The battleground for reading is being fiercely fought in the politest possible way. Free from the flame wars of PC or smartphone platforms, books, those of the non-printed variety, face the same challenges that digital music did. The ebook reader could be seen as the MP3 player of the reading classes.
Some may proclaim the benefits of printed books, much as musos assert the superiority of vinyl records, but both are just a transitory state. It's not the medium, but the content that's important. Ultimately, what you are paying for when you buy a book is not the paper it's printed on, but the words therein.
Today's App of the Day offers an alternative to one of the big players in ebooks, the Amazon Kindle.
- Android Market
We first encountered Kobo as a bundled app, appearing pre-installed on some devices as a catch-all ebook store and reader. In isolation, Kobo perhaps isn't as interesting as it should be, but the overall offering gives a respectable degree of competition to Amazon's Kindle Store and apps.
Kobo is available on a range of platforms, including iOS, BlackBerry and webOS, along with the desktop apps for Mac and PC. Of course the whole system ties in with Kobo's hardware, which we recently reviewed. We're only covering the Android app here, but in truth they are similar in function and look across platforms.
Kobo as an app is nicely designed. It's simple to get around, although you don't get the fancy page turning animations you'll get elsewhere. This might mean you occasionally skip forward or backwards without noticing, as a tap on the left goes back, a tap on the right moves forward, and page "turns" are swift.
From a book you have to touch the centre of the display to bring up major navigation options. This will let you skip through a book or return to your bookshelf or the contents. Perhaps confusingly, the menu button then offers up other reading settings, so if you want to engage "night mode" (white text on a black background), you have a couple of extra taps to get there.
You get bookmark syncing through your Kobo account, although this only applies to books you buy through Kobo and not imported files. You can add annotations to books and highlight passages. Notes can be shared to Facebook, if you wish.
Outside of reading books, the other side of Kobo is their bookstore. On the main pages of the app you have tabs across the bottom of the display. This offers the following sections, logically named: I'm Reading, Discover, Browse, Search and Reading Life.
The middle sections - Discover, Browse, Search - essentially revolve around the same thing, and that's selling you content. The Discover section essentially curates content into lists, which is an interesting approach. Here you'll find lists like "top free ebooks" or "for book snobs" which we found to be more interesting than browsing or searching directly.
The result is that Kobo feels closely integrated with its bookstore and before you know it, you'll be downloading previews. You can buy directly through the app, but then your books are also available directly to download should you want to put them on any Adobe DRM ebook reader, for example a Sony Reader. The other point worth noting for UK users is that Kobo now powers the WHSmith bookstore.
There is also an option within the app to import existing book files, so you can add them from a memory card or via Dropbox. It's great to be able to access existing content, although you don't get the syncing options.
There is also a recommendations system that comes with notifications. These can be a little annoying, but you can turn them off. The final section, Reading Life, is a sort of social and trophy system. You can link Kobo to Facebook to share your reading experiences. We're not totally sold on this angle, but if it encourages people to read, then all the better.
Overall the Kobo bookstore seems well stocked and the prices are competitive. The app itself we have found perfectly good for reading and we appreciate the syncing across devices, so we can move from Kobo ereader, to Android phone to iPad, something that was previously the preserve of the Kindle system.
The real question is why you'd choose Kobo over the Kindle. Fortunately, as both apps are free and both cover a range of platforms, you don't have to choose. Kobo gives you the diversity to access books from outside their system, as well as move books to different hardware, so for those with an existing ebook reader, it might be an obvious choice.