Kobo Arc review
Kobo's latest tablet looks to compete directly with the likes of the Kindle Fire HD and the Nook HD, offering a device that's centred around content.
But while the Kindle leverages Amazon's online assets, and Nook those of Barnes & Noble, Kobo takes a slightly different tack. It has a reasonable selection through its book store, but lacks its own movies and music to complete the entertainment offering in a closed system.
The ace up the sleeve of the Kobo Arc, however, is that it's not as tightly tied to the larger stores of its competitors. Rather than skinning a skew on Android, the Kobo Arc it is an Android tablet, so can offer all the benefits of Google, which are substantial.
But can the Kobo Arc still appeal, or in taking this open approach, does it find that the pure-bred Nexus 7 dominates it?
If there's a theme to Kobo's products, then it's quilting. Not exactly the first thing that springs to mind when talking tech, but the diamond patterning on the back of the Kobo Arc reminds us of Grandma Lint's haberdashery. Not to the extent that it did on the Kobo Touch or Vox, but it's a design flourish they all share.
It's finished in matte black, which fortunately avoids the worst of the fingerprints that can often plague the affordable end of the tablet market - although once it had been in the hands of a toddler, those greasy fingerprints were tricky to clear away. There's something of a bezel around the display, but on a device of 7-inches, you need somewhere to grip so that you're not always touching the screen.
The square edges of the tablet lack the interest of the rivals, giving a more utilitarian result. It's less eye-catching in terms of design than many of the other 7-inch models out there. Certainly, from a line-up with Kindle, Nook and Nexus, we don't think we'd opt for the Kobo.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and with something like a tablet, sometimes the practicality of the device outweighs the looks. It measures 120 x 11.5 x 189mm and weighs 364g. It's lighter in the hand than the Kindle Fire HD, but noticeably heavier than the Nook HD.
The Kobo Arc has a toughened screen and the way it is recessed into the housing means you can put it face-down without it touching the surface, so it should better stay scratch free. Kobo tells us that it is resistant to drops too: this is always a hard one to test, but we did manage to drop it twice, from quite a height, with no sign of damage.
The downside of the design is that it's more difficult clean those smeary fingerprints off the display than with something with edge-to-edge glass.
The Kobo Arc has been designed as a portrait tablet, with the speakers at the bottom and the camera at the top. This perhaps reflects Kobo's position as a book service, but it means there is a distinct top and bottom to the Arc, rather than feeling like an anyway-up tablet.
This means the homepages don't rotate, so although many apps will operate in landscape, returning to home will take you back to a portrait orientation, much as it does on most Android smartphones.
Controls and hardware
Around the edges you'll find the controls and connections. On the top is the power/standby button, and an LED that will serve you notifications. It's very bright LED and at night we found ourselves covering it to stop the incessant blinking.
Down the right-hand side you have the volume rocker and 3.5mm headphone socket; on the bottom is the Micro-USB port for charging and syncing.
On the front, as we mentioned, there is the opening for the two speakers at the bottom and the front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera. The camera offers still and video capture, although the quality is what we'd call passable: use it for video chat through Skype, but think twice about using it for a self-portrait.
The front speakers offer a fair amount of volume, but turn them up and they distort, with a lot of vibration coming through the body of the tablet. This distortion comes in fairly low down the volume scale, so lacks the performance of the Kindle Fire HD, with its Dolby speakers.
The SRS TruMedia app can be used to tinker with the sound output, although this is a separate app, and not integrated into the regular volume controls, or the equaliser accessible through Google Music, so feels like it misses the mark. Through headphones you get a much better result.
Internally, the Kobo Arc has a Texas Instruments OMAP 4470 dual-core processor running at 1.5GHz, with 1GB of RAM, and a choice of internal storage capacities at differing price points, with 16, 32 and 64GB on offer.
There's no Bluetooth or GPS included with the Kobo Arc, which is perhaps a minor point, but it means you can't have wireless speakers or headphones. Google Maps still works, however, gathering your location from local Wi-Fi networks, and is a useful addition to have.
The display itself, as we've mentioned, is toughened, but otherwise offers you 7-inches on the diagonal, with a resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels. That's 215ppi, making it reasonably sharp at this size, but less so than the Nook HD, which currently offers the highest resolution for this class of tablet.
Viewing angles on this IPS display are good and the brightness is reasonable too, although it is pretty reflective so not really the best solution for using outdoors. In terms of colour reproduction, the Kobo Arc is good, with whites that are bright and blacks deep enough. The result is that everything looks as it should, there's plenty of contrast and it's a pleasant tablet for viewing your content be that online, video or photos.
