The Kobo Arc is Kobo’s second effort at a tablet, the first being 2011’s Kobo Vox. Like the Vox, it’s Kobo’s answer to the Amazon Kindle Fire, or more specifically in this case the Kindle Fire HD, with a similar 7in form factor and a comparable high-resolution screen. However, Kobo seems to have learnt lessons from the Vox, which was compromised by slow performance, poor battery life and - most of all - a lack of Google certification, meaning limited access to Google services and no Google Play store. The Kobo Arc fixes all of these fatal weaknesses, and with the Google Play store now onboard, it’s actually a more open and versatile tablet than its Amazon rival.
Design and build quality
The Arc shares its design cues with Kobo’s line-up of eBook readers, looking and feeling a lot like an oversized version of the Kobo Glo. It has a slimmer bezel than the Kindle Fire HD and, at 189 x 120mm, a smaller footprint, though it’s slightly thicker at 11.5mm to the Fire HD’s 10.3mm. Still, it doesn’t feel bulky, and its 364g weight is 31g below that of Amazon’s bestseller.
One thing the Kobo Arc does feel is tough. It has the same thick rubberised plastic back as the Kobo Glo, and while it’s an absolute fingerprint magnet, it helps the Arc feel more solid than many low-cost tablets. Kobo claims it will survive a drop of up to 1.5m and we’re prepared to believe them; this isn’t a tablet that you have to treat with kid gloves.
Screen and sound
The Arc is pitched primarily as a media tablet and eBook reader, making screen quality crucial. Luckily, Kobo hasn’t hamstrung its tablet with a poor display this time around. With a 1,280 x 800 resolution, the 7in IPS screen matches the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 spec for spec, and in the flesh it’s bright and clear with strong, vibrant colours. Text is crisp and well-defined, and whether you’re browsing the web, playing games or watching films, the Arc is a pleasure to use. I still think that e-ink screens work better for long periods of reading than conventional displays - the lack of glare makes them easier on the eyes - but you can certainly use the Arc as an eBook reader, and a quick jaunt through Volume 1 of the original The Walking Dead comic-book series proves that it’s adept with handling more visual material.
Our one complaint is that the screen holds on to fingerprints and greasy swipe marks like there’s no tomorrow, and while the Arc’s display is bright enough to cut through these, you’re still advised to keep something on hand to wipe the screen down. After a few hours of use it looks pretty unsightly.
Kobo claims that its dual front-facing speakers and SRS TruMedia sound create a more cinematic output than you’ll find on other tablets, but in practice the results are mixed. For one thing, we tend to watch films or play games with the tablet held in landscape format, which means both of the speakers sit at the right-hand side of the display.
For another, the sound isn’t actually that brilliant. While the speakers go louder than you might expect, the tone is brash and clarity is poor. If you’re planning to watch films or listen to music, then headphones are a must.
Connectivity is as basic as it gets. There’s a micro-USB port for PC connection and charging and a 3.5mm headphone output, but that’s your lot. There’s also no way to augment the 16GB or 32GB of flash storage provided, so it’s worth bearing this in mind when you buy.
Perhaps the best thing about the Kobo Arc is that it does nothing to restrict you. It uses a customised version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but it still uses all the standard Google apps, and it still provides full access to the Google Play store for music, movies, books and apps. In fact, while Kobo’s own eBook Reader app is very much in the foreground, there’s nothing to stop you installing the Kindle app and buying your books from Amazon’s store. While buying the Kindle Fire HD locks you into Amazon’s ecosystem, the Arc leaves the door wide open.
How then, you might ask, does it differentiate itself from more general-purpose 7in tablets like the Google Nexus 7? Well, it all comes down to Kobo’s Tapestries interface. While the Arc uses Google’s standard status bar and app launcher, it divides the homescreen into two areas; a desktop area at the top and a Discover bar at the bottom. While you can drag apps and widgets directly onto the desktop, you’re encouraged to organise these into tapestries. Tapestries are effectively screens of apps, web pages, widgets and content, accessed by tapping on the tapestry on your homepage.
Kobo has already set-up tapestries for Reading, Entertainment, Social networking and browsing, but it’s easy to customise these, and just as easy to create your own. Click on Reading, for example, and there are links to the Kobo app, your Kobo library, your current book and the Kobo Store. If you use your tablet primarily for reading books, watching films, playing games and listening to music, it’s a great way to keep things organised.
What about the Discover bar? Well, this proactively recommends content for you, whether books you might want to buy when you’re in the Reading tapestry or webpages you might want to visit when you’re in the Entertainment tapestry. It seems to work on the same lines as Kobo’s existing recommendations engine, which means that in my experience the results are very mixed, with a few hits but an awful lot of misses. You can just ignore it, or you can try to train it by clicking on the recommendations and telling the software that you’re not interested. Overall, I’m not convinced it’s worth the effort.
There’s nothing amiss with the Arc’s specification. It has the same TI OMAP 4470 SoC as the Kindle Fire HD, which features the same PowerVR SGX544 GPU, and it’s perfectly able to play HD video or run Android’s more demanding 3D games. We played Dead Trigger and Need for Speed: Most Wanted without any frame rate issues, and while the new Epic Citadel demo wouldn’t run correctly, with the touchscreen failing to respond to inputs, the initial flyby views were smooth. The SunSpider score of 1542 is a little faster than the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7, and we got a perfectly reasonable 14fps in the Egypt HD OpenGL ES 2.0 benchmark.
With the Arc running Ice Cream Sandwich rather than Jelly Bean, the actual experience isn’t quite as slick and pause-less as on the Nexus 7 and other Android 4.1 or 4.2 tablets, but it’s really not bad. The biggest recurring issues are that the onscreen keyboard doesn’t always appear when it should, and that there’s a little lag when you’re typing. The Arc also seems to have some kind of fan sequestered inside. The noise is almost imperceptible, but in a very quiet room you can occasionally hear something spinning up briefly every time you ask it do something. It’s not loud enough to be a problem, but it’s a bit weird to hear a tablet making any kind of sound.
Kobo claims 10 hours of reading time, which I guess is a neat way to avoid discussing what the battery life is like if you’re doing anything more demanding. In my experience, you’ll get eight to nine hours of use from a single charge, particularly if you’re watching streaming video or playing games.
The Kobo Arc is a huge advance on the Kobo Vox, and a very credible alternative to the Kindle Fire HD or Google Nexus 7. Unlike the Kindle, it doesn’t tie you in to a particular apps, books, music and movies ecosystem, and you’re free to flit between all the book, music and movie stores on the Android platform. Given that these include Amazon’s own, you don’t really lose anything by going for the Arc instead of the Kindle Fire HD.
Arguably, the bigger threat is the Google Nexus 7. The Arc matches the 16GB Nexus 7 on price and undercuts the 32GB model by £10, so it has price on its side, and there’s not much between the two in terms of build or screen quality. The main difference, therefore, is Jelly Bean and the UI and performance benefits that it brings to the Nexus 7. For these reasons, the Nexus 7 remains the best Android seven-incher, but if you like the look of the Arc or its Tapestries interface, it’s an excellent second choice.
Manufacturer and model
1.5GHz TI Omap 4470
7in 1,280 x 800 IPS
micro-USB, 3.5mm headphone
Size and weight
189 x 120 x 11.5mm, 364g