Judging books by their covers is now more fun

Judging books by their covers is now more fun


Kobo isn’t the first on the color-ereader scene; Boox and Pocketbook have had color ereaders and tablets for years. Both of those companies make beautiful, premium devices that are highly capable and customizable — but they don’t offer the plug-and-play ereader experience of a Kindle or Kobo. Of all the ereaders I’ve tried over the past year, I’ve found Kobos do the best job of combining a user-friendly interface with quality hardware. And now that hardware has a new trick with a color screen on the Clara Colour.

It’s noteworthy that Kobo beat Kindle to the punch in getting a color ereader out the door. To be fair, Amazon is busy doing, well, everything, but it’s safe to bet that a color Kindle will be coming soon. For now, though, Kobo’s Clara Colour is the consumer-friendly color ereader to beat. A beefier processor makes it zippier than its already-fast predecessor, and the addition of color looks lovely, without detracting from the crisp and easy-to-read text. I’ll admit, I’m not an ereader diehard; I often return to my first love, print. But a few weeks with Kobo’s latest has me more excited than ever about reading on this cozy, effortless machine.

Engadget

Kobo’s Clara Colour has a beautiful build, a lovely color screen and a helpful and speedy operating system. It’s the color ereader to beat right now…until we see what Amazon does.

Pros

  • Faster processor makes menus load quickly
  • Color screen makes book covers pop
  • Excellent iIntegration with local libraries
  • OS makes it easy to find books and customize settings
  • Allows access to third-party ePub books
Cons

  • Screen isn’t as sharp or bright as the previous generation
  • Kobo’s library isn’t as large as Amazon’s

$150 at Rakuten Kobo

Most e-paper devices rely on a display made by E Ink. The Clara Colour uses the company’s new Kaleido 3 panel, which adds a printed Color Filter Array (CFA) layer on top of the existing black-and-white microcapsule layer. The color layer can display around 4,000 colors, with a resolution of 150 dpi. To be clear, a full color page on the Clara Colour looks nothing like what you’d get from the most basic LED screen. E-paper colors are muted and saturated, reminiscent of ‘70s comic book covers. But, also unlike LED, E Ink color panels actually look better under bright light.

The Kobo Clara Colour and the Kobo Clara 2E sit side by side.

Comparing the two generations at the same settings. Kobo Clara Colour (left) is warmer and slightly dimmer at 100% than the Kobo Clara 2E (right). (Photo by Amy Skorheim / Engadget)

The monochrome microcapsule layer creates sharp, 300 dpi text, same as the previous generation. But set side-by-side with the Clara 2E, the Clara Colour’s page does look less sharp. Get close to the screen and you’ll notice noise in the white parts of the page. The warm front light is more amber, too. That’s the nature of the color filter array: since it’s always there, any text you read is filtered through that layer. I have to stress that it’s only something I noticed because I’m writing this review and digging deep into the performance as compared to the previous generation. When it comes to actually reading, I found I preferred the softer, warmer effect of the Colour. It reminds me of the pulpy mass-market Stephen King and Anne Rice paperbacks I grew up reading.

Kobo’s customization options aren’t overly involved, but they grant enough control so you can change things like the typeface, font size, line spacing and margin width, as well as brightness and light warmth. On the outside, the Kobo Clara 2E and the Clara Colour look nearly identical. The screen is slightly more recessed on the Colour model and the soft-touch plastic is more textured, which is actually a benefit because it shows fewer fingerprints. The centimeter-wide bezels are just big enough for your thumb, which, along with the textured back, makes the reader easy to hold from different positions. It’s small enough I can grip it around the back, but I have larger hands, so that might not work for everyone.

With an IPX8 rating, the Clara Colour can handle full submersion in water. I haven’t gone that far with this review unit, but I did survive when I accidentally splashed water on it when washing my hands in the bathroom. Why was it in the bathroom? Because I stash my book near the toilet so I don’t sit there and stare at my phone. It’s the tactic that got me reading again after I had a kid and was temporarily convinced I’d never finish another book. I heartily recommend it, particularly with a reading device like this one that can handle the watery environment of a restroom.

The Kobo Clara Colour and a trade paperback display the same page of a book.

Photo by Amy Skorheim / Engadget

The Clara Colour’s new chip makes loading menus, performing searches and flipping pages a touch faster than with the previous generation. The speed increase doesn’t amount to a drastically different experience, but quicker page turns keep the action going. Like if Murderbot is protecting its humans from HostileSecUnit1 and suddenly there’s another SecUnit at the bottom of the page, you need to know as fast as technologically possible what goes down next. Browsing for a new book and checking out previews is speedier, too, something I appreciate when everything on my dutifully curated TBR list looks like broccoli and I want ice cream.

