Oh, Kobo. When you launched your "limited edition" Aura HD eBook reader, you did such a great job. The glitzy event at London's iconic Millbank Tower, the superb "Porsche of eReaders" sound bite, the pitch-perfect rhetoric about recreating the paperback experience as closely as possible. This was a product dedicated to the literary fanatic, you said, and I hung on every last word of it.
"From the beginning, Kobo has pushed the eReading industry to new heights and today is no exception. Kobo Aura HD is designed for the most passionate booklovers – those who devour hundreds of stories each year – who asked us to create the ultimate eReading experience. Kobo Aura HD is our way of celebrating these customers," commented your CEO, Michael Serbinis.
Was it all just a false dawn, a mirage? Not quite. The £139.99 Kobo Aura HD - which is currently available for pre-order and goes on sale in the UK on 25 April - isn't a bad offering. Like virtually every bit of consumer electronics kit we've ever taken for a spin, it's a device with a number of strengths, but also a couple of shortcomings. I was ready to be wholly converted to the eBook reader by the Aura HD; in the end, I had a lot of fun, a bit of frustration, and some childish giggles playing with a product that, while not a revelatory experience, was certainly an effective appetite whetter. Here's why.
Unboxing the Aura HD doesn't quite generate the same wide-eyed awe as getting stuck into a new Apple product, but I actually quite like Kobo's understated packaging, which struck me as quietly confident.
I also immediately enjoyed the way the Aura looked and handled - the ridged back is an especially nice touch, it fits comfortably in one hand, and the Ivory model had a generally sophisticated aesthetic about it.
The bundled microUSB lead, too, came across as a premium touch, with its fabric braided cord. A card slot to allow for cheap and easy augmentation of the device's 4GB on-board storage capacity represented another obvious plus.
Things took a nose-dive, however, as soon as I started booting up my new Kobo device. There's no two ways about it - the Aura HD is slow. There's connections to be made, software to be downloaded, apps to be installed, accounts to be set-up, updates to be completed, and the all-important first sync. It's an extremely long process but, fortunately, one that doesn't persist: once you've jumped through all the initial hoops, resuming from sleep mode is almost instant, though if you power off the device in full there's a bit of a lag when booting up again.
Likewise, the Aura's performance didn't end up being as slick as I expected. The device's touchscreen wasn't über-responsive, often taking a couple of prods to recognise the command I was after.
My pudgy fingers aside, shifting between interface screens took a good few seconds despite the much-lauded 1GHz processor, though in-book swiping was effective with the Aura refreshing every five pages for minimal disruption.
What can't be doubted is the quality of the Aura HD's 6.8in E Ink Pearl display. WIth a resolution of 1,440 x 1,080 pixels (vs 1,024 x 768 pixels for the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, and 1,024 x 758 pixels on the Kobo Glo) the lettering on the screen was as crisp as you could ask for on this type of gadget.
Ten different fonts and 24 adjustable sizes ensure that reading on the Aura is a hugely pleasant experience. It benefits from its considerable scope for user customisation, plus there's annotation tools for those looking to replicate the paperback experience in full and scratch up their eBooks.
The Kobo eBookstore is easy enough to navigate, via both desktop app and on the Aura itself, where it's integrated into a clean, minimalist interface. It seemed reasonably well stocked on the fiction front, and I was able to track down a number of personal favourites - key works by authors ranging from Hubert Selby Jr to Kobo Abe and Haruki Murakami were present and accounted for. However, other classics, like Chinua Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' and Jean Rhys' 'Wide Sargasso Sea,' didn't feature amongst Kobo's 3.2 million titles. (UPDATE 24/04/13: Kobo has clarified that the absence of the Jean Rhys title is due to Penguin's ongoing digitisation of its back catalogue. It should also be noted that a number of Achebe's works are available via the Kobo eBookstore and 'Things Fall Apart' can be obtained via WHSmith).
My explorations also revealed that in addition to a wide range of quality literature, the Kobo eBookstore is also surprisingly strong on the amateur porn front. During the Aura's unveiling, Kobo discussed its commitment to graphic novels, so I was keen to see what the "Comics & Graphic Novels" section offered. But istead of discovering the next Watchmen, I found a healthy array of softcore titles - the dark side of Kobo's (highly laudable) Writing Life self-publishing initiative, perhaps. The lack of quality control was most obvious on the desktop app (pictured, below), but was also prevalent on the native UI and across other categories - I found volume five of a 'Girls Next Door' collection sandwiched between children's titles in the 'Illustrated eBook' section. While open-source is a wonderful ideal, there's some obvious improvements that could be made here - I had a look around for a filter option in the settings to no avail. (UPDATE 24/04/13: Kobo has said that it is "investigating" these discoveries. We'll be sure to report back any notable findings).
Of course, seasoned digital readers no doubt utilise third-party stores for the bulk of their eBook purchases, and in this respect, Kobo's partnership with WHSmith is a major asset - there's some 2.2 million titles on offer via WHSmith's clean looking, easy to navigate eBookstore. Shopping via Kobo's eBookstore website is another option and offers a much more pleasant browsing experience than both the Kobo desktop app and the Aura's native shopping UI.
Despite a few shortcomings, it's clear that the Canadian manufacturer put a fair bit of effort into the Aura HD, and it's a welcome addition to the eBook reader market - if one that is perhaps a tad enthusiastically priced at £139.99 via WHSmith. There's every reason to believe that Kobo will continue to develop into a legitimate Kindle killer, with strategic partnerships blossoming across both mainstream and independent segments - in addition to WHSmith, the company counts Faber and Faber, as well as the American Booksellers Association, on its Christmas card list. For what it's worth, I certainly won't be parting ways with my Aura HD any time soon - self-confessed hard copy snob that I am, it impresses on enough fronts to convince me that investigating eBook reading further might well be worth the initial heartache. Maybe not Porsche, per se - but definitely a good enough shout for an Audi comparison.