Kobo Aura HD review: a high-end e-reader with 'niche' written all over it

What do you get when you ask 10,000 rabid bookworms to help build a better Kobo? The Cadillac of e-readers, naturally: a bigger, beefier and generally higher-end device than we're used to. The Aura HD is a rare thing in this space, built specifically with power users in mind. And for those very reasons, this 6.8-inch, $169 slate isn't long for this world. Announced roughly half a year after the company's flagship Glo (and, it turns out, just in time for Mother's Day), the Aura HD isn't slated to make it beyond the end of the year. "This is something that is designed for this most passionate, voracious reader," the company's CEO Mike Serbinis told us in an interview conducted around the announcement, "and as much as I wish everyone was like that -- it would make us a lot bigger business right away -- that is not the case."

It's a strange move for a relatively small company that's currently offering up two 6-inch readers, a 5-inch model and 7-inch tablet. That, and company is convinced such a product isn't destined to ever become anything but a niche device, particularly in a race dominated by two main players. But is there a chance devoted fans might pay the premium? Let's find out.

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Kobo Aura HD review: a high-end e-reader with 'niche' written all over it

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Kobo

Kobo Aura HD

Pros

  • Big, high-res screen
  • Strong front light
  • Lots of storage for an e-reader

Cons

  • Pricey
  • Big footprint
  • Software still lacking
Summary

This reader's got solid specs, but price and size constraints will likely hamper wide appeal.

Hardware

Kobo Aura HD review the Cadillac of ereaders with 'niche' written all over it

As Serbinis himself put it, "there's only so much you can do with some of these technical components." When push comes to shove, the e-reader market is made up of a handful of companies utilizing the same or similar parts: processors designed by a few select manufacturers and screens created by E Ink, a name that has more or less become synonymous with this form factor. And while Serbinis is convinced the battle will be fought on the software front, Kobo is still doing its part to play with the industry's 6-inch standard. Late last year, it offered up the pocket-sized 5-inch Mini, and now it's going the other way.

With a larger screen, however, comes a chunkier reader, with a footprint of 6.97 x 5.05 x 0.46 inches, noticeably larger than the Glo's 6.2 x 4.5 x 0.4-inch frame and the Kindle Paperwhite's 6.7 x 4.6 x 0.36 inches. And really, those who have spent any time using the current generation of readers will notice a difference immediately. The Aura's heavier than the competition, as well, weighing in at 8.4 ounces -- two full ounces more than the Glo and 0.7 ounce more than the Paperwhite.

Forgetting, for a moment, that increased footprint, the Aura HD is aesthetically reminiscent of its predecessors -- and with the latest Kindle, for that matter. The industry seems to have fallen into a sort of design rut, offering plain-faced readers with no physical page turn buttons and pronounced logos. Serbinis touted the benefits of creating a device in which "the technology just disappears," and certainly the vanilla quality of this latest crop of readers does that. The fact that our device was the ivory model (as opposed to the espresso and onyx options), probably helped to drive that point home. We've always preferred the build of Barnes & Noble's Simple Touch line; devices that were clearly designed with the human hand in mind.

Kobo Aura HD review the Cadillac of ereaders with 'niche' written all over it

There is, however, a nod to that sentiment here, on the back of the reader. It's not quite the convex backing of the Nook, but the Aura HD does trade in its predecessors' signature quilted pattern for a sort of asymmetrical fold that makes the back a bit easier to hold by positioning one's fingers in a valley. We never thought we'd say we missed the old pattern, but we do wish the company had found a way to make the whole thing a bit less slippery, be it through patterns in the plastic or through the sort of soft-touch backing found on the Kindle and Nook. This thing gets awfully slick. If you're the sort who happens to sweat your way through longer books, well, just make sure you're reading in a place with lots of carpeting.

On the top of the reader, you'll find a dedicated button for the reader's built-in front light. The reader borrows the light technology from the Glo -- the best-in-class ComfortLight that really took us by surprise when it was first launched, boasting an even distribution across the display that Barnes & Noble (and to a lesser extent) Amazon could only dream of. Interestingly, the light does flicker a bit when first getting started, but once it's on, it's hard to beat.

Next to the button is a bright red power switch, which does add some color to an otherwise monotone design. On the bottom, you'll find a paperclip slot for restarting the device and a port for the company's charger (this thing really didn't like the standard micro-USB cords we tried -- though, for the record, Kobo's bundled a pretty nice-looking cord in here). There's also a micro-SD slot, so you can add up to 32GB to the reader's already robust built-in 4GB of storage (double that of the Glo). This is a device for power users, after all.

DNP Kobo Aura HD review a highend ereader with 'niche' written all over it

And what about the screen? It's the centerpiece of this whole undertaking, measuring in at 6.8 inches, nearly a full inch bigger than the 6-inch industry standard. That added real estate gives you roughly 30 percent more text on a page. What's more, this reader's got a resolution that puts many tablets to shame, at 1,440 x 1,080. That works out to 265 ppi, a big step up from the Paperwhite's 212, promising "up to 20 percent more clarity than other HD readers on the market."

The result is an extremely sharp reader. It gets about as close as you're going to come in the current generation of devices to reading good old-fashioned ink on paper (remember that?). And with 10 font sizes, 24 styles and a sliding scale of text weights, you can personalize things to your heart's content. We did notice a bit of ghosting with the text. That's pretty standard on the current generation of E Ink screens, but it's nothing particularly distracting here -- just like the sort of bleed you'll often see on printed pages.

