Tech Review: Kobo eReader Touch
eReaders – or more specifically – eBook-readers with electronic paper (e-paper) displays have been around since 2004, but the mighty promotion of the Kindle by Amazon has certainly influenced the awareness of the general public. Now, it seems, WHSmith want to join this elite group of brand-powered eReader retailers with their launch of the Kobo. I’ve bought the touchscreen edition (Kobo eReader Touch), currently retailing in-store at £109.99.
The next fact might astonish you…I don’t read eBooks! My criteria for a suitable eReader therefore differ significantly from the average bookworm. In fact, it’s been a while since I read a non-science-related book throughout, electronic or otherwise. However, I have collected rather a lot of research papers as PDFs, which I need to refresh myself on before my viva (a spoken exam that’s based on my PhD thesis). I’ve also wanted a device with an e-paper display for a long time, but common sense (and a plummeting bank balance) meant that not just any eReader would do.
The Kobo eReader Touch has been the first, in my opinion, to ‘fit the bill’. Most eReaders will cost you the best part of £100, or even slightly more. For this price, and considering that I won’t be using the device (pre- or post-viva) predominantly for eBooks, the Kindle (with its proprietary eBook format) is an option I shied away from, despite its popularity. In fairness to the Kindle, it can import several file formats via the internet or a PC with Amazon software, but the Kobo supports a wide range of formats natively.
I dragged-and-dropped my entire collection of research papers onto the device, which appears as a standard Mass Storage device (just like any Flash drive), keeping the files in their existing directory structure. Whilst the Kobo got a few PDF titles wrong, and doesn’t separate the files according to the directory structure, it considers all documents of all formats with equal importance, allowing you to access PDFs, ePUBs, JPGs etc., just like any eBook. This has it’s pros and cons, but is something I desired (for example, there is a website for folk tunes which gives sheet music as JPGs). Having watched several online videos of the Kobo being unboxed and tested, I was familiar with the Home screen of the device. I’ll admit that the menu item ‘Books’ caused me some concern, since I envisaged having to delve beneath several menus to eventually uncover a ‘read PDFs’ option. I am glad to report this is not the case! In fact, the menus on the Kobo are generally easy to navigate, and nothing on the device is obscured. Even the device’s unsupported ‘extra features’ are only two levels below the Home screen, which includes a sketch feature, Sudoku (which I’ve never had the time or the patience for, but I don’t object to it being there and someone else might enjoy it) and a basic web browser. In fact, the browser contains another subtle surprise of relevance to researchers. Many reviews stated that whilst eBooks could be bought from the Kobo bookstore via WiFi, they implied that PDFs could only be transferred to the device via USB. However, clicking on a PDF download link in the web browser will send the file directly to the main memory, where it can be read immediately, just like any eBook.
The touch interface comes into its own when reading PDFs. Luckily, many research papers are in two-column format, and a double-tap will zoom a single column to a comfortably-readable level (200% zoom). With only a few minutes’ use, the scrolling feels intuitive, and is certainly superior to fiddling with a laptop touchpad to scroll around a PDF on a screen that isn’t as nice to read from as e-paper. With good light (and good eyesight), it’s even possible to read an entire A4 page on the 6″ display, which isn’t a million miles away from saving paper by printing two-pages-per-side (A5-size), which many researchers do regularly. At 167 ppi (pixels per inch), the Kobo’s display is just over half the resolution of typical laser printer output at 300 dpi (dots per inch). It’s a noticeably lower resolution, but the text is clear. It’s also likely that the Kobo has a resolution at least comparable to, or even higher than the screen you’re reading this on right now, assuming you’re sat at a computer of course. For comparison, the screen on the laptop I’m using now is 13.3″ diagonal and has around 128 ppi resolution, but is only half an inch taller than the Kobo’s screen is long. I have been known to resize a PDF to fit vertically, in order to read it whilst typing in the other half of the screen.
As a Star Trek (and general sci-fi) fan, I’m ecstatic to finally own a PADD, or at least the nearest I can get to it in the 21st-century. In Star Trek, the PADD is a multipurpose tablet with a display and very few buttons, but is generally intended to be read rather than actively ‘used’. Similarly, an eReader isn’t intended to be constantly updated, like a smartphone or tablet with its widgets and other animations. Instead, it’s designed to provide an easy-to-read, static display most of the time. When I do need to ‘use’ the Kobo, however, I find the interface pleasant to use, responsive, and NOT irritating…apart from the odd mistyped character using the on-screen keyboard, I’ve never found myself shouting “no, that’s not what I wanted to do…never mind” at my Kobo, something I can’t say about any other touch devices I’ve borrowed (such as my sister’s iPod Touch) or even my own computer. Some have criticised the screen refresh of the Kobo (and other eReaders) to be ‘slow’, but I find it’s more responsive than I expected it to be, and I’d argue it’s ‘responsive enough’…sometimes it’s good to be slowed down in your tracks, anyway (think how many times you’ve opened several windows on a PC by impatient repetitive clicks, for example, due to the expectation that something should happen instantaneously on command). Plus, to a sci-fi fan, the aesthetics of a slightly-delayed response has an appeal which I’m sure was unintended by the manufacturers!
Admittedly, this is a biased review since the Kobo is the only eReader I own (though I have tried the Kindle). Comparing displays on the Kobo, the newest Kindles and Sony eReaders (as well as others) is a moot point since many now use the same 6″ e-Ink Pearl display. For me though, for text entry, a touch interface or a keyboard would be a must…the idea of using a D-pad to navigate around an on-screen keyboard makes me physically queasy, and takes me back to my days of playing Lemmings on the Game Boy, resenting having to type in a four-letter code using just the up, down and ‘A’ keys in order to restart the game at a particular level (though bizarrely it did teach me to be able to recite the alphabet in reverse). On entering the fifth character, I’d be making a concerted effort not to throw the non-keyboarded Kindle or the non-touch Kobo at the nearest wall. Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that I’m a touch-typer; as a consequence, my QWERTY thumb-typing is many times faster than the average person’s two-finger-typing. Giving me an on-screen keyboard and a D-pad would be like Michael Schumacher being given a BMX to ride around Brands Hatch while everyone else used their F1 cars. I’d find it excruciating…it’s hard enough for me to tolerate texting on a standard mobile keypad nowadays!
So, in summary: I love my Kobo already. I don’t read eBooks, but the Kobo store comes with loads of free classics if I’m ever tempted. It reads PDFs natively, and I can carry my four-year cache of PDF-format research papers around in a device the size and thickness of a small table mat, all of which only fill up half of the 1.5 GB internal memory (making the 4 GB expansion card I bought for it redundant for now). The battery allegedly lasts a month; I haven’t even had the device that long, but it hasn’t run out of charge yet. The onboard web browser can download PDFs directly to the device. Though not-at-all related to a specific eReader, the free and open-source software Calibre, amongst other eBook management functions, can be used to import news onto the Kobo via RSS feeds, making it a newspaper too.
Jamie is happy…as happy as the Kobo’s startup screen.