By Andrew Liszewski
When we looked at the original version of the Kobo back in April we were really impressed at the fact that consumers could finally get an ebook reader for just $149 that didn’t feel like it was made from the cheapest parts available. Everything from the software (including the Kobo desktop apps and store) to the easy-to-hold soft rubber backing gave the Kobo the look and feel of its more expensive competitors like the Kindle and Sony’s offerings, but for a lot cheaper. At the time that is.
Since the Kobo was released its competitors have also released competitively priced models, and while the Kindle with the full ‘Whispernet’ experience is still $189, Amazon has introduced a cheaper wifi-only model for $140, which made opting for the Kobo a difficult decision. In fact the lack of wireless connectivity (besides Bluetooth) was probably the biggest complaint across the board when it came to the original Kobo, so it wasn’t that surprising when a new wifi-equipped version was announced in late September that closed the gap between it and the Kindle again. But was it enough? More after the jump.
Besides new color scheme options and the fact that the ‘DISPLAY’ button has now been renamed the ‘SHOP’ button, there’s little to no physical differences between the original Kobo and the new model. But as always it’s what’s on the inside that counts and the addition of wifi will go a long a way to helping it compete with the Kindle. Of course the lack of a QWERTY keyboard still makes searching and shopping for new books no where near as easy as it is on the Kindle, and I must say that entering a password for an encrypted wifi network is a bit of a chore.
And while you really can’t compare it to the 3G Kindle with its ubiquitous wireless access because of the different price points, the company behind the Kobo has already teamed up with a handful of Canadian companies to provide free wireless access at certain wifi hotspots across the country, and I assume similar agreements will exist in the U.S. as well. So buying books on the Kobo while away from your computer is finally a possibility.
The Kobo store has also grown to over 2.2 million ebooks, though a good chunk of those, around 1.8 million titles, are actually free books. So I still don’t think the Kobo store has quite the selection as Amazon does when it comes to the latest and greatest titles, however, since the Kobo supports the ePub format you’re not limited to just buying titles from their store. I also noticed, unfortunately, that PDF support remains the same as it does on the original Kobo. It’s definitely usable, but there are no options for reflowing or reformatting the content, so PDF documents that don’t fit on the Kobo’s display will have to be shrunk or painstakingly scrolled while you try to read them. But from my testing you’ll be better off to convert them to ePub first if possible.
But wifi isn’t the only way the second generation Kobo was improved. It’s also got a new 16-level gray-scale display that definitely looks a lot crisper and ‘brighter’ than the one on the original Kobo. Now I’m pretty sure it’s still a step behind the displays used on the latest generation Kindles, but it’s not so far behind that I think it’s an issue at all.
The new Kobo also sports a faster processor which promises 2.5x faster page turns, and while I didn’t have an original model Kobo on hand to compare, it’s definitely noticeably faster. In fact at this point the page turn speed is negligible since it’s easily faster than flipping the pages in an actual book. Of course it’s still not as fast as an LCD, but this eReader technology is supposed to be all about emulating the look and experience of printed paper right?
Otherwise the second generation Kobo looks and feels just like the original model, which is most definitely a good thing. The original Kobo came across as kind of the ‘Flip’ of ebook readers since it featured minimal buttons and an easy-to-use and navigate UI. While it may not have appealed to eReader power users, the resulting $149 price tag made it surprisingly popular. In fact in Toronto at least I see more Kobo’s on the subway than Kindles or Sonys, so something definitely clicked with users.
However, in a roundabout way I think the Kobo has turned out to be its own worst enemy. When the original model came out it was a cheaper alternative to the Kindle that provided a very similar user experience, including a robust online bookstore and the ability to sync and read your books on a PC, tablet or smartphone with accompanying apps. Sure, we all complained about the lack of wifi, but that didn’t stop most people from recommending it given the price point. But since its release it’s spurred other eReader makers to drop their prices, or at least produce more affordable models like the wifi-only version of the Kindle.
Now I suspect that a lot of Kobo buyers made their decision for the simple fact that it was the cheapest solution at the time, but now that the wifi-only version of the Kindle is pretty much the exact same price as the Kobo, its main advantage is gone. Had the second generation Kobo also hit the market with a $20-30 price cut I think it would have still managed to be a viable alternative to the Kindle, but now it’s an even harder sell even with built-in wifi.
So if you’re already a Kobo user and think the ability to buy books wirelessly is a must-have feature, or have lamented at the occasional sluggishness of the original model, then absolutely the second gen Kobo is a great upgrade. If you’re looking for your first ebook reader though, it’s kind of hard to still recommend it over the wifi-only Kindle. But, if you can find one, we still highly recommend the original Kobo particularly since it’s now available for just under $100 making it easily the best value of any ebook reader on the market.
Kobo eReader – $149 (CDN), $139.99 (US)
If you have any questions about the Second Generation Kobo you’d like answered, please feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll try to respond to them as best I can.