The UX is the same as all Kobos that don’t support stylus input, with just four options along a bottom menu bar: Home, My Books, Discover and More. Discover takes you to the Kobo store, where you can look for ebooks, audiobooks and titles from KoboPlus, the company’s monthly subscription for unlimited access to a selection of books (aka Kobo’s answer to Amazon Unlimited).

Discover’s recommendation section has a running list of titles called Just for You and, under Related Reads, suggests books you might like based on works you’ve finished. The connective threads between the titles isn’t anything surprising, but they offer a good place to start if you’re noodling on what to read next.

The Kobo Clara Colour sits on concrete in full sun.

Photo by Amy Skorheim / Engadget

Kobo’s deep integration with OverDrive lets you borrow any title your local library has available with just a few seconds of setup and a library card. Clicking the three dots near the Buy button on any book brings up the option to borrow (or place a hold on) the ebook from your library. I admire how deeply Kobo supports the feature, placing something free and public on par with paid books and subscriptions.

Other features are nice to have, like gathering your Pocket articles from the web so you can read them later in the more focused environment of your Kobo. There’s also a beta web browser that I used to look up the Wikipedia entry on the Mason-Dixon line when I read Percival Everett’s James and the one for rook (the bird) when reading Tana French’s The Hunter. The browser’s not equipped for heavy surfing, but that’s a good thing. The extra effort it takes to browse keeps me on target with my reading. At the same time, I’m happy to dig up a little background info without picking up my phone, where the distractions are plentiful and compulsive.

There’s no escaping the fact that a Kobo ereader is not a Kindle. But the advantages Kindle has over Kobo are mostly in the availability of titles, not in hardware. The Kobo Clara Colour is most directly comparable to the standard Kindle. They have the same basic shape, the same size screen with 300 dpi text and 16GB of storage. But the Kindle is $50 cheaper.

However! Amazon’s device will serve you ads on the lockscreen and it costs $20 extra to remove them. It’s also not waterproof and has no warm light. No Kindle has a color display yet, but there are plenty of rumors suggesting that move is (pretty obviously) on the horizon. For now, though, color is another point in Kobo’s favor.

That said, if you’ve spent the past decade amassing a small library on Amazon, you won’t be able to access it on a Kobo without some major, quasi-unlawful finagling. I only have a few Kindle titles from my past, so starting over with Kobo didn’t feel like a loss.

Amazon’s ebook store is larger than Kobo’s, boosted by Kindle Direct Publishing exclusives and self-published books. Kobo has its own self-publishing program, but it’s far smaller. That said, every in-print book from a major publisher will show up in both the Kindle and the Kobo store. Every title I’ve searched for in the Kobo store was readily available.

The Kobo Clara Colour is propped up on a shelf with decorative doodads nearby. The device displays the cover of a fantasy novel.

Photo by Amy Skorheim / Engadget

Amazon’s subscription program, Kindle Unlimited, is bigger too, with four million combined audio- and ebook titles available. Comparatively, Kobo Plus currently claims 1.5 million ebooks and 150,000 audiobooks. Kobo’s plan is a tad cheaper at $10 per month to both read and listen, or $8 for ebooks only. Kindle Unlimited is $12 monthly and gives you access to both formats. Neither subscription includes bestselling titles from major authors, but there’s still plenty to choose from.

However, Kobo’s ebook access does outmatch Kindle’s in two ways: the ability to shop third-party outlets and an easier OverDrive experience. Amazon uses its own digital rights management (DRM) technology, whereas most everyone else relies on Adobe’s DRM. That means if you buy a book from most major publishers on a third-party site (like ebooks.com or Google Books), you won’t be able to read the ePub file on your Kindle. There are a few extra steps for reading those titles on a Kobo, but it’s easy enough. As for OverDrive, reading public library books on a Kindle isn’t hard, but you have to first go to OverDrive’s or your library’s site, find your book and select “read on Kindle” as the delivery option. With a Kobo, you click the three dots next to Buy, select Borrow and start reading seconds later on the same device.

The big question is whether the addition of color makes the Kobo Clara Colour better and worth the $10 over the previous generation. The faster processor alone makes up for the price hike and the waterproof build, warm front lights and lack of ads makes for a more premium ereader that justifies the $50 price disparity between the Clara Colour and the basic Kindle.

As for the color screen, it doesn’t make much difference when you’re reading a typical ebook. And the extra layer does add some noise to the whitespace and gives everything a warmer glow. But I didn’t mind the minute drop in clarity and actually preferred the softer, cozier appearance of the page. Colors look lovely on the book covers in my collection and recommended titles draw me to them with their muted blues and washed out reds.

You’ve probably heard of that trick where you switch your phone’s screen to grayscale to reduce its appeal. It seems to actually work, so I have to imagine the opposite is true, too. Anything that makes reading material more attractive — and better able to compete with the technicolor onslaught of digital distraction — is a win in my book.



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