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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
My woes with the frontlight of the Kindle Voyage eventually lead me outside of the familiar Kindle box and to my first non-Kindle e-ink device, the waterproof Kobo Aura H2O. Before or after you read this, do check out my initial comments on Kobo Aura H2O, as well as the review from simonz in the So you didn't like the Paperwhite/Voyage, now what? The solutions thread.

The delivery:

Kobo Aura H2O comes packaged in beautiful glossy packaging, more colorful than a Kindle box. They make big hay about the waterproofness of the device on the cover (and indeed in the products name), but that's not really why I got the device - I got it on the promise that it would have a very even frontlight. Inside, just like with Kindle, a quick guide and USB cable (no charger). A cleaning cloth is an added bonus. They call it a drying cloth.

The physical:

Kobo Aura H2O is a 6.8" inch e-ink device, with infrared touch. To put the hardware in perspective, consider it an enlarged Kindle Touch or Kindle (7th Generation) which have smaller 6" screens, that pretty much sums up the appearance of the hardware. The shape and formfactor are the same, soft rubbery plastic and angled sides and back. It looks and feels very familiar and very solid, perhaps a slight bit under Kindle quality, but not much. Borrow a frontlight, high-resolution screen and magnetic on/off cover from the likes of Kindle Voyage, and that's Kobo Aura H2O for you. Hardware-wise it feels like just a little bigger Kindle (7th Generation), with many Kindle Voyage features and some added perks thrown in (it has a memory card slot and is waterproof). Just like Kindle (7th Generation), Kobo doesn't have Voyage's page changing buttons, nor a flush bezel.

To gather an appreciation of the size difference, here is the Kobo Aura H2O (left) next to Kindle Voyage 3G - note that Kobo's frontlight is off and a bit of shadow falls on it from the left (not screen unevenness), Kindle's frontlight is on minimum:

For larger version (click e.g. Download):

Just like Kindle, you charge the Kobo Aura H2O through micro-USB. Although because it is waterproof, the USB connector (with the memory card slot) is behind a flap, which is a bit annoying for us who don't need waterproof. I guess I'll feel differently about that the minute I want to read somewhere wet, though... Unlike Kindle (7th Generation), the power button is on the top edge, not bottom - and luckily not behind the device like on Kindle Voyage. That's fine. Kobo Aura H2O is heavier than a Kindle Paperwhite 1 3G, so a bit on the chubby side. Not a problem for me, though.

All in all, all is well with the hardware. In addition to the reader, I got the official Kobo Sleep Cover, which is a book-like cover that has magnetic on/off for the device, pretty similar to the cover of a Kindle Paperwhite for example. When attached, the two clips on the cover's sides that hold it in place, come to sit slightly higher than the reader, which is not quite as intimate a design as Kindle's, but that's a minor niggle. Otherwise the cover is a very snug design and miles better to operate than a Kindle Voyage Origami cover for example.

Weight comparisons I've made of some e-ink readers and covers (in grams):

- Kobo Aura H2O without cover: 230 g
- Kobo Aura H2O with official sleep cover: 366 g
- Kindle Voyage 3G without cover: 186 g
- Kindle Voyage 3G with official origami cover: 318 g
- Kindle Voyage without cover: 179 g
- Kindle Voyage with official origami cover: 312 g
- New Kindle (7th Generation) without cover: 191 g
- New Kindle (7th Generation) with official cover: 300 g
- $69 Kindle 4B/5 without cover: 168 g
- $69 Kindle 4B/5 with official lighted cover: 313 g
- Paperwhite 1 3G: 220 g
- Paperwhite 1 3G with official cover: 355 g
- Paperwhite 2 Wi-Fi: 208 g
- Kindle DX "Graphite": 536 g
- Kindle DX "Graphite" with official cover: 900 g

Just covers
- Kobo Aura H2O sleep cover: 136 g
- Kindle Voyage origami cover: 133 g
- Kindle (7th Generation) cover: 107 g
- Kindle Paperwhite cover: 134 g
- $79/$69 Kindle 4/5 lighted cover: 144 g

The screen:

Since the screen is, really, the sole reason I bought the Kobo Aura H2O, I have focused on that the most and will focus on that the most here as well. I have previously had issues (see my reviews in signature) with Kindle Paperwhites and Kindle Voyage when it comes to frontlight evenness, and thus was encouraged by the positive reviews Kobo's frontlights have been receiving for a couple of hardware generations now already. On the Paperwhites the excessive stagelighting, crooked screens, pinholes, milkyness of the text and splotchiness, with dark or colored areas within the screen, and on the Voyage a color/brightness gradient, have hampered my enjoyment of the latest Kindles. Indeed, my current favourite Kindle is the non-lit Kindle (7th Generation), although I own a Kindle Voyage as well.

