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Do not pass gobii

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The gobii eReader is the first e-book device aimed exclusively at the South African market. But can it compete with the Kindle, even with a 6000km head-start? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK puts it through the Gadget Five Question User Test.

Even Google can’t believe that South Africans could be so audacious. Type in ‚gobii review‚ , and it asks, ‚Did you mean: kobo review‚ ? Not that the Kobo is the real competitor in this space. The Amazon Kindle may have to be imported from 6000km away, but it looms large on this playing field.

The standard in e-readers is as obvious as the standard in tablets. Any manufacturer producing a new e-reader option for the market has to understand it is competing with the Kindle. In usability and legibility, on the one hand, and in price on the other, there is little mystery about where the bar has been set.

If you’re not as good as the Kindle, you have to be a lot cheaper. If you’re not as cheap as the Kindle, you have to be a lot better.

Especially after the recent announcement of two new Kindles at $79 and $99, that challenge is even more clear, direct and difficult.

So who would expect a South African player to enter the market? Indeed, when first approached on the topic by a major media house a few years ago, we advised them to develop industry-standard e-books for industry-standard devices, including the Kobo and Nook, which take open standard formats and PDFs, and for the Kindle, which gives access to the biggest bookstore in the world, rather than develop their own proprietary device.

No one told that to Kalahari.net, and they have chosen to release their own proprietary device, under the brand name gobii. As in the Gobi desert. Southern Africa’s biggest desert meets China’s great desert. South African entrepreneurship leverages Chinese manufacturing.

The gobii is a 7‚ colour LCD e-reader with full-colour display, and supports a wide range of formats. My own PDF documents, for example, worked like a charm.

But how does it fare on the Gadget Five Question User Test? (with the subtext always, how does it compare with the Kindle?).

1. Is it ready to use?

It needs to be charged before it will switch on ‚ the first time as well as every time the battery runs down. Merely plugging it into a power outlet doesn’t do the trick ‚ only after reaching a certain level of batter power does it allow operations. But then it’s simply a case of plugging the USB cable into a computer and you can begin transferring files. No set-up is needed.

2. Is it easy to use?

It’s deceptively easy to use, particularly since most of the controls are intuitive. A scroll-button at bottom centre is flanked by four keys, for Menu, Zoom, Music control and Return ‚ the latter to return to the previous screen. Two tabs on the sides of the screen provide Next Page and Page Back functions. A mini-USB jack, earphone jack and SD card slot round out the obligatory full-house of accessory options, and a DC jack is provided for charging. Locating the Power button at the bottom end of the device is a lazy option for the manufacturers, though, as it is not the intuitive location for that button.

There is little lacking, until you look for download options. Oops. No WiFi. No 3G. For you, only USB.

3. Does it operate as advertised?

Despite not being able to enter any of the download clouds, importing content is a pleasure. Plug the USB cable into your computer, and it appears on the computer as a USB drive, identified as the gobii eReader. Simply drag and drop, and it appears on the device.

It supports Adobe DRM PDF, DRM ePub with reflow, TXT, FB2, PDB and HTML formats. In other words, it takes anything you throw at it.

The experience of reading the books or documents, however, is decidedly inferior. It does what it says it will do, but offers the user very little satisfaction. The screen may be full-colour LCD, but the experience is low-res and almost fuzzy.

It has a backlit screen, which means that it starts putting strain on your eyes after a short reading stint. Here is where the Kindle truly reveals its superiority, using e-ink technology that replicates the book-reading experience as closely as possible. No one’s expecting Kalahari.net to match or beat Amazon, but they are not even on the same playing field on this score.

To its credit, the gobii eReader also plays music and video, as well as being an image viewer. Have a look at the formats it supports:

Video: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4(Xvid), Divx, H.263, H.264, RM/ RMVB, MKV, MOV, VOB, FLV and WMV video formats.

Audio: MP3, AAC, WAV, OGG and WMA audio formats.

Photos: JPG, BMP, GIF and PNG image formats.

Is that enough to set it apart? Not when you have better devices, like laptops or tablets, that do those jobs far better. But at the price, it suddenly becomes an option, for example for schoolkids.

4. Is it innovative?

Yes, it supports all those book, video and sound formats. But it looks and feels like a cheap Kindle clone manufactured not far from the Gobi Desert and merely stamped with a cute brand name. In fact, the name is the only truly distinctive element about the package.

5. Is it value for money?

You mean, does it compare with the price of the Kindle? Yes, if you manage your ownership carefully. The cheapest Kindle, although $79 in the USA, will cost you $109 if ordered from South Africa, since it won’t be ad-supported here as it is in the USA. And that’s before shipping. To compare that with Kindle, it would have to come in at under R850. The list price on Kalahari.net is in fact R899, but it comes with a R160 e-book voucher for use on the site. That effectively brings the price down to R739, which makes it the lowest cost e-book reader in South Africa. A couple of hundred rand extra will give you something that feels more like the real thing. But if you’re on a tight budget you could ‚ only just ‚ justify this purchase.

* Follow Arthur on Twitter on @art2gee

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