Kobo Aura review is spending $150 on an ereader ever worth it

Outside the US, Kobo is a major player in the e-reader space. Here in the states, however, mentioning the name will almost certainly elicit baffled stares. In 2011, the company was hit particularly hard when Borders, its main retail partner, shuttered. Since then, Kobo's been attempting to rebuild through networks of independent booksellers. One glaring misstep aside, Kobo has since put out solid devices, ones that could even stand up against what Amazon and Barnes & Noble are selling. Earlier this year, the company took this a step further with the Aura HD, a pricey, high-spec, 7-inch device for hardcore readers. Kobo didn't expect to move many units. The HD now accounts for a quarter of Kobo's e-reader sales. Clearly the company was onto something.

As the successor to last year's Glo, the new Kobo Aura splits the difference between luxury and mainstream, borrowing some elements from the HD and giving them new life in a more affordable 6-inch device. In this case, "more affordable" means $150 -- that's still $20 more than the Glo and $30 more than the Paperwhite. The company's also made some updates on the software end, including, notably, the addition of the Pocket reading app. So, do the upgrades justify the asking price?

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Kobo Aura Review

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Kobo

Aura

Pros

  • Great build quality for an e-reader
  • Best-in-class frontlighting
  • Integration with Pocket

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Touchscreen can be unresponsive
Summary

Kobo's built a terrific e-reader, but the high price is tough to justify.

Hardware

This is a seriously nice piece of hardware -- and mind you, that's not the kind of compliment we often bestow on e-readers. These devices are, after all, content-delivery vectors more than anything else, not the sort of things you'd covet like a smartphone. To its credit, Kobo bucked the utilitarian trend with the Aura HD, a device that was, by all accounts, intended for the proverbial 1 percent of hardcore readers. The new Aura represents an attempt (albeit a pricey one) to bring that kind of attention to detail to a mainstream device. We happened to have our trusty first-gen Kindle Paperwhite lying around (we're in the middle of a Richard Brautigan bio we're having trouble putting down), so let's start with some size comparisons, shall we?

The Aura is compact -- the sort of compact that makes everything that preceded it look downright clunky. Even with the same industry-standard, 6-inch screen size, the reader is noticeably smaller than the Kindle, standing 5.9 inches to Amazon's 6.7. It's narrower and thinner, too, thanks in part to a flush bezel. The company was able to strip away the cheap border thanks to the implementation of capacitive touch, which, unlike infrared, doesn't require a sensor gap above the display. It's quite the novel feature for an e-reader, and it goes a long way in enhancing the overall quality of the device. The bezel itself is thin, with a smaller, subtler Kobo logo tucked into the lower-right-hand corner. You're not going to have any issues holding the Aura, though; its compact size makes it easy to grip.

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There are no physical page-turn buttons here, of course -- Kobo abandoned that notion a long time ago. We'll continue to champion the Nook line on that front and just agree to disagree with the company on this one. Along the top of the device is a bright red power switch -- not exactly in keeping with the Aura's fairly subtle design, but, well, Kobo habits die hard. Next to this, the company's also held onto the dedicated glow button, so you can turn the front light on and off without fiddling with the settings. On the bottom, you get your standard dose of FCC information, along with a reset hole and slots for micro-USB charging / syncing. There's also a microSD slot so you can augment the industry-standard 4GB of built-in storage. Of course, we're all doing much of our e-book storage in the cloud these days, but we've never been ones to turn down more local storage.

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As for the back, Kobo's, thankfully (finally) sunset the diamond-quilted pattern that has long been a staple of the company's design language. Well, that's not entirely true. The diamonds are here; they're just, well, really, really small, forming a textured surface. It's not a bad choice, but we're honestly a bit surprised the company didn't opt for the soft-touch back it used on some of its new tablets. The Aura's also borrowed the crooked lines from its HD predecessor, though they're incorporated in a far subtler manner this time around. Here, the sides of the rear slope downward ever so slightly -- a departure from the sharper angles that arguably made the 7-inch model slightly easier to hold.

And how about that screen? Kobo's returned to the 6-inch sweet spot, after flirting with both 5- and 7-inch devices. The company's also backed off from the Aura HD's impressive (in e-reader terms, anyway) 265-pixel-per-inch panel for a more average 212-ppi display. Put it next to the Glo or the first-generation Paperwhite, and odds are you won't see much of a difference. And, to be perfectly honest, you most likely won't need a higher resolution for the vast majority of reading you'll do -- unless, of course, you plan on reading a lot of comics or other image-heavy titles. But if that's the case, we'd strongly recommend shopping for a tablet instead.

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Kobo tells us that it worked directly with E Ink to eliminate those pesky full-page refreshes, which briefly flicker black every six page turns or so. It's true that the issue has been eliminated here, but, in exchange, we get something more akin to a dissolve, meaning you'll see a really faint grayish dot matrix as the pages transition from one to the next. The turning speed remains largely unchanged, however, thanks to the 1GHz i.MX507 processor inside. But while we appreciated the switch from infrared to capacitive touch from an aesthetic perspective, page turns and button presses don't register as accurately as they once did. In fact, we found ourselves having to repeat actions several times before they took.

All told, the Aura's hardware isn't perfect, but this is easily the nicest mainstream standalone e-reader we've seen, though the $150 price tag may be a lot for all but the most devoted bookworms to stomach.

