Kobo eReader Touch innovative and inexpensive

It’s rare to find an inexpensive product that also introduces innovation into its category. And yet that’s exactly what Kobo Books’ Kobo eReader Touch Edition does.

It’s rare to find an inexpensive product that also introduces innovation into its category. And yet that’s exactly what Kobo Books’ Kobo eReader Touch Edition does.

Navigating by touch is simple and responsive. Tap the screen to open a book, turn a page, or select a menu or option. You can also swipe to turn a page. Press and hold a word to call up the text-selection menu: You get a start point and an end point around that word, and the ability to look up the word in the dictionary. Alternatively, you can drag the stop and end points to underline a passage and save that highlight. I found it annoying, though, that not all books work with text selection, a limitation that I encountered on some of my test ePub books. Kobo warns as much in its otherwise thorough user manual, but doesn’t explain when or why text highlighting and the dictionary may be available on some books and not others.

In PDFs, double-tap works to zoom in to a page and make it bigger, or to zoom out of an already enlarged page. Once zoomed in, you can drag about the page by tapping and holding down while moving your finger. Unfortunately, you can’t change text properties on PDF files.

The library is divided into Books & Docs, Shortlist (defined here as a shortcut to current faves), News & Mags (for any periodical subscriptions), and Previews (which shows samples of new books). Shortlist works as a convenient shortcut for cutting through lots of material stored on your eReader; it has three views, it and makes finding things easy and visual. If that’s not enough, you can also search the eReader Touch Edition for what you seek.

Kobo uses Neonode’s zForce infrared touch technology, the same as on the Nook. Overall I found the touchscreen suitably responsive for navigation and typing on the virtual keyboard. However, although the on-screen keyboard kept pace with my speedy fingers, I was prone to errors because of the tight, cramped layout: The keys are small, with no spacing in between. By contrast, the Nook’s virtual keyboard has island keys that make typing simple. The Nook allows both highlighting and note taking, too, but the eReader Touch Edition does only highlighting, which means you’ll need the keyboard when you search for content on the device, or try to buy books from the Kobo Store.

Kobo: Display variances

The eReader Touch Edition uses the same 6-inch E Ink Pearl display as on the Kindle and Nook (and Sony’s much more expensive Reader Touch Edition). That isn’t to say, however, that words looked identical here as on other e-readers; text looked good, and darker on the whole than on the Nook, but not as good as on the Kindle. On this model the E Ink background actually looked a bit brighter, and less flat and gray, than on the Nook. That appearance didn’t last, though. Instead, as I paged through books, I often found that the background got a bit muddied with echoes of previous pages. Eventually the effect would go away, but while present it would detract slightly from the clarity of the display most of the time; occasionally it affected readability. Kobo says it is looking into why this might be happening.

I also had the sense that the eReader Touch Edition’s page turns are neither as fast or as flicker-free as on the Nook, but they are still far better than on the previous Kobo–and they even beat out the Amazon Kindle (third generation). Kobo claims that its unit has the same six-page turning cache that the Nook has, but I felt that the eReader Touch Edition lagged behind the Nook’s page-turn abilities by a hair.

You get two fonts–one serif, one sans-serif–and 17 font sizes to choose from. Just tap at the bottom of the screen to call up the three options and actions available, one of which is the font icon. It’s simple to switch between the two fonts, Georgia and Avenir, with a single tap, but changing the font size is an infuriatingly frustrating process–the only way to move among sizes is to repetitively tap “smaller” or “bigger.” That said, you get variety: The 17 font sizes offered are the most I’ve seen on any E Ink e-reader, and they range from small text that’s barely readable to a large size that will please anyone who needs large-print books (this is the biggest e-reader font I’ve seen to date).

The font-changing tedium was my biggest beef with Kobo’s otherwise simple and streamlined interface. Everything about the eReader Touch Edition is more responsive and more usable than what we’ve seen from any of the previous iterations of Kobo e-readers.

Rough edges like the one described above, along with a very-much-in-beta Web browser, the slow wake-up time, the lack of a note-taking function, and the unfortunate keyboard design are the eReader Touch Edition’s biggest design drawbacks. I also had difficulty logging in at wireless hotspots that required a log-in splash screen; Kobo says the e-reader should be able to handle such circumstances, but my test unit stumbled.

Kobo put some pleasing touches on the navigation, though. For example, the navigation display accessible at the bottom of a book screen has an icon to jump to the table of contents, add the book to your Shortlist, or mark the book as finished (relevant for your Reading Life statistics). It also displays a static progress bar that shows where you are in the book. To move among locations, you have to tap the bidirectional-arrow icon, which calls up the page number and chapter number out of how many total pages, a slider that you can use to move ahead (as you slide your finger, the chapter and page info change accordingly), and page and chapter forward and backward buttons. Even though the page numbers here track along with the print counterpart’s page numbers, when you reach the start of a new print page, tiny numbers appear in the right column to signify the top of the new page.

Kobo’s social and world network

One of the distinctive aspects of the eReader Touch Edition is that it incorporates support for Kobo’s Reading Life, which the company introduced earlier this year in its apps for mobile devices. Reading Life tracks your reading patterns, such as how long you’re spending reading your current selection, how many pages you’ve turned, and how many books you’ve finished reading. The social networking platform allows you to share your Reading Life status via Facebook, as well as to earn awards for your progress. Although you don’t get many options for what Reading Life does and doesn’t track, you do have a choice as to whether to keep the feature enabled.

Kobo is trying to shrink the world in other ways, too. The company bills its e-reader as the first international e-reader, in that it will let you buy books domestically or while abroad.

For those less familiar with Kobo, the company’s bookstore carries more than 2.3 million e-books. And the company syncs your e-reader to its mobile versions, available for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry. I found the store underwhelming, however. Books were slow to download and slow to browse. It’s better than having nothing on the unit, but I found myself wishing for a more dynamic experience.

The eReader Touch Edition supports ePub, PDF, and Adobe DRM books. It also supports borrowing e-books from libraries.

The Kobo eReader Touch Edition, the company’s third e-reader, is its best yet. Flaws remain, but aside from the slow shopping, the eReader Touch Edition is responsive, has an easily navigable interface, and provides a lot of functionality in a tight space. Its $130 price makes it a good choice for anyone who wants the lightest e-reader around, wishes to purchase books overseas, or likes the idea of reading stats and awards.

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