Kobo Aura HD review

Pros

  • Excellent HD screen
  • Solid build quality
  • Good software

Cons

  • Larger and heavier than the Glo
  • Not luxurious enough to justify the cost

The Kobo Aura HD displaces the Kobo Glo as the top-end eBook reader in the current Kobo line-up, coming in at a whacking £40 over the Glo’s £100 price tag. Billed by Kobo as “the only premium eReader on the market”, one “designed for the discerning reader” it takes what was already good about the Glo and enhances it. The idea is to create a luxury model, the eBook reader equivalent of a Mercedes executive saloon or a Bang & Olufsen stereo.

To this end, the Aura HD comes with a new hardback-inspired design, ComfortLight illumination and – most obviously – Kobo’s latest ClarityScreen+ display. With a 6.8in screen size and a 1,440 x 1,080 resolution it has a class leading 265ppi pixel density, beating the 212ppi of the Glo and Amazon’s Kindle PaperWhite. Hence the HD tag.

Physical design

The look and feel is certainly different from other Kobo readers, not to mention their Amazon rivals. Where the Glo has a rubberised plastic back the Aura HD is fashioned from a tough hard plastic, with a plain frame on the front but a kind of strange folded paper shaping on the rear.

This makes the somewhat slippery reader easier to hold and does feel slightly reminiscent of a hardback book, but it also contributes to the Aura HD’s oddly chunky feel. It has a 0.8in larger screen than the Glo and other eBook readers, but it’s also over two centimetres taller, 1.4cm wider and 1.7mm thicker. More tellingly, it’s a good 75g heavier.

This isn’t a big deal, but I’m not 100 per cent sure that the Aura HD actually feels better in the hand than the Glo. It doesn’t suffer from the same tendency to collect every stray greasy fingerprint, but it’s also not so comfortable or tactile. It does, however, look very impressive, particularly when you have something on the screen. That’s where the ‘wow’ factor really kicks in.

Screen

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There’s no doubt that the Aura HD has the finest screen of any eBook reader. The extra resolution means text of stunning clarity and definition, and the sharpest illustrations and photos you’re going to see on an e-ink display.

There are practical benefits too. The slight increase in size and the higher resolution make it possible to scale down the text size and decrease the line-spacing yet still get something you can read; something which again makes the experience of reading on the Aura HD closer to the experience of reading a hardback book. It’s great if you’re skimming your way through reference books, and it somehow feels appropriate when reading old classics. It’s a great showcase for Kobo’s excellent customisation options (more on these later).

The Aura HD appropriates the Glo’s ComfortLight technology, which still provides extremely effective edge-lighting even across a larger screen. You can vary the intensity from a slight off-white glow to a bright, almost-white display, yet there’s never the glare or the long-term eye-ache you might get from a conventional LCD screen. Put it all together, and Kobo’s premise holds true: this is the best reading experience you can get on an eBook reader, and it’s hard to see how it can be improved upon without adding colour.

Software

In terms of software, the Aura HD uses the same interface as the Kobo Glo. Your most recently read titles are presented in a nice visual form on the homescreen, where you’ll also find links to the rest of your library, the Kobo bookstore and the Reading Life social networking feature. This tracks your progress, dishes our Xbox-style achievements and – optionally – posts information to your Facebook account.

While reading, the screen is clear from distractions, but a simple tap and hold manoeuvre summons up the menus. You can return to the homescreen, search for words in the built-in dictionary, translate them from another language or add annotations. It’s a nice, responsive UI, and some of these features are integrated more intuitively and effectively than their Amazon equivalents.

What’s more, as with the Glo, you can adjust practically everything about the reading experience, from the font to the size to margin-widths and line-spacing, and it still has the same Advanced page where you can compare the before and after effects. Generally, we’ve found a little tinkering is the best way to make the most of the Aura HD, as the screen will work with smaller font sizes and spacing than the Glo.

Otherwise, the Aura HD boasts a line of extras, including a basic web browser, some simple games, a sketchpad and Sodoku. None make it as versatile as your average tablet, but they’re fun for a few minutes here and there.

Buying books

Book selection used to be Kobo’s Achilles' Heel, but the situation has changed over the last year or so. It uses the open ePub format rather than Amazon’s proprietary Kindle format, and this means books are available from a wider range of sellers. Not only can you get your hands on 3.2 million titles through Kobo’s own online store, but you have 2.2 million on the WHSmith eBook store, which sometimes offers better deals. Waterstones.com also sells ePub books, and while you’ll still find some books unavailable or prohibitively expensive, it’s getting easier to find what you want.

We still feel Amazon has the best book ecosystem overall, with more titles and more enticing sale prices, but between its own store, the WHSmith store and Waterstones, Kobo is getting more competitive on range and price. Though Amazon’s bargain basement sales might sway our opinion from time to time, book availability and pricing should no longer dissuade you from taking the Kobo route.

You can buy books on the device direct from the Kobo store, or purchase and transfer using Kobo’s desktop software or Adobe Digital Editions, depending on the source. And, just like the Kindle, you can purchase books online on the Kobo store, then sync them over Wi-Fi next time you switch on your Aura HD. It’s all very easy.

Performance and battery life

The Aura HD takes a long time to boot from cold, and the initial startup seems unnecessarily protracted – though there was a firmware update involved in our case. Once in action, though, it seems pretty speedy. With a 1GHz Freescale processor pushing a slightly higher resolution screen, page turns still aren’t as quick as they could be, and the Aura HD tries to counter this with an old Kobo trick, partially refreshing on every turn with a full refresh every six turns. This keeps things reasonably speedy, and you don’t really notice the vague, faded remnants of text that are left behind.

Kobo claims a battery life of two up to two months without a backlight, and half that with the light turned on for 30 minutes a day. Our battery is down to 62 per cent after six days of use, though with deteriorating eyesight and a tendency for late night reading we use the ComfortLight beyond Kobo’s suggested usage. All the same, it’s not the kind of device you’ll have to charge more than once a fortnight, and that’s fine as far as we’re concerned.

Price

Overall, Kobo has achieved its aim of delivering a luxury eBook reader, but it still leaves us wondering whether this is something that anyone really wants or really needs. At £139, it’s £40 more expensive than the Kobo Glo, and it’s hard to say that I’d notice anything that different about the reading experience day to day, particularly when the the Glo’s screen already has the Aura HD’s illumination and a high enough resolution for reading purposes. Personally, I actually prefer the more tactile feel and smaller size of the Glo.

Verdict

The Kobo Aura HD has the best screen of any eBook reader on the market, and there is something reassuringly expensive about its overall design and feel. Kobo’s software looks great and you can’t complain about a lack of features. With several decent eBook stores to choose from there’s little to complain about in terms of books. Our only concern is that it’s a very expensive eBook reader, and one that brings few tangible benefits over the £40 cheaper Kobo Glo – or the £30 cheaper Amazon Kindle PaperWhite, for that matter. That makes the Aura HD a tempting buy for rich, high-tech literary types, but not such a tempting buy for those of us who simply want a great device for reading books.

Specifications

Manufacturer and model

Kobo Aura HD

Processor

1GHz Freescale

Storage

4GB (up to 32GB with microSD card)

Display size and tech

6.8in WXGA+ Pearl E Ink

Display resolution

1,440 x 1,080

Pixel density

265 dpi

Illumination

ComfortLight (front lighting)

Connectivity

Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n and micro-USB

Dimensions (W x H x D)

128.3 x 175.7 x 7 to 11.7mm

Weight

240g

Colours

Espresso, Ivory, Onyx