REVIEWED: Kobo Aura H2O waterproof e-reader

Reading by the pool, on the beach and in the bath just got easier, but PDF guidebooks don’t work well

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Gadgets aren’t designed for travellers. Fiddly, expensive and made from glass, phones, tablets and e-readers are made to look nice – like some futuristic slab of style – rather than something practical that travellers can depend on, and not have to worry about. But things are changing; first Sony made its Xperia line-up of phones water-resistant, then Samsung followed. Apple hasn’t cottoned-on yet, but Kobo has taken the lead by developing this totally waterproof, submersible e-reader. You can even read it underwater!

Use it in the sea!

Its ability to battle any kind of water – including most gadgets’ arch nemesis, the dreaded seawater – puts it at the top of the pile for anyone whose idea of a holiday is laying on beaches and around hotel pools. It’s not all about practicalities; as well as being waterproof, the Kobo Aura H2O has a highly customisable reading experience the Kindle doesn’t even try to match match, but can it beat Amazon’s best e-readers on pure usability?

Wave machine

It doesn’t just mean freshwater, either; dunked in bath water, or sea water, the principal is the same. The only stipulation is that you after a dunking the Kobo Aura H2O needs a shake and a wipe down (there’s a cloth in the box), though that’s to make sure the touchscreen behaves properly, not to protect the device from water. No-one really wants needs an e-reader than can be read underwater, of course, but the exceptionally practical design is about giving peace of mind to panic-stricken travellers. In our test in a sink and on the beach the Aura H2O did just fine, though dunking an e-reader in the sea did feel counter-intuitive!

Shut that door!

Crucial to the Aura H2O’s success is the flap on the bottom that hides a microUSB slot for recharging its two month battery (it recharges in minutes) and a microSD card slot that can take a 32GB card. Now that’s a lot of books.
It’s easy to scoff at that kind of needlessly high capacity, but with large PDFs just as important as tiny EPUB and MOBI files in the book world, the Aura H2O’s extra capacity over the fixed 4GB of the Kindle Voyage, for example, is worth bearing in mind.

Illuminating pixels

However, those after the very best screen possible should note that the Kindle Voyage’s 1430×1080 pixels – also on an eInk Carta display – equates to a superior 300 pixels per inch, but only because of its smaller six-inch size. The Aura H2O does have a better display than the Kindle Paperwhite, which boasts 212 pixels per inch. It’s also illuminated, with five LEDs and a brightness slider that goes really bright, though using it will eat away at the two-month long battery life.

Biggest e-reader around

At 6.8-inches, the Aura H2O’s screen is 0.8-inches bigger than any Kindle, and the bezel is noticeably raised from the screen, too. It’s a perfectly functional design, but the raised bezel does strike me as retro – especially considering the Kobo Aura’s classy edge-to-edge glass. It’s a different story on the back, where Kobo’s designers have employed a tapered design with soft ridges stretching down from the top to the bottom, as well as an irregular ridge near the top. It’s slightly odd to look at, but there’s no doubting that those ridges make it very easy to hold. Arguably the soft, matte silicon finish is just important, too.

Quick page turns

Though it’s plenty fast enough for page turns and accessing books, documents and folders, it does feel slow when using the keyboard (the screen doesn’t refresh after each keystroke, but it might as well considering the delay) and flicking thought a carousel on the Bookstore (a mis-judged idea for an E-Ink device). We also had a few problems loading PDFs, which can take about 10 seconds to turn pages, and multiple minutes to load, and even close. That’s not ideal of you have a stack of Lonely Planet PDFs.

Lacks precision

Through all of this the touchscreen works well, though you do have to be fairly precise with what you touch; miss some of the slightly-to-small icons just a millimetre off target and you’ll get nothing from the Aura H2O. I also found it slow to find a Wi-Fi network, with minute-long messages like ‘locating known networks’ whenever the thing goes on Wi-Fi.

Page count

The Aura H2O likes to tell you how much you’re reading. On the reading page is an icon of a graph that flags-up exactly how long you’ve got left to read the current chapter, and an estimation of how long it will take you to read the next chapter. This is all good, useful information, especially if you’re travelling and are reading the Aura H2O while you wait for flights/trains/buses etc, though the graph comparing the length of all the chapters in the book is overdoing it.

Tea and medals

There’s also a figure for your entire library on the percentage of books you’ve actually read, the total number of books finished and the total hours you’ve spent reading. Who cares? The Awards section is even odder, proffering various badges for ‘achievements’ like logging-in to a Kobo account, reading a really big book (Juggernaut), using the built-in dictionary (Word Up!), reading late at night (Witching Hour) and choosing to announce these meaningless accomplishments on Facebook. There are 17 awards in all. It’s all a bit strange, but harmless; all Reading Life features are kept away from the Home page.

The Bookstore

There’s only Wi-Fi on the Aura H2O, with no 3G option – unlike the Kindles, the pricer of which have free 3G downloading of books wherever you are in the world. A Bookstore tab takes you online in various ways, from looking at books on the Kobo Store related to what you’ve already downloaded to categories, reading lists and your own wish-list, which is handy for referring back to.

Customised reading

There are tons of ways of changing the font (there are 20) and line spacing of text on the page, which will please both the fussy and those with poor sight. Hidden within the Advanced tab there are two boxes, one showing your current font and the other what the font will look like as you change the font face, size and weight. The latter is particularity crucial to getting the page just how you want it. I managed to get just four lines of text on a page in a large font size of about 20, and as many as 56 lines in the smallest (virtually unreadable) font.

Read web articles

Perhaps best of all for long trips, the Aura H2O lets you link a Pocket account; while using a web browser on a laptop or desktop computer, save various web pages to Pocket, and they’ll be on your Aura H2O next time you sync it. That’s a nice touch indeed, with all articles presented as thumbnails and read like a book, though it obviously relies not only on the Aura H2O being connected to a Wi-Fi network, but on the Sync panel being pressed regularly (something that does take a couple of minutes).

Bottom line

It lacks a little power, and it’s perhaps a bit chunky. But the bottom line is this; if you want a waterproof e-reader with a really long battery, buy the Aura H2O – it’s a fantastic device for reading books, but it can’t handle PDFs.

Price as reviewed: £139.99

Buy the Kobo Aura H2O e-reader