Review: Kobo Aura H2O

aurah2o_blk_angledleft_single_home_caWhile many ebook reader makers have settled on the 6" screen as the standard. Kobo continues to buck the trend, first by releasing the 5" Kobo Mini in 2012 and then by jumping on the chance to release an ereader with a 6.8" E-ink screen.The Aura H2O is Kobo's second ereader to use the 6.8" E-ink screen. Like its predecessor this ereader asks for a premium price, and like the Aura HD this device offers a value which more than makes up for the extra cost.

In the two plus weeks since I got this review unit from Kobo, I have found many reasons to like the Aura H2O, but unfortunately I can't share all of them. While testing format support, I somehow managed to make the Aura H2O freeze on the startup menu, and in spite of several hours of troubleshooting, threats, and animal sacrifice, I can't get it to start working again.

And so this will have to be an abbreviated review.

Review Date: 20 September 2014, with a review unit loaned from Kobo

Pro & Con

Pro

  • Huge white screen
  • Great frontlight
  • Waterproof
  • Many formatting options

Con

  • No page turn buttons
  • The microUSB port won't accept any cable but its own
  • I borked the review unit

 Hardware

kobo aura h2oThe first thing you'll notice with the Kobo Aura H2O is the big beautiful screen. This device is the one and only ereader to sport a 6.8" Carta E-ink screen. It has a screen resolution of 1,080 x 1,430, and on top of the screen you'll find a frontlight and an IR touchscreen.

Around the screen you'll find a matte black plastic bezel, which is just wide for a good grip. Turning the device over, you'll find that Kobo improved on the cheap plastic rear shell of the Aura HD; they gave the Aura H2O a flatter and rubberized rear shell which makes it easier to grip and nicer to hold.

Aside from the screen there aren't many hardware details to notice. Thanks to the waterproofing (and Kobo's general trend to minimalism design) the Aura H2O has but a single button on the upper edge (power). On the lower edge you'll find that the microUSB port, microSD card slot, and reset button have been placed under a form-fitting rubber cap. (closeups here, here, and here)

kobo aura h2o underwater 2In general, the Aura H2O was nice to hold and to read on (more on this in a later section). The Aura H2O runs Kobo's proprietary software on a 1GHz CPU with 256MB RAM, 4GB internal storage, and Wifi. Those are essentially identical specs to the Aura HD, which could explain why the devices had similar performance when running similar firmwares.

Back when I had a functional review unit, I set my Aura HD next to the loaner Aura H2O and compared their responsiveness and page turn speed. So far as I could tell they were about equally responsive, and turned the page equally fast.

Screen

They were ever so slightly slower than my 2013 Kindle Paperwhite, which I also noticed had a slightly brownish screen tint when compared to the Aura H2O. That tint could be due to the frontlight, or it could be from the PW2's capacitive touchscreen layer.

While I don't have any photos comparing the PW2 with the Aura H2O (I had planned to take the photos today), I do have a set of photos that show the Aura HD (with a Pearl E-ink screen) next to the Aura H2O (with a Carta screen). As you can see, there’s an obvious difference between the screens; the Aura H2O has a much whiter screen.

There are 4 images in this set, with the last one being a composite image made from a sample of white from each of the two screens.

Frontlight

While the Aura HD had a good frontlight, the Aura H2O has a better one. It offers an evenly lit white tone and is dimmer at its lowest setting than the frontlight on the Aura HD.

While this might sound counter-intuitive, the most important setting on a frontlight on an E-ink screen is the lowest setting, not the highest. Unlike LCD screens, where you will need the maximum brightness at some point, with E-ink screens you will more likely be interested in making the screen as dim as possible.

This is why I prefer the 1% setting on the frontlight on Kobo hardware over similar quality frontlights (like the one on the Onyx Boox t68 Lynx) which lack a low setting.

Just to show you how bright or dim the screens can be, here are 6 shots which compare the Aura HD and the Aura H2O. They range from full brightness down to 1%, and the Aura H2O is on the right.

In case you were wondering, the Aura H2O looks fuzzy in the last shot due to the dimmer frontlight. I can confirm first hand that it was still very readable.

Edit: Just to be clear, the Aura H2O lacks the light button found on the Aura HD. The frontlight is controlled either in the software menu or by swiping your finger up and down the screen near the left edge.

Software

kobo aura H2O screen shot homeThe Aura H2O runs the same software as Kobo's other ereaders, and it's pretty good (if not for the ads). Wake it up for the first time and you'll see the home screen, with a task bar and search bar across the top, Library|Bookstore|Extras in the bottom left corner, and a cluster of tiles taking up the middle.

