While Kobo mostly owes its double-digit share of the UK eBook reader market to an alliance with WH Smiths, it has also been either canny or jammy in taking advantage of the gaps in Amazon’s UK product line. Last year the Kobo Touch found itself in the perfect position when Amazon chose not to launch its touchscreen Kindle over here, and now the Kobo Glo steals a march not just on Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite – which isn’t due for UK launch yet - but on Barnes and Noble’s upcoming Simple Touch GloLight. Not only does it boast a higher-resolution 1,024 x 768 screen with touch capabilities, but it also comes equipped with Kobo’s own ComfortLight technology, making the Kobo Glo usable in a wider range of lighting conditions.
It’s a handsome enough unit, only 15g heavier than the latest Kindle and nearly 40g lighter than the Kindle touch, with an understated design, a slim bezel and a non-slip rubberised finish that makes it easy to keep a good grip on. Like the Kobo Touch it has an odd diamond pattern etched into the back, along with a silver Kobo logo. This in itself isn’t a problem, but the finish does seem to be a bit of a greasy fingerprint magnet, and even a good wipe doesn’t get rid of every trace. Physical controls are limited to an on/off slider and a toggle button for the light at the top, while the bottom hosts a standard mini-USB socket. 1GB of storage should be enough for a lifetime’s worth of books, but if you need more a microSD card slot on the side supports cards of up to 32GB.
The screen is, of course, the Kobo Glo’s big selling point, giving you all the benefits of a conventional e-ink display with one of the major advantages of a tablet screen; you can actually see it in the dark. Thanks to the higher-than-normal resolution text looks very smooth and any inlaid graphics or line-art look impressively detailed, though the delta over the Kindle Touch’s 600 x 800 screen isn’t actually that pronounced. We also understand the screen has a micro-thin overlay to diffuse the light and protect the screen, which might have a very minor impact on contrast with the light turned off. In any case, it’s as nice and comfortable to read on as any eBook Reader screen that I’ve yet come across, and superb at handling graphics and illustrations.
Press the button at the top and it’s a whole new ball game. The whole screen seems to glow gently, and text becomes readable in anything from dim natural sunlight to pitch blackness. A small icon in the bottom-left of the screen opens a brightness slider with roughly 12 levels of brightness, so while there’s some glare when you’re running at full tilt, it’s not hard to get a balance between that and legibility. The light comes from the bottom of the screen, but it’s dispersed very evenly across the surface, and while the colour goes slightly red if you view the screen from either side, it’s neutral while you’re actually reading. Without a Simple Touch GloLight or a Paperwhite in front of me it’s impossible to make meaningful comparisons, but ComfortLight appears to be as effective as you might hope it to be.
An eBook Reader is no good without any books, and here you have several options. You can buy books on the reader direct from Kobo’s online store over a Wi-Fi connection, or, once you have the Kobo Desktop software installed, you can purchase books within the application and transfer them to your Glo over USB. You can also shop within WH Smith’s own eBook store and transfer them to the Glo from there, or buy Adobe DRM-protected (or unprotected) eBooks from anywhere that sells them (including Waterstones) and transfer them with Adobe Digital Editions (though you’ll need to download this separately).
All methods work, and you can’t fault Kobo Desktop when it comes to being easy to use. The only real issue is that, despite the odd bargain, none of Kobo’s eBook sources rivals Amazon’s Kindle store for price on a wide range of books, with – based on an admittedly small sample - many books available on Kindle at £5.49 or less appearing on the Kobo or WH Smith stores for £6.99 or more. Still, pick and choose and there are some very affordable bestsellers to be found, and it’s not unusual to find new hardback releases or big name paperback releases available at similar prices on Kindle, WH Smith, Waterstones and Kobo.
Be warned that, like the Kobo Touch, the Kobo Glo lacks any audiobook support. If you want a device that does eBooks and audiobooks, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Once you’ve got something to read the Glo does a nice job of letting you read it. The home screen shows the covers of the last five books you read, while others are available from a standard Library list view. Get a lot of books and you can start organising them into custom shelves, and deleting books from the device is as easy as tapping the Menu icon next to the doomed title and selecting Delete.
Once reading, you can flip forwards and backwards through the book just by tapping the left and right hand sides of the screen, and there’s no need to press too hard. Tapping at the bottom of the screen opens up a simple options menu, and Kobo still goes beyond Kindle when it comes to getting your own look and feel, with a choice of eleven fonts, size, margin and spacing sliders, justification options and even an Advanced view that lets you see the text before and after.
Previous Kobo devices have often been the focus of complaints about page turn speeds, but there’s little to moan about with the Kobo Glo. By default it only does a full refresh every six page turns, which cuts times without causing any noticeable negative effects that I can see, and with most eBooks, speeds are roughly on a par with the Kindle or Kindle Touch. The processor sometimes struggles while you’re scrolling around magnified PDFs, but generally performance is snappy.
The Glo also does well for more advanced features. You can tap and hold words to look them up in the dictionary, search the text, highlight passages and make annotations with a reasonable touchscreen keyboard and even translate foreign words. But Kobo goes further with its Reading Life features, which will track your reading habits, share information through Facebook, and even hand out awards for specific feats of, well, literacy and sharing. Personally, I like my reading to be a solitary activity, but not everyone necessarily agrees, and for those people these features might be some kind of added bonus.
In the past most eBook Readers struggled with PDFs, but the standard seems to be improving. PDF files transferred using Adobe Digital Editions were handled by the Glo with surprising accuracy, including photos and fairly complex layouts. Zooming is done through a double-tap rather than a pinching gesture, but it works well enough, and dragging to pan left and right or up or down seems quite responsive.
The fear with any kind of active lighting is that the effects on battery life will be disastrous, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Kobo claims the Glo is good for 70 hours of continuous life with ComfortGlow turned on and Wi-Fi turned off, and we’ve barely made a dent on the gauge in our time with the reader, where – thanks to the Great British weather – ComfortGlow has been turned on more often than off. In short, we’re inclined to believe them.
The Kobo Glo is an excellent eBook reader. It’s solidly-built, has an excellent screen and is consistently easy to use. The touch controls work well, there’s plenty of opportunity to customise the reading experience, and battery life is fine too. If we have any questions, it’s over buying books; Amazon’s store has the bigger selection, and frequently a price advantage. But to balance this, the Glo undercuts the Nook Simple Touch Glo and Kindle Touch, while having the lighting options the Kindle range in the UK currently lacks.
This is the biggest plus about the Kobo Glo: it’s not just more usable at night (particularly if you don’t want to wake your partner up), but at any time or any situation where you can’t rely on good lighting. On the train, on the plane, on the bus or in a half-lit living room, you can still read. If you want a great eBook Reader attached to the best eBook store, then a Kindle is still the way to go, but if you can live with slightly higher prices in the Kobo, Waterstones and WH Smith stores, then the Kobo Glo is an excellent buy.