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Review: Kobo Vox

Review: Kobo Vox

A few weeks ago Kobo launched their $199 Android tablet for readers, the Vox.  The launch has gotten off to a shaky start with shipping delays and folks experiencing some glitches with charging and waking it from sleep mode.  Despite that Kobo has put out a nice device that many readers are sure to enjoy.

A quick note: Kobo issued a firmware update which installs as a part of the initial setup routine to fix the power issues, but occasionally it apparently doesn’t apply properly.  Some folks have had success getting the device working again by doing a hard reset (different from a factory reset). To do a hard reset hold the power button down for 10 seconds then release, then power up as you normally would.

The Vox weighs in at 14.2 oz which compares nicely to 7 inch devices from other eBook retailers; Nook Color (15.8 oz), Nook Tablet (14.1 oz) and Kindle Fire (14.6 oz) and has Kobo’s usual “quilted” rubberized back.  All in all the device feels quite nice in hand and I find it more comfortable to hold than the Nook Color.  At release the Vox runs Android version 2.3.3 (Gingerbread) and will allow you to sideload apps without the need to root the device.

Hardware Specs:
7” FFS+ multi-touch display, 1024×600 resolution (+/- 89 viewing angle)
800 Mhz processor; 512 MB RAM
8GB internal storage; microSD slot for additional memory up to 32GB
7 hour battery life (with WiFi turned off)
WiFi 802.11 b/g/n
Mono speaker and 3.5 mm stereo headphone jack
Available in four colors (black, blue, green and pink)

Out of the box Formats:
Books: Kobo ePub, DRM-Free ePub, fixed layout and enhanced ePub
Images: JPG, PNG, GIF and BMP
Audio: MP3, AAC, 3gp, mp4, m4a, flacc, ogg, wav and midi
Video: avi, H.263 (3gp, mp4), VP8 (webm)

Unlike other Kobo devices the Vox is NOT COMPATIBLE WITH ADOBE DRM’D BOOKS (INCLUDING LIBRARY BOOKS) which I think will disappoint many, although this can be solved fairly easily with apps you can add yourself [Nook books are uncompatible as well, without the nook app].

The first time you start up the Vox you’ll be asked to setup WiFi.  There appears to be no way around it, you must set up WiFi before you can get any further.  Once WiFi is set up you’ll do a mandatory firmware update that will take about 15 minutes.  The device will check for updates again and then you’ll setup time and date. You’ll then enter your Kobo user information (or setup an account if you don’t have one).  You’ll also be given the option of linking your Facebook account to the device, which you can skip if you want.

Once you get through all the start up stuff the Vox will start downloading the books in your Kobo Library.  I found this highly annoying as I have about 235 books in my Kobo Library and had no desire to download all of them to the device.  There is an option to pause all downloads, but it appears buggy as the device didn’t stop downloading until it had added 127 books to my device.

The device has a fairly stock Android look except that Kobo has added their own menu bar across the bottom with options to ‘Read Now’ which opens your current book, ‘Library’ which takes you to your bookshelf, ‘All Apps’ which opens the app drawer where all your apps are shown, ‘Shop Kobo’ which takes you to the Kobo Books store and lastly ‘Reading Life’ which is one of Kobo’s social reading deals where you can earn badges for various things and share them on Facebook and also see things like time spent reading and number of pages turned.  Those icons will appear on all five of the devices home screens.

On the main home screen the biggest thing you’ll notice will be the ‘Kobo Mosaic’ widget which shows your last five books read (this widget just like any other widget can be deleted/re-added if the user desires it).  Lastly the main home screen has shortcuts to the web browser (stock Android browser), Gmail (not the Google Gmail app, but a web shortcut that launches the web browser) and Facebook (which again is a web link, not the Facebook app).  Just like with other Android devices these shortcuts can be removed (the “app” can always be found in your App Drawer if you decide to re-create a shortcut) or you can drag the shortcut(s) to one of the other home screens.

The library is presented as a book shelf (you can also display books in ‘list’ mode) which shows you the book cover.  At the top are also tabs for ‘Reading Life’ and the Kobo Store.  Selecting ‘Import’ from the menus in the Library you can have the device search itself for ePub’s you’ve added and you can then select books to add to the library list. The are no folders or collections to allow you to organize your books in the library.

So lets get down to reading.  Folks familiar with the Kobo Android and iThing apps will find using the stock reader on the Vox to be pretty familiar.  Pages can be turned by either swiping or tapping the edges of the screen. Page turns are generally smooth, but I found them to become sluggish from time to time (there is a slight delay when going from one chapter to another).  At the bottom of the page when reading you’ll see a page count (page X of XX) which is the page count for the current chapter. There are also small icons at the bottom for Kobo Pulse (more on Pulse later).

