Test drive of Canadian company's new e-book hardware

A Canadian company, Kobo, is going head-to-head with giants Amazon.com and Sony in the battle for a share of the electronic book market. The Kobo eReader doesn't ship until April 29, but we got our hands on one and took it for a test drive to see how it stacks up against the competition.
Kobo is about half the weight of a standard, 200-page hardcover book.
A Canadian company, Kobo, is going head-to-head with giants Amazon.com and Sony in the battle for a share of the electronic book market. The Kobo eReader doesn't ship until April 29, but I got my hands on one and took it for a test drive to see how it stacks up against the competition.

Kobo's new eReader went on sale March 30 for pre-order through the Toronto-based company's website, and through the website of its majority-owning partner Indigo.

The most important thing to know about the Kobo eReader is that it isn't a standalone device, at least when it comes to getting content into it. Since it has no 3G or Wi-Fi wireless data capabilities, e-books must first be purchased through Kobo's website using a computer or smartphone, and then transferred to the Kobo eReader via a Bluetooth or USB connection. For those looking for a web-enabled e-reader this may be a deal breaker. Stripping away all the bells and whistles of internet connectivity, however, kept the price tag down to $149, and this may add to the Kobo's appeal among budget-conscious buyers. (By comparison, an Amazon Kindle currently sells for $259 US, and Sony's Reader starts around $170 US.)

At about half the weight of a standard, 200-page hardcover book, the Kobo eReader feels nice in the hands. It is solid and smooth, with a rubberized, quilted backing that provides good grip. Small enough to fit in a suit pocket or small handbag, it measures some 37 mm smaller overall than an Amazon Kindle, while offering the same 6-inch (diagonal, or 152.4 mm) screen size. (See full specs in sidebar.)

Kobo eReader specifications
 Price   $149
 Casing  White plastic front, grey rubber back
 Size 183 mm high x 119 mm wide x 10 mm deep
 Weight 221 gms
 Display E Ink
 Display size 6 inches diagonally (152.4 mm)
 Display resolution  600 by 800 pixels
 Display pixel density 170 dots per inch (dpi)
 Display grey scale 8 level
 Memory 1 GB
 Capacity 1,000 e-books
 Memory expansion SD slot for up to 4GB memory cards
 Fonts  Georgia (serif) and Trebuchet (sans serif)
 Compatible file formats ePub, PDF, Adobe DRM
 Connectivity Bluetooth, USB
 Software Kobo desktop app
 Software compatibility Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7; Mac OS X and higher; BlackBerry
 Battery1,000 mAH Li-polymer
 Battery life 8,000 page turns
 Warranty1 year

The device employs only six control buttons, including the power button, which is on the upper-right edge. All of the buttons have good click feel. On the front of the device, in the lower right corner, a large, five-way rubberized button, slightly larger than a postage stamp, provides the navigation functions — up, down, left, right and select (center). All navigation through the device's menus, book lists and e-books is done using this button. Some left-handed users may be irked by its positioning, it was obviously chosen for use with the right thumb.

The Kobo eReader takes about 40 seconds to power up. The first screen that appears is always the "home" screen, titled "I'm reading," which shows a list of e-books you've recently been reading. The books are automatically bookmarked as you read, so when you choose one from the menu, it will open at the page where you left off.

The other four control buttons run down the left edge of the device and are labeled Home, Menu, Display and Sync. The Home button always opens the "I'm Reading" page, while the Sync button is used to open a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone or computer so you can transfer new books to the reader.

Bluetooth syncing is a simple process that allows quick wireless transfers of e-books using Kobo's own app, though it should be noted that at launch, the only smartphone brand the Kobo eReader will be compatible with will be BlackBerry. Kobo says it aims to roll out syncing with other major smartphone brands through the summer. The Menu and Display buttons open half-screen windows running up the left side of the screen. These windows contain clearly written menus that allow the user to do things like browse book lists, read an in-device user's guide, and change settings such as font size or the date and time.

There are two fonts available, Georgia (serif) and Trebuchet (sans serif), and each can be displayed in five sizes. Most users will be comfortable reading in one of the two smallest sizes, which are comparable to those found in standard paperbacks. The larger sizes will be beneficial for people with eyesight problems, though it should be noted that in the largest size the number of page turns required for any given e-book increases by about threefold. The device has no sound capabilities, so anyone wanting text-to-voice functions should look elsewhere.

With 1 gigabyte of built-in memory, the Kobo eReader can hold about 1,000 books. It comes pre-loaded with 100 public domain classics by authors such as Austen, Dickens, Homer and Kafka. An SD card slot can expand the eReader's memory by up to 4GB.

Kobo says that a single battery charge is sufficient for 8,000 page turns.
You can search books stored on the eReader by title or author, and also by the last time you read them. Books can be displayed in a simulated bookshelf mode, or as simple text lists with or without cover thumbnails. Books open quite quickly, within five seconds on average.

The overall reading experience is fairly pleasant. Since the Kobo eReader's screen has no backlight, it does not create undue eye strain, but it also cannot be read in the dark. (The upside is that this extends the battery life, if nothing else, which I'll get to in a moment.)

The pages themselves are a pale, overcast grey with black text. The grey background, which cannot be changed, seems chosen for neutrality, but feels slightly muddy. Page turns manifest with the screen flashing momentarily to black with white text, like a photo negative, before resolving into the next page of text. This is a somewhat ungraceful transition, though arguably better than any kitschy animation. One feature that would have been welcome in the device is rapid page scrolling. Each page turn requires a button push and there is no way to jump to a particular page. Likewise, to jump chapters, the user must open the side menu and choose Next Chapter or Previous Chapter for each jump.

In PDF mode the reading experience on the Kobo eReader deteriorates badly. The screen is too small to properly view the page of a paper book that has been formatted as a PDF. Text magnification options are either too small to read, or too large to fit on the screen, requiring awkward side-to-side scrolling. Thankfully, the vast majority of Kobo e-books are available as ePub files, so this is not an overwhelming concern.

One of the best features of the Kobo eReader is its battery life. The device's E Ink display does not draw power once a screen has been resolved — power is only drawn whenever a button is pushed. This means the device can be left "on" for days and, if unused, will show no power drain (displayed via a battery icon in the main menu). Kobo says that a single battery charge is sufficient for 8,000 page turns. In testing, with daily use that varied between a few minutes and a few hours of reading, and with the device being left permanently on, a full battery charge lasted just under a week.

All in all, the Kobo eReader should prove a positive option for anyone looking for a lightweight device offering basic e-reading functions without the high costs of web connectivity.