The cluster is made up of whatever you were doing recently. As you can see in the screenshot, I've been reading from several books and recently added 4 titles to the library on my Aura H2O. I've also been playing with the web browser, and generally been ignoring Kobo's bookstore (the last two tiles). When it comes to letting me quickly switch between my recently used apps and recently read ebooks, this is a pretty good concept.

Of the three options at the bottom of the screen, none lead where you would expect from the name. Instead, selecting one will bring up a popup window. The Library option lets you select to see the articles you save from Pocket, your collections, samples, or the ebooks on the device.

The Bookstore leads to the various parts of the Kobo bookstore, and the Extras option brings you the dictionary and the reading stats foofarah that I've never cared about. (The interesting stuff, including the web browser and games, is unfortunately buried in the settings menu.)

The Books subsection of Library menu shows all of the books on the device, and it also shows any articles you downloaded from Pocket. You can view either a list or a grid of covers, and you can elect to show all, recent, finished, or the ebooks you are currently reading. You can also sort by date, title, author, file size, or file type.

I'm by no means a regular user of Kobo's software, but I found it easy to figure out. The layout of the menus was similar to what I saw on the Kobo Arc 7 when I reviewed it earlier this year - with one exception.

As you know, the Aura H2O is waterproof and meets the IP67 standard. In order to keep the touchscreen from responding to water droplets, there's a checkbox in the settings menu to have it ignore the water on the screen.

It's a good idea, but I usually left it turned off. Far too often it missed some of my clumsier page turn swipes. it also ignored my attempts to turn the page with my nose.

That might sound like a non sequitur but there are times where I am reading with one hand busy holding the device while the other is also in use: holding on to a bar in the subway, wrestling with my dog, etc. Sometimes I need to turn the page with whatever is handy, and the setting to ignore the water droplets gets in the way of that.

Reading Experience

kobo aura h2o header footerWith its large white screen and an excess of formatting and annotation options, the Aura H2O should satisfy just about any reader. I've been using it for a couple weeks, mostly reading my own ebooks (along with a few articles from Pocket) and I like it a lot.

There are a few points that I don't like so much, but before I get into that area I first need to discuss the reading experience of the various formats. The Aura H2O supports a broader range of file formats than many ebook readers, including Epub, articles from Pocket, Mobi, CBR/CBZ, PDF, and I would be remiss if I didn't report on how well the latter 4 formats were supported (especially CBR/CBZ).

Epub of course worked well; it's Kobo's main format and it's supported by a couple different display engines (the ebooks bought from Kobo are displayed by one engine, while any Epub ebooks you sideload are displayed by another).

The articles I saved from the read it later service Pocket also looked okay once I fiddled with the formatting.

Alas, I can't tell you how well the other formats are displayed because while I was testing them I managed to bork my review unit.

Update: But I did take a few minutes with my Kobo Aura HD, which is running the same software. The Mobi isn't worth trying; it kept choking on html tags. CBZ and CBR looked great, but there was no way to see, for example, one half of an image and then see the second half. The Aura HD also decided to use a double flash when changing the page.

It's frozen on the startup screen, and even though i reset it (twice) I cannot get it to load past this screen. So let me discuss what I didn't like about reading on the Aura H2O.

To start, I don't like the way Kobo wastes screen real estate on the header and footer; luckily there is a simple hack which will fix this.

My next gripe has to do with the many formatting options; a reader can set the line spacing, font size, margins, and justification, and I can even adjust the font weight (making the text more bold/light). But here's the thing: those settings are relative. The effect they have on an ebook or an article from Pocket depends on the original CSS, and that is not ideal.

I've had to change the settings to read an article, and then change again when I wanted to read an ebook. And then I had to change the settings again for the other ebook I am reading right now. All this fiddling would begin to bug me if I kept using the Aura H2O long enough.

But that doesn't matter because I don't expect to keep the Aura H2O long or use the Aura HD either.

What I dislike the most about this design, and TBH I think this was an actual misstep on the part of Kobo, is the lack of page turn buttons. The 6.8" screen on the Aura H2O makes one-handed operation difficult, and page turn buttons would have fixed that issue.

While some readers can manage holding the Aura H2O and turning the page with the same hand, I cannot. This is due in part to the thinness of the device, but also in part due to the progressive arthritis in my left hand. I can hold the Aura H2O, or I can turn the page, but i can't do both at the same time with a single hand.

Verdict

In spite of my issues with the Aura H2O, I still like this ereader. It has a better screen and much nicer shell than its predecessor, the Aura HD (which costs $10 less). With the general high quality design and components, and more than adequate software, the Aura H2O easily lives up to the expectations engendered by its $180 price tag.

