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Kobo Arc review: The less discerning person's Nexus 7

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The Good The Kobo Arc features good gaming performance and useful e-reader features.

The Bad The Arc’s boxy build gives it an antiquated feel, it ships with an older OS, and its Tapestries feature can be buggy.

The Bottom Line The Kobo Arc is a fine tablet that simply doesn't offer enough compelling reasons to seriously consider it.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

6.3 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

As the latest in a now long line of 7-inch tablets to hit the market with a sub-$200 price, the Kobo Arc attempts to set itself apart in two specific ways. The first is its folderlike interface called Tapestries that allows you to organize apps, articles, pictures, and other content into customizable nodes. The second is the ever-present Discover Ribbon, which, based on what you're currently looking at, constantly offers recommendations at the bottom of the home screen.

Unfortunately, these features do little to make the case for a tablet that otherwise offers less storage than the competition in a less sharply designed package than its contemporaries. All for the same price.

Thankfully, the Kobo Arc includes a powerful GPU, so at least on the gaming front it hasn't been left wanting.

Design
The Kobo Arc feels a little heavy for a 7-inch tablet, especially in a post-iPad Mini/Nook HD world. The Arc also looks boxy and lacks the kind of design refinement shown in most major tablets released in the last year. The bezel is awkwardly narrow and isn't flush with the screen, making it difficult to hold in one hand without part of your thumb spilling over onto the display.

Kobo Arc Google Nexus 7 Barnes and Noble Nook HD Amazon Kindle Fire HD
Weight in pounds 0.80 0.74 0.69 0.86
Width in inches (landscape) 7.4 7.8 7.7 7.7
Height in inches 4.7 4.7 5 5.4
Depth in inches 0.5 0.4 0.4 0.4
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.6/0.75 0.8 0.3/0.5 0.9

The 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera is recessed a bit into the tablet's body, making it difficult for a finger to get in there and smudge things up, but unfortunately, there's no other protective glass covering the camera's lens. Surrounding the camera are a microphone pinhole on the left and an ambient light sensor on the right. A power/sleep button sits on the top edge and on the right edge are the volume rocker and headphone jack. Alone on the bottom edge is a handy Micro-USB port.

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Josh Miller/CNET

On the bottom bezel sit two front-facing speakers that deliver powerful and loud sound that becomes noticeably distorted, tinny, and downright unpleasant with the volume near or at maximum. The textured, diamond-patterned back is smooth and soft, and adds to comfort. Also, the back cover can be removed and replaced with a different-colored one at an additional cost.

Tapestries and discoveries
The Arc ships with a custom version of Android Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) and features an enhanced folder system called Tapestries that you can use to organize apps, widgets, and pictures, as well as save articles for future reading. Tapestries is easily customizable, allowing you to create new ones, move them around, and alter their content with just a few drags around the screen. Despite their ease of use and the slick animation that accompanies opening them, Tapestries doesn't offer any significant features beyond what normal folders do. Also, using Tapestries isn't completely stable; I've had it crash a few times when attempting to add new assets or creating a new one.

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Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Opening the Reading Tapestry gives you access to Kobo's custom e-reader app. The app includes features like a built-in dictionary, a percentage tracker to help you keep track of your progression, and a estimate of how much time it'll take you to finish a book based on your current pace. You can also share details of the book and make comments through built-in Facebook integration.

At the bottom of the home screen is the Discover Ribbon, which is essentially an ever-present scroll of recommendations. And by "ever-present," I mean it never goes away and as far as I can tell there's no way to disable it. Which is guess is fine as long as you don't mind the bottom of your home screen being taken up by a scroll of products you may or may not be interested in.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Hardware features
The Kobo Arc houses a 1.5GHz Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 CPU and a PowerVR SGX544 GPU. It comes in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB varieties with no built-in physical memory expansion options. The tablet has 1GB of RAM and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi support, but no Bluetooth, compass, gyroscope, or GPS. There is an accelerometer, though.

Performance
The Arc features a 7-inch IPS screen running at a resolution of 1,280x800 pixels. That's the same resolution as the screens on the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD, while besting the iPad Mini's and coming up short against the Nook HD's with its 1,440x900-pixel resolution. While text is about as sharp as you'd expect on a 215-pixels-per-inch screen, the Arc's display is noticeably more reflective than the Nexus 7's, diminishing its perceived contrast. Also, when you swipe through app icons on the home screen, icon text produces a shimmering effect when passing the middle of the screen as the pixels get redrawn. This is not something you see on the Nexus 7's screen when performing the same task.

Tested spec Kobo Arc Google Nexus 7 Barnes and Noble Nook HD Amazon Kindle Fire HD
Maximum brightness 322 cd/m2 288 cd/m2 455 cd/m2 394 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.51 cd/m2 0.28 cd/m2 0.53 cd/m2 0.41 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio 631:1 1,028:1 858:1 960:1

The Arc screen isn't quite as responsive as the Nexus 7's; however, apps open just as swiftly, with the first level in N.O.V.A. 3 taking an average of about 40 seconds to load, only a second more than it did on the Nexus 7.

Once in the game, however, the Arc begins to show its strength. Thanks to its powerful PowerVR SGX544 GPU, games run at a noticeably higher frame rate on the Arc. Not surprising, given the chip's tendency to outclass the Tegra 3 in raw polygon-pushing ability.

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Josh Miller/CNET

The Arc's battery drains slightly faster than the Nexus 7's when performing strenuous tasks like running a game. After 30 minutes of Riptide GP, the Arc's battery level had fallen by 18 percent, compared with the Nexus 7's 15 percent. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)
Kobo Arc 8.9

Conclusion
The Kobo Arc's closest competitor happens to also be the best 7-inch tablet currently available, the Nexus 7. Given that, it's difficult to make a strong case for the Arc. The Arc's blocky design, older shipping OS, and lack of significant exclusive features make it feels like the poor man's Nexus 7. However, since Kobo charges the same $200, maybe "the less discerning man's Nexus 7" would be more appropriate. The Kobo Arc isn't a bad tablet by any stretch. It's good; however, in the last year the bar has been raised for 7-inch tablets, and now there are clearly better choices out there.

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