Software

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If you've spent any time with a newish devoted Kobo reader, you basically know what you're getting yourself into, though there are a few notable tweaks. Most interesting is the fact that Kobo has redefined its Reading Life feature. Whereas Reading Life was once a competitive reading feature (involving a series of awards and stats, which we never found particularly appealing), it's now the name of the entire UI. What you see when you first pull the reader out of its cover-displaying sleep mode is Reading Life. Confusing? Slightly, maybe, but we got over it pretty quickly and suspect you will as well.

That old concept of Reading Life does still exist here, but it's tucked away under an "Extras" offering at the bottom of the home page. The rest of that home screen is monopolized by little modules, the largest of which shows what you're currently reading. You see the cover, the percentage read and the amount of time you've got left. There's also a search bar, a quick link to other titles you own and a button that'll sync the reader up.

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One key UI addition is Pocket (the app formerly known as Read It Later). Kobo gets big points for being the first e-reader maker to integrate that functionality, beating Kindle to the punch (though Amazon has clearly been focused on adding GoodReads integration to its own devices). Add something to your Pocket account, sync the Aura and boom, it's right there. We picked an article from a favorite tech site and it worked like a charm. You read through the text of the saved page as you would a book. Get to the end of the article and the reader asks you if you'd like to archive, favorite, delete or return to the full collection of saved Pocket stories.

The settings button at the top of the page has options to manually adjust the front lighting, fiddle with WiFi, check the battery and sync the reader up. Along the bottom, next to the Extra button, are links to the bookstore and your library, the latter of which is broken up into books, previews, collections, Pocket articles and Kobo collections. The library itself is a pretty straightforward catalog that can be refined by things like the last time you read a book, title, author, file size and file type. Previews is a collection of just that -- trial-sized bits of a book that you've downloaded from the store to avoid shelling out money for something you're not into.

Kobo Collections, meanwhile, are yet another method the company has devised to get you to buy more books. This time, recommendations have been grouped into themes like "Around the World in 80 Bites" and "Big Names and Big Ideas of the Digital Era." Each features a quick intro followed by book blurbs. We can see some appeal in the concept when the company adds collections from authors and other celebrities, but for now, the Collections are all from Kobo itself and therefore don't offer much that you can't already find in the company's regular recommendations.

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And what of the text itself? Well, like the rest of the UI, Kobo's continued to focus on simplicity. Aside from the text, the page is mostly clean. Up top, you'll see the book title, with the chapter name and page progress along the bottom. There's also a link to Kobo's new Beyond the Book feature. Think of this as a sort of equivalent to the Kindle's X-Ray, a way of getting some quick contextual information about what you're reading -- that includes terms, characters and anything else the company's "complex algorithm" (don't want to spill the beans on the special sauce, right?) gathers up.

These pages are also accessible through underlined terms in the text. There weren't a ton of them while reading The Hobbit, so we didn't find it particularly distracting. Should you click on one of these links, you'll find a page populated by information crawled from online resources like Wikipedia, which will no doubt provide context for particularly complex mythologies like Tolkien's work. Tap the Beyond the Book module in the corner and you get a spread of terms pulled from your progress thus far. The functionality also works offline, with the reader pulling a select number of terms for the book you're reading when it syncs.

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Tap the top or bottom of the screen while you're reading and you'll get access to more information, including your progress in the current book and links for settings, stats, advancing in the book and fonts. You can also adjust the text size with a pinch. There are 24 font sizes, various weights and sharpness levels and 11 styles, including two intended specifically for dyslexic readers. All in all, there should be plenty of options for those who need their text just perfect. Hold down on the text and a definition pops up. You can also drag out the text for highlighting, searching the rest of the book for the same terms or sharing via Facebook -- if you're, you know, the kind of person who likes to share book passages on Facebook.

As for the bookstore, Kobo's got a selection of around 4 million titles. Like its competitors, there are certain titles you're just not going to find -- not everything's been digitized yet. Still, there's plenty here for just about every reader, particularly in the new releases category. The store's front page offers up yet another place for recommendations, right in the center, plus more discovery through New York Times bestsellers and a list of the top free e-books. Or you can also just go the old-fashioned route and search for what you're looking for via the magnifying glass up top.

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Kobo hasn't done much to tweak its UI, but there are some really nice additions here, namely that Pocket integration that has been added to all its new devices. Beyond the Book, on the other hand, isn't something we see ourselves using on a regular basis, but should we ever attempt to read, say, Finnegan's Wake again, we can certainly see such contextual information coming in handy. Ultimately, though, if you're already locked into the Amazon ecosystem (as so many of us are), there aren't a ton of compelling software reasons to make the switch.

Wrap-up

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The Kobo Aura is the best flagship e-reader on the market. There are, however, some caveats here. First, it's still a hard sell if you're locked into Amazon, as the Paperwhite's recent tweaks have made it all the more compelling a proposition. Second, the $150 price tag makes the device decidedly not mainstream. Kobo just can't compete with Amazon's subsidized reader prices, particularly not with the Kindle's Special Offers ad model, which shaves even more off the price. If you're already locked into Amazon, it's best to wait it out. If you're a Kobo devotee or someone who has yet to pull the trigger on an e-reader (and don't mind paying for quality), do yourself a favor and take a serious look at the Aura.

Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.