The market for Android tablets has really matured these last couple of years, since we are no longer getting devices that are simply running stretched-out versions of a smartphone OS. Kobo isn't necessarily the first company that comes to mind for most people when it comes to Android tablets, but following the launch of the Kindle Fire from Amazon, Kobo felt compelled to enter this market too. The first entry, the Kobo Vox, left a lot to be desired, but the new Kobo Arc that follows it is a marked improvement.
In a world dominated by Nexus tablets, Apple iPads, and Samsung Galaxy Tabs, should you consider the Android tablet offering from Kobo? After all, isn't Kobo more about offering e-readers rather than full blown tablet experiences? Let's dive in and find out.
An E-Reader or a Tablet?
And that's fundamentally where the Kobo Arc slots in too. It doesn't have e-ink display. Instead, it has an IPS touchscreen that easily rivals some of the best tablets on the market today. What's more, it's powered by a lightly skinned version of Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich, complete with full access to the Google Play Store for apps. In this way, it competes a lot more with the Nexus 7 than it does with a regular e-reader. Of course, you can still read e-books on here too.
The pricing also pits the Kobo Arc in direct competition with the Nexus 7. The 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB versions of the Nexus 7 sell for $209, $259 and $309 respectively in Canada, while the same capacity Kobo Arc tablets list for $199, $249 and $299. You can sometimes catch them on sale for less too, including a recent deal that tossed in a Kobo Mini for free with the purchase of a Kobo Arc.
Features and First Impressions
The specs also read a lot more like a competitive tablet than a cheaper e-reader. You get a 1.5GHz dual core processor and 1GB of RAM, along with dual front-facing speakers, 720p front-facing camera, dual core graphics with support up to 1080p video, open access to Google Play, and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.
If you were to leave the screen off on the Kobo Arc, you'd swear that it looks just like one of their e-readers. The Kobo Arc features that same "quilted" back design that you've seen on other Kobo products, including the ability to swap them out for different colors. You get the same kind of plastic bezel around the display, but you'll notice the two stereo speakers at the bottom. While I wouldn't say that the Arc is overly heavy (364g), there is a noticeable heft to the device that gives you some confidence in its build quality. It feels seriously solid, despite being mostly plastic.
Android 4.0.4 ICS with Tapestries
Perhaps one of the bigger advantages that the Kobo Arc has over something like the Kindle Fire HD is that the version of Android here is only very thinly skinned. Amazon's offering restricts you to the Kindle universe and bombards you with ads (unless you pay extra), whereas the Kobo gives you full access to the true Android experience and the only ads consist of the "Discover" reel along the bottom of the home screen.
The other major difference is something that Kobo calls Tapestries. This is their "exclusive interface for easy content discovery." Instead of the folders that we've come to use on stock Android, they're replaced with these "Tapestries" that are some sort of hybrid between folders and new home screens. You tap on one and it animates to fill out the screen, giving you effectively another home screen where you can add app shortcuts and widgets. It's quite elegant and it works beautifully. Aside from that, the familiar Android experience is totally there. In fact, when you click on the "Get Apps" Kobo icon, it just opens the Google Play Store instead.
Display for Web and Apps
It may not have the super rich saturation that you'd get with an AMOLED display, but the 7-inch multi-touch IPS display on the Kobo Arc is a beauty. You get a 1280x800 HD resolution (215ppi) with incredible viewing angles. You can get as far as 89 degrees off the horizon, either horizontally or vertically, and still get great visibility. This is a fantastic display for however you may want to use this video.
While I personally prefer either a larger tablet or a smaller smartphone, the web browsing experience on this 7-inch tablet is very good too. Text is crisp, touch is responsive, and pictures render well. The same can be said about watching videos or playing games, particularly since Kobo has taken the care of putting stereo speakers on the front rather than on the back like how you may find in some other tablets. I would have preferred if the speakers were set up for landscape rather than portrait, though.
The Kobo E-Reading Experience
If you like the experience that you get with other Kobo e-readers like the Kobo Glo or Kobo Mini, then you'll love what you get with the Kobo Arc. The e-reading app is laid out in an understandable and easy-to-follow manner, automatically bookmarking what you've read and displaying your library elegantly.
There is still the social aspect brought on by Kobo Pulse and Reading Life, should you want to take advantage of those. I particularly enjoyed reading comics on the Kobo Arc, since having a conventional IPS display is far better for panning and zooming than the e-ink display we had on the Kobo Glo. This is even better with color comics. Of course, you could just get the Kobo app on a competing Android tablet for the same, but the integration here is reasonably tight and you do get a great IPS screen.
Quadrant Standard Benchmark
Subjectively, I found the overall performance of the Kobo Arc to stand up against many contemporary Android tablets. HD video streamed flawlessly and graphically-intense Android games played smoothly. There were occasional delays with the Tapestries animations, but they were easily forgivable. That being said, we needed an objective measure for performance and so we turned once again to Quadrant Standard.
Running a few iterations, we found that the Kobo Arc generally scored in the 3200 range. This puts it well behind higher end Android devices like the HTC One X and Galaxy Note II (4300 range), but roughly on par with something like the Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus. It's not scorching fast, but it's easily up to the task for daily tablet duties.
Officially, the Kobo Arc is rated at 10 hours of reading and two weeks of standby. There are going to be a lot of factors when it comes to battery life, like screen brightness, activity level, wireless radio activity and so on.
With mild to moderate use, I was able to get somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 hours of use on an average charge. This consisted of reading some comics, reading some books, browsing the web, and playing the occasional game. This definitely was not continuous usage, but I didn't leave the Kobo Arc dormant for extended periods of time either. Your mileage will vary, of course, but that kind of battery life is consistent with similar 7-inch tablets.
MEGATechie Ahead of the Curve or MEGATechie Kobo Oh No?
I had my hesitations, based on what was experienced with the original Kobo Vox. However, after using the Kobo Arc for the last while, I truly believe that it offers one of the better values and one of the better Android tablet experiences, especially at this price point. Tapestries only thinly veils the "vanilla" Android OS underneath, so you're not losing out on much, if anything.
I originally didn't like the "edge" that the bezel created around the display, but it ultimately made for a good gripping point where I wouldn't accidentally tap something on the screen. The Kobo Arc is a little on the heavy side, especially when compared to its e-ink stablemates, so your arm may tire from some extended reading sessions. That said, I'm willing to forgive that given the relative high build quality.
While Google purists may rather turn to the Nexus 7 for pure updates, the Kobo Arc is a great option for people who are okay sticking with ICS and who want a great IPS display. Remember that Kobo may or may not upgrade beyond ICS, which could be a deal breaker for some. However, if you can catch the Arc on sale, the 64GB model can sometimes be had for as low as $249, representing a great deal on a great tablet. I just wish it had a rear camera and microSD slot.