Kobo Forma eReader review
Suprisingly good form-factor!
An e-ink ebook reader in 2019? Why?
Well, “why not” is too brief, so let’s expand on it a bit.
Why an eReader?
I used eBook readers for a long time, as the eInk format was a reasonably good replacement for paper books. I don’t remember when I started exactly (sometimes after 2010), but after my Sony PRS-650 was stolen (argh, stupid me) and I moved to a Sony PRS-T3, my use of it decreased over time.
Not entirely sure why - maybe the slow UI, or the fact that it didn’t have a backlight, or who knows why. Together with my overall reading volume, my ebook use decreased to the extend that maybe I read 2-3 books per year on it. I even have to admit reading more on a tablet, despite the drawbacks (of reading on an LCD screen). One thing I really appreciated on tablets was the fast UI and the large screen. But since Sony closed its eReader division, no new models…
Then, a few weeks back, there was a thread at work about eBook readers vs. tablets, and seeing the people arguing left and right made me look at what would be the choices today when buying a new eReader, and to my surprise, there are pretty large screens available!
The largest ones are only 8 inches, so smaller than a tablet, but is that enough maybe? I read more and the Kobo Forma looked very interesting: good backlight (with blue filter), good size, albeit a very weird form factor.
Fortunately digitec had one in the showroom, so I was able to hold it in my hands, and together with what I read about it I was convinced. Sad to say goodbye to my Sony…
From my research, basically the choice is between Kindles and non-Kindles. I have serious reservations about Amazon, and on top of that I prefer the wide availability of the
epub format, so the choice, as many times before, was clear.
On the “others” side, it seems there are two main choices, at least in Europe: either Tolino or Kobo. From reading about these two Tolino seems a more restrictive environment, with fewer formats supported. On top of that, it seems that Kobo bought either Tolino or the Tolino brand or the Tolino OS (not entirely sure), so double the argument to go with Kobo.
So on the Kobo large eReader side, there’s either Kobo Aura one, or Kobo Forma, which was much newer (~2 years), and the reviews didn’t point much either way, except that the Forma has also physical buttons (which Sony readers were doing very well). Very clearly then, the Forma it was.
I’d wished the 32 GB model was available, but no, here only the 8GB model is, but that’s enough. So, bought and eager to see how it is.
Note: all the handling here is with a cover, not standalone.
The form factor, and especially the asymmetry of the layout: not a problem at all after a couple of hours. Despite still having a 4:3 (1.33×) screen aspect ratio, the (overall) more square ~1.1x ratio is actually well suited visually for landscape reading; the Sony had a 4:3 (1.33×) screen but the body was an almost 1.5× ratio (due to buttons on the bottom), much more book-like, which seems awkward to read in landscape mode, irrespective of actual screen content. So, not only is the form factor not a downside, but it’s actually an advantage!
The backlight works very well, although I only use it in the 0-10% range, and tweaking exact value here is a bit cumbersome. But it works, and the blue light filter is awesomeness++, no problems with it at night - on the contrary, it easily puts me to sleep :) The only small downside is that it eats battery faster, not sure whether due to the backlight or the larger screen, but I presume the former.
The biggest surprise though was how well the large screen is on the eyes, and the fact that it is large enough to enable reading technical books/documents! This I was never able to do on my Sony’s, due to the small size, but on the Forma, double-good. Even diagrams/drawings work OK (not well), so all good.
Portability-wise, it’s large, so doesn’t fit in pockets (and I tried). Aside from that, I can still easily read on the train or while walking so all good.
ePub vs. kePub, oh my!
The first weird thing that one reads about Kobo eReaders is the so-called “kepub” format. Kobo, it seems like many other companies, thought they can do better by having their own eBook format.
But “kepub” is just epub with a custom extension, or at least epub is forward compatible to kepub. Using a book that the reader sees as kepub format brings a couple of advantages:
- progress report (this chapter left time, overall book left time)
- per-chapter page numbers (which annoys me to no end)
- zooming into drawings (double-tap)
The latter is very useful, the first point mildly so, so I’ve settled on using “kepub” as the book format.
As usual, I manage my eBook collection using Calibre. I have a long collection of books I bought over the years and now over different eReader brands, so I can’t rely on Kobo’s store or any other store to manage my books. Sure I might buy books on Kobo if I really need to, but unless they’re DRM-protected, they’ll go through Calibre before landing on my reader. To be very clear, I buy all my books, but I strongly lean towards DRM-free publishers (which is one reason to avoid a Kindle, but not the only one). I mean here companies such as LeanPub, Manning Publications, etc.. Non-exhaustive list, just some recent examples.
Fortunately Calibre works well with the Kobo as well, so moving my books over was easy, at least for the DRM-free ones. But kepub! Even for this there’s a nice solution: the Kobo Touch Extended plugin, which converts to kepub on the fly (and doesn’t require one to store their books in both epub and kepub). That driver works very well, even collection support is there and a bit more flexible than with the Sony’s, and on top it has series support as well, so happy camper.
Collections note: due to how the (native) reader works, setting the book metadata correctly is only possible once the reader has seen the book. So: plug in, transfer from Calibre, eject, insert again, and at this point Calibre can set the collections for the book. Slightly annoying, but not much.
“Hacking” the Kobos
While reading how to configure my reader, to my surprise I learn that installing additional software on these readers is rather trivial. Well, sadly, that means there’s no firmware update protection as in verification, but I guess you can’t have both. The only snag is how to launch this additional software (and then one reads about KSM vs fmon vs kfmon), but otherwise very simple.
So what additional software can one install? Well, to my surprise, the actual “reader” part. While “nickel” (the built-in reader) works well with (k)epub, it still has limitations, some of the small some of the large. For example: hyphenation support, ligatures, but most of all, PDF (non-reflowable content) support.
I’m fortunate to not have many PDFs (none, actually, I think), but I have to admit this screenshot looks just beatiful. If that link is broken, go to the Plato homepage. There’s also the other option of KOReader, which seems more featured (e.g. native integration with Calibre!). And both of these are open source!
For now, I’m staying with the official reader, but it’s very good to know one has multiple options, especially as you can still use the native reader (i.e. they’re in addition to it, not replacing it).
I’m just less than two weeks with the Forma, and I’ve already read 2½ books on it. For me, that’s surprising—as I was saying, that’s how much I read in the last year on my previous reader. So far I like this device very much, and I definitely recommend it for both normal books and—for the first time—for technical books.
Happy to answer any question (I can) about the device, just ask below.