The Kobo eReader vs. the iPad

I’ve been toying with the idea of buying an ebook reader for some time, ever since the Kindle was released. Since it wasn’t available in Canada, I looked for, and used, alternatives such as my iPod Touch, an EeePC, and an Archos 5 Internet Tablet. None of these have been satisfactory for a number of reasons. When the iPad was announced, it looked like an interesting option. But with the availability pushed back in Canada, I was left waiting once again. In the meanwhile, the Kobo eReader was announced, and made available. I pre-ordered one and it arrived just last week. I’ve since read my first full novel on it, and have some thoughts. And just yesterday, I got a chance to test out a friend’s imported iPad for a good half hour. So, finally I can compare the Kobo eReader to the Apple iPad.

kobo ereader

The Kobo eReader in white

First off, the Kobo eReader is just an ebook reader. It doesn’t have WiFi access (though it does have Bluetooth), or a web browser, nor does it play music files. So, in comparing it to the iPad, I will only looks at the iPad’s ebook capabilities. Yes, the iPad can do so much more, but that’s not necessarily a good thing… if you just want to read books.
Right off the bat, the first thing you notice about the Kobo eReader is that it’s thin (10mm) and light. It’s as light as, or even lighter than, the average paperback: 221g (0.5 lb) — that’s a third of the weight of the iPad (hmm, and a third of the price as well!). And the screen is about the same size as a paperback page, 6″ diagonal. And just like a paperback, you get black text on a white page. But there the similarities end. Some of the advantages of reading on the Kobo eReader (or on similar devices like the Kindle) compared to paper books, and compared to the iPad:

  • You can change font size. If I’m reading a paper book and am a bit tired, turning a page to find a long paragraph in a small font size is a bit daunting – all those words to wade through! With the eReader, I can just bump up the font size so that I only see a bite-size amount of text. This also helps if the lighting is dim, for there’s no back-light.
  • You can hold it like a book. Duh, you say. But the iPad is so much heavier , 0.7 kg (1.5 lb, and 1.6 for the 3G version), that I’m sure it’ll get tiring to hold it unsupported after a short while. The eReader is light enough that I can hold it for hours ‘twixt finger and thumb.
  • You can only read a book. At first I thought this might be a disadvantage. I mean, the iPad can do so much more than read books. But the longer I read on the eReader, the more I like the fact that it helps me to stay present, or rather, lose the present and immerse myself in my novel. There are no Facebook notifications popping up to distract me. More and more, I consider this a feature, not a flaw.
  • The battery life is essentially infinite. With the eInk screen, there’s no power required to display a page. You can “leave the book open” at a certain page for a day, or a week, and the battery won’t have dropped. eInk screens only consume power when changing a page. So the battery life is not quoted in hours, but in page turns. The eReader’s battery lasts 8000 page-turns; that’s about 10 War & Peace novels! With my Archos 5 tablet, I was always aware that the battery was running down while I was reading, and my inclination was to try to reduce the brightness all the time. And, if I stopped reading for more than a minute, the screen would shut off and activate the screen-lock, forcing me to unlock the device before I could continue. Though the iPad’s battery will last 10 hours, you will not be able to take it camping for a week off-grid and do very much reading. (Sure, you can take along a solar charger for it, but that adds weight, complexity and cost).
  • It comes pre-loaded with 100 classic books. That makes the device a bargain beyond its low retail price of $149, which is $100 less than the Kindle. I mean, if you went to a used bookstore you’d pay well over $150 for those 100 books. It’s like buying a library of classic literature, and they threw in the reader for free.
  • The memory is expandable. In the unlikely event that you fill up the internal memory (those 100 books take up only 120 MB of the 1 GB internal storage), you can just pop an SD card into the slot and add thousands more books. If you live in a small apartment like I do, there’s a considerable appeal to the reduction of the physical amount of bookshelf space I need to house my book collection.
  • It’s not a shiny bauble like an iPad, and as such is less likely to be ripped from your hands by a thief as you sit reading it on a park-bench somewhere.

