-patterned wallpaper with prices displayed under each book's cover art. You'll get full access to Kobo's bookstore of 3 million titles along with the 4 million books available in the Google Play store. By comparison, Amazon's store features more than 1 million books and newspapers and Barnes and Nobles offers 3 million books.
Kobo's bookstore doesn't offer its own selection of magazines, periodicals or media, but Arc owners have access to Google's 600,000 apps as well as thousands of movies and millions of songs. Amazon's app store comes with 50,000 apps, 100,000 movies and 20 million songs.
While we like the Kobo bookstore's clean interface, it would be better if you could more easily browse by genre. Kobo arranges its titles into categories such as "New Releases," "New & Hot eBooks," "Popular Pre-Orders" and "NYT Fiction Bestsellers" by default. To browse by genre, you need to press the bullet list symbol on the top left corner of the screen and press the "Browse" button.
The Arc comes with its own default browser as well as Google Chrome. The Arc browser has an Android feel to it, featuring the same gray boxy interface you'll find throughout the OS.
Controls for Forward, Back and Refresh are situated at the top of the screen on the left-hand side of the URL box. On the other side, you'll find the thumbtack symbol for pinning pages to your dashboard, a bookmark icon and a symbol that looks like an armchair, which launches the current Web page into a full-screen text-only mode.
The Kobo Arc stacks up nicely against competitors such as Google's Nexus 7, Barnes and Nobles' Nook HD and Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 7. Sporting a 1.5-GHz TI OMAP 4470 processor -- a big jump from the Vox's 800-Mhz CPU -- the Arc scored a 7,962 on our graphics-focused An3DBench test, outshining the 7,361 category average. The Arc also surpassed the Kindle Fire HD 7 (7,783), Nexus 7 (7,782) and Barnes and Noble Nook HD (7,831).
The Arc scored 4,302.5 on the CPU Benchmark test. This blows past the 2,982 category average and upstages Amazon's Kindle Fire HD 7 (3,418), Google's Nexus 7 (3,612) and Barnes and Nobles' Nook HD (3,879).
The Kobo Arc was also zippy in everyday use. We never had to wait more than a second or two to launch apps, and swiping between pages when readying was instantaneous. There was no lag when it came to checking our email even with nine other apps open.
The Kobo Arc's front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera takes satisfactory photos in well-lit environments. Images come through generally clear, but with noticeable noise. The 7-incher is also capable of shooting high definition video in 720p.
Kobo offers the Arc in three configurations: 16GB ($199), 32GB ($249) and 64GB ($299) in either black or white. However, we found prices online to be anywhere from $25 to $50 higher.
The Kobo Arc lasted 8 hours and 55 minutes during the LAPTOP Battery Test. This runtime is longer than Amazon's Kindle Fire HD (7:30), Google's Nexus 7 (7:26) and Barnes and Nobles' Nook HD (8:30) during our trial, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi at 40 percent brightness. This is way higher than the 7:09 category average and outperforms 10-inch tablets such as the ASUS VivoTab Smart (8:17). Other larger slates, such as Lenovo's ThinkPad Tablet 2, lasted for more than nine hours during our battery test.
The Arc succeeds where the Vox fell flat: Kobo's newest 7-inch e-reader tablet has a longer lasting battery, full access to the Google Play Store, and processing power comparable to Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire HD. While we wish it ran the latest version of Android, the Arc's Tapestry feature helps set it apart from other 7-inch tablets. If you're seeking a good alternative to the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble, the Kobo Arc is a compelling option.