Review: Kobo Arc 7
The Kobo Arc 7 is Kobo's 3rd seven inch Android tablet. It was introduced in August 2013 and shipped about a month later. I bought it in early January 2014 from Best Buy for retail ($149).
This is by no means the best tablet on the market, but that's okay. This tablet wasn't built to compete with all the other tablets on the market; it was made for Kobo customers and folks who want to read on their tablet.
At first glance the Kobo Arc 7 looks like your typical Android tablet. It has a 7" screen with a camera centered over one of the short sides. There's a single speaker on the back, while the power button and microSD card slot are on the upper edge. The volume buttons are on the right edge, and the USB port, HDMI port, and headphone jack are on the upper edge.
It looks like a regular Android tablet, but then I picked it up. I have held many Android tablets over the past few months and none were less physically appealing than the Kobo Arc 7. This tablet forgoes the curved shell found on Kobo's earlier hardware (and many other Android tablets) in favor of sharp corners and an angled rear shell.
Kobo started this "no edge left soft" trend with the release of the Kobo Aura HD in early 2013. You can see it on their newer 6" ebook reader, the Aura, as well as on all 3 tablets launched this year. While it is visually eye catching, on a tactile level it is unappealing. That's what I thought when I laid my hands on the Aura at CES 2014, and that's what I think of the Arc 7.
But I will give Kobo credit for sticking with a generally good build quality, and for having the insight to distributing all of the buttons, ports, and card slots on several edges towards the upper half of the tablet. For example, having the USB port on the upper left edge is a better design than putting it on the bottom edge or the upper edge; it's more convenient to hold the tablet while it is charging if the cable is draped out to my left than if it is plugged into the top or the bottom of the tablet.
Sidenote: To be fair, Kobo isn't the only tablet maker to follow this trend; Amazon used a similar design aesthetic when coming up with the third generation Kindle Fire Android tablets. I briefly owned a Kindle Fire HDX but not long enough to develop a dislike for the sharp edges.
Like many budget tablets, the Kobo Arc 7 is equipped with single camera on the front and no camera on the back, along with the the same basic camera app as on most budget Android tablets. The VGA resolution camera is intended for video chatting and selfies, and it pretty good.
I took numerous pictures of myself and all were recognizable. They were low resolution images, yes, but still recognizable. You can't always make that claim with cameras on budget tablets.
At 1024 x 600, the Kobo Arc 7 has the same screen resolution as on most budget Android tablets. It's not the best quality screen, but it's also not the worst. All in all, I would say that the screen on the Kobo Arc 7 is about equal to the screen on the Hisense Sero 7 Pro.
I am making that comparison so I can say that neither screen can match a premium screen like the one on the Kindle Fire HD, but the shortcomings are only obvious when you have the more expensive tablet laying next to its cheaper competition. Otherwise you probably won't notice.
The backlight on the Kobo Arc 7's screen is bright enough to double as a flashlight, though it's not quite as bright as the KFHD. When viewed head on the colors seem slightly washed out, and when you turn the tablet you'll discover that the colors abruptly fade but are still visible at the widest viewing angle. And the touchscreen is uniformly responsive and reliable.
But as much as I would like to equate the screens of the Kobo Arc 7 and the Hisense Sero 7 Pro, they differ in at least one important way.
I found it unfortunately easy to damage the screen on my Kobo Arc 7. I don't know how, but my tablet now has a centimeter long diagonal crack in the upper central portion of the screen. I have not broken a screen in ages, and certainly did not mistreat the Arc 7, so I am not sure how the damage occurred.
Was this bad luck, or is this a sign of poor construction quality? I don't know. But I do know that I am usually careful with my tablets, and that goes double for ones I hope to return.
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This tablet runs Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, but it doesn't look like what you would see on your average Android tablet. While the Arc 7 has the app menu, settings menus, and shortcut menus found on most Android 4.2 devices, it also eschews the usual home screen for a unique home screen that places your Kobo library front and center. This changes the Arc 7 from being an ordinary Android tablet into being more of an enhanced ebook reader.
