Everyone likes to root for the underdog right? And when it comes to the underdog in the circles of mainstream e-readers, there's little doubt that Kobo fills this role. The upstart Canadian company (owned largely by Canada's Chapters Indigo bookstores) released its first e-reader in 2010, launched an online e-bookstore and took on Borders as a partner. That first generation hardware was okay, but hardly earth shattering and we all know how things have gone with Borders. But Kobo has kept chugging along and with the new Kobo eReader Touch Edition, suddenly finds itself with a very competitive e-reader.
If you think that the Kobo eReader Touch Edition looks more than a bit like the Barnes & Noble NOOK Simple Touch, you aren't the only one. Both devices were released in the same timeframe, both go for a minimalist touch interface and both are extremely compact 6-inch display devices. When you see them together, though, you'll realize that the Kobo is the more compact of the two: it adopts a more traditional form factor which makes it narrower and slightly thinner than the NOOK. It's also lighter and definitely more pocketable.
The new Kobo also carries over a distinguishing feature from the first generation models: the distinctive quilted back, available in four different colors (lilac, blue, silver and black). While I found the eReader Touch to be more more comfortable to hold in one hand than the NOOK Simple Touch, the back is more slippery than the NOOK's and lacks finger holds, making the eReader Touch more suited to two handed use.
The Kobo puts on a friendly face — literally (the icons used remind me of early Macintosh icons) — and employs a user interface that's both intuitive and attractive. Navigation is painless and settings are quite easy to access (one tap mid screen to bring up the menu), with sliders used to adjust font sizes, line spacing and margins. It takes little time to get the hang of moving around, downloading e-books and choosing from titles in your library.
Display: 6-Inch E Ink Pearl Touchscreen with 16 level grayscale, minimized flashing
Size: 4.5 inches x 6.5 inches x 0.4 inches thick
Weight: 6.5 ounces
Storage: 2GB (expandable via microSD cards up to 32GB each)
Battery Life: Up to one month (with Wi-Fi turned off).
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, USB Micro
Formats Supported: EPUB, PDF, MOBI, TXT, HTML, RTF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, TIFF, CBZ, CBR
Fonts: 7 fonts with 17 different sizes (plus ability to download additional fonts)
Music Support: None
Price: $129.99 online at Kobo, or in store at Best Buy and Frys.
The Kobo eReader Touch employs a faster processor and technology (similar to that used in the NOOK Simple Touch) that reduces that black flash you see when E Ink e-readers change pages. The result is much speedier page turns than the previous model (and competitors such as the Kindle), with the display fully refreshing only once every six page turns or so.
The responsiveness of the display was on par with other devices using an IR touchscreen system. In other words, it's pretty good, but every once in a while a finger is just off the mark resulting in an unintended action — usually a menu being displayed. If you're not big on touchscreen interfaces, you're out of luck with this one since there are no physical buttons available for page turns, just power and home buttons. The latest firmware update gives the eReader Touch a unique ability: the capability for users to upload their own fonts to the device, eliminating the limit of single digit built in fonts available on most e-readers. Although it's relatively stripped down in order to offer an inexpensive e-reading experience, there are a few extras available including an experimental web browser and a sketching program (think Etch-A-Sketch). Both are rudimentary and subject to the display refresh issues inherent with E Ink, but in a pinch they might be useful.
Battery life is claimed to be one month (with Wi-Fi off) and based on my time with the eReader Touch, that seems accurate.
That display refreshing technology is where I discovered a very distracting design flaw. On the initial page refresh, everything looks great with the crisp text and contrast I expect to see from an E Ink Pearl display. On subsequent page turns, ghosting begins to appear on the display, becoming progressively darker until it fully refreshes again. It's not sufficiently dark to prevent reading, but it's annoying. I was concerned that my test unit might have been defective, but a quick search on Google confirmed that other reviewers have seen similar effects.
There is an advanced setting available through a subsequent firmware update that allows you to change the number of pages before a refresh (from 1 to 6); refreshing every page — like most e-readers prior to this one — appears to resolve the issue, but at the cost of reintroducing that black flash every page. And for some reason, the black flash seems more prominent in this case than with other e-readers, so I'm not sure how palatable the solution is. However, you do have six possible configurations to experiment with and hopefully one will strike an acceptable balance.