Double Take: Alternative E Ink Readers to Amazon’s Kindle

E Ink and the Curious Journey of the Once-Hot E-Readers

Kobo Aura H20
The Kobo Aura H20 is a waterproof E Ink reader. Kobo

They were supposed to be the next big thing.

While walking the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show back in 2010, E Ink readers were literally impossible to miss. The devices could be seen practically everywhere, with a bevy of manufacturers proudly pushing their take on the gadget to potential buyers and members of the technology press. These included offerings that ranged from established brands such as Sony to upstarts from less-known companies such as Aluratek and iRiver. There was even plenty of excitement about the next evolution of the devices — colored E Ink technology.

Then Apple’s iPad came out in April that year. Not only did Steve Jobs’ take on the slate dominate the tablet market, it practically reduced the sizzling E-reader sector to an afterthought that suddenly seemed just about as quaint as E Ink’s black and white display. Like 3D televisions, which were also big during that same year at CES, the E Ink reader segment quickly went from hot to not in the following years.

Fast forward to 2016 and the once proud segment of the tech market is littered with the graves of failed endeavors. Sony and several other companies pulled out of the E-reader business altogether. Barnes and Noble, meanwhile, has all but scaled back its once ambitious plans. Nowadays, Amazon lords over the E Ink reader space despite its proprietary format thanks to Kindle brand recognition and a well curated E-book store.

Despite Amazon’s dominance with its various readers, however, there still are some alternatives out there — albeit fewer — to the Kindle line. Curious to see which of the remaining stragglers provide a solid option for E Ink fans? Here’s a list of worthy alternatives.

Kobo Glo HD
The Kobo Glo HD. Kobo

Kobo has been fighting the good fight against market leader Amazon for quite some time. Admittedly, the brand struggled against Amazon’s head start in the digital bookstore space. But while Kobo doesn’t quite have the expansive mind share that Amazon’s Kindle line has, its devices stack up nicely against the competition when it comes to hardware.

At the top of the list is the Kobo Glo HD. This E Ink reader is already notable just from the fact that it released in 2015. In a segment where many manufacturers have bailed, that shows a commitment to remaining in the sector. Add the fact that Kobo is now owned by Japanese e-commerce giant and Amazon rival Rakuten and you’ve got more reasonable confidence that Kobo has the resources to stay in the market.

Still, the measure of any gadget like an E-reader is the quality of the actual device and the Glo HD does not disappoint on that end. The hardware, for example, compares very well with Amazon’s very solid Kindle Voyage (which is a step up from the Kindle Paperwhite), sporting the same 6-inch Carta E Ink touchscreen technology. They also both boast 300 points per inch of resolution though the Glo HD slightly comes out on top with its 1448 x 1072 display. They even have the same capacity with 4 gigabytes of internal memory.

The Kobo, however, has its own advantages. For starters, it’s more open and supports more file formats, including EPUB and even Amazon’s MOBI format. If you value freedom, that can be an attractive selling point. Unlike the Kindle Voyage, which comes with ad-supported variants, all versions of the Glo HD are ad free. Admittedly, the Glo HD is slightly heavier and thicker than the Voyage. However, it also comes with one more advantage: price. While the Voyage retails for about $200 (and that’s with ads) as of this article’s writing, the Glo HD costs about $130. It’s arguably the best competitor to the Kindle Voyage out there while also remaining cheaper than the ad-free version of the Kindle Paperwhite.

Cost: $129.99 More »

Nook Glowlight Plus
The Barnes & Noble Nook Glowlight Plus. Barnes & Noble

Like Sony’s e-readers, the Nook used to be one of the leading challengers to the Kindle’s crown. And while Barnes & Noble did not have the technical chops of Sony, it had the advantage of having its own online bookstore to support it.

Looking back, the original Nook had some pretty good buzz when it came first out. I actually tested one myself and thought it was pretty solid given the competition at the time. Barnes & Noble also released several readers in the Nook line, including the E Ink-based Simple Touch and Glowlight as well as some tablets based on Google’s Android line. Just like Sony, however, the Nook ultimately succumbed to market demand that was less than expected, causing it to fail in fulfilling its initial promise on the E Ink reader front. Meanwhile, the Nook tablets got swept away by the iPad tsunami the same way many other aspiring slates were. Fast forward to today and Barnes & Noble’s Nook line is essentially a selection of various Samsung tablets.

Color me surprised then when Barnes & Noble decided to refresh its E Ink reader line with the release of the Nook Glowlight Plus on October 2015. Looks like there’s some life left in the old E Ink Nook stable after all.

Like the Kindle Voyage and the Kobo Glo HD, the Nook Glowlight Plus uses the new Carta E Ink technology for its touchscreen display. It also features a 6-inch display with a resolution of 300 points per inch. Like its competition, it even features lighting so you can continue to read during nighttime. Yes, I’m noticing a pattern here with all these competing devices.

Despite the similarities, the Glowlight Plus has one key selling point. This E Ink reader is actually waterproof. This means you can take it with you to the beach or by the pool and have fewer worries about ruining the device if it happens to be splashed by water. It also can display EPUB files, unlike Amazon’s Kindle line. However, this particular reader is not compatible with Amazon’s MOBI e-book format like the Kobo is. Pricing, though, is lower than the Voyage and matches the competing Kobo Glo HD.

Price: $129.99 More »

Kobo Aura H20
The Kobo Aura H20 E Ink reader. Kobo

Wait, another Kobo?

When I say that the pickings are slim for solid non-Kindle alternatives E Ink readers, I’m not kidding.

That being said, the Kobo Aura H20 brings some interesting features to the table as well. One is a larger display at 6.8 inches compared to the de facto 6 inches targeted by the bulk of E Ink readers out there such as Amazon’s Kindle line. The bigger size gives you some extra screen real estate if you prefer a larger display. It also uses the latest Carta E Ink technology, which means you’re not sacrificing new tech for the size.

Like the Nook GlowLight Plus, this reader features extra ruggedness for folks who like to take their reader outdoors. Just as its name implies, the Kobo Aura H20 is waterproof so you can bring it with you to the pool with no issues. The device can be submerged in up to a meter of water, for example, provided you keep its ports closed, of course. It’s also dustproof and sandproof, giving it additional protection against the elements.

Like its smaller sibling, the Glo HD, it comes with 4GB of memory and is compatible with 14 file formats, including EPUB and MOBI. The resolution does fall to 265 dots per inch due to the larger screen but that’s still pretty solid. The reader’s extra size and weight also make it less conducive for traveling than smaller readers. , Lastly, pricing is higher compared to its smaller cousin, the GlowLight Plus. Then again, its higher price tag is still cheaper than the Kindle Voyage and you get a bigger screen size to boot.

Cost: $179.99

And there you have it, some solid alternatives to Amazon’s Kindle for E Ink readers. It certainly isn’t as hot as it was just five years ago. At the same time, it’s nice to see that there are still options out there for folks who prefer the more natural look of an E Ink display.

Jason Hidalgo is About.com’s Portable Electronics expert. Yes, he’s easily amused. You too can be amused by following him on Twitter @jhidalgo. More »