In the annals of great underdogs, a Canadian subsidiary of a Japanese mega-retailer makes for an unlikely entrant. And yet here’s Kobo, again, with a new e-reader that could give Kindle owners some serious second thoughts.
The new Kobo Aura One is literally big, a 7.8-inch behemoth in a world of standard 6-inch displays. But its features are also outsized, whether it’s robust waterproofing, a clever new nighttime lighting system, or a way to help you read as many top-shelf books as you please without paying a cent. More importantly, they’re all enhancements you won’t find on an Amazon Kindle.
It’s a rocky time for e-readers. Last month, the Association of American Publishers reported that while overall book revenue increased .6 percent in 2015 versus the year before, e-book revenue fell a precipitous 11.3 percent. Of Amazon’s extensive e-reader lineup, only two crack the company’s top 100 sellers in electronics.
So it’s not surprising then that Kobo has felt some of this decline as well; in fact, the only surprising thing for most people may be that an e-reader called Kobo exists at all. The upstart’s parent company, Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, wrote down its 2011 Kobo acquisition by nearly $250 million earlier this year.
The bleak economics of e-reading belies the steadily increasing joys of the devices themselves, especially in the burgeoning premium category. Not many people may be willing to spend hundreds of dollars on an e-reader, but if you’re one of them, you’re in for a treat. That applies to Amazon’s $200 Kindle Voyage, its more recent $290 Oasis, which comes with its own leather charging case, and now to the $230 Kobo Aura One, which launches on September 6. It does things neither of those Amazon devices can dream of, and it has to if it wants to shake people from their e-reader lethargy.
“When people talk about seeing declines in the space, one of the things that’s embedded in that is that people are still reading on devices that they bought in 2011 and 2012,” says Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn. “Then they slowly upgrade until something comes along that’s good enough to make them step upward. It’s not like smartphones, where you’re getting a giant influx of new customers every 18 months.”
If e-reader success is a matter of enticements, the Aura One makes for a pretty solid siren. Previous Kobos have been waterproof, but the latest model can survive submerged two meters for up to an hour, not that you’d need to. The Aura One hops on the anti-blue-light trend, phasing out blue spectrum over time so that reading in bed doesn’t go on to affect your sleep. (There are studies that say this is helpful, and Apple introduced a similar feature in iOS 9.3, but mileage will vary).
It’s also bigger. Tamblyn says the 7.8-inch display helps mimic the feel of a hardcover, rather than a paperback, and that aging e-book enthusiasts prefer having more words on a page even at blown-up font sizes. In my short time with the Aura One, I can confirm that despite its size, it’s comfortable to hold one-handed, thanks to minimal weight and a pleasantly texturized rubber back. I don’t know that I prefer a bigger display yet, or prefer it enough to sacrifice even that little bit of room in my bag. All that surface area can also make the Aura One a little awkward to navigate when you’re using the keyboard to search the store, or adjusting far-flung settings.
But you’re mostly just reading. And besides, any annoyance quickly disappears when you get to the Aura One’s best feature. The one where you don’t have to buy books anymore.
Apologies if this comes as no surprise, but you don’t actually have to purchase e-books. You can rent them from your local library, through a company called OverDrive.
I know, right? Free books! And it’s not like you were going to display them on your built-ins anyway. The reason more people don’t know about this, or maybe more accurately just don’t do it, is that the process is a pain. You have to sign up at your library, register at OverDrive on your browser, download a book, transfer it to your device; it’s a mess, no matter what e-reader you own.
“The previous experience of people side-loading to the device was 16 steps to borrow through a library,” says Tamblyn. “And if any one of those went wrong, it was usually a customer service call to us.”
You’ll notice that Tamblyn uses the past tense. That’s because Rakuten bought OverDrive in 2015 for over $400 million, which means OverDrive and Kobo are siblings, which is why (thanks, corporate synergy!) the Kobo Aura One has OverDrive built right in.
That gets a little tangled, so let me clarify: You can borrow e-books directly on the Aura One, for free, with just a few taps. I picked up National Book Award finalist Fates and Furies last night with about 30 seconds of work, including the download time. It retails for $13 on Amazon.
There are hiccups to OverDrive borrowing. The titles eventually disappear from your device when the lending period is over (although you can re-up), and the selection can be scant. But giving OverDrive equal weight as a paid bookstore is a remarkable thing. If you borrow 10 books a year, that’s easily a hundred dollars you’ve saved, not to mention avoiding the hassle of side-loading.
For now, the direct OverDrive access is limited to the Aura One, though Tamblyn didn’t rule out the possibility that it could come to other models as well. It goes a long way towards making that $230 purchase price more palatable, though. Especially when that still undercuts Amazon’s best by a solid amount.
“We were certainly quite delighted to see someone come out with something up in the $300 range that was still a 6-inch screen, that hadn’t done anything with light and sleep, not waterproof,” says Tamblyn. “That was a great gift to us.”
There are things not to like about the Aura One. It has no physical buttons, if you prefer those, and Kobo’s e-book store selection still falls well short of the Kindle Store. The larger size might throw you off. But there’s also so much to like. More importantly, there’s so much here that you won’t find anywhere else. At the very least, it makes Kobo worthy of a closer read.
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