The real difference between these devices is content. Amazon distribute its content from its own store. It's a closed system, but one that's widely accessible thanks to apps for your PC or smartphone. Sony (and many others) on the other hand offer open format support, but don't then have the provision across platforms, or the same integrated bookstore experience.
Kobo has been active in the ebook market for some time, probably familiar to those smartphone users who might have seen the app preinstalled on their device. With the Kobo eReader, the company is moving from purely content to hardware and the content to read, so like Amazon, it gets to provide a more complete solution. In the UK this is aided by partnering with WHSmith, giving Kobo a high street presence and storefront through the WHSmith website.
The Kobo eReader is well built, finished with an interesting "quilted" back. Don't worry, it isn't actual quilt, but the plastic feels sturdy enough. The diamond patterning is surprisingly nice to hold, giving your fingers a little something extra to hang on to. It weighs 185g, a touch heavier than the new Amazon Kindle, but lighter than the Kindle Touch which is available in the US.
The Kobo eReader has a 6-inch E-Ink display, and like most other models, will slip easily into a jacket pocket or bag. In terms of connections, there is a micro USB on the bottom and a slot on the side to take a microSD card to expand the memory, if you wish. Buttons are kept to a minimum, with a top power slider and a single home button beneath the screen. Operation is by touch, so there is no need for anything else.
The Kobo eReader requires you to have a Kobo account to sync the device. It isn't as independent as the Kindle - which offers PC-free operation - as getting started with the Kobo eReader requires to you download their software on your PC or Mac and connect to your device.
If you already have a Kobo account then you are good to go, you just have to plug in your details in the application on your computer and any existing content you have purchased from Kobo will appear, ready to sync to the reader. If you don't have any existing titles, you can head off and buy them through the desktop application and we're pleased to see that PayPal is a payment option across the Kobo store, making things really simple.
The WHSmith ebook store is now powered by Kobo too, so if you head over to the website to buy titles, they will automatically find their way into your Kobo account, so can be synced to devices.
But the beauty of having a Wi-Fi device is that you don't need to use your computer every time you want to buy a new book to read. The store is easy enough to navigate on the Kobo eReader, accessed via the home page of the device. You can search or browse at will, with a section offering free books, which are mostly same collection of classics you can get elsewhere. If you want to sample a book you can download a preview.
If you buy a book from the Kobo store, it's available to all areas of Kobo's reach, so that's on your eReader, your desktop and any mobile device on the same account. You don't need to connect to your computer, so effectively, once you've done the initial setup on the eReader, you won't have to connect it again, so long as you stick to Kobo's bookstore.
As such, it's very much like the Amazon Kindle. It offers bookmark syncing across devices, so you can continue reading on your phone where you left off on your eReader and vice-versa.
However it does have a trick up its sleeve, in that this is a regular EPUB ebook reader, so you aren't restricted to Kobo's own bookstore. The experience is better if you do, but if you've already purchased a collection of EPUB titles then once you have authorised your Kobo eReader with Adobe Digital Editions you'll be able to read those books too.
This potentially gives you more freedom than Amazon's system, because you can choose where you get your books from, you can shop around find the best price and so on. The downside is that you don't get the syncing functions, so if you move on your own EPUB books these aren't then mirrored on other devices: you'd have to manually add them.
Snuggle down with a good book
When it comes to actually reading books, the Kobo eReader E-Ink screen offers great contrast and letters are crisp and well formed. You can change the size of the text to suit your preference and you can also change the font. There are dictionary functions and you can highlight sections of text to either mark, or rather uniquely, share to Facebook.
To turn the page you need to swipe across it, or tap at the edge. Page turning is fast enough, although we've found that we sometimes turned pages with a stray finger by accident when handling the eReader.
E-Ink displays offer two distinct advantages of LCD displays you get on tablets. The first is that they aren't glossy, so you can happily read the Kobo eReader outdoors or in bright conditions, perfect for reading beside the pool on holiday. Secondly, as there is no backlighting, they are very efficient with battery life.
You'll get around a month of life from the battery, although this is governed by how much reading you do. Of course, the Wi-Fi will chomp through the battery much faster than this, so it's worth engaging the flight-safe mode when you don't need to be connected.
Extra, extra, read all about it!
There are a few extras hiding in the Kobo eReader too. There is a browser so if you want to you can browse the Internet, although it's a little slow and navigation is rather tricky. It's a last resort really and if you have a smartphone you'd be much better off using that. You also get a sketchbook and Sudoku game.
One of the more up-front features is the social side of the Kobo eReader. From the home page you'll find a Reading Life section. This is basically a sort of achievements system, where you can earn awards by taking particular actions. Some of these awards are designed to get you trying things, like getting information from the store. There is also a stats page, so you can see how many books you have read, how many hours you've read for and the number of page turns.
We've seen a number of ebook readers that, although technically proficient, don't always impress. With the Kobo eReader we're more impressed because there is a whole system to explore and the service rivals that offered by the Amazon Kindle. If there is one feature missing it's accepting library loans, which is something that currently only the Sony Readers do in the UK.
So with the Kobo eReader being a competitive choice, can we fully recommend it? Well there is another issue that needs to be taken into account: price. The Kobo touch will cost you £109 from WHSmith, which is the same as the Amazon Kindle keyboard. The cheapest Kindle matches the price of the Kobo Wireless eReader, a non-touch device, so it has been competitively priced too.
But you also have to consider content cost and availability. Glancing across a few new titles in the Kindle and Kobo stores we found that prices were similar, occasionally with some cheaper editions in the Kindle Store. It's worth searching for your favourite authors to see how well stocked different stores are, but remember that you'll be able to buy from any EPUB book store on the Internet with the Kobo eReader.
Overall a great little ebook reader and we'll worth considering if you want an alternative to Amazon's offering.