The Kobo Arc is an Android tablet with a 7-inch, 1280x800pixel IPS LCD screen, coming from e-book and e-reader e-retailer Kobo. It’s a huge upgrade from the mediocre Vox tablet, with much more up-to-date hardware, software, and a well-implemented multimedia-centric interface. See Group test: What's the best tablet PC?
Kobo Arc: Design and specifications
The Kobo Arc largely mirrors Kobo’s existing e-readers in its design. Like the Kobo Glo, the Arc has a removable soft-touch plastic rear cover that’s adorned with the Kobo open-book logo and cut with a pleasing quilted pattern. It’s comfortable to hold, and easier to grip than a sheer glass-backed device of the same size.
On specifications alone, the Kobo Arc is quite thick — it’s 11.5mm from front to back — but this doesn’t take into account the smooth curve of the rear cover. In our testing, we never thought “well, this is just too thick” — it’s definitely thicker than an iPad mini (7.2mm) and marginally thicker than a Nexus 7 (10.45mm), but it’s not even slightly a problem in the real world. See also Group test: what's the best cheap tablet PC?
The slightly-raised, soft-touch plastic bezel that surrounds the Arc’s 7-inch screen, again, is thicker than on the iPad, but slightly thinner than the Nexus 7. There’s a front-facing 1.3-megapixel (720p capable) camera up top, and two front-facing stereo speakers down the bottom. A power/lock button and notification light are on the top panel, and a headphone jack and volume control are on the right (when holding the tablet in portrait).
We think the Arc’s speakers are worth a special mention — all too often on smartphones and tablets, speakers face away from the viewer, meaning higher volumes are needed and audio is hard to hear. Having them forward-facing is a huge boon for video viewing, slightly less so for music, and it means that if you’re not going to be using headphones, the Arc has that significant advantage over the Nexus 7 or iPad mini.
Under the hood, the Kobo Arc has a 1.5GHz dual-core TI OMAP 4470 processor, paired with 1GB of RAM. It’s available in 16GB, 32GB and 64GB storage capacities. It’s got a battery life rated at a full 10 hours, with over 2 weeks of claimed low-power standby. These figures are largely in line with the Nexus 4, which has a slightly less powerful, but slightly more versatile 1.3.Ghz quad-core NVidia Tegra 3 processor and 8 hours of battery life.
The biggest difference in practical use is that the Kobo Arc runs a slightly modified, but still fully-functional, version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, while the Google Nexus 7 runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean. The Kobo Arc has a 4.1 Jelly Bean update in the works, but it’ll perpetually be one step behind the vanilla Nexus tablet in the operating system stakes.
Kobo Arc: Performance and real-world usage
The biggest impact of Ice Cream Sandwich on the Kobo Arc is that when you’re using it day-to-day, switching apps, browsing Web pages and flicking through Twitter streams, the Arc’s interface feels slightly slow to respond. It occasionally stutters through an otherwise smooth scroll, or takes a second to display a menu which is otherwise instant on a Jelly Bean tablet.
This is something that will be addressed within months as the Arc’s Jelly Bean update is released, but until then, this is a tablet that generally feels responsive, but is undoubtedly inferior in this regard to its closest competitor.
The Kobo Arc displays Web pages mostly accurately, in both the stock Browser and Chrome browser apps.
The screen of the Kobo Arc is excellent. It’s got good viewing angles, a high maximum brightness, and at 1280x800pixels in a 7-inch size it’s more than detailed enough to flatter the interface and make the edges of small fonts appreciably smooth. It is slightly too glossy to be easy to use out in bright daylight, but that’s true of any display that’s not e-Ink. Our streaming videos off Netflix and YouTube were able to show a good amount of detail, as were the 720p and 1080p Blu-ray source video files we trialed.
The interface of the Kobo Arc is tailored towards multimedia consumption, whether it’s a Kobo e-book or e-magazine, video file or stream, or Twitter or Facebook feed. All of this is made more attractive than the stock Android experience through Kobo’s customised Tapestries launcher, which places interactive folders on the grid-layout home screen.
The Tapestries home screen, which is abandoned with one tap to display a vanilla Android app list.
These Tapestries are best explained by looking at the pre-loaded Reading Tapestry, which has standard icon links to the stored book library, the Kobo Store, and so on, but also has widgets that can link directly to categories of the store (Comics and Graphic Novels, and Top 50 were the two pre-loaded on our recently-reset machine). The Reading Time widget is a great examples of Tapestries’ value — it tells you how much you’ve read, how long that’s taken, and how long it’s projected to take you to finish. It’s an effective and engaging achievement system.
The Tapestries interface opened to display the Reading tab, and the Kobo Store app's main menu.
What is for us a definite downside of Tapestries is the Discover bar, which sits at the bottom of the Tapestries home screen, persisting as you move into any of the interactive folders. All the time we were using the Kobo Arc it displayed irrelevant, uninteresting, or poorly structured information — books we didn’t care about, bookmarks we’d already visited, or arcane Web pages which we could not fathom had any connection with browsing history.
It might be a system that refines itself after a few dozen book and magazine purchases, but in our experience it only displayed pulp romance novels, largely-irrelevant websites, and an oddly recurring picture of a killer whale. What’s worse is that it’s impossible to remove — you can alter or restructure your Tapestries tiles, but the Discover bar is there to stay, junking up a fifth of the usable home screen.
The Kobo Store's Reading Life notification screen, and the interface when you're actually reading a book, with the menu system and progress bar temporarily displayed.
Kobo’s bookstore has 3,000,000 books, and around a third of those are entirely free. Zinio is used for magazines, with a solid showing of high-profile local titles like New Scientist, Frankie and so on. Books generally looked slightly more expensive on average than on the Kindle Store — less sales, we’d presume — but in our time with the Kobo Arc we bought two books with email-offer discount codes, lowering the financial outlay significantly.
Kobo Arc: Conclusion
For us, the key selling point of the Kobo Arc is its Tapestries interface and seamless integration with Kobo’s extensive e-book and e-mag store, if you can ignore the Discover bar. It’s a perfectly capable (if sometimes slightly stuttery) Android tablet beyond its e-reading credentials.