Barbara Krasnoff

Kobo tries for the passionate reader

August 28, 2013 11:39 AM EDT

According to Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis, the death of the e-book reader has been greatly exaggerated. In a press event last night, at which he introduced three new Kobo e-reader tablets and a smaller dedicated e-reader, he expressed the opinion that a flood of independent publishers and self-publishing authors has begun a "massive generational change" in the reading habits of the public.

"We're focused on the reader," he insisted, "on that passionate person who loves to read above all else, and we stand for that. What Netflix is to movie lovers, what Starbucks is to coffee lovers, Kobo stands for those who read."

(We can, of course, debate on how real coffee lovers feel about Starbucks. But never mind...)

Interestingly enough, Kobo is not assuming that the way to stay in the market is to necessarily go up against products like the iPad and the Nexus tablets by introducing lower-cost products. It has announced four new products -- a new E-ink reader and three new reading-centric tablets -- at reasonably, but not bargain, prices.

Kobo

At the lower end is the Kobo Aura (left), a follow-up to the $170 Kobo Aura HD, which I reviewed last June. The new $150 Aura, which will ship on September 11, has a 6-in. display with a built-in edge lighting that distributes (from my first impressions) quite evenly over the reading surface. The 5.9-x-4.5-x-0.3-in. Aura weighs a comfortable 6.13 oz. The power and light switches are on the top edge, while ports for a microUSB connection and a microSD card (which can expand the 4GB of storage to up to 32GB) are on the bottom edge.

The other three devices are part of Kobo's new Arc line of Android tablets that have been, according to Kobo, optimized for readers. They are due to ship October 16th.

The Kobo Arch 10HD (second from right) offers a 10-in. 2560 x 1600 display with up to 1080p video, 16GB of storage and a quad-core 1.8GHz Nvidia Tegra processor with 2GB of memory. There is a front-facing 1.3-megapixel camera, dual stereo speakers and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth. Kobo claims up to 9.5 hours of battery life with the Wi-Fi off. It will sell for $400.

The smaller Arc 7HD (right) will come with a 7-in. 1920 x 1200 display, a 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra processor with a rather low 1GB of RAM, a front-facing 1.3mp camera, and the Wi-Fi/Bluetooth; the company claims up to 8 hours of battery life. It will offer either a 16GB version for $200 and a 32GB version for $250.

Finally, in a nod to those who may want a lower-cost device, the Kobo Arc 7 tablet (second from left) will offer 1024 x 700 resolution, 8GB of storage (with a microSD card port for expansion), a front-facing camera, mono speaker, and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth connectivity for $150.

All three of the tablets will run Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) and will offer full access to the Google Play app store. Kobo is also counting on its reader-centric software additions to drive sales, including a bookstore (backed by international vendor Rakuten) and something Kobo is calling "Beyond the Book," which allows readers to easily research topics within the text. There will also be recommendations by authors and "celebrities." And, according to Kobo, there will be a better interface for reading magazines and special accounts for children.

In the United States, at least, this is going to be a hard sell. Besides the fact that Kobo is going up against the Amazon powerhouse, it's going to be difficult to sell people on the concept that buying a Kobo tablet, even with its additional reading features, would be better than buying the latest iPad or Nexus tablets.

I do believe that a dedicated reader such as the Aura could still do well. Just judging by what I see on public transportation and around NYC, there are still many people out there who prefer to do their reading on small, lightweight E-ink devices. How ready these readers would be to upgrade to a new reader -- and how liable to go to a reader that isn't backed by a well-known book vendor such as Amazon -- is another matter, of course.

And the tablets? According to Kobo, there are enough readers internationally to support a company dedicated predominantly to e-readers. It will be interesting to find out how they will do here in the U.S.