arriving at the libra 2

thursday, 24 february 2022

i have sung the praises of the Amazon Kindle Oasis. It is still the flagship e-reader in the Amazon line-up despite the recent update to the Kindle Paperwhite.

At the same time, Rakuten Kobo released the new Sage and the updated Libra 2. i jumped on the Sage—having always wanted to give the Kobo a closer look—for its 8” e-ink screen. But alas, its ergonomics and display were not compelling enough for me to keep it (see hardware).

Fast forward a few months with no update to the Kindle Oasis in the offing, i decided to revisit Rakuten Kobo, this time with the 7” Libra 2. While the same screen size as the Oasis, i was impressed enough with the Nickel UI of the Kobo Sage to want to give it a deeper look.

Libra 2

Caveats: i do not consume mangas, pdf’s or audiobooks.

But first, the..

hardware

for many, the build quality of the Kindle line up has always appeared better in comparison to the Kobo. More solid feeling, higher quality, less “plasticky”, with the Oasis standing above them all, including its cousin, the Paperwhite.

build

first off, i would just like to say the build quality of the Libra 2 compares favourably to the Kindles i have had if the number of times it has survived unscathed from having been accidentally knocked across the room (and not just dropped liked my Kindles) is any indication.

These mishaps occurred on my way to learning how to hold this new device single handedly (coming from the Oasis)—my preferred way of reading—accidentally batting it with the back of my hand after fumbling it, in an unsuccessful attempt to catch it! Many people complain that the metal bodied Oasis is difficult to hold and is slippery. i find it the opposite with the plastic body of the Libra 2 feeling much more slippery (see ergonomics). There are reports that the black version of the Libra 2 is made of a different material whose backing feels more “grippy”—regardless, i prefer the white body for the look of its page like border.

There have also been the odd reports of case cracks and creaks with the Libra 2. Despite the inadvertent abuse from my accidental tosses against tables and hardwood floors, my e-reader has not suffered any of these complaints. In fact, the device remains looking brand new. i surmise the sealing required to achieve the IPX8 water resistant rating aids the structural integrity of the device and its components.

buttons

the buttons on the Oasis are undoubtedly of higher quality—both the power and page turn buttons have a silky refined feel, the page turn buttons with a soft shallow but definitive tactile feel. Their thin shape reflects these quality switches.

The power button on the Libra 2 is good (and from what i have read, much improved)—the round suitably large indented button requires slightly more pressure than the Oasis to engage, but is tactile and easily done. Not an issue.

The page turn buttons of the Libra 2 feel more like rocker switches and, depending on the manner one is able to hold the device, may or may not be problematic. The button ends towards the center of the device are very stiff. But if one’s thumb can rest fully on the “top” button (with it assigned as “next” page), it has a very nice soft tactile feel on pressing. (On the Sage, the button placement was just a stretch too far for single handed usage—for me).

On the Oasis, it is not difficult to roll the thumb downwards to go to the “previous” page, the two buttons being suitably close together and togglable from any contact point. This is not possible with the Libra 2—instead, with kobopatch i have assigned both buttons as “next” page, using left screen tap (i hold with the left hand while reading) as the “previous” page when needed.

display

coming from the flush screen of the Oasis to the raised bezel of the Libra 2 feels a bit retro but it is well worth it!

Don’t get me wrong, the display on the Oasis is wonderful. And from what i can tell, it’s thin glass layer still manages to present text comparable to the latest gen Paperwhite (which has the latest Carta 1200 e-ink screen under a thicker flush plastic layer).

But the Libra 2 with the bezel minus the unnecessary layer over the e-ink screen is, in side-by-side comparison, noticeably crisper with blacker blacks—both in regular and dark mode—the blacks a development of the Carta 1200 e-ink tech. i have never owned a Kindle Voyage, but i can now appreciate the enthusiasm for its display clarity.

The front light evenness is superb on the Libra 2 and matches the Oasis from that regard. Its dark mode is much better, the Oasis background being a more dark gray. And with the latest e-ink Carta 1200 technology, the Libra 2 does not suffer the ghosting that can occur on the Oasis.

