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This Hobo has a Kobo: A Review of the Kobo eReader Device

May 3, 2010

This Hobo Has a Kobo 1

This article is now on newz4u.net, a great local Toronto news site…check out the whole site.

So, I’ve been chomping at the bit for an eReader ever since the Kindle made it’s way onto the market. Chapters, a Canadian brick-and-mortar book retailer, has teamed up with a Canadian eReader manufacturer/distributor to bring us Canucks the Kobo.

I bought mine today. I’m both impressed and a little crestfallen. Trust me, this is hard to do simultaneously. Instead of separating out the pros and cons, I’m just going to walk through things as I see them.

In general, I’m happy with my Kobo. The criticisms below are less showstoppers and more gotchas.

Kobo vs. iPad vs. Android vs. Palm vs. Whatever Else You Can Think Of

Let’s get one thing clear up-front: the Kobo is an eReader, not an iPad. The comparison is unfair. They do different things. The much-touted eReader application on all of Apple’s Touch appliances may be cool, but it lacks the really essential feature: a print-quality screen. Without that, you’ll get just as much eye-strain on an iPad as you will on a traditional computer monitor. So, no comparisons with devices that are made for different uses.

$149 CAD

The least expensive reader on the market, the next closest being the entry-level Sony Reader at $199. A feature comparison between that Sony Reader and the Kobo puts the Kobo slightly ahead, the SD expansion slot and standards support beating the Sony model.

“Available in May”

When in May? It turns out that the statement above meant the first of May, but this was never clearly stated on any of the kiosks inside Chapters, or their web site. Even the employees on the sales floor (I asked several, in different stores) had no clear idea of the exact street date. I know there are sometimes delays and other issues, but c’mon…how hard is it to just pick a day?

Setting the time zone

The only difficult part of the install. Take a page from Mr. Jobs…have users pick time zones based on a major city. No one really knows for sure the GMT offset of their time zone. I still don’t know if I picked it correctly.

Startup

Flawless, aside from the time zone issue above. Good job. You can be up and running in literally less than 10 minutes (not counting the first charge-up).

The device itself

What you’d expect. Clean, white, plastic. Weighs just enough to know you have it in your hand, but not enough that it’s a burden. Some paperbacks probably weigh more. The plastic does pick up dirt fast, but not enough to notice. Only one issue: the text next to the controls is only printed, not embossed directly into the device…it will eventually get rubbed off due to wear (admittedly, this will take a long time).

The Kobo has no built-in backlight, so you need to read with an external light source. The power consumption the backlight would have eaten up makes this a fair trade-off.

The user guide and help screens/menus

Easy to understand and use. The user guide sometimes resorts to jargon (especially when it comes to the Adobe Mobile Reader part), which could be recast in more everyday language. One minor quibble: make all the help/menu/user guide screens resizable. Not only will this make the UI behave more consistently, it would trim fat off the user manual. The ‘flyout’ Display menu could be resizable based on the user’s font/size choices, and you wouldn’t lose anything.

E Ink

This is my first eReader, but I’ve toyed with the Sony Reader in the stores. I have to say the refresh rate on the Kobo feels faster, but that could be due to the Sony Readers being put through hell in the stores.

Sometimes there is a delay between the screen responding and a button being pressed, and it’s hard to tell if anything is happening. This feedback delay seems to be an issue with the E Ink technology and not with the Kobo. E Ink is fairly young, so this should improve across all eReaders over time. The Kobo does have a light embedded behind the cover in the top-right, that indicates when the batteries charging, or when the Kobo is busy performing a task. The latter usage isn’t always consistent (it doesn’t seem to fire when choosing menus), which would improve the feedback loop considerably.

I don’t know much about E Ink, but the photo above is basically what you get out of the box. That’s not a peel-off, and the device isn’t even on. The display seems to be kinda like a digital Etch-a-Sketch, in that you can power it off and it can keep text ‘frozen’ on the screen. That is just plain cool. It’s like owning your own Star Trek PADD.

Font/size choices

Only two font choices (serif/sans serif), and five size choices. All are crisp and clear. Until we see a colour eReader, this is fine. Embedded fonts in PDF’s are just as high-resolution.

“To disconnect, please eject this ereader from you computer”

I haven’t yet found a way to use the Kobo while it’s charging. Removing the device from the system tray in Windows XP doesn’t seem to tell the Kobo that I only want to charge the device while reading, not transfer data. This may be a consequence of not having the Kobo software installed yet. See the next point.