While reading tapping the center of the screen will bring up a header menu with icons for Library, Read, Contents, Overview and Annotations (notes & highlights).  At the bottom will be a footer with a progress bar and a pop-up showing chapter, page X of XX and % into book.  By rotating the device you can switch to landscape mode with your choice of single or two page view.  While the device bookmarks your last page read there appears to be no way to manually bookmark pages.  There appears to be no way of searching a book or doing a direct dictionary lookup (there is a dictionary app and of course there’s the web when hooked to WiFi).

Pressing the devices menu key while reading will bring up a menu with some options.  ‘Share to Facebook’, ‘Select Text’, ‘Notifications’, ‘Fonts’, ‘Close Book’ and ‘More’.  The first item is self explanatory, ‘Select Text’ (also accessed by tapping and holding on the page) will reopen the page in a new mode where you can select text and then highlight, add a note or share on Facebook.  I found this to be awkward when compared to other reading devices/apps where these things are done without the delay of reopening the page.  ‘Notifications’ brings up a list of notifications for ‘Reading Life’.  The ‘Fonts’ option is really kind of mislabeled.  You can use it to change the font face (there are 9 font options) and size (there are 42 sizes via a slider), but it’s also how you access things like Brightness, Night Mode, how the device displays in landscape (one or two pages) and whether notifications show while reading or not.  ‘Close this Book’ is book
will close the book and remove the bookmark, and ‘More’ give you options for ‘Help’ and for ‘Social Reading’ which allows you to turn ‘Pulse’ on and off.

I also tried one of the three free fixed layout color books that were included (a cookbook, a travel guide and a kids book) and this worked nicely for the most part.  Page turns were slower (due to the graphics involved I guess), but not horrible.  As these books have fixed layouts you can zoom and pan pages, but can’t change things like the font (size or face).

The last thing I tried was a comic book and again page turns were slower than a regular book, but not too bad.  I found reading a comic on the Vox to be a pretty good experience.

 

What are Reading Life and Pulse?  Reading life is Kobo’s social reading experience, that works with Kobo purchased books, where you can discuss books and share with Facebook friends.  With Pulse you can find out how many others are reading/have read the same book, see comments they’ve left and if it was liked or disliked.  The Pulse indicator at the bottom center of each book page will get bigger and brighter if a page has more activity.  The other part of Reading Life is the badges you can earn (for things like reading 10,000 pages or reading at the same time each day for a period of time) which you can then share on Facebook if you choose to.  Finally, Reading Life also provides you with stats various things like pages read and time spent reading.  While I’m not a big Facebook person I can see how some of these things would be quite popular with some folks.  I did notice that while some of the badges I had from the Kobo for Android app transferred to the Vox, other have to be re-earned on the new device.

All in all the reading experience is quite pleasant on the Vox although personally I prefer eInk for most situations.

 

What’s the deal with apps? The stock apps on the Vox (what some would call bloatware) besides the usuals like the Browser, Calculator, Email, etc. are as follows. Calendar (which appears to be for those with an Exchange account only), Facebook (web link), Get Apps (link to GetJar), Globe2Go ePaper, Gmail (web link), Merriam-Webster Dictionary, People, Press Reader, Rdio, Scrabble Free, Twitter (web link), YouTube (web link) and Zinio.

I found the GetJar appstore to be OK, but not great.  It appears that even though GetJar for other device has a bunch of reading apps that Kobo has gotten them to block them when it comes to the Vox (although the Nook app has now appeared).  While I kind of “get it” it’s pretty easy to add the apps you want from other sources.

There is no access to the official Android Market for this device (although folks are working on it) as the Vox doesn’t meet Google’s compatibility requirements. One of the first things I did was add the Kindle and Nook apps and also Aldiko, Overdrive and BlueFire Reader all of which work just fine on the Vox. I also added the Amazon Appstore to get access to more apps.  For more on adding apps see this post from last week.

 

What about non-reading things like video? Initially it was reported that NetFlix (version 1.5.0) was working on the Vox, but folks are now reporting problems, I tried NetFlix yesterday and could not get it working properly.  I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before someone gets it figured out, but don’t count on it as a sure thing.  I also tried streaming through the CrunchyRoll app which worked pretty good and through Amazon (after installing Flash via sideload) which didn’t work very well.  YouTube was hit or miss for how well things played, but video loaded on device played quite nicely.

 

The devices screen is nice and clear, but the screen on my unit does have some light leakage around the edges that some might find annoying under certain circumstances.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to test it on a bright sunny day, so I can’t say for sure if it will live up to claims of perfect readability in sunlight or not (AFF+ is the same tech used in aircraft cockpits).  I also found the touchscreen to lag at times, but usually it was pretty responsive.

