Review: Kobo ebook reader from Whitcoulls

Along with the opening today of its online ebook store, Whitcoulls has launched the Kobo dedicated eReader, giving Kiwis their first retail experience of an e-Ink ebook reader.

The Kobo eReader will be stocked in about 30 of Whitcoulls’ stores as well as being for sale online at It sells for NZ$295 including GST which is a little higher than we’d hoped it would be. In the US, it sells for US$149,in Canada C$149, and it’s A$199 across the Tasman in Australia. But even at $295, it Whitcoulls Kobo Ebook Readerrepresents very good value compared to other offerings and it’s a price that should encourage a lot of Kiwis to jump on board. The Kindle for instance — still unavailable to New Zealand buyers — retails for US$259 which is about NZ$430 with GST added.

The Kobo/Whitcoulls service is more than an eReader and you don’t actually need this eReader to read the Kobo ebooks. One of Whitcoulls/Kobo’s distinguishing features is its support of the industry standard ePub format along with a wide range of reading devices from PCs and Macs (not recommended for in-depth reading) to iPhones, iPads, Blackberries and Android smartphones.

Whitcoulls launched its iPhone/iPod Touch app (link opens iTunes) today and will shortly roll out support for Blackberries, Android smartphones and, in time for its July New Zealand launch, the iPad.

Despite all this choice, if you can justify the cost, a dedicated ebook reader will add plenty to your ebook reading enjoyment.

Whitcoulls and Kobo have been smart in opting for a basic specification with a good price point rather than loading the the Kobo eReader with lots of expensive features that don’t always add a lot to the reading experience.

Don’t let its budget price fool you. The Kobo is one of the best ebook readers around, functionally, ergonomically and style-wise. It has a quality feel, weighs in at 221 grams making it ideal for one-handed reading. Try doing that for long periods on an Apple iPad.

Its 6-inch/15 cm e-Ink screen operates crisply with nice typography including a choice of a serif and a sans serif typeface plus five type sizes. The black and white e-Ink display gives it a stable paper-like appearance, much easier on the eyes than the more common backlit LCD/LED displays, and offers great readability in natural light conditions, including outside in sunshine. Add a long battery life measured in weeks rather than hours and you’ve got a compelling feature set for comfortable reading.

One of the best usability features of the Kobo eReader is its “D-Pad” (short for “Directional Pad”). It’s a large round button which you press on the right or left edge to turn the pages forward or back. A neat feature is that pressing the D-Pad at the top or bottom will increase or decrease font size. A minor criticism is that the Kobo works best when held with the right hand but is a little less comfortable when held in the left. Many ebook readers solve this with an extra set of page forward/page back buttons on the left.

The tight integration with the Whitcoulls/Kobo ebookstore should make it a good choice for readers who aren’t tech whizzes, something that can’t be said for many of the eReaders out there.

You can download your ebooks to several devices, such as your Kobo eReader and an iPhone. I like to do this and find that having the iPhone or iPod Touch is great for catching those few extra minutes here and there during the day when you have a spare moment to read. Once you’ve set up a Whitcoulls’ online ebook account, your ebook collection is stored in “the cloud” (that is, on the internet) so they’re accessible from anywhere at any time, and from several devices.

The Kobo eReader boots up to a home screen which shows your latest downloaded titles and the titles you’re reading currently. If you get lost, pressing the “Home” button on the left-hand edge will always get you back to this point. You can organise your ebook collection by title, author, or most recently read, and they are added to an alphabetical tabbed section which is great for organising a large collection. The Kobo comes pre-loaded with 100 classics (none yet from New Zealand, alas).

Unlike the Kindle and several other eReaders, the Kobo does not have a wireless connection (other than Bluetooth which you can use to connect to a Blackberry). To buy and download ebooks, you’ll need a PC or Mac connected to the internet, basically the same system that Apple uses with iPods and the iTunes store. The ebooks are then copied to the Kobo reader which connects via a normal USB cable (supplied).

