When Kobo released the Vox, its first tablet, Engadget had just recently abolished review scores. In retrospect, that was a good thing for the company, as we didn't have very many nice things to say about it. The product suffered from short battery life, for one, along with sluggish performance and WiFi connectivity issues. It's no wonder, then, that Kobo is loathe to call its new Arc tablet a "follow-up" to the Vox so much as a "re-thinking." The tablet, which will go on sale in mid-November starting at $199, brings a faster 1.5GHz TI processor, a battery rated for 10 to 12 hours of runtime and a re-tooled software experience built on Ice Cream Sandwich. Is that enough to unseat the new Kindle Fire HD or the Nexus 7? That, friends, is a question best answered in our forthcoming review, but after a few minutes of hands-on time we can at least say that we're pleasantly surprised. Meet us past the break to find out why.
Kobo Arc hands-on
If you skimmed that list of cons above, you'll notice that industrial design was the least of the Vox's problems, so it makes sense that Kobo would stick to the same design language that defines its other products -- namely, its growing collection of e-readers. Like so many other items in the company's lineup, the Arc has a soft-touch back, adorned with a diamond pattern of criss-crossed lines. There's no camera on the back, but Kobo did include a 1.3-megapixel shooter up front, in case you're in the mood to video chat. In a move we truly appreciate, the company placed the two speakers on the front of the device, so the sound won't get muffled if you set it down on a table.
The 7-inch screen steps up to
1,024 x 758 1,280 x 800 resolution, up from 1,024 x 600. Thanks to that IPS panel, we had an easy time viewing it outdoors on a sunny day. (Mind you, the viewing angles weren't so great that we would've filmed our hands-on video out there, but believe us when we say you should have no trouble reading a book in the sun.)
So far, so iterative, right? Similar look, slightly sharper screen, specs you'd expect to find on a $200 tablet. Well, that's where the software comes in. The software, and that TI OMAP 4470 processor. As we said, the slate is built on ICS this time, not Gingerbread, and unlike Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets, it's Google-certified, meaning you have full access to Google Play for all your application needs. That doesn't mean it looks like your typical Android 4.0 tablet, though. While certain UI elements remain unchanged (the app drawer, for example), the entire home screen has been transformed into a Pinterest-style arrangement of all your stuff.
At first glance, you'll see a bunch cards, broken up by topics and activities that are interesting to you. Think: reading, entertainment, cars, wedding planning. Whatever floats your boat; these are totally customizable. Anyway, Kobo calls these cards "tapestries," and when you tap on one you'll see all any of your content that happens to be related to that topic. A link to MLB's website, for instance, along with an e-book about baseball and any baseball games you happened to have downloaded. It's a unified experience, in the way that the hubs in Windows Phone feel unified, only this is perhaps a little less elegant. Intuitive, but slightly crude.
The good news is that the processor powering the whole experience does its job well. The screen responded briskly as we tapped and swiped our way through this strange new interface.
Wrapping up our tour, let's return to the home screen. You'll see a bar of thumbnails lining the bottom of the screen -- a thing that Kobo calls the "Discover Bar." Of course, you'll see recommended Kobo books here, but the company also provides recommendations on sites like Wikipedia and YouTube, using text and metadata in the books you're reading, and the sites you're viewing. We'll let you decide if this is too distracting or Big Brother-ish, but hopefully we can all agree on this: it's a damn good thing that the Discover Bar contains no ads. We'll hit you back with a full review later this fall, but if nothing else, we're prepared to say this is one area where Kobo might have a leg up on Amazon.