Josh

I'm a developer in Melbourne, Australia, and co-founder of Hello Code.

Published Mon 16 December 2019

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Switching from Kindle to Kobo

I ditched physical books many years ago, and had until recently been happily reading on a first-gen Kindle Paperwhite. I loved the backlight and found the overall reading experience pretty good, but recently I'd become more determined to quit the Amazon ecosystem.

Amazon is increasingly becoming a monopoly in the online retail space, and particularly with books, uses strong-arm behaviour against publishers to keep them from setting their own prices. (It seems like publishers are used to having their own absolute control over the market, however, so I'm not entirely sure who to side with in this case.) The US government is currently investigating Amazon in an antitrust case about preferencing its own products within its marketplace, but regardless, every day its power grows. Monopolies make me very nervous, so I wanted to support competition against this kind of behaviour.

A year ago I decided to make the change, and moved from my Kindle Paperwhite to a Kobo Forma. I haven't looked back. If you're curious about moving, I've collected my impressions on the Kobo ecosystem and how it compares.

Bringing your books

Copyright, EULAs, and DRM being what they are, you can't bring your books with you — at least not formally. As Kindle e-books are DRMed, you don't really "own" them like a physical book, and you're restricted in what Amazon will let you do with them. So it's not as easy as an automatic export. Fortunately, though, there are tools to allow you to liberate your books of DRM, allowing them to be read on other devices. The most popular software to do this is Calibre, which makes it fairly easy to take Kindle books and create Kobo (or other) variants. You will need to jump through some initial hoops to get things set up so Calibre can decrypt the books, but once this is done, the conversion process is easy. Kobo devices allow plugging into a computer and copying books onto their hard drive, so it's easy to move the converted books onto the device at the end too.

There's also no easy way to export your Amazon wishlist to Kobo, so the only answer I found was to manually recreate my wishlist.

The ecosystem

In the Kobo ecosystem, things work broadly the same as Kindle. There are mobile apps, a store website, and physical readers at different price points that broadly match what Amazon sells. Nothing is so different as to be bewildering.

Anecdotally, it feels like Amazon has a wider range of titles than Kobo, but I'm sure this depends on the region you're in. I'm in Australia, so your mileage may vary. Out of a Goodreads wishlist of about 500 books, I had about 20 that I couldn't find on the Kobo store, and perhaps slightly fewer than that on Amazon, so the numbers are still pretty small. I've been told the disparity is more noticeable when it comes to non-fiction books, but haven't verified this myself.

Book pricing is pretty similar. The vast majority of the books in my wishlist sit within AU \$9.99-12.99, which is about the same on Amazon. The main difference is that Amazon regularly offers steep discounts on books, and Kobo does not. I've actually built a third-party client app to be able to order books by price, as Kobo doesn't offer any wishlist sorting themselves, and from my use I've noticed around one book a month drops below \$9.99, at most. On Kobo, sales just don't seem to be a thing.

Kobo's mobile app experience is fairly sub-par. I haven't been desperate enough to read a book with their mobile reader yet, which has pretty bad performance and limited customisation options. To be fair, I didn't love the Kindle app either, but this is markedly worse.

The app's wishlist and store sections work adequately and appear to just be wrappers around the website. Like Kindle, you can't buy books on the iOS app, but you can on Android, and both apps support downloading and reading book samples. Anecdotally, samples on Kobo seem longer than Kindle samples, and I've run into the problem of "the sample ran out before I even finished the introduction!" far less often on Kobo.

Kobo offers gift card/credit functionality similar to Amazon's, but less nuanced. Physical gift cards can only be redeemed upon purchase of something else, so you can't "load up" your account with credit until you're ready to buy something. Fortunately, the "e-gift card" version does get applied immediately. There doesn't seem to be any way to add credit to your own account without buying it for yourself as a gift, though. Which is sort of accurate, I guess.

Kobo also offers "super points" that accrue with each book purchase. The premise is that these points double as credit and eventually can be exchanged for a book of equal value. However, one point is worth a tenth of a cent, and buying a book worth $9.99 yields 90 points. At this rate, earning roughly 9 cents back with each book purchase, I could get a ten-dollar book for free after buying another 110 books. Whoopee. (I currently have a balance of 1955 points, and when clicking "See what you can get with these points today", I am greeted with the helpful message, Sorry! Your search for “” did not return any results. Rude.)

One benefit of the Kobo ecosystem is its integration with Overdrive, an e-book lending system to which libraries often offer membership. There are mobile apps for Overdrive, as well as direct Kobo hardware integration, so once you've authenticated yourself with your library card, you can browse what's available to borrow, place a hold on an unavailable book, or borrow it outright. Borrows last for two weeks (at least via my local library) and can be extended unless someone else has a hold on the book. One nice touch is that, on Kobo devices, any books in your wishlist that are available at your library will tell you so, letting you borrow them in place of buying.

Initially I was excited to read some books for free, but my local library just didn't deliver. Library catalogues will vary wildly but mine has very little, mostly children's books, cookbooks, self-help, and big mainstream hits — i.e. nothing I wanted to read. I definitely wouldn't recommend switching to Kobo just to take advantage of free books. Fortunately, you can browse a library's full e-book catalogue without being a member, so it's easy to check in advance if your library is any better off than mine.

