First Look: Borders’ Kobo ebook reader


Think of the Kobo as the netbook of ebook readers – and not just any netbook but the original breed of low-spec low-price and task-specific machines like the Eee PC.

Short on features? That’s perhaps part of its appeal at least where the mainstream market will be concerned.

Kobo lets you browse your personal library choose a book turn the pages and bookmark your place before you stop reading. That’s as complicated as it gets precisely because that’s as simple as it should be. Like the original netbooks Kobo is designed around pretty much one key task.

And as with the first netbooks that means it can be built down to an almost no-brainer no-risk price and potentially become that most desirable of stock items known as “an impulse buy”.

Look and feel

Available in white and black Kobo’s design is as minimalist as the feature set. The only control on the front panel is an oversized square navigation button with an odd ‘rubbery’ feel. An immediate issue with this – the button’s location makes sense for right-hand users who can thumb to the next (or previous) page but southpaws will find it frustrating.

Kindle users will miss the Kindle’s dedicated Page Menu and Back controls but the rest of us will make do with Kobo’s multifunction blob quite nicely.

Kobo’s back panel has been fashioned for ‘holdability’ with a textured rubber covering providing a grip that’s comfortable yet both confidently firm – there’s no nagging fear it will slide out of your hand if you’re holding it at an angle or juggling the Kobo and your coffee.

On-screen interface

Like Kobo’s physical design the UI is as sparse as it can get away with.

The navigation button lets you tap left or right to turn the page and up or down to increase or decrease the font through five sizes (the typeface can also be changed from serif to sans serif).

There’s also a simple control strip on the left side of the display which matches to labels etched onto Kobo’s front panel.

Screen

Kobo’s six-inch e-ink screen is sufficient to the task of reading. It’s better suited to reading plain text for long period (and in all manner of light conditions) than a colour TFT screen such as that of the iPad although you’re giving up on complex illustrations and if course all colour and interactivity.

But Kobo cuts some corners to keep the price down. The display shows only eight levels of grayscale (eight shades from white to black) so while the screen has decent contrast – especially in a well-lit environment – it’s not as ‘rich’ as Kindle’s 16-shade screen.

Page turning is also noticeably laggard with each flip of the virtual page briefly pausing to show what looks like a photographic negative before the new page appears. It’s a bothersome and distracting trait especially when you turn pages twice as often as on a regular book (because you’re only able to see one page at a time on the screen).

The Kindle’s page-turn response is faster snappier and less intrusive – evidence of a faster processor superior operating system and/or display IO.

Storage and synchronisation

In addition to the inbuilt 1GB of flash memory which Borders says can hold 1000 typical books (one hundred public domain titles are preloaded) Kobo sports an SD card slot for adding thousands more titles to your grab-and-go library.

Publications in ePub and PDF formats (both open and DRM-protected) are first downloaded to your Windows or Mac system and then sideloaded onto Kobo over a USB cable or off the SD card.

Want Wi-Fi or 3G access to the bookstore so you can browse buy and download on the move? Then Kobo’s not for you. But that won’t bother the bulk of consumers who are already comfortable using the same PC-centric approach for loading music into their iPods.

Best-seller or bargain bin?

Kobo’s success or failure will be less about competing against Kindle or even the iPad than about how serious Borders are in their drive to become “the ebookstore for Australian ebook readers”.

Kobo’s $199 pricepoint is the first step and bundling this with a worthy selection of just-released and ‘classic’ titles – or even a $50 ebookstore voucher – will be a smart promotional move to snare the casual ebook buyers.

Then it will come down to a steady stream of more ebooks with sensible pricing at a steep discount to the printed version.

But as a starter the $199 sticker on this sweet simple and rather stylish ebook reader could make the Kobo as hard to put down as any best-seller.