Kobo Vox unboxing and hands-on (video)

Kobo is something of a perpetual underdog. That may well change, after Rakuten acquisition of the company goes through, but for now, it's still a small organization battling giants like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and, to a lesser extent, Sony. With that in mind, the timing for the Vox's release certainly could have been better -- the tablet has to go head to head with the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire, both on sale this week. Well, we just received ours, and with that in mind, we immediately did what any other geek would do -- we started playing with it alongside its bigger-named competitors. We'll be back with a full review soon enough, but for now, join us for an unboxing and some early impressions.%Gallery-139654% %Gallery-139652% %Gallery-139656%

The slate comes in pink, green, blue and black -- we received the latter, which at first glance looks a lot like the Kindle Fire / BlackBerry PlayBook / just about every other seven-inch Android tablet. There are a few physical distinctions, however. First and foremost, the back of the device retains the company's signature latticed diamond pattern, with a white Kobo logo in the center. The pattern should look familiar to anyone who's used the Kobo eReader Touch or WiFi, adding a little bit of distinction and some traction to help ensure the device doesn't slip from your hand.

On the front, the bezel is a good deal larger than the Fire's, leaving enough room for a power / charging light up top and a trio of touch buttons on the bottom: back, menu and home. On the left side are two volume buttons and a microSD slot. At the top you'll find a small, silvery power button and speaker grill, which curves around a corner, placed in an out-of-the-way position where it's unlikely you'll block it with your hand, even when using it in landscape mode. On the bottom of the device is the micro-USB charging port and the headphone jack that we first noted when this thing hit the FCC.

The Vox is also slightly larger than the Fire in every respect (save the screen), measuring 7.57 x 5.06 x 0.53 inches. (That also makes this thicker and than the Nook Tablet.) Barnes & Noble's device is about half an inch taller than the Vox, however, which isn't particularly surprising, given the Nook's distinctive form factor. At 14.2 ounces, the relatively chunky Vox beats the Fire by a few fractions of an ounce and also weighs a negligible 0.10 ounces more than the Nook.

Fire the device up out of the box and it plays a nice little video introduction, complete with bouncy instrumental music. In the case of our player, however, starting up wasn't quite so simple -- the Vox soon prompted us to scan for a software upgrade, which it found and promptly began installing, adding another 20 minutes or so to the boot-up process. It was a bit of a nuisance, but we suppose there's something to be said see the company working to improve the device's software, even this early in the game.

Kobo's diamond pattern reappears on the Vox's lock screen, which also contains a rotating selection of quotes from authors -- an immediate reminder that, at its heart, the Vox is a reading device. As it happens, we were greeted with a quote from Thoreau, making us wonder what the naturalist might have thought about these newfangled reading devices edging out old-fashioned books.

The changes to the Gingerbread UI are more subtle than what you'll find on the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire. The home screen looks like standard Android, save for some tweaks, including large book icons and a bar at the bottom with links to the Kobo Shop, your current reading selection, the library, a full app list and the so-called Reading Life social feature.

As Kobo's CEO told us, it's with social features that the company expects to distinguish itself from the competition. Slide the home screen to the side, and you'll see a Facebook widget showing your news feed, with windows for Places, Notifications, People and birthdays.

Reading Life takes such functionality a step further. Open it up, and it will tell you how long you've been reading your current selection. Kobo also offers up reading "awards" based on your progress. You can even link the app to Facebook -- if you're the sort who enjoys bragging about your literary appetite.

Kobo really seems to be positioning the Vox as more of a souped-up reader than a full-fledged multimedia experience. For one thing, it doesn't ship with apps like Hulu or Netflix (though YouTube is on there, for what that's worth). What's more, those apps currently available in the Kobo app store, which -- by the way -- you can only access via the browser. As with other Gingerbread devices that use the stock Android browser, sites default to their mobile versions where available, unlike the Nook Tablet and Kindle Fire, which show the full versions by default.

Compared to those devices, the Vox isn't particularly impressive, and while $199 is still a pretty great price point, it's hard not to compare it to the Kindle Fire, which generally just feels more thought-out. Still, we'll be doing a deeper dive in our full review, so stay tuned.