The Kobo software (for your computer)

Making this accessible only from the net, when it could have been easily added to the Kobo itself, was probably a hard choice. Most folk have an internet connection, but I don’t, which limits my usage to the office for now. I can’t even download a full install from the Kobo website. This is something that needs to change.

Update: After futzing around and reading some different reviews, I’ve found that you really don’t need the software at all, unless you plan to buy recent titles. For anything in the public domain, or available via a purchased download url, you can just load it onto the Kindle via the USB connection. Probably the best feature.

The Kobo software (on the device itself)

Generally, it’s all good. It’s hard to get truly lost. Kicking around with it in the store (not having read the manual), I found it very easy to get around. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think there’s a lot of room for eReaders to grow, in terms of annotation/bookmarking support, ebook sharing, and navigation. A lot of this is being held up by standards support for the ePub format, and this isn’t Kobo’s fault. The eReader landscape is just now getting to the point of agreement on these issues, but there’s still a lot left to do. Kobo’s done a good job with what they have to work with.

Ergonomics

I haven’t used the Kindle, but I’ve heard it’s too easy to hit the back/forward buttons on each side of the device. The Kobo uses a more standard “D-Pad”, similar to the Sony Reader. Aside from it being a little clumsy if you’re left-handed, it works fine. I’m right-handed, but I typically hold books in my left, so I found myself trying to use the pad with my left, not my right. This should have been bigger and centered.

The rest of the buttons are a bit too small. But I’ve got big mitts, so fair play to that.

In general, this is a two-handed device if you need to access all the controls (both the menu buttons and D-pad) at once. This is probably not as big a deal as one might think, but centering the D-pad would have lessened this.

The hard reset button is located on the back of the device, and true to the Windows paradigm, you have to use a bent paperclip to perform the reset. This is probably an engineering trade-off, but it would have been better located next to the buttons on the left-hand side. Also, take a tip from Victorinox (maker of Swiss Army Knives): include a metal rod with the Kobo that can be stored in the device.

(Note: Apple accomplishes this on the iPod classic by forcing the user to press a series of controls in a sequence more arcane than a Street Fighter combo. A hard reset needs to be available on the device, and no one has yet found a truly user-friendly way to do this.)

I’ll say this to all device manufacturers (because they’re all guilty of it…even Apple): I know you want to foster an after-market around the device, but please, please, please: include a decent screen protector and plugs for the ports. You can make the plugs part of the device so they don’t get lost, and I want to use the device right away…if I can’t put it in my bag without fear, I have to wait. These simple things shouldn’t add more than 10% to the cost of the device, and I’d pay it. Easy.

Pre-loaded books

Nice touch. Although many are Project Gutenberg texts, there are a lot of recent titles, and a fairly wide sampling of genres, including books by: Tolstoy, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Nietzsche, Edward Lear, Marx, Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto!), Joyce, Wilde, Chesterton, Thoreau, Samuel Richardson, T. S. Eliot, Agatha Christie, Herman Hesse, and Poe.

PDF support

Was smooth. I tested it using the FIFA World Cup PDF Schedule (because it contains some custom fonts), and it worked nicely. The ability to do portrait or landscape is very cool, as well.

This Hobo Has a Kobo 3

The SD card reader

Have not tested it yet. The manual doesn’t indicate if the Kobo formats the card, which is a small omission.

I’m chafing a bit at the 4 Gig limit, but that’s because I’m used to storing 320kb MP3 audio on my iPod…4 Gig’s of text (essentially, that’s all ePub is) is a lot of text…the box says it can store up to 1000 ebooks…if that’s just the 1 Gig onboard storage, you can possibly have 5000 or more books on that device. That is a lot of reference material at your fingertips.

Bluetooth phone support

I won’t be testing this for awhile, as I don’t have a Bluetooth cell. It seems like a good compromise between having the Kindle’s built-in support, and the price point of the device. There is some fine print in the manual regarding how many phones you can synch with (one) and what happens to your content when you switch (it gets deleted). Honestly, it’s not that bad…you just have to remember what you’re doing.

It also prevents you (at the moment) from downloading purchased books directly from in-store kiosks at Chapters.

