Saturday, November 17, 2012

Kobo Arc e-Reader Tablet Review

By any measures, the Kobo Vox was a letdown that mercifully did not see much exposure, thereby limiting any lasting damage to it's company. This isn't a snarky comment so much as a fact of business life. As a an extension of the Chapters/Indigo francishe here in Canada, Kobo is ostensibly a way for a company that sells physical and tangible books to not get left behind by the electronic publishing revolution. To that end, the Arc is a much better second attempt at the tablet/reader hybrid market, and is out in time for the holiday shopping season. (Can I just say, enough already with the earlier and earlier commercialization of Christmas every year? Christmas is for December, and only December, okay? If there is one thing that I like about America, it's that the holiday season has a definite start right with American Thanksgiving. Here in Canada, the retailers would have you believe that Christmas starts the day after Halloween.)

Though Kobo is now owned by Rakuten Inc. of Japan, the e-reader brand is very much associated with the Chapters/Indigo chain here in Canada, who were the original majority owners of the company. That is to say, it is the Amazon Kindle of the Great White North. Most Kobo devices have a simple charm to them, with a design that is pure and austere, unlike the vaguely over-sized calculator appearance of the Kindle devices. The majority of Kobo's devices are E Ink based, and offer crisp to read text, but sluggish performance if you use them to do anything other than read books. They also quite frankly suck as touch devices, and generally have unresponsive screens... a pain if you are only used to full-on tablets. However, as dedicated e-readers and at the price that they are sold at, they more than do the job.  This also illustrates the need in Kobo's lineup for somebody who wants to read books, but who also wants some of the functionality of a tablet. The original Kobo Vox tried to fill that void, trying to be a value priced version of what the Kindle Fire was. It basically suffered the fate of all neither-nor devices: neither good enough as a heavy duty reader, nor was it fastest enough to do anything significant with it as a tablet.

However, I do want to say that as an exercise in product design, the Vox actually did very nicely, commercial failings aside. That device was basically a rectangular box in the same vein as the Kindle Fire and the Blackberry Playbook, but Kobo saw fit to give it an interesting (and functional) quilted texture to the back of the device, offer it in a number of colours, and produced some stylish accessories for it. Fast forward a few years; the Arc is simply miles better. The screen resolution jumps from 1024*600 to a modern IPS panel with a Nexus 7-like resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels. The pixel density is superb; it's not as good as the E Ink devices, but if you don't look carefully while you are in the store, you might not notice the difference. Viewing angles are good, and the back lighting is nice and consistent. Screen size remains at 7", and in your hand it's a tad bit thicker than the Google Nexus 7, but physically smaller from edge to edge because of a smaller bezel around the screen. In an old-school device sort of way, the bezel is not flush with the glass, but sits a little bit higher. I actually like this; the weakest parts of the screen are the edges, and having just a little bit more casing helps protect the glass. In fact, Kobo is one of the first, if only manufacturers that is touting the drop-ability of their product, even going so far as to say that it will survive a fall from 4.9 feet. And as far as hold-ability goes, the soft-touch backing is, um, back... again. A good thing. Overall the build quality is decent for the price... it's at the forefront of design in the way the new iPad mini and iPod touch are, it feels maybe a year or so dated compared to the Nexus 7, but also feels more 'real world' than the Google device.

There's a front facing 720p camera and front facing speakers, which makes this a good device for Skype and video conferencing. You can record video with it straight out of the box, and from what I saw, it's not just a token camera, the video file quality is very usable for a device of this sort. The speakers were okay, noting to write home about. They've licensed the TruMedia technology from SRS TruMedia, which from what I can tell, is some sort of surround sound-ish signal processing. This was one part of the device that was pointless to try, as Chapters stores are quite busy on the weekends.  However, one bummer is the exclusion of a microSD card, which even the Vox had. You can tell that Kobo is getting serious about building an ecosystem by it's exclusion...

A big limitation of the VOX was that it was built to a price point with the technology of the time. That meant that the device looked like a tablet, but didn't have the guts of a real tablet. When you can sense a bit of lag while playing Angry Birds, you know the device is stepping into unfamiliar territory. The situation is very different with the Arc. Underneath it all is a 1.5GHz TI OMAP 4470 processor, the same one as the Kindle Fire HD, only clocked higher, and on par with the one in the 8.9" Kindle Fire HD. Operation is smooth, with fast load times, and none of the annoying stutters that the Kobo Vox (and Android devices of yesteryear) suffered from when swiping back and forth across the home screen. This is running on a skinned-version of Android 4.0 which Kobo is calling "Tapestries"; it's basically a document-centric interface, rather than a program-centric one. I've got a mixed mind about it; I think it's a creative way to organize information without being completely alien, but quite frankly, I'm suffering from interface fatigue, with having to switch back and forth in the way I interact with my devices as I go between iOS, Android, Windows 7 and eventually Windows 8.  Nevertheless, you can access the mechanics and settings of the machine in the same way that you would with vanilla Android, and you have full access to Google Play right out of the box, something that the Kindle Fire doesn't have. There is an Android 4.1 update in the works as I write this, though in the past, Kobo has not been none for the speed of their updates.  Battery life is reported to by 10 hours.

