Text and photos by Gadjo Cardenas Sevilla
A coloured eBook Reader with tablet aspirations. This is the Kobo Vox, the most ambitious device released by Toronto-based Kobo whose earlier eBook reader devices, the Kobo Wireless eReader and the outstanding Kobo eReader Touch Edition were superb examples of the company's focus on quality, social reading and innovation. There is a lot weighing on the Kobo Vox's shoulders, it is the company's first coloured eReader and also the first one to run a scaled back version of Google's Android OS. Here's our review.
The Kobo VOX is all about possibilities. Aggressively priced at $199, it is an eReader and running on a smartphone OS to simulate tablet functionality. It can access millions of Kobo books, surf the web, check email, play games like Angry Birds and be used for Facebook, Twitter and even play back music thanks to the Rdio app.
Right away, one notices some delighful touches present in the Kobo Vox. The unlock screen, for example is designed in the same trademark diamond quilt pattern that many Kobo models have in their back panel. You also get a new quote from a famous writer on the unlock page.
Out of the box, the Kobo Vox looks a lot like the BlackBerry PlayBook but that is where the similarities end. The Vox is thicker than the PlayBook and does not feel as solid as RIM's now heavily discounted device. Our review unit felt and sounded a bit creaky, it seems the rear panel was not glued on properly so there is some creaking.
We were also dismayed to find some light leakage where the screen's bezel meets the rear case. Physical construction isn't the best and it is evident that corners were cut in order to enable a $199 price point.
People who just want an eReader are better off sticking with Kobo's other options because they will no doubt be happier with the longer battery life and the eInk display as well as the singular nature of those devices. The Kobo Vox, is after all, partly a tablet. There's a lot going on here with social apps, games, music and some of the Android experience.
The Android experience on the Kobo Vox is limited to some apps that are curated by Kobo to work on the device's specs. Many of the icons that appear on the screen aren't actually apps but icons that link to webpages. So clicking the Facebook or Twitter icon will to invoke the Android app for those services but bring you to a webpage.
Same goes for GMail and some of the other services around.
What concerns us is how limited the app selection is right now. We also find that there are some essential utilities, like a task killer (some say you don't need one but we've managed to squeeze more battery life out of our Android phones and tablets using task killers) which could help manage background processes.
We experienced some slowdowns while playing Angry Birds where there was a split second delay in the screen movement and sound, this didn't affect the gameplay much but it was surprising nonetheless. While playing back a YouTube video, the very first one we accessed using the browser, the entire device froze and we had no recourse but to force the device to restart. Thankfully, there are no reset buttons or complex button combinations, just press the power button down for 6 seconds and the device shuts off.
The eReader was stuck on the startup screen prodding us to try and force another restart which finally worked. After the restart, we were able to watch YouTube videos without any problem and the quality and screen brightness was impressive and on par with some screens we've seen on similar sized tablets.
Looking back it seems this issue happened because we had some background items downloading while we were checking out all the device's features and apps so it choked.
The Kobo Vox has a 800 Mhz processor and 512MB of RAM, which should be enough to run the scaled down Android core OS without any problems so we think that a lot of the glitches we were experiencing are software related which gives us hope that they will be resolved, soon.
Going into the Kobo reading app on the Kobo Vox is like leaving the noisy and crowded Android mall and going to a quiet library.
It is here where the Kobo Vox really shines. Most of our books are text-focused so the colour aspect adds little to the experience although it is a good thing to have a backlight in low light conditions because that has been our biggest issue with eInk devices.
Inside the Kobo app, the Vox is responsive and once the initial pop-ups are done telling you all the great things you can do while you read, the experience is above average. Even outdoors on an overcast afternoon, we found the brightness, clarity and quality of the Kobo Vox's screen quite satisfactory.
Kobo's ystem of making readers earn badges, share insights and measure reading statistics is unparalleled and their new Pulse feature, which dives deep into the books you are reading and crowdsources stats, likes, feedback and highlight activity so you can get an inkling of what other people reading the same book are thinking and feeling about the book is a way to keep things social. It works great on the Kobo Vox.
None of the tablet or smartphone versions of the Kobo app are as integrated as what ships with the Kobo Vox right now, eventually we expect the same engaging experience, complete with the Pulse aspect on all the Kobo apps across devices. Readers who don't want to be bothered by all this and wish their reading to be a solitary pursuit can easily turn these features off.
The Book Preview feature is a bit of a bait and switch maneuver.
We wanted to check out the Giller Prize winning book Half-Blood Blues but didn't want to pay the $14.99 price without getting a better idea of what it was all about.
We downloaded the preview which only got as far as the cover, the dedication page and some of the publishing information, we didn't even get to read the first paragraph of the book before a pop up was asking us to pay for the whole book! Not much of a preview and not much of an incentive for us to download the book.
Still, I am a big fan of Kobo and go see if the books I want are available on their library before anywhere else. I adore the eReader Touch Edition and find I use it more than my Kindle 3 and I think that the Kobo Vox does have a rightful place in this pantheon.
Some of our readers reinforced that in certain markets like the UK, the Kobo Vox is the only option for a coloured eReader with tablet features, this is a huge opportunity for Kobo to capitalize on and grab market share before the Amazon steamroller express barrels through.
Yes, there are rough edges and some like the light leakage and questionable fit and finish that will not be remedied by a software update but the others, like variable touch sensitivity, memory management issues and battery life can still be remedied by software which I know Kobo is working hard to improve.
Users who want a cheap tablet should buy something else.
Perhaps a RIM PlayBook or an older Samsung Galaxy Tab which are both stellar at running their respective tablet operating systems and in the case of the Galaxy Tab, can run Kobo, Nook and Kindle apps without any problem.
If you want an eReader that can surf the web, do email over the web, run some apps and handle web-based social media, the Kobo Vox is a viable option for $199. Just make sure that your expectations of what this device can and cannot do for you are clear.
We suggest anyone interested in this or any eReader go check them out in stores and see if they work the way you want them to.
Kobo needs to make adjustments. Tighten up the quality and build issues as well as in the software. That could spell the difference between success and failure for this device. I think the Kobo Vox still has a lot of potential.
Rating: Not yet rated.