Kobo Aura H20 review: a fully waterproof e-reader with a HD screen - can it match the Kindle?

Kobo's Aura H20 is fantastically designed and its party-trick is flawless - but it doesn't have the Kindle's fantastic ebook store, 3G connection or low prices

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The Independent Tech

I have to admit, the first time I dropped the Kobo Aura H2O into a sink full of water I was a tad nervous. ‘Gadgets + water = bad times’ has been a hard and fast rule for me longer than a decade but this e-reader’s party trick to flout convention. Read it in the bath, read it on the beach, they say – it doesn’t matter.

And, well, it doesn’t. (It’d be a pretty lousy marketing ploy if it did). The H20 – the latest e-reader from Japanese-owned Kobo – is fully waterproof. You can immerse it at depths of up to a metre and simply shake off the water and it’s ready to go again. But is that enough to stop it from being another also-ran that failed to take down Amazon’s all-conquering Kindle?

Like the Kindle Paperwhite it’s made from a comfortable matte-black, rubbery material. The edges and bottom bezel get greasy pretty easy but they’re easy to clean (especially thanks to the waterproofing). It’s also go a unique asymmetrical design with a diagonally slanted back that makes the whole thing feel a little bit more business-like. It’s also a bit heavier than other flagship e-readers, but really, all these devices are as light as they need to be – and certainly less of a strain on the hand than hardback heavyweights such as The Luminaries or Piketty’s Capital.

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The back of the Aura H2O is wider than most e-readers, but pleasingly asymmetrical.

The H20’s increased sized is also there for a good reason: it’s high-def, 1430 x 1080 screen. Now, I have to admit that I love e-ink screens in general (they’re crisp, long life and the technology behind them is just super neat) but the H20’s is the best I’ve seen. The pixel density is greater than any of Amazon’s offerings and fonts felt sharper. Even the backlighting seemed to be smoother and more even than the Paperwhite’s (although this is sort of thing you only really notice if you’re paying attention).

In terms of software Kobo have gone for a clean, slightly austere look. There’s links to your downloaded books, the online bookstore and a number of extras (including reading stats and a serviceable chess game) but things aren’t well ordered. It’s easy enough to pick up whatever you were last reading, but everything else always seems to be a click and half away – never right under your fingertips. There’s also all the usual e-reader ‘extra functionality’ – bookmarks and annotations and the like – but as ever this seems little better than a distraction. No matter how fast e-ink screens refresh they’re never going to be quick enough to make taking notes or annotating a text anything less than a frustrating experience.

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Side by side with the Kindle Paperwhite (right), and H2O looks a little chunky.

Unfortunately for Kobo, the same can be said of their online store - and it’s here that Amazon really blows them out the water. Books on the Kindle are cheaper, easier to download and more plentiful. The H20 is also Wi-Fi only, which means you won’t be able to buy books on the move so easily. It’s not like it’s lacking in titles (and as ever you can get access to mind-blowing selection of out-of-copyright classics) but most  titles seem to be at least  a couple of pounds cheaper from Amazon and you can’t scratch that I-want-to-read-the-next-one-now-right-now itch you might get midway through a thriller series if you’re miles from your house.

The Aura H20 is also pretty pricey. It costs £140 in the UK, which is a few bob more than the Wi-Fi only Paperwhite (£109) but less than the forthcoming Kindle Voyage (£169 for Wi-Fi only or £229 for a download-anywhere 3G connection).  The Voyage is also said to have an even more impressive screen than the H20 – though we’ll have to wait and see till we get our hands on it ourselves.

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The little rubbery flap that hides the USB connector and keeps the device waterproof.

So: the H20 feels a little bit more businesslike and it’s certainly unique in that you can take it pretty much anywhere without fearing spillages or dunkings (hey, you could even tile a roof with it if you were crazy and hated spending your money on sensible things or food). But the store is still a bit of a let-down and the lack of 3G might be a problem for some. Still, it’s done more than enough to merit consideration in a market that has previously seemed dominated by Amazon and Amazon alone.    

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