When it comes to e-ink tablets – where the readout you get is crisp like print on paper, and without the glare of an LCD screen – there are decent, competitive options beyond a well-known Amazon Kindle.
I recently tried out Kobo Clara 2E, a S$219.90 (on Kobo’s Singapore store) e-book reader from Japanese retail giant Rakuten.
It has a 6-inch screen with 300 pixels per inch resolution, 16GB of storage, IPX8 water resistance that can handle an hour underwater, and a body made out of 85 percent recycled plastics.
As with other Kobo e-book readers, one big selling point for Singapore users is OverDrive, which lets you directly connect to, and borrow, e-books available on the National Library Board (NLB) catalogue.
At first glance, the device bears obvious similarities to the Kindle series, not that there is anything wrong.
The Clara 2E has a body that feels well-made and sufficiently rugged for a day out to the beach. Its back has a ribbed texture for a better grip, and while the colourway is described as dark blue, can look rather close to black.
The Clara 2E comes in at 112 x 159 x 8.66 mm, and weighs 171 grams. This e-book reader will be among the lightest and most portable that you can find on the market.
The screen here is a E Ink Carta 1200 panel running at 1,448 x 1,072 resolution, giving 300 pixels-per-inch display density.
This is the exact panel and resolution on the 5th-gen Kindle Paperwhite, except that the Clara 2E has a denser and more portable 6-inch display, while the Paperwhite has a less dense but larger 6.8-inch one.
According to the screen maker E Ink, the Carta 1200 panel brought about a 20 per cent improvement in response time over its Carta 1000 predecessor, and 15 per cent improvement in contrast ratio.
While the better contrast is welcome, response time improvements are less meaningful. E-ink displays are designed for comfortable consumption of high-contrast static material on a paper-like experience. I have seen animated banners while loading some pages on the built-in browser, they cannot be described at fluid – but that is not what you use an e-ink screen for.
A benefit of e-ink displays is that they provide a matte, capacitive experience without requiring a glass panel on top. Glass would have increased glare under sun, and made the display less pin-sharp.
The Clara 2E is designed with a sunken screen and protruding bezels. I found this outlook attractive as it made the entire set-up feel even more like paper, while reducing glare.
Under the hood, the Clara 2E has a 1GHz dual-core processor, 512MB of RAM, and 16GB of built-in storage. The latter is double that of its Clara HD predecessor, and is definitely welcome for loading non-text materials like manga and comics onto the device.
Speaking of which, the Clara 2E supports 15 file formats natively – EPUB, EPUB3, FlePub, PDF, MOBI, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, TIFF, TXT, HTML, RTF, CBZ, and CBR.
The Clara 2E also supports Audiobooks, which the Clara HD did not have. From what I can tell, it works only with audiobooks purchased from the Kobo Store, and requires a Bluetooth headset or speaker to function (there is no built-in speaker).
The IPX8 water resistance is also new, which greatly enhances the draw of the Clara 2E and its use case as a portable, all-purpose reader.
The 1,500mAH cell in the Clara 2E is larger than its predecessor and offers “weeks” of use. I am unable to verify this personally, as I did not have to re-charge the device through its USB-C port in my tests. I used the device for an hour over of reading and fiddling around a day for a few days.
The Clara 2E can be purchased with its SleepCover cases (which are also made of recycled materials). I highly recommend them.
They have a contemporary, understated look that also fits the e-reader snugly, offers drop protection without excessive bulk, and can be folded to serve as a stand.
The Clara 2E has WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac support but not cellular connectivity. No biggie, as reading materials can and should be pre-loaded so it does not tax the battery.
The device also has a warm backlight feature named ComfortLight, which basically gives the screen an orangey tint like most mobile phone night modes.
The interface on the Clara 2E features less prominent recommendations than that from the Kindle. The Kobo Store also present previews differently. While this is about personal taste, I felt the Kindle made better use of screen real estate to put the e-collections on display.
The menus on Clara 2E sometimes felt more like a Windows interface that one can interact with via touchscreen, while the Android-native Kindle felt more mobile-first.
The Clara 2E has 12 different types of fonts and 50 font styles to choose from, which, in my memory, is more than the number of options available on a Kindle. This is a plus, since text customisability is key to a more pleasant reading experience.
To get real, I downloaded an eBook and brought the Kobo Clara 2E out for a spin.
(For those curious, the e-book was Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination. It is excellent insight into YouTube’s trials and tribulations in automating and rule-basing its management of the burgeoning pool of contributors and content.)
Tucked snugly within the SleepCover, the Clara 2E is comfortable to hold and read with one hand. The text was pin-sharp, and I appreciated being able to adjust the font size quickly through gestures.
Even without the case, the polycarbonate shell with its rounded corners were anti-slip and fingerprint resistant, and quite the joy to hold compared to many slippery mobile phones today.
The bezels on the Clara 2E may be humongous, but they are unobtrusive and – as a result of their size, actually – offered very good grip and ergonomics.
My only complaint is that while the 6-inch screen makes the device portable, I find a 6.8-inch screen more optimal for reading. After adjusting the font size for a comfortable reading distance, I wished there was more screen real estate to read from on such a diminutive device.
The reading experience is generally excellent. When I was on the bus and the sun shone directly onto the device, there was no “glass glare” that impedes reading while exposing a riot of fingerprints common to conventional screens.
While I frequently get headaches from staring at a screen on moving vehicles, I got none of that on my forty-minute commutes reading the Clara 2E.
The Clara 2E is generally responsive, though I found its visual cues simply less fluid. The Kindle takes a better approach to screen refresh with a more gradual, two-to-three-step animated sweep over one second.
By comparison, the Clara 2E tends to freeze for the second before updating the entire screen, which feels like lag when it is just the user interface (UI) design.
Accessing the NLB eBooks catalogue via the built-in OverDrive function is a rather painless affair. Filling up the registration and logon forms can be somewhat disorienting, but fortunately, you only need to do this once.
Notably, the e-ink screen’s response (likely in combination with the screen refresh animation) is not made for fluid panning webpages, such as when the pop-up keyboard obscures the text fields.
After creating an OverDrive account and logging on to the NLB myLibrary account through it, I was immediately able to browse the collection of e-books and borrow them, on a loan of 20 days each time.
The Clara 2E also supports Pocket integration. With the companion widget installed on your notebook, desktop or mobile device and logged on to an account, one can easily save pages to read on the Clara 2E later, provided you sync it before leaving the house.
Overall, the Kobo Clara 2E is an excellent device with excellent value. No compromises have been made on screen quality, and the build is simple and sufficiently rugged.
I can nitpick on how the UI refreshes, but the seamless integration of OverDrive for NLB eBook access and Pocket reader support is really handy.
That said, a very real reason you might not dive for the Clara 2E is if you have already invested substantially in the Amazon ecosystem.
The Kobo marketplace seems to have a pretty comparable selection of material, but purchases definitely cannot be transferred between the two stores.
Many avid readers probably have access to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library through their Prime memberships as well, and therein lies the rub of the walled garden that numerous technology players use to lock in users.
All said, the Kobo Clara 2E is a competent e-reader that I would recommend. That’s as long as you are okay with the 6-inch screen size and not already locked in to the Amazon ecosystem.