You can add an SD memory card up to 4GB which, along with the Kobo’s 1GB of onboard storage, gives you heaps of room for a thousand or more ebooks. Apart from ePub, the only other format supported at the moment is PDF but Kobo promises more will be added by way of software upgrade in future. This means you’ll need to convert your business documents to PDF to read on the Kobo.

So what’s missing from the Kobo eReader? The main thing of value is wireless connectivity, something that has been a winner for the Kindle. But frankly, given how easy the Kobo is to get ebooks on to, it’s a nice-but-not-necessary accessory. Another feature some eReaders offer is a touch screen, again nice but not necessary: I’ll take the saving (and crisper screen). Then there’s colour. The Kobo, like all of today’s e-Ink displays, is black and white but so are most of the ebooks you can buy today. Finally, if you’re looking for a device that will surf the net and do your email as well as read books, you’re better to wait a couple of months for Apple’s iPad, albeit at almost three times the price.

But if you want a gadget that — a bit like the book itself — does one thing really, really well and won’t break the bank, the wait is over. The Kobo eReader, and the flexibility the Kobo system offers to read your ebooks on several devices, is a great way to take your first step into the world of ebooks.

[I’ve posted a video review and demo of the Kobo reader on If you haven’t already done it, head over to and sign up to follow us via Twitter, RSS, Facebook or good old email. Lots of good stuff coming.]

Comments (28)

  1. Pingback: New Zealand gets its first ebook store, ebook reader: Whitcoulls powered by Kobo

  2. Rick Shera

    Martin – great review thanks and its good to see the use of the ePub open standard as you say. These are fantastic developments for NZ. A few lazy questions if you happen to know or are talking to Whitcoulls:

    – Where will “my” books stored “in the cloud” and what control do I have over whoever holds them changing my access (like Amazon did with George Orwell’s 1984)?
    – What information about my browsing and reading habits will Whitcoulls or anyone else be collecting and what are they able to use that information for? This is of course a big issue with Google and its proposed online book service.
    – Can I actually download my purchased book to my device for offline reading? Can I share it that way with others or by giving someone else my access password or whatever – in the same way that I could give them my hardcopy book to read?


    Rick Shera

  3. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi Rick
    Good questions and I don’t have all the answers. Hopefully one of the Whitcoulls or Kobo guys will respond. However, to answer some:
    – Whitcoulls’ service is a hosted service provided by Kobo so I’d guess that it’s Kobo’s privacy policy that will cover the questions you ask. To my knowledge, the Whitcoulls and Angus and Robertson services are the first “Powered by Kobo” installations running under another brand. I notice that, when I go directly to now, it comes up with NZD pricing. It was previously the USD site that I’d get.
    – Re: How many devices to use. Kobo uses Adobe’s Content Server 4 to apply DRM to downloaded books on platforms that support the Adobe mobile reader technology. PCs, Macs and the Kobo eReader itself support this (as do several other eReaders such as the Sony eReader). Adobe’s policy is that, if you register an Adobe account (optional), you can register up to six devices. This means you could use a PC at home, your Kobo eReader, your office PC, a (good) friend’s eReader. Of course, you introduce another privacy issue (Adobe) but without registering, you can have only one device. To do all this stuff, you’d download your ebook from Kobo/Whitcoulls to Adobe Digital Editions on your PC. It’s free and it’s like an ebook-optimised version of Adobe Reader.

    The iPhone (of course) and some other mobile platforms work differently because Adobe’s mobile reader isn’t yet ubiquitous. You can download to both your iPhone and ebook reader, as I’ve done, but they’re actually different systems which Kobo describes as ‘mirrored’. I think Kobo must use its own DRM for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

    As you can see, it’s still not entirely simple:-) We’ve got a wee way to go but for the Kobo eReader users, it will be pretty straightforward and the Whitcoulls client software on your PC senses when the eReader is connected and syncs without any major drama.

  4. Roger Parkinson

    Sounds a good device. But two deal breakers for me: where’s the Linux support? And the price should be closer to the Aussie price.

