Although I’d definitely take a paperback over my tablet as my medium of choice to read a novel, one can’t argue the convenience of a single device that can carry all the books you’d ever want to read. That’s why I’ve been steadily growing my ebook collection — being able to carry every tome I intend to digest this year in a jacket pocket, just makes sense. The ebook game is now in a hot innings, with new heavy hitters like Google Play and even India’s Flipkart taking to the field. So I thought it’d be interesting to see what Kobo had up its sleeve.
Known for manufacturing affordable dedicated ebook readers, and for going up against the likes of Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes’ and Nobles’ Nook devices, Kobo has now made its debut in the Play Store with a bookstore-and-reader combo app that promises to deliver a comprehensive reading experience on your smartphone or tablet. With a wide range of titles, cross-device content and bookmark sync, and a clean flat interface, Kobo sure looks like it’s up to bat — but can it score a home run? I spent a couple of weeks with the app to find out.
Kobo is a global ebook store that features fiction, non-fiction and magazine content that users can buy and read using the included reader. You can preview titles for free before buying, pay for them with a credit card, and share what you’re reading with friends on Facebook. The in-built reader includes features like switchable themes, a choice of fonts and notes, and can sync your downloaded content and bookmarks across devices so you can pick up where you left off on any of them.
To begin reading with Kobo, you’ll first need to grab some books from the store. Once you’ve signed up, you can browse Kobo’s collection of titles that runs into the millions. Each title lets you check out a preview (usually up to the first chapter or so) as well as user reviews, and you can also see other titles that readers have bought. While this is great in theory, most titles lack meaningful reviews and 5-star ratings don’t feel like enough to go by: Amazon wins out in this department by virtue of not only having a much larger (and more active) community of readers who review their purchases, but also because it includes editorial reviews too.
Kobo’s store looks neat and well-organized, with nicely sized cover images and clean panel-based layouts for previewing content. However, I do wish it were more flexible and powerful (and this probably applies to most ebook stores): you can only check out titles by category, author and date of release; the recommendation engine guesses what you might like based on your searches. At this point in the game where we’re thinking about never visiting an actual bookstore again, I expected more ways to discover content that I might be interested in, starting with tags for moods and themes. I was also disappointed to find that I couldn’t curate lists from the store — neither a wishlist of books to purchase later (or hint to potential gifters with), nor a list of must-reads that I’d share with friends.
My issues with the store unfortunately didn’t end there — I looked up several ebooks on Google Play Books, Amazon India and Flipkart, and found Kobo to be the most expensive very often (Flipkart was always the cheapest, perhaps because it’s a local player). For instance, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In costs $3.95 on Flipkart, $11.40 on Play Books and $16.40 on Kobo; Khaled Hosseini’s And The Mountains Echoed was cheaper on Kobo ($4.32) than on Google Play ($5.35), but still pricier than Flipkart ($3.35). Plus, I couldn’t get the app to locate ebooks stored on my devices — the automatic scans revealed nothing, even after repeated attempts with multiple DRM-free formats loaded on my phone and tablet.
Reading With Kobo
Once you’ve found some books you’d like to read, you can launch them within the app from your library. The built-in reader packs the usual features you’d expect — such as your choice of themes and fonts — and interestingly, room to add public notes to any page. That’s a feature I could certainly get behind, but unfortunately it hasn’t yet caught on enough that you’ll find notes very often. You can also unlock achievements for reading books, sharing your activity with friends and shopping.
Is Kobo Your New Ebook Store?
Let’s start with the store. I’m trying the app in India, where Kobo’s foreign and locally published books are more expensive than in other ebook stores here. Plus, the store needs a bit of housekeeping, as there are often multiple copies of the same title at vastly different prices. Naturally, your experience may differ based on your location, but I believe that if Kobo’s operating in a market with stiff competition, it needs to work hard to match up at least in terms of value if not in variety.
As for the reader component, my main issue with it is that the import feature didn’t work at all — which means that I wasn’t able to ditch my standalone ebook reader app to open DRM-free files. I hope this is just a bug in the current version, but if it isn’t fixed, I wouldn’t be inclined to keep the app around on my devices.
I certainly expected more of a novel experience from Kobo, with competitive prices on content, a recommendation system with depth, and a more powerful reader. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t offer any benefits for an Indian user like myself, and the app doesn’t bring anything new to the table in terms of interface design, usability or features. It’s not a bad app by any means, but unless it’s the only ebook market in your region (or if it has the lowest prices on books), skip this and try one of the more established players instead.