The battery

I’ve always hated Apple’s decision to make the battery built-in and non-accessible. I don’t have the hardware chops to debate the issue from an engineering standpoint, but I will say it makes all devices like this (and the Kobo follows Apple’s lead with this) ‘disposable’, which both cheapens them a little, and makes it hard to keep using the device after the manufacturer has decommissioned it or is no longer in business. Adding standard battery support would have made the Kobo less ‘sexy’, but it would have been a plus in my book. I’ll say again, I don’t have the engineering knowledge to understand all the issues here, so this could be the best way of doing things.

For developers

There is very little developer support on the Kobo website, which is a little disheartening. My interest in eReaders stems not just from having a device that’s easy to read but also has my own books on it. When I say ‘my own books’, I’m not talking about my own blog posts, but stuff I find that I want easy access to. There’s a lot of Creative Commons and open-domain material out there. Being able to create ePub files offline is a big selling point for me.

If you read the manual all the way through, you’ll find a list of open-source projects incorporated into the Kobo OS. Kudos to that. All of the projects were used with the LGPL, which allows them to be used with closed-source projects. I’ve been a big fan of open-source and standards support for a long time. It fosters competition based on features, not vendor lock-in, and allows data and content to outlive the projected life-span of the hardware and software. Kobo did good by using well-tested, off-the-shelf open components. By embracing standards support with ePub and PDF, they went the extra mile.

In general

For the price paid ($149 Canadian), the Kobo is awesome. It’s worth the money. For a first-generation offering, they got a lot right. The form factor is good, the screen is bright, the text is crisp, and the UI is very polished. There are minor quibbles, but the onboard software can be updated, and a lot of that could be ironed out quickly.

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27 Comments leave one →
  1. Jusel permalink
    July 12, 2010 3:15 pm

    Thanks for the information…It makes me to decide to buy a kobo…!!!

  2. marish permalink
    July 23, 2010 1:52 am

    Thanks for the review..very useful.
    do you know if it supports russian fonts in pdf?

    • ramblebramble permalink
      July 23, 2010 2:23 pm

      I’m not sure about the Russian fonts, Marish, but if the font is fully embedded within the pdf, you may have a shot. Unfortunately, you’ll have to discover this by trial-and-error with each pdf 😦

      The company is based in Canada, but if all goes well, they may have a European presence in the future, and multi-language support would not be far behind.

      Thx
      J

  3. Richard permalink
    October 11, 2010 4:40 am

    One problem I have had with mine is that it sometimes doesnt power off correctly – it goes to the standby screen (picture of book being read) which is okay if I notice but if it does it as I put it down for the night I end up with a flat unit in the morning. Also it would have been nice to have a charge option OTHER than the computer as when travelling the charge is only good enough for the day. A car charger/ wall charger would be nice. My wife’s motorola charge seems to be compatible but I am too scared to try

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink
      October 11, 2010 6:08 pm

      They’ve released a patch for some of the power issues, but it’s a little hard to find…download the latest desktop software, it should have the patch.

      Try the forums:
      http://kobo.zendesk.com/forums

      Canadian Tire sells a Nomo wall charger that includes a USB port, but you’ll have to buy a USB cable, too.

  4. Richard permalink
    October 11, 2010 7:50 pm

    As far as I can tell, mine has the latest firmware. And being in New Zealand we are yet to get a selection of chargers – though I understand a blackberry charger will work, so I shall consider getting on of them

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink
      October 11, 2010 9:25 pm

      Richard, I didn’t realize you were from NZ (I also didn’t realize the Kobo was being sold there)…I guess Canadian Tire is out of the question, then 😉 In North America, there are several ‘universal’ chargers that accept many different types of devices…I’m sure these are sold in versions that will work with different outlets and currents. This is the type of thing I was referring to: http://bit.ly/cbzQe6

      The update is only a few months old, and like I said, the link to it is a little obscured. I haven’t updated yet, as I’ve been busy with dead-tree books of late 😉

      Good luck, and thx for visiting!

  5. SEEMA permalink
    November 10, 2010 12:04 am

    Just to clarify, I can download ebooks that i already have stored on my latop onto the kobo and not have to buy them from a kobo store (like kindle )?

    • Richard permalink
      November 10, 2010 2:34 am

      @seema: I have a few books which I have downloaded free which I just dropped onto an SD card and plugged into the kobo. All good. They were in ePUB format. There are convertors out there too.

