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Gadget Review

Kobo Aura H20 Edition 2 (2017)

A decent e-reader marred by performance issues, questionable battery life, and high asking price.

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I’m actually a big fan of Rakuten’s Kobo brand of e-readers; heck, as a total bookie I’m a fan of anything that makes the reading experience more accessible for people. In this world of phones and tablets it’s a shame that dedicated e-readers don’t get more credit for helping deliver to the masses what used to be a more complex and uncomfortable experience; digital reading. How far we’ve come from the days of staring into brightly-lit monitors while stationed at workstations and desks. In a way e-readers helped form our comfortable relationship with saying toodles to paper entirely, for better or worse.

While Amazon’s Kindle brand may be synonymous with the market, Kobo readers have earned the respect of fellow bibliophiles by precisely NOT being Amazon. Last year’s Aura One proved that bigger CAN be better, and with Amazon’s curious lack of innovation in the market (typically the norm when one company so thoroughly dominates), it looks like it’s up to Kobo to pick up the slack where they can. Bigger screens and waterproofing are where this magic happens, though with the new Aura H20 Edition 2 (2017), Kobo seems to

Design: A Smidge Smaller, Lighter

If you’ve used the previous Aura H20 you won’t find much different here. Generally speaking, it retains the same basic shape all tablets and e-readers have: it’s a rectangular slab hosting that E Ink screen. With its dimensions of 129 x 172 x 8.8 mm it’s just a smidge smaller than the 2015 H20 model, and at 207 grams a smidge light, too. The power button – the sole physical interaction – has blossomed into a more visible bright blue square and migrated to the back of the device on the right-side.

The H20 still has the same rubbery, comfortable molding we’ve found on other Kobo readers; I love the matte coating, even if the speckled backing does pick up artifacts like dirt and hair a bit easier. As with any reader I’d recommend picking up a safety case, which you’ll have to anyway if upgrading from a previous H20 as accessories aren’t compatible (bummer).

Other key differences include the complete removal of the SD card slot, light indicator, and little compartment housed on the bottom undercarriage. To make up for these omissions, Kobo ups the onboard memory from 4GB to 8GB, though not having access to expandable memory does suck. Kobo says 8GB should let you carry around “up to 6,000 ebooks” with you, but that really depends on the type of book/content you’ve got. Comics and graphic novels, for example, soak up vastly bigger footprints than simple text. Still, 8GB storage is fairly big for an e-reader.

Under the Hood: Mostly Familiar

Few people buy e-readers for their monstrous processing power (true), and those expecting a huge bump from last year’s model are going to be disappointed with the 2017 H20. Unmasking Kobo’s hardware specs is notoriously difficult, but all signs point to this H20’s innards housing a 1Ghz processor with 512MB RAM (essentially the same as the beefier Aura One). That’s a slight upgrade over the previous 2015 H20 model, but this newer model still renders all its black and white goodness on the same 1430 x 1080 resolution Carta E Ink screen at the same lower output of 265 ppi.

Let’s talk about what this means for actually reading. A 6.8” screen is larger than any current Kindle, though still a good inch smaller than the Aura One. Propping the H20 next to a Kindle Paperwhite really shows off how roomy an extra inch can be. Plus, the screen looks great even when assaulted by direct sunlight (very nice!). However, its 265 ppi output, while higher than the cheapest Kindle (167 ppi), is still lower than any of the others, which means text and graphics aren’t as crisp and clear.

This updated H20 costs nearly $200, which puts it squarely within the premium category; you’d expect a better screen for the money, especially as cheaper Kindles (again, the current champ Paperwhite) outclass Kobo’s more expensive option.

At least the screen’s generous backlit evenly spreads across the entire display and can be adjusted to your liking. As with all Kobo readers this lighting has a slightly bluer tint than the whiter lighter found on Kindles; this isn’t a slight as most HDTVs have similar differences when it comes to color contrasting. Also neat is how Kobos handles backlighting: a quick-access adjuster lets you brighten/darken the screen by simply dragging your finger up/down the left column.

Also, this new H20 now comes with Kobo’s ComfortLight PRO, another fancy way of saying “blue light filter”, which adjusts the output of blue lights purported to sap your energy and ruin your bedtime ritual. This feature can be enabled anytime or programmed to kick in whatever your ‘bedtime’ is. Blue light filtering may turn your screen output to orange mush, but it’s healthy orange mush that’s (supposedly) better for your precious peepers.

