Kobo Forma, First Take: Premium e-reader takes on Kindle Oasis

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If you think Amazon's Kindle is the only e-reader brand in town, think again. Kobo has a range of e-readers and its own ebook store as well. The latest addition, the Kobo Forma, is a top-end model costing £239.99 (inc. VAT) with 8GB of internal storage or £289.99 with 32GB, and is intended to be a rival for the Kindle Oasis (see the specs and price comparison table at the end of this review).

Kobo has taken a key design cue from the Oasis, offering a grip area down one side that contains paging buttons. However, where the Kindle design is flat, the Kobo raises the grip slightly. This slight elevation makes the Forma much more comfortable to hold than the Oasis. Also affecting comfort is the rubbery finish to the grip area and the stippled back (the Oasis, by contrast, has a smooth, shiny finish throughout).

The main power switch and Micro-USB charge slot are on the same edge as the grip. The power switch can be used to sleep or wake the Forma, or to turn it off completely. In general, the device's ergonomics are good. The Forma is larger and heavier than the Oasis, but not by much, and can be held easily in either hand.

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The Kobo Forma has a 8-inch E-Ink screen, measures 160mm by 177.7mm by 4.2-8.5mm and weighs 197g. It costs £239.99 (inc. VAT) with 8GB of internal storage or £289.99 with 32GB, and has wi-fi but no 3G option.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

For all that, the build quality could be better, given that this is a device with a premium price tag. Both the page turning and power buttons feel spongy and a little fragile, while the rubbery finish just doesn't have the panache that a top-end device arguably requires. Extending round the edge of the chassis as well as being on the back, it does provide protection against knocks and drops, though: the Forma has IPX8 water resistance, so it will survive immersion for up to 60 minutes in up to 2 metres of water.

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The Kobo Forma has a grippy rubberised finish and can be comfortably held in either the right or the left hand.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

At 8 inches across the diagonal, the Forma's E-Ink screen is larger than the Oasis (and, indeed, larger than any other Kindle or Kobo e-reader), and its 300ppi resolution delivers a crisp reading experience even at very small type sizes. There's an adjustable front-light that can be tweaked by sweeping a finger up and down the edge of the screen. You can reduce blue light, and set a 'bedtime' when the least amount of blue light is required. With a bedtime set, the Forma will adjust light settings automatically and gradually. Manual adjustment is also available, but I found the automatic setting to be efficient.

I found using the touch screen a little irritating, because of its slow reactions. Accessing settings requires a little wait for the device to respond. Similarly, turning the Forma to rotate the screen requires a short wait for the screen to switch as desired. The screen can be set to do a full refresh for every new chapter of a book, which is handy as every pixel of the screen is then reset -- the screen does a full 'blink', but it's not annoying.

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Apart from the slight lag, auto screen rotation works efficiently. The screen is not quite square, and landscape orientation might be preferable for those who want to read comics or who like particularly large text, as more words can be displayed per line in this mode.

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Amazon is non-committal about battery life, saying it will last 'weeks' based on half an hour of reading a day. Kobo doesn't go any further, also claiming the Forma will last 'weeks' depending on usage. During testing I had one sequence of about six hours reading spread over a few days with wi-fi switched on the whole time, and the battery dropped from full to 84 percent.

An e-reader is only as good as its content, and Kobo feeds its readers direct from its own store. I asked for books from a couple of specific authors on the review device, and these were provided for me. It's possible to use the store on the device or online, and prices seem competitive with rivals. There's a points-based rewards system for buying books, and points can be redeemed against purchases.

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Unlike Amazon's Kindle, the Kobo Forma supports OverDrive public library services.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Kobo e-readers support ePUB -- the format used by Project Gutenberg among others. This means thousands upon thousands of free titles are available, and can be loaded via a MicroUSB link to a computer. The Forma shows up as a drive, and books are readily dropped onto it. For those who use their public library it's worth exploring OverDrive too -- the system used by public library services in the UK (and elsewhere). If your library service participates, you can borrow books to the Forma. Kindle doesn't support OverDrive, and ePUB books are only accessible if converted first, through a somewhat convoluted system. Kobo definitely wins on both counts. On the other hand, the Kobo Forma doesn't support audio books, whereas the Oasis does.

Having spent some time referencing the Kindle Oasis in relation to the Forma, here are some key points of comparison:


Kobo Forma Kindle Oasis (Wi-Fi) Kindle Oasis (Wi-Fi+3G)
Price (inc. VAT) £239.99 (8GB) / £289.99 (32GB) £229.99 (8GB) / £259.99 (32GB) £319.99 (32GB)
Dimensions 160mm x 177.7mm x 4.2 - 8.5mm 159mm x 141mm x 3.4 - 8.3mm 159mm x 141mm x 3.4 - 8.3mm
Weight 197g 194g 194g
Screen size 8-inch 7-inch 7-inch
Screen resolution 300ppi 300ppi 300ppi
Storage 8GB / 32GB 8GB / 32GB 32GB
Wi-Fi yes yes yes
3G no no yes
Battery life 'weeks' 'weeks' (based on half an hour of reading a day) 'weeks' (based on half an hour of reading a day)
Water resistance IPX8 IPX8 IPX8
OverDrive support yes no no
Audio book support no Audible Audible

Conclusions

The Kobo Forma is a compelling product. It doesn't have the 3G option for updating its library that's on offer from the top-end Kindle Oasis, but it does support the ePUB format and public library loans, and it should be possible to arm it with enough books to see you through until wi-fi is available. The on-device controls are intuitive, and the slightly angled bar for holding the device is cleverly designed. If you're considering a Kindle Oasis this Christmas, check out this worthy rival too.

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