Other Reviews

Where to Buy

Specs

  • Screen: 6.8" Carta E-ink screen w\Frontight and
  • IR touchscreen
  • Screen resolution: 1430 x 1080
  • CPU: 1GHz
  • RAM: 256MB
  • Storage: 4GB internal, microSD card slot
  • Format support: Epub, PDF, Mobi, CBZ/CBR, TXT, RTF, HTML
  • Weight: 233 grams
  • Dimensions: 179mm x 129 x 9.7

 

About Nate Hoffelder (11598 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

33 Comments on Review: Kobo Aura H2O

  1. (Nate, it looks like you accidentally uploaded the incorrect image for Kobo Aura H2O Screen Shot Home.)

    I know it’s a little weird, but I’m glad to here that the settings are relative to the book’s settings. While it is generally true that publishers often muck with settings they shouldn’t (such as the base font size), it is equally frustrating when your choice is between stylized formatting (e.g., a letter that is indented and rendered in a “handwriting” font) and flexibility on margins or text size. It’s not an easy problem given the flexibility of ePub, but it sounds like Kobo may be leaning toward my preference.

  2. For those who read in more than one language, a good dictionary support is important.
    For example, I would like to know:
    – What built-in dictionaries are available.
    – If it is possible to add new dictionaries to the reader.
    – If you can access the dictionary entry of a word by touching and holding it.
    – If, once you have selected a word, you can easily change dictionary.

  3. You mention in the Con list that the microUSB only accepts it’s own cable.. that’s…. a very big item to have no elaboration… and doesn’t really make much sense… are you sure?

    Also, is there really no other buttons other than the power? If there’s is no longer a light button, how can you force a factory restore if the device no longer boots… Traditionally, a very comon problem with Kobo’s, and the woes you have with the review unit don’t leave me the impression that has changed.

    • Yes, I’m sure. What’s really strange is that the Aura H2O won’t take the cable from most other devices, not even the Aura HD, but it will work with the cable from the Pocketbook Ultra. I’m beginning to wonder if there was a change in the spec which no one told me about.

      And no, the light button is gone. I don’t know how you’re supposed to force a factory reset; maybe we should ask the Kobo rep at MobileRead.

  4. I don’t have big hands and I can hold my Aura HD and turn the pages with a flick of my thumb, right or left. I let the reader rest a bit on my little finger. I guess you did not try very hard. 😉

    As for The lack of button to turn the pages, it’s kind of irrelevant since most of the major readers don’t have any either. (Of course, the next Kindle Voyage will have some, for 20$ more and with ads.)

    I used to prefer reading full page with the hack, but now I prefer the top and bottom margin. I find that more white on the screen relaxing. 🙂

  5. I was planning to ask for the H2O for my October birthday, but reading yours seems to be permanently frozen is pretty disconcerting. Is there really no way to reset, even through the accompanying software? I hope you will update us on what the problem was (hardware/software) and if it’s a real fluke or something to be genuinely worried about. It would be my first Kobo (an upgrade from a Sony PRS-T1). Still, even with the best specs in the world, if it dies after two weeks it’s not very good value – and 180$ is pretty pricey. Please keep us posted.

  6. Does it have a small pinhole you can stick a pin into to force a factory reset? I have 3 Kindles that haven’t given me issues, but then I bought the Kobo Aura a few weeks ago and first thing that happened was the screen froze after I uploaded a few epubs into it 🙁 I knew the epubs were fine since I had them on the Marvin app on my iPad. After some research I found that screens freezing are common with Kobo ereaders. Jamming a pin in the reset pinhole while pressing the power button brought my Auraback from brickdom.

    • Yes, there’s a hole. I’ve reset it several times now and it still keeps getting stuck at the boot prompt.

      • Have you try to reset it while the unit is being plugged in the wall? And then unplug it.

      • Did uou do a simple reset or a factory resetv (the difference is how long you keep the button pressed). I’ve done both with the reset button on my Aura (6″). If you get it working you might want to try one of the alternative readers you supposedly can install (I remember reading about it on mobileread but never bothering to try it out).

  7. Hacking the device does come with risks and it’s why I’m too chickenspit to do so.

  8. Perhaps you should let us know how Kobo CS helps you, or not.

    My past problems with Kobo CS are the primary thing standing between me and buying a Kobo ereader. It’s one thing to fight with them to get a $10 book refunded, it’s another to get $180 refunded for a malfunctioning reader.

  9. Can it auto-organize based on my sorting (primarily using the series tag) in Calibre, or do I have to upload everything and spend hours moving things into collections/bookshelves/whatever several pokes at a time?

    • From what I understand (never bothered to do it myself), Calibre can auto-create shelves based on your tags on Kobo devices. But you have to do it on the Calibre end, the Kobo won’t do it for you.

  10. As a heads up, just got my Aura H2O tonight. I’m charging it with my Kindle-issue charging cable with no problems.

  11. At least yours worked. There’s someone on MR who got disc errors when plugging her H2O into the computer.

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