Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kobo eBook Reader rough Review

A "Kobo", for the uninitiated, is an anagram of "Book", and it is an eInk based ebook reader. It cost A$199 from Borders bookstore. We got a black one, for reasons which I will explain in a minute. If you want some photos and thoughts on this device, I suggest a quick read here first before I give my take. Don't worry, I'll wait as long as needed.

Back? Ok. Well, let's start with my conclusion first - what's it like? ..... Good!

A book reader is a one trick pony. It must display text, as readable as possible, in a comfortable package. Taking this criteria, and keeping as many bells and whistles away, the Kobo achieves these simple goals. This also helps keep the price down, I might add, not to get distracted by other features.

I've used computers for decades, but I'd never seen an eInk display before. It looks a little like a very old Mac SE display (told you I have been using them for decades). Although not as many grey scales at 8. This is enough for simple images, but it ain't a portable photo album folks. It can just manage a passable book cover. As for the pixels, they are small enough to make a serif font look decent, and the complete stability of the display adds to its readability. You see, it only refreshes the pixels when it repaints the whole screen, something it does each page turn. This involves a complete black then white write, then the display is drawn black again. Think of an etch-a-scetch and you are not far of the mark. The contrast ratio is not perfect, the background is light grey rather than white, and the text is very dark grey rather than black, but in even semi-decent light it's easy to read without eyestrain. And yes, you need external light as it has no backlighting - something that enables the battery life to be measured in days.

What I also like about this unit is the dimensions - it's small but not too small (about the size of common paperback), and very light. It needs to be light because reading can take a long time, and every tiny gram starts to multiply with each hour. It is lighter than most books, so really it's a plus. It also has a nice "quilted" back, which is really just a textured matte surface, which does feel quite pleasant.

Navigation of pages is done with the 4 way controller on the bottom right of the unit, and it's dead easy to do - your brain does it by itself after a while so there is no taking away from concentrating on the book.

So, are there any negatives? Sure, I can give you a whole bunch. But they are minor gripes really.

Let's talk ergonomics. The first issue is the location of the USB port, which is directly under the 4-way controller at the base/side of the unit. As you are holding this one handed your hand falls on this port and it's uncomfortable compared the rest of the silky back. The controller also has slight bumps on them, like braille, and they surprisingly irritate the surface of the fingers after a l0ng while. If this was my unit, and it's not, it's my wifes, I would get a razor blade and shave them off. I know where to press, they are not needed.

We got the black Kobo, and that was for two main reasons, and one minor one. Firstly, the controller on the white unit is a really bright blue, which is distracting to your eye as you are reading. On the black unit it's a more subtle grey. Secondly, I felt that the white might end up looking grubby after a while of use, and black will hide this. The minor reason is that I just felt it looked better, just simple opinion.

So, in use there is another minor issue - the slow response time. The screen is not like an LCD on a computer, or a TV. You do something and then wait a second or two for it to refresh the screen. And you see the flashing while it does it, it's quite obvious, not subtle at all. I use it as an opportunity to blink, or close my eyes for a second, to give them a split-second break from reading, but that's just my way of dealing with this issue. I am not an overly patient person, and if it was even a fraction of a second longer it would be too slow, but as it is, it is acceptable. Straight reading is ok, but navigation to other pages at random is trickier.

The unit does have expandable memory, which is good because some other readers don't have this (ie Kindle). However, the SD card slot only reads SD cards up to 4GB, and it doesn't come with the spacer (blank plastic) card which keeps the dust out. I had a spare lying around, but c'mon. Oh, and there is not cover or carry case of any kind included, nor can you buy any yet, so you have to be super careful not to damage the unit. Not that it feels flimsy, and the screen has a plastic feel to it, not glass covered, so a slight knock might be ok.

In terms of syncing the unit, and buying books, the experience is fine. It can handle only a few formats, ePub and PDF, but they claim to be "working to improve this". We'll see what the future brings there. I would expect at least support for plain text files, that should be a no brainer.

What is the point of buying such a thing, you may still be wondering? Is it just another totally unnecessary tech toy the world can do without? Well, I sympathize with this sentiment, but counter with a bit of mathematics, and a bit of green ethos sprinkled on top (which may or may not hold water)

So - mathematics? Well, dollars and cents. My wife is a fairly "Constant reader" and churns through a few books a month. These cost somewhere between $20 - $30 each in paperback, and we have groaning bookshelves of them despite her giving them away when she can (to school book fates and the likes). Anyway, in a single years reading, at 2 books a month, she might spend 2x12x25 = $600. It all adds up you know. So, enter the Kobo. It cost $200. And books cost $10-$20, that is, they are often $10 or more cheaper. I think you can see where this is heading. So the year cost of the Kobo, with the purchase price included, is 200+2x12x15 = $560. So it's making money back after a year. If you keep it up, after several years you have made back a sizable sum as you don't have the cost of the Kobo in there.

So - green ethos? Well, ignoring for the minute the environmental cost of manufacturing, shipping the Kobo itself, and possibly the poisons released when it's disposed of at the end of it's life (See why I said "may not hold water"?) - eBooks are better than Paper Books. It's the whole atoms verses electrons thing. You can move electrons - information - about with a lot less effort than atoms - thinly sliced trees with ink (ie books). Books have weight and volume, and manufacture and shipping have costs. Hard for me to measure exactly, but picture a Kobo on one side of the scales, and all those books on the other.

You can carry a decent library with you on a trip with a lot less weight than the real thing. But to me that's balanced by the issue of having to look after the device - battery level and make sure you don't damage/lose it etc. When you finish a paper book, you can pass it onto a friend, if you wish. With any eBook reader there is the issue of DRM (the dreaded Digital Rights Management) and of big brother stopping you from doing anything generous and natural like that. There are free formats, but most of the things you want are probably not free.

You could yack all day about the pros and cons of ebooks versus paper books. In the end, I think they both have their place. eBooks are a bit like a movie rental - for something you are more or less going to consume and not really need afterwards. Paper books are for things of sentimental value, or those with pictures, or something you have a stronger emotional connection to perhaps and you want to really "own" a copy.

Other random gripes are the inability to delete a book from the reading now list (open a book once, and you are reading it pal, like it or not, until you scroll past the last page). Also, in the book store, the 100 free classics don't show up in your bookshelf, which seems counter intuative, and there does not seem to be a way of deleting any of these if you don't want to have them any more. Some people are having poor battery performance (a few days), and the battery level indicator and the charging seem to be somewhat contradictory and confusing. I suspect people are not turning the unit "off" and this has something to do with it, but perhaps that's me, and besides, it should have some sort of auto-off feature. It asks you the time, but yet there is no easy way to find out what the time is. These all feel like version 1.0 issues, and I'm hoping in time they will more or less all go away with software updates. Things like colour, full touchscreen, MP3 playback etc are all overkill in my opinion. I see this as a very different device to an iPad, for example, even though you can read books on an iPad or a computer.

There is a lot of potential for simple refinements in the Kobo. It think a dictionary would be a good one. It may not be possible, but in terms of the eInk screen a selective refresh would be a great improvement (that is, if it only needs to redraw part of the screen, just black/white/redraw that bit rather than full screen). And better grey levels and contrast ratios, faster response etc will all come with the subsequent generations of devices. Wait for them if you want, but I think this device is cheap enough to dip your toes in the water with this technology. It's fun, we are all enjoying reading on it, and anything that encourages reading can't be bad, right? Right?

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