Kobo Aura One - A Near Perfect eReader

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I have been a voracious reader since I was a child, and grew up on a diet of normal printed books. I spent most of my lunch money feeding my reading habit, much to the despair of my single-mother, who could not understand why I perpetually looked like I was only one step above anorexic. I didn’t have an eating disorder, just a reading one. Even my jacket was chosen according to its ability to fit a good-sized paperback in its pockets.

Over time, my shelves grew over-populated with my indulgence, filling one row from end to end, then a second row of books directly in front, and finally a third with a part of the books sticking out, hovering over limbo. When I began forming piles on the side, it was time to start the painful process of ridding myself of them to give away to the library or other.

This happened every six months or so on average, and it was agony. I always tried to keep the ones I thought I would reread, whether entirely or just some ‘favorite scenes’, but as time passed, even those hardcore favorites faced eviction, since room had to be made for new arrivals.

The point is to be clear that not only did I not grow up reading on my phone, tablet, or what-have-you, but have long been enamored with the printed word in its classic format, mostly unchanged since the Gutenberg press. That said, I have embraced and love the e-readers of today for all the advantages they offer, even if I forego some of the minor perks that printed books still enjoy.

What I love in e-reading

The first and most obvious is that of portability: it is clear that even without access to a cloud service, I can probably fit more books onto my e-reader or smartphone than I will read in my lifetime. At least books that are dedicated to the printed word and not digital photo albums. It means that not only do I never need to worry about getting rid of a book for lack of shelf space, but that I can enjoy them when and where I wish.

The sheer selection and ready availability is also staggering. As anyone who has regularly visited in bookstores can sympathize with, there is always the matter of the ‘bookstore lottery’ when browsing. By that I mean that no matter how extensive or specialized the store’s selection, one never really knows what one is going to find. If you’re just out to get that latest bestseller, then you’ll almost certainly leave satisfied, but if you are unsure, or looking for something a little less under the limelight, then a generous dollop of luck is needed to be sure you find what you seek.

Even if you know finding it will be easy, such as book three of a popular series, and you just finished book two. If it is 10 pm and you are at home, you may have to wait to scratch that literary itch until the next day, possibly after work or class, and still make the time to go to the bookstore to buy it. With digital, not only are all the books always available, but they are available immediately too. A couple of clicks, a few seconds downloading, and you are on to book three!

Another feature that stands out is the instant dictionary lookup, and in many languages no less. Consulting a dictionary has long been a decision process that involved weighing the pros and cons. Ideally, we would always seek out knowledge without hesitation, but let’s be realistic: Looking up a word means putting down whatever you were reading to retrieve a thick dictionary, then spend time finding the word, and thus breaking clean from the reading immersion.

When faced with this scenario, the question was always ‘can I deduce from context?’ and ‘is it important enough to stop reading?’ Now, a quick tap on the word on the screen and a full dictionary definition will pop up instantly answering my query. I never need to choose between knowledge and the reading experience.

Tablet or e-reader?

Like many, when I first really started to get into e-reading, it was on a multi-purpose tablet on which I had the Amazon Kindle app installed. For a good two years it was my main reading medium, and I didn’t really appreciate the point of a dedicated e-reader. I had read comments on it being ‘better’, and not tiring the eyes, but it seemed like a fairly weak reason to invest in one overall.

Over time though, I began to notice a curious change in my reading habits that was the direct result of reading on a tablet or smartphone: I was reading less and less during the day, and almost only in the evening or at night. This wasn’t related to the time I had at my disposal, so much as the technology itself. Anyone who has tried using their smartphone outside in the sun will understand: no matter how bright the screen, visibility is going to be terrible.

In fact, even when not under the sun, in the day, your device is competing with the outside light, so maximum brightness is needed to ensure visibility. Reading like this quickly becomes unpleasant, and does indeed tire the eyes. The consequence is the opposite of printed books: instead of finding a place with good light to read, you seek places or times of the day with less light to read. When this realization came to me, I knew I had to try an e-reader.

One of my concerns from the get-go was the size. Sure, the Kindles and Nooks and others were all very portable with their 6-inch screens, but I had already concluded that reading on my 8-inch tablet was far more pleasant than reading on my 5.7-inch smartphone.

