These New Color E-Readers Are Proof Amazon’s Kindle Is Falling Behind

Kobo’s new Libra Colour and Clara Colour color e-readers should make Amazon very worried.

Lais Borges/Inverse; Photo by Ian Carlos Campbell

People have wondered when Amazon would release a color Kindle since the e-reader was first introduced in 2007.

The Kindle’s novel-at-the-time E Ink display faithfully reproduced traditional black-and-white pages, and did it in a way that was battery-efficient and easy on your eyes. But the E Ink screen couldn’t recreate the colorful pop of comics or the beautiful illustrations of children’s books, which naturally led to the question: When will Amazon address the problem?

History will tell you that it was technically possible in 2010, when E Ink’s Triton displays first became available. The color E Ink screen could display multiple shades of gray and thousands of colors. Instead of trying it, Amazon released the Kindle Fire in 2011, the first of its cheap tablets (later rebranded to drop the “Kindle”) that had a pretty poor LCD screen when it came to reading just about anything.

Kobo, the ebook and e-reader seller owned by the Japanese retailer Rakuten, has long been the Kindle’s best alternative (both in terms of affordability and relative openness), and now it’s beaten Amazon to color e-readers. The Kobo Libra Colour and Kobo Clara Colour are not only the company’s first color e-readers, but they’re actually great, unlike previous color E Ink e-reader attempts by companies like PocketBook. More than that, both color E-ink devices are proof that Amazon has no excuse not to make a color Kindle at this point.

Kobo Gets the Details Right

In all the ways that matter, Kobo gets it right. The $220 Libra and $150 Clara Colour have basically all the features I’d want out of a modern e-reader or notetaking tablet:

  • Color E Ink for reading comics
  • The ability to take notes, annotate, and look at documents
  • Integration with Pocket for reading bookmarked articles
  • Physical page-turn buttons
  • Direct access to library books with Overdrive

If I were to design an e-reader from scratch, I’d start with these features, and they’re all things that the Kindle is either completely missing or does poorly. Luckily for Kobo, the charms of its new e-readers extend beyond that.

Besides its predecessor, the Libra 2, the Kobo Libra Colour’s closest Amazon competitor would be the Kindle Oasis. It’s similarly compact, has physical buttons for turning pages, and is thicker on one side so it’s more comfortable to hold in one hand. The Libra Colour’s 7-inch display is slightly sunken; its sides are slightly curved; its power button is on the back; and it has magnets so you can stick a stylus to the side. But the two devices have a lot in common.

The Clara Colour is an even simpler option, with a small, rectangular body not unlike the entry-level Kindle, a touch display, and a rear power button. The Clara Colour is also very light. Without a case, the 174-gram e-reader is lighter than every hardcover I own, and several of my paperbacks too. Using both devices, I was naturally more drawn to the Libra Colour, if only because its support for the Kobo Stylus 2 made it my go-to place for work notes, jotting down to-dos, and annotating in my library books while reading before bed.

There are things I would change, like texturing the e-reader’s screen to make it feel nicer for writing, or generally make it a little bit easier to log in to my Overdrive and Pocket accounts. It’s worth noting that Kobo’s selection of books is smaller than Amazon’s at this point, too. But these have proven to be minuscule problems that are outweighed by how nice it is to have a good color E Ink display.

Color E Ink Displays Have Come a Long Way

The Kobo Libra Colour will never be as glossy as printed graphic novel or an OLED display, but it’s getting closer.

Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

When I last looked at a color e-reader it was the PocketBook InkPad Color back in 2021. Having been used to years of gray, black, and white Kindle displays, its color Kaleido Plus screen was impressive, but it also came with some major trade-offs. Besides the InkPad Color having an even more limited catalog of books to purchase, the screen was just slow to refresh. I wrote at the time:

“I often found myself waiting a whole second between pressing the page forward button and the screen refreshing in colorful, image-rich comics. That’s pretty annoying when colorful, graphics-heavy comics are the main reason I’d recommend someone buy this e-reader in the first place.”

I can happily say that isn’t really an issue on the Kaleido 3 display in the Kobo Libra Colour and Kobo Clara Colour, especially when the brightness is turned down and you’re reading using natural light. I didn’t time it, but to my eye, page turns on the Kobos were around 25 percent faster than they were on PocketBook. Still not comparable to refreshing a plain screen of text, but an improvement in the sense that you forget the delay quickly. Of course, like most e-readers, these Kobo color e-readers have backlights and color temperature controls for adjusting your reading experience on the fly. But I found that in natural lighting conditions, the Kaleido 3 display looked best, though maybe a little more saturated than the Kaleido Plus screen.

I noticed some ghosting on notes where I used multiple different colored brushes, and E Ink’s Kaleido displays are lower resolution than the 300 PPI (pixels per inch) display in the Kindle Scribe, but I think Kobo made the right choice. E Ink made a colorful display that’s good enough at both grayscale pages and colorful pages that I think any company that uses it will make the average person really happy.

It’s Time For a Kindle E-Reader With Color E Ink

Picture this, but in color.

Photograph by Ian Carlos Campbell

The Kindle was Amazon’s first hardware product, and I think it holds a prominent place in customers’ minds in a way that only really the Echo smart speaker rivals. Despite how large it looms, Amazon hasn’t pushed its e-reader. The Kindle gets incrementally better, and occasionally Amazon will try something slightly adventurous like the Kindle Scribe, but the envelope isn’t getting pushed.

Kobo has thrown down the gauntlet with the Libra Colour and Clara Colour. Kobo has been ahead of Amazon in terms of features before, but these e-readers combine a relatively affordable price, solid color E Ink display, and stylus support (in the case of the Libra) into an experience that beats current Kindles. Considering how Amazon owns Comixology and has a huge catalog of comics and graphic novels that you can easily buy and read on a normal Kindle, why not go all of the way and let people read them on color E Ink?

Maybe Amazon’s devices and services lead, Panos Panay (poached from Microsoft last year), will announce a color Kindle this fall, but until then, Kobo is offering e-readers that are superior and easy to recommend over the Kindle.

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