  6. Emily permalink
    January 17, 2011 2:24 pm

    Question….does one need to own a computer to have the basic Kobo? Is it possible to set up on any computer and then just log in anywhere to select new books? I don’t have a computer at home and am really interested in buying a Kobo Ereader but uncertain on whether it’s practical for me without having a computer at home. Can you buy chargers for the Kobo that plug into a wall plug at home?
    Thanks

    Em

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
      January 17, 2011 3:27 pm

      You can load any non-DRM epub file onto the Kobo from any computer, provided:
      — you have an SD card the Kobo will accept (I use a 2G SD card in mine)
      — you can transfer the files from that computer to the SD card

      In order to buy books from Kobo, you need to install software, so you need to have a computer where you can do that. I don’t have an internet connection at home, but can install software on my work computer, so this isn’t a big deal for me.

      In terms of recharging, see the earlier comment thread…I’ve never tried it, but it could work.

      Thx
      J

  7. February 3, 2011 5:04 pm

    We recently got the Kobo as well and love it. Compared to all the others on the market we didn’t want anything fancy, we just wanted an electronic book. I know a lot of people want their e-reader to be more akin to an i-pad, but that’s not our style. Plus the Kobo seems the most friendly to e-books from the library, which was a big plus.

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
      February 3, 2011 5:35 pm

      Thx for the comment! I’m surprised that the Kobo is doing as well internationally and in the US market as it is (the US market specifically, being dominated by the Kindle, Sony Reader and Nook).

      The Kobo’s big sells are simplicity and open formats, both of which are what you noted as draws.

  8. February 24, 2011 6:48 pm

    I downloaded some books in Esperanto from Gutenberg.org, and the accented letters like ĉ, ŝ, ĵ, ĝ only show up as question marks.

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
      February 24, 2011 9:33 pm

      There are probably a number of reasons for this:
      — PG is currently beta-testing it’s ePub support. You should leave them a note.
      — The Kobo, as far as I know, doesn’t offer full support for all of Unicode. You should also send Kobo a note discussing the problem.

      Unfortunately, I don’t work for Kobo, so I can’t offer more answers in this regard. I know the Kobo is sold internationally, but don’t know how much language support it offers.

      Thx
      J

  9. tim permalink
    May 3, 2011 10:28 pm

    so for me its still a toss up between this and the kindle problem with buying the kindle is that i dont have a credit card so i would have to buy a gift card to get one, but because im a large fan off amazon is there anyway i can transfer ofkindle ebooks from amazon and transfer them to the kodo?

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
      May 4, 2011 2:12 pm

      The Kindle and Kobo use competing ebook technologies. Kobo uses ePub, Kindle uses a proprietary format. Check the documentation for the Kindle before you buy.

  10. tim permalink
    May 4, 2011 5:39 am

    this is a follow up question of sorts if i was to go out and buy the kobo would i have to set it up to a credit card or can every few months can i get a gift card and buy the books off of that?

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
      May 4, 2011 2:16 pm

      For the Kobo, you can either download free ePub and PDF files or buy online. I don’t think there’s any other way to get the material into it. You can go to both Kobo and Chapters to find out the payment methods they support.

  11. Jessica permalink
    August 4, 2011 12:08 am

    Does the Kobo come with its own charger? I’ve been looking around and some say it does, and some say it does not.

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
      August 4, 2011 2:25 pm

      I only have a first-generation Kobo, and it didn’t come with a charger. You plugged it into your computer via USB to charge. Getting a simple USB-to-wallplug accessory should be fine, as well. I can’t speak to the newer versions.

    • keanah permalink
      January 3, 2012 1:20 pm

      The kobo doesn’t come with a charger however you can plug it in to a computer and it should charge {when the red light comes on}. Also if you have a family member or friend with a HTC plug out the tail of it stick your USB in there and you should have yor kobo charging

      Keanah 9 years old {very smart}

  12. August 18, 2011 3:08 am

    I find my kobo screen dark and can’t find a setting option to brighten the screen – do you know if there is a back light or a setting I could adjust?

  13. keanah permalink
    January 3, 2012 1:11 pm

    I may be 9 years old but the kobo is very useful with brilliant books to choose from and the good thing is that you can download free books.

    • keanah permalink
      January 3, 2012 1:13 pm

      I am having trouble with lightening up my screen however you can buy the light and stick it on top of the kobo and you should get a light.

  14. Kelly Anderson permalink
    January 4, 2012 9:14 pm

    I had a hip street reader and it cracked 3 days in no warranty won’t buy that again does this kobo not have an internal light to see when reading in the car at night? Also have you compared the kindle and the kobo as which you prefer?

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