THE KOBO Vox (from Latin, vox populi, ‘voice of the people’) is Kobo’s latest and greatest ebook reader. It’s basically a touch-screen Android tablet, but Kobo has made some smart trade-offs to keep it at the $200 price point. Here are my impressions.
The first time it starts, the device asks to connect to a wireless network and then downloads and installs a software update. It then guides you through restarting and completing setup. You have to pick your time and date and then log in to, or create, a Kobo account. There don’t seem to be any options for not signing in to a Kobo account–to use the Vox, you must be signed in.
There’s much to like about this compact device. It’s roughly three-quarters the size of an iPad, and has a crisp full-colour screen. Text is crisp and images really pop out. It’s a little heavy to hold; could get uncomfortable over extended periods reading while sitting or lying down.
The processor is not the most powerful you can fit into this form factor; but going for a slightly cheaper CPU is one of the trade-offs I mentioned, and ultimately I think worth it. I’ll explain more later.
There’s a single speaker built-in with sound quality similar to that of a smartphone. No microphone or camera–so there’s no scope for voice or video chatting. And in terms of connectivity, there’s Wi-Fi, an SD card slot and a USB port, but no Bluetooth.
The Vox comes with Google’s Android OS 2.3 with a few relatively minor adjustments: the default home screen has a large Kobo desktop widget showing the covers of the five most recently-read books; the global pop-down notification list has been replaced with Kobo’s Reading Life stats (more on Reading Life later); and apparently you can’t access the Android Market because the device doesn’t (yet) pass Android hardware certification. There is an alternative app store called GetJar bundled.
Since the Vox isn’t locked in to the Android Market, you can actually install any apps (*.apk files) you can find floating around on the internet. So the keyword here is caution–there’s plenty of malware out there for Android. I installed a couple of essential apps from a relatively trusted source. The first is Overdrive, an ebook and audiobook app for DRM-protected books. Overdrive lets you connect to public libraries’ electronic catalogues and download books from them. I’ve successfully downloaded a couple of ebooks from my local library.
The browser doesn’t come with Flash installed. It’s possible to install it from Good eReader's list but I haven’t so far because from what I’ve heard, Flash is a mobile device killer. Even my laptop has a hard time with it.
There’s a YouTube app that works pretty much as expected; a music and video player that I haven’t tried yet; and a few other apps that I haven’t actually bothered to explore–a Facebook news feed widget for the desktop, and other similar apps that plug in to Facebook. If I could uninstall these, I would; but there doesn’t seem to be any way to uninstall apps yet.
One of the Vox’s biggest selling points is that it has a new ‘social reading’ feature called Reading Life. Reading Life lets you keep track of how many books you’ve read and how long you spent reading them; gives you ‘awards’ for finishing books; and lets you share these awards and statistics with friends. Newly introduced with the Vox is a comment feature called ‘Pulse’ that lets you publicly ‘like’ and share comments on specific pages of books you’re reading.
Reading Life is pervasive and easily accessible from several places in the Vox interface–the pull-down notification area at the top; the dock at the bottom; and from the Kobo reading and library app itself. This gives a feeling of coherence to the device and makes it feel more like an ebook reader than just a generic Android tablet.
However, you’ll only find yourself using Reading Life if you read ebooks on Kobo’s own ebook reader app. This would include reading books that you bought or downloaded for free from the Kobo store; and any books that you manually copied over from another device. If, like me, your main source of books is your public library’s electronic catalogue, you’ll probably end up using the Overdrive ebook reader app; and Overdrive is not integrated with Reading Life or Pulse.
So in general, how is the Vox as an Android tablet?
A little under-powered. It runs most of the standard apps–browser, email, ebook readers–just fine. But when I tried to run a more graphics-intensive app, like the included free Scrabble, it more or less got stuck. I had to hard-reboot the device to get it up and running again.
At the end of the day, the Vox is a compact Android OS-powered device that lets me read ebooks and just enough more that it’s a compelling buy.