Color, but at what cost? – Six Colors

Kobo Libra Colour

All my computing devices, save one, have color displays. The last time I regularly used a computer without a color display was probably in the mid-1990s. The only exception is my e-reader, which—since the very first Kindle I bought—has been a black-and-white E Ink screen that excelled at the boring job of displaying text. But… what if an e-reader added color?

We’ve reached the point where E Ink technology—which is unlike normal display technology found in our phones and computers, but allows low-power reflective displays that work more like actual ink on paper—can actually display color decently and affordably. And so now I’ve spend the last few weeks with my first color e-reader, the $219 Kobo Libra Colour.

In theory, color adds a new dimension to the e-reader. Highlights can be color coded, and book covers finally appear in full color. This is especially fun when I turn off the reader and a boldly colored book cover, designed for maximum marketing appeal, appears on the device’s screen. Unfortunately, a moment later the device’s backlight turns off and the colors become muted unless the screen is in bright light.

I love e-readers, and for the last few years my e-reader of choice has been the Kobo Libra 2. It’s a small (7-inch diagonal) device that’s easy to hold, with physical page turn buttons. It’s a winner. And now, there’s one in color!

But the truth is, most of what I use an e-reader for is text on a page. Color isn’t really part of the equation. I spent some time reading a color comic book using the Libra Colour, and it worked—but it wasn’t fun. The screen is just too small to read comfortably, and the colors were muted, feeling more like I was reading on newsprint (or a very old comic book) than on a bright, modern iPad display.

You can read comics on the Kobo Libra Colour, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

And the ugly truth is that as miraculous as it is that E Ink displays can do color, the Libra Colour’s screen is actually inferior to the screen on the Libra 2. Up close, it’s clear that there’s some sort of visible background texture on the Libra Colour (sort of a yellowish-gray wash) that reduces contrast. And when I cranked the brightness up to 100% to read in bright sunlight, it was clear that the Libra 2 was brighter and clearer than the Libra Colour.

It’s hard to see, but the Kobo Libra 2 screen (left) is brighter and offers higher contrast, while the screen of the Kobo Libra Colour (right) has a patterned background that reduces contrast.

Physically, the Libra Colour is almost identical to the Libra 2. It’s a little thicker at the grip edge and there’s a different plastic texture on the back of the case (which I found more pleasant) and it’s a few grams lighter than the previous model. Unfortunately, it’s still got a recessed screen, meaning dust and hair can collect around the edges of the bezel. That’s a negative, but it makes it easy to find the edge of the display to slide your finger up and down to adjust brightness without fiddling with a more complex user interface. I’d still rather have a flush screen, though.

In terms of software, Kobo has seen fit to enable Dropbox support on the Libra Colour—it was previously only available on higher-end Kobos, not the Libra—and added support for Google Drive as well. This means it’s a lot easier to sideload books, comics, and random PDFs from your collection without having to attach the Kobo via USB-C. In practice, though, I found myself still using the Calibre app to sideload files to my Kobo unless I was really in a pinch, because Kobo’s own Dropbox import doesn’t “dress up” ePub files in any way, while Calibre has some nice plug-ins that convert generic ePubs to use some Kobo-specific extensions that improve the presentation of the books.

Color book covers are fine (when they’re in bright light), but is that enough? (Pictured: Sarah’s Kobo Clara Colour.)

The Libra Colour is not a bad e-reader, but it feels like a misstep by Kobo. Color isn’t really very necessary for reading text, and the color display offers a warmer color temperature and worse contrast. All for a $40 higher list price—though at least cloud syncing isn’t being withheld from the Libra line anymore. I wouldn’t mind the move so much—I’m sure some people want to view color comics and PDFs and would be willing to put up with the small screen, and users of the optional Kobo Stylus 2 might enjoy having different ink colors for their markup—if Kobo kept a non-color model around at a lower price. But as I write this, the Libra 2 is not available from Kobo.

If you’re a casual reader of eBooks and are barely motivated to buy a dedicated e-reader at all, the $120 base-level Kindle ($20 less if you let Amazon stick ads on it) is probably good enough, though it doesn’t have a flush screen, isn’t waterproof, and has no page-turn buttons, which I consider essential for pleasurable reading. The $130 Kobo Clara BW is similar, and has similar drawbacks. (My friend Sarah Hendrica Bickerton upgraded to the $150 Kobo Clara Colour, which was released at the same time—and she had the same issues with the screen being dimmer and off-color that I saw.) The Kindle Paperwhite also doesn’t have buttons, but it’s got a flush screen and is slightly cheaper than the Libra—$150 with ads, $170 without.

(Reader, I am filled with despair at the current state of e-reader options. More on this soon.)

In the end: I don’t mind the Kobo Libra Colour. It definitely fills a niche. But adding $40 to the price and degrading the screen quality a bit, all in the name of nice-but-not-necessary color is really frustrating. The Libra 2 was my go-to recommendation for the discerning eBook reader; the Libra Colour might still take that crown, but it’s an all-around worse value than its predecessor, and that’s really a shame.

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