Escape Amazon’s evil Kindle empire with the cheeky Kobo Aura

Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Kobo’s ebook reader trumps even the best Kindle on several fronts. Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

I just switched from Kindle to Kobo. Why? Amazon. It’s currently extorting publishing house Hachette by delaying orders and refusing to allow pre-orders for certain titles. The exact machinations are secret, but many people agree that Amazon is demanding discounts on ebooks.

I don’t want to see authors forced to get a second job to survive, so I switched. No more Kindle ebooks. I switched to Kobo, which has a great e-ink reader, a deep book catalog, and – most importantly – breakable DRM.

The results are mixed, with ups and downs for both the service and the hardware.

For a smart author’s view on the Hachette/Amazon spat, read Charlie Stross’ post on the subject. For background, here’s The New York Times’ account. For my take on the hardware and services, keep reading.

I have used Kindles since they were first available outside the U.S. I have owned a 2G version (with 3G), a Kindle Keyboard, and both first- and second-gen Paperwhites. The Paperwhite is amazing, with responsive touch, the best backlit screen yet, and an almost glitch-free OS.

The Kobo Aura is much smaller and lighter than the Paperwhite (174 grams versus 213 grams), but the screen is the same size (6 inches) and resolution (1,024 x 758). Both have backlights, Wi-Fi and batteries that last for (supposedly) two months.

Hardware

The main difference is the screen. The Paperwhite wins in anything but bright sunlight. Its E Ink Carta display is whiter than the Aura’s E Ink ClarityScreen, and the Paperwhite’s light is so much better than the Aura’s that it’s not even funny. Whereas the Kindle’s front light is undetectable – you just see the screen get brighter – the Kobo’s is uneven and looks like a light shining on the screen. There’s even a bright bar up top as the LEDs seem to peek out from under the bezel.

That’s not to say the Kobo’s light is bad – just that the Kindle’s is much better.

Other than this, though, everything about the Kobo hardware is better. It’s just as fast, it has a sliding power button up top (not underneath) and it has a separate switch for the backlight. And speaking of backlights, you can adjust the Kobo’s light by sliding two fingers up and down the screen. No need to access a menu like in the Kindle.

Finally, the Kobo has its screen flush with the bezel like the iPad, instead of raised like a picture frame. This makes it easier to hold, and easier to slip a finger over the screen to flip a page.

Overall, the Kobo Aura is better built than the Kindle Paperwhite, but the screen is less contrasty and has a comparatively poor light. But even this is mitigated by the first of our software features: typography.

Escape Amazon’s evil Kindle empire with the cheeky Kobo Aura

Here you see the size difference.

Software

Escape Amazon’s evil Kindle empire with the cheeky Kobo Aura

Kobo offers fine-grained font settings.

The Kindle’s typography is appalling, like a cheap pulp paperback. The Aura, on the other hand, not only offers more fonts but has a layout engine that makes every book you read look great. And this in turn makes reading a lot easier.

You can adjust the margin size, you can choose flush-left, ragged-right text (the Kindle justifies everything, stretching words into unnatural forms), tweak line spacing and choose from 12 fonts, not just six (the Kindle allows adjustments of margins and line spacing too, but it’s not as fine-grained).

What really makes the difference, though, is that the Kobo’s text-rendering engine was made by somebody who cares about typography. The fonts just render better on-screen, and the result is a page that looks like a real book, not just a bunch of letters squashed together into words.

Still not satisfied? You can even fine-tune the weight and size of some fonts in an “advanced” section.

Interface

First, let me tell you that the Kobo can be set to display the cover of your current book as the screensaver when it sleeps. Why the hell doesn’t the Kindle do this? People actually jailbreak their Kindles just to add this feature.

Next up in Kobo’s unstoppable assault is the home page. This shows a lot more than the Kindle’s static list. You get the last book you read, a section for recommendations, another for recently added books, plus spots for the latest Pocket news (more on that in a second). There’s even a tile telling you when the last sync happened, and you can tap it to sync immediately.

This tile-based page makes the Kobo feel a lot more like it belongs to you. The Kindle always felt to me like Amazon owned it. The Kobo is more personal. It even tracks things like your reading activities, kind of like a Fitbit for words (although I don’t use that part).

The friendliness continues with your Library. You can browse just books, or by collection (user-made), or your previews. Previews work in a different way than on the Kindle. Whereas Amazon forces you to choose where to send your samples, Kobo stores them as a part of your library so you can access them from any device or app. This is much better, as anyone who has broken and replaced a Kindle full of samples will know.

Syncing

Speaking of sync, the Kobo is much worse than the Kindle. Purchased books sync their reading positions just fine between the device and your Kindle iOS and Mac apps, but when it comes to personal documents you’re pretty much on your own.

First, the only way to get a book onto your Kobo (other than purchasing) is to plug it into your Mac with a USB cable, and drag the file over using the Finder (or the capable ebook app Calibre. You can’t send documents to the Kobe via email, and you can’t even add them to the desktop app and have them sync to the Kobo Aura device.

Worse still, any books you add to your library stay on that device only, and even if you load the same book onto two different devices (your iPhone and your Aura reader, say) then the reading progress isn’t synced.

The Kindle can do all of these, and is therefore the winner here. By far.

Pocket

But Kobo brings it back in this stretch because it has a built-in Pocket app. That is, any articles you save to read-later service Pocket are synced to the app on your Kobo. You can browse them as a thumbnail grid or a list, mark them read, delete them and archive them, just like in the regular iOS app, and all this syncs back to your account.

It’s fantastic, and is alone a great reason to switch to Kobo from Kindle. I find myself using it all the time, especially as the tiny Kobo can live in a jeans back pocket without you even noticing, and my Pocket queue has shrunk quite a bit.

DRM and switching

If books were like MP3s, it would be much easier to stop buying ebooks from Amazon and just buy Kobo books for your Kindle. This would, in turn, let the publishers slip out from under Amazon’s lock-in. Ironically, it’s the publishers themselves that still insist on DRM (some, like Tor, sell their Kindle books DRM-free).

Fortunately, I have been ripping my Kindle books this whole time, for just this eventuality. (Read how in the Calibre post, also linked above.) The good news is that the same Apprentice Alf plugin can rip the DRM from Adobe Digital editions, which is the DRM used by Kobo.

In fact, one of my main reasons for switching to Kobo was the fact that I can rip the books and use them anywhere. iBooks’ FairPlay DRM is still mostly uncracked, which is why I never buy iBooks ever.

One note. If you do go the same route as me, you should install the KoboTouchExtended plugin (available from inside Calibre). This converts your regular EPUB files into KEPUBs, which is Kobo’s extended format, and offers some extras like pages remaining in the current chapter and syncing your collections.

Escape Amazon’s evil Kindle empire with the cheeky Kobo Aura

Calibre is ugly but it does the job.

Even without that, your Kindle AZW3 files will convert to beautiful EPUB files and work just like Kobo’s own books (only without the sync). Or you could just buy your books from Kobo and rip them onto your Kindle, thus saving the cost of new hardware.

Conclusion

As you’d expect, Amazon’s book catalog and its web-based services beat the Kobo, but hardware- and software-wise the Kobo wins out. I miss being able to find a book in my Dropbox and email straight to my Kindle using just my iPhone, but Kobo’s Pocket integration and the overall user experience more than makes up for that. Even the screen is fine. In sunlight there’s no difference, so the only time I really notice is when I’m reading in bed at night. And by then I’m so sleepy I don’t care.

  • tbsteph

    Both of your premises concerning Amazon are fallacious – they are not extorting Hatchette or causing harm to authors. ( FWIW, Hatchette is part of a $12B conglomeration – hardly an innocent little publisher.)
    I have no opinion concerning the Kobo. I’m sure it’s a decent e-reader. Your rationale for calling Amazon “evil” however, is a gross distortion of reality.

    • David Thoren

      Came here to say this, and add that Amazon has offered to create a fund to assist Hachette authors during the negotiations, and you can still buy the books via Amazon, AND Amazon suggests alternative sources if you need to preorder or need a physical book quickly.

    • bjwanlund

      Unfortunately for you, I have been having the same issues as the author of this piece with the evils of Amazon. I’ll still probably get some books via Amazon (mainly because my mother thinks Amazon can do no wrong… oy vey…) and I am going to look into this Kobo stuff further for my own personal ebook reading / management purpises.

  • LenEdgerly

    For a deeper look at issues behind the Hachette/Amazon negotiations, I recommend indie author Hugh Howey’s latest essay on the matter, “Winning at Monopoly.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hugh-howey/winning-at-monopoly_b_5453482.html

  • drnemmo

    I have a Kobo and a Kindle, and the Kobo is a lot friendlier.

  • bjwanlund

    I’m curious as to whether people have the same problems mentioned in this review with the Aura HD. It is a tad bit more expensive than the Aura but I was just wondering.

  • MTM

    “Amazon is evil for extorting authors?” What nonsense. Amazon and Hachette are simply big businesses bargaining with each other. Is Amazon asking for prices that are too low? Is Hachette asking for prices that are too high? Do we even know what each is asking for? If not, why in the world should we assume Amazon is being unreasonable, and not Hachette?

    Maybe if we have more data we could weigh in and moralize about which big business is more righteous. Till then…whatever.

  • Drew Forester

    I own a Kobo Aura HD, sort of the “Older Brother” version, and it’s an absolute joy compared to my 2012 Kindle Paperwhite. I’ve gone through 3 Paperwhites due to cracked screens in under a year, and while Amazon’s customer service in that field is amazing, I’d much rather avoid cracked screens altogether. The Kobo has never even been scratched.

    The Paperwhite I use has 3G and is a little zippier in navigation and page turning, but real advantages end there. Much can be ballyhooed over a whiter screen on the Kindle, but when it comes to my personal reading experience, I focus on the novel, not the page the novel’s on. The Kobo is easier to hold with one hand due to the shaped back, uses slightly lighter materials, and the Aura HD uses a 6.8 inch very-almost-nearly 1080p resolution screen as opposed to the Paperwhite’s 720p screen, and the backlight is still very fair and even, and can be cranked up to almost being garishly bright, which in natural sunlight makes the page look white as a sheet.

    The open format nature of the device means I was able to strip the DRM from my Kindle collection (over 200 books on device, another 150 in the cloud) and port it to my Kobo, which barely put a dent in the HD’s storage (which can be expanded by up to 32GB) when completed. I can also put almost any format of ebook (even the three or four books I bought from Barnes and Noble’s Nook service) on the Kobo with little to no trouble, as opposed to the endless trouble the Kindle gives me.

    Kobo’s store is jam-packed with everything I could possibly want to buy (and like I said, I already ported the other stuff from my Kindle anyway), and more, but the web interface could be a little more streamlined. All my favorite authors are there, and even while Amazon maintains lower prices on almost everything, Kobo’s prices are still reasonable enough that I don’t mind paying a little extra, and bargain hunting is actually pretty easy due to frequent promotions and sales.

    All I really have to complain about is that the lightweight plastic the Aura HD is made from saves weight, but feels a bit cheap compared to the rubberized back of the Paperwhite, and I do miss that constant pro-bono 3G connection from Amazon.

    That said, I will never go back to Kindle, because Kobo has delivered so well on every front– there’s something to be said for their corporate philosophy of focusing entirely on reading, as opposed to Amazon, yet another company who wants to rule the world.

    For $179, I view the HD as entirely worth every penny. It’s damn near perfect.

    The day I put down my Aura HD for good is the day when Kobo releases another improved version.

About the author

Charlie Sorrel Charlie Sorrel is the Reviews Editor here on Cult of Mac. Follow Charlie  on Twitter at @mistercharlie.

(sorry, you need Javascript to see this e-mail address)| Read more posts by .

Posted in Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , |