If your reading tastes vary beyond what Amazon is selling, Kobo’s new Libra H2O ($169.99) is the perfect ebook reader. Hand-sized, light, and waterproof, with physical page-turn buttons, broad file format support, and excellent public library options, it’s the best value for ereader hardware right now, and an Editors’ Choice. Whether you buy it, though, depends on how deeply entrenched you are in Amazon’s ecosystem.
The Libra H2O takes a lot of the design elements from Kobo’s 8-inch, $280 Forma, which I find to be just a little too big and a little too expensive. This one is perfectly sized for one-handed use. It’s 6.3 by 5.7 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and 6.8 ounces, in black or white matte plastic. It’s wider, but not taller than the Clara HD (6.3 by 4.3 by 0.3 inches) and the Kindle Paperwhite (6.6 by 4.6 by 0.3 inches).
The 7-inch screen is the same 300ppi E Ink Carta display used by other high-end ebook readers, with a color-changing front light that goes from blue to yellow. The back has a nice stippled texture. One bezel is much larger than the others and angled, with physical page-turn buttons on it. The buttons press easily, like the ones on the Kindle Oasis, not stiffly like the ones on the Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight 3. That makes the whole thing even more pleasant to hold than the Kindle Oasis. It’s also reversible, so it can be used right- or left-handed. Kobo has an array of covers available for $25 to $39 that also function as stands.
Inside is a 1,200mAh battery, which I found just fine for more than two full 250-300 page books. The Libra H2O doesn’t have a speaker or play audio.
Amazon’s Kindle devices read, primarily, Kindle books or MOBI format files. You can send PDFs to Kindles, but odd things often happen with the formatting. The freeware package Calibre can convert EPUB and other formats into Kindle books, but it can be a little kludgey. Most libraries also have a Kindle book selection.
Kobo devices, on the other hand, read lots of different kinds of books. They read EPUBs, bought through Kobo or elsewhere. They read MOBIs and PDFs natively, as well as HTML, RTF, various graphic formats, and CBR and CBZ, which are mostly used for comics. They’re great if you get books from anywhere other than Amazon, but not Amazon. (This is the part where people start talking about cracking Amazon’s copy protection. Entirely independent of the very murky legal issues, it’s just cumbersome to do so, and I generally recommend smooth options over cumbersome ones.)
Like all Kobo ebook readers, the Libra H2O connects to the internet using 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. There’s no cellular option, unlike on Kindles. You can also drag and drop books into its 8GB of storage using a standard micro USB cable.
Finding Your Reading Material
Mainstream books are generally available through Kobo’s store, for reasonable retail prices. But Amazon’s bookstore has a lot more options. Books published through Amazon’s own imprints, of course, are only available on Amazon devices. Amazon also offers the free Kindle Lending Library and $10/month Kindle Unlimited services for heavy readers; Kobo doesn’t have any subscription services.
Kobo also isn’t terribly good at marketing or discovery. Its store’s front page has Recommended and Trending options, as well as searching by book name or category, but Amazon has mastered the art of shoving a ton of artifically intelligent suggestions at you. It’s better to go into Kobo knowing what you want to read already.
If you’re into manga, you’ve found your device. The Libra H2O makes quick work of EPUB, CBR, CBZ, and PDF format manga and comics. The 7-inch screen is just big enough that standard small-format manga are quite readable, as long as you have sharp eyes; the Kobo Clara HD, and all Kindles, are just a little too small. (If your eyes aren’t super-sharp, get a Kobo Forma.) I read a paperback of Yotsuba!& in EPUB, as well as Saga and The Wicked and the Divine in CBR, and they all loaded quickly and flipped pages well. Akira, in PDF, had some ghosting issues with some page flips, especially because it uses heavily dark pages. Grayscale rendering, overall, is pretty good. There’s a bit of trouble with two-page spreads, though, which get shrunk too small to read; you can zoom on them, but scrolling is quite slow.
