This is a bit different than my other reviews, because this time I’m focusing on more than just a piece of simple equipment. Once you start adding bits and bytes, platforms and “software ecosystems”, you seem to leave behind the cut-and-dried world of “does it work”. Or do you?
First – I’ll give you a quick run-down of the actual devices. Then I will explain the broader picture – but I’ve put the parts most important to me last to avoid boring folks who don’t share my views.
- 6″ e-ink touchscreen, 758 x 1024, 212 DPI
- Holds thousands of books and lighter than a paperback (2GB/4GB depending on version, 212g)
- Battery lasts weeks, not hours
- Download books in less than 60 seconds with built-in Wi-Fi
- Cover is an extra $40, power adapter an extra $18
- Waterproof and Sandproof. IP67 certified for 1 meter submersion for 30 minutes
- 6.8” front-lit e-ink touchscreen, 1430 x 1080 resolution, 265 DPI
- 179 x 129 x 9.7 mm, 233g
- 4 GB on-board memory, holds up to 3,000 eBooks. Option to expand up to 32 GB with a microSD card
- 15 file formats supported, including ePUB and ePUB3. Read eBooks borrowed from Public Library
- Up to 2 months battery
- English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Brazilian, Portuguese, Japanese
- Cover is an extra $40, power adapter included
- 6″ e-ink touchscreen, 758 x 1024, 212 DPI
- Holds up to 2,000 books (4GB)
- 165 x 127 x 10.68mm, 175.7g
- Battery lasts up to 8 weeks on a single charge
- Cover is an extra $20, power adapter included
This review will be quite thorough, and cover these sections: Outdoor Readability, Build, Comfort, Usability, Value, Selection. This has been conducted by 3 different people over the last 6 months in conditions ranging from daily use to multi-week trips. Some of these devices didn’t even survive the full testing, so I had to generalize in some cases. More on that soon.
On to the Review!
First: Outdoor Readability
If you can’t read it outdoors, you might just as well take a book.
All 3 devices boast about outdoor readability compared to a regular active display (in this case a Samsung Galaxy Tab S). In overcast conditions this is certainly true, but in sunny weather, there are definitely some differences. The Galaxy Tab S is clearly unreadable, even with a specialized outdoor case. It’s actually worse without the case. These images have only been manipulated for sizing/exif, so you can zoom in to get a good feel for relative contrast and sharpness.
All 3 e-readers can honestly say they are much better than a normal tablet, and all 3 are pretty clear. I find that the Kindle (either version) has some slight artifacts compared to the other two devices.
Outdoor Readability Winner: Tie
This one is a 3-way tie. You really can’t go wrong with any of these e-readers outdoors.
Build quality is everyone’s favorite place to nitpick, and be subjective. Not this time.
There’s really no comparing these 3 devices on build quality. It’s actually pretty clear that there are two classes of device, regardless of price. The Nook and Kindle are nearly identical in build and hardware despite the Kindle being $40 more. The Kobo H2O is in a league of its own, as it should be for being $80 more than the Nook and $40 more than the Kindle.
All 3 devices are plastic and have e-ink touchscreens. All 3 have illuminated screens for night time use. All 3 have wi-fi, and micro-USB connections. On top of this, the Kobo has fully certified water and dust protection, nearly an inch more screen, higher dots per inch, higher resolution, a microSD slot for 64GB of additional books, support for more languages, and 2 months of battery life. That’s just the differences on paper. Once you get off the specs and into the real world, the differences become enormous.
Kobo and Nook side by side:
Kobo and Kindle side by side:
Kindle and Nook side by side:
We conducted over 6 months of book testing with these devices, and the results were staggering. There are definitely glare and odd shadow issues with the Kindle and Nook e-ink displays, and they have fairly uneven lighting. This creates “zones” that are brighter than others, almost like a cheap watch. The Kobo and Nook both lived up to their claims on battery life – averaging 7-8 weeks of actual reading depending on screenlight use. That’s with wi-fi off, screen illumination as needed over multiple charge cycles. The Kindle Paperwhite never once lasted longer than 2 weeks even with light and wifi off. The Kindle never really powers off, unlike the other two devices. It just stays on and runs itself down even while “sleeping”. The impact of this is really noticeable. The Kindle non-paperwhite we replaced it with lived up to 3 weeks, though of course it has no screen light. Both the Nook Glowlight and the Kindle Paperwhite had device failures during the 6 months of testing and were replaced.
That’s pretty objective in my book.
Build Winner: Kobo Aura H2O!
What good is an extra $40 in your pocket if your reader is out of power or just can’t hold up to the use? We had to replace both the Kindle and Nook during this testing period, and we weren’t even trying to be hard on them. Plus, the screen is noticeably better, bigger, and sharper, without having a much larger device.
