Nov 10, 2011

Kobo Vox

THE KOBO Vox (from Latin, vox populi, ‘voice of the people’) is Kobo’s latest and greatest ebook reader. It’s basically a touch-screen Android tablet, but Kobo has made some smart trade-offs to keep it at the $200 price point. Here are my impressions.

First Boot

The first time it starts, the device asks to connect to a wireless network and then downloads and installs a software update. It then guides you through restarting and completing setup. You have to pick your time and date and then log in to, or create, a Kobo account. There don’t seem to be any options for not signing in to a Kobo account–to use the Vox, you must be signed in.


There’s much to like about this compact device. It’s roughly three-quarters the size of an iPad, and has a crisp full-colour screen. Text is crisp and images really pop out. It’s a little heavy to hold; could get uncomfortable over extended periods reading while sitting or lying down.

The processor is not the most powerful you can fit into this form factor; but going for a slightly cheaper CPU is one of the trade-offs I mentioned, and ultimately I think worth it. I’ll explain more later.

There’s a single speaker built-in with sound quality similar to that of a smartphone. No microphone or camera–so there’s no scope for voice or video chatting. And in terms of connectivity, there’s Wi-Fi, an SD card slot and a USB port, but no Bluetooth.


The Vox comes with Google’s Android OS 2.3 with a few relatively minor adjustments: the default home screen has a large Kobo desktop widget showing the covers of the five most recently-read books; the global pop-down notification list has been replaced with Kobo’s Reading Life stats (more on Reading Life later); and apparently you can’t access the Android Market because the device doesn’t (yet) pass Android hardware certification. There is an alternative app store called GetJar bundled.

Since the Vox isn’t locked in to the Android Market, you can actually install any apps (*.apk files) you can find floating around on the internet. So the keyword here is caution–there’s plenty of malware out there for Android. I installed a couple of essential apps from a relatively trusted source. The first is Overdrive, an ebook and audiobook app for DRM-protected books. Overdrive lets you connect to public libraries’ electronic catalogues and download books from them. I’ve successfully downloaded a couple of ebooks from my local library.

The browser doesn’t come with Flash installed. It’s possible to install it from Good eReader's list but I haven’t so far because from what I’ve heard, Flash is a mobile device killer. Even my laptop has a hard time with it.

There’s a YouTube app that works pretty much as expected; a music and video player that I haven’t tried yet; and a few other apps that I haven’t actually bothered to explore–a Facebook news feed widget for the desktop, and other similar apps that plug in to Facebook. If I could uninstall these, I would; but there doesn’t seem to be any way to uninstall apps yet.

Kobo Vox customised home screen

Reading eBooks

One of the Vox’s biggest selling points is that it has a new ‘social reading’ feature called Reading Life. Reading Life lets you keep track of how many books you’ve read and how long you spent reading them; gives you ‘awards’ for finishing books; and lets you share these awards and statistics with friends. Newly introduced with the Vox is a comment feature called ‘Pulse’ that lets you publicly ‘like’ and share comments on specific pages of books you’re reading.

Reading Life is pervasive and easily accessible from several places in the Vox interface–the pull-down notification area at the top; the dock at the bottom; and from the Kobo reading and library app itself. This gives a feeling of coherence to the device and makes it feel more like an ebook reader than just a generic Android tablet.

However, you’ll only find yourself using Reading Life if you read ebooks on Kobo’s own ebook reader app. This would include reading books that you bought or downloaded for free from the Kobo store; and any books that you manually copied over from another device. If, like me, your main source of books is your public library’s electronic catalogue, you’ll probably end up using the Overdrive ebook reader app; and Overdrive is not integrated with Reading Life or Pulse.

Kobo Vox Overdrive ebook app


So in general, how is the Vox as an Android tablet?

A little under-powered. It runs most of the standard apps–browser, email, ebook readers–just fine. But when I tried to run a more graphics-intensive app, like the included free Scrabble, it more or less got stuck. I had to hard-reboot the device to get it up and running again.

At the end of the day, the Vox is a compact Android OS-powered device that lets me read ebooks and just enough more that it’s a compelling buy.

