I thought Blio would be the coming-up-from-behind candidate (maybe it’s because I’ve got a soft spot for Ray “the singularity is coming” Kurzweil), but so far, it’s Kobo. I’d never paid too much attention to Kobo (neé Shortcovers) before, since their ebook downloads insisted on the use of Adobe Digital Editions desktop software for reading their books on computers, and it’s no secret that I hate ADE with the fiery heat of a thousand suns (a fugly AIR app—check; cumbersome, barely working DRM—check; a typically craptacular Adobe-like software update scheme—check; a jerky and cumbersome reading experience—check; Adobe’s insistence on creating ADE-only styles and behaviours for the ePub spec—check… but I digress. Moving on…). While their iPhone app was relatively compelling, it wasn’t compelling enough to get me out of my Stanza comfort zone. Then Michael Tamblyn started to make big noise around the move to the agency model, offering specials (“Party like it’s $9.99″ was a GENIUS tagline), being very accessible and transparent about their dealings with the Agency 5, etc. If only Amazon (or hell, legacy pubishers) would take a page from his book….
Anyway. Their big push worked—at least with me—and they are now officially On My Radar. The fact that they worked their asses off to be on the iPad on day one helped to increase mindshare, in my opinion, and only makes others *ahem*B&N*ahem* who ostensibly have more resources but are still MIA look foolish by comparison (and how do I know that they worked their asses off? Because they said so. On their blog. Transparency and accessibility, remember?).
So I decided to give them a try, along with iBooks and Kindle, as the three initial ereader apps on my iPad. Here we go.
Kobo’s home screen is similar to iBooks’ home screen, in that it presents you with a bookshelf metaphor as its default view. It also offers you seven different styles for these bookshelves, which, as far as eye candy goes, isn’t a bad deal. I happen to not really dig any of them, so I stick with the default white shelves on a white background, but that’s ok—having the choices there are a nice touch. In addition to bookshelves, Kobo denotes recently-read or in-progress books by dressing them up with a bookmark, which can also be styled—you have a choice of eight styles, from the serious leather bookmark, to a silly monkeychain contraption. Again, not my cup of tea (I’m a militant minimalist), but it’s fine if you’re into that sorta stuff. The top of the home screen has three sections: “I’m Reading” invokes an overlay with whatever books are currently in-progress (which kinda seems superfluous at first, since you already have this information by seeing which of your books are bookmarked, but it makes sense once you anticipate having a couple hundred books on your bookshelf); “My Library” shows you all your books, and the “Store” link takes you to the Kobo store, in-app (more on the store below). In addition to bookshelf view, you can also look at your books in list mode, which organizes them into two columns. Both bookshelf and list view can be sorted by title, author, or recently read. On tapping a book to read, it seems that there is some sort of animation that’s supposed to happen (it looks like the book cover is supposed to grow to fill the screen, then fade out into the book proper), but I’ve yet to be able to invoke it cleanly—either the image of the cover floats off screen, or grows out of proportion, or the animation is jerky and laggy.
The reading interface on Kobo is clean and well-designed. On top, you’ve got the title of the book, and on tapping the center of the screen you get a slide down panel with a link back to the home screen; a link to the TOC; a link to an “overview”, which seems to be a stand-alone screen with a thumbnail of the cover and marketing copy (why I would need all this after I’ve bought a book is beyond me); and a link to your list of bookmarks. Down below, you have the chapter number, and the page count within that chapter—you never get a full page count, which is unfortunate, since I have no way of gauging how far along I am in the entire book. On tapping the center of the screen, you get a slide up panel with a slider for scrubbing within the current chapter (as opposed to through the whole book); type size and font selection popover; in-app brightness slider; a dog-earing button; and a settings button which invokes display settings and page transition options via a popover. The use of slide-up-and-down panels is different from the fade-in-and-out controls on iBooks and Kindle, and makes the app feel a bit claustrophobic when the controls are displayed. Naturally, you get both portrait and landscape view, and in landscape view you get only one column, as with Kindle. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not—as I mentioned yesterday, I’d much rather adjust the type size up in order to hit the 65 character per line sweet spot on a one-column landscape view, than adjust the type size down in the case of a two-column view.
Unfortunately, I’m finding Kobo to be quite crashy: it crashed on tapping on an entry in the TOC. Crashed on going back to the home screen. Crashed on the overview screen. Crash crash crash. As a matter of fact, aside from the first iteration of Evernote on iPad (they’ve since updated, and all is right with the world—I motherfucking HEART Evernote, and can’t live without it), this is the crashiest app I’ve run on my iPad. Rather unfortunate.
Kobo gives you options for page transitions, as I mention above. You can either choose a page flip, which shrinks the current page leftwards to reveal the following page underneath; a page fade, which simply dissolves the current page and reveals the following one; or page curl, which gives you the same page curling effect seen on iBooks and Kindle, but with a bottom-up rather than right-left motion. None of these transitions are particularly smooth: the page flip feels utterly unnatural as it distorts the text on a horizontal axis, the page fade is perfectly serviceable but can be disorienting, and the page curl just feels wrong, since the bottom-up motion gives the impression that you’re flipping through a top-bound notepad rather than flipping through the pages of a side-bound codex. You can also choose no transition, which just cuts from one page to the next.
You have a choice of four typefaces on Kobo: two serifs and two sans—Georgia, Baskerville, Trebuchet, and Verdana. Better selection than Kindle, but not as varied as iBooks. Additionally, you have a slider for adjusting type size, which runs from damn-near illegibly small type to bigger than Kindle but not quite as honkin’ big as iBooks. You’ve also got the ability to toggle “Night mode”, which is what Kobo calls the white-text-on-black-background mode, and you can also turn on “Kobo Styling”, which, as far as I can tell, opens up the leading (the space between lines of type) a bit on the page, but doesn’t do much else. While welcome (most books I’ve sampled on Kobo have tight, tight leading), I don’t understand the point behind it—I may very well be missing something here. Chime in in the comments if you know something I don’t.
Dictionary, Notes and Search
Are non-existent. A damned shame. ‘Nuff said.
The in-app store is a good step—you can browse just-released books, NYT bestsellers (fiction and non-fic), and “Today’s Top 50″ books. There’s also a teaser ad for News & Magazine content that’s supposedly coming soon, which I find interesting and worth following up on (if I remember down the line). As with iBooks, lack of discoverability is an issue, since it seems that you can only go deep into the NYT bestseller lists, and browse by category, which seems a bit tedious, and given publisher’s, ah, issues with metadata, is probably not too practical. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, and know to search for it using the search field, you’re going to be flying blind. Additionally, once you decide to buy a book, you’re taken out of the app and into Mobile Safari in order to complete your purchase. Once more, as with the Kindle app, this may be out of Kobo’s hands, but it still gives Apple’s iBooks the leg up.
Kobo is a valiant first effort, but damn, is it buggy and crashy. I’m willing to overlook that for now, since they probably didn’t have a test unit on which to do real-world iPad tests (and they worked their asses off to be on iPad on day one, which counts, B&N, it fucking counts), but they’d better come out with a stable update soon, because neither Kindle nor iBooks (natch) exhibit any buggy behaviour at all, let alone full app crashes. Where Kindle and iBooks complement each other, each making up for the other’s deficiencies to a certain degree, Kobo doesn’t really add anything compelling that I’d feel like I was missing in the other apps. In an agency model world where price is no longer a differentiating factor, ereaders and retailers need to make with the value adds in other ways, and one of the best ways to do that is through a rock-solid or superior user experience. In this respect, Kobo brings nothing new to the party, unfortunately.