Academic Technology @ Palomar College

The Kobo Vox eReader

Kobo Vox LineupThe  “Vox” in the name comes from Vox Populi, and does not indicate a specialized text to speech technology, more’s the pity.  The implied “Populi” of the name suggests this device’s one hopeful selling point: it emphasizes sharing over social networks.  Of course the competition (Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook tablet, Sony WiFi) all offer social networking features, but it is front and center with the Vox.  If you don’t care a whit about sharing with your social network what you are reading, it’s hard to imagine why you would purchase this comparably priced device ($199.99) over one of its more ubiquitous competitors.

The Kobo Vox is yet another 7″, color, touchscreen, Android tablet.  Here are the specs courtesy of the Kobo web site:

Available Colors Hot Pink, Lime Green, Ice Blue, Jet Black
Wireless Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and Micro USB
Audio Built-in speaker and universal 3.5 mm stereo headphone jack
Device Size 192.4 mm X 128.4 mm (7.57 in. 5.06 in.)
Device Depth 13.4 mm (0.53 in.)
Weight 402.6 g (14.2 oz.)
Diagonal Display Size 7″ FFS+ multimedia display; 1024 x 600 resolution
Screen Qualities Multi-touch screen with exceptional +/- 89 viewing angle
Navigation Home, Back and Menu touch sensor; Power and Volume buttons
Processor 800 Mhz; 512 RAM
Operating System Full open access to Android 2.3
Storage 8GB of internal storage, holds 8,000 books and unlimited Kobo eBook cloud storage
Memory Expansion Option to add a 32 GB Micro SD Memory Card
Battery Life 7 hours
Content Over 2.2 million titles. 1 million available for free download
Social Reading Kobo eReading App with Reading Life and Kobo Pulse
Fonts 7 Font Styles, 42 Available Sizes
Advanced Features Library personalization options, Predicitive search, Brightness controls,
Automatic Bookmarks, Highlights, Annotations, Built-in Dictionary.
Software Free Kobo eReading apps available for Mac® and PC® computers and Apple®,
Android and BlackBerry® smartphones and tablets available at kobo.com.
Supported File Formats Books: ePUB, including fixed layout and enhanced ePUB. Images: JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP
Audio: MP3, AAC, .3gp, mp4, m4a, flac, ogg, wav, mid. Video Formats: 3gp, mp4, webm
Web Browsing Open Web browsing
Utilities Email (POP, IMAP, Microsoft® ActiveSync support), Address Book and Calendar
Media Music Player, Photo Gallery, Video Player
Pre-loaded Apps Facebook®, Twitter®, Rdio® for unlimited music, Zinio® for over 4,500 magazines,
PressReader for over 1,900 newspapers, Merriam-Webster Collegiate® Dictionary and more.
Get Apps Easy access to over 15,000 free apps for Android

Standing out from this list is the 7 hours of battery life (which is actually 7 hours with wifi turned off!) is relatively poor.  The rest is, by now, pretty standard fare. The fact that the list leads off with available colors (which really refer to edge trim colors, not body colors—the front and back are black) indicates that the device is not a technical stand out.  On the other hand, it does what it is supposed to do, and if you are really, really into social networking, this may be the eReader for you.

The feel of the Vox is not as substantial as that of the Kindle Fire or Nook Tablet.  The pastic back (which sports a diamond pattern rather than a smooth, rubberized back) feels like a cheap cover-over and not organic to the device.  It is hefty enough, with only two hardware buttons, the on/off power switch on the top and the volume rocker on the upper left.  There is a slot for a micro-SD card, which is a plus and a micro-USB port on the bottom for charging and sideloading content and the headphone jack.  There are three touch-buttons on the bottom of the bezel, back, menu and home, and a small LED charging light at the top.  The speaker is located at the upper right of the device, and even at max volume is small and tinny sounding.  Headphones or earbuds are a must.

The touch sensitivity of the Vox is not nearly as good as the Kindle Fire and B&N Nook tablet.  Many of the controls are sluggish, and multiple touches are required to activate sluggish controls.  The processor is not the equivalent of the Fire or Nook, with predictable results.

