Friday, June 11, 2010

The Kobo eReader: a Long-term Review

The Kobo eReader, a lower-priced alternative to devices such as the Kindle, has launched in Chapters and Indigo bookstores across Canada on May 1, and will launch in Borders bookstores in the United States on June 17. Having rejected the Kindle as too expensive and proprietary and the Sony as too slow in its page-turning, I awaited the Kobo eagerly and pounced on it as soon as it became available. Had I reviewed it during those first two weeks, the result would have been about ninety percent gush. Now that I've had a month to live with the Kobo and learn its little quirks--now that the honeymoon glow has faded, I am in a position to dispassionately discuss its strong points and shortcomings, and even those bugs that reveal themselves only upon extensive use.



Indeed, the $149 price tag is what first attracted me to the Kobo. The first e-reader I ever heard of was the Kindle, which at that time cost over $300. My initial question was, how many e-books would you have to buy to make back your money? Thirty? It would take years. I didn't see the point of bothering with e-books when such an extraordinary initial investment was involved. (Let's not even get into the iRex iLiad, with its US$859 price tag.)

Pre-Kobo, I'd looked into the possibility of getting my hands on a Sony e-reader that is no longer made, the PRS-505. For reasons known only to themselves, Sony chose to discontinue this e-reader, cutting their line down to only two, one that is too expensive (the PRS-600) and one that is too small (the PRS-300). If you don't want to shell out for the touch-screen, your other option is the piddling 5-inch screen. I don't care if my e-reader has a touch screen or not, and in my experience, they don't respond very well, in addition to getting covered in finger grease. Neither do I require all the other bells and whistles, such as 3G wireless access and the whiz-bang rotating display, to say nothing of Internet surfing. I want an e-reader in order to read books on it; isn't that really the point? Kobo, it seems, is the first company to clue into this. I might not have bought the Kobo e-reader if I'd found a reasonably-priced PRS-505 before it came out, but owners of PRS-505s charge high prices for their used e-readers. They seem to believe they are collector's items.

Page-turning Speed

I am glad that I didn't get a PRS-505, though, because it probably wouldn't have turned pages fast enough to suit me. I have tried out both the current Sony e-readers and the page-turning is uncomfortably slow, taking as long as 4 seconds. This is the Sony e-readers' primary weakness. I'm a fast reader, and I want to be able to turn pages on an e-reader at least as fast as I turn them on a real book. Kobo pages turn in about 2 seconds, which is just about right. New chapters are slower to load, but as that's an event of much less frequent occurrence, it's not a concern.


I like the uncluttered design of the Kobo. Why does the Kindle have an entire keyboard? What is the need for that? It's space that they could have given over to a larger screen. Despite its smaller overall dimensions, the Kobo's screen is 6 inches across, same as the Kindle. It has a matte finish that emits minimal glare, providing a comfortable reading experience.

100 Free eBooks

The Kobo comes with 100 free public domain classics, more than any other e-reader. This is a nice perk. While it's true that all those books and more can be downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg and ePubBooks, it would take some time to download all one hundred of them. Plus the Kobo versions come with prettier covers. It feels as if you're getting your money's worth immediately. After all, if you wanted to, you could read your Kobo for years without having to buy any new e-books, and fill in all those gaps in your classical literature education.

Prompt, Respectful and Helpful Customer Service

In response to a discrepancy between my experience and what was stated in the user manual--which I will describe in more detail later on--I wrote an email to Kobo customer service. I got a better response than I have received from any other customer service agent I've ever dealt with via email. This may say more about the dismal quality of online customer service in general than it does about Kobo's, but I had never before had the experience of having my issue fully understood and appropriately addressed on first contact. I'm more accustomed to the agent not reading my email carefully and so telling me things that I already know and that have no bearing on the problem. Or worse, copy/pasting a section of their help file into an email and sending it to me. Obviously I read all available documentation before contacting customer service. I don't need to have customer service waste my time in this way, nor am I an idiot, but the average customer service agent appears to assume that all the emails they receive come from idiots, and treats them accordingly. It is insulting and ultimately does not solve the problem.

I didn't get this from Kobo customer service. I got an email that carefully addressed every issue I'd brought up and told me exactly what I needed to know. It was most refreshing.

