It’s amazing how quickly digital e-Readers have evolved from questionable “why?” into “of course” products in recent years, but it’s easy to see why. Why get a device that only does one thing? Why not just get a tablet that can do everything? Bibliophiles know why: staring at even the best tablet/phone display for long sessions can hurt your eyes. Heck, staring at paper books for long sessions can hurt your eyes. If the future of reading is digital then our poor peepers need a reprieve.
Chances are when you think of e-Readers you think of Amazon, especially if you live in the United States. Amazon’s Kindle family, e-Readers and tablets alike, are great consumption devices that excel at delivering (mostly) Amazon approved content at affordable prices, and look great doing it. There’s a reason why the word e-Reader is synonymous with the word Kindle.
Perhaps as a response to this Rakuten has been more liberal and freer to experiment with their Kobo readers. At nearly every step Kobo readers have innovated first with bigger screens, waterproofing, better compatibility, etc. Where Kobo goes, so goes the e-Reader. It’s not often we see this evolution take place in real time, but this year Rakuten has decided to release two different e-Readers that take very different approaches with the Libra 2 and Sage, a hardware divide of price vs. features that mimics the original Libra 2 H20 and Forma a few years back.
However, the choice this time goes beyond just screen sizes as there are clear functionality differences that could signal the future of where e-Readers are headed. While both devices are similar in their primary functions, one is clearly more consumptive while the other aims to be a more interactive device, bridging the gap between e-Reader and tablet.
They’re also the first-ever Kobo readers to come with Bluetooth support, meaning you’ll have access to any Kobo audiobooks in your library – as long as you’ve got a Bluetooth compatible audio device. Let’s take a look at the Kobo Libra 2 e-Reader.
Amazon’s refreshed 2021 Kindle Paperwhite is a great example of a product that improves an already great product, yet does little to rock the carefully curated cruise its parent company hopes you’ll never leave. Kobo’s Libra 2 performs the same upgrades to the Libra H20, its predecessor, improving on what was – for many – the best non-Amazon reading device out there, offering a near-perfect balance of comfort and outstanding value that will be more than enough for most consumers.
Design: Gets it Done
If you put the original Libra H20 next to the updated Libra 2 chances are you couldn’t tell the two apart, retaining the familiar rectangular body with a slightly smoother tapered edge housing the device’s two interactive buttons. At 6.3″ x 5.6″ x .35″ its dimensions are virtually identical to its predecessor, though the extra smidge in size comes with an extra smidge in weight at 7.5oz, which is almost negligible. The only extra button is the power/standby circle on the unit’s back, and an improved USB-C port replaces the traditional micro USB one.
Those physical buttons are likely going to be the killer feature for those on the fence between a Kobo and Kindle, at least in their respective price points (Amazon only offers buttons on their Oasis readers). As before, you can read with the buttons on the left, right, top or bottom (portrait vs. landscape) thanks to the super-quick auto or manual rotation.
Returning for this update is the same and matte black (or white) speckled texture backing that really sets the Kobo brand apart from the Kindles. It’s still plastic, but it feels great and, despite relegating the 1500 mAh Lithium battery to the tapered bump, the weight distribution remains top-notch and comfortable regardless of how you hold the device. Also returning is a screen that’s still recessed slightly from the bezels – something I wish Kobo would have changed with a flush option (like the Sage). Some still prefer a recessed screen over flush, pointing out that flush screens have better contrasts, but the jury’s still out and which one you prefer will depend on how you use the device. Personally? Gimme flush any day, please.
The Screen: Crisper, Brighter, Better
And those hoping for a size bump to the screen will have to suffice with a familiar 7” touchscreen that rocks the exact same 1264 x 1680 at 300 PPI resolution (a smidge bigger than Amazon’s 2021 Paperwhite 6.8” upgrade). However, Kobo upgraded the screen to the faster E Ink Carta 1200 panel, which is noticeably more responsive with better contrast and black levels than previous models.
Another big improvement comes with the Libra 2’s backlighting array, which is almost perfectly spread across every area of the screen. Seriously, it looks awesome in darker areas when you need a lighting boost. Kobo’s trademarked ComfortLight Pro, which basically means Blue Light filtering, which can be adjusted manually or programmed to kick in at certain times. Dark Mode is available, which looks great, but for whatever reason Kobo hides the feature in the settings – something so useful should be easily accessible and obvious.
