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Kobo Aura ONE e-Reader (2016)
Gadget Reviews

Kobo Aura ONE e-Reader (2016)

A huge screen, lightweight design, and comfortable large-font reading make up for its sometimes sluggish performance.

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Rakutan’s Kobo brand of digital e-readers practically embody the concept of why competition is so critical, for both consumer choice and innovation. It’s no secret that retail giant Amazon has made mincemeat out of most competitors that that dares sell books, online or brick and mortar. As more and more brands become extinguished, and Amazon continues to engage is what can only be described as anti-competitive practices (including removing competitors from their digital stores), it’s slim pickings if you want a solid e-reading device that doesn’t say Amazon on it.

Enter Kobo’s Aura ONE e-reader; the company’s biggest, brightest, and, well…biggest reader yet. A huge screen, better lighting, more waterproofing, and enhanced capabilities help make it zoom past many of Amazon’s pricier, less capable models… in theory. We haven’t reached spaghetti-level efforts yet, but Rakutan is closer than ever to throwing just about everything they can at consumers to give them real options for digital reading that isn’t entirely entwined around Jeff Bezo’s tendrils.

Point: the Aura ONE is pricer than most Kobo readers. As with Amazon’s price-inflated Oasis, I’m taking this as confirmation the e-reader market has, essentially, acknowledged itself as the niche market it is, and will continue moving toward marquee devices for discriminating reading enthusiasts.

Bigger, Thinner, Lighter

Unlike Amazon’s new wallet-busting Kindle Oasis, however, Kobo has designed an e-reader where size really does matter: a massive 7.8” E Ink screen versus (relatively) puny 6” screens found just about everywhere else. In this way, the Aura ONE is actually a successor to the discontinued Kobo Aura HD, which also sported a larger-than-normal 6.8” display, and maybe even the still-alive Aura H2O (with its waterproof powers).

The Aura ONE is an e-reader in 2016, which means a rectangular slab designed to push E INK content. For this, skinny and light are essential. Thankfully, the Aura ONE has both covered with a fairly standard looking frame measuring 7.6” x 5.4” and just 0.27” thick. More impressive, at just 230g (8.11oz) it’s deceptively light, distributing the added bulk evenly across the device for easy one-hand holding sessions (it’s actually thinner than Amazon’s smaller-screened Kindle Paperwhite). Of course, how comfortable that actually is will depend on your hand size: it’s hardly a secret that e-readers are designed (mostly) primarily for average (i.e. smaller) female hands, but even taking this into account the Aura ONE shouldn’t cause anyone much strain.

Under The Hood

OK, so maybe those of you considering a standalone e-reader don’t care much for specs; you’re just looking for a single device that does the one thing you love dearly, and hope it does it well. I get that, but it helps to know just how fast, silky smooth, and reliable that singular effort is going to run, so let’s take a look at what’s chugging away inside the Aura ONE’s incredibly svelte case.

For those of you with larger libraries the Aura ONE comes with 8GB internal memory, more than enough for most standard text-based book collections (no external memory here, folks). Apart from the expected 802.11 b/g/n WiFi (no 3G, once again), the only connectivity offered is the single Micro USB port on the bottom.

Powering the Aura ONE is a 1Ghz Solo Lite iMx6 processor sporting 512mb of RAM; again, similar to specs found in other, more expensive devices. I suspect the processor bump is more about pushing that larger screen’s resolution than increasingly the overall performance as there are noticeable decreases in how this Kobo handles things, though not catastrophically so. More on this in a bit. Also, if you’re hoping to use the Aura ONE as a dedicated comic book reader, because of that larger screen, you may want to skip to the bottom of this review before taking the plunge.

Of course, the only spec we really care about is that screen: a huge 7.8” HD E Ink touchscreen showcasing a fantastic 1872 x 1404 resolution at 300 dpi (compared with Amazon’s Oasis 6” at 1440 × 1080 at 300 dpi). Viewing angles, clarity, glare reduction, and all that other stuff is on par with other Kobo and Amazon tablets, meaning it’s superb. All actions are handled via screen taps and swipes, too, as the only physical button is the teal-colored one for power/standby on the back.

The added real estate doesn’t just allow for more text to be displayed onscreen (which it does), but can, ironically, also allow for less text, too. The added inches lets readers with poorer vision up the font considerably, meaning less eyestrain while decreasing the dreaded “time left” or ludicrous page numbers (you know what I’m talking about). Basically, it’s the equivalent to the ‘large size’ books found in most real libraries, and having the option to render fonts much larger is a joy unto itself.

Another big feature of the Aura ONE, possibly the biggest (after the display) is just intuitive the backlit features are. Kobo is branding this ComfortLight PRO, which translates to adaptive and smart lighting that automatically adjusts itself to the area you’re in. Not just for dark rooms, but for what many are calling total eye-related health. For comparisons think Apple’s Night Mode, or Amazon’s Blue Shade; the Aura ONE can filter out harmful blue-light by itself, turning your Snow White background into Orange Slush that’s ugly as sin, but much better on your precious peepers.

The effect is impressive, but takes time getting used to. I typically prefer low-light assistance on my e-readers, so having to manually set the levels was (initially) a pain. You can adjust both the standard illumination and the blue light filtering, even set your bedtime to start turning on its blue light quashing filters. Also, I found Kobo’s built-in information and explanations as to what blue light filtering actually is much more informative and helpful than Amazon’s, and anything that helps spread the word about protecting eyeballs is a plus.

Another feature we’re coming to expect from Kobo is the waterproofing; the Aura ONE offers an impressive HZO Protection IPX8 that promises up to 60 minutes in up to 2 meters of water (twice as high as offered by Kobo Aura H2O). I’m not recommending taking the Aura ONE into a relaxing bath as you soak away the stresses of the day, but hey…splish splash.