    Do you know what the policy is for the many free ebooks that are out there (and on Kobo’s system)? Is there a handling charge for those or are they still free?

  5. Mike

    Great device. Bought it yesterday. Easy to convert all your old e-bookformats to EPUB using software such as the free Calibre. PDF not so successful as text is too small so do convert those. Biggest bonus is the lovely e-ink which unlike IPAD does not destroy your eyes and also the low weight is great (again IPAD too heavy).

    Very addictive! Have 3 ebooks on the fly on the device currently…

  6. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi Roger
    This is one case where free is indeed free. You can download thousands of classics with zero cost. Because Kobo uses the ePub format, there’s an even bigger choice (Kindle owners wouldn’t be so well off). As well as Kobo, you can try places like Feedbooks which do some nice conversions to ePub of Project Gutenberg titles and, of course, Google Books has a lot available in ePub. But a real tresure that you should check out is our own NZ Electronic Text Centre (part of Victoria University). They have 1000 kiwi classics in ePub format, all free. Some of the reals gems: Coal Flat by Bill Pearson, The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde and, of course, Man Alone by John Mulgan. A new ebook site has just started at which has many of the NZETC titles for download (though not the Pearson or Hyde which, while free for download from NZETC, are still in copyright and have restrictions).

  7. Marcus

    At last!!

    I have felt as though we are on the moon not in NZ these past few years as my friends around the world visit me with their many and various E Readers!
    Great news – buying one next week.

  8. Pingback: Video review: Kobo eReader reviewed by Martin Taylor on

  9. Moses

    Kobo eBooks are really limited at Whitcoulls and I tried Barnes & Noble and found a much greater variety there- still in the ePub format. However, what I got from there would not change the size of the font on the Kobo reader. The font size is too small to be read. Can anyone help?

  10. Brian Grant

    The Kobo is a great reader, but the software is really bad. So bad I am about ready to dump the Kobo – at least it is cheap enough that it won’t hurt too much to bin it! Might try one of the other e-readers.

  11. Maureen

    I few questions,it takes forever everytime the library updates when I sign in.what happens when I have more books ?also we have 2 kobo readers,so how do we deal with 2 different librarys?I don’t want his books and visa versa.

  12. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi Maureen. I’ve checked with the Whitcoulls team and they’ve given me the answer below. Hope this gets things working for you:

    Since you have two account holders in your household, it is not practical that you just remain signed-in to the app as most Kobo users would tend to do. They just close the app without signing out when they have finished using it.

    Having two Kobo eReaders in your home and not wanting to confuse your collections is as simple as signing-in to the appropriate account in the app before you sync to your Kobo. The accounts are entirely separate and books cannot be transferred between them so the accounts cannot be mixed-up together however the Kobo can be synch’ed to the other account.

    The good news is that there will soon be a much quicker app that will greatly reduce the time taken to switch from one account to another and to both update and sync your collections.

  13. Maureen

    Thank you for that information.My husband will open a new a/c at whitcouls.Looking forward to the greatly reduced download time.Love the kobo.

  14. Maureen

    Hi Martin,could you check with the whitcouls team again)or perhaps share the number).My husband tried to open a 2nd a/c with the whitcouls application,for his new kobo,and can’t have one because we have the same e mail address.This sounds silly,what if there are 5 kobo readers in one household. or am I missing something here? Regards Maureen

  15. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi Maureen

    It’s usual (not just with Whitcoulls/Kobo) to require a different email address for each account so you’ll probably need to have a separate email address. You can get your email provider to set up what’s called an “alias” which is a separate email address that goes to the same mailbox so you don’t need to check it separately for email. I’m checking with Whitcoulls to see if there’s a better way and will post a note here if there is.

  16. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Hi Maureen

    I’ve just had this response from Alastair at Whitcoulls.

    I just read your response and you are correct. Email address and password details can be changed but must be replaced with another email address so in this case Maureen will require second email address. My personal preference is to use webmail such as Hotmail for this purpose to allow me to change Internet providers should I be able to get a better monthly deal without changing my email address. The account details can be changed by visiting and signing-in at the top of the web page and then clicking on the adjacent ‘My Account’ button.