Screen quality, reading quality, illumination, portability. How comfortable and easy is it to stare at this device for hours on end while reading?
For comfort points, I found the soft rubbery edges on the Nook Glowlight to be very comfortable. Once it had a case on it (required to survive the rigors of a backpack), they all evened out for me. The higher contrast and resolution on the Kobo combined with the better daylight performance and a very even illumination really made a difference on my eyes. I often switched between devices depending on which vendor had a book I wanted to read (more on that later), so I would be reading late into the evening on a Kindle one night, then a Kobo the next, then a Nook the next day. All 3 screens are vastly superior to the screen of my tablet for long use. Even when I had the color scheme set to inverted. The only place a tablet really surpassed them was the ability to access all the bookstores at once. Well, and color, obviously.
For me, the Kobo edges ahead slightly here due to the screen, but here’s another tester’s experiences:
“I do prefer the feel and sharpness of text for the Kobo ahead of both kindle and nook. I have owned my nook for a looong time, and would swear by it, but the kobo just slightly delivers a better reading experience. I would rather not discuss the kindle, as it is less than note-worthy, and would probably involve a four letter word. It’s uncomfortable, badly designed, and at best on par with a nook”
Comfort Winner: Kobo Aura H2O!
It’s really just that much more comfortable on the eyes. Even if you play with the settings menus on the other devices, you can’t make up for the difference. To me, it’s the difference between newsprint and laserprint. It’s really that big.
What is this e-reader like to live with in the real world?
This one is the easiest for me, because I spend so much time on the trail. I’m with my e-reader nearly every day, and I swapped out on occasion to test different brands to see what suited me best.
All 3 are light and easy to pack, powered by micro USB, and work well far from the constraints of the big city. Only the Nook and the Kobo were able to read my substantial library of ePubs and PDFs properly, however. I have collected thousands of Public Domain books over the years, as well as a number of DRM-free comics in PDF format. With the Kindle, it is remotely possible to go through some steps to side-load content onto your device, but it does a terrible job of working with it. This means you’re basically locked into the Amazon Kindle store which is precisely what Amazon wants. It also does weird things if it can’t update the ads on schedule. You get odd little messages, the banners misbehave, and the device goes through power suspiciously fast when its far from the paved world.
The Kobo was the easiest to load my 12GB book library onto. I simply copied my books from Calibre and my tablet onto a microSD card and plugged it in. A few minutes later it was fully loaded and ready to go. The Nook Glowlight was a bit more involved – I had to plug it directly into a PC to copy books across, and they’re placed in a sort of My Documents DMZ. Usable, but I wasn’t able to download new books from my phone and onto the Nook in the field. I tended to prefer the old Nook Simple Touch, which has a microSD slot.
If you are already invested in ebooks, you definitely want to avoid the Kindle. It’s locked into such an abusive relationship with the Amazon store that it makes Apple products look free and easy.
These two are pretty much identical in overall ease of use. Really, nothing was as complicated to put my books on as a Kindle, and nothing was as difficult to work with, as prone to crashing, or as short of battery.
What are you really getting for all that money?
This one is a bit subjective. If you are an occasional reader and stick mostly to best-sellers, the Nook Glowlight is by far the best value. Barnes and Noble has a good device here. It supports the basic document formats, syncs reliably with both B&N and your existing ebook library (or any other docs you might want to read), and has great battery life.
If you are a voracious reader, you’ll probably want to base your opinion entirely on Selection.
Value Winner: Nook Glowlight!
The combination of price, versatility, and battery life just make this the best all-around device.
Here it gets ugly. 3 different platforms. 3 different “ecosystems”. 3 different models.
This is a very touchy topic. Amazon claims to have millions of titles available. This is most likely true – but many of them are *literally* junk. I’m not even being mean:
Furbidden: BBW Paranormal Shape Shifter Romance:
I could go on – but I won’t. It’s been the topic of articles in Forbes, Salon, and more. There’s literally 10s of thousands of truly awful books on Amazon before you even count the 200,000 Public Domain books that have been re-packaged for Kindle use. This isn’t unique to Amazon, but keep it in mind when you look at Amazon’s numbers.
B&N and Kobo still have a few spam titles, though a lot fewer. What they *do* have, however, is easy access to Feedbooks, Smashwords, Project Gutenberg, and every single Public Domain book ever published world wide, not just the ones published via Amazon. On top of already having all the same big-name publisher titles. All three devices also have magazine subscriptions to most popular titles, so you can have Bike Magazine, or Backpacker, or even Playboy delivered wirelessly to your reader. All 3 can also read library books, provided they have the right format available.