The Arc 7's home screen has 3 pages in a row (1-2-3), and you can move between them with lateral swipes. The first screen is the usual home screen full of widgets and icons, while the third home screen is used to show your entire Kobo ebook library: collections, archived titles, and everything you have not downloaded to the Arc 7.
The second and primary home screen is used to show the ebooks you are reading right now as well as widgets which suggest titles from the Kobo ebookstore or show your latest reading statistics. This page is built around a unique vertical scrolling design which grows longer as you add more ebooks to your device. Don't worry; you can delete widgets and remove the ebooks as well.
At the top of the screen is the usual notification bar found on Android 4.2 with the usual shortcut menu and notification menu, and across the bottom of the home screens a slot for an avatar photo and space for 4 app icons; users can add or remove the icons to suit themselves. Below that is a second menu bar which looks pretty much like the one found on other Android tablets, only with additional icons for voice search, search, and the app menu.
In terms of apps, the Arc 7 ships with the usual Google bloatware as well as a few useful additions, including Feedly, Firefox, McAfee, Vudu, Pinterent, and other apps which can be downloaded from Google Play (see the screen shots for more detail).
I went into this review knowing that Kobo had installed a custom home screen, but even so I was still confused at first. Setting up the Arc 7 as a tablet was easy, and so was adding my Google and Kobo accounts, but I had trouble figuring out where Kobo was hiding the several dozen ebooks I bought from them. I ended up having to download the user manual and search for the information I needed, at which point I learned that there was a third page to the home screen.
In many ways the Arc 7 is an Android tablet but the design of the home screen, with its focus on ebooks, changes the Arc 7 from being an Android tablet to being an enhanced ebook reader. Sure, you can use the Arc 7 as an Android tablet but IMO it was developed with readers in mind, especially ones that buy from Kobo.
Kobo has a specific idea of what an ebook should look like, but once I figured out how to disable their formatting decisions I discovered that the Arc 7 has a very nice reading app.
In terms of formatting the reading app on the Arc 7 offers 2 margin options, 2 font choices (plus publisher's default), 3 background options, and there's an option to disable Kobo's default formatting. It also support bookmarks, highlights, public and private notes, and you can also elect to see the notes added by other readers.
That is a rather limited selection of formatting options compared to my preferred 3rd-party reading apps and it's also fewer options than on the competing Kindle apps, though the Arc 7 does have some less obvious but still useful options like volume buttons doubling as page turn buttons, and others. And it is missing some options which I like, but in spite of (for example) the lack of my preferred ragged right justification option I found the reading app quite usable. I even bought the next title in a series I am reading, which says a lot for my willingness to continuing to use the app.
Now if only Kobo would let me use the app for all of my ebooks, that would be nice. Curiously enough, the Arc 7 is set up to focus only on your Kobo library and not ebooks downloaded from elsewhere. Anything not bought at Kobo gets dragged into Google Play Books.
I downloaded several ebooks from Feedbooks and I wasn't even given an option to open the ebooks in the Kobo app; my only option was to use Google Play Books (or download another app). I don't see this as an ideal choice on the part of Kobo, but there's not much I can do about it.
Physically the Arc 7 is about the same width and height size as the Hisense Sero 7 Pro. It's on the large size for 7" Android tablets, which makes it difficult to hold the tablet in one hand, but I can theoretically hold it in my left hand and use the volume buttons to turn the pages, but I found that the buttons didn't stick out enough to make that a comfortable maneuver I had to grip the tablet too hard in order to trigger the button.
So like many 7" tablets, this tablet is strictly a two-handed reading experience.
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Audio & Video
The Kobo Arc 7 is more of a reading tablet than a media tablet so I could have skipped this section, but for the sake of completeness I did watch several videos. The Arc 7 comes with the stock media player found on most Android devices.
Thanks to the quad-core CPU this tablet was more than capable of playing high resolution videos without issue, though the sound from the single speaker on the back was rather quiet. It was also quiet when I streamed a Youtube video, but I could hear enough to describe the audio quality as middling. Like the speakers on many budget tablets, it failed to properly express certain test words (like murphy's/herpes in this song, for example).
