Despite what the typical consumer might think, there are literally hundreds of different e-readers out there. Small and large electronics firms have been putting out e-reader, tablet computer/e-reader and multimedia device/e-reader devices for years, usually at a price significantly below the "mainstream" e-reader companies: Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Sony. Kobo, a Canadian company with a connection to Borders, entered the e-reader fray in mid 2010, becoming the fourth "mainstream" e-reader producer, although one considered an alternative to the big three as opposed to their equal.
The Kobo e-reader, released in May 2010 adopted a strategy that was somewhere between Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader models, while pursuing a goal of being the affordable choice in mainstream e-readers. What immediately vaulted Kobo into this club (above those other alternative device manufacturers whose devices are usually found only online or through electronics discounters) was the fact that Kobo offered an online e-bookstore. In addition, through its partnership with Borders and the Chapters book chain in Canada, it had name brand recognition along with highly visible retail shelf space.
Like most dedicated e-readers, the Kobo employs an E Ink display. Like the Kindle and NOOK, Kobo went with a 6-inch version, although Kobo stuck with first generation E Ink technology instead of adopting the better performing E Ink Pearl, which Amazon employed in its third generation Kindle (which was released two months after the Kobo). The older display technology helped to keep costs down, although it was almost immediately outclassed by the latest Kindle.
In another cost-saving move, Kobo adopted the Sony strategy of connectivity and e-book management through a USB computer connection and desktop software -no Wi-Fi or 3G option is offered. While storage is expandable, the 1GB provided is half of what the NOOK and Kindle 2 offer (and a quarter of Kindle 3's capacity). In a unique move, Bluetooth was included along with a BlackBerry app, which allows users to read Kobo e-books on a BlackBerry device and transfer e-books between the two gadgets; something that will appeal to some prospective users, but is hardly a universal win. In size, the Kobo is almost identical to the third generation Kindle, compact and light. Navigation is through a series of side mounted menu buttons, along with the use of large pad. Kobo further differentiates itself through the use of color (mine is white with turquoise high-lights, although a more conservative black is also offered) and a rubberized, "quilted" back panel that makes gripping the e-reader easier.
Potential Navigation Issues
In appearance, the Kobo is attractive enough. The plastic case is clean and free of buttons, other than that large navigation pad (the other buttons are side mounted so only the labels are visible on the front plate of the device); it's nice that Kobo gave users the choice between a funky look, with the white/turquoise color scheme, and the much more conservative all-black model. It's light, pocketable and seems solidly constructed.
I had concerns that the rubberized backing might tear or wear off and that the rubberized membrane over the navigation pad would wear out with use (note: after a year of use, both remain in good shape). Lefties may take exception to the placement of that navigation pad as it's located on the bottom right of the device and provides the only method for turning pages -there are no alternate buttons on the left side of the device. The navigation pad also requires more force than most buttons do, so some people may find they suffer thumb fatigue after using it for a while.
Poor Desktop Management Software and Average Reading Experience
The e-reader comes pre-loaded with 100 classic books and a user guide, and a mini USB cable is included. Connectivity to a computer is needed both to recharge the device and to manage your book collection (although titles may also be loaded via the SD card slot). I'll detail the Kobo desktop software at a later date, but let's just say that this was the first e-reader where I almost immediately ditched the manufacturer supplied management software. Even the much criticized Sony Reader desktop software offered a far superior experience. On the plus side, support for ePub and Adobe DRM ePub means the Kobo, unlike the Kindle, is able to borrow e-books from public libraries, so count that as one advantage over Amazon's e-readers.
Once books are actually loaded into the Kobo, it's a decent enough e-reader, but nothing exceptional. Don't expect any fancy features like the ability to listen to MP3s, load a custom screen saver, add notes to e-books or even jump to a specific page. You can jump to a specific chapter, but if you're looking for another page, that requires repeatedly pushing the forward or backward button on the navigation pad until you reach it. Compared to the E Ink Pearl display used on the Kindle 3, the Kobo's display is also outclassed: the contrast is not nearly so good and page turns take longer. Powering on the device also takes a long time and during testing, required in excess of 30 seconds between pushing the Power button and being able to view an open e-book; the same exercise on a third generation Kindle takes roughly two seconds.