(The Libra 2 also bests the flush screen Sage in front light evenness and text clarity—again, because of the degradation caused by the Sage’s extra layer over the e-ink screen).

speed

the Oasis has a 1Ghz dual core ARM processor. i am not sure what ARM(?) processor the Libra 2 uses which, reputedly is unchanged from the previous gen Libra.

Regardless, overall performance between the two devices is similar—perhaps the benefit of the Libra 2’s Carta 1200 e-ink screen. Importantly, page turn refresh times are equally nimble for both devices. Dictionary lookup response times are again identical, although, the Libra 2 has a fractionally longer lag time for the word to actually highlight—this presents more an acclimation issue for me coming from the Oasis, than anything.

Sleep recovery is faster on the Libra 2, the Oasis seeming to do some start up “housekeeping” when turned on from sleep mode. By the same token, the Oasis disconnects from the USB connection and starts up faster. Six of one, half dozen of another as they say.

battery

i haven’t used the Libra 2 long enough to determine how much longer the battery life is over the Oasis (if at all, for the brightness levels and settings i use). And in all honesty, for all the hand wringing that has been directed at the Oasis, its battery life has never been an issue for me despite reading several hours a day/night with varying brightness levels.

i just charge as needed, approximately once a week it feels, and if more, not a big deal. On trips i carry a battery pack for my phone so can always top up the e-reader if needed.. which i have never had to. Charging is not something i stress over as long as it does not interrupt reading.

ergonomics

without a doubt, the unique—and controversial—ledge design of the Oasis is a brilliant industrial design, centering the weight of the device over the palm of the hand for single handed usage. The Oasis feels much lighter than the one ounce (lighter) difference should portray because of this. The heavier and less well balanced (evenly weight distributed) Libra 2 is still easily held single handed but the Oasis still remains the premiere e-reader in this regard with its button side weight bearing.

Apart from the weight and balance advantage of the Oasis, the ledge also provides a degree of “passive” grip with one’s fingers along the ledge. Attempting to “grip” hold the Oasis (or Libra 2, for that matter) can be fatiguing. Learning to hold the e-reader as lightly as possible by balancing the device in one’s hand is the way to enjoy relaxed extended single handed reading sessions.

The button placement for both devices, while different, is ideal for each form factor. The more central (inward) button placement of the Oasis allows access to both page turn buttons with the full pad of the thumb (with fingers along the underside ledge and the corner resting in the cup of the palm). The Libra 2’s button placement towards the curved raised edge aids counter balancing the device’s more evenly distributed weight (torque) against the top thumb button (with fingers loosely flared in the back and the corner of the device resting in the cup of the palm).

(Here, the Sage faired poorly, the added weight (torque) being quite noticeable and overall form factor forcing more of a grip.)

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hardware wise it is a bit of a wash between these two e-readers—the Oasis with its outstanding ergonomic design and the Libra 2 with its stunning display contrast and clarity. Flat screen versus bezel design is a personal preference—aesthetics aside, some find cleaning a bezelled surface more irksome along the edges. And then there is the choice of colour—or black only, in the case of the Oasis.

And so onto the UI and..

software

it was the positive impression the Kobo Sage left me with of the Rakuten Kobo UI, that prompted me to reconsider what would appear to be a redundant acquisition—the 7” e-ink display and overall dimension of the Libra 2 being similar to the Oasis.

The months spent after my brief time with the Sage allowed me to investigate kobopatch and determine this was far less daunting than rooting an Android smartphone, and begin exploring Calibre’s Kobo specific plugins.

Both eco-systems are very extensive and having access to both just broadens one’s access. The libra 2 also adds access to the public library here in Canada, which the Oasis does not.

appliance

for the most part, e-readers are used by the majority as reading appliances. i doubt many even side load custom fonts, choosing instead to use a pleasing font from the choices available (of which there are a good selection on both platforms), download a book, open it, adjust display settings (margins, font size, line spacing, footer content, etc.) and simply read.

Nothing wrong with that. In fact, that is the beauty of e-readers. They are barely more complicated than opening a book.

The Oasis is effectively a closed platform with one configuration setting available—the FONT_RAMP file for font size settings—the Libra 2 more open.

