Kobo Aura HD review

Kobo strikes gold with the well-designed Aura HD, a premium ebook reader with high-quality edge lighting and a super-sharp display.

E Ink-based readers are beginning to take a back seat to color tablets, but they’re not going away anytime soon. Too many people like the non-glare screens, weeks-long battery life, light weight, low cost, and reading-focused experience you get with ebook readers. And with the advent of edge-lit models, you can even use them in the dark. The Kobo Aura HD ($169.99 direct) is the company’s best ebook reader to date, to the point where Kobo is calling it the ‘Porsche of eReaders.’ We won’t go quite that far, but it’s certainly the ebook connoiseur’s reader. It may not pull many Amazon or Barnes & Noble fans into the fold, but if you’re new to ebook readers or already have an earlier model Kobo, the Aura HD is a compelling and extremely capable choice.

Design and Display
The Aura HD measures 6.91 by 5.05 by 0.46 inches (HWD) and weighs 8.5 ounces. You can get one in white, black, or brown. It’s made of a somewhat flimsy-feeling hard plastic, which isn’t as nice to hold as the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite and Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight’s soft-touch surfaces. The Aura HD is also an ounce heavier than the Paperwhite, and an ounce and a half heavier than the Nook, which is something I noticed while reading. It’s still lighter than a color iPad mini (10.9 ounces) or a Google Nexus 7 tablet (12 ounces), but it’s getting up there.

The top edge features a sliding power switch and a button that activates the ComfortLight edge lighting. The bottom panel holds the micro USB charger port and a memory card slot. The package contains the Aura HD, a small printed manual, and an especially nice woven cloth-covered USB cable that should prove more durable and resistant to tangling than others. There’s no AC adapter in the box, though, so you’ll need to either use a laptop or desktop PC, or order the optional $30 AC adapter.

The display is the best feature of the Aura HD, and it’s a beauty. At 1,440-by-1,080 pixels and 265 dpi, it’s the densest E Ink display you can buy. Driving the screen is a 1GHz processor, which helps speed up page turns. I’m a fan of larger screens; even an extra 8/10ths of an inch over a Kindle is significant, because it brings the Aura HD closer to the size of a comfy trade paperback.

The ComfortLight is the best edge lighting I’ve seen on an E Ink device. Parked next to a Kindle Paperwhite in a dark room, the Aura HD gets significantly brighter, and it’s also more evenly lit, both on the display and especially along the bottom edge, where you can see the light from individual LEDs bleeding a bit on the Paperwhite; the Aura HD is even all across the four edges. At its lowest setting, the Aura HD is quite dim, but still a bit brighter than the Kindle Paperwhite.

Reading, Kobo Store, and Apps
In just about all respects, the Kobo Aura HD is a pleasure to read on. The built-in fonts look incredibly sharp, just as you’d expect given the screen resolution. The font options are phenomenal: You get 10 different fonts to choose from, plus seemingly infinite control over size, line spacing, and margin settings, along with center, left, or no justification. Tap the Advanced button, and you’ll get additional options for configuring default size, weight (or ink darkness), and sharpness for each font. And thanks to the sharp screen, smaller fonts look clear and crisp to a degree you can’t achieve with the Kindle Paperwhite (at least at similarly small sizes).

Page turns are fast and unobtrusive, thanks to the Aura HD’s caching ability that reduces full-screen, all-black E Ink page refreshes to every six page turns. With a few page refreshes, sometimes the fonts didn’t sharpen completely, and looked a bit jagged; then I’d pop up the font page and close it again, and it would refresh correctly, but this was pretty rare. Touch response was sometimes inconsistent in my tests: Tapping smaller interface elements like the icons on the bottom right of the screen, or the close box on the top right, sometimes took several tries.

Tap the Aura HD’s Percentage Read indicator on the bottom left screen corner, and a window pops up saying how far you are in the current chapter, along with an estimation as to how long it will take you to finish the chapter, how long the next one is, and how many hours are left in the entire book. There’s no way to display a permanent page number if the book you’re reading doesn’t support one. Still, I love this stuff and wish there was a way for Kindle and Nook readers to tap into the same level of customization and information while reading.