    If there were five Kobo eReaders in one household, there could easily be five accounts or just one. Each Kobo would only display the eBooks that have been loaded on to it. If I were to borrow Maureen’s Kobo and sync it to my account it would overwrite her eBooks and supplant them with mine. She could then resync the Kobo to her own account, signed-in using her email and password on any computer with the Whitcoulls app installed upon it, PC or Mac, and overwrite my eBook collection with hers. The Kobo simply carries the last account it has been synch’d to. In one instance I had a man open an account with two Kobo eReaders for his children. He purchased school-related eBooks and synch’d them to the Kobo eReaders and his children were able to study during their downtime with little weight penalty.

  17. Maureen

    Thank you again Martin for your great help.

  18. Sandy H

    I just wanted to throw in my two cents. We got the Kobo last year, the updated version with WiFi.

    I’m starting to see the Kobo more and more which makes sense…once people find out about this easy-to-use reader, they will be buying it up. It also has space for an extra card to expand your memory – you don’t have to buy a new ereader like with some brands. I’ve had no problems with my Kobo and I love the convenience of having it with me everywhere. ~Sandy, ShesConnected Community Manager

  19. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Thanks, Sandy. Good to get a long term user’s perspective. The WiFi is a nice addition to the range and Kobo is doing a good job so far keeping its reader updated and open to a wide range of other ebook sources.

  20. DavidB

    Is it likely that public libraries in NZ will get ebooks? For a fee, you get access for 4 weeks, the same as you’d get if you borrowed the (physical) book (albeit sans fee).

  21. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    David, quite a few libraries here are working on ebook lending plans. Several of them are looking at something along the lines you suggest. It’s a very sensible approach to take. There are cost issues, of course, that are troubling libraries whose budgets are already stretched. It’s a good reason to have a moderate charge for the ebooks, as they do with bestsellers now, so that their extra cost doesn’t have to be funded from cuts to services elsewhere.

  22. Garry

    We have an early kobo from Whitcoulls and were wondering if you can upload e-books from Amazon to it. We are preety low tech and like the way the Whitcoulls site works, how would you upload files not on the Whitcoulls site

  23. Celia

    Garry, I don’t think we can get kindle books on Kobo, but I’ve bought ePub books from several suppliers with little trouble. As they are all DRM protected, you can load them from your Adobe setup. When you have it open and your Kobo plugged in, one of the menu options on the left side is Kobo. You can drag to it Or sometimes it seems to sync and bring them across, although I’ve found this a bit hit and miss. I’ve also gone into the file manager (My Computer if PC) and copied the files across. Make sure you copy the large ePub file and not the small adobe one or you’ll have no content, just the picture of the book.

  24. Celia

    Oh, one word of warning, you won’t see the books on your Kobo until you’ve disconnected it and given it a moment to update itself. It does this after you’ve disconnected and not when you bring over the new books.

  25. Tom

    The prices you quoted for the Kindle are not entirely correct. I recently purchased a Kindle Wi-Fi 3 G from Amazon (US). I paid US$ 189.00 (NZ$ 275.00 incl shipping cost) The price for the Wi-Fi version is US 139.00. initially I bought the Wi-Fi version, but had to return it because although it worked fine at a hotspot, it was not compatable with my router. The 3G (not availbale in NZ)works from cellphone towers and is ideal when travelling around a lot. So in fact the Kindle turns out to be a lot cheaper than its competitors.

  26. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Thanks for this update, Tom. The Kindle price was correct when the review was written more than a year ago but the market has moved. You’re right that, at its current pricing, the Kindle is very competitive.

  27. Jason

    Hi Martin, Tom,

    just a point about the Kindle 3G. It is actually available for NZ. I brought my wife one about 7 months ago (3G version) and have used it successfully quite often.

  28. Martin Taylor (Post author)

    Thanks for this correction, Jason. It’s definitely worth paying the extra for the 3G if your budget allows.

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