The Oasis is, therefore, more stable in this regard (compared to a “patched” Libra 2) but lacks the customizations available to the Libra 2. There is more work entailed to maintain a patched Kobo configuration—which might also introduce “bugs”—but doing so only requires minimal file editing and command line skills.

i am here because of Kobo’s more open design.

without a doubt, the UI of the Libra 2 feels much more refined imo and this is why i wanted to give the Kobo another look.

While being an exclusive Kindle user until now, transitioning to the Kobo has been effortless—a testament to the UI’s design. i have not had to hunt for settings in random menus, the layout and menu structures being very well organized—compared to the Kindle whose UI at times feels more like a work in progress.

My only current complaints concern the Libra 2’s “dark mode”..

  • the “dark mode” toggle should be on the brightness settings menu imo instead of general settings. This saves one tap—not a real show stopper.
  • “dark mode”, which is a relatively new feature, does not extend to the menus and dictionary. This was also true for the Oasis and has since been rectified, so there is little reason to not expect this to be corrected in a future firmware update.

The series and collections organizations are nicely configurable via (see..) calibre—the only way to sanely update this content, imo—otherwise, the e-ink keyboard can be used for the masochist—this is the reason i never assigned categories on the Kindle because of the tedium to maintain and reorganize.

fonts

i am a professed font nutter. And much of this site has recently been focused on my Monolexic font development for dyslexia.

Custom fonts are added similarly on the Oasis and Libra 2 by copying the ttf or otf font files to the fonts folder of the e-reader’s root directory.

The Oasis recognizes the fonts on disconnect with all font sizing and weighting available. The Libra 2 differs in that the e-reader must be reboot (with kobopatch installed and configured to enable the advanced font management features—without which, font weights are not available and added fonts will most likely be too light or thin).

Curiously, the Oasis font engine does not render the lower case hook-tailed q of my Monolexic font properly (at small font sizes for pixel peepers)—altering its x-height—so a version of the Monolexic fonts have been generated specifically for the Kindle with a more subtle tailed lower case q. The Kobo font rendering engine does not suffer this quirk.

In addition, the Kobo font rendering engine has much wider and granular settings for font size, weight (boldness) and line spacing.

themes

the Oasis allows the creation of themes which apply font settings (size, weight and spacing), margins, footers and orientation. This is useful for those who like to quickly switch styles dependent on their reading content e.g. sans serif for non-fiction, serif for fiction, etc.

The Libra 2 has effectively only one theme (current) setting—which is not a problem for me as i read all material with my Monolexic font. The Libra 2 additionally has a more granular margin setting for that perfect tweaking of the display page, along with auto orientation (versus Oasis’ static portrait or landscape orientation).

A bit of a toss depending on one’s reading preferences.

shortcuts

There are two Kobo shortcuts that stand out for me..

  • the single tap at the top corner of a page to bookmark it. While the Oasis only requires a second tap to bookmark a page, the extra tap for this function feels glaringly unnecessary. Plus the Kobo bookmark is dog-eared for that extra bit of visual polish (sometimes, features, as in this case for the Oasis, feel like they have been implemented by developers who don’t actually use the device to read on!)
  • the sliding brightness level along the left edge of the Kobo display. Auto brightness is available for both devices but i have found this feature unreliable in all but the most evenly lit environments. Being able to simply slide a finger along the edge of the display is so much more accessible than pulling down a menu and moving a slider, then returning to the page at hand. This is a killer feature imo.

The Oasis autoconnects to the USB port (of a computer), whereas, the Libra 2 presents a prompt. i prefer the prompt in this case for times i wish to read while charging—the Oasis would require disconnecting from the computer’s file manager, diverting one’s attention.

dictionaries

the Oasis wins hands down for ease of adding supplementary dictionaries for roll-over word lookup, accepting all the most common dictionary file formats. Plus, there are many supplementary English dictionaries available.

The Libra 2 requires a special zip file format and has a limited number of supplementary English dictionaries available. That being said, its standard Oxford Dictionary is more current and richer in content than the Oasis’ Oxford Dictionary. Additionally, Kobo allows highlight lookup of words in the dictionary itself—a quite useful feature—which the Oasis does not.

