By Jason Snell
November 11, 2021 11:53 AM PT
2021 e-reader roundup: Kobo Sage, Kobo Libra 2, Kindle Paperwhite reviews
Note: This story has not been updated since 2021.
But change is coming to the e-reader world this fall, in the form of three brand-new readers. From upstart challenger Rakuten Kobo come the Kobo Sage and the Kobo Libra 2. And from the big dog, Amazon, comes the 11th-generation Kindle Paperwhite.
They’re more different than you might think. I’ve read books on all three over the last few weeks. (So many books!) Here’s my complete review.
Advances in e-reader tech
All of these devices have adopted more advanced technology than previous e-readers. They’ve got the latest E Ink screens, which look great. They’ve got faster processors, which makes a noticeable difference in terms of reducing lag when you turn pages, especially if you need to quickly flip back several pages. (And they’re all waterproof, of course, because you may want to read at the pool or in the bath.)
Though I never, ever use them, Amazon added audiobook support for Kindles a while back. With this round of updates, Kobo has matched them. You can connect Bluetooth audio devices to a Kobo reader and play back audiobooks. (I’d recommend you just use your phone or iPad.)
And most importantly, all of them use USB-C for power and data connections, rather than the old “standard” of micro USB. That alone would be reason enough to rejoice.
Kobo Sage: A classy hardcover
The $260 Kobo Sage is a big, beautiful ereader. Its 8-inch diagonal screen reminds me of the 7.8-inch screen on its predecessor, the Kobo Aura One. (The Sage is a direct successor of the 8-inch Kobo Forma, which I have never used.) I likened the Aura One to a hardcover, or maybe a trade paperback—it’s a bigger and heavier device, but you do get to see more words on the page. If you have vision problems and need to display text at large sizes, the Sage will reduce the number of times you need to click to see the next page. (Yes, the Sage has physical page-turn buttons.)
The Sage is plastic but well constructed, with a screen that’s flush with its bezel and a textured pattern on the back to make it a bit more grippy. Its design is asymmetric, with a larger bezel on one side—the one with the page-turn buttons—to aid in gripping the device. It’s the same approach Amazon takes with the Kindle Oasis.
One feature of the Sage that I didn’t test is its support for Kobo’s stylus, which allows you to write notes on documents such as PDFs. I am personally a bit skeptical of using an 8-inch screen as a PDF reader, but people who are marking up documents all the time should take note.
The single best feature of the Sage is probably its integration with Dropbox, which creates a Rakuten Kobo folder inside your Apps folder on Dropbox. Any PDFs or ePub ebooks that you drop in to that folder automatically sync to the device. If you do a lot of sideloading of books, the Dropbox integration means you don’t have to plug the device in to a computer in order to copy files over.
There’s no denying that the Sage comes in a large package. It’s 6.3 x 7.1 inches (161 x 181 mm) and 0.3 inches (7.6 mm) thick, making it shorter but wider than an iPad mini. And weighing in at 8.5 ounces (241g), the Sage was a bit too large for one-handed reading. I needed to rest the book on my lap or chest, or grip it with two hands, in order to get into a comfortable reading position.
At $260, the Kobo Sage costs about the same as a Kindle Oasis. While the Oasis (which is probably due for an update soon) has a bit more of a premium feel than the Sage (owing to its aluminum back), the Sage’s 8-inch screen (the Oasis screen is 7 inches) is really the main attraction.
If you prefer a larger device with a larger screen, or really want Dropbox syncing, or are intrigued by stylus support, the Kobo Sage is a good choice. If you want the most luxurious e-reader hardware around at any price, but don’t mind the smaller screen, the Kindle Oasis has the Sage beat.
Kobo Libra 2: Improving on the original
I found the original Kobo Libra H20 to be an excellent alternative to the Kindle Oasis for about $90 less. The new version is the $180 Kobo Libra 2, which is almost identical to its predecessor. It’s roughly the size of a Kindle Oasis, and has physical page-turn buttons like the Oasis. If you’re someone for whom physical page-turn buttons are a must-have feature—I’m one of those people—then this is the best value in e-readers.
The Oasis and Libra 2 are more or less identical in shape and size (the Libra 2 is 145 x 162 x 9 mm, or 5.7 x 6.4 x .36 inches—just different enough from the Libra H2O to break all case compatibility), but there are a few big differences. Amazon invested in an aluminum shell for the Oasis, while the Libra and Libra 2 are both entirely plastic. This makes them feel cheaper than the Oasis, and if you squeeze your fingers on the edges of the Libra cases, you can even feel a subtle flex and even a faint squeaking sound. After months of using a Libra, I have stopped noticing it—and stopped making movements that make those sounds—but there’s no denying that Amazon’s $300 reader has a more premium feel. (For that price, it should.)
The other advantage the Oasis has over the Libra 2 is related to the display. While the two devices use the same E Ink display and both are well lit, with optional color-temperature variation to create a warmer tone, the Libra’s display is recessed, with a bezel that’s a bit above the screen itself. That means dust and hair and other junk can end up sticking around the edges of the display. The Oasis, in contrast, has a completely flush display.
