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Kobo Mini review: Small e-reader faces big competition

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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.

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