Now, the company is attempting to pull off a similar feat with the Vox, its first entry in the tablet space -- and a clear shot across the bow at a couple low-cost slates from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Can the e-reader David pull off an upset against a couple of Goliaths this go 'round, or have the company's limited resources finally gotten the better of it? Watch the battle unfold before your eyes, after the break.
Kobo Vox reviewSee all photos
The Vox is clearly a graduate of the BlackBerry PlayBook / Kindle Fire industrial design finishing school. It's a rather uninspiring black rectangle of a tablet that brings to mind a time when digital photo frames ruled the earth. At 7.57 x 5.06 x 0.53 inches, the Vox is a little smaller than the PlayBook and a bit larger than the Kindle in all dimensions. While the size differences between Amazon and Kobo's devices seem negligible on paper, the Vox really does look like a bit of a brick next to the Fire, particularly when it comes to width, thanks to the Vox's sizable bezel. At 14.1 ounces, however, the tablet still matches the Nook Tablet, and weighs less than both the 15-ounce PlayBook and the 14.6-ounce Fire.
And while the Vox certainly doesn't offer up as much to look at from an industrial design standpoint as, say, the Nook, Kobo did add some add some custom touches to the tablet -- namely, the quilted matte diamond pattern on the back, borrowed from Kobo's e-readers. The decision to add the pattern seems to have been made primarily for aesthetic and branding purposes, though it does add a bit of traction to what would otherwise be a flat rear. Inside the center diamond is a white lowercase Kobo logo seated atop a stylized open book. The plastic backing feels cheap to the touch, but it's at least easily to pry off, exposing the replaceable battery -- something you can't do on most tablets.
Differences to the front of the device are a bit more subtle, including a small charging light inside the flush black bezel and three touch buttons (back, menu and home) lining the bottom -- a nice change over the Fire's solitary power button. The Vox also has an angled design, with the back of the device taking up a smaller footprint than the front. The left side has an exposed microSD slot and a physical volume button -- both points over the Kindle Fire.
On the bottom, you find the micro-USB port and the headphone jack that we spotted way back when the Vox passed through the FCC as an otherwise indistinguishable rectangle. Smack dab in the middle of the top is the power button. There's also a small slit of a speaker that straddles the top and right side of the tablet. As with the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire, the speaker reaches a reasonable volume, but the sound quality is tinny, at best. Also, having a single one on one side does awful things for those who like having balanced audio -- you're definitely going to want to make use of that headphone jack when possible. If nothing else, however, the speaker's placement on a corner does make it more difficult to accidentally cover it with your hand while holding it in either landscape or portrait mode.
Things look pretty last-gen inside, with an 800MHz processor -- a noticeable step down from the dual-core 1GHz chips purring inside the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire. With 512MB, the RAM situation is similarly uninspiring. The Vox ships with 8GB of internal storage, same as the Kindle and half what you get on the Nook. Of that, 5.35 GB is freed up for actual storage, and, with the microSD slot, you can add another 32GB. As with the Kindle and Nook, you'll get cloud storage on top of that. Oh, and unlike the Nook, the Kobo doesn't section off space for proprietary content -- this must be the "freedom" thing the company was pushing.
Like the Fire and Nook, this guy is WiFi only -- and it's not really all that great of an option. The Vox was unable to load webpages in places where the Fire and Nook worked just fine. It also has the nasty habit of shutting itself off every time the tablet goes to sleep. We're not sure if this is a battery-saving trick or just an oversight -- either way, it's annoying. There's no Bluetooth on here either, though that's par for the course on these budget devices.
Battery life and performance
The battery life on the Vox is, to be gentle, not great. It's rated for seven hours, but in our battery rundown test (video looping, WiFi enabled, brightness at 50 percent), it managed just under five. It's no surprise that the Vox can't compete with its e-ink-packing brethren, but the tab's runtime is underwhelming even in the context of fellow seven-inch tablets. The Kindle Fire, for instance, lasted seven hours and 42 minutes in the same test, while the Nook Tablet held out eight hours and 20 minutes. Your own time will vary depending on usage, of course, but it's hard not to be disappointed with the results here.
