A few months ago, we sat down to compare the top e-readers released in the past year and find out which would work best for our avid readers out there. Naturally, the latest Kindles and Nooks scored high marks, but surprisingly the one device that stood out was the Kobo Aura HD. Kobo isn't exactly the first name that comes to mind when people think of e-readers, but after spending some extensive hands-on time with the Aura HD, we see an argument for that to change.
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Once it's removed from the nondescript packaging, holding the Kobo Aura HD feels a bit more natural than a typical tablet, thanks in part to the two angled ridges on its back. Whether using one or two hands, those angles seem to fit right into the curve of my fingers, giving it a bit more friction and therefore a better grip. I can even palm the full width of the e-reader and still keep a firm hold on it (although this does of course depend on the size of your hands).
The weight of the Aura HD is a tad higher than comparable e-readers at 240 g (8.5 oz), but it still feels lightweight when you pick it up. The few extra ounces it has over similar devices are hardly noticeable.
One of the first drawbacks I noticed however was the back of Kobo's e-reader is also a fingerprint magnet. Unless you've just washed your hands, a few minutes of handling will still leave it looking like it was passed around a pre-school during lunchtime. It's a minor point that can be remedied with a case or a regular wipe-down, but it's still worth mentioning that some regular surface cleaning will be required.
The initial setup is fairly simple and doesn't require many steps. Flicking a switch on the top will turn the e-reader on, at which point it can also put the device into sleep mode or shut it off entirely, depending on how long it's held. You can hook the e-reader up to a computer with the bundled USB cable, which also charges it, but I opted to set it up wirelessly instead. After connecting to my Wi-Fi, the device prompted me to either register for a Kobo account or sign in through Facebook.
And that was it. From there, it downloaded the latest software update and took me straight to the home screen, which was quite sparse at first. My first order of business was to get a library started, so I hit the menu for the online bookstore and began browsing. Once I'd downloaded a few titles to preview and bought one that sounded interesting, I sat down to see what reading on the Aura HD is like.
The Aura HD's screen is what sets it apart from other e-readers the most. Its 6.8-inch WXGA+ screen boasts 265 dpi and a 1440 x 1080 resolution, giving it the largest screen size, dpi, and resolution of any other e-reader on the market. As you can imagine, the text it displays is just as sharp, if not sharper, than a high-quality paperback.
After seeing so many HD tablets over the years, I'm rarely impressed with an e-reader screen, but I have to admit this one caught my eye. When showing a book cover or other pictures, the image ends up looking less like a digital display and more like a framed black-and-white print. Naturally, reading on the Aura HD is a wonderful experience, thanks in part to the myriad of options and features accompanying it.
Kobo has built in a wide selection of customization options for the text, including sliders for font size, line spacing, margins, sharpness, and weight, plus 11 different fonts to choose from. I had to spend a few minutes fiddling with the different settings until I found one I preferred, but I haven't had to change it since.
The touch display isn't nearly as responsive as the touchscreens found in most smart devices these days, but most actions require only a quick tap anyway. It does lack the physical buttons found in the older Kindle and Nook models, but I didn't really miss them. With a 1GHz processor, tapping the left or right side of the screen turns the pages just as fast and makes for a more streamlined e-reading experience.
A small button on the top activates the backlight for low-light situations. It can be set to various brightness levels, but personally I prefer to keep it off whenever possible. For me, being able to stare at a screen for long hours without a light shining in my face is exactly the reason I prefer reading books on an e-reader instead of a tablet.
There's also a stat-tracking system that records some basic details about your reading habits – how many hours you've read, what percentage of your library you've completed, etc. – but this is mainly a fluff service. You can share your stats with friends through Facebook, though I'm not sure why you'd want to brag about the number of pages you've read. Still, it could be satisfying to see exactly how long it took to finish the last book you were engrossed in.
The sharp E Ink screen also lends itself quite well to displaying comics and graphic novels. Of course, reading the majority of them won't be quite the same with a shrunken size and a lack of color, but titles that were originally published in black-and-white are still just as enjoyable, such as The Walking Dead series. Kobo's online bookstore has its own section for them as well, though it's limited mainly to manga and a sparse selection of independent books. It'd be nice to see a few more notable works in there.
More reading material than I know what to do withBesides the crisp, print-like screen, my second favorite aspect of the Aura HD is the microSD expansion slot. It's such a handy feature that I'm now disappointed that the majority of e-readers haven't included it. The e-reader comes equipped with 4GB of storage space, but with an additional 32GB on a microSD card, you could essentially store more books than you'd ever need.
The expansion slot is also useful for adding books to your library from sources outside of Kobo's bookstore. You can easily pop the microSD card into a computer and load it with any documents or files you want, provided they're in an accepted format (EPUB, PDF, CBR, etc.). Considering the large number of free e-books to be found online, you could build a formidable library without ever venturing into the online bookstore.
If you grow tired of your digital book library, the Kobo Aura HD packs in a handful of extras to keep you occupied.
For example, the e-reader is able to sync with Pocket, an online service for storing articles from various websites to read later. It's a nice feature to have, but considering the majority of the websites I frequent include color images and videos, I'd rather stick to my smartphone.
It includes a basic web browser as well, which is serviceable, but probably won't replace your other internet-connected gadgets anytime soon. The problem is the E Ink screen has to constantly refresh if you scroll down a web page. So, in addition to no color, browsing the web is slower and more arduous than on most other devices.
The games and apps included are a much more convenient distraction. I've spent a decent amount of time watching a monocled cartoon completely school me in chess, while my wife keeps running off with it to try the Sudoku and Sketchpad programs. True, similar apps are all available on most smart devices, but it's nice to have them if you want to take a break from reading for awhile.
You get what you pay for?On paper, the Kobo Aura HD is undoubtedly the best e-reader on the market right now, and from what I've seen, the same holds true with the device in hand. It's packed with all the features you'd expect from this sort of device along with the sharpest E Ink screen available. Unfortunately, the hefty US$169.99 price tag also makes it the most expensive e-reader around – $30 higher than the Kindle Paperwhite and a full $110 more expensive that the budget-priced Nook Simple Touch. Still, if you want the best e-reader you can get your hands on, this is definitely it.
Kobo is currently selling the Aura HD through its website in black, white, and espresso colors.
Product Page: Kobo Aura HDView gallery - 26 images