Bounded in a Nutshell

Kobo Aura


The Kobo ereader has been available in various models since 2010. I was an early adopter of ebooks for professional reasons (ebooks can be delivered as fast as email and nobody steals them from my mailbox) but until I got a Kobo for my [mumble] birthday, I used a laptop instead of a dedicated ereader. My Kobo Aura is the second Kobo I’ve owned. While I have one or two reservations about the device, I would recommend it.

Mind you, how I use it may be different from the sanctioned uses the manufacturer envisioned.

The device itself

My Kobo Aura is roughly the size and weight of a thin paperback. It fits nicely into jeans pockets (I should note that I am paranoid enough about accidentally damaging it that I usually keep it in my book bag). Like the Model T, the protective case comes in black, black, and black. So far it has proven more durable than I am clumsy.

The screen uses e-inki. Both font and point size are easily adjusted (which my aging eye really appreciates). The images are black and white only, although I think there is a colour model available. Unlike my first Kobo, which had a page advance buttonii, the Aura has a touch screen and the page refresh rate is fast enough that it is not a significant drag on my reading speed. I have never had eyestrain reading my Kobo, which is not true for either my laptop or my phone. There is an integral back-of-the-screen light so the device can be used in the dark, at the cost of reduced battery life.

Speaking of battery life, the company claims two months of battery life, but only if used a mere thirty minutes a day. That’s a detail that reveals something to which I will return later: various aspects of the Kobo suggest that non-readers had way too much input into its design. I read many hours a day, so I have to recharge my reader more frequently (although not so frequently I can put a number on it.). Still, it has never run out of charge at an inopportune momentiii.

[Editor’s note: I now read on my smartphone (a cheapo Nexus5X). That seems to run down the battery FAST. I have to recharge it every day. Sometimes several times a day. I cope, but others may not want to do so. In which case an e-ink ereader or a higher-end smartphone might be preferable.]

It has 4 GB of on-board memory, with a port for a 32 GB micro-SD card. How many books that translates into really depends on the size of the files in question. More on that later. It’s a minimum of thousands, which is to say many cases of books.

The Kobo’s preferred file type is epub. You can load PDF onto it but the experience of reading PDFs on a Kobo is agonizing. My Aura got very, very unhappy the one time I loaded a mobi file onto it by accident; it froze and I thought for a while it had died. Avoid mobi files. They are the enemy, at least as far as the Kobo is concerned.

The device’s search function is easy to use and works well (although the default setting will take you to the bookstore and not the device’s memory). The Kobo offers several ways to sort files: you can organize by author, by title, by unread, by finished and so on. That’s nice but there’s one crucial feature missing. The old Kobos were set up so you could head to a specific letter of the alphabet to start searching. The current system forces readers to begin at A, frustrating if all you remember about the book is the title began with, oh, N. This detail is another reason I think the people who had final say on design were not themselves readers, because crappy indexing only makes sense if you assume the ereader won’t have very many books loaded onto it.

There is a search engine. It’s quite eager to send you to the company store via the Kobo’s WiFi (this can be foiled by turning the WiFi off, which also extends battery life.). Which brings us to the next section.

Using the device

Kobo, Inc. (whose majority owner is Canadian bookstore behemoth Chapters-Indigo) has its own online bookstore. I would imagine that’s where the company would prefer customers to acquire their books, but to their credit they have not tried to make it impossible for users to venture outside their walled garden. There are a number of reasons that I generally don’t turn to Kobo’s store. (Are you listening, Kobo?)

Their bookstore search engine is by far the worst bookstore search engine I have ever encountered more than once. Looking for a book, even one that I know for a fact is sold by Kobo, is always a pain in the @$$. I often end by rage-quitting the store. It baffles me that a bookstore would make it so hard to find and buy books. Again, the only explanation that makes sense to me is that the people calling the shots have never used that search engine to look for books, because they don’t read.

Readers can also look for compatible ebooks at the Chapters-Indigo website. Its search engine isn’t half as dysfunctional as the Kobo, Inc engine is. Another alternative is to explore Overdrive and other library-affiliated ebook sources; those books can be sideloaded from the library to your laptop or desktop PC, and thence to your Kobo. Overdrive library ebooks will be DRMed, with a timer that removes the book after the borrowing time runs out.

You can also sideload from sources such NetGalley.

I tend to view both Kobo and Chapters-Indigo as sources of last resort, because their epubs are DRMed. Also: as a grudgingly tolerated book reviewer, I am sent more books by hopeful publishers than I can possibly ever review. Also: I worry that Kobo might someday do to one of my books what Kindle did to 1984. It’s not that I am a paranoid control freak, but I do prefer to have my ebooks on devices I own and control and I prefer file transfers to happen in ways I understand and control.

Which gets us to a wonderful little program called Calibre E-book Manager. Calibre lives on my laptop. Every DRM-free ebook I get ends up being loaded into Calibre. Calibre is a user-friendly program that lets me upload metadata, fiddle with cover art (I am inexplicably fussy about cover art on e-editions of older books), and convert other file formats to epub before loading them onto my device. I’ve been using it for six years and am very happy with it.

At least now I am. In the six years after I first downloaded Calibre, it never occurred to me to change any of the default settings. Which meant that it was a major chore to look for a particular book in my collection. Then I discovered cover grid and cover browser. The first presents the user with a grid of cover images, while the second will let the user flip through the covers as through they were steps in a stairway up one’s own Mount Tsundoku.

Backup is a potential issue: my books go from source to laptop through Calibre to my Kobo. That’s fine as long as nothing happens to both devices simultaneously. Prudent users will want to consider some form of off-site backupiv.

On its own, Kobo is a useful little device. In combination with Calibre, I find it invaluable. I’ve been very pleased with my Kobos and will stick with the brand for as long as it takes the company to succumb to the James-likes-it-so-it-will-die cursev.

Kobos are available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Feel free to comment here.

iI have heard (but not personally experienced) that it’s possible to kill Kobos (and Kindles) by tucking them into an external, uninsulated pocket in deep winter. I think the magic temperature is -20o C.

iiWhich took almost exactly one million clicks to break. I was pretty sure the page advance button would be the first thing to go, but I was impressed at how long it took.

iiiWhich my previous Kobo did in Hawai‘i. I don’t know what it was in the environment at the tiptop of Mauna Kea that ran the battery down so quickly, but I do know that my Kobo discharged faster than normal after I went up to the observatory.

ivKobo, Smashwords, and other booksellers remember what you’ve downloaded and let you download it again. That’s a backup of sorts, but you might want something under your own control.

vI also own a BlackBerry smartphone. For reading ebooks, I like my Kobo better.

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