Kobo Aura review

Pros

  • Excellent design
  • Great illuminated screen
  • Expandable memory
  • Strong software

Cons

  • More expensive than the Paperwhite
  • No Pageflip feature

For a long time Kobo came close to releasing a decent alternative to the Kindle, but last year it finally got things right with the Kobo Glo – a great touchscreen eBook reader with an illuminated display that undercut the equivalent Kindle Paperwhite. This year it returned with the Aura HD, a premium model with a larger, higher resolution screen and an interesting hardback-inspired design.

The new Aura sits somewhere between the two. It has the same size screen as the Glo, albeit with a slightly lower resolution, but a physical design that feels closer to the Aura HD. Crucially, it’s closer in price to the latter, too, and as our biggest reservation about the Aura HD was that it was too expensive (though the price has since come down) that leaves us wondering: Is the premium for the Aura worth it?

Design

This model has a smaller, lower resolution screen than the Aura HD, but in terms of style and comfort the Aura is Kobo’s most successful eBook reader yet. It’s slightly slimmer and more compact than the Glo, and just over 10 grams lighter, but not quite as angular as the Aura HD, and the rubberised back is easier to grip.

The hard plastic screen now covers the whole of the front of the device, meaning there’s no frame edge where bits of household debris will inevitably get stuck, and you can comfortably hold it one-handed for longer periods than you might a paperback, particularly if that paperback is a weighty Russian classic or a monolithic fantasy saga. The construction seems particularly robust, and while I’d always keep an eBook reader in a case, in this case I might not have to.

Expandability is one area where Kobo’s readers have often beaten Amazon’s, and the Aura once again comes with a microSD slot alongside the microUSB port used for charging. If the 4GB of on-board storage isn’t enough, you can simply pop in a 32GB card.

Screen

The Glo had a 6in, 1024 x 768 resolution screen, which I still think is perfectly adequate for eBook reading unless you read a lot of graphic novels and illustrated reference books, in which case the Aura HD or – better still – a tablet will serve you better. Curiously, the Aura has a slightly lower resolution than the Glo at 1014 x 758, though it uses the same Pearl E-ink technology.

Does this matter? Not really. Text is nice, sharp, crisp and black, and stays that way unless you really push font-sizes to their small and large extremes. Illustrations pack in plenty of detail, and photographic imagery looks about as good as it’s going to on a monochrome screen with 16 shades (note, not 50 shades) of grey. Basically, for your everyday enjoyment of fiction, eBook reader screens don’t need to get an awful lot better than this.

Like the Glo and Aura HD before it, the Aura also features ComfortLight illumination. In daylight, this gives the page a nice white background, as if you’re reading an expensive hardback book, though you might want to switch if off to preserve battery life. At night, this means you don’t need to turn on a lamp to read, and you can read in bed without annoying your partner, particularly as the glow is pretty innocuous on its lowest settings. With the light emitted from the edges and spread by filters across the page, the level of illumination is very even and much easier on the eyes than a tablet screen.

Software

Kobo’s user interface has matured into a very sensible book-focused UI, with the most recently read titles represented by their covers on the home screen, where there are also links to the library, the Kobo bookstore and Extras, where you’ll find Reading Stats and Awards based on Kobo’s Reading Life profiles. Reading Life, as you might remember, tracks your progress through books, awards Xbox-style achievements for feats of reading and, if you’re a flagrant self-publicist, will optionally post this information to Facebook.

I’m not sure if it’s actually a new feature, but the Aura home screen also has an option to sign in to the web service, Pocket, which makes handy text-and-image copies of web articles so that you can read them on other devices. I already use this with Chrome on my desktop to put articles on a tablet for later reading, but I can see the option of reading them on the Kobo being very useful on a long distance train ride or flight. Between them, Pocket and the Aura do a decent job of formatting the articles as well.

When you pick something to read and actually start reading, the screen is sensibly free of distractions. However, tapping and holding summons up the controls, allowing you to go back to the home screen, look up words in the dictionary or translate phrases from another language, or add annotations. Here Kobo’s excellent and responsive on-screen keyboard can come in very handy. Kobo also has some of the best features to customise your reading experience, from controls to adjust the typeface, size, margin-widths and line-spacing to an Advanced page where you can compare current settings with new ones.

If it misses out anywhere, it’s that there’s currently no answer to Amazon’s Pageflip feature, where you can flip through the pages of your book using an onscreen slider. This does make some books faster and more intuitive to navigate, and it would be great if Kobo could implement something similar.

Buying books

The major strength of buying a Kobo is that you’re not locked into any one eBook store. It uses the standard EPUB format, and you can buy books from Kobo, WHSmith, eBooks by Sainsbury’s, Waterstones and other stores, transferring the books using either Kobo’s own very simple desktop software or Adobe Digital Editions. These stores are now doing a fairly decent job of matching Amazon on price, and while Amazon’s sporadic sales still take some beating, buying Kobo no longer means a struggle to get a decent library going. In fact, the competition does seem to be driving prices down. Buy books from Kobo/WHSmith and they’ll sync wirelessly onto your Aura next time you connect.

You can, of course, also buy books from the device itself, with a Bookstore that features a carousel of recommended titles plus good search facilities and lists of bestsellers and hot pre-orders. It’s certainly convenient, but a little harder to browse than an online store on a tablet or PC.

Performance and battery life

Kobo’s performance troubles seem to be a thing of the past. The Aura uses a 1GHz processor and the pauses between selecting a book and starting to read or pressing a word and a dictionary definition appearing are minimal. Even if you set the screen to refresh after every page, page-turns happen very quickly, and are even snappier if you set to refresh after every five pages. We’d suggest changing the default setting, which is to refresh after every chapter, because this causes some odd ghosting effects on the display.

Kobo claims a battery life of two months with ComfortLight turned on for thirty minutes a day and Wi-Fi turned off. With five days of reading around an hour a day with ComfortLight turned on most of the time and Wi-Fi kept lazily switched on, I’ve still only used around 15 per cent of the battery. It’s safe to say that you could take the Aura on a fortnight’s holiday without the charger.

Verdict

The Aura is a great eBook reader. It is £20 more expensive than the Kobo Glo – which is still available to buy – but for my money it’s a better designed and even more solid reader that fits slightly more comfortably in the hand.

Of course, the new Kindle Paperwhite is £10 cheaper and comes with access to Amazon’s great ecosystem and some excellent features, but the Aura hardware is arguably better and definitely lighter. If you don’t want to get locked into the Kindle store, then the Aura is currently the best alternative out there.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Kobo Aura

Dimensions

150 x 114 x 8.1mm

Weight

174g

Screen Type

Monochrome E-Ink

Screen Size and Resolution

6in, 1014 x 758

Storage

4GB

Backlight

Yes

Expansion Slot

MicroSD card

Battery Life

2 months