Kobo Wireless eReader: Improved, but Still Requires Patience to Use
By Melissa J. Perenson
At a Glance
Easy to hold
Improved display contrast and sharpness
Screen refresh still slow
The Kobo eReader’s main appeal is to those who prefer ePub files; for now, this is the least expensive Wi-Fi-connected ePub-compatible model, and it handles the format well.
The Kobo Wireless eReader aspires to compete with the big kids in the e-reader arena. This iteration represents a marked improvement over its predecessor, offering higher contrast, a sharper E Ink display, and better performance. Unfortunately, the Wireless eReader still lacks the polish and finesse of the leaders. And at $139 (as of December 13, 2010), it’s the same price as an Amazon Kindle.
While the general design of the Kobo Wireless eReader remains the same, the company has made some tweaks to enhance the chassis. Now you can buy it in black, white and lavender, or white and silver; regrettably, though, the matte-black finish is prone to getting scratched in daily use. As on the Amazon Kindle, the black border greatly enhances readability. Kobo joins Amazon and Sony in offering an E Ink Pearl display, which provides better contrast and clarity than earlier E Ink displays (such as the one on the original Kobo).
Inside, Kobo has overhauled the Wireless eReader to provide faster page turns and performance. Indeed, in comparison with the original version, this model feels like a fleet-footed marathoner. The improved performance addresses my biggest complaints about the first-generation Wireless eReader (which suffered from poor usability, sluggish performance, and stiff buttons).
However, while the enhancements go far, they don’t go far enough. The Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader Touch Edition still offer better performance. I could perceive significant page flicker and some lag while turning pages and navigating within the Kobo reader. And although the buttons are no longer stiff monstrosities and are more responsive than before, I still had an issue with trying to navigate precisely, in spite of the raised dots that are supposed to help one know precisely where to push; often, I invoked the wrong command, or I failed to select the option I wanted.
Kobo, for those unfamiliar with the company, is an international e-book service and hardware provider backed by Canada’s Indigo Books & Music, the U.S.-based Borders Group, REDgroup Retail, and Cheung Kong Holdings. The company differentiates its e-reader by complementing the fairly stock hardware with pleasing touches (textured and rubberized backing, softer-touch buttons) and above-average original software. The Wireless eReader model makes for a compelling, more open (with its support of ePub and Adobe Digital Editions content) e-reader that costs significantly less than the Sony Reader Touch Edition.
Kobo marries its Kobobooks.com online store–which has more than 2 million e-books as well as periodicals–with mobile apps for Android, iPad, iPhone, and BlackBerry, as well as its value-priced, connected e-reader. The Wireless eReader makes it easy to sync a book with other devices by updating your library while you’re reading a text. (The process isn’t as automated on Amazon’s Kindle, for example, but it is an option now.) You can access your account via the Web, or through an app that you can install off the e-reader.
Setting up the wireless was tedious on the on-screen keyboard, but manageable. When I connected the first time, the Wireless eReader automatically prompted me to download a firmware update, and warned me that I would need to reboot. The whole process took a matter of minutes, and was friendly and integrated. If you plug the reader into your PC, it pops up the option to charge while you continue to read, or to manage your library–a good usability enhancement. “Manage your library” simply means that the reader, and its 1GB of integrated storage (plus any card you may have in the SDHC Card slot), will appear as standard files and folders in Windows Explorer. (The card slot, located on the top of the unit, accommodates cards up to 32GB, eight times the potential maximum capacity of the non-connected Kobo eReader.)
As on the previous model, the menu interface on the new Wireless eReader is visually pleasing; so too is the Kobo desktop app (once I got it to install), which remains somewhat rough beneath its glossy surface. The interface is far better than most, and it provides a better shopping arrangement than you get from lesser-known competitors such as Aluratek, Cool-er, and Cybook; for one thing, the bookstore integration via Wi-Fi means that you can buy a book while, say, sitting in an airport and waiting for your flight.
The store is a mixed bag, though. I appreciate the fact that it’s available, and that I can buy something new while I’m on the go. But it’s extremely sluggish, and the screen refreshes slowly. It offers sections for categories, recommended titles, free titles, and search. Searching is difficult, however, because you have to tap out words letter by letter on the on-screen keyboard. The idea of perusing 94 pages of New York Times Fiction Bestsellers on this device is also offputting, to put it mildly. If you want to hop into the store for a quick acquisition, and you know what you want, that’s one thing. But don’t expect to explore the reading world from the Kobo Wireless.
As with the first Kobo model, though, this e-reader’s 1GB of on-board memory is not fully accessible to users. Instead, the memory includes a hidden partition that’s accessible only via the app. And for now, you can’t touch the 100 or so preloaded public-domain classics, because they live on that partition. So if you really don’t want Anna Karenina popping up in your library every day, you don’t have the option to delete it. Kobo claimed with its first device that this arrangement may change, but given that the second-generation model still has this problem, I wouldn’t count on it.
Beyond the new display–which is still 800-by-600-pixel resolution but is now 16-grayscale, putting it in line with the competition–the specs remain largely familiar. The unit can read DRM ePub, Adobe Digital Editions, and PDFs (though the PDF handling remains weak, relying on pan-and-zoom to get around). You can put content on the reader via the SD Card, through USB transfer (a mini-USB port is on the bottom of the device), by shopping on the Website, or by shopping on the device itself. The inclusion of Wi-Fi puts a damper on the battery life, though: This model is rated for only 10 days of battery life, versus two weeks for the original Kobo and the Sony Reader, and one month for the Amazon Kindle.
Unlike with the original Kobo, whose buttons were stiff, the buttons here are highly responsive. With the improved buttons, the device’s overall design feels elevated somehow. The buttons (four along the left, plus a five-way navigation pad beneath the screen at right) are all in the same locations as they were on the original Kobo, and they’re easy to access. The unit’s light weight–about 7.8 ounces, lighter than the 8.7-ounce Amazon Kindle and the 7.9-ounce Sony Reader Touch Edition–contributes to making the Kobo a pleasure to hold while reading.
Where this e-reader truly continues to excel, though, is in its interface. The text is easy to read, logically and attractively presented, and genuinely friendly (more so than that of even more mature devices, such as the Amazon Kindle 2), with clear directions. For example, press the center nav button while reading, and you’ll invoke the fly-out menu options; on-screen, you get a note as to which button to press to close the menu.
The Kobo Wireless eReader’s main appeal is to those people who would prefer to stick with an e-reader ecosystem that can handle ePub files; at this writing, the Kobo reader is the least expensive Wi-Fi-connected model to do so, and it does the job well. But for the same price, Amazon’s Kindle provides better performance and a built-in keyboard for easier searching.
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