Koboville in Googletown
Turn the tablet on and you'll instantly recognise the Android interface. The tablet is a mildly skinned version of Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich, so it's very much Android as you know it, rather than the heavily doctored experience you'll find from Amazon or Nook.
The result is that you have a tablet that's much more open to being tinkered with. Not only does it work in exactly the same way as all other Android Ice Cream Sandwich devices, but it offers all the advantages of the Google ecosystem. You get access to Google Play for apps, you can sign into your accounts for Gmail, for Google Maps, for your calendar.
But as this is most likely to be sold as an entertainment or multimedia device, you also get access to everything that Google offers in that area as well. That means music, movies and magazines (if you have them in your region).
Being more or less a straight Android tablet, it beats the Kindle and the Nook HD in terms of app access. You'll have access to more games and more of the latest excitement of Android.
That makes it a distinctly different user experience from its rivals. Setting the Googleness to one side, Kobo has customised it to a degree. Most notably there's a banner across the bottom of the homepages that prompts you to discover new content. If you've ever used a Kobo device before, you'll know it likes to make recommendations and that's partly what this is.
But the mainstay of customisation is in the creation of what Kobo calls Tapestries. Essentially this is just a slightly more dynamic folder system, letting you create spaces where you can group content. You can pin various items that Kobo recommends or you discover, drop in widgets, shortcuts and so on.
The idea is that through Tapestries, you can create a number of different entertainment areas. You can have one for reading, containing some of Kobo's widgets and app shortcuts to get to your Kobo books and get recommendations quickly and easily. But this being the full Google gamut, there's nothing to stop you adding the Kindle app into that mix, a link to a Google Book or something from Nook. In fact, you get the option to "pin" anything that can be shared, and on Android, that's just about everything.
The result is that you can tailor Tapestries to be whatever you want, basically giving you a range of customisable homepages for anything - you could have one for movies and TV, one for games. If you're a fan of multiple homepages, this gives you a way of expanding that canvas.
But in some ways it feels a little raw. It's an adaption of something that Android has offered for a long time and it's easy for things to become cluttered with the sprawling mass of content. Once we had everything laid out, it was almost a case of not being able to see the wood for the trees.
You can, of course, moderate your use of Tapestries, or delete them altogether, but it's not as refined a customisation as you get from the Nook HD and lacks the direct simplicity of the Kindle Fire HD. In being more "Androidy" it's less individualistic.
In the same vein, it also sits closer to the Nexus 7 tablet. We rate the Nexus 7 highly and while the Kindle or Nook are different, the Kobo Arc isn't. Remove Tapestries and some of the Kobo app offerings and you're looking at an Android experience that's slightly older and less refined than the Nexus 7.
The Kobo Arc isn't (at the time of writing) on the latest version of Android, running on Ice Cream Sandwich, so it's outperformed by the Nexus 7 in terms of the smoothness and refinement of the experience.
READ: Nexus 7 review
There are also a few niggling performance issues that we found with the Arc. The notifications area seemed reluctant to open at times, with repeated tapping to get it to pop-up and sometimes the keyboard didn't appear when needed either: we'd be trying to enter a URL and the keyboard wouldn't appear. Then we found that some sites didn't play nicely with the Chrome browser, but did in the slightly tweaked Android browser.
The battery life in the Kobo Arc is slated to give you about 10 hours of video. That seems about right from the time we've spent testing the tablet, although its definitely worth tinkering the Wi-Fi advanced settings to turn Wi-Fi off when the tablet sleeps, if you want to prolong the standby time. That's pretty average for a tablet and it will most likely be sufficient for most.
There's a lot going for the Kobo Arc. It's well built and designed, even if it's not the prettiest tablet around. It's powerful enough for most too, although there are faster devices out there that give a more-polished performance. Importantly, though, it's priced reasonably.
At £159.99 for the 16GB version, it’s the same price as the Kindle Fire HD (with adverts) and the Nexus 7 of the same capacity. The Nook HD is the same price, but you get to expand the memory with microSD, so there are various pros and cons across these devices.
As we said, however, the Nexus 7 sits the closest in terms of the open ecosystem that the Kobo Arc offers. When we get to the crunch, there's little that Kobo's tinkering actually offers. You can use the Kobo app on any Android device and the actual reading interface and experience is the same.
In that sense, you might want to opt for the Nexus 7, as you get (in our opinion) a better designed device and wonderful build quality, a slicker user interface, with the advantage of fewer obstacles when it comes to updating Android.
However, apart from a few niggling features on the software front, and the lack of memory expansion and Bluetooth, we have to say that we'd consider the Kobo Arc worthy of attention. It's not restrictively tied to an ecosystem like Kindle or Nook, but perhaps lacks the purity of the Nexus.