Put those two choices together, and you can see why the Oasis costs $90 more than the Libra 2. Are those two differences worth the price difference? Not to me, especially since I consider the typography on Kobo devices clearly superior to Kindles. But if you really want the more premium feel and a flush screen, you should get the Oasis. If it’s just the recessed screen that bothers you and you wouldn’t mind a larger screen, consider the Kobo Sage, which is cheaper and larger than the Oasis, with a flush screen. (It’s still got a plastic back, though.)
If you’ve got a Libra H2O and are considering an upgrade to the Libra 2, I have to tell you that there’s very little difference between them. The processor is faster, so page turns are less sluggish, and that USB-C port is nice. I’m disappointed that Kobo is withholding Dropbox sync support from the Libra 2, and was really hoping the Libra 2 would get rid of its recessed screen. Neither happened.
That all said, the Libra 2 is a superior e-reader that will get you most of the comfort and features of the Kindle Oasis for only $180. Its combination of size, price, and those page-turn buttons make it my favorite e-reader of the moment.
Kindle Paperwhite 2021: A solid upgrade
For years the Kindle Paperwhite was my choice for the best Kindle to buy, owing to its combination of features and value. At $1601, the new 11th generation model isn’t exactly cheap (the bare-bones Kindle is $110), but it’s got a reasonable collection of premium features for way less than the next Kindle up, the Oasis.
The Paperwhite has the same size screen as the Oasis and the Libra 2. It’s got an upgraded processor so that page turns are fast. (Sometimes to a fault—I accidentally touched part of the screen and went back 15 pages at one point!)
Which brings me to page-turn buttons. The Paperwhite still doesn’t have them. Amazon has decided that page-turn buttons are a premium feature that should only be available on its $270 Oasis. (This is one of the reasons I recommend the Kobo Libra 2.) Clicking a button is just a better way to move through a book than moving your finger from the edge of the device’s bezel to over the screen for a single tap or swipe, and then putting your finger back on the bezel.
The bezels on the sides of the Paperwhite are very thin—in fact, I think I’d say they’re too thin. It was incredibly easy for my finger to stray slightly and accidentally turn pages. Repositioning my grip would often trigger accidental page turns. And while the device is small enough to hold in one hand—125 x 174 x 8 mm, or 4.9 x 6.9 x 0.32 inches—the grip required to consistently move a finger to turn the page forward was awkward and made me often feel I needed to rest the Paperwhite on my chest or legs or hold it with two hands. (Carefully, too, lest my other hand accidentally turn the page backward.)
That said, the Paperwhite’s screen is flush with the bezels, with no place for dust or hair to collect, so it’s got that over on the Libra 2. If you care about flush screens and don’t care about buttons, the Paperwhite is a very strong choice. I wish Amazon’s typography had improved more over the last 14 years, but Kobo is still ahead.
Reading the room
All three of these new e-readers are capable devices. Which one is right for you depends on what e-reader you’re currently using, and what your priorities are.
If physical page-turn buttons are something you care about, and you don’t mind a screen that’s recessed into the bezel, the $180 Libra 2 is a great choice.
If you can’t countenance a recessed screen and want a larger screen, the $260 Kobo Sage is a big, beautiful e-reader with some fancy features like Dropbox support—and of course, physical page-turn buttons.
If you don’t mind not having page-turn buttons but otherwise want a solid e-reader that doesn’t feel cheap, the $160 11th-generation Kindle Paperwhite is bound to be a crowd pleaser.
And if you want it all—a smaller device with a premium feel, physical buttons, and a flush display—the luxury choice is still the $270 Kindle Oasis. The last two Oasis models are almost identical, so I’m curious if Amazon has a more expansive redesign in the wings, or if it’s willing to let the existing Oasis design run for a while.
One final note: If you’ve always had a Kindle and are reluctant to move to the Kobo ecosystem, I understand. If you keep your old Kindle, however, you’ll always have access to those books on an e-reader, and of course they’ll always be on the Kindle app on any phone or tablet you might own. If you’re more adventurous, you can use Calibre and DeDRM to convert your Kindle library to DRM-free ePub files that will work on Kobos.
Beyond compatibility, though, the Kobo experience is remarkably similar to the Kindle. You can buy books on Kobo’s store, either on the device or on the web. The prices are the same as those found on the Kindle Store. Of course, Kindles have access to Amazon services like Kindle Unlimited. On the other hand, Kobos are much better citizens when it comes to borrowing e-books from your local public library. (My library e-book consumption has soared since I started using the Libby app and a Kobo.)
E-reader hardware is a pretty sleepy tech category that a lot of people don’t care about. But I love reading books on an E Ink device and won’t ever give it up. Fortunately, as sleepy as this category might be, it still manages to generate a handful of new, competitive devices every year. These new e-readers all have their advantages. If you’re in the market for a new one—even if all you want to do is get rid of all those micro USB cables!—there’s probably one that fits your needs.
- All my Kindle prices are for the low-storage version without ads. Kobos don’t have ads. Amazon will sell you a Kindle for $20 less if you accept advertising on menus and the lock screen. ↩
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