Review: Kobo eReader Touch Edition

A Few Design Flaws Mar An Appealing Form Factor

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.

Overview

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.

Specifications

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.

Hands On

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.

Ghosting

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.

I also discovered that heat appears to be the device's Achilles Heel, making the display issue even worse. I took the Kobo poolside several times when it was quite warm out. Not blazing hot mind you, but around 85 degrees. I was shaded by a patio umbrella, so no direct sunlight. The Kobo's display exhibited streaking and smearing that would eventually make the text difficult to read in spots, and it followed that same cycle; on a refresh, it was perfect, but every page tour until the next refresh became progressively worse.

I've seen E Ink e-readers exhibit display issues in warm weather before, but it usually has to be hotter than 85 degrees (most manufacturers suggest 95 degrees is the cutoff). You should be able to bring one of these things to the beach, so long as you protect it. To make sure I was being fair, I made two additional trips to the pool with a handful of e-readers and while the Kobo continued to suffer from page smearing effects, the NOOK Simple Touch and a Kindle 3G were completely unaffected.

Why Force Tethered Registration?

The second flaw is more software related. For whatever reason, Kobo has decided that before you are able to buy books online using the built in Wi-Fi, you first have to physically connect to a computer to register the device. This seems completely unnecessary, adding complication and inconvenience. If you pick up a Wi-Fi equipped Kindle or NOOK, all you need is a corresponding e-bookstore account and away you go. With the Kobo, you have to download the appropriate (Mac or Windows) Kobo desktop application, launch it and either sign in to your existing Kobo account or create a new one to register the device, after which any new e-reader firmware is automatically installed. In my case, the update process took roughly 20 seconds.

You can skip this step, but the e-reader warns you pretty firmly that doing so isn't a great idea, pointing out that you won't be able to connect to the Kobo e-bookstore or synchronize your e-books. Once you've completed registration, you're then free to function full with Wi-Fi.

Recharging of the device is accomplished via USB connection to a computer. That's nothing new, although more e-readers are beginning to include a USB recharger in the box.

Recommendations

The Kobo eReader Touch strikes a decent balance between features and price. Its compact size — even smaller than the NOOK Simple Touch — is a definite plus and the user interface is pleasant to use. It supports a wide range of files and the Kobo e-bookstore, while not quite on the scale of Amazon.com, offers a pretty decent selection of e-books. Having the ability to choose from a selection of case colors is a nice option as well.

While I appreciate the touch interface, personally, I don't think I'd buy an e-reader that completely lacked physical page turn buttons. Not everyone is of the same mind, however, so I'm not docking the Kobo for this design choice; however, the ghosting on the display and warm weather performance is another matter. While neither renders the device unusable, the artifacts and ghosting definitely detract from the user experience, especially when compared to other current generation displays. If you're unsure about whether this might be an issue for you, try one out in store and if you're not bothered by it, then you'll likely be quite happy with this e-reader.

The requirement to physically connect to a computer before shopping via built in Wi-Fi is an odd choice that potentially alienates a whole subset of customers who want to buy books online, but lack a computer. 

Much as I like many aspects of the Kobo, for only $10 more I'd choose the NOOK Simple Touch.