The Vox is no speed demon either -- a fact we're partly inclined to chalk up to those lackluster internals. An 800MHz processor and 512MB just can't compete with the current crop of tablets, and we noticed some drag in the simplest of everyday tasks, such as launching Angry Birds.
Due to limited market access, we were unable to run all of the customary benchmarking apps. We were, however, able to take the browser-based SunSpider 9.1 test for a spin. In this test where lower numbers are better, the Vox scored an abysmal 9,096.3 ms, compared with 2,440 ms for the Fire and 4,135 ms on the Nook.
The first time you fire up the tablet, you get a friendly little video with bouncy iPad commercial-like music telling you how to get started with your new Vox. It's a nice start. Things get a bit sticky from there, however, beginning with the obligatory software upgrade we had to undergo fresh out of the box. Upon starting, we were prompted to scan for an upgrade, which the Vox found and took about 20 minutes to install, giving us ample time to get up and make a delicious sandwich. Once installed and restarted, the Vox will scan for yet another upgrade. It's nice to know that the company is working to improve the software, but it made the whole setup process downright painful. It's a nuisance, but one we only had to deal with that one time, thankfully.
The Vox's lock screen greets you with the company's familiar diamond pattern, plus a quotation from a rotating cast of classic authors -- we were particularly taken with the one from Thoreau, who likely would have cast several e-readers into Walden, had he lived to see the technology. The quote then morphs into the title of the book you're currently reading and the percent of it that you've completed. In spite of the flashy new color screen, among other amenities, Kobo is sending a not-so-subtle reminder that reading is still the centerpiece of the experience.
Slide to unlock and you'll see a pretty standard-looking Android home screen. Unlike Amazon, the company isn't going out of its way to cover up the use of Gingerbread (2.3.3, in this case). The desktop does have a few Kobo-specific modifications, however, including a spot in the center of the home screen for your most recently read books. Books you've started get a big green bookmark, and the ones you've read most recently appear largest on the screen.
Along the bottom of the screen is a small toolbar with links to your most recently read book, your library, a menu of apps (arranged in the typical Android style), the Kobo shop and the company's Reading Life app -- a social networking feature integral to the company's current strategy, and one it feels sets the Vox apart from its competitors. The library mode offers up a virtual bookshelf similar to the Kindle Fire's default UI -- though this one's just devoted to books and magazines and the like. The default shelf offers up everything you're reading. Swipe right, and you can break the categories down further.
The toolbar along the top offers up the WiFi strength, battery level, time and notifications for things like recent downloads and software updates. Pull it down and you'll get a full list of the aforementioned notifications (another software update already?) and Reading Life stats. Scroll to the right on the desktop and you'll see a gigantic Facebook module that takes up most of the screen, one of the most immediate manifestations of Kobo's partnership with the social network. A large window is devoted to your news feed, with four smaller ones offering up links to birthdays, friends, notifications and places. Clicking any of these links will bring you to the mobile version of Facebook via the browser. It's a handy little module for heavy Facebook users, but it's hardly a revolutionary implementation of the service.
Facebook also plays a role in Reading Life, a competitive reading app that was also included on the Kobo Touch. The idea here is to turn the whole reading thing into something of a game. The app offers up a smorgasbord of stats, including the total amount of time you've been reading, pages you've turned, books you've finished and so-called reading averages. Kobo also goes the Foursquare route, offering up "awards" with names like "Once Upon a Time" and "Inverted Comma."
Using the app's built-in Facebook integration, you can brag about your reading progress to everyone who follows you -- neat, sure, but we suspect that most of your Facebook friends won't be particularly thrilled every time you finish a chapter of Bleak House. It's a nice little bonus that should appeal to some readers, but it's hardly the selling point that Kobo seems to think it is. Besides, we suspect that most of the folks buying Kobo products don't have much trouble motivating themselves to read.