The reason is quite simple: text in standard paperbacks is without question on the smaller side. This isn’t because it was decided over the centuries that this was the best for reading, but rather due to plain economics: even just a slightly larger font would mean a huge increase in pages, resulting in a larger book, and greater cost. With digital books, this is not a factor. Mind you, I am not talking about very large text for those with poor eyesight, but just a more comfortable reading experience.

Having no choice in the matter, I took the plunge and bought a Kindle Paperwhite, which I used daily for two years in a relationship that can be best described as good, but lacking. I recently purchased the Kobo Aura One, and have to say that every complaint or reservation I had with the Kindle has been addressed with the Kobo. After roughly two months using it, and exploring it, I can say that it is hands down the best e-reading experience I have ever had, and I cannot recommend it enough. Still, allow me to explain why from a user’s perspective.

Size matters

The Kindle’s 6-inch screen, and by extension all of the other 6-inch e-readers, tout themselves as being of ‘paperback size’. This is a very well disguised half-truth. The e-reader itself may indeed be of comparable size to a standard paperback, but the screen where all the reading will take place is not. It is closer to 50% the real estate. Now increase that font by just a single size or two over the usual printed size, and you are changing pages every few seconds. Disappointing.

That is where the Kobo Aura One’s 7.8-inch screen promised a paradigm shift. The main justification for the Kindle’s nearly ubiquitous 6-inch screen was portability. It could go wherever you wanted more easily as it fit in your pocket. While I don’t really question this, it needs to be added that I never really felt comfortable with the idea of walking around with it in my back pants pocket, worried I might break it should I forget it when sitting down.

On the other hand, there is the matter of the gains. For one thing, the actual screen is truly of paperback size, and when using a one-size larger font, the amount of text is still dense enough to feel like normal reading it.

Two other benefits of the larger screen that quickly came to the fore are also its ability to display a full PDF page and display manga (Japanese comics). The Kobo Aura One can natively read CBR files, and manga is usually in black and white, perfectly suited for this reader. Bear in mind, that while a 10-inch tablet will do this better, we’re still talking e-ink e-reader, meaning daylight and sunlight reading.

The question of size also brings into play how easy or convenient it is to hold it while reading for any length of time. In terms of weight, the Aura One is surprisingly light, and tips the scales at a very modest 230g, which is barely 5% heavier than the Paperwhite’s 218g. Having held them both side by side, I can confirm this is correct. For added reference, this is quite a bit lighter than most of my actual paperbacks of 300 pages or more. If you are coming from a Kindle or other device, and had gotten into the habit of holding it with one hand with fingers around both sides, it may not be as comfortable doing this, but if you hold it from the side holding the bezel, it is fine, and the rubbery surface on the back provides a nice grip.

Warm light

When I bought the Kobo Aura One, it was for the larger screen, pure and simple, and while the other features on the list of specs were not unattractive, they alone would never have induced me to buy it. They were just icing on the cake. However, after two months, some of that icing has really come to be enjoyed and appreciated far more than expected.

The first is the warmer lighting. The reviews I had read described it as useful, fascinating, and very orange. Perhaps the purpose was to show off the extreme, but frankly I found the images showing off the tangerine screen color off-putting, and expected I would probably leave it untouched. Indeed, though the tangerine color might be the extreme, one can manually control this, and suddenly this can make the whole thing surprisingly more pleasant.

It might help to understand it this way: if you have been in a room lit with those white-blue fluorescent lights, reminiscent of hospital lights, though they may be perfectly functional, they just aren’t as pleasant as one with slightly warmer lighting. I don’t know if this would be the difference between easier sleep or not, which is the only reason this feature was actually included, but there is no question it is nicer. I like to leave it at the midway point, where the wraith-like blue has been replaced by a slightly sunnier appearance.

Keeping track

Another serious caveat I had with the Kindle specifically was the way it tracked your reading progress. It was either in percentage, some estimate of the hours left, or some weird ‘Loc’ count. In fact, this has persisted for years and years, and I cannot begin to understand the thinking behind this. When reading a book, measurable page counts have always been a factor. I will be reading, decide I will need to call it quits soon, and look to see how many pages I have left in the chapter. I might also at times see how far in the book I am. However, at no time over the years have I measured this in percentages, hours left to finish, or that Kindle gibberish ‘Loc 2389’.

