For a while it was looking as if Amazon had the UK ebook market to itself: while rival booksellers offered a range of ebook readers from the likes of Elonex and Sony, nobody offered the soup-to-nuts service of Amazon's Kindle, store and associated apps. Now, though, Amazon UK has a serious rival in the form of WHSmith and its new Canadian friend, Kobo.
Kobo isn't new to the ebook game - it's been doing decent business in the US for a few years now, and its UK ebook store has been open since February 2010 - but its ereaders are new to Britain. There are two models, starting at £89.99 for the Kobo Wireless eReader and rising to £109.99 for the newer touchscreen Kobo eReader Touch.
Given the choice, we'd pay the extra 20 quid - the Kobo eReader Touch makes its sibling look rather old-fashioned, and while it isn't quite a Kindle killer, it comes very close indeed. If you don't like Amazon's power, can't wait for the Kindle Touch to be offered over here or just think the redesigned Kindle mings, the Kobo eReader Touch is a genuine alternative to Amazon's offering.
It's an alternative that in some respects beats Amazon's device at its own game. It looks better, has a nicer user interface and has a better range of typefaces, and unlike Amazon's touch-screen device you can actually buy one in British shops.
Ebook readers aren't just about technology, of course - they're about content too, because nobody's going to shell out for an ebook reader they can't get any books for. Kobo's got that covered, too: while we found a few gaps in the catalogue, the big hitters were present, correct and no more expensive than Amazon.
Specifications and performance
The Kobo eReader Touch has a lot in common with the latest generation of Amazon Kindles. Like the Kindle Touch, the Kobo eReader Touch is built around a six-inch e-ink Pearl display offering month-long battery life. Like the Kindle Touch, there's a touchscreen instead of a physical keyboard and page forward/back buttons. And again like the Kindle Touch, its bezel is just thin enough to make it awkward to hold one-handed.
There are other similarities. Both the Kindle Touch and the Kobo eReader Touch have screens that don't fully refresh with each page turn. That speeds up the time between pages, but it can make the screen look grubby between full refreshes.
If that annoys you, the Kobo's settings enable you to increase the frequency of full page refreshes. The default is every sixth page turn, but you can make it happen with every page if you wish.
There are some important differences, however. The Kobo eReader Touch's 2GB of storage - of which around 1GB can be used for storing media - can be expanded via its microSD card slot, its user interface is much prettier than Amazon's rather functional effort, and you've got more control over the way text appears on the screen. There are seven fonts and 17 font sizes to choose from, although at smaller sizes some of the fonts are a little bit thin-looking to our eyes.
On the plus side, you can switch off text justification to keep the right margins ragged - something that makes reading less of a strain. You can also view PDFs without having to convert them first, although the zooming and panning you need to do inside PDFs may annoy some, and there's a fun sketchbook for scribbling and saving quick notes or drawings.
The Kobo eReader Touch looks and feels more expensive than it is, with a choice of black and white models boasting quilted backs in black, lilac, blue and silver.
The interface is much prettier than Amazon's more functional effort, and the screen in sleep mode displays the cover of the book you're currently reading, which is a nice touch. You can turn this off if you'd rather not broadcast your reading choices to all and sundry.
Where some ereaders are tied to single stores, the Kobo eReader Touch is more promiscuous. It supports ePub books, including Adobe DRMed ones, as well as TXT, HTML, RTF, MOBI, PDF and the comic book formats CBZ and CBR. That means you should be able to acquire books from most non-Amazon retailers (Amazon books are in its own proprietary format).
There's also a collection of apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Palm that enable you to sync titles and bookmarks between devices, and the Android and iOS apps support Reading Life, Kobo's awards scheme for readers. Reading Life comes in two forms: a set of statistics so you can see how much time you've spent reading, how much of your library you've still got to read and so on, and a set of Xbox Live-style awards for completing tasks such as finishing your first book.
It's all very impressive, but of course with ereaders content really is king. Does Kobo have the books you want? The answer is largely yes: when we searched for current bestsellers - the new Ian Rankin, Chris Brookmyre and Mark Billingham thrillers, the Steve Jobs biography and so on - the Kobo store had them at the same prices as Amazon's Kindle store.
If your tastes are less mainstream, however, it's worth checking whether Kobo has your favourites: for example, books by US humourist PJ O'Rourke weren't available in the UK store, and some of our searches for less well-known fiction writers were unsuccessful.
The Kobo eReader Touch looks and feels more expensive than it is, and to our eyes it's cooler than the new Amazon Kindles. The online catalogue isn't quite as big as Amazon's, but it's still big. For mainstream fiction and non-fiction reading, the Kobo is well worth a look.
The Kobo eReader Touch is impressive on multiple fronts: it looks good, it's easy to get the display just-so and there are Kobo editions of pretty much any book you'd expect to find in WHSmith.
Maybe we're just fat fingered, but we found the bezel too thin for comfortable one-handed operation. Some of the display fonts are rather insubstantial, and the lack of 3G may be a deal-breaker for some.
The Kobo eReader Touch is an interesting and desirable alternative to the Kindle Touch - and unlike Amazon's touchscreen ereader, you can buy one in Britain. It's much more desirable than the entry-level Kindle, and if you're considering an ereader it should definitely be on your shortlist.