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Wednesday, 02 June 2010 10:00

Borders' Kobo e-Reader: Review

Borders' Kobo eReader is one of the best eBook devices to be launched in the Australian market, and at the modest price of $199 it represents the perfect option for those who are looking to get their feet wet in the eBook space but who don't want to splurge on a more expensive and capable platform such as the Kindle or iPad.

review Borders' Kobo eReader is one of the best eBook devices to be launched in the Australian market, and at the modest price of $199 it represents the perfect option for those who are looking to get their feet wet in the eBook space but who don't want to splurge on a more expensive and capable platform such as the Kindle or iPad.

And shortly after you start reading a book on the Kobo, you'll get lost in the story and will forget it's an eBook reader - which is, after all, the ultmate test of these devices versus paper books.

However, unfortunately the device - like most eReaders on the market today - is handicapped by several flaws that will need to be addressed in the next model to be released. Its supporting software is, at best, rudimentary, and the button used for turning pages is a bit too hard to press - and will cause the user to have aching hands over a period of extended use.


When you first pick up the Kobo, you will be surprised by how small it is. The device measures 18.5cm long and 12cm wide. You quickly realise as you start to use it that this is about the dimensions of a paperback book, which gives the Kobo a familiar feel in your hands right from the start.

Contributing to the feeling of its smallness, the Kobo is about 1cm deep and is very light (221g), making it very easy to hold. And it will slip into any bag easily - even a laptop bag '” you will barely notice that it is there among your junk. This makes it the ideal size to carry on the bus, on holidays or just around your day to day life.

We were also struck with how pleasurable it was holding the Kobo when reading. No more holding a paper book crooked in one hand with your fingers splayed. It's easy to hold the Kobo with one hand and turn pages with your thumb '” while you do something else with the other hand.

On the back of the device is a rubbery substance which also contributes to the ease of holding the Kobo. It also goes some way towards absorbing any shocks from dropping the device. We didn't drop ours, but we suspect the Kobo is very durable.

The actual screen of the Kobo measures 12.5cm by 9cm, which is a little smaller than we would have liked - certainly, it's smaller than a page in a paper book. There is one button on the front, which is a direction pad with up, down, left, right and centre navigation options. It's this pad that you use to flip pages - just hit left or right to go forwards or back.

It also navigates the Kobo's very simple menu structure, accessible via four buttons on the left-hand side of the device. You can easily change the size and style of the font (serif or sans serif), change books or chapters and so on. A standard USB port on the bottom is how you connect the Kobo to your PC or Mac, for charging and downloading books. It'll show up on your desktop as a normal USB device when you do.

On the top of the Kobo is a slot for an SD card slot to which you can boost the Kobo's in-built storage space of 1GB with a 4GB card.

The experience
First, the good points. We really enjoyed reading books on the Kobo eReader. To test the device, we downloaded Borders' software, installed it, connected the Kobo eReader (which was detected by the Borders software, but also popped up on our desktop as a standard USB storage device) and bought a book to install on the Kobo - Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The whole process was fairly easy - anyone could do it - and at $10.95 the book was cheap compared to retail prices - normally more like $20.

We actually got a few chapters into the book before we realised how far we had read - in other words, the Kobo succeeds in its aim of creating a similar immersive experience to reading a traditional paper book. This is the biggest test of an eReader, and the Kobo passed this test. The e-ink screen is simply delightful, and we actually prefer it to reading normal books. The fonts are lovely.

Reading over long periods, you won't get any eye strain with the e-ink screen. It just works.

We similarly enjoyed reading portions of some of the 100 eBooks that come preinstalled on the Kobo - all books that are out of copyright, such as Jane Austen classics or Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

Apparently there was more than one Sun Tzu, we learnt. Who knew?

The battery life on the Kobo is excellent - we read for five or six hours over a couple of days, without switching the device off - and didn't notice any depreciation on the charge. Kobo advertises the device as having a 'two-week' battery life, and we don't doubt this to be true.

The user interface of the Kobo is simple and easy to work out. The default home screen is a list of books you have started reading, and there is also a list of all the books on the device by alphabetical order. Or you can upload your own eBooks by dragging and dropping to the USB device on your PC, and they will appear either in the same book lists or in the 'Documents' section of the menu.

If you change books, the next time you go back to the other book, the Kobo will remember which page you were on and automatically load it up. And once you've purchased a book from the Borders online store, you can download it again to any device or PC you own and read it there, which is a feature we love. It means you can easily have the same book on your iPhone, Kobo and PC, and only pay for it once - which is the way it should be.

You can also leave the Kobo on, and it will continue to display the page you were reading on the book you were reading. We loved this feature as it enticed us to go back and read more every time we saw the Kobo lying on our desk.

And now for the bad points.

The Kobo's main problem is a bad one. It is simply too hard to press the button to switch to the next page, and when you do click this button, it will not work about one out of ten times, meaning you will have to click it again in frustration, harder, to make sure that it works.

Eventually, after more than an hour of reading time, your hand and fingers will start to ache due to repetitive strain from pressing the button hundreds of times. Kobo urgently needs to redress this problem in their next model. It was enough to make me not want to read books on the Kobo for more than a short period of half an hour to an hour.

The button also makes an annoyingly audible clicking sound which could wake up your spouse. Normal books don't do that.

The actual interface of the Kobo, while easy to use, is quite slow. While there is only a small delay in switching between pages (the screen also distractingly goes black for a micro-second when you do), there is a longer delay, sometimes lasting for several seconds, when you switch between books or navigate the menu structure.

Another quite bad point is that Borders' eBook application on the PC or Mac is nothing short of rudimentary. The service works, and it's easy to browse eBooks, but you get the feeling that you're using a knock-off of Apple iTunes, circa 1995. It's as basic a computer application as you get. It also froze once while we were syncing the Kobo with newly downloaded books.

We also can't understand why it takes as long as it does '” sometimes up to five or more minutes '” to sync the Kobo with your PC, as eBooks are generally 1Mb or less in size.

One other problem the Kobo has is with the standards it supports. The Kobo supports less eBook standards than its competitors - which you can see in this handy chart that Kobo has published on its site:

We tested a wide variety of eBook formats on the Kobo, and found that the only format it really supports well is ePub and its own standard, which is based on Adobe digital rights management. It does support PDF, but it doesn't really display PDFs well in terms of the text size '” don't expect it to do PDFs as well as ePub.

We uploaded eBooks in text, LIT and HTML formats '¦ to no avail. The Kobo really does not do that well with other standards.

Final thoughts
The Kobo eReader comes close to being a great eBook reader, and it's a massive step forward for the Australian market. Borders has been able to secure the support of a large number of book publishers for the platform in Australia, which is great news for readers.

But due to several notable flaws, especially its annnoying button, which has the potential to cause repetitive strain injury if used in the long term, and the lack of support for many formats, the device is best suited to casual use rather than as a long-term permanent replacement for the traditional paper book. If you only read a few books a year, this could be a good device for you, although at the price we'd question whether you wouldn't be financially better off just buying the books in paper format.

But if, like I do, you read dozens or hundreds of books per year, this isn't the device for you. The Kobo is best used as a casual reading device, especially when travelling '” not by power-readers who read a lot of books and turn pages fast.

Image credit: Borders/Kobo

We're testing out doing a few reviews on Delimiter '” let us know what you think. If the review format works well, we might start to review some hero products in the Australian market, from an Australian perspective.

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