The Kobo eReader — 1 month in

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The Kobo eReader from Borders Australia has proven to me to be a great device. I won’t go over the specs again; instead I will talk about the utility of both the hardware and software part of this device.

The hardware
As a device, the Kobo is a great reader. I did have some concerns about the blue button for page-turning. In use I did not feel that the placement or ergonomics was a burden, but I did notice some cases of click-through due to the design of the button.

The screen is very crisp, and in most cases very easy to read. The only time I had issues with reading with the device was in a moving bus at night. A good light source is required for reading, but the light can come from almost any angle, so it is great at night with a bed light next to you.

The books I installed via the USB cable took almost no time, and with a SD card installed, I was able to put my PDF books on the card and all the other books on the device proper. Adding PDF files to the device memory quickly took up a lot of space, but with careful management, you can live without the SD card. The eReader does not care where the book is memory wise, and the menu consolidates into two sections — documents (PDF) and books (ePub). Both the Kobo and SD card show as removable drives in Windows, making it very versatile and portable.

Battery usage was trivial. It has a small charge taken out of the box, but it is worth the effort to let it fully charge before use. Docking to download books via USB tops up the charge nicely. When turning on, the Kobo does take a small time to power up. If you uploaded books or PDFs, the power up can take a lot of time, as part of the power-up cycle is to check for new media.

The only hardware issue is the in-built Bluetooth. The only Bluetooth connectivity at the moment is with BlackBerry phones, so the promised syncing between platforms is not available for PC and/or iPhone users. I expect this to be fixed in a later firmware upgrade.

The software
The bundled “Borders, powered by Kobo” software and attached eBook store is the big weakness of the package. Books bought in the store did not transfer nicely to the eReader. Covers were missing on all the books I tried, and one book did not download fully at all. In this regard, the iPhone app is a better experience.

The range of books is also quite shocking. A lot of the new bestsellers are available, however, for genre books, the collection is very poor. For sci-fi/fantasy, for example, a lot of authors were missing, some of the classics of the genre were absent, and the search and refining tools were appallingly bad.

This may not be all the fault of Kobo/Borders, as the eBook market in Australia is rather young, but it shows the weakness of the Australian market in the area of rights and zone management. However, if you are looking for some fantasy female soft porn, you will be ecstatic with the range of books available, as will the “vampires are kawaii” crowd.

As a tool to manage an eBook library, the Borders software does not even bother. It only manages and syncs with books bought via its own bookstore. So people who download books from Project Gutenberg or other legal sites will have issues managing their collections on a PC.

However, the Kobo eReader is fully supported by Calibre. This free and open source software allows management and cataloguing of an eBook collection. An added bonus is that non-DRM ebooks not supported by the Kobo can be converted easily by this tool. I have tested it and found the conversions are well done, without some of the artifacts found when you convert between formats. Calibre also has the advantage of being ported to almost all available operating systems, including Linux and OS X.

Unless the range improves, or there is a major redesign of the software, I recommend ignoring the bundled software and using Calibre instead.

Conclusion
At $199 the Kobo is a great reader let down by some crappy software. However, the utility of the device is improved vastly if used with Calibre. For the price, it is almost the perfect reader, with only limited Bluetooth capability hampering the device.

Darryl Adams is a government worker and internet tragic. A former IT worker, he still pines for the days of IBM keyboards that go CRUNCH and the glow of green screens. He can be found on on Twitter or on Facebook. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of his employer, the ATO.

Image credit: Borders

17 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for the review. It looks like a great device. I am currently using a Kindle and also the iPhone Kindle app. You mentioned “This may not be all the fault of Kobo/Borders, as the eBook market in Australia is rather young, but it shows the weakness of the Australian market in the area of rights and zone management.”. This problem is currently my biggest issue with the eBook market at this time.

    As a practical example I wanted to purchase the 11 books of the “Sword of Truth” series for my Kindle for a recent month long trip to Japan. Amazingly I could only purchase Book 1 “Wizards First Rule” as an eBook and books 2 through 11 only has hardcopy. This is not the only series afflicted by this problem. For me it makes the Kindle and other eBook readers mostly useless as I rarely buy single books.