Sep 2, 2011

St Urbain's Horseman

I’VE read a couple of other Mordecai Richler books by now, but this one was probably the most passionate, the most powerful. A man caught between two generations, between the Holocaust and the hippies, Jake Hersh is driven by a code of conscience and social justice that he feels is the only way to live up to the memory of his cousin and childhood hero, Joey. Joey who stood up to the anti-Semitism of Montreal in the ’40s, only to be run out of town. Who then went on a world-wide walkabout, rousting and rabble-raising and, seemingly, hunting down Nazi war criminals.
Meanwhile, Jake makes a life of comfort and luxury for himself, starts a family and settles for a peaceful home life. All the while tormented by his social conscience, a growing unease and a sense that the world is too unfair to let him live out such a good life without repercussions.
The chapters bled into each other, the pages flew by in a blur, and before I knew it it was over. Still, there were passages which stood out brilliantly, that you devoured because they were just so damn good.
Reading this passage reminded me intensely of the deshi diaspora in Western countries–so ironic:
Sitting with the Hershes, day and night, a bottle of Remy Martin parked between his feet, such was Jake’s astonishment, commingled with pleasure, in their responses, that he could not properly mourn for his father. He felt cradled, not deprived. He also felt like Rip Van Winkle returned to an innocent and ordered world he had mistakenly believed long extinct. Where God watched over all, doing His sums. Where everything fit. Even the holocaust which, after all, had yielded the state of Israel. Where to say, ‘Gentlemen, the Queen,’ was to offer the obligatory toast to Elizabeth II at an affair, not to begin a discussion on Andy Warhol. Where smack was not habit-forming, but what a disrespectful child deserved; pot was what you simmered the chicken soup in; and camp was where you sent the boys for the summer. It was astounding, Jake was incredulous, that after so many years and fevers, after Dachau, after Hiroshima, revolution, rockets in Space, DNA, bestiality in the streets, assassinations in and out of season, there were still brides with shining faces who were married in white gowns, posing for the Star social pages with their prizes, pear-shaped boys in evening clothes. There were aunts who sold raffles and uncles who swore by the Reader’s Digest. French Canadians, like overflying airplanes distorting the TV picture, were only tolerated. DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET, THE TROUBLE IS TEMPORARY. Aunts still phoned each other every morning to say what kind of cake they were baking. Who had passed this exam, who had survived that operation. A scandal was when a first cousin was invited to the bar mitzvah kiddush, but not the dinner. Eloquence was the rabbi’s sermon. They were ignorant of the arts, they were overdressed, and their taste was appallingly bad. But within their self-contained world, there was order. It worked.
As nobody bothered to honor them, they very sensibly celebrated each other at fund-raising synagogue dinners, taking turns at being Man-of-the-Year, awarding each other ornate plates to hang over the bar in the rumpus room. Furthermore, God was interested in the fate of the Hershes, with time and consideration for each one. To pray was to be heard. There was not even death, only an interlude below ground. For one day, as Rabbi Polsky assured them, the Messiah would blow his horn, they would rise as one and return to Zion … .
And this captured the exact feeling of when you suspect that you have it too good, that you’re one of the top percentiles out of the billions on this planet:
… From the beginning, he had expected the outer, brutalized world to intrude on their little one, inflated by love but ultimately self-serving and cocooned by money. The times were depraved. Tenderness in one house, he had come to fear, was no more possible, without corruption, than socialism in a single country. And so, from the earliest, halcyon days with Nancy, he had expected the coming of the vandals. Above all, the injustice-collectors. The concentration camp survivors. The emaciated millions of India. The starvelings of Africa.
I probably didn’t get most of the jokes. There were scenes and passages that brought a smile to my face, but nothing like the laugh-out-loud humour others seemed to find. Not like Barney’s Version, but of course that’s a story for another blog post.

Feb 3, 2011

Seen on Miway (Mississauga Transit) bus

The way the sphere appeared
Up in the sky,
I stood in the shower.
I felt no fear.
I knew
It loved me.
The master returns
To dote on it's [sic] pet.