Kobo Aura: For the truly refined e-book reader: Peter Nowak

Better than a tablet for reading


It’s part three of my week-long Black Friday gadget series. Today, we turn to a controversial topic: e-readers. Why are they controversial? Well, my own experience tells the story.

I was on the subway the other day, reading an e-book on my Kindle, when I looked around and noticed something odd. Everyone else was similarly self-engaged, but they had their noses buried in either a smartphone or tablet. A disturbing thought then occurred to me: since I’m the only one using an actual e-reader and since everyone else appears to be younger than I am, does that mean I’m old?

Ever since the iPad launched in 2010, the death of the e-reader has been widely forecasted. Why would anyone buy a single-purpose device when you can read an e-book on a tablet, which does so much more? Clearly, the young folk agree, if my subway experience is anything to go by.

But I’m not so sure. I decided to check out three of the newest e-readers with an eye to figuring out why I naturally gravitate towards them for reading. On the docket: Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite ($139), Kobo’s Aura ($149) and Sony’s Reader with integrated snap cover ($129).

I’ve traditionally been partial to Amazon, mainly because it has the widest selection and lowest prices. The Paperwhite is a step up over previous Kindle devices with its adjustable backlight. If tablets aren’t good in bright sunlight, e-readers haven’t been ideal in dimly lit situations, which is a problem the backlight fixes.

Amazon also has the most fulsome book entries and descriptions. Shopping on the Kindle provides much of the same info, such as customer reviews, that are found on the website. Lastly, the Paperwhite also has the fastest and most responsive typing input of the three devices, a useful feature when looking for new books.

Sony’s keyboard is painfully slow; you literally have to type in a letter, wait a second for it to register, then type the next one. The Reader also doesn’t have a backlight, but it does have physical buttons for page turning, quick settings and home. E-ink screens in general aren’t as responsive as LCD, so the actual buttons are a nice solution for navigating books and menus.

Kobo’s new Aura is actually my favourite of the bunch. Like the Paperwhite, it has a backlight and a handsome – even classy – grid-like interface. My favourite feature is that it tells you not just how much of a book you’ve read, but also how many hours it will likely take you to finish.

All three devices bundle in “experimental” extras such as web browsers and quick games like Sudoku, but it’s really all about the reading. All three are indeed superior to any tablet for that purpose. And unlike tablets, there aren’t all those potential distractions – oh hey, let’s watch The Avengers! – at your fingertips.

I don’t think e-readers are necessarily for old people – they’re for refined readers, and maybe therein is the correlation. I take a lot of photos with my phone, but I break out the big SLR when I really want some high-quality snaps. Similarly, the e-reader should be anyone’s go-to device for serious reading.

While some market forecasts see worldwide shipments slowing, others expect them to grow over the next few years. The conflicting views are capturing the endemic paradox of the e-readers themselves, where more people are likely to migrate to a better reading experience. But an e-reader is not like a phone or tablet – once you’ve got one, you really don’t need a new one for a long time. In that way, it’s the devices themselves that are likely to get old, not necessarily the people who use them.