The e-reader has been slow to take off in Australia; between high costs for devices, an absence of information and marketing, and a lack of local content, Australians for the most part have been reluctant to purchase yet another device that, after all, only does what books do already anyway.
The Kobo eReader, newly launched by REDgroup Retail, the retailer that operates Borders stores in Australia, may just turn out to be the tipping point. The first reason for this is, of course, its price point: it's the first e-reader on the Australian market to come in at under AU$200.
The second reason is the Borders ebook store, which offers over 2 million titles (many of them free) from over 100 publishing houses worldwide — the largest ebook resource in the country. But what about the Kobo itself?
The Kobo is a minimal-looking device, with a six-inch screen dominating the facade, a single navigation pad on the front, a power button on top and four option buttons tucked away on the side. While these four buttons are awkward to access, they do leave the front of the device looking clean and uncomplicated. This in turn means that it also looks unintimidating and easy to use, and the buttons themselves are difficult to press by accident.
The rubber nav pad on the front, on the other hand, seems to be in exactly the right position, making turning pages and resizing text comfortable and easy, and the quilted rubber back feels surprisingly pleasant in the hand. Add to that the weight of the device — 221g, the lightest e-reader available here — and you have a highly portable and enjoyable device.
Like most of the high-quality e-readers available, the Kobo uses E Ink technology for the display. Unlike most LCDs, which you will find in televisions, computer monitors, phones and most other screens, E Ink is not backlit. While this means you cannot read the device in the dark without an external light source, it also reduces the eye strain associated with staring at a bright screen; in fact, it's as close to reading a printed page as it can get without actually being a printed page itself, and its 6-inch display is comfortable to read, if not quite the size of a paperback page.
The Kobo takes quite a different direction to other devices on the market. Where other e-readers are packed with features, the Kobo is a relatively pared-back affair. It can't connect to the web directly, so it doesn't have a browser, email access or direct purchases; nor does it have a built-in dictionary, or support annotations or MP3 files.
Unlike the Kindle, however, the Kobo supports open format, which means you can purchase and read ebooks from any source, not just the Borders ebook store (although you will need a program called Adobe Digital Editions to load them onto your Kobo). According to REDgroup Retail, the idea is to offer consumers "control and choice", and the Kobo and the Borders ebook store are not locked in to each other; books purchased on the Borders store can also be read on multiple devices. In addition, the Kobo comes preloaded with 100 free royalty-free titles, such as Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, Jane Eyre and a whole bunch of others.
The device supports ePub and PDF files, although you can't load external downloads through the free Borders desktop application, which you use to purchase and upload books to the Kobo. Because the e-reader doesn't have Wi-Fi, you need to have it plugged in to your computer via a USB cable. If you're used to making off-the-cuff purchases while on the train, you might find this irritating; by and large, though, the absence of Wi-Fi scarcely matters — it's a simple matter to upload a bunch of books in the background while the device charges.
Overall, the Kobo is sleek, concise and simple to use. The front nav-pad allows you to turn pages back and forward with ease by pressing left and right, and pressing up and down allows you to resize the font; for the vision-impaired, this is marvellous. You can even select, from the Display menu, between two different fonts, serif and sans serif, depending upon which is easier to read.
The Kobo has 1GB of memory, which means it can hold up to 1000 ebooks — certainly not a number to sniff at! — and an SD card slot allows you to increase that number to 5000 with a 4GB card. One thing we didn't like, though, is that you cannot choose where to place bookmarks, or even mark passages. When powered down, the Kobo remembers your place, but you can't skip back and forward through a book, which makes accessing footnotes and appendices a pain in the proverbials.
Another thing you can't do is mark a book as read to move it to your main library, which can be irritating; sometimes the device doesn't remember that you have read a book and will put it back in the "I'm Reading" menu, which can clutter up your not-yet-read list. You can enter the last chapter via the table of contents and skip through to the end of the book and mark it as read that way, but it's a circuitous way to move it from one place to another.
Overall, though, these are minor quibbles; the Kobo makes reading a smooth and pleasant experience and, thanks to the clearly-marked menu buttons down the left-hand side, navigation is easy — you can search for books by title or author, and once reading a book, you can easily locate chapter lists, skip through chapters and return to the home page.
The other neat thing about E Ink, too, is that it only uses power when it's turning a page, so you can leave your Kobo switched on between reading sessions. This is great, because the time it takes an e-reader to power on and load a book can seem like an awful long time when you just want to curl up with a cup of tea.
The Kobo e-reader may not get up to all the fancy-schmancy shenanigans that more expensive e-readers do, but it does what it does very well indeed. It is a sleek and simple device that performs excellently with a minimum of fuss.