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Editor's note (January 24, 2011): This product is no longer available, but it has been replaced by a Wi-Fi version. The rating has been lowered due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
Not to be left out of the fast-growing e-reader and e-book arenas, Borders now has its own e-reader, the $150 Kobo eReader. With it, you can read e-books purchased from Borders' online store, which is powered by Kobo Inc.
As the price suggests, the Kobo, which has the same-size 6-inch e-ink display as the Kindle and the Nook, is something of a no-frills e-reader: it's got no Wi-Fi or 3G wireless connectivity (and the screen has 8 levels of gray, not 16). However, it does offer a Bluetooth connection for "wirelessly syncing with select smartphones and updating your reading list on the go." It comes with 1GB of internal memory, and there's an SD card expansion slot for adding more (up to 16GB).
Needing sort of a hook to make its presence felt in the e-reader space, Borders came up with the strategy of going with an affordably priced e-reader to try to gain a competitive advantage. Late in 2009, the company took a stake in Kobo Inc., which was originally called Shortcovers, a spin-off of Canada's Indigo Books & Music (Indigo remains the largest investor in the company). Alas, shortly after the Kobo shipped in June 2010, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon lowered the price of their e-readers to $199 and $189, respectively, and Barnes & Noble released a $150 Wi-Fi-only version of the Nook.
Borders has tried to respond to those price cuts by throwing in a $20 gift card with the Kobo--which is good--but the problem is that both the Nook and the Kindle outclass the Kobo. Not that the Kobo is a bad little e-reader--it isn't--but the text on the 800x600-pixel e-ink screen could pop a little more (it's just not as dark as it is on competing models, including the $150 Sony Reader Pocket Edition PRS-300, which has a smaller 5-inch screen).
To download e-books from the Borders store, you have to install the Borders desktop app on your Mac or Windows computer (the desktop app is, conveniently, stored on the e-reader, which appears as a USB drive on your desktop). You buy the books in the application, then "side-load" them onto the device via the supplied USB cable--just like syncing your iPod with iTunes. Alternatively, you can use Bluetooth to transfer files to the Kobo, but currently the Kobo only supports Bluetooth wireless "syncing" using a BlackBerry. You have to log into your BlackBerry's Kobo app and select "Transfer books to Kobo eReader" from a submenu. In the future, the device will hopefully support wireless syncing from other mobile phones, including the iPhone and Android models (Borders and Kobo already have apps available on those platforms).
The Kobo supports EPUB and PDF documents (including those with Adobe DRM). That means you should have no trouble accessing the thousands of free public-domain books, such as those available via Google Books. Unlike some other e-readers, though, the Kobo doesn't support viewing image or audio files--that means no JPEGs or MP3s.
Though we found it a little cumbersome to upgrade the Kobo eReader's firmware, navigating the device is fairly straightforward; you use a combination of the four-way D-pad (with a center select button) and the four buttons on the side of the device ("Home," "Menu," "Display," and "Back"). To page forward you click on the right side of the nav button, and to go back a page, you click the left side (alternatively, you can use the up/down sides of the button).
The Kobo is fairly plain-looking, but we didn't have any serious issues with its look and feel, and it's better designed than the generic Aluratek Libre ($119). At a hair under 8 ounces, it's relatively compact and lightweight and can be held in one hand for reading. The iPad, though far more versatile, feels almost bulky by comparison. Even the Kindle and Nook are larger and heavier than the Kobo.
As noted, we found the type a little lighter on this e-reader than on some competing models, and the text not as sharply defined as it should be. Like all of the current generation e-ink e-readers, there's some lag when you turn pages and go back and forth between books and the home menu. On the plus side, you can choose from five adjustable font sizes, as well as serif or sans serif styles.
Battery life on the Kobo won't be a problem: the sealed-in battery provides up to two weeks of reading on a single charge. You can juice it up from any USB port or USB AC adapter.
The biggest issue the Kobo has is that the Borders e-book store isn't integrated into the device itself, which has also been a downside to Sony Readers. The fact that you have to connect the device to your computer to access new content (unless you have a BlackBerry) just seems a little passe at this point, especially when you have e-readers in a similar price range that offer this feature either via Wi-Fi or 3G wireless connectivity. (At the same time, Borders and/or Kobo are offering an e-book store app on wireless devices like the iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, BlackBerry, and Android phones). It also should be pointed out that the Borders e-book store doesn't hold any sort of competitive advantage over what Amazon or Barnes & Noble offer with their e-book stores.
Back when the Nook and Kindle cost $259, we would have been willing to recommend the Kobo as a decent budget e-reader. But now that those products have had price cuts, it becomes much harder to see the value in the Kobo, even with a $20 gift card thrown in. As it stands, the Kobo probably needs to get to $99 for buyers to really take it seriously as an attractive budget choice in the highly competitive e-reader market.