Books written by Ray Sullivan

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Will This Be The Kobo Christmas?

Last Christmas was definitely the Kindle Christmas. Amazon are famously reticent about stating their sales figures for the Kindle, only resorting to platitudes about it being a ‘best seller’ and ‘market leader’, however I don’t think there’s any doubt that the e-reader sold extremely well in what was an almost virgin market.
Prior to the Kindle 3, Sony had the initiative with its e-readers, albeit a share in a decidedly niche market. However the Kindle 3, backed up by a serious advertising campaign that’s been maintained and a significant price reduction on earlier versions, has absolutely outsmarted the Sony products. To be fair, apart from being outmanoeuvred on price, Sony had made some changes to their range that hadn’t been particularly well received so Amazon were able to drive their product into the mainstream with little resistance.
However, although it’s fair to say the Kindle is now established in the British consumer consciousness as the e-reader of choice, it could still suffer the fate of becoming the Hoover of e-readers. That is, the generic representation of e-readers without necessarily leading the market.
My perception of the UK market is that although there has been a move into mainstream e-book acceptance, it probably only constitutes a small fraction of the potential market – there’s still plenty for the other products to play for. For every e-reader owner I know of personally (1 Sony, 10 Kindle) there’s dozens that are watching the development with a mixture of interest and confusion plus an even larger number who are currently adamant that they couldn’t envisage reading a book any other way than the conventional way.
Which reminds me of the conversations ten years ago about emails – I can clearly remember colleagues stating that email would only be useful for short notes and wouldn’t replace the hand-written letter. Today most communication, business and private, is electronic and even the few letters that I do receive, usually accompanying the seriously doomed Christmas card, are predominantly typed on a PC and printed out.
So, as Amazon enter their second Christmas, presumably as market leader, we see WH Smith joining the fray with the Canadian Kobo range. They’re coming in aggressively, with very competitive pricing and armed with the 2.2 million Kobo book list (about to be swelled by at least three of my novels in addition to the one there already when Smashwords ports the remainder of its premium catalogue). Currently the WH Smith website appears to be using their current software to access the Kobo catalogue but it’s been rumoured that Kobo are writing an entirely new interface for Smiths.
Will WH Smith give Amazon a run for their money? Well, as I reported in my blog last week, WH Smith have a certain cache in the UK consumer consciousness that will help. They’re also investing in media advertising that has already started, two months ahead of Christmas. Every WH Smith store in the UK should, by now, have a dedicated Kobo promotional stand where the two models they are offering are sat side-by-side, powered up and loaded with a number of free classics so that potential customers can play with them. I took a stroll down to my local WH Smith store, in Chester city centre, yesterday and took an initial look at the offerings.
The first thing that strikes you is that both models are compact, significantly smaller than the Kindle 3. The e-ink screens appear to be comparable to the Amazon offering in terms of contrast and clarity and the operation is intuitive.
The cheaper, and physically larger, offering is the Kobo Wireless – a strange name given that both models feature wireless connectivity as standard – and its larger profile appears to be driven entirely by the four way navigation panel on the lower right hand side.
This pad, covered by a silicon membrane, allows navigation through menus in use and specifically provides the page turning commands (right to go to next page, left to retrace a page) that is analogous to the buttons running up and down the sides of the Kindle 3. The up and down directions provided by the navigation button increase and decrease the size of the text, which is a bit more convenient than the Kindle approach. I’m predominantly right handed, so the location of the navigation button will almost certainly prove to be convenient for people like me (I used to be left handed until primary school ‘cured’ me). As the device was clamped to the display stand I can’t comment at this point on how easy it would be to operate the navigation left handed, however I’m hoping to have a hands-on trial later this week, so can evaluate then.
Down the left hand side are four buttons. The top button is the ‘Home’ button which takes you to the page that lists books you’re currently reading. The next button down is the ‘Menu’ button giving you access to Books, Settings and Help pages. Next down is the ‘ Shop’ button which will wirelessly connect to the Internet, assuming a WiFi spot available and will browse the Kobo store or update your library and bookmarks. Finally the bottom ‘Back’ button, to retrace your previous selection. In addition to these buttons there’s a USB port for data transfer, synchronisation and charging of the device (in lieu of an optional mains adaptor - £15 and seemingly not available for four weeks).

However, compared to the Kobo Touch's 7 font styles, 17 font sizes and 'up to' 1 month battery life the Kobo wireless features only 2 font styles, 5 font sizes and 'up to' 10 days battery life.  I don't know if any of this is a deal breaker - I rarely feel the need to modify the font size on my Kindle, and then usually because I'm demonstrating its capabilities to someone.  Without putting my laptop down and digging my Kindle out I honestly couldn't say if I can modify the font style on it at all - I certainly haven't in the ten months I've been using it.  The battery life is certainly indicative that the Touch is more flexible across the board; it's a fact of life that battery usage is to some degree dependant on how you use your device but all things being equal a longer battery life has to be desirable.

So, on to the Kobo Touch.  What isn't immediately obvious from the promotional images WH Smith have been putting out is that the Touch is quite a bit smaller than the Wireless.  Again, because it's fastened into the demo housing at the store I have to fill in the gaps a little, but I believe it would slip in a jacket inside pocket quite comfortably, which is a really powerful advantage.

The external controls on the Touch are far less numerous that for the Wireless.  The only control to consider, apart from the on/off at the top, is the home button just under the centre of the screen - so no bias towards right handed users there!  Everything else is accessed by touching and dragging the screen and to be honest, it all seemed very straightforward and intuitive.  I did feel that the model I tried seemed a little under-responsive at times, however both devices had the removable shipping screen protectors fitted (sensibly, given the amount of rough handling they are likely to receive on the demo stand).  The screen change time seemed a little slower than the Kindle (which, let's face it, isn't startlingly fast)  however I'd like to carry out a semi-scientific side-by-side test to confirm or refute that impression.  But all-in-all I found the interface easy to navigate and reasonable to use.
The tech sheet for the Touch indicates that in addition to supporting ebooks (in EPUB format) it also supports PDF, JPG, GIF, PNG, TIFF and 'more'.  There wasn't anything loaded on the demo machines apart from some classics so I wasn't able to evaluate the capabilities with regards to these formats.  The Wireless only claims to support PDF.
Considering that the Touch is retailing at just under £110 versus the £90 price tag for the Wireless, if you were split between choosing one over the other, I'd say go for the Touch.  It certainly packs more than £20 more punch than the Wireless and the compact form factor makes it a true alternative to carrying paperbacks around.  WH Smith are claiming that it is being discounted by £60, however looking at US prices this doesn't seem to be unique to Smiths - if it is truly a discount, I suspect it is driven by Kobo.  there is always the fear that the discount could disappear if you delay too long, but my best guess is that the e-reader market is going to be a very aggressive place over the next two months.
If you are in the market for an e-reader, then I recommend you hot-foot it over to your nearest WH Smith and take a long look at the Kobo Touch.

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