Over the course of the past few years, I’ve warmed up quite a bit to eBook reading. Part of this was because it seems that eBooks have finally, after years of missteps, finally found a foothold as a viable product. Another reason is because eBook readers have come a long way and, well, I’m a bit of a gadget hound. So when kobo offered to send along the new Kobo Auara HD eBook Reader for review purposes, I jumped at the chance.
It helps to know one’s prior experience with certain types of devices in order to understand their impressions of them. To that end, I will state that I have been reading electronically for several years, first on PDAs (remember those?), then on Smartphones, and finally on a dedicated eBook reader when I received a 3rd generation Kindle as a gift. I’ve since upgraded that to a Kindle Paperwhite because the backlit display means I no longer have to struggle to find a well-lit reading space. I occasionally read electronically on an iPad — Did I mention I was a gadget hound? — but find it too large and heavy for any long-term reading. I almost never read for pleasure on a computer screen because, well, it’s simply not enjoyable to do so.
Despite owning several multi-function devices, my preferred reading device is a dedicated eBook reader that uses e-Ink. The clarity is great (far superior to raster screens) and there are no distractions coming at me from other features of the device. eBook readers are also (usually) the right size for long-term holding; not too big and not too small.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the Kobo Aura HD. It’s packaged in a discreet box and comes with a USB charging cable and small Getting Started guide.
To begin, the Kobo HD needs to be activated. While this can be done over Wi-Fi network, the booklet that comes with the device recommends that users download the Kobo Desktop software on their computers and hook up the device with the provided USB cable. I followed the recommended approach because, even though most of my eBook purchasing is done over Wi-Fi, my personal home Wi-Fi network has an access list that requires a device’s MAC address, which (like most devices) is not accessible to the user until after they activate it — a chicken-and-egg problem that’s solved by physically hooking up the device to my computer and running Kobo Desktop.
The software installed OK and asked for my Kobo credentials or, optionally, to sign up for a free account. Since I had a passing flirtation with Kobo back in 2009, I already had my credentials and provided them. Unfortunately, the Kobo Desktop application crashed when I clicked to proceed. It seemed to register the device anyway, because when I re-ran the program, it began syncing my Kobo library to the device. Then, I was off to the races.
The display is wonderful. The 6.8 inch display screen offers a resolution of 1440 x 1080 pixels. An impressive spec, to be sure, but honestly not noticeably different than the Kindle Paperwhite. The backlit screen is fairly bright when dialed all the way up, or it can be completely turned off for sunny daylight…or set somewhere in between.
Page turning speed on the display is good, about on par with the Kindle Paperwhite. (I’m not a fan of page-turning animations on tablets and smartphones, preferring instead an instant page refresh — a feature not possible with eInk technology today.) Speaking of page refresh, there were times (mostly after returning from a settings page) where a ghosted image of the previous screen’s controls was visible on the screen. There is a page refresh setting that can be set to help alleviate that, though it means a slight slower page turn (insignificant, really, but worth mentioning).
Also a nice display feature: the Kobo Aura HD has an option for displaying the cover of the book you are reading when it’s turned off.
Once the wow-factor of the display wears off and it comes down to reading, you have no choice but to deal with the Aura’s form factor. The body is made of smooth plastic that is a little too smudge-friendly. There are two buttons on the top edge of the device: a purple power slide-button that puts the device into standby or sleep mode (depending on how long you hold it), and a backlight on/off button for when you want to quickly bypass the onscreen brightness setting. The bottom edge of the device contains the USB charging port and a slot for a micro SD card on which you can store your library. I don’t know that I would ever use this feature — the device can easily hold hundreds of eBooks in its internal 4GB of memory — but even so, this is a nice feature for those who like to keep their eBooks on portable cards.
The most curious design decision of the form factor is the back side. Instead of being a flat surface like you might expect, the designers of the Kobo Aura HD chose instead to angle the back with a shallow, W-shaped profile that presumably is meant to simulate the feel of holding a real book. It doesn’t. Moreover, it actually makes the device a little cumbersome and clumsy. Since the device sits on the two angled edges that run along the back from top to bottom when it’s not in use, there is less contact with the surface it sits on, this making it seem like it’s thicker than it is or needs to be. It also feels a little heavier than one might expect, even when considering its larger screen size. It’s not uncomfortable to hold with two hands, but holding it with one hand can grow tiresome. I found myself either holding it with two hands, or sitting it on my lap and using one hand to interact with it.
That said, once you work around the awkwardness of the form factor, it becomes less of a big deal. Reading immerses you into the story and you forget the medium in favor of the content. And that’s as it should be. From that perspective, the Kobo HD is more than a suitable electronic reading device.
One of the best things about eBook reading is the customization of the reading experience. Legibility is priority with any reading device and the Kobo Aura HD, in addition to it’s high-def display, offers a variety of fonts and settings to suit your tastes. In addition to the font face and size, users can also adjust line spacing and margins. Some fonts also offer advanced settings, like fine-tuning the sharpness.
This is a really welcome feature set to me personally because my biggest pet peeve with most reading devices and software is that it doesn’t let me maximize my display space. This is not a problem with Kobo Aura HD. Margins can be reduced to near-zero. More words-per-screen means less page turning and more reading.
Other reading features include annotations, searching, a dictionary, and a navigation slider to jump anywhere in the book — all wonderful features that showcase the plusses of electronic reading over physical reading.
There are other device settings too, accessed by touching the screen, which displays a control bar at the top of the display. That control bar offers four icons: home, brightness, battery and panel expand. Oddly, two of the icons offered (brightness and battery) do the same thing as the third “panel expand” icon: they bring up an abbreviated control panel, which offers the real access to brightness and battery, as well as other settings like wi-fi, help, sync and device settings. This makes the brightness and battery icons on the pop-up control bar useless. If those two icons went straight to their respective controls, the user would save an extra step of interaction. The advanced device settings offers control over more device features like account, sleep and power, date/time, and social network connections. I didn’t play around much with the social networking features of the device.
The device’s home page offers a pleasing tiled view of your library as well as reading achievements, a nifty incentive for getting some reading done. (Here’s some insight into my reading habits: I achieved the Happy Hour award for reading five times between the hours of 6PM and 8PM; a Rush Hour award; an award for nighttime reading; a Graveyard Shift award for reading between 1AM and 5AM; and an award for finishing a book [Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer]). Kids will love these award incentives, which are all conveniently located in a Reading Life page off the home page.
The home page also allows access to the Kobo bookstore where you can download eBook samples and purchase eBooks. Books can also be purchased on a computer, though the Kobo website bookstore leaves room for improvement with the book browsing experience.
The Kobo Aura HD also has excellent battery life. I didn’t clock it but it did very well with me hitting all these features hard. (The Kobo literature says it lasts up to 2 months based on 30 minutes of reading a day, but it varies according to individual users.)
The Kobo Aura HD has a great display and a great feature set that offers a pleasant reading experience, offset a bit by the form factor, which is awkward but workable. Although the $169 price tag is a bit steep, readers looking for an eBook reader should give this one a look.