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 Sage e-Reader.
Rakuten is positioning the Kobo Sage as their new premium e-Reader, offering a sizable screen and improved resolution over previous models. In short, the Sage is a reading beast, especially for comic fans needing the largest E Ink screen at the highest resolution in a mainstream reader. And here it generally succeeds. However, its two marquee features, stylus support and larger size, may actually complicate the buying process for those on the fence between it and the smaller, less capable Libra 2.
Design: Bigger, But Better?
Design-wise, the Sage looks exactly like the Libra 2 with its tapered-edge and two interactive buttons, just in a larger body. Dimensions are 7.14″ x 6.3” x .29″, with a weight bump to 8.49oz compared to the Libra’s 7.5oz. That might not sound like a lot, but weight distribution is very important with e-Readers, and with a device this big that’s a concern those with smaller hands may want to consider.
The only extra button is the power/standby circle on the unit’s back, an improved USB-C port that replaces the traditional micro USB one, and a magnetic array on the edge for connecting the optional PowerCover (more on this later). The Sage also shares the same and matte black speckled texture backing as the Libra 2 that really sets the Kobo brand apart from the Kindles. It’s still plastic, but it feels great, despite relegating the 1200 mAh Lithium battery to the tapered bump.
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.
The buttons on the Sage themselves are spaced out a bit more than the Libra, which means your thumb will stretch wider if you’re holding the device in one hand. As mentioned above, given the size of the device its weight distribution changes drastically, as anything larger than a 6-7” screen starts to trend in the “unwieldy” territory quickly.
The Screen: Big and Beautiful
A big reason why some will choose the Sage over other devices, Kobo or otherwise, is that 8” touchscreen that’s completely flush with the body. Not only is it bigger, it’s better than ever thanks to an increased resolution of 1440 x 1920 at 300 PPI while rocking the latest E Ink Carta 1200 panel, a big improvement over last-gen models that offers faster responsiveness with better contrast and black levels.
The Sage employs an incredible backlighting array that spreads evenly across the entire screen area, with almost no bleed around the edges. It looks amazing in darker areas and certainly helps. 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.
The only issue using the Sage is that the screen will also display a “ghost” image of other pages on the one you’re currently reading. It’s never that distracting (the issue can easily be remedied by refreshing the page), but it’s a quirk that stands out as it doesn’t happen on the Libra 2.
Tech and Compatibility
From a technical standpoint the Sage appears to be the successor to the previous Kobo champ, the Elipsa, just in a smaller body and with a better screen. Internally it’s running a quad core 1.8 GHz processor (nearly double that of the Libra 2) with 512MB RAM, a hefty 32GB of internal memory, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n connectivity, and industry standard IPX8 rated waterproofing (up to an hour submerged in 6 feet of freshwater).
One area worth mentioning is the Sage’s battery life, which seems to be all over the place. For whatever reason the Sage uses a 1200 mAh Lithium battery, which is smaller and less capable than the less power-hungry Libra 2, and an odd choice for a device that does more and needs more power. It’s generally still solid as most users will go days, if not weeks, without having to recharge the device. However, once you factor in brightness levels and especially stylus usage, estimates go out the window. This was a constant issue for the Sage, a device that’s trying to be both a digital e-Reader with tablet features, the results often closer to tablet battery life.
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, and perhaps the most exciting addition is Dropbox support built right in. This feature isn’t available on the Libra 2, limited only to the pricier Kobo Forma and Elipsa models.
As always, Kobo readers enjoy best-in-class compatibility outside the Amazon ecosystem, and that’s the same for the Sage. 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. In every way that matters the Sage excels at both text and displaying black and white comics (thanks to that bigger, higher resolution screen).
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, which is a little disappointing given the Sage’s better processing power than other Kobo readers like the Libra 2.
The rise in comic consumption has never been more popular, especially Japanese manga, and it’s here where the Sage has a clear edge over most e-Readers out there. The Sage puts its 8” screen and better resolution to good work here, reproducing fine lines and text better than most readers, especially formats designed to take advantage of its touchscreen capabilities. This is a great reader for comic fans.
Audiobooks: Bluetooth Makes it Happen
At long last, the Sage 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.
Stylus Support: The Killer App?
While the Sage isn’t the first Kobo device to offer stylus support (that would be the Elipsa), or even the first e-Reading device (Onyx Boox and reMarkable tablets have for some time) having the ability to physically add notes and scribbles to your digital editions is being positioned as a game changer for the market, and it’s not hard to see why. Imagine being able to merge the physical and the digital…what’s not to love?
For these features you’ll need the Kobo Stylus, a battery-powered $39 capacitive pen that helps make the magic happen. Some third-party stylus pens will function with the Sage but I won’t give any recommendations here as they aren’t officially supported.
Aslo worth “noting” (get it?) the Sage doesn’t include a way to house the pen internally you’ll need yet another purchase to add the feature with the $79 (and proprietary) Sage PowerCover, which not only adds a pen holster but lets you charge the Sage itself using the cover’s internal battery.
So how does the Sage actually function as a note-taking device? Well, it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, being able to jot notes inside your content (both text and doodles) and have them readily available as bookmarks is useful and handy, and I imagine this functionality could be extremely useful for college students or those researching through mammoth ebooks.
On the other hand, there’s no escaping that input lag (a problem most low-powered devices share, TBH) that’s never as fluid as a real pencil or pen, and the included software doesn’t seem to take advantage of what the hardware itself is actually capable of. It’s all a little clunkier than I would’ve liked.
Outside of your library the Sage also lets you create and modify personal notebooks. Curiously, the “My Notebooks” section isn’t front and center, but buried in the “More” section, meaning you’ll have to leave whatever content you’re currently reading to access them. This is clunky and not optimal if you’re hoping to use the Sage to capture that critical “Eureka!” moment quickly.
Once accessed, however, you’re able to create basic or advanced notebooks, the former letting you scribble anything you like, the latter letting you insert drawings, diagrams, math equations and more. The stylus recognition performed decently well, though faster jotting often resulted in missed letters or words. I was surprised at how accurate the conversion from scribbled text to formatted text was, though the process stuttered often and even crashed. Also, notes can be uploaded to your computer via files or online via Dropbox, but the process only really works in one direction as the Sage doesn’t play well with notebooks or docs created outside the Sage itself.
The real question is whether you’ll actually want to use the Sage to replace whatever method you currently use to take notes while reading, paper or otherwise. Honestly…I can’t see that happening for most readers as the input lag and note-taking experience itself isn’t that fast or accessible. Confusingly, how the stylus functions changes depending on the type of content you use, meaning pen strokes and highlights might not work the same from book to book and Kobo even cautions that some Adobe-protected PDFs may not be compatible with note-taking.
Worse still, using the stylus depletes the battery life considerably faster than it should, a major issue for a device you need at the ready. While I applaud Kobo for trying to bridge the functionality gap between e-Reader and tablet further, lackluster performance all around may be a bridge too far.
For all intents and purposes the Kobo Sage becomes the brand’s premium e-Reader in both price and features. As the company’s new marquee reader it’s certainly better than the Kobo Forma, and delivers a great reading experience for both text and black & white digital comics (especially manga). There’s even audiobook support! Unfortunately, it’s hard to recommend the Sage for one of its marquee features, stylus support, as this functionality isn’t implemented as smoothly as it could’ve been yet. In every other way, the Sage excels – just know why you’re getting one and you should be happy with it.