In terms of support, things are good and bad. I cannot compare with Amazon as I never had cause to contact support, but recently I've contacted Kobo support twice about two different issues with my e-book reader. There's no email support, and the phone number is located in the US, so I used the only other option, online chat. Both my experiences were tediously, frustratingly slow — perhaps each rep is talking to a dozen people at once — but the first rep resolved my issue politely and clearly, and the other... didn't. This is probably par for the course for any chat support experience these days.

The hardware

I own a Kobo Forma, which is a high-end reader comparable to the Kindle Oasis. I bought Belle a Kobo Clara, which is a Kindle Paperwhite competitor, so I can speak to the hardware reading experience in general as well as the Forma specifically.

Kobo Forma

Kobo forma

The Forma is a lovely device. Its light weight and flush screen, rather than the typical inlaid screen with protruding bezels, feels very premium. The screen's high resolution makes text feel very crisp, and although the backlight isn't entirely consistent in brightness from edge to edge, it's a definite step up from my old Paperwhite. The backlight includes red LEDs, meaning the colour can shift from pure white to a warm yellow based on your choice of bedtime — the closer to your bedtime, the warmer the backlight colour. As a "f.lux" fan from way back (the software that ushered in a generation of "night light" and "blue light filter" modes across every OS), I love this. The screen's response rate is also a step up, and while it's still won't turn pages or react to a tap immediately, it's markedly better than my old Paperwhite.

The asymmetrical shape of the Forma, however, really took some getting used to for me. The weight is concentrated in the side "grip", making it uncomfortable to hold except in a few particular positions, which I eventually accustomed myself to using. The device includes an orientation sensor, meaning you can hold it in portrait or landscape mode, and either way up. In theory this is a thoughtful touch, but in practice it's a pain. Reading in landscape mode is far too wide for me (and even in portrait mode I've set quite wide margins, to account for how wide the screen is), so I keep my Forma locked to portrait mode. However, "portrait lock" actually means "portrait, but either way up". Couple this with a high sensitivity, and you run into issues like: most times when you put the device down on a flat surface, it'll flip to the other way up; most times when you pick it up and turn it on, it'll first appear upside down, then adjust a second later; reading in a position where the orientation is ambiguous, for example lying on your side in bed, means it might flip occasionally. (Perhaps the designers intended this because they thought you'd flip the device when you switched hands, so the grip side is always in the hand you're using, but I've ended up keeping the grip on the right, even in my left hand.) It's not a terrible situation, but 100% of my problems could be solved if they let me lock the screen to one particular way up.

In terms of buttons, I quite like having the option of physical buttons for previous and next page, and it's a nice touch that they work outside of the book-reading interface too (for example, paging through your wishlist, or a settings screen). The power button, however, lacks a satisfying "click" that initially made me second-guess whether I'd successfully turned the device off.

Battery life is probably the biggest downside of the Forma's slim profile. Anecdotally I'd say I get about 8-10 hours of reading out of a full charge, with backlight set to around 30-40%, which equates to about 8-12 days real time for me. This is noticeably shorter than my old Paperwhite, maybe even half as much. It's still long enough to not be a bother, though.

At the end of the day, despite the niggles I've outlined here, I still love the Forma and would happily recommend one if the price point works for you.

Kobo hardware in general

Regardless of what Kobo hardware you buy, there are a few niceties that I appreciate. The first is that you can use your own custom fonts by copying them onto the device from a computer. The included fonts are perfectly fine, but sometimes a book just "feels better" in a more fitting font, you know? Having trialled dozens of fonts, I'm now quite fond of reading with Caslon or Garamond (for serious books) or Source Serif Pro (for lighter books). The beauty of this approach is that the device will remember custom fonts and line spacing per book, so you can mix and match. I really enjoy being able to do this.

Speaking of copying via USB, as mentioned earlier you can copy your own .epub books onto a device and have them automatically indexed and readable. If you're bringing your DRM-removed books from another ecosystem, this is very handy. Kobo have recently added a Dropbox integration, which I assume would allow the same benefits, but I haven't tried it. I've been told the Pocket integration for reading articles also works quite nicely too.

In terms of highlighting passages, I find Kobo's implementation inferior. It doesn't snap to punctuation, so I cannot count the number of times I've had to drag the cursor back and forth to try and include the final full stop or closing quotation mark. Highlighting across pages also requires some particular trick that I cannot execute reliably. Highlighted passages also do not seem to be synced anywhere, which is nice for privacy, I guess, but means there's no easy way to get them off the device.

Software updates happen regularly, around once every two months, and have so far provided a nice new UI and some extra customisation options. The previous update introduced a few bugs with reading stats and battery life, which was frustrating (and the reason for my chats with support), but at least the most recent update fixed them.

You should switch

Overall the reading experience is quite nice and on par with the Kindle. The ecosystem is good enough and the hardware similar in quality. If you're looking to ditch Amazon and encourage a bit of competition in the e-book market, I'd heartily recommend a Kobo device.

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