Kobo Arc £169.99
4th Jul 2013 | 14:23
Good value, fast working 7-inch Android tablet with Google Play apps
Kobo is a brand better known for producing budget alternatives to original E-Ink-based Kindleet al, but can the all-new Arc tablet take the fight higher to the Kindle Fire HD and even the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini?
If you've seen Kobo's previous tablets, it's likely you were in WHSmiths, which actively promotes and sells all Kobo tablets and eReader in its high street shops – including the Arc.
The headline feature on this 7-inch, 1280 x 800 pixel tablet is a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, though just as standout when compared to eReader-style tablets (principally the Nook HD and the Kindle Fire HD) is the Arc's open Android experience - now Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, following an update in April 2013 - and we've updated our review to reflect this change.
Sure, it's augmented rather nicely by the double-act of both Tapestries (a noticeboard-style interface that permits extensive customisation) and a Discovery 'web concierge' feature that recommends websites as well as e-books, but it's the Arc's ability to download any app from Google Play that most appeals.
And, yes, that does mean a whole host of games as well as apps for Kindle and Nook, its two main rivals. That completely open attitude does suggest that if the Arc's performance matches-up to its specs it could render its rivals' locked-in experiences rather pointless, especially as it's identically priced.
Although a 64GB version is manufactured by Kobo – and we've seen a price of £230 for that – WHSmiths is currently selling 16GB (£159.99) and 32GB (£189.99) models in both black and white versions. At present there is no 3G option, though that could change.
We're guessing that Kobo is gunning for a quasi-academic status with this 7-inch tablet; its relatively thick (10mm wide at the sides, and 13mm/19mm at the top/bottom) matt black plastic bezel gives the 189 x 120 x 115mm, 364g Kobo Arc a rather industrial look to it.
Furthermore, the opportunity to swap-out the back cover (though only to blue or purple) creates an impression that the Kobo Arc is a tablet for kids.
The 1,280x800 pixel screen (that's 215 PPI) has an unusually wide viewing angle, so much so that it's almost impossible to detect any draining of colour or contrast when viewed from odd angles.
That's thanks to an IPS (In-Place Switching) panel, which is fast becoming standard in tablets.
An unbeatably powerful 1.5GHz dual-core processor and 1GB RAM are good enough specs meaning the Arc rarely misses a beat when swiping or loading apps, and never freezes-up. However, this does pale in comparison to the quad-core innards of the likes of the Nexus 7.
However, there are weaknesses. There's no Bluetooth, which could have turned the Arc into a fully fledged productivity tablet by adding a Bluetooth keyboard or wireless headphones.
Nor is there a micro SD card slot for expanding the storage, so you'll have to choose wisely from the off - but then again, its rivals are shorn of such a port too.
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Physical buttons are few, with a standby switch on the top, and a volume rocker on the upper right-hand side below a headphones slot.
Front-facing speakers adorn the lower bezel, while between them on the undercarriage is a micro USB slot for recharging and transferring files via an included micro USB cable.
All models of the Kobo Arc are Wi-Fi only – and all lack an HDMI output to chuck your content onto a bigger screen, which may irk some if the effort by Amazon to convince users tablets should be plugged into a TV takes off. There are always wireless apps to help out, but these can be confusing to the technologically naive.
Because it was a totally open Android interface, all of Jelly Bean's new features can now be found on the Kobo Arc, including Google Now, rich notifications and face unlock.
That last feature is, in practice, hit-and-miss. Perhaps it's the Kobo Arc's low-sensitivity 1.3 megapixel camera that's to blame, but in our test the Kobo Arc only managed to identify our big face in three out of five attempts.
Besides, during the set up process the Kobo Arc warned us that face unlock wasn't as secure as a password. So what's the point of it, then?
The new Jelly Bean keyboard is present, as are various voice-to-text functions that culminate in the appearance of Google Now on the Kobo Arc. It's the most significant change brought to this eReader by Jelly Bean, and it's kick-started by a swipe (upwards from the bottom) of the screen, bringing voice-activated search and local information. In short, it makes the Kobo Arc much more aware of its location.
Despite being a thoroughly open Android device, the Kobo Arc is also heavily modified. All Jelly Bean features remain, but the Kobo Arc adds its own layer into the mix. Called Tapestries, it's mostly concerned with Pinterest-style noticeboard organisation, and learning your preferences.
It's organised around dynamically changing carousel tabs, the default being Reading, Entertainment and Social, though you can create your own. Select Social and you'll see Tweets and Facebook status updates.
Press Entertainment from the home screen and a carousel of videos is enlarged, and added to by shortcuts to YouTube, 7digital, CinemaNow, Gallery, Rdio and Play Music.
Meanwhile, the Reading tapestry displays book covers with 'Reading Life' statistics (time read, remaining time, percentage complete, which seem a little similar to those employed on the Kindle Paperwhite) and a link to your Library, the Kobo Store, and Taste Profile, which shows you book covers; drag them into the yes/no pile and the Arc will learn your preferences.
