Kobo takes on the Kindle and iPad

Panic stations people: only 183 sleeps to go until Christmas. Yes, that’s right, Christmas. And by all accounts, 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the bookreader; the year when they will truly become a mainstream consumer gadget, rather than a geeky distraction. So while Christmas might not be at the forefront of your mind or mine at the moment, that’s what’s behind the decision by Amazon to slash the price of its Kindle bookreader by almost 30 per cent, following a similar move by US book retailer Barnes & Noble for its rival product, the Nook.

According to technology researchers Gartner, while the number of electronic book readers rose in 2009, it is this year, 2010, that will see ‘e-reader mania’ during the Christmas season. In the US alone, sales of digital reading devices are expected to reach 5 million this year, from 2.2 million last year, according to industry trade group, the Consumer Electronics Association. Part of this stems from the proliferation of new devices hitting the market. Now we’ve got the Kindle, the iPad, the Kobo, the Slate and more.

Of the devices available, in this column’s opinion, the three most competitive readers for the Australian market are the Kobo, the Kindle and the iPad. But what are the pros and cons of each device? Let’s take a look at the contenders and some of the features they have to offer.

Amazon’s Kindle

The Kindle, which Business Spectator has reviewed before is sold exclusively online by US book-selling behemoth Amazon.

It includes wireless connectivity, at no extra charge, which you can use to surf the Amazon store from anywhere, worldwide, and download books, magazines and newspapers directly onto the device. For an extra fee, you can also receive emails and attachments, like Word files, on the device. Currently, you cannot purchase newspapers or magazines through the Kobo or iPad, but some are available via app downloads.

Apple’s iPad

The iPad and its iBook capabilities have also been previewed on Business Spectator.

However, one of biggest concerns for this eBook fanatic is the fact that this is a back-lit piece of technology – leading the way to eye exhaustion. This is a serious downside for the avid reader and leaves the battery life depleted.

REDGroup Retail’s Kobo

Kobo is a product by REDgroup Retail – the owner of brands including Borders, Angus & Robertson, Calendar Club, Supanews and Whitcoulls in New Zealand. It is smaller than other bookreaders, because it doesn’t have a keyboard like the Kindle. But the size of the unit is deceptive, because the screen size is the same as the Kindle, at six inches.

It uses the same eInk technology as the Kindle, meaning it isn’t backlit and is easy on the eyes. In terms of weight, the Kobo is leading the pack by a hair, at 221g, compared to 282g for the Kindle and a whopping 680g to 730g for the iPad.

On a Kobo, you use a small five-way directional pad, located in the bottom right-hand corner to navigate through the book, while on a Kindle there is a next page button on both the left and right-hand sides of the face of the device. It means you can hold both devices it in either hand and you don’t need two hands to operate it. On an iPad, you use the touch screen to ‘swoosh’ (semi-technical term) the pages across the screen, which requires two hands, unless you’re sitting at a desk. These might sound like small things to consider, but if you’re in the middle of wolfing down, say, the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries, as I am, you need to be able to read in the most comfort possible for hours at a time.

How do they compare?

Memory isn’t straightforward for an iPad, when trying to compare it to purpose-built bookreaders, because it’s a multi-usage platform, storing much more than just books, including applications, graphics and documents. Between the Kobo and the Kindle, the Kindle is clear winner, holding around 1,500 books, compared to the Kobo’s 1,000, although the Kobo memory can be expanded by inserting a memory card.

Between the three devices, the iPad loses out on battery life, in part because it is backlit. It is touted to have around 10 hours of battery life, whereas the Kindle and Kobo are reasonably similar, with around two weeks (for the average reader) or around 8,000 page turns, if the wireless connectivity is not switched on.

Speaking of wireless connectivity, the iPad has the capability to connect to wifi on a network, but outside that, 3G is not included in the price of the unit. The Kindle includes free connectivity wherever you are, meaning you can download a book for only the cost of the book wherever you are in the world and you don’t need an internet network.

The Kobo, on the other hand, has no wireless connectivity and you can only download books by connecting it to a PC.

Working in the iPad’s favour is its colour, high-resolution screen. It’s great for magazines, reference books and even kids’ books for when you need a distraction for the little ones while on the move. Neither the Kindle nor the Kobo have colour screens.

The Kindle can read PDFs and receive email, as can the iPad. The iPad supports the ePub open-source book publishing standard, but Amazon doesn’t, meaning the Kindle is slightly more restricted in which formats it will support. The Kobo, meanwhile, is open format, so it supports most eBook formats.

The Kobo is pre-loaded with 100 free books; classics like Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Kindle also has access to thousands of books, including these classics, downloadable for free.

There have been rumours that Apple’s iBooks application, which is free with iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, will include up to 30,000 free books, but that has yet to be directly confirmed.

According to Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney, 88 per cent of the fiction and non-fiction best sellers from the New York Times list are available on Amazon’s Kindle, compared to 63 per cent for Apple iBooks, while the average prices of bestselling ebooks available on both platforms are 10 per cent lower on Kindle. For eBooks available on both platforms, 80 per cent had the same price, but for 20 per cent of them it was 11 per cent cheaper on the Kindle.

Kobo appears to have similar pricing to the Kindle and iPad, but don’t make any uniform pricing information available, in the same way as, for instance, Amazon with its $US9.99 offer for many of the books on the New York Times best-seller list. eBooks through Kobo are priced at between $A10 and $A15 and when we compared a selection appeared to be very competitive, when compared to Kindle’s pricing.

It is difficult to say just how many books are available for each device, because the numbers aren’t made clear by the vendors. The Kindle says it has over 600,000 books, magazines, newspapers, blogs and self-published books available, but this number appears not to include the huge number of free, out-of-copyright books (at least 1.8 million of them). The Kobo says 2 million eBooks are available in its store, but that does appears to include free books. Apple's iBookstore, which is not yet available in Australia, was expected to have 60,000 books at launch and the split isn’t clear. But all three have signed deals with major publishing houses and seem to have a good variety available.

Show me the money

So now we reach a key differentiator: price of the units themselves. Amazon this week dropped its price to $US189, or around $A215. While previously the Kobo would have been competitive at $A199, for around an extra $A16 it seems better value to take the included wireless connectivity featured within the Kindle. The cheapest version of the iPad, 16GB, is $A629 with wi-fi capability, or $A799 with the additional 3G capability – which you might want if you’re on a 3G phone plan and want to double up on your sim card usage.

So depending on your preference, there are numerous factors here to think about. Remember that this isn’t the end of the eBook evolution, it’s just the beginning. Kindle is touted to be preparing to release a touch-screen version of the Kindle in Q3. And with price pressure now on from the Kindle corner, one has to wonder whether the Kobo will be forced to follow in its footsteps with a price-cut. The iPad seems the dark horse, but there are a lot of people out there that want a bookreader that can do more than just display books. Either way, be sure to behave yourself for the second half of the year and you might find a book-reader in your stocking in December – just be prepared to tell Santa which one it is you like.