Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Digital Reader

The Digital Reader

Review: Kobo Aura H2O

Posted: 20 Sep 2014 11:13 AM PDT

aurah2o_blk_angledleft_single_home_caWhile many ebook reader makers have settled on the 6″ screen as the standard. Kobo continues to buck the trend, first by releasing the 5″ Kobo Mini in 2012 and then by jumping on the chance to release an ereader with a 6.8″ E-ink screen.

The Aura H2O is Kobo’s second ereader to use the 6.8″ E-ink screen. Like its predecessor this ereader asks for a premium price, and like the Aura HD this device offers a value which more than makes up for the extra cost.

In the two plus weeks since I got this review unit from Kobo, I have found many reasons to like the Aura H2O, but unfortunately I can’t share all of them. While testing format support, I somehow managed to make the Aura H2O freeze on the startup menu, and in spite of several hours of troubleshooting, threats, and animal sacrifice, I can’t get it to start working again.

And so this will have to be an abbreviated review.

Review Date: 20 September 2014, with a review unit loaned from Kobo

Pro & Con


  • Huge white screen
  • Great frontlight
  • Waterproof
  • Many formatting options


  • No page turn buttons
  • The microUSB port won’t accept any cable but its own
  • I borked the review unit


kobo aura h2oThe first thing you’ll notice with the Kobo Aura H2O is the big beautiful screen. This device is the one and only ereader to sport a 6.8″ Carta E-ink screen. It has a screen resolution of 1,080 x 1,430, and on top of the screen you’ll find a frontlight and an IR touchscreen.

Around the screen you’ll find a matte black plastic bezel, which is just wide for a good grip. Turning the device over, you’ll find that Kobo improved on the cheap plastic rear shell of the Aura HD; they gave the Aura H2O a flatter and rubberized rear shell which makes it easier to grip and nicer to hold.

Aside from the screen there aren’t many hardware details to notice. Thanks to the waterproofing (and Kobo’s general trend to minimalism design) the Aura H2O has but a single button on the upper edge (power). On the lower edge you’ll find that the microUSB port, microSD card slot, and reset button have been placed under a form-fitting rubber cap. (closeups here, here, and here)

kobo aura h2o underwater 2In general, the Aura H2O was nice to hold and to read on (more on this in a later section). The Aura H2O runs Kobo’s proprietary software on a 1GHz CPU with 256MB RAM, 4GB internal storage, and Wifi. Those are essentially identical specs to the Aura HD, which could explain why the devices had similar performance when running similar firmwares.

Back when I had a functional review unit, I set my Aura HD next to the loaner Aura H2O and compared their responsiveness and page turn speed. So far as I could tell they were about equally responsive, and turned the page equally fast.


They were ever so slightly slower than my 2013 Kindle Paperwhite, which I also noticed had a slightly brownish screen tint when compared to the Aura H2O. That tint could be due to the frontlight, or it could be from the PW2’s capacitive touchscreen layer.

While I don’t have any photos comparing the PW2 with the Aura H2O (I had planned to take the photos today), I do have a set of photos that show the Aura HD (with a Pearl E-ink screen) next to the Aura H2O (with a Carta screen). As you can see, there’s an obvious difference between the screens; the Aura H2O has a much whiter screen.

There are 4 images in this set, with the last one being a composite image made from a sample of white from each of the two screens.


While the Aura HD had a good frontlight, the Aura H2O has a better one. It offers an evenly lit white tone and is dimmer at its lowest setting than the frontlight on the Aura HD.

While this might sound counter-intuitive, the most important setting on a frontlight on an E-ink screen is the lowest setting, not the highest. Unlike LCD screens, where you will need the maximum brightness at some point, with E-ink screens  you will more likely be interested in making the screen as dim as possible.

This is why I prefer the 1% setting on the frontlight on Kobo hardware over similar quality frontlights (like the one on the Onyx Boox t68 Lynx) which lack a low setting.

Just to show you how bright or dim the screens can be, here are 6 shots which compare the Aura HD and the Aura H2O. They range from full brightness down to 1%, and the Aura H2O is on the right.

In case you were wondering, the Aura H2O looks fuzzy in the last shot due to the dimmer frontlight. I can confirm first hand that it was still very readable.


kobo aura H2O screen shot homeThe Aura H2O runs the same software as Kobo’s other ereaders, and it’s pretty good (if not for the ads). Wake it up for the first time and you’ll see the home screen, with a task bar and search bar across the top, Library|Bookstore|Extras in the bottom left corner, and  a cluster of tiles taking up the middle.

The cluster is made up of whatever you were doing recently. As you can see in the screenshot, I’ve been reading from several books and recently added 4 titles to the library on my Aura H2O.  I’ve also been playing with the web browser, and generally been ignoring Kobo’s bookstore (the last two tiles). When it comes to letting me quickly switch between my recently used apps and recently read ebooks, this is a pretty good concept.

