It’s no secret that I’ve become a real fan of e-readers over the past few years. There’s a lot to like about the switch to digital books — no ruined covers, no misplaced novels, no worries about beach damage and new books on demand thanks to Wi-Fi and online bookstores. I was running out of room for bookshelves, too. I used to write about the e-reader industry extensively, and besides testing dozens of models, I count six among my personal collection, including units from Kobo, Sony, Amazon and B&N. But tablets have slowly been taking over from the old school E Ink e-reader in my life. I do much of my reading at night, and since e-reader lighting has ranged from bad (clip-on lights) to iffy (built-in lights that tend to be uneven and spotty), an iPad and Nook Color have largely taken over around here. However, I just wrapped up testing on a new device that’s completely changed that equation. The Kobo Aura HD is the e-reader that will make you think twice about using a tablet for consuming digital books.
The case for E Ink e-readers — single purpose devices (although most include rudimentary web browsers and basic games) — has been slipping over the past few years as tablet PCs have become smaller, cheaper and more powerful. A 7-inch Kindle Fire is now just $159 if you’re okay with some ads, and even a full-blown Android tablet like Google’s Nexus 7 is $199. You can not only read e-books on these devices, but watch movies, play games and surf the web. That Nexus 7 has a 1280 x 800 display (216 ppi), making it much crisper than most E Ink e-readers. And you can read in the dark without having to clip on a light.
However, Kobo’s Aura HD shows that single-purpose e-readers can still more than hold their own against tablets. The Aura HD’s 6.8-inch display has a resolution of 1440 x 1080 (265 ppi), making for razor sharp text. That’s about the same pixel density as Apple’s iPad with Retina Display (264 ppi) and significantly higher than Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite (212 ppi). The Kobo also boasts the ability to personalize any reading experience to an incredible degree, with 10 font styles, 24 sizes and the ability to tweak both sharpness and weight of the fonts. The Aura HD also has the best front-lit illumination system I’ve seen. ComfortLight is absolutely even across the page (no shadow spots), it’s adjustable, it doesn’t chew through the battery and doesn’t cause the kind of eye strain that staring at a backlit LCD for hours at a time can.
On top of that, the Aura HD retains two of the key advantages E Ink e-readers have always had over tablets: battery life and readability in daylight. Even with the ComfortLight turned on for an hour or more a day, after two weeks of constantly using the Aura HD, I still had two thirds of a battery charge. Kobo says up to two months, depending on how often you use the light and whether you keep Wi-Fi on. Compare that to a tablet, where a best case scenario is 10 hours or so before needing to recharge. And E Ink remains the only way to go if you plan on reading outdoors or under reflective lighting. Sure, you can squint through the screen glare with a tablet, but an E Ink display only looks better in sunlight. At 8.5 oz., It’s also a heck of a lot lighter than most tablets, so carrying it around for reading on the go is easier.
The Kobo Aura HD is compatible with a wide range of digital media file types, but EPUB support is front and center. I prefer this format to Amazon’s proprietary Kindle approach; beside’s Kobo’s own online bookstore, others like Sony’s and Barnes & Noble’s also use EPUB. It’s also the format of choice for many public libraries.
One of the interesting things you’ll note about the Aura HD is its unusual form factor. It’s a slate, like all e-readers, but its back has a “folded” look that makes it more natural to hold onto. The plastic can still get a bit slippery, but I found the creases really did help. The drawback to this design (and the larger display) is that many accessories made for e-readers won’t fit the Kobo Aura. I have a handful of cases that fit Kindles, Sony readers, Nooks and previous generation Kobos, but the Aura HD is just slightly too big. However, there are options, including cases made specifically for the device — just don’t assume that a case or cover you’re using now will fit.
And while I’m nitpicking, my pet peeve about most recent e-readers is that by embracing touchscreen technology, many have begun shedding physical page turn buttons, and the Aura HD is one of these pure touch devices. Not everyone feels the same way, obviously, but I find one-handed reading is much easier with buttons, and they help keep the display free from fingerprints.
It was only six years ago that $399 was the cost of entry for an e-reader. In that context, the Aura HD’s $169.99 seems like a bargain, but the fact is there’s a lot of competition in the $100 range these days and $200 can get you a decent 7-inch Android tablet. Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite 3G goes for $199, so the Kobo isn’t the most expensive E Ink e-reader on the market, but, at its current price, the Aura HD is a tad on the pricey side for a single-purpose device. That being said, it’s the first e-reader I’ve come across in the past two years that I would buy and I recommended it for inclusion in the GeekDad Father’s Day Gift Guide.
I’m still going to be using an iPad for reading comics —the big screen and color display makes an ideal platform for consuming that kind of digital content — but for everything else, the Kobo Aura HD is now my go-to e-reader.
You can find the full specs for the Kobo Aura HD here, along with additional information such as Kobo’s Reading Life social media integration. The e-reader is available online through Kobo.com, and in Canada at retailers including Chapters, Staples and Best Buy.
That 265 ppi display blows away other e-reader and most tablets for sharpness; ComfortLight is bright, even and easy on the eyes; 4 GB of internal storage (expandable using Micro SD cards); text has huge customization options thanks to TypeGenius (with 10 fonts, 24 sizes, adjustable sharpness and weight); compatible with EPUB e-book format; still offers two months battery life.
There’s no getting around the fact that $169.99 is getting up there for an e-reader; the slightly larger display means that some covers and cases meant for 6-inch devices won’t fit the Aura HD; the Onyx model in particular was prone to attracting fingerprints (Espresso was better and presumably Ivory should hide them).
Disclosure: Kobo provided the reviewer with a Kobo Aura HD.