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Kobo Clara BW Review

Kobo Clara BW resting on a table, facing upward with a page being displayed

Previously I wrote about getting back into reading, and to accomplish that I got myself one of the new Kobo e-readers that recently released — the Kobo Clara BW. After about two weeks of daily usage I’ve got some thoughts on the device, but the short story is that I really like it!

Solid hardware and design

This thing is pretty simple hardware-wise. It’s got a rough plastic build with a textured pattern on the back — something that I find a bit refreshing in a world where so many handheld devices are slippery, fragile glass sandwiches. The black and white e-ink display is recessed slightly into the body and the bezels are big enough to give a comfortable place to grip onto. The only hardware control is the recessed power button on the back which toggles sleep mode and power. On the bottom right is a USB-C port for charging and data transfer.

The backside of the Kobo Clara BW

I really don’t have anything negative to say about the design or how its built. It would maybe be nice to have some physical page turn buttons, but that’s not necessary on a reader of this size.

Oh right, the size. The Clara BW is just small enough to fit in my hand. I don’t find it hard at all to read one-handed, but two is more comfortable.

Battery life is a nonissue. I check on it every couple days is all. I still haven’t managed to completely run the Clara BW down since getting it, though it’s gotten a couple partial charges during times that I was copying books over to it.

I don’t have any complaints about the performance either. If anything, most of the time it feels limited by the refresh rate of the display.

Display

Speaking of the display… It’s pretty fantastic. Just note that I don’t really have a frame of reference for comparison since the Clara BW is my first device with an e-ink display. It’s crisp enough that I never think about it, not to mention that I’ve gone for a smaller font size than the default. I also find it plenty responsive for reading. There’s a built in light with adjustable brightness and temperature, and I haven’t found a scenario yet where I need to set it much higher than 10%.

The Kobo Clara BW head-on, powered on and in a book

If you’re looking at the whole Kobo lineup, you’ll probably see that there’s a color version of the Clara that’s not much more expensive than the BW. There’s a couple reasons I opted for the BW, and I think I made the right choice. Mainly, I don’t think I’d get much usage out of the color display with the kinds of things I read. I’m not a very big note-taker or highlighter either.

Now you might think it’d still be nice to pay a little bit extra for the color anyway even if you only make occasional use of it, but I’ve heard that generally the contrast on color e-ink displays isn’t as great as black and white displays. In fact, this is something you can notice yourself when comparing Kobo’s own images of the Clara BW and the Clara Colour. So it’s hard to call the color display a direct upgrade and, instead, it’s probably something you should only get if you think you’ll make good use of it.

The software is friendly and unobtrusive, but not flawless

Kobo’s built-in software is pretty decent. There’s a couple customizations I can think of that would be nice to have, like being able to see the clock while reading without bringing up the rest of the UI. Some slightly more advanced library filtering and sorting options would be nice too, like sending completed books to the bottom of lists. The best thing I can say about the software is that it’s simple and easy to use. Overall, I’m not usually thinking about the software which is exactly what you want from a reader.

The Kobo Clara BW being held and displaying a list of books

For power users, there’s a reading app called KOReader that’s supposed to be really easy to install on Kobo devices. I haven’t felt the need to try it out yet since I’m satisfied enough with the built-in software. From what I’ve heard though, KOReader’s stat tracking, customization, and wireless transfer are all pretty nice to have.

I have run into one hitch with Kobo’s software so far. The last time I got done copying some epubs over using Calibre (the desktop software I use to manage my library), I ejected my Clara BW and tried to wake it. Normally it takes a second to import the newly added books but instead of doing that, it froze. I power cycled it and when it came back, my library was totally empty!

This wasn’t a massive deal in the end, just surprising and inconvenient. I copied my library over from Calibre again which took all of 30 seconds, and since I was only in the middle of a couple of books at the time it was easy to find my spots again. Calibre has the ability to make a backup of the Clara’s internal database, so I think I’ll get used to doing that every time I sync from now on, just in case. I guess I’ll chalk this one up to the Clara BW still being a new model.

You’ll probably want a cover

After just a few days with my Clara BW, I decided I was going to want a cover for it (and I’m someone who likes to go caseless on phones). I’m not about to go testing this but I expect its display wouldn’t fend off scratches super well. I want to be able to toss my Clara into a backpack from time to time without too much worry.

I ended up getting Kobo’s SleepCover and I don’t regret it. It’s just nice to know the display is protected when not in use, but there’s a few other pluses too. Even though I don’t mind the plastic of the Clara BW, the SleepCover’s material feels a lot nicer in the hand. Plus, it’s pretty satisfying having the Clara automatically wake and sleep when I open and close the cover. The cover also folds in a way that will prop the reader up for reading at a table or desk.

The front of the Kobo Clara BW with the cover closed

Final thoughts

Like I said, I’m really pretty happy with my Kobo Clara BW. If it wasn’t for the freak library wipe, I would have only minor software nitpicks. And really, data corruption can happen on any device so I won’t hold it against Kobo so long as this doesn’t turn out to be a frequent issue.

Reading on a purpose-built device easily beats reading on a phone. It’s way more comfortable and easier on the eyes. I think I also personally prefer it to reading physical books because of the size, weight, and convenience.

If you’re looking for an e-reader I don’t think you can really go wrong with the Kobo Clara BW. Remember though that this is my first e-reader. I don’t have anything to compare it against but I’m definitely happy with it!

If you’re interested in what I’m reading, feel free to follow my BookWyrm account at jp@bookrastinating.com. It’s federated, so you can follow with Mastodon or any other compatible social account.

— JP

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