Kobo's shortcomings

User Settings Not Retained

When I'd just brought the Kobo home and was still working out what I could do with it, such was my enthusiasm that I read the user manual all the way through. I know, I know--I'll have to turn in my Techno Geek membership badge. Anyway, I discovered I could change the display of the book list, to make it look like books sitting on shelves--cute! I could also change the sort order from title to author. I preferred that. I liked seeing how many books by a particular author I had--Jane Austen is especially well-represented.

I was perfectly happy with these features until I turned the e-reader on the next day and discovered that everything I'd changed had reverted back to the defaults.

The Kobo e-reader will remember what books you are reading, displaying them in a separate list, and will bounce you straight to your current page when you select them. Why on earth can't it also remember and retain your display settings? This seems like quite the careless oversight.

Missing Features

Another thing I learned by reading the manual is that you can remove books from your "I'm Reading" list--that's the list of books you have started to read but not finished--by plugging the e-reader into your computer, logging into your Kobo account and clicking on "I'm Reading." I tried that, but could not locate "I'm Reading."

When I contacted customer service, (a positive experience, as mentioned above,) I was told is that there is no "I'm Reading" section in Kobo Online, and no way to remove books from your "I'm Reading" list. This feature hasn't been implemented yet.

I daresay it might have been wiser to hold off on adding its description to the manual until the feature itself was safely functional in the Kobo. After all, it's not as if the manual is a print publication. Appropriately enough, it's an e-book. Reprinting it and sending it to the customers when appropriate should be no very difficult or expensive thing. Furthermore, it's not a great idea to draw your customer's attention to handy little features that your product doesn't have.

Minimal Formats

Kobo supports only two formats, ePub and PDF. This is not very many, and is the one thing that made me hesitate before buying one. I bought it anyway because I knew I could convert other formats, such as HTML and word processing documents, into PDF. When I did so, I discovered quite the colourful bug. More on that later. Kobo promises to add more formats later. Readers who feel it important to have good format support might want to wait until then before purchasing.

Room for Improvement in the Big Blue Button

In his review of the Kobo Reader in the National Post, Mark Medley memorably declared about its famous big blue button, "a pox on whoever designed this thing." I have not found it as troublesome as he has, but it doesn't need to click so emphatically. One day, I was sitting on the couch reading one of my freebie Jane Austen novels. James sat at the other end, using his computer. Several pages later, James turned to me and said, "Reading e-books is a lot noisier than reading regular books." My clicking was disturbing him.

We also wonder why the choice was made to place the big blue button (Kobo calls it the directional pad or D-pad, but that's never going to stick) in the right corner. It would have been more convenient to have it in the middle, where it would be equally accessible to both hands. I suppose they might have been imitating true books, whose pages you turn by grasping the right corner, but there was no need for that and no advantage in doing it. No button is going to feel like turning pages anyway, and they may as well have put it where it would have worked best.

eBook Formatting and Proofreading (or Lack Thereof)

About those free e-books... they're not that nicely formatted. There is no indenting, and italics are represented with underscores. Sub-chapters have not been properly rendered. James is reading Madame Bovary on the e-reader, and was puzzled when he finished chapter 13 and turned the page, only to find himself apparently back at chapter 1. It turns out that Madame Bovary is in multiple parts. There are 13 chapters in Part 1, and when you finish that part, you come to Chapter 1 of Part 2. But the parts are not shown in the table of contents; only the individual chapters. James also found multiple misspelled words, as though the novel had been scanned in and then not proofread.

Kobo is using the 100 free books as a selling point. It would have been a better one if they'd gone to more effort to format the books.

Unnecessary Lights That Don't Work Properly

Besides reduced eyestrain, the greatest advantage of the non-backlit E Ink screens found on true e-readers like the Kobo (as opposed to multipurpose devices like the iPad) is the low power usage. Eco-friendly E Ink screens only draw power when the image onscreen is changing, for example, when you're turning a page. So it seems a shame that the Kobo company chose to put two indicator lights into their e-reader. I don't know how much this ups the power consumption, but I would imagine the percentage must be sizable.

The red light is meant to go on when your e-reader is fully charged. This is useful and arguably necessary, or at least it would be if it worked. In actual fact, this untrustworthy light often goes on well before the e-reader is fully charged, and pointlessly stays on even after the e-reader has been unplugged.