Kobo’s public library support is also better than Amazon’s. With most public libraries, you can log onto their site using your PC and choose ebooks to send to your Kindle—that’s fine. Kobo takes this to the next level by making libraries into a native store on the device, so you can browse them just like you browse the Kobo store. There’s one downside: If you’re a member of multiple library systems, you can only have one assigned as the store on the device at a time.
There’s one missing spot in Kobo’s format support: Its 512MB of RAM doesn’t like big PDFs. Specifically, it doesn’t like long, 8.5-by-11 or larger documents, such as academic journal articles. The Libra crashed when trying to read some court decisions. If your workflow involves reading a lot of those and you want an E Ink device, you need to look at Sony’s large format ereader lineup instead.
Reading on the Libra H2O
Kobo’s ebook experience is sparer than Amazon’s. You can arrange your books into collections of related titles. The default view is a simple list. Tap into a book, and you’re reading, in 12 different fonts with a wide variety of sizes and weights. Tap on words, and you can highlight or annotate them, get dictionary definitions, or share quotes to Facebook. You can add bookmarks, pop over to the table of contents at any time, and in Kobo-purchased books, you can get stats on how far you are through the book.
There’s none of Amazon’s additional X-Ray indexing content or Goodreads integration, although you can call up a dictionary when you need to. And the Libra H2O doesn’t play audiobooks, unlike Kindles.
I did my beach reading this year on the Libra, and it was very enjoyable. The screen has the familiar ereader form factor, unlike the wider Forma, so line lengths feel natural. The physical page-turn buttons, and the wide-grip bezel, keep your fingers away from the text and make the experience a little more immersive. The Kindle Oasis has one advantage at the beach: Its flat-front design doesn’t trap sand or grit around the edges of the screen, which is always a problem for ereaders with recessed screens.
Kobo also enhanced its navigation this year, finally showing page numbers relevant to a whole book rather than just per chapter. That’s much more sensible. When you scrub through books, you now see reduced-size images of the pages you’re scrubbing through, as well as chapter and page indicators. If you decide to flip back and forth, dots remain on the overall page gauge to show where you’ve been. It’s low-key, easy to use, and significantly better than the previous Kobo page-flip experience.
The Best Kobo
According to Bloomberg, Amazon has 88.9 percent of the unit sales market in ebooks, and as mentioned, Amazon ebooks can only be read on Kindles. But if you’re willing to think outside that box, especially if you’re a big library borrower, Kobo’s ereaders are terrific.
In any sensible anti-trust regime, Amazon’s nearly monopolistic position as the dominant ebook store, a dominant publisher, and a dominant hardware maker, all backed up with firm DRM, would get the company broken up. But that’s not the world we live in, and a lot of Americans either have plenty of Amazon books already or want to read books only available through Amazon.
The Kobo Libra H2O gives you a lot of the features of the $249.99 Kindle Oasis for $159.99, including a super-light body, a handle-style bezel, physical page-turn buttons, a color-changing front light, and water resistance. It lets you buck Amazon’s monopoly and supports more file formats natively than Kindles do.
In terms of other ereader makers, the Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight line falls short on software and the company seems to be perpetually about to go out of business, which makes me wary of recommending its products. Sony’s ereaders are specifically good for large-format PDFs, and only for large-format PDFs. Onyx makes cool, powerful, expensive ereaders that are a little much if you just want to read popular books. The Libra H2O’s $40 bump over the Clara HD is worth it. Water resistance, plus the bezel and page-turn buttons, means far better beach and bath reading than on a touch-screen-only reader.
Ultimately, you’ll pick your ebook reader based on ecosystem. If you’re into Amazon’s subscriptions, Goodreads, Audible, and such, the Kindle Paperwhite is the smartest choice right now. But if you’re more of a free spirit, the Kobo Libra H2O will elevate your reading everywhere you go, making in an Editors’ Choice.