However, the key point of Tapestries is that any picture, web page, chunk of text, widget or app can be 'pinned' to any of your Tapestry folders.
Down the bottom of all Tapestries pages is Discover, a timeline of thumbnail icons of news stories, books and YouTube videos Kobo thinks you might like.
We're not hugely keen on this idea of 'web concierge', but in practice it works pretty well – and if nothing else this makes sure you don't miss the top news stories from around the world.
It only does this from Kobo's own cache of the web – it's not based on your search history.
A shortcut from the home page leads to the usual Android grid of apps, but also includes a tab of widgets such as a clock, bookmarks and any open apps you might have running.
From here it's a cinch to drag them into any Tapestry; as you touch a widget and move it, the home page reappears, ready to accept 'pins'. The result is that, within Tapestries, the Kobo Arc is totally customisable in terms of content and apps.
Gliding between pages, apps, the web browser and books is always fast, as is the virtual keyboard, though the latter's buttons are rather too small in portrait mode (we frequently made mistakes while typing).
It boots-up very quickly, though when titling the device the Arc is slow to re-orientate between landscape and portrait.
We also noticed that the screen isn't quite as responsive as it should do; tapping the tiny 'x' to kill unwanted adverts on games, for instance, proved tricky, as did some drag and dropping of apps, though the Arc is mostly capable with both the basic Android elements and its own architecture.
Camera and internet
Further proof that the Arc – while offering an open Android experience – is centered on reading rather than all-round entertainment is its lack of a rear-facing camera.
It does, however, have front-facing optics. Achieving a mere 1.3 megapixels, it sits at the top of the device in portrait mode alongside a microphone and a small flash.
It's clearly provided mainly for Skype video calling, which it's absolutely fine for.
Although video calls are theoretically performed in 720p HD quality, this is a classic case of specs over real life since the results are grainy and best described as rudimentary.
Though Skype-centric, the Kobo Arc's optics can be accessed via the native Camera app, offering some basic face recognition tech, colour options.
White balance/exposure tweaks and a movie mode are simply executed, though aside from Skype it's fit only for briefly amusing children.
The vanilla Android browser is one of the few areas where the Arc disappoints, with an overall slow experience.
Flash isn't supported natively, and while workarounds are available they may be beyond the interest of many of this tablet's demographic. Any fixes we tried only yielded partial results anyway.
The Flash issue can't be solved by opting for Google's own Chrome browser, but doing so does increase browsing speed.
Zooming-in and out of pages while using either browser is excellent, with plenty of sharp detail amid a fluid experience that never stalls.
Opt for Chrome and you'll have to use bookmarks since only the native browser includes the 'Pin Image To Tapestry' and 'Set As Wallpaper' options for images.
Google Now, a new feature thanks to the Android Jelly Bean firmware update, works well. Swipe up from the bottom of the Kobo Arc's screen in either portrait or landscape orientation and a small white rings appears intersected by a small Google logo. It then transits to a search box and the keyboard. Say "Google" and a Speak Now written message appears next to a pulsing microphone.
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In our test, asking: "what is the weather?" in Google Now instantly brought up an app telling us the local weather, along with a spoken summary, telling us "it's 43 degrees and cloudy in Cardiff".
There are also semi-permanent cards showing photo spots nearby and places nearby - the latter largely being restaurants and pubs.
From here you need to press the microphone rather than just saying "Google", but by saying "how do I get to…" the Kobo Arc replies that it's getting directions, before producing clear Google Maps and turn-by-turn directions that can be made available offline.
It's pretty efficient stuff - asking "when is my next appointment?" solicited an instant response, both spoken and onscreen, of a train journey planned for the next day. However, "is there a Thai restaurant nearby?", though understood, produced three choices, one each in Manchester, London and Singapore. Whoops.
Sadly we weren't able to successfully download open source ePUB ebooks from sites like Project Gutenberg, having to rely instead on reading the text files online.
Media, apps and battery life
The Arc can play movies and music, but it's books that it's most concerned with. We've got no arguments with the way it presents its three million title+ Kobo Store library, with useful collections (such as Best of 2012: Fiction, Non-fiction Bestsellers & endless genres) provided alongside a simple title search option.
Reading Life, which collects data on your reading speed and progress through the books on your own device, is an acquired taste, though personally we found the 'time remaining' calculation for each book useful (if occasionally underlining just how time-consuming reading really is; Last Of The Mohicans apparently takes 41 hours, 25 minutes to read. Blimey).
It's a similar system to the one found on Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite, (and now the Kindle Touch too) where it also polarises opinion. However we think such data is great where it wasn't available before... and you can always turn it off.
SimpleTurn – page turns – is smooth, while there are myriad tweaks to fonts and spacing, while PDFs can be zoomed-in and out of dynamically.