For browsing and buying new books, there’s no cellular radio option; the Kobo Aura HD connects to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi networks. The Kobo Store gives you access to over 3 million ebooks, newspapers, and magazines. It’s a little tough to navigate from the device, though; I chose the General Computing category and was greeted with a static list of six books, four of which weren’t in English, and it said “Page 1 of 420″—and page swipes were hit-or-miss and always sluggish. I’d suggest the website on a computer or tablet for shopping. The Aura HD supports ePub, PDF, and MOBI books, which opens it to a world of content on the Web. However, it can’t read Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook purchases—if you’re already committed to one of those ecosystems, leaving it means leaving your books behind.

You get a built-in Merriam-Webster dictionary, preloaded Chess and Sudoku games, and an experimental Web browser that’s best left in the basement lab. You can also run searches and annotate sections of the book, and there’s a translation dictionary that supports French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. The Aura HD also includes Kobo’s Reading Life software, which tracks your reading speed and other statistics, and also lets you try for awards, which, to me, remains a bit silly.

Storage, Battery Life, and Conclusions
There’s 4GB of onboard storage—good for roughly 3,000 books, according to Kobo—plus a microSD card slot that works with up to 32GB cards. Ebooks don’t usually take up much space, but PDF books and other kinds of documents with lots of images can, and having a microSD card slot also makes transferring them from another device that much easier. Plus, Kobo’s cloud-based storage works like Amazon’s and Barnes & Noble’s, in that your purchases are stored there and can be synced among PCs, Macs, iOS, and Android devices, thanks to the Kobo apps available for those platforms.

Kobo claims the Aura HD is good for about two months of reading 30 minutes per day on a single charge—this kind of battery life is one of the reasons people still flock to ebook readers. One more issue worth noting: The Aura HD takes about 10 seconds to wake up from sleep; the Kindle Paperwhite is almost instantaneous, though it does take a second finger swipe on the screen.

Overall, if you think current ebook readers are just a bit too small, the Aura HD will give you exactly what you’re looking for. It also gives Kobo a chance to stand out over Amazon and Barnes & Noble, neither of which offer a model that’s directly comparable. If you like Kobo’s ecosystem but want a smaller device, the 6-inch Kobo Glo is still for sale and is still excellent at $40 less.

The Kindle Paperwhite remains our Editors’ Choice, thanks to its svelte form factor, slimmer design, and more responsive screen. It also costs $30 less without ads, or $50 less with ads, and there’s a 3G cellular option that you can’t get with the Kobo. However, the Kobo offers a sharper screen and many more font customization options; if you place the Aura HD next to the Kindle Paperwhite, text on the Aura HD just looks better, period. The Aura HD also supports ePub and has a memory card slot for sideloading PDFs, but the Kobo Store isn’t nearly as fleshed out as Amazon’s. The $120 Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight offers more customization options than the Kindle, albeit less than the Kobo Aura HD, but its design and uneven lighting already look dated next to the Amazon and Kobo ebook readers.

Finally, there’s the color tablet question. The 6.8-inch E Ink-based Aura HD is just $30 less than several truly excellent 7-inch color tablets like the Google Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire HD. You can do much more with either of those devices, and even with reading, you’ll have a better experience with color magazines and comics. But for the reasons listed above, E Ink-based ebook readers attract a specific and dedicated type of buyer. If that describes you, the Kobo Aura HD sits near the top of the heap.

Specifications
Touchscreen Yes
Dimensions 6.91 x 5.05 x 0.46 inches
Weight 8.5 oz
Screen Type Monochrome E Ink
Cellular Connectivity None
Physical Keyboard No
Networking Options 802.11n
Book Formats EPUB, PDF, MOBI
Screen Size 6.8 inches
Storage Capacity (as Tested) 4 GB
Backlight Yes
Expansion Slot Yes

Verdict
Kobo strikes gold with the well-designed Aura HD, a premium ebook reader with high-quality edge lighting and a super-sharp display.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc