Even for the most ravenous of book lovers, dedicated ebook readers can be a fairly easy idea to dismiss. After all, if you’ve got a modern big-screen smartphone or a tablet, it’s dead simple to just download Amazon’s Kindle app to get your ebook fix.
According to a 2014 report from the Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning, however, the way we read on our smartphones and PCs is different from how we read on paper. Thanks to the internet, on screens we’ve trained our eyes to skim and dart around, constantly hunting for the information we’re after – a non-linear behaviour the Stanford paper calls ‘surface reading’.
When reading from a paper book, by contrast, our brains switch to a more concentrated form of information processing – dubbed ‘deep reading’ – and it’s a mode that actually helps us better absorb and comprehend what’s on the page.
To us, that sounds like a great argument for giving books their own space, away from the distractions of apps and constant notifications on our modern do-all devices.
And while there’s certainly something irreplaceable about curling up with a good hardcover or paperback, nothing beats the convenience of a digital device when it comes to size, browsing for new books – but with a dedicated ebook reader, you can arguably have the advantages of both.
By design, they’re simpler device made for the singular purpose of reading – and they have advantages too, such as batteries that last weeks rather than hours, and much-clearer legibility in direct sunlight.
Here are the best ebook readers you can buy today:
Kindle Oasis (2017)
It’s been about 18 months since Amazon’s original Kindle Oasis was launched, a premium ebook reader that dropped jaws with its unconventional design – where one side is considerably thicker than the other – and rather outlandish price; in Australia, buying one would set you back $449.
Amazon’s second-gen Oasis ups the ante on its forebear in numerous areas and this is a redesign that, by and large, has definitely been worth it.
With an aluminium body and a matte-finish glass panel to cover its high-res, 7-inch E Ink display (adding an inch over its predecessor), the new Oasis has an almost iPad-like feel that’s both classy and durable. It’s also the first Kindle to include water-proofing, where it beats most flagship smartphones with an IPX8 rating.
And yet despite those improvements, the price is also more palatable in Australia, dropping $60 to a slightly more reasonable $389 for the 8GB model – although opting for the bigger 32GB model will still set you back $529.
The asymmetrical design gives you a nice big holding area on one side of the display and thin bezels everywhere else. Swap from holding the Oasis in your left to right hand (or vice versa) and the screen orientation automatically flips around to accomodate. The two dedicated page-turning buttons have a super-satisfying and reassuringly-stable click when you press them, and that 7-inch, 300dpi display is gorgeous too, rendering text and images with the same sharp and smooth results we saw on the first Oasis.
There’s another neat new trick underneath the Oasis’s hood, too: Audible audio-book support. There’s a big caveat, though, in that you can only output audio via Bluetooth – there are no inbuilt speakers or a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you’ll need to have a wireless speaker or set of headphones to use it.
Amazon has added a new optional viewing mode, letting you reverse convention and have white text on a black background, which should help reduce the amount of blue light being bounced into your eyes.
You still can’t borrow library ebooks in Australia if you’re a Kindle user. Our libraries use the Overdrive system, which the Kobo range of readers support, but Kindles do not. There’s also no native integration with a read-it-later service, like Kobo has with Pocket, although you can email stories or use a free service like Pocket 2 Kindle to achieve this.
Kobo Aura H2O Edition 2 (2017)
Kobo beat Amazon in the race to launch a waterproof ebook reader by releasing the first iteration of the Aura H2O way back in 2014. It wasn’t just splashproof, it had complete waterproofing, in case you dropped it in the bath or in the pool.
The Kobo Aura H2O Edition 2 adds to the revolutionary features of the original model, for the same price of $239, to become a rather formidable competitor in the ebook reader market.
Continuing the waterproofing trend, the Aura H2O Edition 2 comes with IPX8 waterproofing, beating most smartphones in the market today, despite the charging port not being covered (like in its predecessor).
The addition of ComfortLight PRO means the e-reader’s backlight will change colour as the day progressing – daytime reading’s blue light exposure will gradually reduce, changing to a warmer yellow hue.
Kobo has retained the previous Aura H2O’s solid build in the second iteration, although it is still thicker than the Aura One at 8.9mm. It boasts a screen resolution of 1440 x 1080, making words appear clear and sharp, even at maximum font size.
Battery life is also rather good and should last an entire week, although charging it back up to full capacity does take a while.
And, like the outgoing model, the Aura H20 Edition 2 is easily customisable in terms of fonts, margin widths and justification, adding to a great user experience.
Kobo Aura One
With its new $350 flagship, Kobo has done more than just improve its basic models.
Compared to the 6-inch standard, this Aura One gives you a spacier 7.8-inch display that’s also at a higher 300dpi resolution (or 1,872 x 1,404 pixels), rendering text nice and crisp right down to the tiniest of font sizes.
You also get ample storage space – 8GB, or double most others – plus waterproofing, so you can safely read by the pool or in the tub. The inbuilt backlight has been improved, with a new orange-hue option that’s less disruptive to sleep.
The One is also more enjoyable to hold and use, thanks to its more modern design language. And despite its size, it’s a tad thinner and lighter than the H2O, and all the corners are now comfortably rounded.
Combined with a textured rubber back, it’s easier to grip and hold up for prolonged reading.
On the software side of things, not a lot has changed from the H2O. There are still lots of options to customise font types and sizes, as well as margins, and all the exclusive features we love – like the ability to sync with Pocket (so you can easily read saved web articles in more comfort, whenever you like) and support for the OverDrive ebook lending platform (which is widely used by Australian libraries) – are still in place.
If the One has a main flaw, it’s that it doesn’t feel as robust or well-built as last year’s Aura H2O – which is frankly a bit of a tank – or most current Kindles for that matter.
On top of that, the bigger screen and new backlight seemingly team up to drain the battery more quickly than before. That said, we think that’s a fair trade off for the added screen size and general reading comfort.
Amazon Kindle Oasis
The Kindle Oasis is the best e-reading experience money can buy, provided you’ve got the extra pocket change lying around somewhere. It’s Amazon’s newest reading tablet and the most expensive e-reader available to date, sitting at nearly $450 apiece.
But if you’re an avid reader, then spending that much money on one of the best e-readers might well be worth it.
Design-wise, the Kindle Oasis looks radically different from the other Amazon tablets. One side of the Oasis thinner than its opposite edge, and yet the thickest side is thinner than any of the other Kindle versions. Despite this, it’s well balanced and comfortable to hold.
Physical buttons make it easy to use one-handed, giving you the option to not constantly tap the screen to shift pages.
The Oasis shares the same 300ppi screen as the Voyage and the Paperwhite, but the clarity is fabulous, with the display featuring 60% more LEDs than any of the other Kindles.
Available in both Wi-Fi and a 3G version, with internet free for the life of the e-reader in 100 countries. So you could download reading material while on holiday without batting an eyelid.
Being thinner, Amazon had to make the battery smaller, but has added a charging case in the box to compensate for it.
The interface is smooth and seamless, despite the slight lag expected from any e-ink device.
Amazon may be copping some criticism on the Oasis’ price point, but if you need your daily fix of the written word, it’s definitely one of the best digital reading experiences you can lay your hands on if money is no object.
Read our review of the Amazon Kindle Oasis.
Kobo Aura H2O
The Aura H2O is Kobo’s previous flagship model, an unrepentantly big-and-tough unit with a large 6.8-inch display and waterproofing, so it can be used with impunity in the bathtub or by the poolside.
It has a microSD expansion slot and a USB charge-port on its bottom edge, which are covered by a discrete plastic flap when not in use to keep them water tight. While that larger physical size means it won’t as easily slip into a handbag or jacket pocket, it’s still quite comfortable to hold thanks to a soft-touch plastic back with slightly tapered sides.
And true to Kobo form, it’s very flexible in terms of settings and customisability – fonts, font-weights, line spacing, margins and justification can all be fine-tuned to a high degree. However, we found some default font-weights resulted in unevenly-rendered text (narrower arches in letters, for example), so we needed to fiddle for a couple of minutes to get things more comfortable.
Kobo’s thrown a few extra beta features onto the Aura H2O, so you can play sudoku, solitaire or word scramble, sketch drawings or browse the web.
The Aura H2O isn’t as fast as the Kindle Voyage in some areas; there’s a slight delay in text input, for example, which means you’ve got to be quite deliberate, especially when you’re initially setting up accounts and entering passwords. And one spot where Kobo in general falls short is that you don’t have the option to upload and archive your own ebooks and PDFs to the cloud, something you can do with Amazon’s Kindle platform.
Its larger size means the H2O won’t appeal to everyone, but if you like to read longform web articles alongside your ebooks (and/or while you’re in the bathtub) this is a fantastic option.
Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
Prior to this year’s launch of the Kindle Voyage, the Paperwhite was Amazon’s top Kindle offering. Amazon’s actually refreshed the device three times – most recently in the middle of this year, although some stock of the previous model does still seem to be floating around, so be aware.
