Editors' note (October 3, 2011): The review below makes comparisons to the 2010 Amazon Kindle and the 2011 Barnes & Noble Nook Touch. Potential buyers should note that Amazon has since announced new Kindle models for 2011. We recommend checking out the entry-level 2011 Kindle ($79) and especially the Kindle Touch ($99, available November 21) before making a buying decision. See Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad: Which e-book reader should you buy? for more information.
Touch is all the rage these days in the e-reader market, and just as Barnes & Noble has moved to a touch-screen interface for its latest Nook e-ink model, so, too, has Kobo with its 2011 eReader Touch Edition.
If you've run across any of Kobo's previous e-readers, the Touch Edition doesn't look so different from last year's Kobo Wireless, though it certainly has a more refined design. It's understated yet it looks sleek, with a quilted back, and is overall slightly smaller and lighter than the Nook Touch (and Amazon Kindle). It comes in a variety of colors (black, blue, silver, and lavender) and because it's slightly narrower than the Nook, it's arguably a little bit more comfortable to hold in your hand.
As its name implies, Kobo's new e-reader has a touch screen and uses the same Neonode infrared technology that's found in Sony's touch-screen e-readers and the new Nook Touch. It also has E Ink's latest-generation Pearl e-ink screen.
Here's a look at the key specs:
What's good about this Kobo? Well, as we said, it has a compact, elegant design, with only a couple of buttons (since this is a touch-screen e-reader, there's a built-in virtual keyboard), and it matches up pretty well with the competition from a features standpoint. It's also well-priced at $129.99.
Though it doesn't have the Kindle's audio capabilities (MP3) or text-to-speech functionality or any sort of peer lending features (with both the Kindle and Nook you can lend out certain titles you own), all the other core elements are here: there's a built-in e-book store that allows you to add titles right from the device via Wi-Fi, and it supports EPUB, PDF files, and e-book lending from your local library (Adobe DRM).
PDF viewing is actually better on this Kobo than on the new Nook (you can zoom in and out, which you can't on the Nook), though a 6-inch e-ink screen is not exactly a great platform for viewing PDF documents. If PDFs are your thing, you're much better off with the iPad 2 and GoodReader app.
In terms of extras, there's a basic Web browser that's been labeled with the "beta" tag. It's a little sluggish but works OK; the touch screen does help when navigating Web pages and clicking on links.
News junkies can subscribe to a smattering of newspapers and magazines on the Kobo. However, with fewer than 40 periodical choices so far, the Kobo falls behind on its selection compared with what's available on the Kindle, Nook, and iPad. There are myriad iOS and Android news apps (and browser-based news sites) available.
Kobo also has something called Reading Life, which tracks your reading stats and, in a nod to the game-ification of e-reading, doles out awards as you attain certain achievements. There's also a social media element with the requisite Facebook and Twitter tie-ins, though Barnes & Noble does a better job with social features in the Nook with its Nook Friends feature.
On the plus side, it's important to note that Kobo, like Barnes & Noble and Amazon, does offer apps for iOS (iPhone and iPad), as well as Android (phone and tablet), BlackBerry (phones and PlayBook), and even WebOS (Palm Pre). So you can sync your Kobo library with any of those devices you may own, and access the content there as well. In other words: you're not locked into Kobo hardware to enjoy your books.
You can also look up words in the built-in dictionary by holding your finger on a word. Furthermore, the scheme for highlighting passages is arguably easier to use than the highlighting feature on the Nook.
So now that we've gone through the upsides, what are the downsides? Well, in a word: polish. The Kobo Touch Edition just doesn't have the slick interfaces and navigational cues found on the Nook Touch (or Nook Color) and the Kindle. The "home" screen looks a little blah, and though it's simply laid out, it just doesn't seem inviting.
In terms of the actual reading experience, there isn't a whole lot of difference between the Kobo Touch Edition and the Nook Touch, with Kobo, like Barnes & Noble, reducing the amount of "flashing" between page turns. As it stands, you get a flash or total screen refresh every five pages or so instead of every page. The Kobo has no hard buttons for turning pages; you simply tap the right or left side of the screen to page forward or back (you can also swipe to turn a page). There's some faint ghosting of words and images, but it's not too bothersome.
Overall, the touch screen is responsive and works well. But right now the Nook just feels a little zippier, especially when it comes to doing things like accessing the e-readers' respective online e-book stores. We did see an earlier build of the software for this unit, and Kobo has already made some good advances, so we do expect to see some performance improvements over time. Of course, Barnes & Noble will also be tweaking the Nook's firmware going forward and making its own improvements.
As for battery life, Kobo says you can get more than a month's worth of use (without turning on wireless) before having to recharge. That's based on about 30 minutes of reading a day.
Both the Kindle and Nook are rated at up to two months of e-reading time with the wireless turned off (yes, the Wi-Fi is the biggest battery drain). We're still testing the battery life on the Kobo, but our impressions after a few days of use are that it does trickle very slowly rather than drain.
All in all, Kobo has come a long way from its original e-readers, which looked and felt pretty generic. There's still a little bit of that lingering, especially in the interface, but the Kobo Touch Edition is a substantial improvement over its predecessors, and Kobo has definitely refined the design to the point where it now has some character and is pleasing to the eye (the quilted back is also pleasing to the touch).
Some folks may not care all that much about snazzy interfaces, but that slickness factor is ultimately where this Kobo falls short of the competition. And that doesn't just include the UI, navigation, and overall smoothness when operating the device. Kobo's e-book store and shopping experience isn't as robust as what Amazon and Barnes & Noble have to offer (Amazon's Kindle Store remains the best, though Barnes & Noble has been working hard to catch up). And that shopping experience is fast becoming the most important feature--and biggest differentiator--for e-readers.
Despite its shortcomings, the Kobo is a good deal at $129.99. Sure, we'd like to see it at $99, but at least it's $10 cheaper than the Nook, and Kobo throws in a $10 gift card (as of this writing). In the end, this is a solid e-reader that has the potential to get better. We recommend it with a few reservations.