Tech and Compatibility
The Libra 2 seems to, once again, share many of the same internals of the first model, including the same 1 GHZ processor, the same 512MB RAM, the same WiFi 802.11 b/g/n connectivity, and the same beefy battery life that never seems to end. The IPX8 rated waterproofing (up to an hour submerged in 6 feet of freshwater) also returns, and while there’s still no external storage slots the memory bump from 8GB to 32GB is both welcome and necessary – especially if you plan on reading lots of comics and listening to all those audiobooks.
As for what to read, well, you’re spoiled for options. Apart from buying direct from Kobo you can also subscribe to their sizable Kobo Plus subscription service or connect using OverDrive, which means you can easily download books while supporting your local library without ever setting foot in one (and during a pandemic that doesn’t sound as crude as it might have). Import articles using Pocket, too, though the Libra 2 doesn’t support Dropbox integration like the Sage does, which seems like an obvious misstep.
As always, Kobo readers enjoy best-in-class compatibility outside the Amazon ecosystem, and that’s the same for the Libra 2. Practically every digital file format you could ever want is here and ready for all your sideloading needs including EPUB, EPUB3, FlePub, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, TIFF, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ, and CBR. Like fonts? You can also add fonts, resize fonts, realign fonts, tweak fonts… so many font options!
As always, sideloading your own content is easy, and most compatibility issues can be alleviated with freely available software like Calibre and websites that get it done quickly. Despite having audiobook support, however, I couldn’t get non-Kobo audiobooks (MP3, MP4, or other audio formats) to work.
The Kobo Experience
Specs are nice, but we buy e-Readers to actually, you know, read things. In this respect Kobo has always delivered a great, if familiar, reading experience that should be readily familiar by now to anyone who’s ever read a digital book. Thankfully, the Libra 2 doesn’t rock the boat.
While Amazon just issued its first software upgrade in nearly half a decade, streamlining the experience with more tablet-like navigation, it appears Kobo readers are still using their familiar navigational functions. This means pretty much every feature you’d want in a device like this, including page forward/back, long-press for quick dictionary definitions and Google/Wiki searches, highlight text, note taking, add/subtract bookmarks, chapter jumps and search through your annotations.
The overall reading experience remains as delightful as ever, especially if you’re just reading text. Performance is fast and responsive for page turns, looking up definitions, zipping through longer books, and more. The PDF experience, sadly, remains as spotty and inconsistent as ever, though it should be said that Kobo readers excel at black and white comic reading, especially Japanese manga.
The rise in comic consumption has never been more popular, and the 7” screen does a great job reproducing fine lines and text at respectable speeds. Those who only care about having the biggest screen may want to take a closer look at the Sage and its bigger 8” screen instead, but there’s no doubt comics and monochrome images still look great on the Libra 2.
Audiobooks: Take a Listen
At long last, the Libra 2 finally includes support for Bluetooth audio devices, which means you’re able to listen to audiobooks purchased from Kobo’s respectable audiobook store. This is one of the rare features where Amazon leapfrogged Kobo readers a few years back, so it’s nice to see it show up here.
While the player itself is unspectacular it gets the job done with basic play functionality and options for chapters, adjusting play-speed, volume, and 30-second skipping. There’s absolutely no multitasking so once your book starts playing, that’s it.
Kobo even offers a monthly subscription to their Audiobook service that’s $5 cheaper than Amazon’s Audible, though recent feature updates to Amazon’s store have increased the value of their $15 monthly fee significantly. That and the curated lists are drastically better on Amazon’s storefront, though you can typically find most (but not all) of what you’re looking for. Make sure you poke around before brushing off Kobo’s store – you might be surprised.
That said, any criticisms leveled at Amazon’s e-Reader audiobook support apply here, meaning it would be nice to have that USB-C port support hardwired headphones or speakers, and actually listening to books on a dedicated e-Reader isn’t the most practical, but having more options is better than having less options.
Conclusion: The Best Kobo Yet
For most people wanting a solid, reliable digital reading experience the Libra 2 e-Reader will be all that and more, especially if you need something outside of Amazon’s own claustrophobic content garden. Like its predecessor it’s not the biggest or most powerful, and lacks the Sage’s note-taking functionality… but none of that matters when the screen looks this amazing, when content loads and plays this well, and the device itself is so comfy to hold. There’s audiobook support, too! I can’t imagine anyone would be less than happy with the Libra 2, easily the best that Kobo has made yet.