The primary difference between this model and the previous 2013 one is in the display – the latter’s was 758 x 1,024-pixels (212dpi), vs this new model’s 1,080 × 1,430-pixels (300dpi). Those extra pixels don’t make for a huge increase in text sharpness, and they’re most noticeable in places like image-rendering, or if you’re partial to using teeny font sizes.
From the outside, the Paperwhites are actually fairly similar; both feel great to hold thanks to soft-touch plastic backs and sides, with edges that curve gently and almost organically.
It’s not quite as grippy as the Kobo models, but it certainly looks sleeker. This third-gen model does double the onboard storage to 4GB total, although that was available on the 2013 model later in its life, too.
Like all the ebook readers here, the Paperwhite’s backlight gives off a soft aqua tone, although unlike the Voyage you’ll have to manually set it – there’s no auto-brightness option at this price.
You do get basically every Voyage software feature, however, including X-Ray, dictionary definitions, language translation, Wikipedia lookup, annotations, social media quote-sharing and parental controls – the last letting you basically turn off any web-browsing and disable purchasing from the Kindle Store.
We should also clarify that while the Kindle font and layout customisation options might not be as extensive as on Kobos, they’re not exactly non-existent: you still get to choose from seven fonts (including the Kindle-exclusive Bookerly designed exclusively for e-readers), plus nine font sizes and three choices each for line-spacing and margin-width.
What all Kindles lack is support for library-lending in Australia, or the ability to read ebook files beyond Amazon’s own formats (mobi and azw3) and PDF. That does limit the third-party stores you can buy ebooks from, which generally use the ePub format.
Still, at $190 the Wi-Fi version is a reasonable deal – although we’d steer clear of the $260 Wi-Fi+3G model. At that price, you might as well spend the extra $40 and get the better Kindle Voyage instead. On the other hand, there are still some 2013-model Paperwhites being cleared at $150 for the Wi-Fi version, which is a bit of a bargain.
Amazon Kindle Voyage
At three-times the price of the most basic Kindle, you’d be right to ask exactly what this model provides over its lesser siblings. The answer is a variety of decidedly neat (but also arguably inessential) upgrades that enhance the overall ereading experience.
Some of those are in the hardware: this is a small, thin and light device with a round power-button placed on the rear, and ‘squeeze zones’ on each side of the screen for easy page-turning from any position – all of which all help to make the Voyage very comfortable for one-handed use.
There’s only one Voyage model in Australia, and it packs 4GB of storage as well as both Wi-Fi and ‘worldwide’ 3G connectivity. Like the latest Paperwhite, the 6-inch display here is an eInk Carta model at 300ppi (or 1,080 x 1,430), making individual pixels basically indistinguishable.
The Kindle’s social/informational features include showing commonly-highlighted passages, plus the unique X-Ray, which will let you tap a character or term to be given a short, non-spoiler summary. It’s a great feature for complex books and series’, albeit one that’s only available on selected titles.
Amazon seems to have been able to decrease the e-ink flickering issue markedly over the generations, and while it’s still noticeable on the Voyage, the overall experience is generally less-flickery (and therefore a little easier on the eyes) than on Kobo. Text input is relatively swift and responsive here too – more so than any other reader we’ve tested.
The downsides? There’s no ability to adjust where the on-screen page-turning areas are, but you can swipe across the display from right to left or vice versa to flip pages forward and back. Squeeze-zone sensitivity can be adjusted or turned off as well, in case you find yourself accidentally turning pages while just holding the sides.
The Voyage’s main shortcoming is price: for all but die-hard reading fans, there aren’t really enough distinguishing features to justify the price increase over the Paperwhite. If you seriously love your books – and are happy to live within Amazon’s ecosystem – this one absolutely nails the core reading experience.
Amazon Kindle (2016)
The 2016 version of the Amazon Kindle, or Amazon Kindle Touch as it’s being called by retailers in Australia, is the updated version of the entry-level Kindle last released in 2014. It’s the most basic and affordable ebook reader Amazon currently sells.
The 2016 Kindle isn’t all that much different from the previous model – you get an adequate but not backlit touchscreen, battery life that will keep you happily reading for a few days if not weeks, and plenty of storage with 4GB worth of digital tomes you can tote around wherever you go. Plus, the user interface is intuitive, making navigating your books a breeze.
The 2016 model is slimmer and lighter then the old standard Kindle, and comes with a power boost, with double the RAM compared to its predecessor.
Of course, it’s not match for Amazon’s latest offerings, like the Oasis or Voyage, not even the Paperwhite, but for less than $150, it doesn’t have to be.