And now some of the disadvantages of a dedicated eReader like the Kobo (and the Kindle):

  • The screens are black & white, so you won’t see the lovely colour illustrations that are included in some printed books. Clearly, the iPad has an advantage in this regard… which is why Apple included the colourful Winnie The Pooh with the iPad, and why it’s promoted the iPad as a colour magazine reader.
  • The page-turns take a couple of seconds, and involve the whole screen flashing to black momentarily. It’s a bit like a mild electric shock the first time you experience it. After a while you get used to it, and to pressing the Next Page button as you begin to read the last line of the current page.  The iPad has a much more pleasant page-turning experience, at least if you want to see a full-colour animation of an actual physical page moving each time you want to advance a screen.
  • With the initial version of the Kobo software, PDF documents are a pain to read. Their content does not reflow as you change zoom size, so you end up having to scroll sideways on the page to read them. I understand that this is likely to change in an upcoming firmware update.

As for the iPad, it seems to me to be a wonderful little general-purpose computer that many will love to own, though it is overkill for the simple task of reading books. There are lots more opinions about the iPad as an ebook reader on the TUAW site.  And for more user opinions and discussions on the Kobo eReader, check out the user forum.

What are your thoughts about dedicated ebook readers versus multipurpose devices like the iPad?


I've been experimenting with mobile devices since 1992 when I bought a Sharp PC-3100. In more recent years I've had devices running Palm OS, Windows Mobile, Linux, Android and iPhone OS. I'm a mechanical engineer working for a software company, and a software hacker on the side (mostly Python, and Android). I also like playing with GPS, riding my bicycle every day of the year, and flying unpowered aircraft when I can - so long as it doesn't interfere with my skiing! I've known your host Zac for over 10 years, but please don't hold that against me.

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18 Responses

  1. Gar says:

    If you make it out to that camping trip in the desert, I’d be happy to have you give my Nook a spin. I have no idea if they’re sold north of the 48th though. Similar to you, I’ve been wanting an eBook reader ever since the Kindle came out. I agree with your pluses; weight, battery life, etc. As long as you have enough light to read a paper book, I think reading an e-ink page is easier on the eyes than a backlit color led/lcd display.

    As you mention, I got my reader to read books, and the majority of the books I read are predominately text. Lack of color is not an issue for me. If I were getting a photo coffeetable book, I’d want it in paper anyway, for the size if nothing else.

    What tipped me to the Nook over the Kindle was; user replaceable battery, user expandable memory, wifi (for purchased books), and use of the ePub book format, along with reading .pdf format. The Nook also has 3G cell service, but wifi would be usable almost anywhere in the world. I typically leave mine in “airplane” mode, and the battery life is amazing. An unexpected bonus is it uses the same micro usb charging port my phone uses, so there’s one less charge to carry when I travel.

    I never have managed to read an entire novel on my laptop, but I’ve read at least a dozen on my reader since I bought it in March. I’m sold on the whole eReader experience.

  2. midtoad says:

    hi Gar, thanks for your comment. While I was comparing the Kobo eReader to the iPad, I would agree that the Nook has many of the same advantages of the Kobo reader, and even perhaps a few more! And it’s a better buy IMHO than the Kindle. Sadly, it’s not available in Canada yet, and also costs $100 more at this time; that price may come down (as may the price of the Kindle) once Borders introduces the Kobo reader into the US this month at $149.

    One other advantage of the Nook that is shared with the Kobo reader is the use of epub format ebooks. The Kindle uses a proprietary format that locks you to its reader.

    And Amazon has now admitted that they retain the power to take away from you the books that you thought you had purchased. I can’t speak for the Nook, but since the Kobo reader doesn’t have internet access, it is much less likely that you can have your books taken away.

