This post is about the Kindle vs Kobo ecosystems. If you prefer video, you can watch the video below from my new Tony on Tech channel. This is a brand new channel so feedback is appreciated.
I recently ordered a new e-reader. The biggest decision was not so much which specific device to buy, but rather which ecosystem to marry into. Will the device I buy tie me to the Kindle ecosystem or the Kobo ecosystem? And which one is better?
Kindle vs Kobo
I owned both in the past and I did quite a bit of research to make up my mind this time around, so I’m sharing what I found with you.
When you buy a device like the recently announced Kindle Oasis 3 or the Kindle Paperwhite 4, you essentially receive a fairly locked down device. EPUB files are not supported, and you’ll need to convert them to the MOBI format before being able to read them on your Kindle.
There are programs like Calibre to help you out with the process, but it’s still an extra step you must take and the results are not always perfect. On the plus side, you get access to Amazon’s huge catalog of books. Kobo has a giant catalog as well but it doesn’t quite match the Kindle Store.
Since Kobo offers devices that are more open, you’ll be able to buy EPUB from anywhere else on the web and read them on your Kobo device.
Still, there are definitely books that are only available on Kindle so you will occasionally run into a book you can’t have on Kobo. Kindle also offers you seamless integration with Goodreads (since Goodreads was bought by Amazon) which is nice if you keep track of your library there.
Plenty of Books Available for Both
The catalog size is really not a major issue. Both will make most people happy. The bigger difference here is one of philosophy.
If you are the kind of person who loves open source, you might dislike Amazon’s total control on the device. Kobo isn’t open source either, but it’s certainly more flexible and will read a variety of open formats, including the aforementioned EPUB.
It’s worth noting that Kobo books are mostly DRM EPUB, but nobody forbids you from buying DRM-free EPUB books (like my own) and reading them on your Kobo device.
A Tale of Two Countries
The differences I outlined so far are true regardless of where you live, but some important pros and cons are very much dependent on your location.
Kindle vs Kobo in the US
If you live in the US, the newest kindle devices will allow you to play audiobooks from Audible (.com) through Bluetooth headphones.
You also can pay a monthly fee to receive access to Kindle Unlimited, which is a collection of over 1 million books available on an all-you-can-read basis, the book equivalent of Netflix if you will.
Many of these titles are indie or quite niche, but you’ll also find very popular titles like Harry Potter and The Handmaid’s Tale.
If you have Amazon Prime, you’ll also get access to Prime Reading which is a very small collection of Kindle books you get to read for free.
To date, there are about 1000 books in there, so don’t get too excited about it, but hey, if you’re already paying for Amazon Prime, you get them for free.
In the US, you also get to borrow and read on your Kindle, eBooks from the public library system through Overdrive. You can also lend and borrow ebooks from other Kindle users for up to 14 days.
Kindle vs Kobo Outside the US
Outside of the US, the story is quite a bit different. For example, in Canada, the Kindle catalog is smaller (including Kindle Unlimited), you can’t lend and borrow ebooks from friends, and you can’t borrow library ebooks on your Kindle e-reader.
Books tend to also be more expensive than their US counterpart, but in Canada, we are used to paying a premium for everything, except maple syrup and poutine. 🙂
The newest Kindle devices don’t currently support Audible.ca either. This point is particularly annoying when you consider how much Amazon has been pressuring Canadians to switch from the US site to the Canadian one.
Kobo, being originally a Canadian company, fares much better in Canada, by allowing people to borrow ebooks from the public library through Overdrive directly from the device, making the process even smoother than the one experienced by American Kindle users.
Integration with the Pocket service is also great, as it allows you to read longer articles you stored in your Pocket account while browsing the web on your desktop.
The closest thing Kindle has to this is offered by a third-party service called Instapaper, but it’s not as seamless in my experience.
Nevertheless, if you are an American reader, Kindle is a no-brainer, unless you have ideological reasons against getting an Amazon device. This is why it is estimated that over 83% of ebook readers in the US are Kindles.
Kobo is the second-largest player in America, and their partnership with Walmart will only help them out. But Amazon’s offering in the US is tough to beat unless you, again, take issue at the lack of open formats on the platform or really need a larger device, since Amazon discontinued e-ink devices with screens larger than 7″.
But if you are in Canada, the Kindle proposition starts to be a lot less appealing. To me, the lack of support for public libraries, in particular, is a major blow.
If you are an avid reader like I am, the cost of the device becomes almost irrelevant if you need to buy every book you read. And it’s not just me thinking this way. The majority of e-readers in the hands of Canadians are Kobo devices for a reason.
The Device I ordered
And that’s why I ordered a Kobo Forma, which is the equivalent of the Kindle Oasis 3, only it has an 8″ screen instead of the 7 inches of the Oasis.
It doesn’t support Bluetooth for audiobooks, but then again, in Canada, neither does the Oasis, and I listen to audiobooks on my phone while driving or at the gym, in any case.
One valid alternative would be to buy one of those Chinese Android tablets with e-ink displays, such as the Onyx Boox series.
Being Android devices, they will allow you to install both the Kindle and Kobo apps, as well as Overdrive, and any other regular Android app.
This way you could have the Kindle catalog and the ability to borrow library books, even in Canada. However, these devices tend to be quite a bit more expensive than even the top of the line Kindle or Kobo, they are not exactly bug-free, and perhaps they lose something by adding more capabilities.
If you are looking for an e-reader, less might be more. Part of the beauty of a device like the Kindle and Kobo lies in their distraction-free nature. The devices are simply not capable of doing much else but reading.
With a full-fledged tablet, even with an e-ink screen, you’re way more likely to become distracted.
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Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and AI Evangelist at IBM. He authored Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers (Wrox, 2009) and Technical Blogging ( The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2012, 2019). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to over 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.