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Kobo Forma (2018)
Gadget Reviews

Kobo Forma (2018)

A decent, mostly capable e-reader that doesn’t justify its extravagantly premium asking price.

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Kobo is calling their new Kobo Forma the e-reader for “the ravenous booklover‎”, and it’s easy to see why. The latest Canadian-designed dedicated reading device from Rakuten offers fellow bookheads – which are legion – a veritable buffet of nearly every feature a Kobo enthusiast could ever dream of. It’s got the biggest and best all-around screen, is featherweight light, super comfy to hold, offers waterproofing protection for pools and bathtubs (toilets are another issue) and has the natural counterculture appeal of simply not being the mainstream choice. What could possibly go wrong?

Before we dive in let’s get something out of the way; you want a e-reader, not a defense about why you’d want an e-reader. That’s like asking why anyone would buy vinyl over a Spotify subscription; both formats have learned to coexist peacefully, often to their mutual benefit. The same principle should go with e-readers and smartphones / tablets. Sometimes, you just need to disconnect – well, mostly disconnect – from the online world. Yet still carry thousands of books with you. Compromise means never saying no to certain obsessions.

What’s really surprising, however, is how the Forma represents a sea change for the ongoing Kindle vs Kobo dynamic that’s been vying for the hearts (and hands) of loyal e-reading enthusiasts over the years. As the clear and undisputed market destroyer leader, Amazon’s Kindle has challenged and vanquished all rivals…except Kobo. Stubbornly, Kobo e-readers have continued to exist, innovating what many saw as a fading niche market in strange, wonderful ways like larger screens, waterproofing, wider format compatibility and in other areas Amazon neglected once they no longer felt the need to compete.

With the Forma, unfortunately, it’s Kobo that’s been forced to catch up with Amazon – a lopsided race that doesn’t work in their favor. The biggest inspiration for the Kobo’s strange new slanted design is the Kindle Oasis, a premium device where Amazon finally answered Kobo’s challenge head on (larger screen and waterproofing) while adding a few innovative ideas of their own – with a sizable price increase to go along with everything. The Forma largely apes the Oasis’ slanted design but stutters in other areas, often literally. Even worse is the one area they could’ve/should’ve beaten Amazon at their own game is where they fall hardest: the price. The Kobo Forma is even more expensive than the Kindle Oasis, a decidedly better product is just about every way imaginable.

Despite both the Kindle Oasis and the (now discontinued) Voyager being technically superior, users like myself still preferred Amazon’s cheaper yet still wildly capable Paperwhite (which is about to get a big upgrade of its own) over its bigger, more expensive brothers. After spending time with the Kobo Forma, the biggest and priciest Kobo yet, I think Rakuten fans are going to feel similarly towards older models like the Aura H20 Edition 2 and possibly even the Clara HD. Yes, the Forma comes loaded for battle with features galore, but can these help overcome its glaring design flaws and premium pricetag?

Design: Bigger, But Not Necessarily Better

Like the Kindle Oasis the Forma sports a new asymmetrical slanted design, meaning it tapers towards one edge to allow users to hold onto the device one-handed. The theory of this design is that a tapered edge also reduces the strain of continuous reading by distributing weight to those areas of your entire hand better suited for such a grueling endeavor. Just kidding – but holding the Forma in one hand does feels very natural, though I’ve personally never had issues with the standard rectangular slab designs.

The thicker side also brings with it some control options, namely the long-awaited return of page-turn buttons! You don’t have to use them as the Kobo Forma is still a touchscreen device, but the thinking is that one-handed holding makes those page buttons very thumb-friendly. That’s totally true, and I did find myself ‘thumbing’ through pages more often than I thought I would. These buttons are actually part of a large rocker piece and not individually separated (like the Oasis), meaning the way they sit in their low profile makes them feel mushy and not always responsive. They can be inverted to accommodate for the auto-rotation and the system software says you can even turn them off completely. My attempts to turn off page turns and go with swiping-only failed, however.

Unlike the Oasis, however, the back is pancake flat, speckled only with the familiar holes that help make gripping it either one or two-handed nice and comfortable. The Oasis’ bump also functioned as a second handle as well, and housed that device’s battery. The Forma makes do with the single bump and its 1200 mAh Lithium battery, which Kobo estimates will give you “weeks of use” on a single charge. After weeks of testing, I can say the Forma definitely earns that *asterick estimate.