Kobo didn't really do much to distinguish the Vox's browser from the default one that ships with Android. You get an address bar and a button for bookmarking pages. You can pinch or double tap to zoom. Going back a page, meanwhile, can be accomplished using the back button located on the lower bezel. As with the smartphone version of Android, the browser defaults to the mobile version of sites -- certainly not the best use of the seven inches you've got to work with here.
As with the Nook and Kindle, the Vox doesn't ship with access to the full Android Market. Instead, it comes with a browser shortcut to the Kobo-customized Get Jar store, with access to an estimated 15,000 apps. The first time we downloaded an app from the store, we had to adjust the security settings to install the thing -- a goofy little nuisance that we only had to deal with once.
The app store has some better-known selections -- things like Angry Birds and the mobile version of Twitter. The Vox also comes pre-loaded with some solid third-party apps, like Rdio and YouTube -- other multimedia apps like Netflix, Pandora and Hulu are conspicuously absent from the desktop, as well as the app store. Thankfully, sideloading apps is much easier on the Vox than on the Kindle Fire, once you've enabled that functionality in settings. We still had trouble installing some apps using this method, however, and rooting the device proved more of a hassle than on the Nook Tablet.
The book-reading experience is fairly straightforward, with the majority of the page devoted to text. You also get the title of the book at the top and a page number at the bottom, just like with those old timey paper books. Flipping though pages is accomplished with a swipe. In the bottom right-hand corner are options for adding a comment on a given page and liking the book via Facebook -- that's right, there's a small Facebook-style thumbs up located on each page. We truly have entered the future of book reading!
Holding down on a word brings up a window for highlighting text. At that point, tapping "select text" will open yet another window, where you can highlight, add a note or share a passage on Facebook. We're not really sure why Kobo didn't put that functionality directly on the page, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Really, it's just another couple of seemingly unnecessary additional steps. There's also no option here for looking up the word in a dictionary or on Wikipedia -- unfortunate omissions, both.
Tapping the page will bring up toolbars on the top and bottom of the page. On the top are buttons for the library, the current book, the table of contents, an overview of the texts and a link to your annotations. On the bottom is a slide for switching places in the book and a link to settings where you can adjust the font style and size and change the display brightness and font layout.
Oddly, the Kobo's book previews are surprisingly short on a number of titles. A handful of books we downloaded ranged from two to eight pages, not nearly enough to make it out of the table of contents. And really, what's the point of downloading a preview that prompts you to buy the full book on the title page?
Magazine reading, meanwhile, is accomplished primarily though the Zinio app, which has a fairly extensive selection of downloadable titles. As with the Nook and the Fire, there are viewing limitations with the seven-inch form factor, requiring you to pinch to zoom to read text. The page turning also routinely suffers from a bit of a delay -- after flipping to the following page, the page takes about a second to render. Again, we'll at least partly chalk that up to the Vox's wimpy internals.
There's no in-page preview feature like the one found on the Nook tablet, but clicking a preview button will bring you to a devoted gallery of pages for the magazine, which does the trick. There's also an option for viewing pages in plain text, for those sick of pinching and zooming, though this is only available on a limited selection of pages, and sometimes drags some nasty formatting code with it.
It's impossible to discuss Kobo's entry into the tablet space without also talking about fellow e-reader makers who have also recently made the leap into tablets. And by that measure, the Vox doesn't look good. It's a piece of last-generation hardware that offers up a limited multimedia experience on the software front. That might have been acceptable six months ago, but the Fire and Nook Tablet have changed the game as far as budget Android tabs go.
For its part, Kobo appears to be positioning the Vox as more of a souped-up color screen e-reader with apps and some multimedia functionality, as Barnes & Noble did with the Nook Color. It's a fair description, given the limits of the device, but even with Kobo's nice Reading Life feature, it's hard to justify paying the same $200 price tag as the Kindle Fire or the recently refreshed Nook Color. Unless you're already firmly entrenched in the Kobo ecosystem, there's little reason to choose this. For now, consider the Fire or Nook Tablet and here's hoping Kobo's new parent company helps it hit a home run the second time around.
Zach Honig contributed to this review.