    • Considering how popular the Sword of Truth series is, that’s a pretty big problem, Sean. I have had the same problem with the Kobo as Darryl — when you go looking for popular new titles, it’s hard to find them in the Borders library. I’m sure it is a problem that will get rectified in time … but I am a bit tired of being penalised because I am an early adopter ;)

      How are you finding the Kindle as a hardware platform? How easy is it to turn pages? That has been my other main bugbear with the Kobo.

  2. That is the main reason I do not use the Kindle App. I ironically get better range from the Borders/Kobo app than I do from the Kindle App. Again, the tyrany of our Anglocentric Publishing regime.

    The issue in my eyes is that ebook files are small and easy to bundle into torrents. Piracy here is a classic market correction in this case, where people are willing to pay for the ebook, but no legal source is available. The market will see this as a case for DRM, but it is actually the oposite, as people who play by the rules are imapcted the hardest by the rules.

    For Australia, we will need to see how the ebook changes are handled in the UK, due to the setup of the Book market here, we are dominated by the British and not American companies. I for one will be watching :-S

    • It’s true, the British publishers do have a stranglehold here — when books are exported from the US they are exported to the UK first — and then usually the British will launch them in Australia. Many of the local publishers here are actually divisions of British publishers.

      It drives me wild … many sci-fi/fantasy books never come to Australia at all.

  3. As a hard-copy reader, I didn’t need to know inside details about the printers’ relationship with the tree-growers, or the key differences between hardback and paperback publication contracts. I just bought books and read them. Oddly enough, as a customer that’s what I expect.

    It continually amazes me how much cr*p we have to endure in order simply to buy and read ebooks. Amazon is having an argument with Macmillan and has withdrawn all their books from sale! The Big 5 publishers are blackmailing ebook retailers and have withdrawn all their books from sale! Amazon has bought and stifled Mobipocket, the entire format is being removed from sale! Yes, we know that title is available to buy online, but not if you live in Australia! No, you can’t use this format, or that ebook software, and what do you mean you think if you buy something then you can use it the way you want?

    Did we have to follow detailed analyses of the publishing and book retail industry in order to read paper books? Were there technical and copyright arguments over dog-earing pages? Were we sued for lending our purchased books to a friend or family member? No?

    Why has the basic, everyday experience of reading become some sort of courtroom soap opera?

    The Borders ebook store/app is not one of the most egregious examples of holding the customer to ransom. In fact, it shows improvement in that area: finally, we are able to access some of the books we were suddenly not allowed to buy online, a year or so ago. (For example, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is available in ebook at Borders, but I’m not allowed to buy it e.g. at Fictionwise after buying the first volume there before the anti-Australian sanctions were imposed.) Borders’ shop is in Australia, we don’t have to do currency conversions and add on “free” $2-3 wireless transfers to work out the price of a book downloaded entirely over a wired connection (I’m looking at you, Amazon), and in theory there should be less copyright blackmail over a book we buy in our own country.

    However, Borders evidently have their teething problems. As Darryl says, their ebook range is the opposite of electic. (At last check Borders had only 6 unconnected Star Trek books out of several hundred running in series. Why those six?) I keep going back and searching for very popular/classic titles which then don’t turn up in the extremely confused search results. You can’t sort results or browse the shop by genre. There is no option to search for ebooks by default (you have to specify that each time manually). Ebooks have weirdly inconsistent pricing, sometimes more expensive than hard-copy books, and some mass-market titles have what one hopes are erroneous prices in the hundreds of dollars. A bit of extra work on the backend and interface before release would have saved a good deal of customer frustration and alienation.

