Kobo Arc Review
The Kobo Arc is a great small-screen Android tablet, with strong performance, a crisp display, and, unlike some higher-profile competitors, access to the Google Play app store.
- Bright and crisp display
- Solid design
- Google Play access
- Front-facing speakers
- Some questionable Android modifications
- Highly reflective screen
- Mediocre battery life
The Kobo Vox was a thoroughly forgettable Android tablet. It aped the Kindle Fire in price and form factor, but was otherwise a subpar performer in nearly every respect. Kobo rightfully went back to the drawing board, bringing us its second effort a year later—the Kobo Arc ($199.99 list). Though still clearly aimed at Amazon’s newest Fire HD, the Arc is a far more refined piece of equipment that has a fighting chance against the strong crop of small-screen tablet options available today. It’s easily worth considering for its strong performance and access to the Google Play market, but it still comes up a bit short against our Editors’ Choice, the Google Nexus 7.
Design and Features
The Arc shares many design cues with the Vox, with its unassuming matte black plastic body and the signature quilted diamond pattern around back. Instead of a flat glass front, like the Vox and the Kindle Fire HD, the Arc has a pronounced plastic bezel. Some will prefer this design for the added grip and smaller area for fingerprints and smudges, but it does take away from the sleekness factor you’ll find with tablets like the Fire HD and Nexus 7. At 7.4 by 4.7 by 0.5 inches (HWD) and 12.8 ounces, the Arc is a hair thicker than the 0.4-inch Nexus 7 and Fire HD, but it’s also a full ounce lighter and 0.7-inch narrower than the latter. The Arc feels sturdily built and Kobo claims it can withstand falls from about five feet.
There are Power and Volume buttons along the Arc’s edges, with a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera embedded in the top bezel and two front-facing speaker grilles embedded in the bottom bezel. The camera supports 720p video chats, but shouldn’t be counted on for anything else. The speaker placement is nice, as the sound is actually directed towards you. The Arc gets loud as far as tablets go, but don’t expect anything beyond the tinny and distortion-prone audio found in most tablets—for better audio you’ll want to use the 3.5mm headphone jack.
Centered on the bottom edge is a micro USB port, but there’s no HDMI-out or microSD card slot like on the Acer Iconia Tab A110. The $199.99 Arc comes with 16GB; versions with 32GB and 64GB are available for $50 and $100 more, respectively. The Arc is available in white or black, with interchangeable SnapBacks for customizing the color further.
The 1,280-by-800-pixel, 7-inch IPS display is pretty much standard fare at this point. It matches the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD in crispness, but the latter is the brightest of the bunch. Still, viewing angles are terrific and the high-gloss finish makes colors really pop. Unfortunately, that glossy finish is a fingerprint magnet and is too reflective in bright light, especially outdoors.
This is a Wi-Fi-only tablet that connects to 802.11b/g/n networks, but only on the 2.4GHz frequency. The Kindle Fire HD is able to connect to faster 5GHz networks. There’s no Bluetooth or GPS.
Performance and Android
The Arc is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz TI OMAP 4470 processor with 1GB RAM. That’s the same processor found in the more powerful Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ model, the 7-inch model uses an older TI OMAP 4460 chip. The Arc outperformed the 7-inch Fire HD and was pretty evenly matched with the Nexus 7 on our benchmarks, winning in some cases and coming up a bit short in others. In real world usage the Arc felt zippy and responsive, with quick app launches and fast Web browsing performance. It also produced smooth gaming frame rates, though it won’t have access to some Nvidia TegraZone-exclusive titles. There were, however, a few issues with lag when it came to Kobo’s customizations to the Android OS.
Compared with Amazon and Barnes and Noble, Kobo actually loaded a relatively recognizable version of Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” onto the Arc. There’s more customization than the Iconia Tab A110 and definitely more than the stock Android you’ll find on the Nexus 7, but you still know you’re running Android here. The two main additions are the Tapestry launcher and the Discover recommendations bar that are featured prominently on the Arc’s home screen.
Tapestries are Kobo’s take on the pinning and virtual scrapbooking craze you find on websites like Pinterest. Home screen content is organized into graphically coherent folders, known as Tapestries, where you pin similar content and apps. Think of it as a prettier Android folder that shows a preview of its contents. You can add to Tapestries using the “Share” button found in a lot of apps, and the stock browser also has a dedicated Pin button for saving web content. Admittedly, I’ve never been big on pinning or scrapbooking, so while it adds some eye candy and better organization, I didn’t get much value out of that feature. There was also some lag introduced when pinning media-heavy Web pages or opening filled-up Tapestries. In a few instances the Tapestry overlay force closed, causing the home screen to hang for a few seconds before reloading all of the content.
The Discover bar is Kobo’s recommendation engine; it sits anchored to the bottom of every home screen. It pulls from previously pinned content and content purchased through Kobo’s book store, serving up recommendations including books, music, and online articles. Unfortunately, this bar cannot be hidden and the recommendations often felt more like banner ads. In fact, the Discover bar actually served up some low-resolution banner ads. It turns out they weren’t actual ads—the Discover bar pulled ad images as the image for an actual website that was related to something I had pinned—but it was still a bit disconcerting to see on every home screen.
While its Android modifications are a bit questionable, Kobo pulled off one great, and possibly deal making, feature for the Arc: full access to the Google Play app store. That means, unlike the Kindle Fire HD or Nook HD, the Arc has access to the hundreds of thousands of Android apps, as well as Google’s growing library of books, music, and videos. It’s still not the tablet for Android purists, but it better straddles the line between manufacturer guidance and Android independence.
For media playback, the Arc was able to handle MP3, AAC, FLAC, OGG, WAV, and WMA audio files. For video, the Arc supports Xvid, DivX, MPEG4, H.264, and AVI files at up to 1080p resolution.
In our battery rundown test, which loops a video with screen brightness set to max and Wi-Fi on, the Arc lasted only 4 hours, 40 minutes. That’s far less than the Nexus 7′s 10 hours, 37 minutes and a good deal short of the Kindle Fire HD’s 7 hours.
Compared with the Kobo Vox, the Arc is a revelation. Unfortunately, the small-screen tablet market has grown fiercely competitive since the Vox, and while the Arc is certainly a strong performer, it’s still not top of the class. That distinction remains with our Editors’ Choice Google Nexus 7, which simply offers the best small-screen tablet experience for the best price. Personally, I prefer the Arc over the Kindle Fire HD—it has access to the Google Play market and a faster processor. Amazon’s Android skin is very heavy handed, but it’s also supremely easy to use, while Kobo’s retains some of the appeal of Android, but also has a less polished overlay. Families should also consider Amazon’s great multi-user setup and parental controls, both of which are absent in the Kobo Arc.
By Eugene Kim, PCMag
- Operating System: Google Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
- CPU: Texas Instruments OMAP4470 Dual-Core
- Processor Speed: 1.5 GHz
- Dimensions: 7.4 x 4.7 x 0.5 inches
- Weight: 12.8 oz
- Screen Size: 7 inches
- Screen Resolution: 1280 x 800 pixels
- Storage Capacity (as Tested): 16 GB