Hands on with the Kobo eReader, setting the bar for low cost ebook readers

Summary:Prices for ebooks are going up across the board thanks to the agency pricing model, but thankfully ebook reading devices are getting less expensive. Kobo will soon be launching their Kobo eReader device with a price of $149.

After posting about the first online review of the Kobo eReader last week I was contacted by a public relations company who handles the Kobo account to see if I wanted to meet up for coffee and get some hands-on time with the device and talk about Kobo's business. As a fan of ebooks I was more than happy to chat with them to discuss this upcoming device and learn more about the ebook industry. The Kobo eReader is available for pre-order in Canada now for $149 with a scheduled May release and should be available here in the US some time later this summer. I was able to capture a few product images of the black Kobo eReader that are in my image gallery and have a few thoughts on the device and ebook industry below.


Image Gallery:A walk around the Kobo eReader ebook reader device.
Image Gallery: Kobo eReader in hand
Image Gallery: Kobo logo

Specifications

The specifications for the Kobo eReader include the following:
  • 6 inch Vizplex eInk display with 8 level grayscale
  • miniUSB port
  • 1GB internal memory for approximately 1000 eBooks
  • Standard SD card slot for expandable memory options, up to 4GB
  • Bluetooth wireless radio
  • Dimensions of 7.24 x 4.72 x 0.39 inches and 7.8 ounces

If you compare this to the Sony Pocket Reader you will see that this has a larger display and more internal memory for $50 less. The Bluetooth radio has limited connectivity support for RIM BlackBerry devices at this time, but may expand to other smartphone devices in the future. While I don't think this will get a lot of use, it does allow you to download ebooks on the go to your phone and get them onto your Kobo eReader.

Walk around the hardware and Kobo eReader UI

The front of the Kobo eReader is dominated by the 6 inch eInk display that looks as good as the Barnes & Noble Nook. While Sony adds touchscreen displays and gets away from clarity as the number one priority it is nice to see Kobo lowering the prices on ebook readers while using an excellent display technology. You will find the rather large rubber covered directional pad to the right and below the display. Pressing up and down on the directional pad toggles you through different font sizes (isn't this convenient?) while pressing right and left turns the pages forward and backward.

The back of the Kobo eReader is covered with soft touch material with a quilted pattern so that the device is very comfortable to hold while reading.

On the left side you will find four buttons (labeled on the front) for Home, Menu, Display, and Back. Pressing Home takes you back to the library view. Pressing Menu opens up a menu with options to browse, I'm Reading, books, documents, sync, settings, user guide, help, and about. Inside the settings area you will find account info, device info, date & time settings, Bluetooth settings and some advanced settings. Pressing Display lets you choose from five font sizes and two font types (Serif and Sans Serif).

There is a miniUSB port on the bottom so you can charge up the Kobo eReader and connect to your PC/Mac for transferring books to the internal memory.

The power switch is found on the top of the Kobo eReader.

Content is more important than connectivity

While I do like that I can connect my Nook via WiFi or 3G to download ebooks, I do not find it to be essential for a dedicated ebook reader device. When you can load up 1,000+ books on a device then wireless connectivity is really just for spur of the moment purchases. I would be happy with even just putting 25 books on a device at one time and even though I have probably 50 at a time on my devices I only read a couple on a standard business trip.

The nice thing about the Kobo eReader is that it supports EPUB and PDF formatted documents, including support for Adobe Digital Editions DRM. This means you should be able to buy your books through the Barnes & Noble, Sony, Fictionwise, eReader, and other online stores with EPUB and PDF files and then load them to read on the Kobo eReader. Public library books in these formats are supported too. Since Adobe Digital Editions is supported then you can connect the Kobo eReader to a PC or Mac for transferring book libraries. All those great free ebooks from Google and other online resources are supported in these formats. The Kobo eReader actually comes preloaded with 100 free classics so you do have some content to get started with right out of the box.

The Kobo store has a very good selection of titles, including a free section, and is now owned by Borders. I was told that Kobo will be powering the Borders ebook store too so it is great to see a strong retail partnership here with Kobo. I have been getting coupons for Kobo's ebook store for a while now and thus I have been buying my ebooks from there so I could read them on my Nook, Sony Reader, and other devices that support the EPUB format. I understand this ability to offer coupons for any title will soon change as selected publishers force the "agency" model on ebook stores soon.

What is the agency model and how does Kobo stand out?

You may have read about the recent forced increases in ebook prices at Amazon that is rolling out across all ebook stores that provide titles from selected major publishers. I recommend you read the excellent blog post on the Kobo site that details the agency model that we are moving into so you can understand why you won't be seeing every new book priced at $9.99 like they were in the past. Actually, every retailer will be selling titles from these publishers for the exact same price so these retailers need to come up with other ways to differentiate and be distinctive.

Kobo will continue to provide deals on ebooks from publishers that are not forcing them to use the agency model, but rather than prices I personally think Kobo may be my preferred ebook retailer for a couple other reasons, including:

  • Support for multiple platforms: One reason I use Kobo is that they have iPad, iPhone, webOS, Google Android, and BlackBerry applications. You can read Kobo books on your Mac or PC too. In addition, since Adobe Digital Editions and EPUB are supported you can buy Kobo ebooks and read them on your Nook, Sony Reader, and other compatible ebook readers. The only device I know of that you cannot use to read Kobo ebooks is the Amazon Kindle.
  • Retail bookstore support: The Nook is backed by Barnes & Noble and Kobo is backed by Borders so there is a strong retail presence for Kobo. I understand we will see much more support for and promotion of Kobo by Borders in the near future.

Where did the name Kobo come from?

When I hear new and unique names, I question where they originate so I asked my contact where the name Kobo came from. I was told it was simply an anagram for Book and that a four letter word was desired for the new name. Kobo was previously called Shortcovers and was a division of Indigo in Canada. Last Fall, Kobo spun out from Indigo as a separate company and I have seen pretty amazing growth and support from them even since that time.

Wrap up of my hands-on time

I only spent about 15 minutes using the Kobo eReader, but was very impressed with the form factor, feel of the device in my hand, clarity of the display, and simplicity of the device. If I did not already have a more powerful Nook that can read Kobo content then I would probably get the Kobo eReader to enjoy books on a 6 inch eInk display that is more enjoyable to use than the iPad. There may be a couple of these under the Christmas tree this year as my daughters enjoy reading and could check out local library books for free to enjoy on the Kobo eReader.

The $149 price point is one of the lowest around for an ebook reader and compared to a couple of others I have tried lately I think the hardware on the Kobo eReader is better than most of these other devices.

Topics: Hardware, Mobility

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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