On Monday, Kobo announced its latest e-book reader at BookExpo America (BEA), the annual publishing event in New York City: the Kobo eReader Touch Edition. I had a chance to play with the new device on Wednesday for a few minutes, and while you can't really conclude anything from a few minutes of working with a demo unit at a trade show booth, I did come away with a pretty positive feeling about the new Kobo Touch.
What does it do?
The Kobo Touch is a lightweight (7.0 oz.), comfortable-to-hold e-book reader that offers an 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi connection to the Kobo Store.
It's got a very clean design, with only one narrow silver button below the 6-in. screen. Flush with the rest of the frame, the button brings you back to the home screen from wherever you are. And that's pretty much it. Everything else is done via the touch screen.
The device uses Neonode's zForce optical touch technology, which uses beams of infrared light to detect a touch on the display. This is different than the resistive and capacitive touch panels that other mobile devices use, which add additional layers to the display. (For more about upcoming screen tech, check out our article "Four red-hot display technologies to watch in 2011.")
The home screen is laid out simply and neatly. There are three links at the top of the screen that take you to your library (the books you already own), Kobo's book store or a new social networking application called Reading Life, which lets you track your reading activity.
The rest of the screen is taken up by an overlapping "pile" of the covers of your most recently read books; the last book you read is the most prominent. (You can also view your recent reads as a straightforward list or a more typical series of thumbnail cover images).
Like many of today's e-readers, the Kobo uses the E-Ink Pearl display, which is clean and easy on the eyes. You page forward and back by either swiping across the display or touching the left or right side of the screen.
If you want to see a menu of options, you tap the bottom of the screen. This lets you go back to the home screen, go to the table of contents or any bookmarks you may have created, access an on-screen sliding control that lets you easily skip around the book, or change your font and/or type size. (Only two sizes are available; I would have preferred a couple more.) The Kobo also offers a highlighting tool and a built-in Merriam-Webster dictionary.
It comes with 1GB of built-in storage and can work with up to a 32GB SD card. According to the company, the battery should last for up to 10 days or 10,000 page turns. The Kobo accepts documents in the pretty-much-standard ePub and PDF formats.
What's cool about it? To begin with, this a very nicely designed unit. Because the front is so sparse, with only that single button, there's very little learning curve. I was rather taken by the back of the unit, which is made up of a soft, quilted plastic; it was very pleasant to hold and I did feel as though I could grip it a bit more firmly than other e-readers.
Reading Life looks like it could be an excellent application for literature fanatics. It offers statistics like minutes per reading session, the number of pages you've turned, and the total time you've spent reading. This may be a bit too much for many readers, but it could be an interesting motivating factor for others (not to mention a way to see if your kids were really reading their assignments last night).
What needs to be improved? During the time I played with the Kobo, I found it not quite as sensitive as some other touch-screen e-readers I've used; most of the time, especially when I was selecting a book or a menu choice, I found myself having to touch more than once. And while swiping the display to page forward and back, I had to press a bit harder than I have on other displays.
On the other hand, as one of the Kobo reps claimed, you can actually use the Kobo while wearing gloves, which could be a real advantage to commuters in colder climes.
Bottom line: Kobo's new e-device looks like it could be a real contender, especially among those looking for a lightweight, user-friendly device that does nothing but let you read books. At $129, it costs $10 less than the Wi-Fi version of Amazon's Kindle but is lighter (7.0 oz. as opposed to the Kindle's 8.5 oz.) and smaller (4.5 x 6.5 x 0.4 in. against the Kindle's 4.8 x 7.5 x 0.3 in.).
In fact, it's very similar to Barnes & Noble's new Nook e-reader, which weighs 7.5 oz., measures 6.5 x 5 x 0.5 in. and costs $139. Like the Kobo Touch, the new Nook eschews a physical keyboard for a touch screen, but I have not yet had a chance to test it out.
While many people may be happier with the Kindle's keyboard, I could easily be persuaded to put up with a slightly less touch-typeable on-screen keypad in return for the smaller footprint and lighter weight.
If you're really on a budget, Kobo has also dropped the price of its previous e-reader to $99.99. The company is obviously betting that a relatively basic reading device can hold its own against the more expansive -- and expensive -- multitasking e-readers and tablets such as the $249 Nook Color and, of course, Apple's iPad, which starts at $499. It will be interesting to see how that turns out.
Barbara Krasnoff is reviews editor at Computerworld. When she isn't either editing or reviewing, she blogs at The Interesting Bits ... and Bytes; you can also follow her on Twitter (@BarbaraKrasnoff).