A few times the device just stopped responding and only rebooting got it working properly again.  I also had to reboot a couple times because tapping an app to launch it gave an error that the app wasn’t installed, rebooting fixed this, but it was a pain nonetheless.

 

Overall if someone’s looking at the Vox primarily for reading I think they would be quite pleased.  Looked at next to the Nook Color it’s quite comparable in performance and doesn’t require rooting to be able to install other reading apps and at least for me it feels better ‘in hand’.  If, on the other hand, you’re looking at the Vox as a kind of mini tablet I think you could still be pleased with it as long as you understand it lacks the horsepower to do some things as well as some competitors.  A person looking for a full tablet might be more pleased with the better spec’d, and similarily priced, Kindle Fire ($199) or Nook Tablet ($249) [at least in the US] depending on how reviews of them go.

One last note.  While it’s not necessary to root the Vox in order to sideload apps you might want to do it for some other reason.  It’s quite easy to do using GingerBreak and there are step by step instructions in this post at MobileRead.

How to install apps on an Android device with no access to the Android Market

How to install apps on an Android device with no access...

There are tons of great Android devices out there now, with more on the way. While many of these devices have the official Android Market on them from Google, quite a few (such as the new Kobo Vox) do not since they don’t meet Google’s Compatibility Requirements.  So what’s an owner of one of these devices to do?  Have no fear; there are quite a few options available.

Many of the devices that don’t have the Android Market come with some type of third party market loaded on them, so a user has access to at least some apps, but what if you want something that’s not available through that third party?  I’ll try to answer that below.

 

The first thing you must do is enable the loading of apps from unknown sources.  An unknown source is basically anything that’s not Google’s official marketplace.  To do this open your devices settings which is usually accessed by pressing the ‘menu’ button when on your home screen.  Once settings is open go to ‘Applications’ and you should see a check box followed by “Unknown Sources; Allow installation of Non-Market applications” or something to that effect.  Make sure that box is checked before going any further (you may get a warning message you have to OK).  Note that a regular unrooted/uncustom ROM’d NookColor will not allow you to do this and neither will some phones from AT&T.

Now that ‘Unknown Sources’ is enabled were all set to look at the various options for getting apps onto your devices, but before we get to those options it’s a good idea to understand some terminology.  Something you’ll hear mentioned time and again is an .apk file, which is the file type for Android apps.  An .apk can be thought of similarly to an .exe on a Windows computer or maybe a .dmg on a Mac.  It’s the file used to install the app to your device and operates in a similar fashion once you click/tap it to open it will launch the apps installer.

 

The first way to get apps would be to install one/all of the various third party markets out there.  There are quite a few of them and some do have a nice selection available.  Note some stores don’t work on all devices (ex: AppsLib would install on my phone [Galaxy S Epic 4G] and on my Transformer Tablet, but not run on either device).  These markets/appstores are in themselves installed to your device from an .apk and each website has instructions for installing (or see how to install an .apk further down in this post). Once an app store is installed you can browse and search that store and install apps by simply clicking ‘install’ from withing the appstore. Below is a list of links to some of the various third party appstores (followed by a list of some of the reading apps they have)…

  • Amazon (Kindle, Aldiko, Bluefire, Kobo, Mantano)
  • GetJar (Nook, Aldiko, Cool Reader, Kindle, FBReader, Kobo, Overdrive)
  • SlideMe (Mantano, FBReader, Aldiko, Kindle)
  • AppsLib (not sure, only runs on certain devices)
  • Soc.io Mall (Aldiko, Kindle)

The other way to install apps would be to ‘sideload’ them either via USB or downloading with your devices browser (you could also email yourself an .apk).  Many, many apps can be found posted to blogs and Android user forums by simply Googling the app name along with .apk, for example “Kindle .apk”.  I always check to see if the app developer has a website where the .apk can be downloaded first as I’m usually sure to get the most current version that way and don’t have to worry if it’s from a dubious source.  I also recommend you install Lookout Security & Antivirus to your device if possible before sideloading apps.

Once you’ve found the .apk you’re looking for you can download it to your computer and transfer it via USB or in many cases download it using your devices browser.  If loading via USB you’ll need a file manager (such as Astro) on your device so that you can browse to the .apk file and tap it and the apps installer will launch.  When downloading via browser you’ll be asked where to save it and when the download is done you’ll have the opportunity to ‘open’ it, this will launch the apps installer.  Tap install and the app will install to your device (see below).  Once the app is installed you can delete the .apk file you downloaded if you’d like, it’s no longer needed.

 

As you can see getting apps on your non-Marketplace enabled device is generally pretty straight forward.  In a perfect world everyone would have Marketplace access, until then at least we have these other methods.