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Kobo Mini review: Small e-reader faces big competition

The affordable Kobo Mini is a likable touch-screen e-ink e-reader that's a bit of an in-betweener -- too small for some and not quite small enough for others.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
6 min read

Those of you out there who are e-reader scholars may remember that a couple of years ago, Sony was offering a 5-inch e-reader with no Wi-Fi, the Pocket Edition PRS-350. You can still find that model for sale for $99, but Sony has since moved on to its T-series, releasing the $129.99 PRS-T2 in late 2012.


Kobo Mini

The Good

The <b>Kobo Mini</b> is a modestly priced, very compact Wi-Fi-enabled e-ink e-reader with a 5-inch touch screen. It supports EPUB files, it's compatible with any e-book store that uses the Adobe DRM format, and with Wi-Fi off it gets up to a month's worth of battery life from a single charge.

The Bad

Ideally, the device would be even smaller and thinner. Also, Kobo's selection of e-books lags behind Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's. Loading library loaners and third-party e-book purchases requires tethering to a PC.

The Bottom Line

The affordable Kobo Mini is a likable touch-screen e-ink e-reader that's too small for some and not quite small enough for others.

Some people actually liked the smaller e-reader, and now Kobo is selling the Mini, a 5-inch model (with Wi-Fi) that's smaller than a mass-market paperback book, and sports a touch screen. It retails for $79.99.

I've used it for a couple of weeks and think it's a decent-enough little e-reader, cute in its own way despite its somewhat generic styling. Yeah, it could be slightly zippier (it has an 800MHz processor, compared with the 1GHz processor found in the step-up Kobo Glo), but my only real gripe is that I wish it were even smaller. There's a lot of bezel and the 4.7-ounce Mini is about as thick as larger e-readers, so you're left with a device that's fairly compact but would be cooler if it were trimmed down even more and able to fit in a shirt pocket, not just the pockets of baggy jeans.

The Kobo Mini is the lightest available e-reader at 4.7 ounces. Sarah Tew/CNET

For some, of course, the Mini's more compact size may be a problem. A lot of folks like to blow up the font size on their e-readers, and when you're dealing with a smaller display, you can end up with only a few lines of text per page. But if you're willing to read using a medium to small font, the Mini is quite usable, though you will end up turning pages more often.

Entry-level specs
From a specs standpoint, The Mini is something of a 2011 model -- it sports an older 800x600 Vizplex V110 e-ink display along with the aforementioned 800MHz procesor. The Kobo Glo and Amazon Kindle Paperwhite both feature a higher-resolution 1,024x768-pixel e-ink display.

The Mini uses the same IR-based touch technology that's found in the Nook Simple Touch, the Sony PRS-T2, and the discontinued Kindle Touch (the Paperwhite uses capacitive touch technology). It works well; the screen was generally responsive to my touch.

The Mini comes in white or black. Sarah Tew/CNET

At the top of the device you'll find a power button, and there's a Micro-USB connection at the bottom of the device for charging (you get a cable in the box but no AC adapter) and transferring files. Unlike the Kobo Glo, there's no microSD expansion slot for adding more memory beyond the 2GB of internal memory, 1GB of which is usable for storage.

It's also worth mentioning that there's no headphone jack, since the Mini, like all of the latest e-readers, doesn't have any sort of audio option.

Cosmetically, the device comes in white or black, and Kobo sells interchangeable back covers that come in red, purple or teal, if you feel like swapping out the one that shipped with your device.

The back cover is removable. Sarah Tew/CNET

Kobo's done some interesting things with the fonts on the device. You can really customize how the text is displayed on the screen, with the ability to change the margins and justification, as well the sharpness and "weight" of particular fonts. I didn't find the contrast incredibly good -- the letters aren't inky black but more of a dark gray -- but after some adjustments, the text looks quite decent, even without the benefit of the higher-resolution display found on the Kobo Glo.

