You’d be forgiven for mentally associating the term “e-reader” with “Kindle”, or even “Amazon Kindle”, as the mega-giant online retailer has spent the last few years effectively killing off each and every e-reading competitor in their path. Now that Amazon has extinguished Barnes & Noble’s admittedly great Nook lineup from existence, there aren’t many options left for curious readers hoping to join the e-book revolution to choose from.
With the recent introduction of the Kindle Oasis, Amazon has effectively cast digital e-readers as luxury niche items; single-use anomalies in this age of do-everything smartphones and tablets. Much progress has been made recently to make an affordable, functional e-reader accessible to practically anyone, with local libraries and physical retailers offering a variety of budget-friendly e-readers towards book-hungry patrons. Yet, in spite of this expansion, Amazon is still king, and their decisions typically drive the market; I’m worried the Oasis may signal a backward slide for the market towards luxury-only.
So what if you’re looking for an e-reader that isn’t Amazon-branded? It’s a tough choice, but at least there are choices. An apt comparison would be Microsoft Office to OpenOffice, Windows to Mac, or even iOS to Android. If you’re actively choosing a Kobo over a Kindle then you should know exactly what you’re getting yourself into, positively and negatively. This isn’t a slur on Kobo; competition is a very good thing, and the Kobo Glo HD is a very good digital e-reader.
The Kobo Glo HD has been positioned as a cheaper rival to Amazon’s Voyage, but in reality it’s a closer to Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite. In fact, the Glo HD isn’t even Kobo’s premier e-reader; that would be the beefier, pricier Kobo Aura H2O (the real equivalent to the Voyage). So is the Glo HD as good as the Paperwhite? Not quite, but it’s a very good alternative if you’re not looking to completely submerge yourself entirely inside Amazon’s ever-expanding universe of everything.
The screen quality, size, weight, and overall experience between the two is so similar you’d be forgiven for mistaking them in a low-lit coffee shop (something that Kobo wouldn’t mind all that much, I’m sure). Even the price is similar; the Paperwhite is actually about ten bucks cheaper at the time of this review, but once you factor in the $15 extortion fee to remove the “special offers” from the lock screen and the pricing is about even.
Design and Tech Stuff
As I’ve mentioned in the past, an e-reader is about an intimate device as you’re likely to get in this impersonal world; a dedicated device designed to do one thing, and one thing really, really well: reading text. Anything above and beyond that is superfluous, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s exactly what you’ll be getting with the Glo HD…and not much else. This is good!
If you’ve seen any recent Kindle than you’ve seen the Glo HD: a small, nondescript rectangular slab of rubbery matte that looks great and feels comfortable to hold. The dimensions match up to most other readers at 7.6” x 5.7” x 1.1”, and at just 6.3oz (180 grams) it’s immediately lighter than the Paperwhite’s slightly heftier 7.2 oz (205 grams). There’s a single power/standby button on top and single micro USB port on bottom for all your charging/syncing needs, but that’s about it. All operations are handled via touchscreen taps and swipes, as we’ve come to expect from devices like this.
Your portal to this world of literary goodness is an impressive 6” Carta E Ink HD touchscreen display running at 1448 x 1072 resolution at 300 PPI (pixels per inch); this compares favorably to the Paperwhite’s 1440×1080 300 PPI display. Both offer backlit displays, but the Paperwhite distributes its lighting a bit more evenly across the entire display area while the Glo HD’s borders appear slightly discolored. I’m nitpicking, of course, as both really do look great in both full and darkly lit environments.
For storage you’ll have to make due with 4GB memory – though in reality with all the system files it’s closer to 3GB. There’s no slot for adding your own memory, but 3GB is pretty generous for a black ‘n white reading device, so no real complaints here.
Internet and computer connectivity with the Glo HD is handled entirely via Wi Fi 802.11 b/g/n, or through the Micro USB port on bottom. This part is important for those expecting the type of 3G access that some Kindles offer; that feature, as with many others, isn’t available here. Kobo does let you daisy chain to your computer manually for book transfers and syncing, so at least WiFi isn’t required.
