The very soggy start to summer has my arthritis flared up, to the point where reading any decent-sized book is painful, especially after spending a day at the keyboard.

To this compulsive reader, that situation is intolerable so yesterday I succumbed to the blandishments of a flier–something I almost never do–because it promised an e-reader that was small, light and cheap.

I had looked into various e-readers before but was not persuaded they would really suit me. Most of them were heavy and awkward enough to hurt my hands when they’re bad, not to mention more expensive and large enough to fit only the larger purses. Also, some were clearly intended to tie the user to a single retail source, which I find morally repugnant as well as inconvenient.

I already have all the major software versions installed on my netbook but I spend too many hours staring at its screen already so it’s not ideal for after-hours reading. Besides, it’s no darned good for reading in bed. I’ve tried, heaven knows, but even with it resting on my stomach, it was uncomfortable and hard on the eyes.

Anyway, finding myself in the neighbourhood yesterday, I stopped in at La Source (Radio Shack) to see what the Kobo Mini was like, having checked the specs to make sure you can turn off the spyware and load it with books and documents from anywhere. I had also already come up with a rationale for calling it a business expense: it would be handy to have various reference materials visible on another device while I work, instead of having to constantly switch between windows. I didn’t expect to buy on the spot but I did and I don’t regret it. Here’s why:

1. Weight and size: It’s comparable in weight to a 400-page paperback but only 1/4 the thickness and 2″ shorter than “pocket book” size. It will even fit into a small clutch or a fanny pack (though not the average-sized pocket) so it really can be taken anywhere.

2. Screen: Though 3″ x 4″ (a.k.a 5″ diagonally) it may seem small, the eInk technology is really very good. Times is easily legible at 9 or 10 points. There’s no glare and (unlike on the netbook) the white “page” isn’t bright enough to be hard on the eyes but the text is still readable in both bright and low light conditions.

3. Sync and load: It took a bit of fiddling around to load it from the netbook but that was mostly my stupidity, I suspect. The mini USB-USB cable was included. I had to redownload from the Kobo site to set it up and get the driver updated, but that didn’t take long. It seemed as if the “Sync” didn’t work but turning the gadget off and on showed it had.
Then I used the free Calibre program to copy sundry non-Kobo books and files over and that worked (except that the Kobo doesn’t use the Calibre database to show corrected titles for EPUBs from Project Gutenberg and assorted PDF reports and whatnot). In all, about an hour of futzing around and I had 84 books (one over 1000 pages long) and other documents loaded, with room for another 100+ in the 2 GB of internal storage.

4. Simplicity: There is exactly ONE mechanical element, a little slider at the top. You slide it quickly to put the Kobo to sleep or wake it up; you slide and hold it a second or two to power the Kobo on or turn it off. The screen shows the cover page of the book you were on and tells you whether it’s off or only sleeping. It wakes up instantly from sleep with your current page showing. If it’s been turned off, your book shows onscreen and a tap reopens it to that page. That’s efficient, and mechanical parts are usually the first to break so it’s smart design, too. Otherwise, there’s a little “reset” hole near the slider and the mini USB port at the bottom–no protrusions to catch on things or break off.

5. Wifi: It’s built in and turns on and off in software, under user control. There is even a Web browser on the Kobo (under “Extras”–along with Chess and Sudoko which I didn’t expect).

There are some disadvantages, though I don’t think they should be deal-breakers:

1. Touchscreen issues: It may just be me or my particular unit but a finger-tap works about one time in three; the light finger-drag for page-turning works fine. I firmly rejected the salesclerk’s suggestion of a strangely heavy $10 stylus: once I got it home, I found that the butt end of a dollar-store pen works perfectly every time.

2. Onscreen icons: Again, this may not affect you but I wish the little icons would stay visible at the bottom of the page as I read, instead of disappearing before I can get to them half the time.

3. Library: I find it a nuisance that the “cover” pictures are listed as separate items. It makes for “turning” many pages to find a given book among the many items listed. It would also be nice if one could correct the titles and authors in the listing, since a Gutenberg file number and “unknown” aren’t especially helpful.

4. Documentation: Effectively there isn’t any–just a little pamphlet that says plug it in and go to the Kobo site for the software and help. The online “help” for the Mini is singularly unhelpful–almost nothing there–and even the PDF guide (once I found it–there’s no obvious link for it at “help”) doesn’t explain useful things like what to do if your desktop Kobo program doesn’t let you use its e-Reader tab, and neither place tells you how to change the font size (get the bottom-of-page icons and click the AA one) or zoom in enough when a PDF shows up shrunken to the size of the screen (haven’t done that yet) or how to go to page 658 (near as I can tell, there’s no “Go to” command so you have to mess with the bottom-of-page slider until you get close and then turn pages one by one).

5. Battery: It appears you are only supposed to charge the Mini via the USB port on your computer, which seems odd–especially given that some people would likely want an e-reader without wanting a computer. (I do have a wall-outlet/USB charger that may work but am not sure it would be safe to try it.) The boast of a month without recharging is predicated on
a) keeping Wifi off (which they don’t want you to do–there’s a “social reading” element I immediately turned off), and
b) only reading for half an hour a day…which in my case is clearly ridiculous. Maybe once a week, if I’m lucky.

Anyway, having read in bed with it last night and at my desk in daylight in tiny print, I don’t regret having spent the money (about $50 CDN, tax included) which these days would get me only a paperback or two but now lets me read practically anything, much of it free, in relative comfort.