Of the three options at the bottom of the screen, none lead where you would expect from the name. Instead, selecting one will bring up a popup window.  The Library option lets you select to see the articles you save from Pocket, your collections, samples, or the ebooks on the device.

The Bookstore leads to the various parts of the Kobo bookstore, and the Extras option brings you the dictionary and the reading stats foofarah that I’ve never cared about. (The interesting stuff, including the web browser and games, is unfortunately buried in the settings menu.)

The Books subsection of Library menu shows all of the books on the device, and it also shows any articles you downloaded from Pocket. You can view either a list or a grid of covers, and you can elect to show all, recent, finished, or the ebooks you are currently reading. You can also sort by date, title, author, file size, or file type.

I’m by no means a regular user of Kobo’s software, but I found it easy to figure out. The layout of the menus was similar to what I saw on the Kobo Arc 7 when I reviewed it earlier this year – with one exception.

As you know, the Aura H2O is waterproof and meets the IP67 standard. In order to keep the touchscreen from responding to water droplets, there’s a checkbox in the settings menu to have it ignore the water on the screen.

It’s a good idea, but I usually left it turned off. Far too often it missed some of my clumsier page turn swipes. it also ignored my attempts to turn the page with my nose.

That might sound like a non sequitur but there are times where I am reading with one hand busy holding the device while the other is also in use: holding on to a bar in the subway, wrestling with my dog, etc. Sometimes I need to turn the page with whatever is handy, and the setting to ignore the water droplets gets in the way of that.

Reading Experience

kobo aura h2o header footerWith its large white screen and an excess of formatting and annotation options, the Aura H2O should satisfy just about any reader. I’ve been using it for a couple weeks, mostly reading my own ebooks (along with a few articles from Pocket) and I like it a lot.

There are a few points that I don’t like so much, but before I get into that area I first need to discuss the reading experience of the various formats. The Aura H2O supports a broader range of file formats than many ebook readers, including Epub, articles from Pocket, Mobi, CBR/CBZ, PDF, and I would be remiss if I didn’t report on how well the latter 4 formats were supported (especially CBR/CBZ).

Epub of course worked well; it’s Kobo’s main format and it’s supported by a couple different display engines (the ebooks bought from Kobo are displayed by one engine, while any Epub ebooks you sideload are displayed by another).

The articles I saved from the read it later service Pocket also looked okay once I fiddled with the formatting. Alas, I can’t tell you how well the other formats are displayed because while I was testing them I managed to bork my review unit.

It’s frozen on the startup screen, and even though i reset it (twice) I cannot get it to load past this screen. So let me discuss what I didn’t like about reading on the Aura H2O.

To start, I don’t like the way Kobo wastes screen real estate on the header and footer; luckily there is a simple hack which will fix this.

My next gripe has to do with the many formatting options; a reader can set the line spacing, font size, margins, and justification, and I can even adjust the font weight (making the text more bold/light). But here’s the thing: those settings are relative.  The effect they have on an ebook or an article from Pocket depends on the original CSS, and that is not ideal.

I’ve had to change the settings to read an article, and then change again when I wanted to read an ebook. And then I had to change the settings again for the other ebook I am reading right now. All this fiddling would begin to bug me if I kept using the Aura H2O long enough.

But that doesn’t matter because I don’t expect to keep the Aura H2O long or use the Aura HD either.

What I dislike the most about this design, and TBH I think this was an actual misstep on the part of Kobo, is the lack of page turn buttons. The 6.8″ screen on the Aura H2O makes one-handed operation difficult, and page turn buttons would have fixed that issue.

While some readers can manage holding the Aura H2O and turning the page with the same hand, I cannot. This is due in part to the thinness of the device, but also in part due to the progressive arthritis in my left hand. I can hold the Aura H2O, or I can turn the page, but i can’t do both at the same time with a single hand.


In spite of my issues with the Aura H2O, I still like this ereader. It has a better screen and much nicer shell than its predecessor, the Aura HD (which costs $10 less).  With the general high quality design and components, and more than adequate software, the Aura H2O easily lives up to the expectations engendered by its $180 price tag.

Other Reviews

Where to Buy


  • Screen: 6.8″ Carta E-ink screen w\Frontight and
  • IR touchscreen
  • Screen resolution: 1430 x 1080
  • CPU: 1GHz
  • RAM: 256MB
  • Storage: 4GB internal, microSD card slot
  • Format support: Epub, PDF, Mobi, CBZ/CBR, TXT, RTF, HTML
  • Weight: 233 grams
  • Dimensions: 179mm x 129 x 9.7


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