The Arc comes pre-loaded with Gmail, YouTube, and Google Maps, as befitting any Android device. Facebook, Skype, PressReader and Zinio are some of the other included apps, so it's pretty good to go right out of the box. I think it shows that they know that their target audience isn't necessarily Android geeks, but have made it possible to give the device as a gift for a non-tech savvy family member, as an example. As an ongoing-complaint on my part about tablets, the lack of a full sized SD card means that you probably won't be sharing family photos with this thing, not unless you go to the trouble of offloading pictures onto a computer first, and then downloading them on to the Arc.

The real kicker in all of this is the price. I'm a bit surprised, but $199.99 CDN for a 16gb device is not bad in today's world. The is is the same introductory price as the Kobo Vox, but with substantially better hardware. Chapters/Indigo also carries the 32gb version of the Nexus 7 tablet for $269.99 CDN, and has no qualms about displayingboth units side-by-side in their stores. The Arc's price is also the same price in Canada that the Kindle Fire HD 7" is in the U.S., but which has a slightly slower processor. (But then again, our dollar has been slightly over parity with the U.S. for quite some time, only dipping slightly below just this past week). This is not a price point that will make Kobo or Chapters money; for them, it's about the revenues generated from additional books sales. Chapters is a big chain here in Canada, with locations that rival the big chains of Barnes and Noble and the now defunct Borders Books and Music.The clientele for Chapters is upscale, well educated, well read, and doesn't really care about tablet specs. For that reason, the typical walk-in customer for Chapters also skews more female than with other Android devices. Put that all together, and you have a different customer profile than your typical Android user. 16gb is not a lot of space for apps and music, but it's still a sizable amount for books, and on that, I think it's a reasonable price. Kobo rates 16gb at over 14,000 books, and is also offering a cloud storage service to their ecosystem. One last thing to note: though the Kindle has access to Amazon's sizable catalog, Kobo uses the more widely adopted ePub file format, and is for the most part, location agnostic about from where you buy your books. In other words, there aren't any country restrictions with regards to content.

As I mentioned in past postings, tablets and e-readers are a big interest to me considering how much of the reading that I do is in electronic form. There's another reason to jump on the bandwagon. Your local library is going this way, and depending on where you live, it might be going electronic in a big way. Albeit handcuffed by DRM, circulating limited numbers of electronic copies is a thing now. In fact, I dare say that it seems that at times, my local library is almost trying to get out of the physical book business with all of the electronic content that is being offered: magazines through Zinio, the Sony music catalog through Freegal, new by way of PressReader and language instruction with Livemocha. We are fast approaching a time when the e-reader/tablet is going to do to our print what the iPod/MP3 player did to our music.

If I were to sum up my feelings, I'm  much more excited about a competent $200 e-reader than I am about the $330 iPad mini, even though I like both. The 7" form factor is  just about right for reading, and both devices will do very well in that regards, but the Arc's higher resolution screen  makes all of the difference. The mini doesn't have Retina, but you don't need to go to Retina levels of pixel density to have an improvement over the reading experience, and in that, the Nexus 7-like screens(and the Arc) do very well. You also don't get the vast iOS ecosystem that you will gt with the iPad, but you also aren't getting a sandboxed device either... this is still an fully functional Android device, albeit with a little bit of window dressing. In fact, tt will be interesting to see what plain vanilla Android would look like on this... the retail price for the 64gb version is $299.99. That's still less than the lowest priced iPad mini, and makes the Arc an intriguing 'sleeper' machine for Android diehards who like to do things like root their devices.

Still, this is very much an e-reader, not a tablet. Chapters also doesn't have the most tech savvy sales representatives, something which I would be more forgiving for them than I would for a major electronics manufacturer, but when I talked with the local store manager a few weeks before the devices shipped, I could tell that he was genuinely excited about this device. It's a crowded market, but it's a pretty good product that they've brought to the fight.


  1. Thanks, Douglas. This was a good read. I think the Arc will be an ideal present for my wife this Christmas - she's already familiar with Kobo, so it's not an alien brand to her.

  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)