Hands On: Kobo’s Aura e-reader commands a premium for bookstore freedom

With a nice screen, Pocket integration, and a smaller footprint than the Kindle, Kobo’s Aura is a fine alternative e-reader. But its $150 price is steep considering good alternatives are available for as low as $99.

In the US, Amazon’s trio of dedicated Kindle e-readers dominate the market, alongside the lesser-known (but still well received) Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch.

But Kobo, owned by Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, seems determined to gain a stronger foothold in the e-reader space with its new Aura, a $150 E-Ink reader expected to land in stores on September 16. The company announced it on Tuesday in New York City, alongside three new LCD-screened, Android-based tablets Arc tablets.

Unlike the Kindle or Nook, the Aura boasts wide file support so that you’re not stuck getting all your books from the same store, and comes integrated with Pocket, a service for easily sending Web articles directly to your e-reader for later. But are these features enough to break the strong grip of its monolithic competitors and justify the higher price? We spent the night and early morning tapping and swiping through Kobo’s latest e-reader to find out.

Light and portable

The Aura, like other recent E-Ink readers, is a fairly compact device, at 5.9 x 4.5 x 0.3 inches (H x W x D), with a textured plastic back. The devices on display at the Kobo event were all black, but the company says pink will also be an option.

The Aura is comfortable to hold in one hand, and doesn’t feel heavy, at 6.1 ounces—a bit lighter than the Kindle Paperwhite’s 7.5 ounces.

A two-finger swipe up or down in the center of the screen lets you control the lighting on the fly as you read.

Two buttons sit on the top edge of the Aura: A recessed black button toggles the screen’s front lighting on or off, and a red slider switch puts the Aura to sleep with a short pull, or powers it on or off with a longer pull and hold. We like the button layout here, but aren’t exactly fond of the power button’s red hue on an otherwise monochrome device.

There are no buttons on the sides of the Aura, just a micro USB port on the bottom for charging and manually loading files, and a MicroSD slot where you can add up to 32GB of storage to the built-in 4GB. That’s twice the storage that you’ll find on the Kindle Paperwhite, but even 2GB is enough to store close to a thousand text-based books, and both devices will store your purchases for access via Wi-Fi. So while we applaud Kobo’s added storage and expansion options, most users will probably never take advantage of the extra space.

Screen

The Aura’s front is dominated by a matte 6-inch display that runs from edge to edge, meaning the screen isn’t recessed inside the bezel. Kobo didn’t specify the screen’s resolution, but at the same advertised pixel density as the Kindle Papwerwhite’s 6-inch screen, it’s pretty safe to say the Aura’s screen is 1024 x 768. It also can display 16 shades of grey, just like the current Kindle.

Without having the other devices in front of us, it’s difficult to say exactly how well the Aura’s white ComfortLight stacks up against the Paperwhite or the Nook with Glowlight. But to our eyes, the Aura’s light looks very even at varying brightness levels, whether in a dark or light room.

Kobo Aura Pocket Integration

Rather than requiring you to dig through menus to adjust the brightness, a two-finger swipe up or down in the center of the screen lets you control it on the fly as you read. The light does flicker noticeably when it’s being adjusted, though, with can be jarring to your eyes if you’re, say, in a dark bedroom.

As we’ve come to expect with E-Ink devices, pages seem to turn about a half second after you swipe. Like recent Kindles, the device doesn’t always completely blank out the screen with every page turn, which makes for a less visually jarring reading experience. This technique does leave some slight image ghosting on the screen at times, especially if you’re looking at graphics-heavy content with blank screen space, rather than a page full of just text.

Navigating around the Kobo can feel a bit slow, but we blame the screen technology more than the guts – it’s powered by a 1GHz Freescale i.MX507 CPU.

Battery life

Battery longevity is always tough to test on e-readers, given that under ideal usage, they last for days or months. Kobo says the Aura should last for “more than two months” without a recharge. But that’s based on 30 minutes of reading per day with Wi-Fi off.

At best, the Aura is just slightly better than the Paperwhite or Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight. 

After spending a few hours setting up the Aura with the Wi-Fi on, logging into our Kobo account, syncing our books, and doing a bit of reading with the light on (but set mostly at low levels) we managed to take the Aura from a full charge down to 85 percent.

So it seems like you’ll probably need to charge the Kobo every week or so, unless you’re meticulous about switching the Wi-Fi off (which would be easier if there were a dedicated button for doing so) and you don’t often use the ComfortLight. But all that also depends on whether you’re a casual reader or a dedicated bookworm.

Clip the Web for offline reading

One of the ways Kobo helps to set the Aura apart from the Kindle and Nook is a just-announced partnership with Pocket (formerly Read It Later). Pocket’s apps and browser extensions let you quickly and simply save Web content for reading on other devices or at a later time.

We played around a bit with Pocket’s integration on the Kobo Aura, saving a few Digital Trends articles from the Chrome browser on our desktop. Sure enough, with the Wi-Fi on, the next time we picked up the Aura, the articles were ready to read there, formatted nicely into multiple pages, just like a book, including in-line images.

Kobo Aura Back

If you’re already a Pocket devotee, or you like the idea of saving things you see during the day on the Web to read later at night on a screen that isn’t so hard on your eyes, you’ll definitely like this feature. Just know that you’ll have to remember to turn your Wi-Fi on to sync if you want to retain batter life, then remember to turn it off again after your Pocket content has downloaded.

While the Aura comes tightly integrated with Pocket out of the box, it’s worth noting that Kindle users have alternatives, like the Klip.me browser extension, that essentially do the same thing through Amazon’s Kindle Personal Documents service.

Competition and conclusion

As a dedicated e-reading device, there’s not a lot not to like about the Kobo Aura. Its screen is as good as any E-Ink reader outside the company’s own limited-edition Aura HD, with a nice white backlight, expandable storage, and a compact size that beats Amazon’s Paperwhite.

More importantly, the Aura won’t tie you to one e-book store the way Amazon’s Kindle does. The Aura supports ePub and Adobe DRM, along with PDF, TXT, MOBI, and a host of other text and image file types (though DOC files aren’t natively supported). Amazon, of course, expects you to buy your content from Amazon, and isn’t as open with its file support of other e-book publishers.

But you’ll pay for that freedom. At $150, the Kobo Aura is more expensive than the Wi-Fi model of the Paperwhite ($139, or $119 with ads). And the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight sells for just $99.

As much as we like the Aura’s bookstore-agnostic approach to e-readers, we have a hard time seeing how the device will gain Kobo market share in the US, when there are cheaper, more recognizable options available for less.

It also seems possible, if not likely, that Amazon may soon be announcing a successor to the Paperwhite. A day after Kobo’s announcement, the Kindle Paperwhite Wi-Fi went out of stock on Amazon, which often happens when a company is looking to exhaust its old stock before outing a new device.

At best, the Aura is just slightly better than the Paperwhite or Nook Simple Touch with Glowlight. If Amazon announces an updated device, or just decides to drop the Paperwhite’s price, Kobo will have to lower the price of the Aura as well. Because as much as we like the device’s edge-to-edge touchscreen, the Aura is not worth paying $50 more for, unless you’re really excited about Pocket integration, or you feel a strong need to avoid Amazon and Barnes & Noble entirely.

Highs:

  • Nice edge-to-edge screen
  • More storage space than Amazon’s Paperwhite
  • Pocket Integration lets you save Web clips to read later

Lows:

  • More expensive than comparable Kindle and Nook devices
  • E-Ink screen is still painfully slow when trying to navigate menus and input text
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