Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo e-reader lines

September 15, 2012 Uncategorized 0

Kobo has joined the big players in more ways than one.  In addition to being (apparently) the third main competitor to Amazon in ebook sales (behind Barnes & Noble and Apple), Kobo will now offer a whole family of e-reader devices, according to a September 6 announcement.

Kobo already had an E-Ink touchscreen WiFi device and a 7″ Android tablet (the Kobo Touch and the Kobo Vox, respectively.)  This fall, they are adding to and revising their lineup to include a 5″ version of the Touch (the Kobo Mini), a frontlit 6″ version (Kobo Glo), and a new 7″ Android tablet which will replace the Vox (Kobo Arc).  The new devices are competitively priced, too: the Mini will be $79.99, the Touch is $99.99, the Glo will be $129.99, and the Arc will be $199.99. 

Amazon announced several new devices on the same day: the Kindle Paperwhite, a front-lit, brighter-white E-ink touchscreen reader in regular and 3G flavors ($119 / $179), the Kindle Fire HD, a 7″ tablet with higher resolution than the original Fire ($199 for 16GB, $249 for 32GB; available now), as well as an 8.9″ Kindle Fire HD, with and without 4G (without 4G: 16GB $299 / 32GB $369; with 4G: 32GB $499 64GB $599; available in November). The original Kindle Fire has dropped to $159.

It’s notable that while Amazon’s Kindle line, Barnes & Noble’s Nook line, and Kobo’s line all have multiple devices, Sony has pared its Reader line down to a single device, the E-ink touchscreen Sony Reader ($129).   I suspect that Sony’s reduction of its line signals a possible future withdrawal from the ebook market, or at least an acknowledgement that it can’t compete with Amazon.  This makes me somewhat sad; my own e-reader is a Sony (the PRS-505, no longer in production), and I’m rather fond of it, not least because of its durability.  (It does, however, weigh a ton in comparison to a Kindle or a Kobo Touch.)

Relative newcomer Kobo, on the other hand, appears ready and eager to swim with the big boys.  I’ll be interested to see the tech reviews, once their new devices are available.  (According to the press release, the Mini and Glo are scheduled for release on Oct. 1; the Arc is coming sometime in November, in time for Christmas. The website, however, merely states “coming soon” for all three new devices.) 

Obviously, I’m not a tech person, and I have no idea how these devices stack up against one another in terms of quality and durability.  But here’s my take on how they stack up in terms of similarity to one another:

Small e-reader: No-one but Kobo is offering a dedicated E-Ink device as small as the Kobo Mini.  (Kindle’s most basic model has a 6″ screen, although Amazon does claim it will fit in a pocket.)   The Mini is essentially the same as the Kobo Touch with a smaller screen; it has WiFi and a touchscreen.  At $79.99, it will also be the lowest-priced e-reader without “special offers” (otherwise known as ads.)  The Mini’s 5″ screen may be a trifle small, particularly for older readers who may prefer larger fonts, but it fits a niche market no one else is filling: a pocket-sized E-Ink e-reader.  (Currently, readers interested in a small device have to read on their smartphones.)

Basic E-ink reader: The Kobo Touch and B&N Simple Touch are fairly well matched. They both have 6″ E-Ink touchscreens and WiFi, and each is priced at $99.99; Kobo also has a version with “special offers” for $79.99.  Their Amazon competitor is clearly the plain-jane Kindle, with similar features. The Kindle  is $69 with special offers and $89 without, so with or without ads, the Kindle is priced $10 lower than the other two.  That plus Amazon’s huge ebook catalog make the Kindle a strong contender, though some consumers will continue to prefer ePub devices, either because they already have an ePub collection, or because they are leery of Amazon’s domination of the market.  (Note: It is possible to convert an ePub book to Kindle format – and vice versa – using Calibre, as long as the book file doesn’t carry DRM.)

Front-lit E-ink reader: The Kindle Paperwhite is Amazon’s answer to the B&N Simple Touch with GlowLight; for once B&N got there first.  Kobo’s version is the Kobo Glo.  All of these are essentially the “basic” model with the addition of front-lighting.  Looking at the descriptions and specs, all three devices look fairly similar to me.  The Kindle Paper is $119 with ads, $139 without, and $179 / 199 if you want 3G. The Nook version is $139 (WiFi is the only option, as it is with the Glo.)  The Glo is $129.99.  Once the Kobo Glo is released in October, we may see Amazon and Kindle drop the price on their front-lit machines to match.  Note: there have been some complaints that the front-lit screens are not as durable as regular E-ink screens, and that scratches can render the page unreadable when the front-light is on.  I’ll leave that to the tech reviewers to sort out, but if you’re concerned about durability, you may prefer to stick with the basic models for now, and use an exterior light for reading at night.

Color e-reader: B&N is the only one of the three with a color e-reader that isn’t also a tablet, but its days are numbered.  The Nook Color now sells for $149, and I fully expect B&N to discontinue the device once supplies run out.  It simply can’t compete; if you’re going to spend that much money, you might as well spend a little more and get a decent tablet with more capability.

Tablet: All three companies will now have a 7″ tablet, all of them Android devices (of a sort).  Amazon got there first with the Kindle Fire (using a proprietary version of Android); B&N unveiled their Nook Tablet not long afterward, and Kobo has the Vox, soon to be replaced by the Kobo Arc. (Note: as of Sept. 15, the Vox is no longer listed in Kobo’s lineup.)  Amazon has upped the ante with the new Kindle Fire HD, particularly in the 8.9″ version, since the only other large “reader” tablet out there is Apple’s iPad.  It’s pretty clear that Amazon intends to dominate the non-Apple reader-tablet market.  With a wider (and sexier) range of devices as well as Amazon’s cloud storage and huge collection of movies as well as books, Amazon clearly has the edge in this field.

UPDATE: It appears that the Kindle Fire devices will carry ads, with no way for users to opt out, according to an article at Ars Technica.

UPDATE 2: AndroidAuthority has a nice comparison of the updated Kindle Fire and the Kobo Arc. 

Bottom line?  The increased competition is good for readers.  We’re seeing better pricing, more diversity, and decent competition for Amazon, all of which are positives in my book.  I’m particularly pleased to see Kobo competing at this level, since they make a point of using “standard” Adobe Digital Editions DRM rather than a proprietary DRM like Amazon’s or Barnes & Noble’s.  I’m also relieved to see this much competition and device diversity. I’m still not sure what device I will choose when my current Sony Reader dies, but at least now I will have real, viable choices. 

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