While reading it's also possible to read comments left by others about particular passages or pages, though the feeling of community is slight indeed.
What the Arc doesn't do, when compared with the various Kindles, is enable the emailing of PDFs or e-books and kick-start a cloud sync.
Instead all files have to be manually transferred using the microUSB cable. However, the fact that the Kindle app can be downloaded and used freely on the Arc technically makes Amazon's tablet redundant in a sense, although the online retailer would probably argue it's giving content in a very different way.
Although the Arc does support ePUB books from any source (and it's possible to download then from Kobo's Store), the process is rather manual.
Not only is it necessary to hook-up the Arc to a PC or Mac, but from within the Library app it's then crucial to choose Import Content. The Arc then scans its own storage for files it can render, imports them, then deletes the originals.
As well as ePUB books, the Arc supports a fine collection of audio files, including lossless FLAC, OGG and WAV formats as well as the more common MP3, M4A and WMA.
Video-wise the Arc copes with just MP4 and AVI files, with which you can fill the 32GB or 16GB variants as you wish. Sadly it's not possible to play music while reading.
Apps and games
Accessible in a grid from the home page, the transition between pages of apps and widgets (clocks, bookmarks and links to apps you've left open) is smooth, while the likes of Gmail, YouTube and Google Maps are there by default, as is the excellent PressReader for newspaper and magazine subscriptions.
Apps for Kindle and Nook can be downloaded and easily pinned to the home page; it's even possible to replace, or relegate, the Kobo Store app.
The Arc also makes a good gaming platform. We downloaded the Angry Birds Star Wars app and found the Arc to be quick enough, while Drop proved the speed and accuracy of its accelerometer.
We were shown the 'Google Play Store has stopped' message a few too many times, usually when we were quickly downloading, opening and closing different games from Google Play. This isn't something we usually see on today's top-end tablets, and shows the rather meagre workings of the Arc's innards.
Battery life and benchmarks
Battery life is average for a tablet of this size; that is, it's limited and a great argument for the 'old' E-Ink displays.
Though the manufacturer quotes 10 hours of reading or video, we managed around six hours of mixed use, with the device losing around a fifth of its battery even on days when it wasn't used at all.
Perhaps most irritatingly of all, when it's run-down 70% of its battery an LED light starts flashing, which isn't appropriate for a device likely to be used to read books and hence left in sleeping areas. In a dark room it's infuriatingly bright.
We ran the Nyan cat test video for 90 minutes and found that the fully-charged Arc at full screen brightness dropped to 82% battery level, which is about the same as the Kindle Fire HD.
Sound quality, meanwhile, is pretty poor despite emanating from front-facing speakers; it's flat and lifeless, but OK for using on a desk.
Through headphones sound quality is acceptable, though lacks mid-range aid a treble-heavy vocal.
And now the benchmark tests: the AnTuTu app test produced an average score of 11,230 for the Arc (4.5/5 stars, and well above average for a tablet).
Hands on gallery
Forget the ereader market – the 7-inch Kobo Arc might have a literary bent, but this open Android 4.1 experience is at least the equal of the Google Nexus 7 and iPad Mini in terms of core performance and value.
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A fast processor, a nicely open Android experience and a clever layer of the Tapestries interface make using the Kobo Arc a pleasant experience and, app-wise, incredibly versatile.
The web concierge-style Discover feature won't be everyone's taste, but works well if trained using the Taste app.
Reading is smooth, comfortable and highly customisable, with an auto-sensor keeping brightness just about right, while the Kobo Arc even makes a play as an excellent tablet for games.
The Android 4.1 Jelly Bean update is welcome, too, since it brings Siri-like instant voice interaction and the impressive Google Now suite of easy-access information cards.
The native Android browser is poor, which is a shame, since jumping ship to Chrome means losing the option to 'pin' content to Tapestries, and the touchscreen isn't always as sensitive as it should be.
Our biggest criticism of the Kobo Arc is that it lacks the kind of hardware that would make it a truly serious contender in the tablet market. The no-show of Bluetooth, HDMI-out and a microSD expansion slot takes away the kind of versatility all tablets need.
If you accept that Android tablets are more or less the same, it seems almost illogical to buy into a 'locked' ecosystem such as the Kindle Fire or Nook when open platform tablets like the Kobo Arc exist.
Add to that a fast, fluid operation and some innovative Tapestry tweaks to the Android GUI and we've got a great value 7-inch tablet, though the lack of Bluetooth, storage expansion and an HDMI output do limit its appeal as a do-it-all tablet.
The iPad mini doesn't have much to worry about, since it's a more encompassing tablet with more top-end features, but the Kindle Fire HD and Nook HD should take note, given that they both come from ereader backgrounds.
Overall, if those 'missing' hardware options are irrelevant to you, we'd recommend the Kobo Arc as an impressive 'my first tablet'. However, overall the Kobo Arc is probably happiest being the ereader-based tablet that offers by far the most freedom.