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Do you miss your public library? I know I do. Here in Queens, New York, our libraries haven’t been browsable for months due to COVID-19. Kobo’s ebook readers, with their built-in OverDrive integration, bring the library home to you in a way that Amazon’s models can’t quite match. The $99 Kobo Nia brings OverDrive local library access to a new price point and offers a higher-quality alternative to Amazon’s $89.99 Kindle. But I still prefer the Kobo’s more upscale Libra H2O and the Kindle Paperwhite for a range of reasons, particularly waterproofing.

Design and Features

The Nia is the base model in Kobo’s four-tier lineup. From here, you can step up to the Clara HD ($119.99), which is lighter and has a color-changing backlight. The Libra H2O ($169.99) is our Editors’ Choice, with its flat front, waterproof build, and physical buttons. The Forma ($249.99) is the priciest model, with the largest 8-inch screen. (For even larger e-ink screens, look at the Onyx Boox series of tablets).

The Kobo Nia has a micro USB charging port

The most surprising thing about the Nia is how small it is. At 6.20 by 4.40 by 0.36 inches (HWD), it’s the smallest ebook reader currently available. It has the same 6-inch display you find on the Kindle, the Kindle Paperwhite, and the Clara HD; Kobo just shaves off some of the bezel here. The Nia has a buttonless front with a touch screen, and a hard plastic back with a stippled texture to make it easy to grip. It’s super easy to hold, and not slippery at all. You turn pages by tapping the sides of the touch screen. The only physical button is the power button on the bottom, next to the micro USB charging port.

Like the base Kindle, the Nia isn’t waterproof. For protection against splashes or spills, you’ll have to opt for the Kobo Libra H2O or the Kindle Paperwhite.

With its 6-inch, 212ppi E Ink screen, the Nia is best for reading plain text. A lot of manga and comics fans like Kobo because of the company’s broad file support, but the screen is just a bit too small for viewing pictures. For those kinds of works, the extra screen size of the Libra H2O really helps.

Kobo Nia frontlightThere’s a single-color, adjustable blue-white front light

The Nia has a single-color, blue-white frontlight with a brightness level you can adjust manually. It connects and downloads using 2.4GHz or 5GHz Wi-Fi; I had no trouble connecting to each. There’s no 3G option, unlike with Kindles.

Battery life from the 1,000mAh cell is fine. I got through Lawrence Wright’s 380-page The End of October on a charge with about 20 percent remaining; you’ll probably want to charge the device once per large book. I got to nearly a full charge in an hour.

You can add one of three different $29.99 leather Sleep Covers that the Nia slides into. They don’t make the it waterproof, but they do protect the screen. (I’ve torn one Kindle screen until the backlight shone through, something I like to call “a rip in the universe.”)

Kobo Nia sleep coverThe Nia’s Sleep Cover protects it in style

Over the Library Wall

Kobo ebook readers can’t read Amazon ebooks. Kobo has its own store that has all the popular, major-publisher books that you’ll find at Amazon, but it lacks Amazon’s many exclusives, self-published books, short stories, novellas, and such. For example, if you want to read the Forward Collection of sci-fi short stories by Andy Weir, N.K. Jemisin, and others, you’ll have to read them on a Kindle (yes, there are ways to break Kindle DRM, but we don’t advise breaking terms of service on purchased items).

Kobo also lacks Amazon’s subscription reading deal, Kindle Unlimited, where you can read all the books you want for a fixed price per month. On the other hand, Kobo’s broad native file format support means you can download PDF, EPUB, and MOBI books from a range of sites and stores, and copy them over to your Kobo using a USB cable. You can also link your Kobo to Pocket and read articles from Pocket on the device.

Kobo Nia typefacesYou get 11 faces and a range of type sizes

Copying over EPUB and PDF files via USB to the Nia, I found that the device maintained the internal links and formatting in EPUB and PDF files, but page flips in large PDFs were slow and there was ghosting when I had several pages with dark backgrounds in a row. I’d also note that with the small screen, PDFs of larger-size pages aren’t easily readable. So the Nia is fine for reading EPUBs from places like the Baen Books site, but the Libra H2O is a better solution if you intend to read PDFs.

You get 11 typefaces with a range of sizes. You can make bookmarks, highlights, or jump to a page or chapter. You can also look up definitions in a dictionary. Unlike Kindles, there’s no Goodreads integration; like Kindles, there’s an experimental web browser.

Kobo Nia storeKobo integrates Overdrive into its on-device store

Kobo’s real strength is in its integration with OverDrive, the ebook system that most libraries use. You can plug OverDrive into the native store here, letting library results come up when you search the Kobo store for books (something Kindles can’t do). You can put holds on books and check your holds on the device. With Kindles, you have to go through the library’s site on your phone or PC—not a huge deal, but an extra step that gets in the way.

You should know that you can only have one active OverDrive account at a time per Kobo, though you can keep deleting and switching accounts if you belong to multiple library systems as I do. My library’s OverDrive browsing page is pretty spare⁠—it shows me new releases, but not nicely categorized shelves⁠—so I went in through the Kobo store and just started putting holds on books I want (a big part of the e-library-reading game is putting down a whole bunch of holds, then seeing the books pop up over the upcoming weeks). I downloaded John Scalzi’s The Last Emperox and it looks great.

Kobo Nia and Kindle PaperwhiteHere’s the Nia (left) with a 2018 Kindle Paperwhite (right)

Basic, But Gets the Job Done

You need to select your ebook reader ecosystem based on content. If you want to download EPUB books and spend a lot of time in OverDrive, Kobo is the way to go. If you prefer Amazon’s one-stop shopping, go with Amazon.

Kobo’s one downside is Amazon’s superior subscription-reading options, whether through Kindle Unlimited, Prime Reading, or Audible. Amazon’s control of so much of the ebook market makes it almost like a library system unto itself. Given that Amazon dominates the ebook market in the US, the company’s tying of content and hardware should probably merit antitrust prosecution, but it hasn’t so far.

The Kobo Nia is a fine little device for simple reading, especially if you’re focused on borrowing things from your local library, and text quality is better than on the base Kindle. That said, I still prefer Kobo’s Libra H2O by far. Yes, it costs almost twice as much. But if you’re going to read a large number of books over the course of a few years, that difference is absolutely worth it for a flat front design, physical page-turn buttons, a bigger screen with a higher resolution, and waterproofing, earning it our Editors’ Choice.

Kobo Nia Specs

Dimensions 4.4 by 6.2 by .36 inches
Weight 6.06 oz
Screen Size 6 inches
Storage Capacity 8 GB
Book Formats HTML, MOBI, PDF, TXT, EPUB, RTF

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