Tech trivia spot quiz: Which was the first hand-held e-reader? Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the Amazon Kindle which, in 2007, launched years after the Sony Librie (2004) and the Sony Reader (2006). Fast forward to 2023, and Kindles are as synonymous with the segment as Xerox and Google are for theirs, even as the debate on e-readers versus physical books continues to needlessly rage. Amazon’s market dominance is precisely the reason why Kobo and its e-readers need to exist—to provide competition that drives innovation forward (for instance, Kobo added waterproofing to their e-readers first in 2014. The company, owned by Japanese tech conglomerate Rakuten, has brought in three e-readers to India to cater to different audiences, but how do these compare to their closest Kindle alternative?
The Libra 2 is the top dog in the lineup, with a 7-inch HD backlit E Ink display, 32GB of storage, waterproofing, audiobook support over Bluetooth audio and physical page turn buttons, which puts it in line with the pricier Kindle Oasis (8GB) variant, priced at ₹21,999. It even follows a similar asymmetric design for its black/white plastic chassis, allowing for a thicker right-edge bezel (or left/bottom, if you flip it around, which you can). This makes it easier to grip the 215g e-reader with one hand, while still flipping pages with the large buttons.
Alternatively, you could tap on the 7-inch, 300 pixels per inch (ppi) display, which is not only sharp and easy to read, but also super responsive with page flips, rotations and navigation, at least as e-readers go. Aiding visibility is an array of white and amber LEDs arranged along the bottom of the screen that project light evenly upwards and let you change from cool to warm lighting…or even switch completely to a dark mode setup with white text overlaid over a black background. It makes for easy reading in the bright outdoors, and the IPX8 rating means (waterproof for up to 60 minutes in up to 2 metres of water) you can take it along to read on the poolside and not have to worry about walking out with a bricked device.
Getting books and audiobooks on to the Libra 2 (or any Kobo e-reader, for that matter) is much like that on the Kindle, via Kobo’s eBook Store, although one noted that the curation (not many India best-sellers easily surfaced) and India pricing of the book titles and audiobooks left a lot to be desired—an aspect that Kobo will have to address if it is serious about the market. The good news is that if you have an e-book collection already, Kobo’s file support game is strong, with over 15 formats supported, including EPUB, PDF, TXT, HTML and JPEG/GIF image formats. Audiobooks, though, are still restricted to those purchased from the Kobo Store, but one hopes the company opens up podcast and MP3 support over time. Battery life is rather good, with the 1500mAh cell lasting about two months of use for someone who reads an hour a day. Charging takes around two hours, over USB-C.
The Libra 2’s pricing, while competitive compared to the Oasis’, targets only the most indulgent of e-book readers, who likely have large libraries of their own that they would like to carry around.
The Clara 2E is a compact 6-inch e-reader that forgoes the Libra 2’s larger screen and page-turn buttons, without compromising on the 300 ppi screen resolution, Bluetooth connectivity for audiobooks and waterproofing. Flip it around, and the navy-blue rear panel has a wave-like textured pattern that alludes to the fact that 85% of its plastic body is recycled plastic. Its smaller size also makes it far more pocketable and handier to grip and operate while travelling, and reading on the smaller screen is as good an experience as on the Libra 2, only smaller. Same clean user interface, library layout and light temperature adjustment as the Libra 2 too, the latter making reading deep into the night less of a fatiguing exercise. Battery life with the 1500mAh battery should last the better part of four weeks of an hour-a-day usage, which is by no means lacklustre, just not as impressive as its siblings and its peers.
What I really liked was the almost fitness tracker style tracking for your reading habits—how much you are done in each book, how many hours to go to complete the book, and how many total hours and average speed per page you are managing. The Clara 2E’s pricing sets it square against the similarly priced 16GB model of the 6.8-inch Kindle Paperwhite, so it will come down to store catalogues and screen size, both of which favour the Kindle. The Clara 2E does a great job at nailing the basics, while staying more pocketable, more sustainable and without the strong tethers to the Amazon ecosystem.
The Nia is the most basic e-reader from Kobo, with a lightweight (172g), 6-inch (212 ppi) display relegating it to a kid’s device or one for the occasional reader. It’s among the smallest e-readers available, shaving off a bit of screen bezel and adding a textured back for better hand feel and grip. It gets the job as an e-reader done but scrimps on more advanced features such as waterproofing—an important consideration if you are picking this up for a kid—and Bluetooth support for audiobooks. That said, the entry-level Kobo is pricey, with the 2022 Kindle offering 16GB of storage and a 300 ppi display for less. Load up the 8GB storage with the classics from Project Gutenberg, and the kid should be set for a little under a month of an hour or so of reading a day.
For the brand’s second showing in India, Kobo has launched a respectable lineup of devices, although one can’t shake off the feeling that the firm needs to fine-tune the offering further, both in terms of pricing and store curation, to appeal to Indian audiences better, particularly those who have grown up calling all e-readers Kindles.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, posts @2shar.