The natural question, of course, is whether 265 ppi is overkill on a black-and-white e-reader. The answer is probably yes -- for the majority of us, at least. After all, the average e-reader owner is not likely spending a huge chunk of his or her time using the device to stare at illustrations in books and PDFs. If you're in the market for something to read comics or kids' books on, we've got a couple of tablets we can recommend to you. That said, we're certainly not ones to turn down a little extra resolution. After all, while e-ink readers already offer a great alternative to the eyestrain caused by staring at LCDs for extended periods, every little bit of sharpness helps, and that fact alone should help put this device on the radar of heavy readers.

Kobo Aura HD review the Cadillac of ereaders with 'niche' written all over it

Reading is quite zippy, thanks in no small part to the Freescale i.MX507 1GHZ processor (the same speed as the Glo, it should be noted). Things can take a few seconds to load, but even at the high end, it's important to note that this isn't exactly a quad-core smartphone processor we're dealing with here, nor does it exhibit the sort of lag that will cause anyone to throw down their reader in frustration. Battery-wise, Kobo's estimating life at over a month with the light and WiFi turned off. With the light on, the company puts it at around 70 hours. Either way, you should be getting plenty of reading time on a single charge.

There aren't really many hardware breakthroughs here, but Kobo's clearly gone out of its way to pull together some top-of-the-line components. Between the display, the processor, the added storage and the front-light technology, there's certainly a lot to like here.

Software

Kobo Aura HD review the Cadillac of ereaders with 'niche' written all over it

If the goal of e-reader makers is to have the hardware "disappear," as Serbinis suggests, that puts an awful lot of the heavy lifting on the software. Kobo users already know what to expect here. Fire up the Aura and you'll be greeted by a home page featuring, most prominently, the cover of your most recent title, along with percentage read and time left to go. To the right of this are two additional recent titles, displayed about a quarter of the size. The company's also placed a small recommendation module just below that, to help keep you in the reading / buying habit.

The column farthest to the right, meanwhile, is devoted to Kobo's social reading platform, Reading Life. The program is an attempt to keep you engaged in reading by offering up tokens with names like "Night Reader," "Word Up" and "Juggernaut." Kobo made the feature a big part of its Vox sales pitch, but has since seemingly backed off a bit. The company keeps it around, but no longer couches it as a primary selling point. And while we can certainly see an appeal in socializing the traditionally solitary reading experience, those who find such features essential to e-readers will most likely want to wait to see what Amazon has up its sleeve with its recent Goodreads purchase.

Kobo Aura HD review the Cadillac of ereaders with 'niche' written all over it

Along the bottom of the screen, you'll find a link to your library broken out in sections including Books, News & Magazines, Previews and Shelves. These are all organized in a straightforward fashion, save for Shelves, which lets you customize your collection as you see fit. To the right of this are links to a Reading Life landing page and the Kobo Bookstore. The store can also be searched using a bar at the top of the home page (which also searches your own collection, depending on which circle you tick). The company doesn't seem particularly interested in pushing you to a centralized store, unlike the competition. Instead, it prefers to have you search via the home page or enter through the categories listing.

Kobo Aura HD review the Cadillac of ereaders with 'niche' written all over it

On the reading front, you're getting pretty much what you'd expect: a page monopolized almost entirely by text. At the top is the name of the book and the bottom lets to know what chapter and page you're on. Swipe right to left or tap the right side to advance and do the opposite to flip back. For more options, tap the bottom of the page (not particularly intuitive, but fine once you get used to it). This will bring up the home button, battery life and a slew of options like searching, advancing through the book and changing the text attributes. Touch and hold on a word and you can highlight, share text via Facebook and look up definitions in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

All in all, things aren't particularly inspiring or user-friendly on the software front. Kindle users will likely miss the intuitiveness of their preferred devices. It's not terrible, but if Kobo's really looking toward its operating system as a strong selling point, the company's got a bit of work to do on that end. The company does, however, maintain its strong selection of readable file formats, including EPUB, PDF, JPEG, GIF, PNG, TIFF, TXT, HTML, RFT, CBZ and CBR.

Wrap-up

Kobo Aura HD review the Cadillac of ereaders with 'niche' written all over it

When Kobo first unveiled the Aura HD, it felt as though the company was shooting itself in the foot by announcing it as a limited edition, niche product. After playing around with the device, it's easy to see how the company came to that decision. While the product really does offer up some best-in-class features, including a 1,440 x 1,080, 6.8-inch display and 4GB of storage (expandable by up to 32GB), such things may be outweighed by the reader's size and $169 price tag for most casual readers. And if you're already tied into the Kindle or Nook ecosystems, it's an even more difficult sell.

If you're a Kobo owner looking to upgrade -- or someone who hasn't made the jump to e-books -- and you find yourself with your nose in a book every chance you get, the specs offer a compelling proposition, even if Kobo's still got a ways to go on the software front. If you can manage to squeeze a few more months out of your reader, however, it's not hard to imagine Amazon and Barnes & Noble getting their hands on E Ink's latest high-res display, which would make the Aura HD much less novel indeed.