Reading has always been one of my favourite past times, and those of you who knows me would know of my love of gadgets. So, it came as no surprise when I fell completely in love with the idea of eBook readers when they were first introduced way back in the late 90s. However, like many new technologies and gadgets, they were slow to arrive to this little land of mine known as New Zealand. Years passed and still nothing was released for the local market, and sadly importing was not an option, due to regional restrictions of the eBooks imposed by the publishers.
Indeed, it was not until the early 2010, when the first glimmer of hope appeared for the New Zealand eBook market, with the announcement of the iPad and the iBook marketplace. However, all thoughts of the iPad were pushed aside in May 2010, when the Canadian based company Kobo Inc. released their device, the Kobo eReader. Instead of having a single centralised distribution node, they have partnered with various retail chains around the world to maximise availability and exposure. Indigo/Chapters in Canada; Borders in the United States; Angus and Robertson and Borders in Australia; and, I am happy to say, Whitcoulls here in New Zealand.
Now, let me give you some basic info on the device itself.
The Kobo is a standard sized eReader with a 6” E Ink screen. With the dimensions of 184mm x 120mm x 10mm, and weighing in at just 221g, it is one of the smallest and lightest on the market. Its back is covered with quilted rubber, while its front is uncluthered, consists only of the screen and a single large tactile 5 way button. The device fits perfectly into your hand, and its small form factor and weight made it extremely easy and comfortable to carry around.
The UI was well designed also, usability and aesthetically wise. Most of the navigation is done via the large tactile 5 way button and is extremely intuitive. For the reading itself you have a choice of five font sizes, and two different fonts to choose from. A “I’m Reading” home screen displays all of the latest and recently accessed books and documents, and you have your usual browse screen, which allows you to browse by author, title, or last read date. Book covers features predominately, and you have the option to display your books by text, book cover, or a combination of the two. When in sleep mode the device also displays the cover for your current book, which I thought was a nice touch. Speaking of sleep mode, the device takes around 20 seconds to start up from sleep, which is one of the major criticisms about the Kobo. Also page turning is slower than some of the other readers on the market – however personally I find the device to be more than adequate performance-wise, despite having little patience, and the attention span of a Canadian carrot.
The Kobo comes with only 1GB of storage built-in, but is expandable via its SD card slot. This device uses the standard USB-to-PC connection, but also offers Bluetooth support. It does not however, support Wi-Fi or 3G, like a lot of its recent competitors. Lastly, supported file formats are limited to only ePub and PDF, but that will not be a major problem for most consumers, considering that those two are the most commonly used formats on the market today. It is also worth noting that the Kobo comes preloaded with 100 free classic books.
Compared to other eReaders on the market, the Kobo is very barebones, and seems limited features-wise. But as strange as it sound, this simplicity was by design, and is indeed one of its major strengths. By focusing on the bare essentials they have managed to cut down on costs, and were able to offer it at a retail price of around US$149.99 at launch. That is in contrast to its competitors, who were at that point offering their products for around US$200 to US$300, making the Kobo the most affordable eReader on the market at the time by far. Being backed by multiple retail chains around the world also potentially gave it the exposure, and access to, markets that its competitors might not have.
Its pleasing form factor, its intuitive UI, and its affordable price – these factors and more made the Kobo the perfect entry level eReader, and would have been a serious threat to its rivals on the market. However, though it was never credited as being the catalyst, after its release a series of changes swept through the industry. Prices of existing major competing eReaders dropped dramatically overnight. Further more, even cheaper newer models with striped down features were announced, features like 3G (which were previously seen as being essential, but lacking on the Kobo) which have now become optional. All this brought the average price of an entry level eReader to just US$149.99, the same price as the Kobo.
In summary the Kobo was a great eReader for its price back when it was launched. In order to help them thrive in a crowded market, filled with strong competitors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony, Kobo Inc. had made a number of interesting and unique decisions in regards to their device’s design and distribution model. Decisions, which in my opinion, were major game changers for the industry. However, the Kobo ultimately ended up being like a stone dropped in a pond. Ripples were made which pulsed through and changed the entire industry, but sadly the device itself made next to no splash, and sunk unnoticed, to the bottom.
(At this current time there are still bugs affecting font sizing, and I am finding myself with unreadable books in my library due to an inability to change font sizes in selected titles. A firmware update has been issued I believe to resolve this very issue, but is yet unavailable here in NZ.)