The battery life in practice is not nearly as good as the 7 hours advertised in the tech specs.  If you turn up brightness—who can work at 50% brightness, if you are going to spend money on a tablet you want it to look bright and brilliant—and play web videos the battery will become exhausted significantly sooner.

The user interface is far more Androidy than the custom interfaces of the Fire or Nook tablet.  You swipe through a series of five screens.  Screen 3, the start screen, features the display of books you are reading; below it a Recommended for you bar—why is it that the company with the most marketing muscle, Amazon, does not get in your face with recommendations like this, perhaps because with their muscle comes confidence; below that shortcuts to the Browser, Facebook, and Gmail, and below that five standard shortcuts to (surprise) more recommendation for you, Shop Kobo, All Apps, Library, and Reading Life (the device never lets you forget it is the portal to SOCIAL READING.  The other user screens, by default, come with 1) a device search bar and clock; 2) App shortcuts; 4) More shortcuts to opportunities to post social reading experiences (!); 5) a screen with a shortcut to the Rdio service all its own.  All of this could have been easily compressed into a couple of well designed screens, and the multiple marketing shortcuts are indeed annoying.  Pressing the touch Home button brings you back to screen 3.

The Reading Life app leaves you exhausted, as if in the company of an overzealous social director with a wild penchant for reading.  Leave me alone, I read to relax, you start thinking almost instantly, unless I just don’t get it.  I wouldn’t for a moment consider sharing on Facebook what I am reading, or listening to, for that matter, just to let you know where I am coming from.  I’m not the ideal reviewer for Reading Life.  If you want to know all about how many books you’ve read, how much time you’ve spent reading, if, in a word, scout merit badges prominently displayed turn you on, Reading Life is for you.

The built-in Android browser is pretty plain vanilla here.   It comes pre-configured with all the usual bookmarks (Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Google, CNN, YouTube, etc.) and you can add your own to your heart’s content.  The standard bookmarks are to the mobile versions of the web site, which is nice.

Even though the OS is Android, as with the Kindle Fire and Nook tablet the Get Apps app takes you to a customized store featuring a subset of the full Android Marketplace.  You can get the apps that Kobo wants you to have and will actually work on your device.  This isn’t really a criticism, since it’s hard to see how else this could be done. In the case of the Kobo, its all quite limited.

Reading on the Vox is as straightforward as the other color eReaders, except more sluggish and slow, slowed even further by constant nags to share your thoughts with your social network.  The annotation feature, however, is less sophisticated.  Tapping and holding a word brings up a “Select Text Options” submenu which has as it’s choices: 1) Annotate of Highlight; 2) Dictionary Lookup; or 3) (you guessed it) Share to Facebook.  Highlighting is not simply expandable, as it is on Nook tablet or Fire, and creating a note is also multilayered and not as easily done, cluttered with the ubiquitous opportunity to post your note to Facebook.  Dictionary lookups are functional, but without the “More…” options available with the other eReaders that make them more like using a real dictionary.  Most notably absent is the ability to extend Dictionary lookups to Google or Wikipedia searches.  Everything about the annotation/lookup system is much more primitive and less well integrated than on the competing eReaders.

Tapping a page you are reading, and then tapping the little gear icon in the lower right-hand corner will bring up the reading controls, where page layout, font family and size, Reading Life notifications, Social Settings (!), Library View (this one should have been suppressed when in the context of reading a book) and Accoutns (Kobo and Facebook) reside.  In order to change brightness you first have to deselect “Use System Brightness,” a tip off that the battery life problem is a serious one.  Then there is a fairly unresponsive slider you must use to increase, decrease brightness.  Oddly, the same slider approach is taken to font size.  Which feels weird and makes it impossible, due to the unresponsiveness of the slider, to return to one exactly after trying out variations.

 Conclusion

The only possible reason you could have to purchase the Vox over the similarly priced B&N Nook tablet or the Kindle Fire is its social focus.  But be warned that it is not nearly as responsive or sophisticated so you will have to live within these limitations—maybe you can tell your friends about it.

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