The Kobo Mini is currently the smallest and lightest eBook reader on the market – at least until the German-made Textr Beagle comes along – and also one of the cheapest, coming in at £10 less than the base-level Amazon Kindle. The key to its diminutive size is a smaller 5in E-Ink screen, and it’s this that turns out to be the Mini’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. On the one hand, you have an eBook reader that you can take just about anywhere, and that you can fit inside a jacket pocket, a large trouser pocket or even the smallest handbag. On the other hand, the screen size brings with it a range of legibility issues, which we’ll go into in more detail later on.
One thing Kobo is getting right is design and build quality. The Mini is light at just 134g – it is made entirely from plastic, but it’s still perfectly solid, with a thick frame around the screen that contributes a fair bit to the 101 x 133 x 11mm (WxHxD) size. It doesn’t feel particularly luxurious or expensive, but it does feel robust. It comes in black or white, but you can customise the rear colour with interchangeable backs in teal, bright red and purple. As we found with the Kobo Glo, the rear is an absolute fingerprint magnet and the marks don’t easily rub off, but otherwise it’s a very likable and comfortable unit, easy to hold and with nice rounded corners.
The Mini uses touchscreen controls, and the only elements of note beyond the screen are a micro USB port at the bottom and a power slider at the top, with a small, highly-recessed reset switch to be prodded to the left of that. Unlike the Glo there’s no SD card slot for expanding the memory, so you’re stuck with the 2GB built-in. Kobo claims this will be enough for up to 1,000 books.
While the Kobo Glo had one of the best screens of any eBook reader, the Kobo Mini isn’t quite so lucky. It’s a 600 x 800 E-Ink Vizplex 110 display with 16 levels of greyscale, and while the resolution is perfectly adequate for normal reading, it just doesn’t have the contrast of the Glo, not to mention even the base level Amazon Kindle. Combine this with the smaller size, and it’s a struggle to read the Mini in poor lighting.
The screen size also poses another challenge. Left to its default font and font-size, the Mini dishes out text so large that you’re lucky to get more than a paragraph on the screen at once. Personally, I’m not a big fan of turning the page almost constantly, so I turned down the font size, decreased the generous margins and reduced the line-spacing, all of which the Mini generously allows. However, the more you do this, the harder the text is to read, so there’s a fair bit of work involved in getting the best possible balance between the amount of text you can get on a page and making sure that text is legible.
It can be done, and this was always going to be a problem with a 5in screen, but the Mini then brings in another issue. It varies from book to book, but on some books we’ve tried the Mini refuses to split paragraphs between two pages, so you might find yourself reading a full page, then a half page, then a full page, then a half page, and so on, so that you’re back to turning the page every few seconds.
What makes all this a bit annoying is that, where the Glo used a 1GHz Freescale processor, the Mini uses one that’s 200MHz slower. This appears to have hit page turn speeds hard, and if the Glo was already no speed demon, the Mini is decidedly laggardly in its page-turn pace. Even though it only refreshes the page fully every six turns, each normal turn still seems to take a good second.
Where the cheapest Kindle still uses physical controls, the Kobo Mini uses a touchscreen. There’s nothing wrong with the underlying technology, which seems fairly accurate and responsive, but the meagre processing power and the smaller size of the screen can also make it tricky to tap the right point or make adjustments with sliders or buttons. The Mini is perfectly usable, and when you’re in the middle of a book you won’t always find yourself fiddling with the font size or formatting, but when you do have to do it you might need a little patience.
Yet we’re not just here to whinge. As with the Glo, you get a decent range of options in terms of font sizes, margin widths, line-spacing, typeface and justification, plus an Advanced page where you can adjust things like sharpness and see a before and after view of the results.
What’s more, the Mini doesn’t skimp on advanced features either. You can still tap and hold a word to summon up a definition, translate words, search for snippets of text and add your own annotations, and the Mini also packs in Kobo’s reading life and social networking features, tracking your progress, dishing out awards for various reading-related activities, and allowing you to comment on what you’re reading, and post information to Facebook. The Mini even manages the same Extras as its bigger brother, with a rather basic monochrome Web browser, a Sudoku game and a Sketchpad app.
One of the advantages of buying a Kobo eBook reader is that you’re not tied into one specific store. Kobo’s own store is the most convenient, partly because you can browse for and buy books using the Mini’s Wi-Fi connection, and there’s even a Discover feature that recommends them – though as with all such things it makes some good guesses and some less impressive ones.
Given the size of the screen, however, it’s easier to use Kobo’s nicely-presented desktop software to search and buy, then transfer over USB. There is, however, no need to feel restricted. You can visit the WHSmith online store and transfer books to your Mini from there, or visit Waterstones or anyone else that sells (or distributes) Adobe DRM-protected (or unprotected) books, then transfer them using Adobe Digital Editions (downloaded separately).
This is always a difficult choice. Kobo, WHSmith and Waterstones are now catching up on Amazon for pricing on many bestsellers, but Amazon still seems to offer a wider range and more enticing offers. Joining the Kindle ecosystem has its advantages and disadvantages, and as other eBook stores evolve it’s becoming less of a disadvantage to shop elsewhere. For some people, the freedom is worth paying extra for. For others, the price advantages of Kindle will win out.
PDFs can be easily copied over using Adobe Digital Editions. Fidelity is pretty good, but text and images can look pretty ugly on the smaller screen, and if the text is tiny then you’ll struggle to get enough zoom to make anything out. Scrolling performance is predictably painful, but then it’s unlikely you’ll buy a Mini to read PDFs or any other graphical material. It’s like buying a Fiat 500 when you’ve got a family and a dog to get around.
Kobo claims a battery life of one month for the Mini, though – as always – this depends on how you use it. Within ten days of rather inconsistent daily use we’ve drained 40 per cent of the battery, but that’s with Wi-Fi switched on most of the time. In any case, you won’t have to charge it more than every few weeks, which is fine as far as we’re concerned.
There’s a lot to like about the Kobo Mini. It’s very small and very light without feeling at all flimsy. It’s extremely affordable and it doesn’t tie you in to one specific book vendor. However, we keep coming back to the reading experience. The 5in screen makes it harder to get a good page full of text without affecting legibility, and the poorer contrast levels only exacerbate the situation. In fact, it doesn’t offer many real advantages over reading on a good-sized mobile phone.
If you’re a frequent traveller and you want the lightest and most portable eBook reader on the market, then the Kobo Mini is it. Deal with the compromises and it’s still quite usable. If you can spend a little more, however, and you’d rather have something you can read comfortably for hours at a time, then Amazon’s base-level Kindle, the Kobo Touch, the Nook Simple Touch or Kobo Glo would all give you a better experience without giving you an awful lot more to lug around. It seems you can have small or comfortable, book-like reading, but not quite both at the same time.