  3. midtoad says:

    Update: Today I did something I’ve never enjoyed doing with any computing device up to now: I took my Kobo eReader out into the bright sunlight, sat down on a garden bench, and read a couple of chapters in a book. There was no straining or squinting to see the screen. And the screen did not reflect the bright sky back into my eyes. The text on the page was as easy to read as when I was indoors. I see this as one more reason to buy a dedicated ebook reader with an eInk screen (whether Kobo, Nook, Kindle, Sony or other).

    In the middle of one chapter, my Nexus One cellphone rang but I pressed a button and inadvertently sent the call to voice mail, so I had to start up my phone app and call voice mail. Since I had earlier turned down the brightness to save battery, the screen was virtually impossible to work with. I pretty much had to remember from memory where the brightness widget was, then crank it to the max so I could see the home screen, call voicemail and get my message. I was glad to put the phone away.

    I haven’t yet used an iPad outdoors, so I’d love to hear from you readers that have. I don’t see how it can be any easier to use outdoors than my MacBook, and the experience is not likely to be any better. What’s your experience?

  4. Beverly says:

    Thanks I have been thinking about getting a kobo reader…..I think it would be fine for what I want to do with which is simply read books and I think I will get one…thanks for your review

  5. midtoad says:

    Beverly, with the price point of the Kobo we are now reaching a time when it can be almost an impulse buy. But unlike many items that we purchase on a whim, I think an ebook reader can turn out to be quite useful.

  6. Steve says:

    I’ve finished a couple of books on my Kobo now and am really enjoying it. Like you, I’ve got reader software on my phone, computer, laptop and netbook but have never finished a book on any of them.

    As much as I’d like an iPad, I don’t “need” one, and the size of the Kobo makes it perfect for taking anywhere. It easily fits in a coat pocket and doesn’t take up any more room than a regular book for reading on a crowded train. Actually, if anything, it takes up less room than a book because it’s smaller and no physical page turning is required.

    I finally ran out of juice yesterday after my initial charge. I’ve had it plugged in a couple of times for adding books, but haven’t specifically charged it since the initial one. Pretty impressive. It certainly wasn’t the 8000+ page turns that Kobo quotes, but I’ve also been poking around in the menus, looking through all the free books, playing with font size, etc, etc. I wonder if it takes more power to display a cover page (more “ink to turn on”) than a page with just pure text. If so, I wonder whether there’s a difference in battery life if you have a small font (more ink to display?) vs a large font (less ink?) of when you look at the overall ink usage, is there really a difference? Hmmmmm…. 🙂

    I’ll second the quality of the screen in the sunlight, and also when wearing polarized sunglasses. Reading it on the train was perfectly doable, even with the sunlight flickering on and off the screen. Trying to do that on my phone is next to impossible. Polarized glasses also make reading on my netbook or phone pretty challenging in the sunlight. However, there’s really no problem reading the Kobo’s nice crisp non-back-lit screen.

    There’s been a bit of a viral effect with this reader, too. There are now five of them amongst various family members. 🙂

    I’m interested in whether the black bordered one has an effect on readability, though. To me, it was distracting, as it was competing with the text for my attention.

    I also hope prices on ebooks themselves come down. With the elimination of printing, binding, shipping, warehousing, etc costs related to printed books, I don’t know why ebooks are almost the same price (other than a pure cash grab…) as physical books. It will be interesting to see what happens with this over time.

  7. midtoad says:

    Thanks Steve, and that’s a good point about the black model’s distracting borders; I will recommend the white model to people.

    I also experienced a dead battery yesterday. At first I thought the unit had frozen up, since it refused to respond to any button presses, or to removing and reinstalling the SD card. Then I thought to plug it into a charger, so as force it to try to sync. That’s when I discovered the battery was dead! You can’t tell otherwise, since even with a dead battery the unit will display text. I had left the unit in my cycling backpack all day, turned on. I suspect that one button was pressing continually, and that killed the battery.

    Can anyone recommend a good case so that I protect the reader while leaving it turned on?