    The Borders-powered-by-Kobo iPhone app and desktop app won’t give you a simple list of titles: you have to scroll through all the covers as well. This makes it laborious to scan through anything more than a handful of books. The iPhone app is reasonably readable for me in night view (not available in the desktop app) with a larger font size, but page progression can lag, and you’re not told if preferences are persistent or per-book. (The iPhone app also froze when I tried to view the prefs in a book by pressing on the tool (cog) icon in the top RH corner, and flashed the prefs up and down like some sort of amphetaminized peeping Tom, but worked correctly after I rebooted it.)

    Syncing is surprisingly eccentric between the desktop and iPhone apps. My Borders iPhone app just crashed after I opened it while the desktop app was open. I had to close the desktop app to be able to open the iPhone app. Back when the Borders ebook shop opened, I bought a number of titles and also grabbed quite a few free public domain books from the site. I sync’d both apps, then started cataloguing my new books in Calibre. Boy, was this a confusing experience, not because of Calibre (which is refreshingly reliable) but because my list of titles in (1) My Library on the Borders site, (2) the Borders desktop app and (3) the Borders iPhone app differed markedly. At one point, I didn’t have access at any of those points to some of the titles I’d purchased. Even more confusingly, the three different lists would keep changing when I reloaded them. Many titles turned up as duplicates, while others disappeared completely.

    I sent in a report/query to Borders customer service, and waited to hear back from them, but have not heard back at all. I can understand that they might be busy, but surely they allowed for customer interaction when setting up the site?

    I think the Borders ebook site and apps have promise, but they need to provide a more competitive range, more effective access (search, genres, list, accessibility) and something approaching reliability.

    • Epic post Clytie.

      Personally, i think much of what is going on here relates to the fact that Borders is simply not geared up towards publishing this way.

      My experience in large companies has taught me that each has their own long-held structure and way of doing things that has often been setup over decades. This is very true of the publishing and retailing industries, which is where books currently sit in.

      To get the Borders/Kobo eStore to an acceptable point, you don’t just need one champion or one division of the company to help push things through. You need a whole generation of change to wash through the company at all levels, from the way the IT staff work to the way that big agreements are signed with authors, rights-holders, publishers and so on.

      This isn’t going to happen any time soon.

      Amazon has had the best chance at making this happen and probably has the best solution at the moment. It had the least cruft clogging up the system to work through. But even Amazon is still dealing with a lot of legacy company structure … and so we get annoying DRM and other stuff.

      From what I have seen of Borders/Kobo, though, they are willing to keep engaging in this eBook process after the initial first pushes (witness, they have commented on several articles on Delimiter), and so I expect them to continue to grow and develop along this journey.

      Perhaps the only thing we can do is continue to post criticism and keep on getting them to respond. That way things will go forward.

      In this vein I salute your epic post and award it a +1.

  4. My mothers had issues with the Borders Mail Order, and the customer service side of things seem to be a shoestring operation at the moment. So you may have to wait for the reply to your query.

    Your post was great. I did not want to go too deeply into the whole Kobo ecosystem, as I only have exposure to the PC and iPhone App. I would expect the BlueBerry variant to be be better, if only for the BT intergration.

    Thanks for your input Clytie

  5. Darryl — thanks for the great account of your last 30 days and thanks for your patience as we work through the first few weeks of growing pains. There is a new version of the Desktop Reader on the way in the next few weeks, as well as updated builds for iPhone and iPad that should address some of the issues you’ve described.

    As far as territorial rights go, you’re spot on. Publishers are just getting rolling on ebook conversion and we’re working hard to get a wider range of titles in the mix. Territorial rights are the other side of it, as publishers work with agents and authors to get ebook rights for Australia. The good news is that just in the last month, we’ve seen Australian readers embrace ebooks in a big way — that’s going to help convince publishers that they need more titles in the market sooner rather than later.

    Cheers,
    Michael Tamblyn, EVP Content, Sales & Merchandising – Kobo

    • hey Michael, I wanted to thank you for engaging with us about the Kobo reader — there is a great deal of interest in the device and the whole Borders ecosystem online — but as you’ve seen, there is still quite a deal of work to be done before it gets to a level where people are really going to be able to expect it has any book that they want. I think this is going to be a push that will require quite a few years’ worth of worth :)

      Let us know when there are updates available, I’d be keen to see how they will impact the whole platform.