With an Antutu benchmark score of 13,697, the Kobo Arc 7 falls solidly in the middle of the many budget Android tablets I have reviewed. It is a solidly performing tablet, and my experiences confirm that the Arc 7 has a decent quality CPU, RAM, storage, and graphics chip.
In general, this is a good tablet - with one exception. I've had this tablet for nearly 2 weeks, and in that time I have noticed an issue with Wifi.
On several different occasions the Arc 7 has taken far longer to download a app or ebook than I would think appropriate. I've downloaded numerous ebooks and several apps, and I have usually had to stop and wait for download to finish. I've also noticed that webpages and the Play Store app take a long time to load - more so than on my other budget Android tablets. And finally, the Arc 7 was unable to stream Amazon Instant Video. The trick worked and I was able to install Adobe Flash and the Dolphin web browser, but I couldn't get the video to show up on screen.
Depending on how you use this tablet, the Wifi may or may not be a problem, but it is a concern for me.
Estimated Video Runtime: 4 hours
Kobo lists the battery life as being 9 hours, so my estimate of 4 hours of video time (with Wifi and backlight on) is about right. This battery life is not quite comparable to the 5 hour estimate for the $99 HP Mesquite Android tablet, and it is also slightly better than the 3 hour estimated battery of many of the sub-$100 Android tablets.
Of course, all of those tablets cost considerably less than the Kobo Arc 7, but we knew that going in. And anyway, this tablet wasn't built to compete in the general tablet market.
I knew going into this review that the $149 Kobo Arc 7 did not have the specs to justify the price, and I guessed that the performance would not be significantly better than the sub-$100 Android tablets I've been reviewing over the past few months.
It does have decent performance, adequate storage, and a better than average VGA camera, but you can say that about pretty much any budget Android tablet, including models which are a lot cheaper. But none of that really matters, because Kobo wasn't trying to build the same Android tablet as everyone else. They weren't even trying to build an Android tablet, per se.
Kobo was trying to build an enhanced ereader along the lines the Nook Color or Nook Tablet, but more specifically they were trying to build a device for Kobo customers and not your average Android tablet users, and they succeeded.
This tablet is not for me, and that's okay. I'm not a regular Kobo customer, and I was never in the market for a Kobo-focused device.
If you are a frequent customer at Kobo, and you expect that your main activity on the tablet will be reading and not games, video, social, or many other uses, then this could be the tablet for you. It's set up so your Kobo library is the focal point. Reading, sharing, and buying content from Kobo and only Kobo is its primary activity, with other activities like games, media, and web browsing coming in second.
I know I'm making this sound like an ebook reader, and in many ways this is the tablet equivalent of one of Kobo's ebook readers, only with a 7" LCD screen. Obviously that begs the question: why release it at all given all the benefits of the E-ink screens on Kobo's ebook readers (which fills the same purpose). That's simple: not everyone likes E-ink, and some want color. My mother, for example, wanted my Kindle Fire HD rather than a Kindle ereader when her last device died.
To put it another way, there are people who want a tablet which can be used as an ereader. The Kobo Arc 7 was designed with those folks in mind.
Where to get it
Internationally: The Kobo website has an incomplete list of their retail partners in various countries. The list appears to reflect the retail partners that have this tablet in stock. Not all of Kobo's diverse collection of retail partners received their initial stock at the time I wrote this review, and were not listed.
- CPU: 1.2 GHz MediaTek MTK 8125 quad-core
- GPU: 532MHz PowerVR SGX 544MP
- Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean
- 7" 1024 x 600 screen, capacitive touchscreen
- 1 GB RAM
- 8GB Flash storage (5.6GB available)
- microSD card slot
- HDMI port
- Front-facing VGA camera
- Speaker, microphone, 3.5mm headphone jack with in-line microphone support
- Dimensions: 122 x 194 x 10.05 mm.
- Weight: 360 grams