This means that for you the reader, you can put nearly any book you like on a Kobo or Nook, and you’re not limited to what one single company is willing to sell you. When all 3 companies inevitably move on, only Kobo and Nook will still work. If you think that’s unlikely, try getting new books for your Sony or Microsoft Reader. The list of dead readers is much longer than that of active ones, and one thing is clear – supporting open formats like EPUB helps keep your reader out of the dustbin of history.
Selection Winner: Nook!
The selection on Barnes and Noble is excellent, probably edging a bit ahead of Kobo. With the Kindle store dominated by best-selling self-published creepy erotica titles, the odds are good that if someone is reading a Kindle, they’re reading something weird.
Overall Winner: Nook!
For overall points, absolutely go with the Nook. I personally carry a Kobo Aura H2O with me everywhere, because the IP67 water/dustproofing and the nicer screen are a big deal – but the extra $80 over the cost of the Nook Glowlight certainly makes it a less obvious choice. You can’t find a great case to water/dustproof the other devices without boosting the bulk and the cost by a fair margin.
Quick update to include my recent experience with the Kindle Fire:
For the love of everything you hold dear, do NOT buy a Kindle Fire. In my opinion, they are the worst device made in recent history.
They have really poor viewing angle, no daylight (or even strong light) readability, really obnoxious screen illumination glare. It’s slow, choked with bloatware, and the one I have here can’t keep an internet connection for longer then a few minutes, and can’t even successfully download an entire book.
You can’t load competing apps on it without going through hoops and paying more, and the battery life is mediocre at best. There isn’t one single thing about this device I’d recommend to anyone, at any price.
If you’re so poor that you can’t afford a better reader, just borrow one from a library for free, or buy paper books.
Do not subject yourself or animals or even enemies to the Kindle Fire.
Now – onto the part that’s most important to me.
I travel extensively in my line of work. I’m sure many of you do as well, so I’m sure you all understand the challenges of having a good library to pick from. The trouble is, when you pass the point of simply taking a quick vacation in the outdoors and move on to spending weeks or months on the move, secondary factors become important.
It’s easy enough to toss a few (or few dozen) books on any given portable electronic device and head out for the weekend. What do you do, however, when you’re embracing travel as a lifestyle? It’s hard to say goodbye to some of the comforts of home, and many of your worldly possessions seem absolutely irreplaceable. A hotel or a friend’s couch here and there can fill that need for the most part.
Books, however – there’s a tricky thing. I grew up a voracious reader, reading everything I could get my hands on. I was raised to treasure books, even when our family was homeless I always had at least a couple. I never regarded them as irreplaceable works of art, however, and the interesting fact is that some of them actually are. Not even obvious ones!
Moving into the 21st Century, our culture has been taught that everything is disposable, replaceable; that new is better than old. Remakes, reboots, remixes. Vinyl to 8 track to cassette to CD to MP3. It’s a common thread. For some reason, this wave of “progress” has actually had the effect of dramatically paring down the works that move along. Through copyright laws, publishing/production houses going out of business, and simple economics, we’ve left a huge percentage of our culture and our artworks on the wrong bank of the river of progress. Each time we’ve changed mediums, decisions were made about what to bring and what to leave. The old has rapidly become obsolete and forgotten. What’s been taken across the river of change isn’t always what’s best – sometimes it’s just what was currently popular. Neon, polyester leisure wear, and giant shoulder pads prove that being popular isn’t the same thing as being good.
We are now doing our very first broad scale medium change for books, and what’s being left behind literally dwarfs what’s being brought along. I sit right now next to a 6′ shelf of books, none of which are available from *any* digital store. You can’t have these on your Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iPad, or Android device at any price. Nobody sells them. Many of them aren’t even old – certainly not old enough to legally scan yourself.
Quick examples of recent books, totally unavailable as ebooks:
- Roadside Geology of Arizona – in fact, this entire series. Print only, great books. Very interesting and useful. Travelling? Better save room for the paperbacks.
- Haynes/Chilton repair manuals – Good luck finding these incredibly useful books in anything but print. There’s a pricey website sub, but it requires a printer and isn’t mobile friendly.
- Falcon Guides – excellent guidebooks covering everything from trails and areas to medical and climbing techniques. Paper only.
Obviously, there’s many more – enough for said 6′ bookcase and its 3 fully loaded companions. Not all of them are so immediately useful, some are simply very good stories by prominent authors such as Roger Zelazny, Isaac Asimov, or Ray Bradbury. Hardly small time names – but good luck finding some of their less popular titles in your local library or bookstore. Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber is one of my all-time favorites, and yet it’s somehow all but vanished. Spider Robinson’s Callahan Chronicles are a sure pick-me-up when I’m down, but only a few stories have made it to digital.
Is this really the bright future we want? Or is it simply the one we’re left with?