Using The Kobo Software
So we’ve got a solid build, a great display, and more than enough room to bring our collections wherever we travel; all nice things in any e-reader, but worthless if the reading experience isn’t up to the task. Thankfully, Kobo has always offered a decent-to-great environment for readers to tap individual words, scroll through digital pages, highlight definitions, bookmark their progress, and keep track of multiple books. What more could you want from a device designed to do these very things?
Sorry to belabor a point, but if you’ve used any recent Kindle device (or Kindle software, via the apps) than you’ll feel right at home here. Mostly. The basic reading and navigation experience is pretty much the same on the Kobo: tapping the left/right sides of the screen navigate pages back or forward, tap the top border to bring up extra features like brightness, battery indicator, or access the hamburger options (settings, WiFi, etc). A quick tap on the right-hand corner adds a quick bookmark, while long-pressing words brings up the onboard dictionary, highlight words or phrases, add a note, or even perform universal searches in the book itself or using Wikipedia and Google.
One thing that Kobo readers have in their favor (at least to me, anyway) is how resolutely they still focus on actually reading. Unlike Kindle’s socially conscious software, there’s no prodding to add your Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads accounts here. In fact, apart from Kobo’s own Super Points Program, there’s nothing here to steer you away from the task at hand (hint: reading your books!). Okay…you can share your reading progress on Facebook…but the option is squirreled away under so many menus and options that it’s effectively useless. Thank goodness for that!
Two gripes: it’s possible to adjust the screen brightness by swiping the left side of the screen up and down, but this seldom worked as seamlessly as it should have; it was easier to just bring up the settings menu and set it manually. And yes, there’s an “experimental web browser” available if you need it, but just like the Kindle’s version it’s pretty bad. Avoid if possible.
While Kobo’s software offers a pleasant reading experience out of the box, there aren’t many options to expand the adventure if you so choose to. One caveat for true linguists are the rather limited dictionaries included. Unlike the Kindle, which lets you add dictionaries willy nilly, there’s no way to add them directly to the Kobo reader from the option menu. It’s possible to add extras via your computer and using a complicated network of downloaded files, but as with so many of the Kobo’s “abilities”, these require patience and a bit of tinkering. Which brings us to the major buying realities if you’re deciding between a Kobo or Amazon e-reader…
The Grim Reality…
There’s no nice way of saying this, but the single biggest flaw with the Kobo Glo HD, or any of the otherwise great Kobo e-readers, has nothing to do with performance, build quality, or any of those otherwise critical functions. Amazon has so cannibalized the market that it’s become virtually impossible to recommend any device that doesn’t say “Kindle” on the body.
This means investing in a Kobo reader means not having access to Amazon’s store, easily the largest and most impressive collection of reading delights out there. Parent company Rakuten, bless them, have done their best to survive Amazon’s ruthless undercutting and practices that some have called predatory (hint: they are), but that doesn’t change the fact that the Kobo store is sorely lacking the variety and options of the Amazon ecosystem.
There’s some synchronicity between Kobo devices, tablets, and smartphones when using the free Kobo reading app, and this works about as well as you’d expect.
Your local library probably supports digital e-lending, but chances are the support system is built primarily for Kindles (most other readers, including Kobo, are listed as “other” – if at all). I’m a big fan of the widely used ePub format and the Glo HD supports that out of the box, which means you can sideload your digital Gutenberg library and other readily available ePub files without the fuss of file conversions. In fact, sideloading ePub and other compatible file formats is easier with the Kobo than with Amazon tablets, so chalk up a small victory for simplicity!
If you’re willing to overlook the issues outlined above, the Kobo Glo HD offers a delightful reading experience comparable to that found elsewhere (hint: Kindles). Beyond all the ecosystem posturing and monopolistic shenanigans, this is really what you want in an e-reader – and the Glo HD delivers. It’s also noticeably smaller and lighter than the Kindle Paperwhite, with plenty of accessories available to protect and extend your purchase. Amazon has made it almost impossible for competitors to survive in their digital playground, yet here’s Kobo, alive and kicking. Competition is a wonderful thing.