GeekDad Review: Kobo Aura

Kobo Aura compact e-reader
The new Kobo Aura e-reader (image copyright Kobo)

I’ve written previously about Kobo’s Aura HD, the 6.8-inch, 265 dpi, EPUB-compatible e-reader that still leads the pack so far as I’m concerned. But the Aura HD does have several issues that prevent it from being a mainstream device, primarily the price and the not-quite-standard form factor that can make protective cases a little tough to find. Kobo has now released the Aura, a 6-inch e-reader that doesn’t have quite the same razor sharp display as the Aura HD, but it’s much more compact and shaves some dollars off the price tag as well. It’s so compact that the device is virtually pocketable — despite the full-sized display — however, by being smaller than comparable e-readers, finding a variety of different cases to choose from may be an issue again. But you can’t have everything…

The new Kobo Aura e-reader falls somewhere in between last year’s Kobo Glo and the upscale Aura HD. It shaves a few fractions of an inch and a third of an ounce off the Glo’s already-compact size while keeping an industry standard 6-inch display and adds a lower resolution (but still very crisp) version of the Aura HD’s Clarity screen. Page turns are fast and the infamous “black flash” every six pages or so is a thing of the past (it’s a more subtle gray refresh). Onboard storage is 4GB with microSD card expandability and it’s WiFi equipped.

The Aura switches input gears from most e-readers, changing from the IR touch technology used by previous generations of Kobo devices for a touch capacitive display. The result is a front face that’s completely flat instead of the raised bezels required for the IR sensors. This makes for a thinner, more streamlined and easier to clean device, but it comes at a cost. I found that the combination of the thin side bezels and my (admittedly largish) fingers resulted in a lot more accidental page turns registering than I’m used to. It’s not the end of the world — and may not be an issue for everyone — but I did find it a bit annoying.

On the plus side, when compared to the Aura HD, the addition of a finely textured coating to the back makes it much easier to grip. It employs the same Comfortlight front-lighting technology that is so effective on the Aura HD — it’s very adjustable, completely even and unlike a backlit LCD tablet display it doesn’t cause eye fatigue when reading in the dark. It’s also easy on the battery. I haven’t had the test unit long enough to run it down (that can take a while with E Ink e-readers), but Kobo rates it for 2 months or more, depending on WiFi and light use. I own an Aura HD and have been averaging a month between charges with the light on for an hour or so each night.

I don’t know if the difference is the touch-technology used this time around, but I also noticed the Aura’s display when lit had a more natural white page than the Aura HD’s, which tended toward blue in comparison.

Kobo Aura and Aura HD
Kobo Aura (L) is significantly smaller than the Aura HD (R), still packs a 6-inch display and offers a more natural, warm-white glow when lit by built-in Comfortlight. Photo by Brad Moon

The Aura has everything else that those familiar with the Kobo e-reading experience have come to take for granted, but I noticed a new feature on the version of the software the tester was running. “Beyond the Book” is one-touch access to additional information about the e-book you’re reading. In my case, The Hobbit, included snippets about Dwarves, Elves, key characters and the author. The feature works whether you’re online or offline (although the online version offers richer details).

If you’re a fan of e-readers, don’t want to get locked into Amazon’s Kindle e-book format and find the Aura HD a bit steep (or too large), the $149.99 Aura is a high performance e-reader in an extremely compact form factor. It still carries a bit of a premium over rivals and I wish Kobo would include page turn buttons like my Nook, but the Aura is definitely a nice device.

Pros: Display is sharp, Comfortlight is even and easy on battery while gentle on the eyes, textured back provides good grip, tiny form factor with full-sized screen makes for compact size with few compromises, EPUB support, highly customizable fonts.

Cons: Switch to capacitive touch combined with thin bezels can cause inadvertent page turns, $10-$30 price premium over Kindle Paperwhite.

In answer to a few questions raised by readers in the previous Aura HD review, I’ve found the build quality of the Aura and the several Aura HD review units Kobo sent to be solid. They’re plastic, yes, but even Sony is using plastic for e-readers these days. So far as using an E Ink display for illustrated kids’ books (and comic books for that matter), I’d stick to a tablet. These e-readers are capable of pulling it off with a 16-level grayscale display, but I find the color display and larger screen size of a tablet makes for a superior experience.

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Brad has been a GeekDad core contributor since 2007 and writes about technology for a wide range of outlets. He's also a WFH dad, resident Canuck, outdoor enthusiast, camper extraordinaire and frequent reviewer of gadgets, devices and gizmos.