So, what's the Kobo Aura H2O screen like? I think the best way to describe it is, trouble-free. Blacks are black, there is none of that milkyness of the Paperwhite when you turn on the frontlight, there are no pinholes or dust particles within the frontlight that has plagued frontlit Kindles, the tone of the light is pleasingly warm and not harsh, the light is even throughout the page, without the top looking less bright than the bottom... you can even turn the frontlight off entirely, unlike on a lit Kindle. I'd say if this is what every Kindle since the first Paperwhite would have looked frontlight-wise, we would never have had the frontlight controversy that still lingers in the minds of some Kindle users.

Is the frontlight perfectly even? Of course not. Very few lit screens are completely even, not even most LCD/LED backlights are, but the limitations of the evenness here are akin to those LCD/LEDs in that there a bit of shadowing on the edges of the screen, call it light bleed if you will, but the overall page area is very even compared to lit Kindles. Many very critical people (those who have issues with lit Kindles) have scrutinized the Kobo Aura H2O frontlight compared to lit Kindles and I have to agree with them, it just is better. What's more, the contrast is mightily impressive. I can very easily roll down the light level to something below Kindle Paperwhite's or Voyage's, in complete darkness, and still make out the text (larger screen helps too). It is just a very trouble-free frontlight.

The resolution of the Kobo screen is similar to Kindle Voayge, but PPI a bit less due to stretching it out 0.8 inches farther. In any case, the text is very sharp and the resolution/PPI still excellent, hugely better compared to regular Kindles and much better than a Kindle Paperwhite as well. Also, the larger size of the screen means it feels a bit like reading a hard cover compared to the paperback size of 6" Kindles. You do loose a bit in mobility, size-wise, but it really is a nice experience. I recently noted that Kindle Voyage easily has the best screen in any Kindle, if we forget about the frontlight woes... well, the Kobo screen is as good or even better - and there are no frontlight woes. It is just that good.

If we were to judge solely on the screen, Kobo Aura H2O is easily better than any Kindle I've seen, and I've seen pretty much all of them.

The experience:

But we can't and won't judge solely on the screen. The software and the ecosystem are two other big differentiators when comparing Kindle and Kobo. Amazon runs a very tight ship on the Kindle software, minimalist even, while Kobo has a more inclusive approach - there is a lot of stuff on the Kobo, but it definitely isn't quite as well thought out. On the flipside, there is a lot less stuff in the Kobo ecosystem, although epub compatibility makes it a bit more "standards friendly" than Kindle. The problem, of course, is that Kindle is pretty much the de facto standard when it comes to e-books for many of us. Kobo will be a lesser experience when it comes to the richness and seamlessness of the ecosystem, no question.

I'll come to the reading part in a bit, but first a few words about the overall Kobo software experience. The home screen is quite different from a Kindle. Where as Kindle is all about book covers (and a few features disguised as book covers), Kobo has variable sized widgets - for example the Reading Stats widget, if you enable the feature, will show how many books you have finished and hours read, right there on the home screen. If you use some of the other extra features, they may show up only as sort of icons there. Kobo calls the widgets tiles and you can remove most of them, if need be. There is also a separate Library view, where you can choose from a Kindle-like cover view or a list view, which also optionally shows covers.

There are some notable "Beta Features" on the Kobo Aura H2O, so I'll just mention them for those coming outside of the Kobo experience. There are two games, Chess and Sudoku, a drawing app (Sketch Pad) and a web browser. The browser, perhaps surprisingly, isn't slow at all - it works pretty well for an e-ink browser, I just thought it resorts to refreshing the screen a bit too often. Well, an emergency browser only, of course. In the Sketch Pad you can draw stuff with your finger. Chess and Sudoku are visually pleasing and do what you expect them to. As for other extras, the Reading Stats screen is pretty nice, showing things like total hours spent reading.

Kobo has more versatile settings than a Kindle. For example, you can choose from a few of options what and how is displayed when the device is in sleep. I find the ability to show, full screen, the cover of the book you are currently reading as quite a nice feature. This is optional, for those preferring to keep their reading habits a bit more private. As for third-party connections and social media, Kobo supports Adobe Digital Edition, Facebook and Pocket. Of these, the last is perhaps the most interesting one, allowing you to sync interesting web articles to be read on the Kobo.

