Kobo Vox review: an e-reader in tablet’s clothing

As CES comes to a close, tablets are on the minds of tech fans everywhere and many are considering dipping their toe in with a budget tablet. If you're in the market for a tablet and don't want to break the bank, you might be considering the Kobo Vox, an Android tablet and e-reader for under $200.

I recently had the chance to go hands-on with the Vox and I found that you can't really view it as just a tablet; you need to consider how it stacks up as an e-reader, too, as Kobo's main focus is still ebooks and improving the e-reader experience.

Screengrab from Kobo.comThe Basics

As I wrote back in October when comparing the Vox to the Kindle Fire, the Vox's biggest competition in the budget tablet market, your $199 will get you a 7" Android 2.3 tablet with built-in Wi-Fi, 8GB of expandable memory in Jet Black, Lime Green, Hot Pink or Ice Blue.

The Vox is a sharp-looking device. Having seen both the Ice Blue and Lime Green in person, the colours are vibrant and make the units feel that much more personalized. The Vox has Kobo's trademark quilted back, which makes it comfortable to hold. It is on the heavy side at 402 grams, at least compared to Kobo's other e-readers. I didn't find it too heavy to hold over long periods of time, though.

As an E-Reader

First and foremost, the Kobo Vox is an e-reader. It has the functionality of an Android tablet, but Kobo has put the effort in to make the Vox an enriched ebook experience. I've been using the Kobo Wi-Fi for several months now, so I was interested to see how the substantial changes they've made to the Vox stack up against its predecessor (although it should be noted that the Kobo Touch is the product in Kobo's lineup that bridges these two units).

The very first thing I missed when using the Vox was e-ink. It's a big adjustment going from a matte e-ink display to a glass screen, especially if you're like me and get eye strain easily from glossy computer screens. This isn't a criticism against the Kobo Vox, it's simply something you have to take into account if you're making the switch from a dedicated e-reader.

For the first time in the Kobo lineup, you can read books in full colour. That isn't a big deal for typical novels, however it makes it possible to enjoy recipe books, travel guides and children's books — to prove it, Kobo has included one of each with the unit.

When reading, you have the option of viewing the book vertically or horizontally. It adjusts automatically depending on which way the unit is facing. I found this a pain if I was lying on my couch to read and the unit turned sideways, but it is possible to turn off this feature, and is actually a handy option if you're sitting upright.

Kobo has also included two elements to enhance your reading experience, Reading Life and Kobo Pulse:

Screengrab from Facebook of a Kobo award.Reading Life

Also included with the earlier Kobo Touch, Reading Life tracks stats about what you've read (like number of pages, time you've spent reading a book), gives you awards for certain behaviours (I've included one here) and lets you share those awards and the books you've read to Facebook. It's an interesting way to get people discussing books, allowing for friends to jump in and ask about a title you're reading, despite my initial skepticism at turning reading into a social activity.

Kobo PulseScreengrab from Kobo.com of 'Kobo Pulse.'

At the bottom of each page on a book, a 'pulse indicator' shows up over the page numbers (seen in the picture to the right). When the half-circle is bigger, it indicates that people are discussing that page and by tapping it, you can read what others have said and join in with your own. This feature gets the most interesting when you're reading a best-seller or other widely-read book, otherwise it falls a little flat. I happened to be reading the award-winning Room by Emma Donoghue at the time and despite all the people who have read that book, there wasn't much interesting discussion happening.

As a tablet

While the Vox's e-reader capabilities are its most notable, its tablet functionality is respectable, too — especially for the price. You can add just about any of the apps that you could to another tablet running Android's Gingerbread. It comes with the browser, Facebook and Gmail buttons automatically at the bottom of the Home screen, with all other apps a click or a swipe away.

One thing worth mentioning: in order to download apps from the Android Market, you'll need to change your settings first. The default market for the Vox is quite limited, and you can only get access to the thousands of apps available in the Android Market by going into Settings, Applications, and clicking 'Unknown Sources.'

To put the Vox through its paces, I tested it out with some of the things I would expect any tablet to do: watch YouTube videos and play Angry Birds. When playing a game, the Vox was responsive with no notable lag. Colours were vibrant and the picture was as crisp as I could expect on a tablet. The only thing lacking was sound, but more on that later.

I had no problem loading or playing videos, and the Vox didn't struggle to load anything (as I had feared it might, being at the lower-end of the tablet market). Where the Vox did fall short was its speaker. There's a small mono speaker on the top right of the unit, which I found to be kind of a disappointment as the sound was tinny and had no depth. The Vox's main competition, the Kindle Fire, uses stereo sound. Not having stereo on the Vox as well makes it pretty useless if you want to watch a video with a friend without headphones. If you're just going to be using the Vox with headphones, though, it won't be a problem.

A brief note on functionality of the Vox

It should be mentioned that when I received my first Vox to review, I had some major issues with functionality. I had problems turning the device on and connecting to a wireless network, and was stuck with a flashing green light at the top and no explanation as to what it meant. The literature that comes with the Vox is sparse (I would argue over-simplified), and the Kobo's help site didn't seem to be able to solve my problems, either.

When I sought out alternative advice as to why I was having trouble with the Vox, I found that I was far from the only one. There are multiple accounts online of people who had similar problems. Kobo has acknowledged the issue and released a firmware update to resolve it, however if, like me, you can't get far enough into the setup process to get Wi-Fi working, you may just need to contact Kobo directly.

Final Thoughts

Having said all that, the Kobo Vox is a great device when it functions as it is intended to. Be warned that the Kobo Vox has known issues, but it is worth the effort to get them resolved. The Vox is absolutely still an e-reader at heart, and it's a good choice for anyone looking to upgrade their current e-reader who is also considering entering into the tablet market.