The blue light, on the other hand, is useless and silly. It goes on when the e-reader is processing: when you're turning a page or bringing up a new book or chapter. Or rather, that's what it does some of the time. It seems to operate fairly randomly. But in any case, you don't need a light to tell you that a page is turning; you know when a page is turning, because the screen flashes a negative image of itself. All the E Ink screens I've seen do this; it seems to be an unalterable part of their functioning. The e-reader also displays a little sunburst shape in the upper right corner when loading a new book or chapter, and in contrast to the light, it does so consistently, rendering the light even more redundant and pointless.

The only positive aspect I've noted about these lights is that they both come on at the same time when you turn the e-reader on, resulting in an attractive purple colour. Other than that, their primary impact is to force you to charge your e-reader more frequently.

Bug Report

After converting a Word document to PDF and loading it into the e-reader, I decided I wanted to make a change to its table of contents. I regenerated the PDF and reloaded the document into the reader.

To add a new document to the Kobo, you plug the e-reader into your computer's USB port, where it is treated just like a memory stick, and copy the new file onto it. But when I copied the new version of my file onto the Kobo and booted it up, the document turned out to be unchanged. My alterations to the table of contents were missing. It looked as if the Kobo did not recognize and implement the file change when a file with the same name was copied over the old version. What I had to do was delete the original version, unplug the reader and let it recognize the change, then plug it back in and copy the new file. I had to go through that whole tedious process every time I changed the file. That's bug number one.

After deleting the old file and copying the new one, I discovered that each chapter title now appeared twice in the table of contents! Neither of the two pointed to the right page either.

Thinking something must have gone wrong with the generation of the table of contents, I went back to the Word document, regenerated the TOC, and generated and loaded a third PDF. It looked fine in Acrobat Reader, but once loaded into Kobo, it now had three of everything in its table of contents.

After much frustrating deleting, unplugging, plugging back in, copying, regenerating and so on, my table of contents getting ever longer, I began to wonder if the file deletion was in fact complete. Perhaps the file was only removed from the document list, its table of contents remaining intact? Then, when a new version was introduced, perhaps its new table of contents entries were being appended to the old.

Acting on this hunch, I renamed the file and copied it into the reader. This time, its table of contents was fine.

Apparently, Kobo accumulates ghostly tables of contents that can never be eliminated, never sent to their rest. Whooooo...


Although the Kobo eReader has its shortcomings, they are minor (except for the lights; as an eco-worrier, that really bugs me), outweighed by the device's advantages, and many of them can probably be repaired in later software releases. If money is no object for you, you'll probably want to go with something more high-end--the iRex iLiad looks quite nice. But if reluctance to drop a few hundred dinero is the only thing preventing you from shelling out for an e-reader, then the Kobo may be the one for you.


Anonymous said...

Dear Vivian,

Thank you for a careful, well-written and entertaining review - it was exactly the sort of article I was looking for. I'm still not sure whether to get myself a Kobo or not, but this was very useful!

Jenny (in Australia)

Vivian said...

Thanks Jenny! It's nice to see how far a reach this blog has sometimes. Ah, the wonders of the Web.

I should mention that Kobo has sent out one firmware upgrade so far, which included a bug fix that makes the reader last longer on a single charge. They made some other changes I didn't care for, but more reading time per charge is a definite good thing.

Anonymous said...

Very good article - having owned a Kobo for months now, and lived through the bug ridden updates which have required numerous resets and deletion and reloading of the desktop software, I can honestly say I wouldn't recommend one to my worst enemy. It's a great pity that a device with such promise has been let down so bady by pathetic software and non-existent quality testing of updates. Anyone considering a Kobo would be well advised to save themselves the angst and buy any other ereader.

Vivian said...

I'm sorry you've had such a rough time with it. :( Since writing this review, I've done a couple of firmware upgrades and they haven't been trouble-free, especially the second, which initially resulted in the device getting corrupted (at least, I think that's what did it). I fixed the problem myself by running CHKDSK and copying in a new database, which I found through great site, by the way, if you're having problems with this or any other ereader. Lots of helpful advice, links, etc. Plus the Kobo loads noticeably slower, both on startup and on changing chapters, with the upgrades. On the other hand, the charge lasts longer, which is obviously a good thing. And while I've seen many people complain about the Kobo customer service, I've continued to have good experiences with them. So I'm still reasonably happy with mine. Again, sorry your experience has been the opposite. There's still not a lot of ereader choice out there, at least not for Canadians (who don't want to order something from another country and find themselves unable to use the wireless capability... but this comment is in danger of turning into a whole other article so I'd better shut up now).

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