Kobo Vox a more open alternative to Kindle Fire

The Kobo Vox is a value-priced tablet with a twist. Like its E Ink sibling, the Kobo Touch e-reader, the Vox has a social focus, and places an emphasis on sharing reading experiences. At $200 (as of November 20, 2011), the Kobo Vox is priced the same as the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble Nook Colour, and $50 less than the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. Though it lacks the video/music download and streaming options that distinguish its competitors, the Vox deserves notice for coupling e-reading capabilities with the multimedia functions of a basic Android tablet.

Of the three tablets, the Vox is the most like a true Android 2.3 Gingerbread tablet–which is both good and bad. The good part: You get many of the stock Android apps that come with Gingerbread (email, calculator, contacts, calendar, clock, browser, gallery, YouTube), minus Google apps such as those for Gmail and the Android Market, since this is not a Google device. The bad part: Gingerbread is more designed for phones than it is for the 7-inch screen of a tablet.

Still, you get the benefit of having Android navigation conventions that you may already be used to on your smartphone, from the six-button menu pop-ups to the three familiar capacitive-touch Android buttons (back, menu, and home) to shortcuts such as pressing and holding the menu button to call up your eight most recently accessed apps.

True to a typical Gingerbread tablet, the Vox produced a handful of errors and glitches when I tried to use some of the apps, including the preinstalled Scrabble Free. Kobo advertises full open access to Android, and I found that it worked as such, most of the time. I had issues with some app sources, but other apps installed just fine, including an .apk file that I found for the Amazon Appstore.

Kobo includes Rdio for music streaming, Zinio for accessing some 4500 digital magazines, and PressReader for accessing over 1900 newspapers; this arrangement keeps periodicals inconveniently separate from shopping at Kobo, as opposed to shopping at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is also on board, but it doesn’t integrate with the reading function (the company says this feature is coming in a software update).

Custom reading widgets

The Vox’s customized Android interface puts a Kobo-centric spin on everything from notifications to the dock menu to the home-screen reading widget. What’s pleasant about this approach is that the Vox doesn’t feel like an arbitrary reskin of Android, in spite of the interface’s different functionality and look. Rather, it feels as if Kobo simply extended the native Android OS to embrace the Kobo vision, in ways that are tailored for the tablet’s reading activities.

From initial startup, it’s clear on the home screen that this device is aimed at reading first. The customized Kobo Vox reading and shopping apps are well presented, in a manner that other LCD, Android-based e-readers that simply have an e-reader app (such as those from Pandigital) can’t match.

At the centre of the home screen sits a Kobo widget that shows your four most recently accessed books. Below, the usual Android icons are replaced by the Kobo reading dock, which has Read Now, Library, Shop, and Reading Life icons.

Reading Life is one of three unique components of the Kobo social-reading experience, the others being the Kobo eReading App and Kobo Pulse. Reading Life summarizes your reading activities, offering detailed stats such as how many days, hours, and minutes you’ve spent reading books, information on the book currently in progress, and how many pages you’ve turned.

Kobo Pulse, accessible from within a book, allows you to see how many other people are reading a book at that time, as well as to post comments to share with the Kobo community.

The eReading App offers some noteworthy viewing options. From your bookshelf library, you can manage font, display, and reading settings (all accessible from within a book), and you can control which Reading Life notifications you’ll receive while you’re reading (such as unlocked awards). You get seven font styles, plus up to 42 sizes selectable via a slider control; it would have been better to have real-time resizing and presentation of text changes, but at least these options are easily accessible. You can also choose between displaying one page or two when you hold the tablet in landscape mode.

The best feature of all: The Kobo Vox is the only tablet I’ve tested that let me adjust the LCD’s brightness while in a book, independently from the overall system brightness. This is a long-overdue option that makes total sense for an LCD-based e-reader, as it makes reading easier on the eyes.

You can tap at the bottom centre of the screen to reveal current chapter info, and a slider for moving around within a book. Annotations are easy to make, once you tap at the top of the screen and select the option; you can see all of them, or just view highlights or notes. You can share individual annotations via Facebook; you can’t, however, share them by email, or share all at once, two features that would be useful.

The Library presentation is a bit more rudimentary than I would have expected. Most notably, the Library bookshelf view lacks a search bar. And although it has a handy import option for bringing books from a MicroSDHC card into the Library, I could see only the author and title information in the list view. Kobo supports ePub and enhanced ePub files.

While the Vox lacks the distinct glare-reduction techniques found on the Nook Tablet, it does have decent text quality. (Tip: Choose one of the sans serif fonts for the sharpest, least pixelated text.) In my tests using the same book in the same fonts, displayed at similar sizes, in the e-reading sections of the Nook Tablet and the Vox, I found that the Vox was a close second in readability. The Nook Tablet was far less glare-prone, but the Vox’s text rendering in that font was very similar. That same font wasn’t available on the Kindle Fire–but even when I used the closest match on that tablet, the Vox still presented slightly clearer and easier-to-read text than the Fire did.

In our display tests, the Vox struggled, perhaps in part due to the native Gallery software, which had issues displaying sharp, rescaled images. It did well, however, with text from a Web site screen, and it did a fair job rendering our 1080p MP4 test video; overall it performed better than the vast army of Android 2.x tablets we’ve seen in the PCWorld Labs. The Vox has a 1024-by-600-pixel FFS+ (Fringe Field Switching) display; FFS+ is similar to In-Plane Switching technology, though Kobo claims that it will render better brightness and colour, plus sharper white/gray reproduction. The Vox did outclass the Amazon Kindle Fire’s IPS display (and the Fire’s Gallery app) when showing our colour-bar chart and our grayscale chart.
In use, I found that the Vox’s lackluster specs hurt its performance. It has a single-core 800MHz processor and just 512MB of memory–two subpar components that contribute to its laggy performance. Simple actions such as page turns felt zippy enough, but accessing menus or loading books often dragged and produced a spinning ball, and games lacked smooth transitions.

The Vox ships with 8GB of storage, of which 5.34GB is user-accessible. A MicroSDHC card slot sits at the left side, supporting up to 32GB of flash storage. Like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Kobo offers unlimited cloud storage for your book purchases.

Hefty feel

The Kobo Vox feels like last year’s hardware, at least in respect to its boxy, squared-off design. Measuring 7.57 by 5.06 by 0.53 inches, it’s noticeably thicker than the Kindle Fire or the Nook Tablet. Kobo says that the Vox weighs 0.89 pound, which puts it about even with the Nook Tablet (0.88 pound) and the Kindle Fire (0.91 pound). But both of those competitors somehow feel lighter than the Vox; the Vox’s balance makes it seem heavier than its stated weight. I found my hands getting tired faster when I held the Vox than when I held either rival.

The back of the Vox has a soft, rubberized, diamond-pattern back, reminiscent of the design on the company’s E Ink Kobo Touch. Along the outer edges Kobo has a little fun, offering a choice of finishes: black, hot pink, lime green, or ice blue. At the top are the power button and the single, woeful-sounding monoaural speaker; at the left is the volume rocker, and along the bottom are the headphone jack and the Micro-USB port for charging and data transfers. (Regrettably, the Micro-USB port works only with Kobo’s own, included wall charger, due to the amperage requirements; at this writing, it can’t trickle-charge off of USB.)

Given its compatibility with Android apps, the Kobo Vox makes for a solid, more open alternative to the Amazon Kindle Fire or the Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. The Vox lacks the polish and finesse of those models, but its emphasis on reading is very useful.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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