Kobo Forma full review

Last year we reviewed Kobo's Aura One eReader and concluded that the hardware was great but expensive, and let down by a lack of curation on the Kobo book store. How have things changed in the past year?

In our Kobo Forma review we evaluate the company's latest eReader for design, features, specs and ease of use, and try to decide if Kobo has a chance against the Amazon juggernaut - which has form when it comes to crushing smaller rivals. For broader advice, take a look at our Best eReaders chart.

Kobo Forma: Price & Where to Buy

The Forma costs £239.99 in the UK and $279.99 in the States. That's rather a lot but bear in mind that this is a premium eReader, and the comparison point, given the quality of the specs and design, should be the Kindle Oasis rather than the bog-standard Kindles. And the Oasis costs just £10/$10 less.

Note that the above price tags apply to the 8GB model. If you need 32GB, that will cost more when it eventually launches here: Kobo has only announced that the higher-storage unit will be released in Japan today (23 Oct), and other countries later. We imagine there's more appetite for this in Japan because of the prevalence of manga, since 8GB is enough for 6,000 standard eBooks.

Kobo Forma: Design & Build

The Forma is almost square: a roughly book-shaped 8in screen, with a nice chunky grip grafted on to one side. (You can hold the device with the grip on left or right and it will auto-rotate, and swap the function of the buttons, to compensate.) The grip is angled upwards so it's easy to pick the thing up.

Kobo Forma review: Design

Aside from the back and forward rocker switch on the grip, there's a power button next to the micro USB charging port. This button can be pressed once to put the Forma to sleep (or wake it up), or pressed and held to do a full power off, but we occasionally found ourselves doing one when we meant to do the other.

As seems to be standard among even quite premium eReaders, the materials do not imply luxury - they suggest the device won't be hurt if you drop it, which is actually quite reassuring. We're talking matt charcoal plastic (or rubberised plastic), with glossier black around the edge of the screen, and an aesthetic that says function more than form. It would be nice to have alternative colour options, though.

The design on the back of the reader, while still relatively cheap-looking, deserves extra credit. The mixture of small and large indentations feels nice, not to mention secure in the hand, and is quite pleasing to the eye too.

Kobo Forma review: Rear

We love the lightness of the Forma, which is 30g lighter than the Aura One despite having a slightly larger screen, and roughly the same weight as the current Kindle Oasis which has only a 7in screen. It's easy to hold in one hand.

Finally, the Forma retains the IPX8 water resistance of the Aura One last year (and which Amazon promptly matched with its now appropriately named Oasis). That means it will survive submersion in fresh water at 2m depth for up to 60 minutes, and if you can't fish it out of the swimming pool in that time you frankly don't deserve to have nice things.

Kobo Forma review: Edge view

Big-screen hero

The Forma's crowning glory is its mono E Ink 8in display, which is bigger than that of any current Kindle (the standard and Paperwhite models are 6in, while the Oasis is 7in) and even fractionally bigger than the iPad mini 4. It's sharp, too, at 1440 × 1920 and 300ppi, although 300ppi is now standard among premium and even mid-market eReaders.

The screen is front-lit by a battery of white and red LEDs, which means you can adjust the colour temperature to suit your mood or the time of day, and hopefully improve your sleep patterns by cutting blue light in the evening. We left it to adjust automatically and found it relaxing to use.

It's also a touchscreen, and quite a sluggish one at that: those who aren't used to devices of this sort may be frustrated, finding that they've tapped a second menu option before the device responds to the first. But this too is quite standard for E Ink displays and remember that 99 percent of the time you won't be using it as a touchscreen.

Kobo Forma review: Design

Using the Kobo Forma

As you would hope, the Forma is simple to use. Select something to read from the My Books menu, then navigate by either tapping on the left or right side of the screen, or using the top (back) and bottom (forward) buttons on the grip. Tap the central third of the screen to bring up menu options, including brightness, text size, and chapter quick jumps.

There's a good range of text customisation options: 10 fonts, and the ability to fine-tune text size, margin size and line spacing to an enormously granular degree.

We mentioned earlier that rotating the device automatically rotates the screen, but we have a slight reservation on that count. It can be used in either portrait or landscape orientation (the latter designed to have the grip at the bottom), and there's an option to 'lock' this. But locked mode, while preventing portrait mode from switching 90 degrees to landscape, still allows the device to rotate the full 180 degrees, and it's so sensitive that it often flips upside-down when you put the device down on the table.

Kobo Forma review: Landscape mode

Now, we can see why the makers wanted to allow users to switch from left- to righthand use very easily, even if landscape mode was not wanted. We habitually swap hands, and after prolonged use would probably choose to keep things this way even if another option was presented. But we suspect that at least some users will find the hair-trigger auto-rotation annoying, and would appreciate a third setting for total lock in a single orientation.

By default, the Kobo uses the cover of your current book as the screensaver - indeed there aren't any alternatives, so if you disable this option you just get a blank screen with 'Sleeping' or 'Power off' at the bottom. Some may find the latter limitation annoying, but we love the default setting.