I will caution users about the Forma’s power/standby button, the device’s only other physical button. It’s not good. For whatever reason the designers have recessed it to such an extend its nearly flush with the tapered side, and coupled with a mushy plastic molding it’s downright uncomfortable to press. Normally, I wouldn’t even bring this up, but once you factor in that you’ll have to long-press it (and probably often) to manually reset and/or power-cycle the Forma these flaws become unavoidable. More about this down below.

In case you’re curious, yes the Forma includes a built-in sensor that can automatically rotate your screen either for right/left-handed users (portrait mode) or even widescreen landscape mode. Don’t laugh, but I’ve seen plenty of people call this “belly mode” as the device sits comfortably on your, well, belly. Don’t laugh before you try it – very comfy. With regards to auto-rotating: the interface itself doesn’t rotate, so even if you prefer landscape mode you’ll still have to manually flip the Forma around to adjust anything. Also, auto-rotating may cause freezing and frustration, which I’ll explain below.

The Kobo Forma is bigger than most e-readers – a lot bigger. We’re talking near-iPad levels here at 16 cm H x 17.7 cm W x 8.5cm D with the tapered edge thickened up to 4.2cm. Despite everything being bigger, the Forma is actually 15 percent lighter than the Aura ONE at just 197g or 6.94oz., which nearly matches the smaller Kindle Oasis despite having a significantly larger screen. Impressive!

Let’s talk about the Forma’s most distinguishing feature – perhaps the sole reason you’ll want it over the competition: that huge 8.0 inch display sporting a sharp 1440 × 1920 300 PPI resolution, making this display, once again, roughly in the same ballpark as the Oasis and even the Aura ONE. To help achieve that super-thin design and featherweight bulk Kobo opted for a hybrid of both E Ink Carta / Mobius technology instead of Gorilla Glass…because the Forma screen isn’t glass at all. It’s a flexible plastic layer inside the display that not only reduces its weight to ridiculously low numbers but allows for more bending and twisting. Not that you should regularly bend and twist a nearly $300 device.

You’ll definitely want to cover that beautiful screen in something like Kobo’s optional SleepCover ($49), which not only encases the Forma front-to-back inside a tougher outer shell but the magnetic cover can transform into a makeshift stand for what Kobo calls “hands-free reading” in both portrait and landscape modes. I suppose this is technically true…until you need to turn the page, which happens frequent when you’re reading ebooks. Just don’t use the stand in belly mode… it ain’t pretty.

Backlit and ComfortPro Blue Light Filtering

The Kobo Forma is backlit – that’s a must these days. Not everyone is able to read their libraries of vampire fiction in direct sunlight (naturally) so great backlighting is important, especially when reading under the covers on a brisk wintery night. It also works great, for the most part, with levels adjustable by finger slides up/down the side or manually in the system menu. Like most recent Kobo readers, it handles filtering out eyeball-drying Blue light using its trademarked ComfortLight Pro settings. An array of white and red LEDs allows the screen to shift coloring from white to a crispy orange throughout the day, meaning once you set your “bedtime” it’ll slowly transition like Fall in New England as the day progresses.

While the Forma’s screen generally looks nice, there’s a noticeably ugly black bar near the tapered edge almost like a persistent shadow. We’ve seen this banding on Kobo readers before, so perhaps the issue is related to manufacturing or the materials used. This isn’t a deal-killer and the screen generally handles content like a champ, but I felt I had to mention it.

Under The Hood: Something Old, Something New

For the tech heads: the Forma sports a 1 GHZ NXP i.MX6 Solo Lite processor from Freescale/NXP, which is actually a generation behind the year-old Kindle Oasis. Helping with those heavy ebook loads is  512MB RAM and 8GB of available storage space (a 32GB variant is available exclusively in Japan, which makes sense given it’s a Rakuten product and the obvious pull for the manga-hungry users).

It would have been nice to see Kobo use a more recent generation of processors, however, especially to help power that huge screen for graphics-intensive image rendering. And therein lies the paradox of the Kobo itself: despite being an e-reader designed for mass comic consumption, compromises on what powers those larger screens, in turn, diminishes performance. I hate to keep repeating myself, but we’re talking about a supposed premium (and certainly premium-priced) device here.

All connectivity is handled either wirelessly through WiFi 802.11 b/g/n or direct connecting a cable via the single micro USB port. There’s no support for external storage via SD or microSD cards so you’re left with the internal memory to fill up.

Kobo Software: Perfunctory

Despite having access to a fairly decent online store the Kobo bookstore experience can seem very barebones, but that doesn’t mean the cupboard is actually bare. The usual disclaimer that choosing a Kobo over a Kindle excludes you to Amazon’s earth-shatteringly big ecosystem, which continues to spread and envelop everything (including rivals) in its path. For some, this would seem a natural and obvious disadvantage. For others, though, not being connected into Amazon’s world is actually a big selling point. Sort of like choosing to shop local over big corporate megastores. Sort of.

Yes, you won’t have access to Amazon’s store, but Kobo’s digital library isn’t too shabby. It’s stocked with nearly everything you’d want, minus the Kindle exclusives. Title for title, the Kobo store matches up well against Amazon is nearly every major release available at competitive prices, though Amazon’s versions are (suspiciously) almost always pennies cheaper. There’s also a huge selection of quality comics and graphic novels, though you won’t be able to enjoy them in color on the Forma (or on similar Kindles either, to be fair) but black and white comics and manga seem tailor made for the Forma’s bigger screen.

Fans of lusty literature aren’t left out, either. With oodles of bare-chested musclemen looking super serious, all hilarious, indicating the literature-porn demographic for Kobo readers trends highly, if not exclusively, in one direction. If that’s your thing, bon appetit!

Those familiar with previous Kobo models, or even Kindles, will find the experience largely the same with the Kobo Forma. Within the actual reading pane you’ll have touch access to page swipes forward and back, long-presses for dictionary definitions and – occasionally – Google and Wiki searches, simple note taking and highlighting. All standard stuff, but all very useful in a digital-only book environment. You can easily add/subtract bookmarks, jump to chapters and much more.

Generally, it’s still not quite as quick, smooth or as responsive (overall) as the Kindle experience, but once you’re in the reading groove that shouldn’t matter all that much. You also won’t get any of Amazon’s dizzying array of reading extras, but I consider them more distractions anyway so (for me) it’s not much a loss.

Kobo readers also allow you to sideload more fonts to their already decent collection, but I never tried this as I was more than satisfied with the stock options. Speaking of which, fonts remain another decent Kobo exclusive as you can modify them to your liking with best-in-class spacing, margins, justifying, and more.

Thankfully, the Kobo’s traditionally killer feature – that huge compatibility list of just about every file format you could ever want – remains intact. Not that you’ll use every one of them, but those who need instant access to EPUB, EPUB3, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ and CBR formats can easily sideload their files by simply connecting to a computer and dragging the file over. Super easy, of course, especially for EPUB users – the format of choice for indie publishers and the sole holdout in Amazon’s ecosystem. Factor in super-easy OverDrive access (see below) and you won’t be hungry for content anytime soon.

Extras: Waterproof, Pocket, OverDrive

Most recent Kobo’s now feature waterproofing and the Forma doesn’t buck the trend, letting you enjoy digital reading near the pool, large body of water or even a sudsy bathtub without fear (and without bags of rice at the ready). The Forma features trademarked HZO Protection that happily meets requirements for an IPX8 rating, which means it’ll withstand total submersion for up to 60 minutes in up to 2 meters/6 feet of water.

Apart from the odd splash or accidental spill, however, you probably don’t want to put that IPX8 rating to the test, especially if your water isn’t room temperature. Brave soul that I am, I tested the Forma in a relatively innocuous bath setting with water almost, but not quite, hot enough to impress a Japanese hot springs enthusiast. Not only does basic water tend to affect the touch interface, but it appears that even moderate warm temperatures cause the device to become wonky – to the point where the Forma froze and had to be manually rebooted multiple times. What’s worse, it wasn’t just in wet environments that it would crash – repeatedly. I’ll detail more about this in my gripes…

Another reason not to chance getting the Forma wet – it’s rubbery design. Once again, this is where the disparity between “premium” build quality and materials bash heads as the Forma’s rubbery matte siding becomes a blotchy mess after contact with water, something that’s not an issue with the aluminum-sided Kindle Oasis. I can’t help but feel that the Forma’s encasing isn’t going to be a selling point, especially for a premium-priced e-reader.