      • I think the Borders’ ebook shop range is improving (and I appreciate Michael updating us here). Today I was checking out Fictionwise’s weekly front page for tasty treats, and saw they’d just released another Rex Stout title (classic detective fiction and really good writing). I’d previously grabbed a handful of Rex Stout ebooks from Borders just after they launched, but that was all they had then. Today, I decided to check Borders before buying at Fictionwise (this was a book I was actually allowed to buy from Australia), and found that same title had already appeared at Borders.

        In fact, their collection of titles by this author has expanded from a mere handful to well over a hundred. This does show progress, and it’s particularly encouraging to see newly-released (if not newly-authored) ebooks appearing at Borders just as quickly as overseas.

        Even more tellingly, the price of this title at Fictionwise was higher than that at Borders (US$6.99 for non-members, US$5.94 for paid-up members at Fictionwise; AU$5.95 at Borders). This is exactly what we have been requesting for so long: current ebook titles without delay, available to us at competitive prices. For Rex Stout fans, the revolution is already here. The six lonely Star Trek titles I mentioned in a previous post have grown into 77 at Borders today, again many at $5.95. (I envisage some happy shopping today. :) )

        How well are your favourite books represented now in ebook at Borders? Has the SFF listing improved in general?

  6. Excellent follow-up article Darryl, and Clytie: I feel your pain.

    I bought a BeBook a month or so back, and while I’m generally happy with it I can’t believe I have to tweak files on my desktop PC to make them readable on an *ebook reader.* PDFs are the bane of my life but they’re rapidly becoming the standard.

    Calibre – this may well make things just that little bit easier, thanks for the heads-up.

  7. Renai, the BeBook isn’t too bad. I really like that there’s more than one way to turn the page – the rocker switch on the right-hand edge is excellent. Much more intuitive than looking, selecting and pressing a button, simply feel and flick (it’s the only switch on the edge).

    My preference is still my little tablet laptop (LG C1 Express Dual), but it runs too hot to sit and read for hours at a time in the summer months.

    Back to formats: I’ve also tried converting PDFs to text using “PDF To Word” but unfortunately it turns line breaks into carriage returns and that’s no help when you’re trying to repaginate. If I knew more about what I was doing there might be a way around that. *grin*

    Helen (@EponyMowse)

    • Helen, the Mobileread forums (a great resource for ebookworms) have advice on how to convert/manage PDFs, e.g. in parts of this thread. The crux is that PDF is not really an ebook format, and certainly not the standard ebook format (that’s ePub). PDFs have become very popular files because of their portability, but they’re basically a picture of what their creator saw at the time, which isn’t a good way to manage text. ePub is a format designed for ebooks: it’s XML-based, easy to edit (with Sigil) and much better at displaying book text and images.

      (Mobileread also has a dedicated forum for each of the ebook devices, including your BeBook.)

      I was interested in what you had to say in an earlier post about LIT being designed for ebook. This is exactly what we need, going forward, but available on all platforms. Hopefully ePub will grow into that rôle.

      • +1 to what Clytie said. I now have a Kindle DX in my hot little hands for review, so I’l let you guys know how that goes as well. To be honest, it’s probably too heavy and bulky for most people, but the screen and processor are better than the Kobo. I haven’t tried a BeBook yet, so will have to see if I can get one of those in as well.

        And yes, PDF = evil. ePub FTW.

  8. Since it’s evident Borders is trying to become a viable online ebook shopfront, I contacted Inkmesh, the ebook search engine (excellent for comparing prices and availability) and asked them to include Borders AU in their search results. I was pleased to receive a prompt reply:

    “Thanks for the note — we would definitely consider Borders AU to the search engine in the near future, and keep you posted about it.”

    I still haven’t had any response to early contact forms I sent to Borders Online, and they don’t supply an email address, so I hope they see this here.

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