The only page count the Kindle has, when it has any, is a very odd reference to the physical book, so that when you see Page 15, it is not a reference to 15 pages read on the Kindle, but how far you would be in the printed book. As you might have guessed, the Kobo Aura One brings the standard reference, displaying the pages left for a chapter, or the page count in the entire book (see image above). It also has all manner of reading stats if you pull up the option at the bottom, though I rarely use them to be honest.

One of the vaunted features is that it is waterproof. If you want to read it in your bath or next to the pool, or even at the beach, go for it without worrying about a fatal splash or dunk killing it. It isn’t a feature I have used, but it’s certainly nice to know it is there. There are plenty of reviews and videos putting it to the test, and all agree that it lives up to the claims.

Pocket — Offline news

There are two last features that are highlighted, neither of which I paid any attention to at first: OverDrive and Pocket. The online access to Overdrive and library books is not one I have used at all, so I won’t discuss it, but the Pocket is a feature I only began to explore in the last two weeks when the idea of this review took root. Having seen it in action, I can now say that I will be using it a lot more from now on.

In a nutshell, it allows you to choose an article from an online site, whether blog or news source, and have it saved to your (free) account, which is picked up by your e-reader. It will save not only the text, but also any images included (albeit displayed in black and white), and add the article on your e-reader. It is very nicely done, and very easy to use.

y now you have gotten the impression that I consider the Kobo Aura One very nearly the perfect e-reader, and for all purposes that is true, but this isn’t to say there aren’t some niggles, much less that it is perfect.

From Kindle to Kobo

The first, sorry to say, is that question of the ecosystem. I am perfectly willing to buy an ebook from the Kobo store so long as I am not paying extra for the privilege. There is talk about pricematching, but Kobo themselves state that it is not universal and subject to approval (Amazon is no different), so when in doubt, I just buy it from Amazon. This brings up the issue of accessing my not insignificant number of ebooks purchased through Amazon, and that one might worry are locked into their ecosystem.

Luckily this is not true. Downloading and converting my Kindle ebooks to read on the Kobo is very easy once you know how, and requires using Cailbre, an e-reader software swiss-army knife, and a few plugins that remove the DRM and do the conversion. The entire process can take a couple of minutes, from download to copying to the device, but is fairly painless.

It needs to be pointed out also, that if you plan to sideload ebooks (meaning add ebooks via cable from your computer) knowing how to convert to the Kepub format is useful as it is the only format that supports the page counts in chapters.

How long have I got?

The final item brought up by numerous users in forums and even reviews: battery life. There is no question that the battery life is not as spectacular as the Kindle Paperwhite, which measured at roughly 6 weeks according to Amazon, if you read only 30 minutes a day (I read more), and have the WiFi off. When you first start the Kobo Aura One, you will find a powerful new firmware ready to download, that addresses this issue among others.

In my practice, with WiFi off (why would I leave it on just to read?) I get about two weeks. Maybe a bit less, but it is hard for me to measure.I add books fairly regularly, certainly more often than the batter charge, most bought from Amazon, which means I connect the cable, and this always leads to it adding charge. Also, the default setting in the e-reader is to only enter sleep mode (meaning no page was turned or function used) after a full 15 minutes. That seems quite excessive, and I dropped it down to 5 minutes.

Final words

So what about cool Kindle features such as Word Wise or book X-ray that do not exist in the Kobo readers? I think they’re great, without a doubt, but their absence would not have any affect on the title of near perfect e-reader. The reason is that before worrying about all the sophisticated features one can add to an e-reader, it is essential to get the most fundamental part right: the reading experience. And that is where the Kobo Aura One shines brighter than the others.

I bought the Kobo Aura One directly from Kobo for US$229 with free shipping (to the US), and with a perfectly functioning Paperwhite I was on the fence for quite some time. I dreaded the idea of spending over $200 on a second e-reader, with no need, and finding myself stuck with buyer’s remorse soon thereafter. However, all the little extras, from the larger screen, warmer lighting, and proper chapter page counts, have really brought the joy back into e-reading, and instead of buyer’s remorse, I find myself wanting to share my pleasure and experience with others.