Owing in part to the removal of expandable memory, all data transfers are handled either via the built-in wireless (WiFi 802.11 b/g/n) or via the micro-USB port. There’s no 3G connectivity here, but that’s par for the course with Kobo readers. Getting all those lovely books onto your reader is easy as the same micro-USB slot handles all charging and physical data transfers, and it was nice to see a cable included in the box.

Kobo Software: Gets The Job Done, When It Works

If you’ve used an earlier Kobo model, or pretty much any modern e-reader device or app, you’ll be familiar with Kobo’s reading software. A nice selection of different fonts and sizes help customize the reading area to your liking, and all interaction is handled via taps and swipes, letting you access page turns, bookmarks, device info, reading stats, and everything else that you’ll need to plow through even the toughest books. Long-hold taps let you look up definitions or create notes/annotations, and depending on the type of content you’re reading (like books purchased direct from Kobo) further options open up to expand the experience even more.

Unfortunately, unlike last year’s massive Aura One, there’s no Overdrive functionality for adding participating library titles. But there are advantages that, depending on what you consider ease-of-use, formats, and corporate policies, may make all the difference in the e-reader you choose.

First, let’s state the obvious; Kobo readers won’t give you access to Amazon’s dizzying array of books, magazines, and everything else over there. That’s disappointing, as the selection is unequaled. However, it’s a selection that’s come with a price: meaning, Amazon’s questionable and possibly litigious actions have led to the near-extinction of local and mainstream bookstores who couldn’t compete. Even brick and mortar champion Barnes & Noble essentially raised the white flag and exited the market, at least in the e-reader realm.

This leaves Kobo as the last option between Amazon’s Kindle and total monopoly, and that’s a real consideration. While you won’t get access to Amazon’s giant library, you’ll still get a damn good one with over 4 million titles to choose from in the Kobo Store. It’s huge and packed with nearly everything for mainstream reading, with nice curation for genre fans; even Oprah’s Book Club is present. Prices are decent and by using Kobo’s free reading apps (available on iOS, Android, PC/Mac) you’ll have synced reading access to purchases elsewhere. Adobe Digital Editions for those titles with tight DRM, and even Pocket support, are also available if you need them.

Kobo readers also don’t have any annoying “special offers” hogging your lock screen, meaning you won’t have to pay Amazon’s extortion fee to rid yourself of ads. Honestly, ads aren’t a deal-sealer/killer for me, but others may not appreciate Amazon’s continuing corporate creep in their reading preferences, so it’s something to consider with a Kobo.

One huge, almost defining, advantage Kobo readers have over Kindles is open-support of just about every format under the sun. While you won’t have access to Amazon’s limitless store, you will be able to easily sideload books, magazines, comics and more directly in EPUB, EPUB3, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ, and even CBR formats. EPUB is the killer app as Kindle’s won’t even read the format. Happily, there’s little need to use software like Calibre to get your unsanctioned books on the Kobo.

The Big Advantage: Waterproofing

Do people actually read on the beach, or near (or even in) pools? You bet they do, and there’s a market for those who prefer their digital reading a little wet ‘n wild. This isn’t the first Kobo to have waterproofing; heck, it’s not even the first e-reader to have the feature. Considering actual paper offers zero water protection, it’s a wonder more readers don’t offer this functionality; at the time this review was written none of Amazon’s Kindle family feature such protection.

Unless you’re ‘swimming’ in cash (see what I did there?), chances are any domestic instances of needing a waterproofed e-reader fall into two perils: bathtubs and toilets. Don’t laugh: ask any digital gizmo repairman what the number one issue with broken devices and they’ll tell you, and not usually with a straight face: toilet drops. Sometimes not even the driest sack of rice can save the day, so having a built-in safeguard like waterproofing may be the single biggest advantage Kobo devices like the Aura H20 have going for them.

This new Aura H20 bumps aqua protection up to an IPX8 rating that guarantees non-breakage up to 60 minutes submerged in up to 2 metres (about 6 feet) of water. For comparison, the previous H20 model was only IP67 Certified for half that – and that’s with its port flap closed. That Kobo was able to double its protection levels while ditching the port cover is indeed impressive, but I still wouldn’t go scuba diving with one anytime soon (no joke, Kobo’s advertising actually suggests doing just this!).

