While tablet and smartphone manufacturers battled it out over screen sizes, e-reader makers seem to have settled on an industry standard of 6-inch displays. It's a trend that Kobo, at least, is trying to buck. The company is supplementing its flagship device with a smaller model, the $79 Kobo Mini, which has a more diminutive 5-inch screen, and weighs less, to boot. But how much of a difference does an inch really make? Is smaller necessarily better on an e-reading device? And with so many options for consuming e-books, does the world really need a different, slightly altered form factor? We'll tackle all of these burning questions and more after the break.
Kobo Mini review: reading the small printSee all photos
In the case of a 6-inch handheld, an inch makes a lot of difference. Kobo's calling the Mini "the world's smallest and lightest e-reader" -- a bit of a dubious claim (given the existence of the Txtr Beagle, for one), but it can certainly lay claim to being one of the most compact mainstream devices in the space at 4 x 5.2 x 0.4 inches, compared to 6.4 x 4.5 x 0.39 inches for the Kobo Glo. At 4.7 ounces, it's also significantly lighter than the 6.5-ounce Touch. The result is a device that's easy for even small hands to hold, and that slips into pant and jacket pockets without a problem.
Aesthetically, the Mini's looks like a shrunken-down version of the Glo. The whole of the reader's body is covered in the sort of soft-touch material regularly used on phones, tablets and other mobile devices. There are no buttons along the device's bezels, which is a bit of a shame: as with Kobo's other devices, we can't help but bemoan the lack of physical page turn buttons. Kobo has, however, managed to fit its big company logo just below the display. There's nothing to speak of on either of the two portrait edges -- Kobo dropped the expandable storage slot this time around, so you're stuck with the built-in 2GB (half of which is devoted to book storage). Of course, the usual caveat applies here: you'll still have plenty of space left over in the cloud.
Up top are a power switch and a light that flashes green for a moment when the reader is powered on. On the bottom, you'll find a micro-USB port for charging. The back maintains Kobo's customary diamond lattice pattern with yet another logo stamped in the center. As with the Glo, it's possible to snap the back of the device off, but unlike that larger reader, there's another level underneath that needs to be unscrewed if you want to swap out the battery. You can, however, swap in colored plates ($20 each) to "fit your mood." We were feeling particularly blue after finishing the Twilight saga. Thankfully, there's a back for that. The company hasn't gone to any special efforts to make the Mini more comfortable to hold, but at this size it doesn't particularly matter, given how easy it is to just wrap your hand around the thing.
Front and center, of course, is that 5-inch display. It's E Ink provides all the usual benefits over that 5-inch phone screen you're using: it's readable in sunlight, easy on the battery and won't burn your eyes. Kobo's gone back in time a generation to outfit the Mini, eschewing Pearl technology for the Vizplex V110 model. The older model's contrast is a step down, but most readers likely won't see a huge difference here, particularly with Kobo's advanced font settings, which allow you to add weight and sharpness to the text (use discretion, however -- if you add too much, the image quality will get a bit fuzzy). You should see a full page refresh every six pages or so (same as on the Pearl display), but in our experience that number varies somewhat. We also noticed a fair amount of ghosting on the Mini -- it's not the worst we've seen, but it does fall a bit short of competing readers.
And really, the most distracting part of the whole experience is attempting to adjust to the new size after years of using 6-inch readers. You'll either be squinting a lot more, or upping the text size and doing a heck of a lot more page turning. It's not the end of the world, but if you're planning on staying in for the night and curling up with a copy of "Gravity's Rainbow" or some other meta-fiction tome, you'd be better off with a larger reader.
As goes the screen, so goes the UI. The software on the Mini is pretty much exactly what you're getting with the Glo (you can get a bit of a deeper dive on that review)-- everything's just, you know, smaller and a bit more cramped. But in some cases, the scaled down version works. Take the home page, for example. Things look a bit sparse on the Glo, but in the case of the Mini, it all fits together nicely.
At the center of it all, you've got images of your most recently opened files. At the top, you can toggle between Read mode (the default home page) and Discover mode, which offers up recommendations. Along the bottom are links to the Library, Find Books and Reading Life, Kobo's social reading experience, which doles out awards in the style of Foursquare. If you add things to your wishlist, you'll be able to access it at the bottom of the page. At the top, there's a button for home, the amount you've read in your current selection, a battery icon and a link to settings like WiFi, syncing and search.
As you'd imagine, the reading experience is a bit more cramped, and again, Kobo's fairly minimalist UI comes in handy for that. At top is the title, at the bottom is the progress. In between, of course, are words -- again, not nearly as many as you'd be getting on a 6-incher. Press down on a word and you'll see its definition, courtesy of the fine folks at Merriam-Webster. Along the bottom are options for adding notes, searching for the word throughout the text and posting your findings to Facebook. Tap the text and you'll see that handy tool bar from the home page up top and buttons for switching pages, adjusting the text properties and settings along the bottom.
Good old Reading Life is back as well, further enticing you to get your read on, should the fact that you just purchased a devoted reader not provide a sufficient motivation. Using this feature, you can keep up with your reading stats (pages, hours, books, et cetera) and those hours you've racked up through activities like downloading books.
Kobo's got an interesting little product on its hands with the Mini. The hardware isn't especially striking, but it's tough to get too down on a $79 device for looking a bit bland. Plus, Kobo's minimalistic software works is well-suited to a device this small. Amazon is still offering a $69 device in the fourth-generation Kindle, but there are sacrifices to be made there, including advertising in the form of Special Offers and, more importantly, a lack of either a touchscreen or physical keyboard. The question we keep coming back to, then, is precisely who is this device for? Frequent travelers? Those who like to travel light? People who just don't want to shell out $100-plus for a new reader? We doubt many people are looking for a second, more portable device to supplement their primary, 6-inch reader -- and if they were, they would already have to own a Kobo device or have downloaded Kobo's app to make use of the company's syncing technology. If, however, you're looking for a small, light device to stick in your pocket, the Kobo Mini is a perfectly fine (and inexpensive) option.