Kobo Libra H2O, hands on: An affordable but capable alternative to flagship e-readers

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The Libra H2O is a new 7-inch e-book reader from Kobo, which at £149.99 (inc. VAT; or $169.99) sits below the company's flagship 8-inch, £239.99 (or $249.99) Kobo Forma. Perhaps just as importantly, the Libra H2O is positioned between Amazon's top-end Kindle Oasis, which starts at £229.99 ($249.99) and the popular £119.99 ($129.99) Kindle Paperwhite.

All the basic specifications are present and correct. There's a 7-inch, 1,680-by-1,264, 300dpi e-Ink screen that refreshes quickly enough not to cause any usability problems. Wi-fi connectivity lets you download new books, while touch-screen functionality and a pair of buttons handle page turns. 

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The 7-inch Kobo Libra H2O costs £149.99, or $169.99. It has a tough plastic chassis and weighs 192g.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The screen rotates between portrait and landscape orientation automatically, and there's both a screen backlight and a blue-light-reducing 'comfort light' that can automatically kick in at a set time, come into play as the sun goes down, or be managed manually. There is 8GB of internal storage, which should be plenty for most people -- particularly as this e-reader has no support for audio books. That's not a big drawback for me. 

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A new scroll bar at the bottom of the screen lets you browse through page previews.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Kobo has introduced a new browsing feature into its software. You can move through pages by scrolling along the bar at the bottom of the screen, with large previews appearing on-screen. It's easy to return to where you were by tapping a marker dot on the scrollbar, or simply tapping on the page that sits behind the preview. It may not be as user friendly as flicking through the pages of a paper book, but it's a good attempt. Earlier Kobo e-readers will get the software upgrade.

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The build is unashamedly plastic. A lip all the way down the long edge that holds the buttons helps with grip, as does the stippled back. The rear-mounted on/off switch might seem oddly located, but it's unlikely to get accidentally tapped there. My white version looked attractive, and the Libra H2O is also available in black. IPX8 water resistance means it should survive a brief dunk in the bath. 

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That 7-inch screen sits in a chassis measuring 144mm by 159mm by 7.8mm (at gripping area) or 5.0mm (everywhere else). The £149.99 (inc. VAT) device weighs 192g. For comparison:

Kobo Forma
8-inch screen, 160mm x 177.7mm x 8.5mm (at gripping area) 4.2mm (everywhere else), 197g 
£239.99 (inc. VAT; or $249.99)

Kindle Oasis (2019)
7-inch screen 159mm x 141mm x 3.4mm (gripping area), 8.4mm (everywhere else), 188g 
from £229.99 (inc. VAT; or $249.99)

I'm fine with the plastic chassis, as it's a tough enough material. It would have been nice to see some sort of bundled case, though. The Micro-USB charge port is par for the e-reader course -- Kindles also use this standard. Battery life is plenty good enough: Kobo only specifies "weeks of life" for the Libra H2O, but I found a quick charge every few days kept it topped up nicely. 

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Image: Kobo

Reading was a pleasurable experience on the Libra H2O, with the Kobo UI rather less cluttered and easier to navigate than the Kindle's. The big deal-maker for Kobo is that its e-readers support library loans -- if your library uses OverDrive. Setting up is simple if you are already a registered library user: just log in on the OverDrive section of the Settings area. This feature is a real hidden gem, and keen readers might just feel it tips the scales away from Kindle, although there are also differences between the Amazon and Kobo e-book stores.

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