The Kobo Software

If there’s any element for the Aura ONE, or any Kobo reader, that I’m more conservative on, it’s the actual reading software powering the thing. There’s no getting around a few basic facts that every Kobo user must face. First, while the Kobo Store is decent, and even the most discriminating book snob should find something to love, it pales next to Amazon’s digital store. The sheer volume (get it?) of books and other oddities available for Kindle users can’t be overstated, meaning those opting for the Kobo world may need to find their source material elsewhere. More on this later.

Second, the actual Kobo reading software is entirely functional, but somewhat limited, though whether this can be considered a positive/negative might depend on how intrusive you like your options. The basic experience is standard for any e-reader: text on page, with action areas for turning pages forward/back, as well as spots for bringing up the sub-menus (Home, Lighting, Battery, Settings, font adjustments, etc). Different book types will open further sub-menus, such as more options for tracking progress, as well as spammy ads for “related” books, ads to purchase, etc. At least you won’t have the moral imperative of having to pony up an additional $15 to remove the “Special Offers” spam Amazon imposes on discounted models; always a plus!

Navigating through scads of text is, again, a familiar experience for e-reading champs. Long-press a word and you’ll get quick definitions (in six available languages; a nice touch), as well as extra options for taking notes or further searching through the book, Wikipedia, Google, or on Facebook. There’s even support for reading web articles using Pocket, but again, I don’t care for these distractions (which is another reason I prefer a dedicated reader), but there are options if you need them.

It’s worth noting that the Aura ONE is also the first Kobo e-reader with built-in solution support for the popular OverDrive functionality; meaning if your library supports it, digitally checking out books is baked into the system and relatively easy to use. Couple this with a HUGE list of files and formats it can play without much fuss, including EPUB, EPUB3, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ, and even CBR. EPUB is particularly critical as the Kindle’s don’t offer much support for it. Basically, there’s not much need to use software like Calibre to get your unsanctioned books on the Kobo.

Unfortunately, this is where the Aura ONE’s mediocre power hampers the experience for those that like to take notes; long-pressing words brings up text-selection bubbles that can be dragged to highlight full areas of text for reference later. Sadly, it’s not responsive whatsoever, and trying to drag the bubbles is an exercise in frustration, making it easier just to jot down notes on paper than fiddle with it. If you’re dexterous enough, a quick long-presses plus gliding your finger over words works slightly better, but it’s still a crapshoot for accuracy.

The Aura ONE has similar issues rendering large PDF files and even comics (most tragic of all, given its huge screen), both problems which may be deal-killers who need a reliable note taking, comic book reading device. To be fair, I’ve never found reading PDF files on any e-reader enjoyable, or even worth my time. I understand the need some of you may have for them (good luck), but not having clear indexes and adjustable text is murder on my poor eyes. Comics, likewise, just aren’t presented well on a black ‘n white E Ink screen, especially those popping with color and fine detail. Sure, B&W ones look OK, but those smaller screens…

I wonder how much of the overall sluggishness has to do with Kobo’s stock operating-system; not much has changed in the size upgrade from other Kobo readers like the Glo HD, except the interface scaling up to fill out the extra room. As we’ve seen on tablets (mostly Android tablets), software really needs to be tailored for the device running it, and there’s a noticeable (but not deal-killing) loss in overall fluidity.

For those of you salivating over the idea of reading through mountains of manga or comics on the Aura ONE…you might want to consider the competition. Amazon just announced a beefier, 32GB enhanced Kindle Paperwhite that’s built to soak up loads of manga madness. Of course, it’s Japanese-only, and given how most of these modern e-readers don’t allow expandable memory (shame), even a whopping 32GB may end up not enough. For my money, if you’re aching for the best possible comics reader, it’s hard to argue that anything bests an Apple iPad, especially larger models. They play nearly everything, are much easier to read, and in glorious HD color, too.

Not So Good

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again until the madness stops, but glossy black on a device meant to be frequently handled always, ALWAYS ends in sadness. The Aura ONE is no exception as its shiny bezel goes from squeaky clean to fingerprint, smudge, hair magnet before you finish the chapter. Also, as nice as having the screen flush with the bezel looks, this creates tiny openings between screen and bezel that particular love to live inside; make sure you’ve got a toothpick or a similar non-abrasive cleaner if you don’t want minute muck stuck between them.

If we’re being picky, the translucent “Kobo” logo on the front is a bit gaudy (and excessive) given the familiar logo is already on the rear. Speaking of rears, the teal-colored power/standby button is slightly annoying in its specific placement on back, nestled in a very finger-friendly location, meaning those who clutch their readers a bit tighter might accidentally press the thing more often that they’d like.

Finally, and this one is actually a real gripe: battery life. You’ll have to hunt through Kobo’s specs to learn the bad news (which I’ve done for you), but the Aura ONE’s estimated battery life is half what other models promise; one month versus two. It’s not the end of world (first-world problems aside), but worth keeping in mind if you’re planning a trek into the wilderness or beyond where a reliable outlet isn’t a given.

In Conclusion

Kobo’s Aura ONE e-reader isn’t perfect, and there’s much to gripe about if having the absolute “best” digital reader is on your bucket list. Middling performance with comics, somewhat poorer battery life, and the odd sluggishness mar the overall experience, but there’s also much to love here. For those of you with degraded vision, you’ll get the largest E INK screen (currently) on the market, one capable of  showcasing sensational resolutions and scores of viewing options. Think of the Aura ONE as the electronic equivalent to your library’s Large Text section, a place where reading is less about squinting and eye-strain, and more about actually enjoying the content. For this, it’s hard to beat what Kobo’s offering. Just expect to be a little patient with the overall experience.