Kobo eReader: Touch Edition

A product review by Bobulous.

photo: The Kobo Touch with a page full of text from HP Lovecraft's story The Hound.
Text displays very nicely on the Kobo Touch.

About the Kobo eReader Touch

The Kobo eReader Touch Edition (often known as the Kobo Touch) is a six-inch E Ink touchscreen in a thin, light casing which allows you to store and read digital copies of books. The built-in storage on the Kobo Touch can hold around one thousand books at once. Digital copies of books (eBooks) can be purchased from the Kobo bookstore (and some other online bookstores), and it's also possible to borrow eBooks from some local libraries.

Note that the Touch Edition does not have a backlight. If you want to be able to read in a dark room, then consider the Kobo Glo which is almost identical to the Kobo Touch but has a backlit screen (and thus a slightly thicker case).

Using the Kobo eReader Touch

Charging the battery

Fresh out of the box the Kobo Touch will need its battery to be charged. A mains adapter is not provided in the box, so you need to use the USB cable which is provided. Charging takes about three hours, but once fully charged the battery will last for several weeks if you read with the Kobo Touch for thirty to sixty minutes each day.

The Kobo Desktop software

The instructions provided with the Kobo Touch direct you to a website where you can download the Kobo Desktop software for Windows or Mac. (There is no Linux version of Kobo Desktop, but this fact is unlikely to surprise a user of Linux.)

Once the Kobo Desktop software is installed, you can use it to create a new Kobo account for yourself and add that account to your Kobo Touch device. Once your account is setup on your device, you can visit the Kobo bookstore.

Using Wi-Fi

You can configure your Kobo Touch to connect to your home Wi-Fi network (or any other suitable Wi-Fi connection). This way you can connect to a Kobo account and browse the Kobo bookstore without using the Kobo Desktop software. Using Wi-Fi you can also instruct your Kobo Touch to sync with your account, to add any new books you've purchased through the website, without the need to use Kobo Desktop.

photo: The Home screen of the Kobo Touch, prominently showing the front covers of the five most recently read books.
The Home screen.

Be aware that Wi-Fi puts a lot of extra drain on the battery. When you don't need the Wi-Fi, make sure to tap on settings (found at the top-right of the Home screen) and untick the "Wi Fi" checkbox. You can easily enable Wi-Fi again just when you need to sync your Kobo Touch with your account.

The Kobo bookstore

Whether accessing the bookstore via the Kobo Desktop software, or the website, or the Kobo Touch itself, the bookstore is a fairly disorganised place. A surprising number of searches I made resulted in a small number of relevant books mixed in with a large number of cheap erotica titles. Even a search for "Dune" [in September 2013] turned up incest erotica with titles that I suspect would shock some people, especially if they had assumed it was safe for young children to browse the bookstore. Kobo ought to do a better job of organising their bookstore so that it's less easy to run into genres and categories you don't want.

If you decide to access the bookstore using the Kobo Desktop software then have your patience ready, as each page load seems to take an age. The Kobo Desktop software is also frustrating because it boasts a wishlist and a recommendations feature, but you can only add to the wishlist and the recommendations feature from the interactive front page of the bookstore, and these features are not made available when you search for specific genres or titles.

All in all, Kobo really need to work on their bookstore and on their desktop software, as both leave a lot to be desired.

As a side-note, I was shocked to find that Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park is not currently available on either the Kobo or on Amazon's rival Kindle platform (except, curiously, in Italian). So before buying an eReader, browse the bookstores for both Kobo and Amazon Kindle and check that the titles you want are actually available in digital form. While you're there, also check the prices between the two, as the Kobo is often a little more expensive for novels, but can be a little cheaper for other types of book.

Book formatting problems

Because I have intended to read The Lord Of The Rings for many years, the first eBook I purchased was The Fellowship Of The Ring for £4.99. I used Kobo Desktop to make the purchase and to add the book to my Kobo Touch. Almost immediately I found that every few paragraphs the font size would change down to a tiny font, then a paragraph or two later it would return to the correct size. At first I thought this might be how the original book was formatted, but it made so little sense that I found a physical copy of The Fellowship Of The Ring and found that no such font changes occur. This was a fault in the digital formatting of the eBook.

It seems that this problem has been noticed by others and discussed on the MobileRead Forums. That thread on the MobileRead Forums says that the fault is caused by the Kobo ePub format used by Kobo, then describes a way to upload a readable copy to the Kobo Touch using Adobe Digital Editions, and states that the problem was brought to the attention of Kobo at least eighteen months before I found the same problem.

So I contacted Kobo support to ask why after so much time they were still selling an eBook with problems that require a tedious workaround (because you should not have to install Adobe software to successfully read an eBook purchased from Kobo for a Kobo device). Their response included the following:

"We have looked into 'The Fellowship of the Ring: The Lord of the Rings, Part 1' and have verified that there is a formatting error throughout the book. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may have caused."