While i miss being able to add the range of supplementary English dictionaries i have on my Oasis, i much prefer Kobo’s dictionary implementation and presentation.

kobopatch

the kobopatch firmware releases maintained by dedicated Kobo users is what further separates the Libra 2 from the Oasis—beyond just making custom fonts usable.

Its installation is straight forward and can be reverted at any time. Also of note, this allows the firmware on the Libra 2 to be rolled back—something that is unavailable on the Kindle platform for users who discover they do not like the changes implemented by the latest firmware update.

By simply..

  • installing the downloaded firmware (clean) and rebooting (disconnecting)
  • then enabling (editing) the desired features in the yaml patch library
  • then building the firmware update
  • and finally, installing the new firmware and rebooting (disconnecting)

a personalized Kobo e-reader is created. Detailed instructions for the current release at the time of this writing may be found here.

i have enabled and customized..

  • custom font sizes
  • custom navigation menu page number text
  • both page turn buttons go next
  • custom header/footer page number text
  • enable advanced settings for all fonts
  • custom header/footer captions

to further customize the display page format and its header/footer content to satisfy my minimalist aesthetic.

My kobopatch configuration files may be found here.

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The UI of the Libra 2 differs from the Oasis as is to be expected. And while it feels more refined at the menu level, both in use as readers are very very similar operationally for the main functions of page control and dictionary lookup—the Libra 2 having some shortcut niceties.

Page display appearance and granularity of its control is a personal thing and is probably linked to eyesight as much as preferences—visually impaired readers requiring larger font sizes are probably adequately served by coarser adjustments and may even find the Libra 2’s finer adjustments annoying to discern.

As a small font user with a page layout obsession, i fully appreciate being able to tweak the content and font size of the page header and footer with Kobopatch—and love the unobtrusive progress bar of the naive UI.

calibre

if kobopatch were not enough, the Libra 2 further distinguishes itself with its Calibre (the library manager i use to side load e-books to the Oasis and Libra 2) integration via plugins using..

  • KoboTouchExtended, for automatic kepub generation (and the UI benefits of that format—page and reading stats, estimates and graphs)
  • Kobo Utlities, for metadata syncing (in particular, Series, Collections and Read Status) and a host of other utilities

As mentioned above, Series and Collection tags can be mass edited within Calibre and then updated on the Kobo device. Similarly, the e-book read status can be captured in Calibre for restoring on Kobo devices—useful for syncing multiple Kobo e-readers or restoring a library.

This added Calibre functionality is immensely useful for maintaining large libraries on the e-reader. Of course, coming from the Oasis meant spending several hours within Calibre to update all the additional columns of information required but once done, maintenance is quite minimal ongoing.

Lazy as i am, the Oasis lacking this update facility is managed with just a few dozen e-books loaded at a time—manual creation of categories on the Oasis is just too labour intensive for me to warrant the effort.

Calibre integration has changed my opinion about holding a large library of e-books on the e-reader.. not that it appears there will ever be enough time to reread books!

final thoughts

So, if it is not apparent, yes i am a Kobo enthusiast now. i could not be happier with the look of the “printed” page on the Libra 2—tweaked to my minimalist sensibilities, with my favourite font and formatting.

There are numerous other differences between these two devices, notably the (kepub) reading statistics and progress screens—with the Libra 2 winning handily in these areas. i haven’t commented on this because i “just” read and rarely divert my attention to them—the graphical presentation, however, is beautifully executed. The “chapter page/pages” header and “progress bar” footer are sufficient for me and as much reading distraction as i care to tolerate! :)

The Oasis? i still like to pick it up and appreciate its superlative ergonomic design. It’s possible the next gen Oasis, should there be one with an 8” e-ink screen, may be compelling enough—that is, insanely light—to overcome the software’s shortcomings. For now, it will have to be my backup e-reader as i enjoy my Libra 2.

The reason it took so long to put this lengthy write-up together? Well.. i could not break away from the enjoyment of reading on this near perfect e-reader that does everything i want and more :)

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