On multiple occasions eBook-using friends have sheepishly admitted to us that they don't actually know what they are currently reading because they never get to see the cover, as they would with a physical book. It's nice to have a small extra link with the book, and it makes you feel more immersed. Of course, if you're reading something embarrassing you may not share our view.

Finding something to read

Kobo fell down in our review last year when we pronounced the dreaded word 'content'. The Kobo store simply wasn't as well curated as Amazon's Kindle store: a little searching suggested it had as many or almost as many books on offer, and big titles launched there at roughly the same time, but it was much harder to browse. Little thought had gone into the store's user experience and, disconcertingly, a couple of cheaply made soft-porn titles appeared on the front page of the Short Stories section.

Kobo Forma review: eBook store

Things seem to have improved, at least a little, but the issues haven't been entirely solved. The store is more attractive than before and we found it easier to find decent stuff, although it's still less helpful than the Kindle store.

We again checked Short Stories, and funnily enough happened across another suggestive offering at the bottom of the front page, this time called Eat Me For Lunch ("the steamy story of an attractive young nurse who is starved for sex...").

Inoffensive stuff, and probably just bad (or good) luck, but also a hint that Kobo does not curate the front pages of its categories and leaves them to sales algorithm or simple recentness. Books - a market with absurd oversupply and deeply subjective tastes - cry out for human or personal-data-driven guidance.

Of course Amazon benefits from its ubiquity and sheer size, since a lot of potential users will have bought something from it before. This means data, and data means user-targeted recommendations. Very few of us will receive astute recommendations when we first visit the Kobo store.

Free eBooks

A quick word on the subject of free books. One of the appeals of eReaders for fuddy-duddies like this reviewer (bah, it's not the same as an actual book, etc) is the wide availability on sites such as Project Gutenberg of free ePub copies of out-of-copyright classics, but Kindles - for obvious reasons - do not make it easy for you to side-load such titles on to your device. Kindles do not currently support the ePub format, so you've got to convert them first.

The Kobo Forma, however, does support ePub, and side-loading them is a breeze: connect it to your computer (we used a Mac) using the supplied cable and it will appear like a USB drive. Drag-and-drop the ePub into the folder and it will be readable the next time you turn the Forma on.

Of course, both the Kobo and Kindle stores offer free books of their own. Kobo, in fact, has a dedicated freebie page, which offers various genres of free titles by (unknown, at least to us) modern authors on top of the expected classics section.

On Kindle the best options we've found are the best-selling free eBooks page, which doesn't give you any genre filtering, or simply searching for "free ebooks", which leads to a decent selection of classics but very few modern books. Searching for "free classics" may produce slightly better results, in fact, and this tip applies to the Kobo store too.

Borrowing books from a library

One last source of free eBooks is your local library, thanks to support for the OverDrive lending system. (OverDrive and Kobo are subsidiaries of the same company, so this is unsurprising.)

OverDrive is a nice idea - allowing you to browse a library's eBooks, download the ones you like then have them expire in two weeks - but we found it dispiriting. Searches for John Dickson Carr, William Gibson, Connie Willis, Ernest Bramah and Patrick Hamilton brought up not a single book, and these aren't niche writers.

Clearly this isn't the fault of (in our case) Barnet's underfunded public libraries, which barely have enough money to pay for their own buildings. But it's frustrating that this feature, which has obvious potential and presents such low costs to publishers, is so unfulfilling.

Verdict

With Amazon seemingly taking over every industry on earth, it's hard to imagine the company getting beaten in the eBooks market - its home territory. Kindles have overwhelming mindshare, and their tidy hardware has a juggernaut of curated content and data-driven personal recommendations to back it up.

So we're not going to inch too far out on that particular limb and predict that the Kobo Forma is the Kindle killer we've all been waiting for, because that legendary product probably doesn't exist. But this is a very creditable attempt, albeit a steeply priced one, and we've loved our time reviewing it.

The screen is big and the handle nice and chunky, yet the overall device is slim and light. It has a simple look, but quite a pleasant one nonetheless, and the texture on the back makes it less likely that you'll drop it. Even if you do drop it, the Forma feels robust and has excellent water resistance.

You can use it left- or right-handed with ease, or even in landscape orientation if you prefer, and we even love the device's default use of your book's cover as the screensaver. This is one of those simple, great ideas which seems obvious but apparently isn't.

And what of the content situation? The Kobo store still isn't as user-friendly as the Kindle one, mainly because it doesn't have the weight of user data to offer really perceptive recommendations but also because less work has been put into curating what's there. But we like the dedicated free-book page, and the device is far more accommodating than the Kindles at letting you side-load books you've got from Project Gutenberg or elsewhere.

Specs

Kobo Forma: Specs

  • 8GB storage (32GB option will be available later at a higher price)
  • 8in (1440 × 1920 at 300ppi) E Ink screen
  • 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
  • Micro USB
  • IPX8 water-resistant
  • 1200mAh battery
  • File formats supported: EPUB, EPUB3, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, TIFF, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ, CBR
  • 177.7 x 160 x 4.2-8.5mm (thin edge/gripping edge)
  • 197g