Kobo's Aura HD e-reader: High quality and high priced

I recently had a chance to try out Kobo's new e-reader, the Aura HD. It's an interesting device -- but before I offer my impressions, a few thoughts on e-readers vs. tablets.

Popular sentiment (at least, what I've seen on many tech sites) is that the tablet has pretty much killed the e-reader. While, as somebody who does most of her reading on her smartphone, I can easily believe that, my own anecdotal experience riding NYC's subways offers another point of view: While I've noticed a number of tablet users, the vast majority of readers seem to be using e-readers.

There could be a number of reasons for this. To begin with, since e-readers don't cost nearly as much as, say, a typical iPad, commuters may feel safer with an e-reader, which isn't as much of an economic problem if it's dropped, lost or stolen. In addition, I've spoken to several people who say that, as constant readers, they find that E-ink displays are still much easier on the eyes than even the latest backlit displays.

All that being said, multi-use tablets have eclipsed e-readers to a large extent. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, IDC estimated that global e-reader shipments dropped 28% from 2011 to 2012, from 27.7 million devices to 19.9 million.

The two most well-known e-reader vendors, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, have reacted by introducing higher-end LCD-based devices that are as much (or more) tablets than e-readers. They also dropped the prices of their E-ink devices. For example, Amazon's basic 6-in. Kindle now costs $69, while the least expensive in its Kindle Fire Tablet line starts at $159. Barnes & Noble's simplest Nook goes for $79, while its least expensive Nook HD tablet starts at $129.

There are, however, a couple of exceptions to the rule of low-cost e-reader, expensive tablet. Amazon came out with its Kindle Paperwhite last September, which features a light and high-resolution display for $119 ($139 without ads). And in April, Kobo introduced its Kobo Aura HD, a $170 E-ink reader.

Is the Aura HD worth its price? According to Kobo, it is: The company reports that, as of the end of May, the Aura HD accounted for up to 27% of its retail sales, with 50% of that being new customers.

The facts of the case

First, the specs: The Aura HD has a 6.8-in. display that offers 1440 x 1080 resolution at 265 ppi. Those are impressive figures; in comparison, the Kindle Paperwhite has a 1024 x 768 resolution with 212 ppi.

At 6.91 x 5.05 x 0.46 in., the Aura HD is slightly thicker than most similar e-readers (the Paperwhite is 0.36-in. thick), but not so much that it is noticeable. It weighs about 8.5 oz.

Kobo Aura HD

There are only a few controls, aside from the touch screen. On the top edge of the unit is the power switch (red, so it's easy to find) and a button for the screen lighting. The bottom edge has a standard microUSB slot for powering up and connecting directly to a computer; the Aura HD includes 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.

There is also an microSD card slot, although the AuraHD already comes with 4GB of storage, quite enough for a fairly impressive library.

According to Kobo, the battery should last up to two months on a charge, based on about 30 minutes of reading a day (according to a Kobo rep, it was tested with the lights on).

The back of the unit is interesting and worth comment: It is plastic with two ridges, which is a rather strange; while I never had the feeling I was going to drop the unit, I much prefer the quilted backs of Kobo's other readers.

The reading experience

While I don't have a Kindle Paperwhite handy to compare the Aura HD's display to, I do have an older Kobo Touch, a smaller device with 800 x 600 resolution. As might be expected from the differing specs, the Aura HD's display was better: smaller type was clearer, and page turns were noticeably faster and cleaner.

As with other e-readers, the adjustable lighting (which Kobo calls ComfortLight) is produced by LEDs located within the inner edge of the device (in the case of the Aura HD, in the lower edge); the light is then distributed throughout the screen's surface using a thin coating. I was very impressed by the effect, which was evenly distributed across the surface of the display. It made reading in low-light conditions a very pleasant experience.

The software's interface is well thought-out as well. There is a great deal of adjustability built into it; for example, you can change where to touch the screen to turn a page; you can easily tweak not only font and font size, but the line spacing, margin and justification as well. By long-pressing on a word or phrase, you can highlight it, find a definition, add an annotation or send the quote to Facebook.

Even better, you can adjust how often you get a full screen refresh -- anywhere from one to six pages turned. (A refresh means that fraction of a second when the screen reverses dark and light.)

You can buy books directly from Kobo's store, either through the reader itself or online. You can also upload your existing books in ePub, PDF or Mobi file types; I added several ePub e-books by loading them onto an SD card and inserting it into the Aura HD, and it picked them up without a hitch. According to the Web site, it will accept a wide variety of formats, including TXT, HTML, XHTML and RTF text; JPG, GIF, PNG and TIFF images, and CBZ/CBR comic books.

And if you like to track your reading, Kobo offers an area called Reading Life which lets you know how many hours you've read, your average pages per month, and other statistics.

Note: The updated software is not relegated to the Aura HD; my Kobo touch was also upgraded to the same version, which had most, if not all, of the features included in the more recent device.

Bottom line

The basic question, of course, is whether the Kobo Aura HD worth its $170 pricetag.

If you're a constant reader or somebody who like to read books and other documents from outside sources, it's possible. The Aura HD offers some advantages over its nearest rival, Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite: Besides a better resolution (although I doubt the difference will make much difference to most people), a larger display and twice as much built-in memory, it has an SD card slot, which not only adds considerably to your storage capability, but makes it simple to move documents from one device to another. However, the approximately $50 price difference between the two may cause some consumers to think twice.

So, as with many devices, it all depends on your own needs. One thing I do know: If you've got a friend or relative who reads a lot -- and who isn't content with using a tablet -- this would make a great gift.

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