The aftermarket-treated Waterproof Kindle is just about perfect: an already fantastic e-reader with the added bonus of being built like a rock. But all that comes with one hell of a price tag—$240, specifically. The new, waterproof $180 Kobo Aura H2O, though, promises to deliver on all those points for a fraction of the cost.
It's a commendable effort, but unfortunately for Kobo, the Kindle will be keeping its crown for the time being.
What Is It?
The updated iteration of last year's Kobo Aura HD and the same beautifully unnecessary, 6.8-inch screen that comes with it, but this time, it's waterproof up to about a meter of water and for thirty minutes. In other words, no casual reading breaks mid-scuba. But assuming you avoid the dark, watery depths and keep it to the occasional splash, you should be alright. Other than that, you get about 4GB of onboard storage (with additional storage in the form of a microSD slot) and a battery life of up to 2 months. Not bad.
Why Does It Matter?
It's the first waterproof e-reader actually issued by a mainstream company (read: made waterproof in production, not after the fact).
Matte-black and rubbery (just like the Paperwhite before it) the Kobo Aura H2O doesn't suffer from the same stiff, hard-to-press-button syndrome you might get with other, post-treated waterproof e-readers (namely the Waterfi-treated Paperwhite). The back of the device comes with an odd, asymmetric bump that's become indicative of Kobo; although this time, the soft-touch coating makes the surprisingly light device much less of a pain to hold. Although with my tiny hands, there was no way I'd be walking around with this thing in a one-handed clutch like I might with a Paperwhite. Kobo's extra screen space puts it firmly in double fisting territory.
Also like the Kindle, the H2O is front-lit (lighting the display from the front as opposed to the back means less eye-strain during long bouts of reading), but while the Kindle comes bearing a ever-so-slight bluish tint, the Kobo does seem damn near pure white—or at least as close are you're going to get.
Kobo Aura H2O on the left, Kindle Paperwhite 2 on the right.
As beautiful as the Aura HD's screen one, the H2O manages to step it up. In terms of light distribution, there's quite a bit less gray patching near the bottom of the screen, and that lovely, LED glow sits virtually even from corner-to-corner—an impressive feat in front-lit world.
And with a resolution of 1430x1080 at 265 dpi, text looks virtually flawless. Which is great, but it's also important to note that this is just text we're talking about. Pristine resolution seems wholly unnecessary where e-readers are concerned. You're not trying to achieve perfect image reproduction—you just want to be able to read the damn words on the page. And you don't need imperceptible pixels to do that.
If your work or school requires you to read a lot of PDFs, be forewarned—the Kobo is going to get annoying. Fast. Unlike the Paperwhite, which will resize PDFs almost immediately, the Kobo's don't automatically optimize. Meaning that for pretty much every PDF you open, you're going to have to spend some time manually resizing before you can read.
But not all of its differences are a bad thing. Unlike the Kindle, Kobo opens up to something that actually feels like a home screen—or at the very least, like a vague e-ink translation of Windows tiles. From there, you can look through your library, your current book, the top 50 bestsellers, and check out new releases.
All of which makes the home screen quite a bit more functional than Kindle's main screen/library, sure, but no one really buys an e-reader for much more than simply reading. Meaning, if you're using your e-reader for reading and reading alone (which is probably most of you), this doesn't really matter. Still, if you are looking for something more labor intensive that stays in the e-ink realm, not having to pour through sub-menus does cut down on some frustrating clicking and load-times.
When the screen detects water, a little (and almost entirely unnecessary) pop up will let you know that, yes, the tablet you just sent into the pool has water on it. Thanks. Fortunately, you can turn this little addition off in settings.
The Kobo does do something Waterfi's Kindle cannot, though: It can (mostly) function underwater. The lack of a capacitive touch means that water doesn't interfere with the Kobo's screen, whereas a submerged Kindle basically becomes frozen in time. Leave it down there for more than a few minutes, and things get a little dicey (read: banging repeatedly on the screen to turn a single page), but hey, it's better than nothing. Both readers do just fine with a few splashes on the screen, of course, but being able to survive—not to mention function, if even for just a few minutes—underwater is a nice little feature that could come in handy should your bath time soak turn into more of a dive.
Still, even though the thing technically worked underwater, once we let it soak for a good ten minutes, it took a trouble amount of time for the device to starting responding at its pre-soak speeds again. For about five minutes after the fact, no matter what we hit, the device shuffled between slow loading and freezing entirely. And hitting any button at all took quite a bit of force. Once the H2O dried off, it was working again like new, but this is clearly not something built for total submersion.
Like most similarly front-lit e-readers, reading outdoors isn't a problem at all. You can turn up the brightness, and it may as well be a paper book in your hands as far as visibility is concerned. And while the Kobo's screen is a bit bigger than the Paperwhite's, coming in at 6.8 inches as opposed to the Paperwhite's meager 6, a lot of the space is taken up by largely useless margins. Unlike the Kindle, the author and title at the top and bottom of the page don't autohide on the H2O, so in terms of strict text, the Paperwhite and Kobo H2O are actually fairly comparable.
The Kobo store, though, is where it really takes a major hit. Amazon's Kindle store not only has a more plentiful bounty, it's far easier to use, too. Amazon's signature "one-click" function makes buying a book a wildly painless experience—and one that's almost always going to be cheaper than Kobo's, to boot. And while buying a book in the Kobo store isn't excessively time consuming by any means, those few extra clicks are just enough to grate on your nerves.
Plus, the H2O is Wi-Fi only, meaning that if you're anywhere that you can't get a Wi-Fi connection, you're stuck with what you've got. Of course, if you want to spring for a the Waterfi Kindle with 3G, you're going to be tacking on another $80, bumping your total cost to a whopping $240. Which could be worth it, depending on how likely you think you are to want to download books on-the-go—otherwise, Wi-Fi should suit you just fine.
The screen, naturally. It's beautiful! Is it pointless to have a screen that pretty just to look at text? Almost definitely. But hey, it's nice if you've got it.
The keyboard. It's nitpicky, certainly, but the Kobo keyboard isn't staggered in the way your laptop's keyboard is or even a Paperwhite's. Are you going to be using it a lot? Almost definitely not. But when you do, the perfectly aligned, stacked keys are just off-putting enough to be noticeable.
Also, because it's made for use in water, capacitive touch on the Kobo's screen is a big no-no. In other words, no pinch to zoom. Which isn't a huge deal, but it also means you can't highlight large swaths of text like you can with a Kindle, which also lets you translate these large chunks into pretty much every language. The Kobo, on the other hand, only lets you translate one word at a time and without offering any sort of dictionary look-up function.
Should you buy it?
Retailing for about $190, the Kobo H2O is unquestionably pricey by e-reader standards. Still, it is a whole $50 cheaper than our favorite waterproof, Wi-Fi-only e-reader option, the Waterfi-treated Kindle Paperwhite. And that's on top of actually being able to use the H2O's screen underwater, with Paperwhite's capacitive touch, once under the surface, you're effectively screwed.
However, if you're someone who buys a lot of books, it might not take you all that long to make up the price difference thanks to Amazon's notably cheap offerings. All-in-all, if you really need a waterproof e-reader to fulfill your pool/boating/baby-slobbering needs, Kobo's positively beautiful screen just isn't quite worth the awkwardness that comes with it. Especially if you're already an Amazon Prime customer and/or have hands that tend towards tiny (you won't be holding the H2O with one hand by any means).
Sorry, Kobo. You made a beautiful thing. It's just too bad no one needs it.