Kobo goes wireless in a hotly contested market. (November 14th, 2010)
In just the space of half a year, competition in the e-reader market has grown intense: where anything below $200 was once basic, readers now expect Internet access on anything over $100. Kobo has had to ride this wave whether it liked it or not: its new mainstream model has actually dropped to $140 while getting Wi-Fi. But is that enough? We'll discover the answer in our Kobo Wireless eReader review.
Product Manufacturer: Kobo
- Competitve price.
- Simple, comfortable interface.
- Light, very comfortable design.
- Universal ePub support; some drag-and-drop.
- E Ink battery and eye benefits.
- Part of a multi-device ecosystem.
- SD card slot.
- Two-week battery offline.
- Kindle and Nook do more with Wi-Fi.
- Wireless drains battery quickly.
- On-screen keyboard slow to use.
- Usual e-paper slowness.
- No file support beyond ePub and PDF.
- Bluetooth of limited help.
Note: since the Wireless eReader is similar to the original version, some of the review will be familiar. The new review reflects the Internet focus, and all photos are of the new model.
Design and the e-paper display
Other than the options of all-black or white-and-lavender color schemes, the design of the Wireless eReader model has been virtually unchanged from the offline model and is defined by its minimalism. 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 for the physical design is that it's 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 hold where the Kindle's aluminum back can be too smooth and feel too precious. And if you've held the iPad, you'll appreciate the much lighter weight.
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. Wireless syncing makes that space more relevant since it's now easier to fill that content faster.
Like most e-readers, Kobo's example has a six-inch E Ink display and hasn't revamped it for the Wireless eReader variant. 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 usually leave the reader idle without worrying about shutting it off. Kobo has actually extended the battery life from 8,000 to 10,000 pages of reading, or about two weeks, but that's with wireless turned off. The Wi-Fi has introduced a major reduction in battery life if you leave it turned on: we found our unit running out in as little as a day. As such, you'll have to remember to turn the wireless on and off, which isn't the greatest hindrance with top-level menu access but could be a pain if you regularly shop for books or sync.
And, as with all e-paper displays, the eReader suffers from a number of currently unavoidable drawbacks. It can't refresh quickly using current technology and may be frustrating for those looking to speed read. Animated games, apps and video are simply off-limits. Many of these are almost non-issues because of the price, but if you want a multi-role device closer to a tablet, you'll have to go to a device like the iPad or Nook Color -- 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. Wireless networking is simple, although we did have to reboot our unit before it would get online.
Speed, however, is still the primary limitation in the Wireless eReader. Navigating through menus and basic options are quick enough, but we've noticed that the new model can still 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 there are moments of irritation. With Internet access, there's also the new obstacle of keyboard input: those extra-simple controls leave all typing to an on-screen keyboard, and the slow e-paper leaves you either waiting for it to move over a character or overshooting your target while you try to sign into your account or search for a book. The third-generation Amazon Kindle's built-in hardware keyboard would be much appreciated here.
Our other concern with the interface isn't so much with how it controls as what it supports. Kobo still only supports ePub (both Adobe protected and unprotected) and PDF. That covers the stores for Borders and Kobo as well as Barnes & Noble, but it's nonetheless a very small list and could rule out the Wireless eReader 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 but still semi-universal standards such as Mobipocket. iPad owners will be disappointed to learn that they can't move protected Kobo books to the iBooks app instead of using the Kobo tool; Apple uses its in-house FairPlay copy protection as a wrapper around ePub titles.
Buying and syncing books
Kobo's approach to getting books has become simpler with the addition of Wi-Fi. Where you before you needed the USB link or an SD card, it's now possible to browse for books directly from the e-reader. We liked the organization of the store; bestsellers are clearly pushed up front, but there's an ample number of categories and a dedicated section for free books. The e-paper limitations do creep up again, though. It can take some time to navigate and scroll through lists to find what you want, and searches can be very drawn out affairs that would take just a few seconds on the desktop.
Syncing is arguably the single greatest advantage of buying the Wireless eReader over its offline counterpart. Any text you own can now sync just by choosing "update library." There's no required USB connections or (seldom used) Bluetooth linkups, although at least the former is still an option. For those with an Android device, a BlackBerry, a desktop OS, an iPad or an iPhone, it's possible to continue reading fairly painlessly or to download books bought somewhere else. Kobo also recently gave the device much more usability by adding periodical subscriptions, so those attached to some major magazines and newspapers can expect to get issues when the device is online.
Pricing is, not surprisingly, very good compared to paper and is on par with the iBookstore and Kindle Store. We've seen titles at $10 that would normally cost well over $20, and new hits don't venture beyond $15. 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 something on impulse. Kobo does have the advantage of a fairly large book library of more than a million titles, so it's less likely there will be a deficit
Although it's not mentioned on the US page, Kobo is still preloading about 100 public domain e-books on each device. They're nothing you couldn't get elsewhere, but their inclusion makes it easy to start reading right away and is a definite help for a student or a traveler who wants to get into classic English literature.
If you still need to sync through a physical connection, Kobo has its own unceremoniously titled Desktop Application; it lets you shop, sync and read purchases but is fairly minimal, without highlighting and other extras. Adobe's Digital Editions also works, and 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, desktop, iPad and iPhone 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, and dealing with competition
The Wireless eReader is still all about simplicity. Misgivings about speed aside, the reader's singular attention to no-frills book reading works in its favor most of the time. 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, Kobo is one of the few that can provide a reasonably futureproof offering that won't necessarily be locked out if you switch bookstores. More format support would definitely help with competition, all the same.
Internet access has also now complicated purchasing choices much more than in the past. When the basic eReader launched in the spring, the iPad was just reaching stores and getting a Kindle or Nook with any kind of online access cost about $260. Today, a Kindle Wi-Fi or Nook Wi-Fi costs the same -- and unfortunately for Kobo, often does more. Both the Kindle and Nook can browse the web and have a handful of games or other apps to use. Neither is especially adept at it, but if you want that in-a-pinch feature, it's there. Their interfaces detached from the e-paper also speed up any text input considerably.
As such, we can't quite give the Wireless eReader the unambiguous recommendation we did for the original in the spring. The price advantage has gone, and its features don't run as deep. Still, we can definitely see a reason to buy this over others: the simple design, the comfortable drop and the straightforward services are all compelling. Just be sure to give a proper test of alternatives before you buy in.