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Hands on: Kobo’s Arc10 HD feels underpowered and overpriced

Highs

  • Google-certified experience
  • Nice-looking display
  • Reading Life launch screen looks good (when it isn’t crashing)

Lows

  • Both units felt buggy and experienced app crashes
  • Magazine content was slow to fully load when zooming in on text
Kobo’s Arc 10HD sports a stunning screen and a reader-centric experience that doesn’t lock you out of Google Play. But unless the company can fix the glitches we experienced, it’s tough to recommend.

 Along with its new Aura e-reader, Kobo unveiled three new Arc tablets on Tuesday: the Arc 7, Arc7 HD, and Arc10 HD. All but the Arc 7HD were available to try, so we went hands on with the largest model to see how it performs. We’ll reserve final judgment on these devices until we get review units, but we did walk away from our time with the 10-inch tablet with some strong first impressions.

First off, the Arc 10HD’s screen looked great, thanks to its 2560 x 1600 resolution. That’s higher than the screen on the Retina Display iPad, and on par with the Samsung-made Nexus 10. We weren’t able to test the stereo speakers, though, as the event was very loud.

We like the look of the Reading Life layer that Kobo has added on top of Android.

All the new Arc tablets run on Android 4.2.2, and are Google certified with access to Google Play. But Kobo wants to put reading front-and center. So when you power on an Arc, you’ll be greeted by the company’s Reading Life homescreen—a collection of your recently accessed content that’s laid out in a way that’s more visually appealing (at least to us) than Amazon’s cluttered shelf approach on the Kindle Fire.

If you swipe left, you’ll find the more traditional Android home screen and the aforementioned access to Google Play. Swipe right, and you’re presented with your content organized in collections that look like colorful book bindings on a shelf. By default, there are collections for books, magazines, and articles snipped from the Web via Pocket. But you can create your own collections and name them whatever you like.

We like the look of the Reading Life layer that Kobo has added on top of Android. It’s simple but pretty, and best of all, you can always jump back to the more familiar Android experience with a quick swipe on the home screen.

Kobo-Arc10-HD-screen-store

The problem, at least with the units on display at the Kobo event, is that the Android launcher that the company created to display the Kobo Life content seems to be pretty unstable. Within a couple minutes of swiping and tapping around both Arc 10HD tablets, the app crashed, kicking up a message telling us the launcher had stopped responding.

We hope Kobo can fix this stability issue before the Arc 10HD goes on sale in mid-October.

But that wasn’t the only performance issue we saw. The company is making a big push for more and better magazine content around the launch of these new tablets, with magazines available from big-name players like Conde Nast and Hearst.

Kobo says when Reading Mode is enabled, battery life goes from a standard-mode 9.5 hours to “more than 10 days.”

They’re also introducing a guided reading mode for magazine articles, with the aim of cutting down on all the pinching and swiping that’s normally a necessity when reading digital magazine content.

But, when we launched an issue of Popular Science on the Arc 10HD and tried to test out the feature, what jumped out at us most was how slow the page was to fully load. When we zoomed in, text initially looked very fuzzy. Then over a period of a couple seconds, the text would eventually become crisp as the tablet loaded a higher-resolution version of the page.

To be fair, this happens with other tablets as well. But the process was much slower on the Arc 10HD than on Google’s new Nexus 7 using the Zinio magazine app. It’s usually barely noticeable because it happens so fast on the Nexus 7. On the Arc 10HD, you could actually see small areas of the screen load, as the text went from fuzzy to crisp, in a left-to-right fashion, sprinting across the page.

Kobo-Arc10-HD-pocket

Again, this is something that may be improved with a software update or tweaked final shipping units. We certainly hope it is, because it was very distracting, and certainly not something we’d expect from a $400 tablet today, especially since the Arc 10HD is equipped with a new Nvidia Tegra 4 chip. Kobo says the Arc 7HD tablet will ship with an older Tegra 3.

One feature of the Arc tablets may turn out to be quite nice for those who mostly read on their Android devices. Kobo is implementing a Reading Mode with its new tablets, which switches off Wi-Fi and other non-essential functions when you just want to read. The company says when Reading Mode is enabled, battery life goes from a standard-mode 9.5 hours to “more than 10 days.” That’s a bold claim, especially considering the Arc 10HD’s high-resolution screen. But we’ll have to wait until we do a full review to see how impressive this feature is.

We didn’t get enough time with the Arc 10HD to pass real judgment on the Arc 10HD. But we left the Kobo press event with mixed feelings about the device (though a more favorable opinion about the company’s Aura e-reader). The Arc 10HD’s screen is nice, and we like the look of the light, reading-centric skin that the company has dropped on top of Android.

Kobo-Arc10-HD-screen-2

But unless Kobo can nail down the software glitches we experienced with both devices on display, the Arc 10 will be hard to recommend. Not so long ago, many (if not most) Android slates were buggy. But these days, that’s mostly no longer the case, especially with high-end tablets in the $400 price range.

And while the Nexus 7 may have a smaller, lower-resolution screen, it delivers a much more stable software and, at least at the moment, better magazine reading, at a $229 price that severely undercuts the Kobo.

Highs

  • Google-certified experience
  • Nice-looking display
  • Reading Life launch screen looks good (when it isn’t crashing)

Lows

  • Both units felt buggy and experienced app crashes
  • Magazine content was slow to fully load when zooming in on text

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