Kobo has announced the Aura One, a big new e-reader that’s thin, light, and water resistant. It goes on sale September 6th in the US, Canada, and will cost $229 and $249 in those countries, respectively. It will also be released that same day in a number of other regions like the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Japan, and Turkey.
The first thing you notice about the Aura One is that it’s big for an e-reader. While Amazon used 9.7-inch displays on some of the early Kindles, and more obscure companies like Pocketbook have sold e-readers in that size range in the past, the industry (Kobo included) has since settled on a standard of 6–7 inch screens. But the Aura One sports a 7.8-inch, 300ppi display, which is large enough to make it not just Kobo’s biggest e-reader ever, but essentially the biggest high-resolution e-ink screen you can buy. That size increase doesn’t come with any extra bulk. The Aura One is just 6.9mm thick, and weighs 230 grams — thinner than an iPhone 6S, and not much heavier than a 6S Plus.
Another really big distinguishing factor is the Aura One’s water resistance. Kobo says the Aura One meets IPX8 standards, which means it can be submerged in 2 meters of water. That’s a step up from the IP67 rating found on the company’s previous water-resistant e-reader, the Aura H20.
Kobo is also introducing a new software feature with the Aura One: the ability to change the color temperature of the screen. You can tweak the setting manually in the settings or, like with the overall brightness of the screen, it can be set to auto-adjust throughout the day. The link between blue light and sleepless nights has been an increasingly hot topic in recent years, and while the effectiveness of features like this one or Apple’s Night Shift is debatable, it’s nice to see Kobo take a crack at another new feature that other e-readers are missing.
Beyond those big changes, the rest of the Aura One provides essentially the same experience found in Kobo’s other devices, which is a mixed bag. There’s a tiled home screen that shows the books you are in the middle of reading and provides quick access to the store and your purchased books. It's busy, but it works. And of course you can sync your Pocket account so that you can read articles on the device, which is a plus.
Kobo’s parent company, Rakuten, acquired a company last year called Overdrive that has deep ties with the growing e-book lending programs around the country, and so library lending also features prominently in the Aura One’s software. The most useful part of this is that, as long as you have your library credentials plugged in, titles that are available for borrowing will also show up when you search. It’s an important feature for the company’s business, too: Kobo boasts 5 million titles in its store, which is a lot, but it’s still not as deep a well as you can find on Amazon. (To wit, the first two searches I made when I started testing the Aura One last week turned up empty.)
The reading experience on the Aura One works smoothly enough, and is better than it was with past devices. You either tap the sides or swipe across the screen to turn the pages, and you tap the top of the screen to bring up the Aura One’s menu. You can press and hold on words to look up definitions, or select text and make notes. There are no physical buttons save for the power / sleep button on the back of the device, but the touch actions perform well enough thanks to a 1gHz processor and 512mb of RAM.
The biggest drawback I spotted in my few days with the Aura One is that the side bezels are too small — at least for my hands. And because the touch-sensitive screen is no longer recessed like it had been on past Kobo e-readers, the Aura One is a bit tricky to hold one-handed without triggering some accidental page turns.
To get around this I had to either pinch the sides with my thumb and forefinger, hold it from the bottom, or rest the Aura One in both of my hands. That’s fine, and almost expected when you’re talking about a device that’s this size. But during a brief meeting with Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn, he told The Verge he really still sees this as a one-handed device. "In one hand with a cup of coffee is kind of what we were looking for when we made this," Tamblyn said. I’m not saying that’s not possible — especially because the Aura One is relatively light, and it also sports a really great grippy rubber back — it’s just not always going to be easy.
The e-reader market hasn’t changed much in the last year or two. Amazon is still the biggest company in the space, but its e-readers have only really received small updates here and there, and the only new product the company released this year — the Oasis — offers little in the way of new features and sits at the extreme high end of the market. With the Aura One, Kobo is betting that features like size and water resistance can help the company stand out.