Do you use Pocket, the web-snipping extension that lets you easily ‘pocket’ articles for quick access at a later time? Neither do I, but apparently Kobo users do because it’s a marquee feature with the Forma. I kid, but one of the draws of using a dedicated e-reader is not having full access to online distractions – of escaping – so anything that reinforces that isn’t necessarily a draw. Same with Facebook integration. Not for me!

Another big, entirely relevant ane welcome feature is direct OverDrive compatibility, which makes checking out books (provided your library supports it) super easy. This is actually a big deal, especially since not every Kobo device supports OverDrive support. Even better, it’s built right into the software, meaning unlike Kindles you won’t have to use multiple devices (like a PC/MAC or smartphone) to sideload borrowed books. Given the obvious disadvantage of not having access to Amazon’s enormous digital storefront, any single feature that makes obtaining and reading books on a Kobo device should be applauded.

The Not So Good: Crashing Back to Earth

Perhaps the single most disappointing thing I experienced when testing the Kobo Forma might be when I couldn’t actually use it – because of frequent system crashes. After testing the Forma with a large variety of file formats, including native Kobo books, PDFs, ePubs and others the device would often lock up and eventually freeze altogether. This isn’t good.

Normally the quick-fix was to manually power-cycle the Forma, i.e. long-pressing the power button until the device resets, meaning an undetermined amount of your reading progress will be lost. Not helping is a power button so mushy and recessed it’s uncomfortable to press – let alone press long enough to have it power-cycle.

In other, more drastic and catastrophic, instances the device would reset and immediately freeze up again. In this state reading on the Forma became impossible, which necessitated having to factory reset the Forma at least twice. To be honest, I’ve never dealt with such issues when testing Kobo readers in the past, let alone a supposed “premium” e-reader, but I’ve never really dealt with auto-rotation in a Kobo reader either.

This problem/solution solution was so consistent I can only assume these issues are software related, which means they could potentially be fixed via some future update or patch. I was tempted to ask our Kobo PR rep to send another test unit, but thought better of it. We review the device we have, not the device we wished we had.

On this, if you’re curious why such a potentially deal-killing “bug” hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere, I say blame the way most tech sites review products like the Kobo Forma. Larger sites usually don’t have time to stress test “niche” products like e-readers when there’s a slightly improved smartphone or new CPU to overclock, relegating non-marquee products like Kobo devices to minutes, possibly hours, but certainly not longer periods of time as they should be. Do I sound bitter? You bet – because we bookish fans deserve better!

Audiobook Support?

Another big letdown is the lack of support for audiobooks, another feature the Kindle Oasis (and even less expensive Amazon e-readers) supports via Audible. True, you’ll need a Bluetooth headset to listen to them, but given how Amazon has begun to merge both text and audio integration it’s always nice to have more options. While it may not offer the enormous library that Audible does, the Kobo Store has a very respectable audiobook section, including a monthly subscription similar to what’s available with Amazon devices. Listening is the new reading, right?

Is the complete lack of audiobook support for the Forma a deal-killer? Not by a longshot, but it’s a huge omission that only exacerbates the growing gulf between Amazon or…Not Amazon. Competition in our tech products is sorely needed right now, especially ‘niche’ ones like e-readers. You can listen to Kobo Audiobooks on your smartphone/tablet, the technology exists, so why not pair the services like Amazon does?

In Conclusion

Generally, the Kobo Forma is a great e-reader, one of the very best, with a screen bigger than the biggest Kindle and weighing practically nothing, with a compatibility list second to none. Unfortunately, every one of these advantages is cancelled out by that eye-popping $279 price, which only gets worse when you factor in the $49 SleepCover. Also, why should a device costing this much feel so rubbery and become so easily discolored? Or suffer frequent progress-killing crashes?

To be frank, the Forma is a premium-priced device that doesn’t look or function like one, and that’s a problem when there’s a smorgasbord of more affordable options available, many from Kobo themselves. For the price they’re asking you deserve a better product than what’s being offered, and praise from lazy tech or overly enthusiastic Canadian reviewers avoiding blindingly obvious design flaws and lackluster performance aren’t helping these devices get better, and I desperately want Kobo devices to get better. The e-reading world is better with Kobo still alive, still fighting and innovating against Amazon. Maybe software fixes will help the Forma’s performance, or better luck next time. Let’s just keep hoping there is a next time.