Who needs E-Ink? 7” Android 4.0 tablet with a scrapbook-style user interface
Cheaper than rival 7” Android tablets, the Arc is the antithesis of other eReaders by being completely open and able to host any app from Google Play. The source-neutral Tapestries user interface goes beyond bookmarks and turns this tablet into a giant noticeboard, while its ‘web concierge’ feature Discover and support for myriad music file formats also impress. The fast processor adds fluidity to an enjoyable experience.
The internet is a big place, so why limit yourself? Kobo hopes you’ll use its 3.7-million title-strong ebook store, but on this completely open Android experience – albeit with its own GUI added on top – you’re free to download any Google Play app, even the Kindle app. Add a fast processor and an innovative and easily customised skin called Tapestries and this ambitious tablet looks more than merely good value.
Old school design
The build is mostly old school; its 9mm (sides) and 13mm (top)-wide matte black make it look like a first-gen device, though it’s got optional snap-on purple or blue back covers. It’s said to have a tougher screen than other tablets, but we didn’t take a hammer to it to find out.
It’s got WiFi and a micro USB slot for file transfer (though no cable is supplied), while a 1.3 megapixel forward-facing camera makes Skype an option. What the Arc lacks is micro SD card expansion and Bluetooth, so some accessories are off-limits.
Fitted with a 1.5GHz dual core processor and 1GB RAM, the Arc measures 189x120x115mm and weighs 364g. It feels solid, and thick, too. On the right-hand side of the device is a volume rocker and headphones slot, with the on/of switch just around the corner on the top (if you hold it like a book). That’s all fine for reading, but if you put the Arc into landscape mode for watching video, the headphones slot is left in a peculiar place. The micro USB slot is along the bottom, while uniquely for a tablet the speakers fire outwards, not downwards.
Wide viewing angle
Sporting a 1280×800 pixel display that achieves a respectable 216 PPI (pixels per inch), though it’s Kobo’s use of an IPS LCD display that’s most crucial. A tech used in LCD TVs, this display gives a wide viewing angle when watching video, with contrast and colours remaining strong and bold even if you look at the Arc from wildly off-centre. While reading ebooks it’s possible to customise the fonts, spacing and choose a sepia or white text-on-black ‘night’ mode.
Tapestries user interface
Kobo’s new user interface, called Tapestries, is a nice take on organising the disparate sources of entertainment you’re likely to have on a tablet. On the Home page are carousel-style collections entitled Reading, Entertainment and Social, with recently read/watched/viewed books, websites social networking platforms all lined-up and ready for you to finger through and touch to select. Choose Social and the latest Tweet and Facebook status are visible, with a link to Skype, too. Choose Reading and you’re shown your current book (with useful reading time & time remaining statistics), Kobo’s recommendations, and links to both your own library and the Kobo Store.
Any picture, video, book, app (anything from Google Play) or slab of text from the internet can be ‘pinned’ to one of those Tapestries, or one you make and name yourself, to create a completely customised folder. Meanwhile a Discoveries panel shows icons for books, websites and news stories Kobo thinks you’ll like.
Easy to use
In practice we found the Arc mostly a joy to use. That’s largely down to the user interface, though tablet standards like video playback and web browsing and fast and of high quality. Audio quality from those front-facing speakers is better than most, as is file support; in our test we managed to get AVI and MP4 videos to play, but not MKV files. Any EPUB ebook files can be played – which is the Arc’s biggest advantage over a the Kindle Fire – as well as an impressive array of music file formats. As well as MP3, AAC, M4A, WMA, the Arc played and even lossless files like FLAC, OGG and WAV.
Battery, however, is not good. Kobo promises that the Arc will run for 10 hours of continuous reading or video with WiFi off, though why you would turn the WiFi off is beyond us. During our test is lasted for around six hours of web browsing, video and reading. Left on standby it lost around 20% of its battery each day, with an LED on its top flashing when it gets down to 30%. Far from ideal if that happens on a bedside table during the night.
Impressive, open experience
Capable of hosting any other app or game from Google Play, the Arc impresses elsewhere with its unique Tapestries skin within an otherwise open Android experience. A dull design and average battery life ensures that it’s not the last word in tablets, but if you split hairs on specs and performance in the rather standardised world of Android-based tablets and eReaders, the Arc really jumps out – and on more than just its low price. Battery life is very average, and it’s not got a rear-facing camera, Bluetooth, a micro USB cable in the box or a micro SD card expansion slot. With wide file support, a fast processor and a great screen, it’s the Arc GUI’s Tapestries and Discover features that make this a well thought-out and good value attempt at an Android eReader-cum-tablet that makes the walled garden approach of others seem quaint.