Rakuten Kobo Touch – E-Book Reader Hands-On Review

Rakuten “Kobo Touch”

In the worldwide e-book reader market, Amazon has been the biggest player with its killer product Kindle shutting out its rivals’ attempt to take a big bite of the pie. However, the tech giant is still seemingly taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the Japanese market. Why? Nobody has ever made a huge success to help mature the market. Sony’s Sony Reader, Toshiba’s BookPlace, Sharp’s GALAPAGOS… you would hardly ever see people carrying around such reading devices.

Now, we have another challenger here; Rakuten, one of the pioneering e-commerce companies in Japan, who had bought a Canadian e-book company Kobo, released its first e-book reader Kobo Touch on 19 July, 2012. In this article we will give you a hands-on review on this reader. It will be up to you to decide after reading this whether Kobo Touch can really be a game-changing product to popularise e-reading culture in Japan. Hopefully this article will also be of help for Amazon for its next move. Anyway, here we go.

Ordering a Kobo Touch

We ordered Kobo Touch via Rakuten’s online shopping site. The offered price was 7,980 yen (approx. 101.6 US dollars) including tax with no shipping cost. You will apparently get 2,000 points (equivalent to 2,000 yen or approx. 25.8 US dollars) that you can use for another purchase at a Rakuten shop. Kobo has a range of colour choices: blue, lilac, silver, black. We chose lilac. We actually didn’t know much about the colour and expected something darker like navy blue. So we asked for a change of our order, but it had already been shipped out. Never mind. We are happy with this girly looking lilac version.

First Impression

Like other bloggers have commented, the box was a little too tight to open at first, but it will not count as negative much since you don’t bring the box with you once you opened it. About the size of a male adult’s palm, the device fits comfortably in my hands. It is light (185g) enough to hold with both hands, though you may sometimes have to switch hands if you want to keep holding it with one hand.

There has been criticism over the activation glitches of Kobo Touch, and tough-talking Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten, has got a bad press. However, we had no trouble setting up. As the CEO commented, the updated software has solved the problem, we believe. Something we have to mention for the activation is first you need to install Kobo Desktop App on your PC and connect Kobo Touch to it via USB. You also have to input your Rakuten membership info when you go through the instructions.

Kobo Touch comes with a manual called Welcome Guide, which welcomes you with incredible terseness. Basically it only gives you a 3-step instruction on the setup as well as the URL of the company’s helpdesk. So as they say, ask and it shall be given you.

Manual “Welcome Guide”

But before making a pious appeal, you should definitely try “Quick Tour”, which illustrates how to manipulate the device. We do not find ourselves tech-illiterate, but the reader was hard to use for us at first because its interface is not quite intuitive like iPhone. So we would recommend, once you get lost, you take this tour on the device rather than checking out the unreliable manual. If you cannot find it, from the Home page select Library > Books to locate “Quick Tour” book.

“Quick Tour” (on the left)

Pros and cons

We have been using Kobo Touch for hours and noticed it is easy on the eyes. It also offers great visibility from almost any angle. These visibility advantages boost users’ e-book experience to some extent. But we have found at least two critical problems with the device.

First, touch response. Slow and bad. Did we expect too much from e-book readers? Some basic actions such as flipping through pages and choosing a book work fine most of the time, yet slow from time to time. On the other hand, the touch response of small sections is really disappointing. For example, when you touch the word to look up in a Japanese e-book, chance are Kobo shows you the meanings of the wrong word. It would embarrass you and make you feel your fingers are too big to use Kobo. Rakuten should work on the problem to encourage people like you, who may be learning Japanese and try books written in the language. By the way, we had little trouble with English novels when looking up words as each word is separated.

An example of hitting the wrong word to know something new thanks to Kobo

The second is characters in Japanese e-books get weird. How weird? The images below show how the characters are displayed in different language settings between Japanese and English.

Comparison of display depending on the language setting – Japanese (left), English (right)

When you configure the language setting to English, Kobo displays each character (including furigana, the reading of Chinese characters) evenly smaller, leaving a unnecessarily wide gap between lines. This will make it harder for you (and probably us Japanese, too) to enjoy reading. Sliding the Font Size knob to the right does not make the font bigger but widen the gap between lines.

Parameter “Font size” only changes the gap width between lines

We tried to figure out a solution by tweaking other settings but nothing worked out, and we ended up sticking a stretched staple into the hole on the back to take the last resort – reset.

Hole in the back of Kobo for reset

To read Japanese e-books, keep the language setting to Japanese. If you have changed it to Japanese, don’t forget to restart to allow the change to take effect. We have experienced even this measure does not work. In this case, you may have no option but reset like we did.

So are we gonna recommend Kobo Touch to you?

It would depend on how thick your wallet may be, but seriously, you may want to wait for the distributor to come up with modifications the problems mentioned above. As of July end 2012, Rakuten Kobo’s e-book store boasts approximately 2.6 million books while Japanese books accounts for only a small proportion, 23,000, according to Nikkei.com (Japanese text only). The company, however, is now rapidly increasing the number, which the Rakuten CEO says is expected to reach as many as 60,000 at the end of August 2012. If you are keen on reading e-books written in Japanese and trust what he says, you might give it a shot and get a Kobo.

Otherwise, why don’t you wait for Amazon to release their Kindle in Japan? Some may suspect Amazon is seeing Rakuten’s Kobo Touch project just as a stepping stone for their own success in dominating the Japanese e-book reader market. Whether that’s the case or not, it would be safe to say that Amazon is coming sooner or later and Rakuten is making a big stir in the market.