By Jason Snell
September 27, 2016 11:07 AM PT
Review: Kobo Aura One is a waterproof “hardcover” ebook reader
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
The ebook reader market is funny. After an initial flurry of excitement, we seem to have settled in on the idea that paper books and ebooks are going to coexist, and that some people who choose to read ebooks will just do so on their smartphones and tablets. But that still leaves a really interesting niche for people who do love reading on dedicated reading devices with screens that are more like a book’s pages than a computer’s backlit display.
For pure utility, the $120 Kindle Paperwhite is the ebook reader you should buy. But what’s more interesting are the developments at the high end of this category, where premium ebook readers have become a thing. First was the $290 Kindle Oasis, which is beautiful, small, and thin.
So when Kobo announced the $229 Kobo Aura One, I was intrigued. It’s a premium ebook reader like the Kindle Oasis, but Kobo has made a bunch of different choices about what that means and what features matter to ebook readers.
I bought a Kobo Aura One to try it out and have been using it for a couple of weeks, the first time I’ve used an ebook reader that wasn’t a Kindle. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of the choices Kobo has made, and while I’m not sure it’s better than the Oasis, it’s most certainly different.
Let’s start with the size: The Aura One has a 7.8-inch diagonal screen with a screen resolution of 300 ppi. That’s the same resolution as all but the cheapest of Amazon’s Kindles, but it’s a much larger screen—the Kindle screens are all only 6 inches diagonal. The end result is that reading a book on an Aura One feels like reading a hardcover, while reading on a Kindle feels like reading a paperback. There’s more text on the screen and you need to turn the page much less frequently. The extra reading space isn’t necessary, per se, but it does feel luxurious.
Hardcover books can be heavy, though: the last hardcover novel I read before I bought my first kindle weighed 2.8 pounds! The Aura One isn’t like that—at 8.1 ounces, it’s about the same weight as the Kindle Paperwhite. The Oasis, on the other hand, weighs 4.6 ounces. I was comfortable holding the Aura One and reading for long stretches of time, but if you’re looking for the lightest ebook reader around, the Oasis is for you. The Oasis also offers hardware page-turn buttons; to turn pages on the Aura One, you’ve got to swipe or tap on the screen.
This is not to say that the Aura One doesn’t have its own advantages. It’s waterproof, for one, which no Kindle has ever been able to claim. If you’re someone who reads in a bathtub or hot tub, or otherwise walks the perilous path between reading and water, this is a huge feature in the Aura One’s favor.
Like the Kindle Voyage (but not, strangely, the Oasis), the Aura One has a light sensor that allows it to dynamically adjust its screen brightness based on your surroundings. (Like most Kindles, the Aura One is illuminated internally by a ring of lights.) Unlike the Kindle, the Aura One has a feature that’s akin to Apple’s Night Shift—it can skew its lighting into warmer tones in the evening. If you’re someone who wants to get blue light out of your eyes at night, that’s another point in the Aura One’s favor.
In the end, though, shopping for an ebook reader comes down to the ecosystem it’s connected to. Kobo readers are wired to buy books from the Kobo store; Amazon readers buy from Amazon. You can’t easily migrate your books from one store to another, so if you’ve invested in the Kindle ecosystem it would be hard to switch to the Aura One. That said, I used the open-source app Calibre to convert some of my Kindle books into DRM-free Epub files and then read them on the Kobo. So it’s not impossible to make the transition if you only occasionally want to dip into the archives.
Amazon still offers daily newspapers for the Kindle, which Kobo doesn’t, though both stores offer magazines. Kobo has a leg up on Amazon in a couple other areas: native support for Pocket and Overdrive.
Pocket is a read-it-later service that lets you save stuff on the Web to read at a later time. It’s a perfect fit for an ereader—I use Instapaper to send stories to my Kindle all the time. But on the Aura One, Pocket is integrated right into the device. Just log in with your Pocket account, and your articles will sync, ready to be read on the device. It couldn’t be easier.
Overdrive is a system (owned by the same company, Rakuten, that owns Kobo) that lets your local library offer ebooks for check-out to patrons. You can check out books from Overdrive and download them to your Kindle, but it’s a multi-step process that involves logging in to the Overdrive web site, picking a book, then linking over to Amazon. On the Aura One, all of that happens on the device, which is much more convenient.
There’s just one problem: The Aura One doesn’t give you a way to search your local library’s collection of ebooks on the device. If you want to read a book, you can search for it in the Kobo store and then tap a More Options icon to see if it’s available on Overdrive. It reminded me of that Douglas Adams line about an item being put on public display “at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.” Once you find a book that’s offered by your library, it takes a couple of taps to check it out and read it—but Kobo is not making much of an effort to let you find library books or remind you that a particular book is available for free check-out. Two steps forward, one step back.
After years of using the Amazon Kindle interface, I was interested in Kobo’s very different approach. Instead of making a list of your documents the home screen, the Aura One features a set of tiles that highlight books and apps that you’ve used recently. I’m not sure if I prefer it to a no-frills list of what’s on the device, but I generally never needed to go to that list, since the books I was currently reading were always offered on tiles. I also found Kobo’s typography quite good, with several different font choices as well as the ability to turn off forced justification on books. My only complaint on this score is that book text seemed strangely framed on any book that wasn’t bought from the Kobo store or checked out via Overdrive, with almost no white space at the top of the screen and too much at the bottom.
(Update: Thanks to reader Eliot Lovell, I discovered this set of Calibre plugins that gets Epub files in a more Kobo-friendly format, and solves the rendering issues it seems to have with generic, unconverted Epubs.)
In the end, where does the Kobo Aura One rank? If you’re not deeply tied into the Amazon ecosystem and screen size or waterproofing mean more to you than weight, the Aura One’s a better choice than the Oasis—and it’s $60-$80 cheaper. (Unlike Amazon, Kobo doesn’t make you pay $20 to remove ads—and it does the right thing and shows the cover art of the book you’re currently reading when it’s turned off.)
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