The reading:

When you are in a book, the Kobo Aura H2O works pretty much like a Kindle Paperwhite or a Kindle (7th Generation). If you've got the tapping page changes and page change swipes in your muscle memory, you are good to go. There is more configurability in Kobo, so you can select from a few different layouts for tap zones, and you can select how often the screen is refreshed (1-6 pages), while on the Kindle the current generation options are every 1 page or every umpteenth page decided by the reader (image or chapter break) - Kobo doesn't have the latter option, though, so those who like to see page refreshes as rarely as possible may prefer a Kindle (at least until Kobo update their software). Progress display options are the same as for touch Kindles - there is no default option to show no progress information, but if you edit a config file, you can add the checkbox to enable full screen mode which uses the full page for text.

Dictionary, highlighting and similar jumping functionality as on current Kindles is there (although there is no Page Flip, Vocabulary Builder or some other integrations). They look a bit different (some actually look better), but the stuff is there and works well. An added bonus on the Kobo are reading stats and milestone awards, for those who like such things. What it is, though, just like much of the Kobo Aura H2O software experience, a bit slow. The device is slower than latest Kindles in changing pages, not enough to be an issue, but it is quite significantly slower when accessing other types of features, be it menus, dictionary or opening a book. This is no problem for someone like myself who really just reads the books, but if you are very active in operating the special features, this will be a slower experience. The processor seems to be at least on the Paperwhite 2 level, so perhaps software updates will improve this.

What is the biggest differentiator in the reading mode, are the font choices. While I think Kindle has superior default font and more pleasing basic layout, it has nothing on Kobo when it comes to customization. Font size and even font weight can be adjusted very accurately, unlike on Kindle where you have to choose from a few options only. Ever felt on a Kindle, if only the font was a bit thinner or a bit thicker...? Here you can adjust. Similarly, on the Kobo margins can be adjusted more variably, as can line spacing. Default setup seems to have ten or so fonts, including Kindle favorite Caecilia, and there is a very nice TypeGenius setup screen where you can preview what the font and font settings would look like while you adjust them. What's more, you can install your own TTF or OTF fonts. This adjustability, in addition to the superb screen, seem to be a pretty big deal for some very particular e-reader users - for me, it is a tool to perfect the text blackness experience.

The verdict:

Out of my three current-generation e-ink readers, Kindle Voyage 3G, Kindle (7th Generation) and Kobo Aura H2O, what will I be using most? A good question. And it sucks to admit, even since the frontlit e-readers came, it is still a bit of game of "good enough" for me. None of these are optimal. Kindle (7th Generation), as I reviewed, is a great device considering my preferences, fast and with the great Amazon ecosystem, but without a lighted cover integration it lacks something I've come to like and its e-ink resolution is a bit bland for 2014 too. Kindle Voyage is pretty great in every other respect than the frontlight evenness, which, as said, is a pretty big deal for me. That leaves Kobo Aura H2O which lacks in ecosystem and smoothness, but has a great, great screen and good font configurability.

At the moment I just don't know. I'll keep all three and I'll keep all three handy. If I'd have to guess, the Kobo Aura H2O is going to be my home reader when content suits it. That large screen and the trouble-free reading experience with the frontlight in darkness has already spoiled me a little. Kindle (7th Generation) with a clip-on light is another option, as at home it isn't that big of a problem to use cumbersome clip-on lights such as the Verso I'm using, and maybe I could source an even better, chargeable light. I'm still not sure what to think of the Kindle Voyage 3G, but perhaps because it is 3G and small, I could find use for it as my reader for, well, voyages abroad. Some third-party book-like cover could help the Kindle Voyage as well...

Finally, I'll leave you with a picture of the Kobo Aura H2O frontlight (on the left) compared to three different Kindles at three different frontlight levels. As always, the differences are hard to capture on photo because the various devices are seen from different angles and external lights/shadows hit them a bit differently, but these give you some ideas. The white balance is a bit off in the image making things greener than real, but I chose not to edit it to keep the purity. The overall brightness variances in the devices are evident - when on full blast, the Kindle Voyages are the brightest and also coldest in tone, whereas the Kobo Aura H2O is the warmest in tone, with the Paperwhite 2 coming in second.

For larger version (click e.g. Download):

251 Posts
I really like the screen size of the Kobo Aura H2O. I received my Paperwhite 2 last week and like it a great deal, but I find myself wishing for more text on the page to make page turns less frequent. I guess I could just read more slowly. ;)

2,077 Posts
I've had my eye on the Kobo readers lately. Nice to read your review, thanks for posting it.

21 Posts
Got the H2o for it's larger screen and the much more configurable fonts. The reading experience is vastly superior to my kindle touch and comes close to the ultimate Kindle DX. The damn kindles was always very restrictive with the few font choices - i always wanted an in-between that was not available in the kindles.

But it's not all smooth sailing - the sleep function is not reliable with the Kobo Sleepcover -
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