  8. Steve says:

    I’ve been using the soft case from my netbook. It’s a little big, but at least keeps my kobo somewhat protected and clean when I throw it in my backpack. I’m not sure it would prevent the button from being clicked, but I’m sure you could rig something up with the case. I’ve seen netbook cases for as little as $5 online, quite a bit less than the $30 cost for a “real” Kobo cover.

  9. Praveen says:

    Hi, are you sure the black model is distracting? Am about to order one and i thought the blue D-pad on the white model will be distracting. The black one comes with a grey D-pad which should be easy on the eyes.

  10. Steve says:

    I found the black border distracting but can’t say I’ve ever really noticed the blue button while I’m reading. Looking at the two side by side, I do prefer the grey button, but again, the blue one hasn’t been a distraction. (Of course, now I’ll probably notice it… 😉

  11. midtoad says:

    Praveen, in the past I’ve found black devices to be fingerprint magnets, but of course YMMV. Good luck with the black eReader and let us know how you like it.

  12. Snowman says:

    Thanks for the excellent review. Have been looking for an ebook reader and this seems to be one at an acceptable price point. My personal peeve is that the battery is embedded in the device.

  13. midtoad says:

    For one more reason the Kobo eReader beats the iPad, read on.

    I recently purchased an iPad (review coming soon), so I went hunting for a copy of Beowulf for the iPad, since I’m reading it on the Kobo eReader at this time. I didn’t want to pay $2 to someone like Barnes & Noble for an ebook version of a text that’s in the public domain, so I visited the website and grabbed a copy in .epub format. The iPad offered to open the document with the Stanza app, so I let it. Now, the Stanza app is only available in an iPhone version at this time, not native iPad, so it’s decided for a 480×320 pixel screen (vs. the 1024×768 pixels of the iPad screen). To fill the screen, you have to press the 2x button to stretch the pixels out by a factor of two. Problem with that is that you are getting diagonal ink strokes that are jagged and pixelated, and look like crap.

    So, until there’s a version of Stanza for the iPad, public-domain .epub documents are still going to look better on the Kobo eReader.

  14. John says:

    Just got the Kobo Ereader over the holidays and I’m onto my third book. Easy to read and really light. I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom when it came out in hardback – sure would have been nice to put that baby on the Kobo. What I love about the Kobo too is that it is compatible with my library. I can download direct from my library’s website, have use of the book for three weeks (which encourages me to actually read it in a timely manner) and then it disappears (unless I renew it). The availability of titles continues to grow, so I feel I have the best of both worlds.

  15. midtoad says:

    John, what application are you using to borrow library ebooks?

  16. Patricia says:

    I got my Kobo as a Christmas gift and I absolutely love it! I have read three novels, one that I downloaded from Kobo and the other two from the local library. Once you get the software installed it is quite easy to download books from the local library. I even have the option to request new books and when they come in the library will email me so that I can download the books that I have on hold. I love everything about books and was very skeptical about an e-reader but I love it! The Kobo is so light and the battery life is great. I would recommend this product to anyone who is looking for a device to read books from.

  17. Helen says:

    Hi, I just looked at Kobo in a Chapters store and I am so glad I found this website. I have found out more useful info about Kobo here than anywhere else. Can anyone tell me if I can backup the purchased ebooks on a Kobo to a laptop or external hard drive. I read a review recently where the user’s battery had a problem after the first week and he lost all the books he had purchased. I would like to avoid that problem

  18. tears says:

    Thank you for your review and to everyone who has commented.

    I just purchased a black Kobo E-Reader and I can’t wait to receive it.

    Yes, I had thought about other devices while considering the Kobo. What it boiled down to was what I wanted. I want an e-reader and nothing else. If the device had other functions such as the Internet and media playback, then I fear it would lead to other distractions. I prefer to leave all that on the computer.

    Just wanted to say, thank you to all and your comments. Much appreciated.

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