Kobo’s Clara HD is the company’s best e-reader yet

Kobo Clara HD on table

E-readers. They’re so 2012, right?

Well don’t tell Kobo that — or more precisely, Rakuten Kobo — it’s been fiercely competing with Amazon in the e-reading space since 2009 and isn’t showing any signs of stopping. In fact, the two companies are essentially all that’s left in a category that was once seen as the death-knell for traditional book publishing.

Today, e-reading happens on smartphones, tablets, and laptops, leaving a lot of e-book fans wondering why they’d ever want a single-purpose, monochrome e-ink e-reader.

Kobo Clara

And yet, an e-reader’s advantages remain the same: A screen that is even easier to read in full sunlight than indoors, a battery that lasts weeks — not days, and a distraction-free interface that still gives you all the benefits of being connected to the web. If that sounds like your kind of device, it’s time to take another look at e-readers, and I suggest starting with the new Kobo Clara HD.

The $140 CAD Clara HD is squarely aimed at Kindle Paperwhite buyers. The two products are the same size (6-inches), and have the same state-of-the-art 300 PPI e-ink display. They both have built-in front lights for night time reading, and they both connect over Wi-Fi to their respective e-book storefronts, and the web. But Kobo has sweetened the deal for its customers, with some features that put the Clara HD out front — for now.

With 8GB of onboard storage, it has more than twice the space for books and magazines as the Kindle Paperwhite, as well as its cousin, the 4GB $130 CAD Kobo Aura 2. At 166g, the Clara is significantly lighter than the 205g Paperwhite, and is only 5g heavier than the regular Kindle — the lightest e-reader on the market. Its all-plastic body won’t win any design awards, but it’s comfortable to hold one-handed, and its textured back panel should help a bit with grip.

Kobo Clara HD Rear

The Clara’s front light, which Kobo calls ComfortLight PRO, can adjust its hue automatically for night time reading, by eliminating blue light from its spectrum. Tablets like the iPad have had this feature for a while, and given the increasing research demonstrating the importance of reducing blue light before sleep, all reading devices should have it.

The resulting warm orange-tinted glow is relaxing, without compromising readability. You can set the times of day for it to come on, or turn it off entirely if it’s not to your liking.

But the big selling feature for e-book lovers is the Clara HD’s built-in support for Overdrive library e-book borrowing. Once signed into your Overdrive account, you can access any previously borrowed (and unexpired) books, and browse and borrow new ones from your local library.

Kobo Clara HD

Kobo has always been ahead of Amazon when it comes to library lending. Kobo has supported books borrowed through Overdrive for years. Amazon only recently added this feature to Kindles in the US, but amazingly, Amazon’s Canadian customers have been left on the sidelines.

In the past, Kobo users have had to sideload their Overdrive books from their computers — a clunky and awkward process that involved cables and multiple steps. With Overdrive onboard, accessing library books is as easy as buying them. It’s about time. Kobo has added Overdrive borrowing to Kobo Aura ONE, Kobo Aura H2O Ed.2, and Kobo Aura Ed.2, and the feature should work in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

Using the Clara HD will be familiar to just about anyone who uses a touchscreen device for reading. Taps on the left and right sides of the screen will turn pages backward or forward (you can choose to swipe instead if you prefer) and a tap at the top of the screen will bring up book navigation as well as access to brightness controls and the main menu.

Long-pressing on words brings up a dictionary definition, as well as the option to search for more info on Wikipedia and Google. This is an improvement over the Kindle’s lookup mode, which doesn’t offer you a Google search.

When it comes to font choices, the Kindle and Kobo are fairly well matched, with a decent set of both serif and sans-serif fonts to choose from. The Clara HD’s font control is more advanced, however, with the ability to adjust size, and weight, whereas the Kindle can only control size.

Kobo Clara HD

You can also adjust line spacing and margins, something that the Kindle adjusts automatically based on font size, and it can’t be manually changed. In our opinion, the Clara’s font selection more closely approximates that of a printed page. In the past, with e-ink resolutions that weren’t as high, these fonts suffered from a lack of detail. But with 300 PPI — the same resolution as a standard laser-printed page — these fonts can now be appreciated fully.

There’s still one area where Amazon’s Kindle remains unique: You can upload any personal document, be it a Word doc, PDF, MOBI book file, or other compatible file types, directly to your Kindle via email. Once stored in Amazon’s servers, it will sync across your devices just like any other e-book. For folks who read a lot of non-purchased or borrowed documents (like scientific journals, or white papers), this is a very convenient feature. I’m a bit surprised that Kobo has failed so far to create a similar experience.

All things considered, the Kobo Clara HD is now the best value in an e-reader, combining really useful features like its adaptive front light, and baked-in Overdrive support, with a price tag that should make Kindle buyers think twice before getting a Paperwhite. If a new e-reader is in your future, the Clara HD is definitely worth a look.