Hands-on with the Kobo Arc (Video)

When Kobo first launched their 7-inch Android-powered tablet last year it was met with a great deal skepticism. The Vox was released with outdated specs, and was slow and unresponsive. However, the price point was correct. For $200 those loyal Kobo eBook readers could read and also experience some benefits of a slimmed down version of an Android 2.3 tablet. The Vox wasn’t certified by Google and therefore couldn’t carry apps like Gmail, and didn’t obtain access to Google Play until recently.

Kobo has returned to the tablet space and will take on other competitors in the 7-inch arena, such as Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire (not available in Canada). Coming to stores this November is the “Arc,” a 7-incher that boasts a display resolution of 1280×800, matching the current crop of similarly-sized tabs like the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HD.

I had some hands-on time with the Arc this morning and Kobo reps stated that “it’s a totally new product,” not at all based on the Vox.” That alone is refreshing. The design is similar to the Vox, but has a few noteworthy changes. Let’s talk about the software. The Arc runs Android OS 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich and will be upgradable to OS 4.1 Jelly Bean when it “becomes available” to them. They stated they have to ensure that the user experience is the same, but said it’s in the works. The Arc is thankfully Google-Certified so you’ll have access to the 600,000+ apps in the Play Store, plus all the Google you can handle (Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Google+).

The Arc UI is based on something Kobo created called “Tapestries.” This allows users to be “closer to their content” by giving them “more control. It collects and organizes content into various “spaces,” such as book, web, magazines, simply by pinning items that interest you onto your homescreen. This basically gives you quick access to your interests. What’s unique about the Arc is that they have embedded a “Discover” feature into Tapestries, which based on what’s in your Tapestries spaces learns your interests and “brings things to you” rather than you search Google to find info. I quickly checked out the eReader capabilities on the display and text was clear and sharp. Thanks to the 1.5GHz TI OMAP 4470 dual-core processor the scrolling was fluid and showed no sign of lagging (unlike the Vox).

As for the overall design. The Arc is thin at 12.4mm and weighs in at 364 grams. It felt sturdy and comfortable. It’s all plastic and there’s a few chrome accent corners that give it a bit more of a quality feel. On the top you’ll find the power button, followed by the 3.5mm headset jack and the volume rocker on the right hand side. The bottom holds the microUSB port, but on the front you’ll see the 1.3MP front-facing camera that has the ability to snap 720p HD videos (didn’t see what they look like). Kobo has also included dual stereo speakers with SLS on the front that is apparently “the best sound technology you can get on a tablet.” Finally, the backing. Kobo wanted to add some personalization to the mix and dreamed up what they call “SnapBacks.” This is simply interchangeable back cover plates, which are plastic but feel leathery, and will be available in black, white, blue and purple.

The price is right at $199.99 for the 8GB version, and $249.99 for the 16GB. However, the release date is set for November and by then we might see a price drop in the Nexus 7, or possibly see Apple’s iPad “mini” 7.85-inch tablet surface. There’s a quick video below, but we’ll give you a full review of the Arc when it gets closer to launch.