I’ve seen silly tests elsewhere where reviewers submerge the device in pans of water to “test” the waterproofing. Why? Unless you’re planning on baking it, I’m not sure such circumstances will ever pop up. Being a thorough review person, I tested the Aura H20 in a sampling of wetter environments, which included reading outside in the rain (surprisingly pleasant), floating in a bathtub (awkward), and even while washing dishes (multitasking FTW). I did not, in fact, put my test unit through that most embarrassing of tests (you’re welcome), so tread with caution when reading in those environments we dare not speak of.

I’m going to assume there are limits to what Kobo might cover in their warranties, though I’m confident should handle both the impact and indignity of an accidental toilet tumble. The real question is: will you?

Generally, the H20 held up and performed like a champ, though onscreen touch controls can get a little wonky, if not entirely unusable until the screen is dried off. Curiously, Kobo has nixed the “water detection mode” from the software, though I’m not sure that’s much of a loss considering how buggy the function could be.

The Not-So-Good

There’s no getting around the most disappointing aspect of the Aura H20 – the mediocre and often crippling performance. Honestly, I’m used to buggy performance with Kobo readers, and wasn’t surprised to see these issues crop up here. But I was a little shocked to find the middling performance from this H20 even more pronounced than with other models I’ve reviewed, leaving me to wonder what type of software engineers Kobo’s been hiring lately.

At times the unit would simply fail to register ANY input on the display whatsoever for minutes at a time, hanging on page turns or stuttering from one menu to the next. Even worse, there were complete system crashes (!) the necessitated a hardware reboot and power cycle. Worse still, these issues occurred more than I’d like to admit, and will likely frustrate those less patient than myself.

Glitches and misfires I can handle; no computer is perfect. But Kobo readers generally seem to have problems with larger files, especially PDFs and anything displaying graphics or illustrations (i.e. comics and graphic novels). PDFs are particular offenders, and that affects the H20 as well. Stuttery, unresponsiveness mar the experience, and this often occurs after everything is loaded (which can take up to a minute per page, if the software doesn’t crash).

With the Kobo’s generous format compatibility, storage size, and larger screens Kobo e-readers should be kicking booty as the premium destination for comics. But, alas, the laggy performance will only make fans long for paper – or Kindles. When the software is running smoothly, it’s not a terrible experience as pages will load generally fast and pinch/zoom functionality is generally responsive. However, the system’s memory will often fill up quickly, and it’s not long before your otherwise readable fonts and graphics become a blotchy, illegible mess.

Given that this Aura H20 shares may of the same specs as its competitors, the real culprit appears to be Kobo’s software, which has never been all that impressive anyway. I want to stress that when I say “software” I’m not talking about the Kobo’s user-interface, but rather the overall operating system handing the underlying experience. It’s clearly buggy and unpolished, and if Kobo doesn’t get their act together – and soon – then no amount of waterproofing or large screened displays are going to make up for shoddy programming.

Likewise, the H20’s battery life remains a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Of what users can expect is indeterminate, as the official site simply says “last for weeks”, but adds the familiar asterisk (*) to point out that battery life depends entirely on usage. I’m a fairly voracious reader, and just blasting through text-only books caused my test unit’s battery life to drop below 50 percent in less than a week.

Conclusion:

So where does the Kobo Aura H20 2nd Edition fall? Overall, there are better performing and more sophisticated readers out there that cost less, like Amazon’s Paperwhite. While this H20 boasts a decent screen, a higher resolution and ppi display would’ve been commensurate with the higher price tag. Consider the buggy performance before purchasing; Kobo e-readers don’t offer the (relatively) slick presentation of Kindles, but they generally get the job done.

To be perfectly honest, this updated Aura H20 wouldn’t be my first-choice e-reader. That said, if you absolutely need an e-reader that looks good, is comfortable to hold, performs reasonably well, and offers unmatched compatibility AND don’t want a Kindle, consider the pricier Aura One first, then consider this one. Heck, you’ll even get some nice waterproofing tossed in to help sweeten the deal.