They then removed this book from my library and refunded its cost as a credit to my Kobo account, without asking me whether this was what I wanted. So the problematic book was missing from my Kobo library, but remained on sale in the Kobo bookstore. I'm not sure how anyone could call that a satisfying result.

I have since purchased The Lord Of The Rings from the Kobo bookstore (the edition which features all three volumes) and the Kobo ePub version of this seems to be free of errors, as do several other books I have viewed on the Kobo Touch. But I do wonder how many Kobo eBooks are affected, how many users are unaware of how to work around the problem, and how long it takes for such errors to be fixed.

Reading on the Kobo Touch

Once you've actually managed to get a properly formatted eBook onto your Kobo Touch, I have to admit that reading with it is a pleasure. The Kobo Touch is incredibly lightweight at 185g and I find it much more comfortable to hold the rigid, flat eReader than I find it to hold open a paperback. The E Ink display renders text with beatifully crisp letters and symbols, and being able to adjust the font and font size makes it easy to set the text so that it's comfortable for your viewing.

photo: A technical diagram showing on the Kobo Touch screen, the text small but clear.
Diagrams and illustrations with fine print render crisply on the E Ink screen.

While text can be resized as needed, bear in mind that illustrations and diagrams are bitmap images which don't scale so easily. I've not had any trouble making sense of illustrations so far, but bear in mind that very large, complex, fine-detailed images might become unreadable on the six-inch screen. Also remember that the E Ink screen is grayscale, so you lose any information conveyed only by colour.

I'm not generally a fan of touchscreens, but the touchscreen on the Kobo Touch is responsive enough. A physical button on the lower face of the Kobo Touch takes you back to the Home screen, which shows the five most recent eBooks you've been reading, so it's very easy to jump from a novel to a technical manual as the mood takes you.

The Home screen also offers a link to Reading Life which aims to help you keep track of your reading statitics, and offers awards as you meet certain conditions. The reading stats are not nearly detailed enough for my liking and there seems to be no way to see an overall summary of all your data, just the data for the book you were looking at most recently. So I was disappointed by the lack of detail, but I suspect most people will not care very much about this. And the awards are an interesting idea, including awards for reading at midnight, reading at the same time in the afternoon five days consecutively, reading a huge amount, and so on. But there aren't very many of these awards, and I reckon people used to unlocking achievements in video games will find them somewhat uninspiring. Again, this is unlikely to bother the majority of people.

More important to the business of reading is the automatic bookmarking, so that the Kobo Touch opens a book to the last page you were viewing in a previous session. And the built-in dictionary is very welcome. You just hold your finger on a word for a couple of seconds and a dictionary window appears to give you a definition of that word. You can also capture passages and save them to your favourites (and there are several features involving Facebook that I have to admit to having no interest in testing whatsoever).

Opinion of the Kobo eReader Touch

The Kobo Touch is a pleasure to hold and read once you have working eBooks loaded onto it. The hardware itself makes for a great reading experience. But the supporting bookstore and desktop software are seriously lacking, and Kobo support did not impress me with their handling of an eBook with formatting problems.

The Kobo Touch has an advantage over the Amazon Kindle in that the Kobo Touch allows you to borrow ePub books from a local library, whereas the Amazon Kindle does not allow this. Whether this advantage is adequate compensation for the messy Kobo bookstore, risk of faulty Kobo ePub formatting, and sluggish Kobo Desktop software, will depend on your priorities.


20th October 2013

A UK newspaper recently made front-page news of the fact that shocking erotica titles were littering the WHSmith online bookstore (which takes its stock from the Kobo bookstore) and other major online ebook stores (including Amazon). Consequently the Kobo bookstore seems to have been stripped of all such erotica, and WHSmith said the problem arose because the ebook market allows authors to self-publish new titles with little editorial oversight.

15th November 2013

Erotica titles seem to have reappeared in the Kobo bookstore listing, and again they're mixed in amongst books from other categories (including children's books). I don't know whether this is an error on Kobo's part or a change in policy, but they're likely to attract the wrath of the excitable news media at this rate. If you want to shop for Kobo eBooks but want to avoid seeing these titles, then the eBook section of the WHSmith website seems to be successfully filtering them out of their listings.

8th April 2014

After only seven months the touchscreen on the Kobo Touch has stopped responding to touch. A full restore has not fixed the problem so I'm fairly sure this is hardware failure. I'll get it back to the high street store where I bought it and find out how easy it is to get faulty goods replaced.

13th April 2014

I took the failed Kobo Touch to the WHSmith store on the high street expecting to be given the old line about contacting the manufacturer (even though, in the UK, the vendor is legally liable to the customer and the manufacturer has nothing to do with it). I showed the sales assistant the fault and he simply said he'd replace it. He didn't quibble or try to pass the buck, just asked me whether I wanted the same colour and then took a replacement Kobo Touch out of the store and processed it as a fault replacement. So my opinion of WHSmith just went up, but I'm disappointed that the Kobo hardware failed so soon. I'll update this page if the new unit also fails in short order.