The other unique customization feature is the ability to adjust how often the screen refreshes -- that is to say, flashes -- to clear the ghosting inherent to e-ink. You can have it refresh every page turn or less often, down to every six page turns (the setting is found under "Reading Settings"). For those who don't like the flashing, you'll want to stick with six. But if you don't mind the flashing and are more irritated by the ghosting artifacts, you can set it to refresh more frequently.

The Kobo Mini next to the $129.99 Kobo Glo. Sarah Tew/CNET

Kobo's Reading Life social-reading features, and Kobo Picks, which makes reading recommendations based on your feedback and preferences, are also included, along with standard features such as a built-in dictionary with 13 different language options. Yes, the Glo is an international device, so you can change its "base" language to one of several options. You can also highlight words and sentences and add annotations. Standard fare for an e-reader these days, but it's there.

As far as what files the Mini accepts, it's considered an "open" device with support for EPUB files with or without DRM copy protection. You can buy EPUB e-books from any EPUB-compatible store (so not Apple, not Amazon) so long as you install Adobe Digital Editions on your computer. The same goes for library e-books: they have to be manually transferred over to your device. In contrast, many libraries now allow you to send files directly to other e-readers such as the Kindle.

Kobo does have apps for Android and iOS, so you can sync books bought via the Kobo Store across multiple devices just as you can with the Nook, Kindle, and Sony Reader. However, the Kobo Store simply isn't on par with the Kindle or Nook e-book stores and Kobo doesn't have an e-book lending option or anything like the Amazon Kindle Owners' Lending Library, which allows Prime members to check out certain e-books for free (one book title per month). Amazon also has other small but useful features such as "Send to Kindle" plug-ins for browsers that you can use to send articles directly to your Kindle.

Finally, in the Mini's Extras section you'll find a couple games (chess, sudoku), a sketchpad, and a basic Web browser that works but not well.

The interchangeable backs are available in three different colors. Kobo

In December of 2012 Kobo released a firmware upgrade that offered some small performance tweaks and a updated home screen. Over time, e-readers manage to improve slightly through software upgrades, and the Mini is no exception. When the Mini was first released, the company said the battery would last for "over two weeks" with Wi-Fi off. Now it's "up to a month." That's not as good as the battery life of some competing models, but it's decent enough.

As I said earlier, while the Kobo Mini may not be the zippiest model, it offers acceptable performance. Books opened pretty quickly and page turn speeds were fine. Compared with the latest smartphones and tablets, it's going to seem sluggish. Compared with other e-ink readers, it may be step or two behind, but they're not big steps.

The device almost fits in the palm of your hand. Sarah Tew/CNET

The Kobo Mini is one of those devices that people are curious to check out when they see it for the first time. "What's that?" they usually ask. When you tell them it's a smaller e-reader, like a sort of "Kindle Mini," they like to hold it their hands, try putting it in a pocket, and maybe read a few pages on it. Most are surprised that it's as usable as it is, but they come away not totally sure how much they like it. Those who have a larger smartphone, such as a Samsung Galaxy S3, are quicker to dismiss it; "My phone screen is almost as big as that screen," is a typical refrain.

I personally don't feel too strongly one way or another about it. I like the small size but I wish it were a bit smaller -- or a bit cheaper ($79 is pretty cheap, but in some ways this feels like a $59 device). But I'm speaking from the standpoint of choice. Here in the U.S. you can pick up the latest entry-level Kindle for $69 or the Nook Simple Touch for $79. The Kindle Paperwhite and Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, which feature integrated lights, will cost you $40 more.

I suppose elsewhere in the world where there's less choice -- Kobo has a big international presence -- if you were looking for a modestly priced, very compact e-reader with a touch screen, the Mini would seem more compelling. As it stands, though, it's a likable product that's a bit of an in-betweener -- too small for some and not quite small enough for others.


Kobo Mini

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 6