The Kobo Sage Is Proof E-Readers Can Do So Much More

The Kobo Sage Is Proof E-Readers Can Do So Much More
Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo

I recently reviewed the new Amazon Kindle Paperwhite 5 Signature Edition and declared it the best dedicated e-reader you can buy. It’s true; it is. But isn’t it time we start expecting more from these devices than simply storing ebooks? With added support for a stylus, the new Kobo Sage bridges the gap between e-readers and e-notes and offers one of the most affordable E Ink notepad solutions on the market.

The predictions of E Ink’s death at the hands of the iPad and other LCD tablets were way off. Not only have e-readers thrived, they’ve evolved into another category of devices called e-notes that are designed to replace paper notebooks, too. The reMarkable 2 remains the best E Ink note-taking device on the market, but at A$679 it’s also one of the most expensive, and it lacks a backlight, making it almost useless as an e-reader. Alternatives like the Onyx Boox Nova 2 and even Kobo’s own Elipsa prove that e-readers and e-notes can live in harmony as a single device, but why are they all so big? That’s the question the new Kobo Sage asks and answers. It turns out an all-in-one E Ink device doesn’t need to be tablet-sized to be great.

Kobo Sage

WHAT IS IT?

A generously sized e-reader with added e-note support so it can be used to edit and highlight books and PDFs, create sketches, or take notes.

PRICE

A$439.95 for the Kobo Sage, plus A$69.95 for the Kobo Stylus.

LIKE

The self-illuminated screen includes colour temperature adjustments for taking notes at night.

DISLIKE

Stylus not included in a bundle at a discount, and it occasionally requires a fresh AAAA battery.

Easy on the Eyes

Finding printed books with enlarged type for ageing eyes isn’t impossible, but it’s one of the many reasons e-readers have remained popular: Readers can customise exactly how a page of text looks for their own preferences and needs, and Kobo’s devices have long been especially accommodating of that by allowing users to even upload their own preferred fonts. The only drawback is that the larger you boost the text size, the more often you’re turning the page.

The 8-inch Kobo Sage (centre) is smaller than the 10.3-inch Kobo Elipsa (left) and slightly larger than the 7-inch Kobo Libra (right). (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) The 8-inch Kobo Sage (centre) is smaller than the 10.3-inch Kobo Elipsa (left) and slightly larger than the 7-inch Kobo Libra (right). (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

With an 8-inch E Ink display, the Sage strikes a good size balance between the larger 10.3-inch Kobo Elipsa and the 7-inch Kobo Libra, which is a dedicated e-reader. It provides a small boost in the amount of text you can fit on screen, while still being a relatively compact and lightweight device you won’t mind tossing in a bag every day. As much as I like larger e-notes like the reMarkable 2 and the Kobo Elipsa, I simply find them too big for an everyday carry, and only pack them when I know I’ll need t0 be taking notes.

The Kobo Sage is powered by a 1.8 GHz quad-core processor paired with 512MB of RAM, which is a fairly powerful duo for these types of devices. Following the new Amazon Kindle and the Kobo Elipsa, it’s also one of the first devices to use E Ink’s new Carta 1200 electronic paper displays, which is what allowed Amazon to boast about the new Kindle’s 20% faster page turns. The Kobo Sage benefits from those upgrades too, as well as other improvements that Carta 1200 brings with it. One of the reasons the reMarkable devices lack screen lighting is because its creators believe it would hinder the writing experience (to their credit, the reMarkable 2 still offers the best e-note writing experience). The Sage not only includes screen lighting, but colour temperature adjustments, too (which the Kobo Elipsa doesn’t) for those worried about throwing off their circadian rhythms with late night usage.

The Kobo Libra's screen (right) is slightly brighter than the Sage's (left) when brightness settings are maxed out, but the upgrades screen on the Sage (left) offers noticeably better contrast. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) The Kobo Libra’s screen (right) is slightly brighter than the Sage’s (left) when brightness settings are maxed out, but the upgrades screen on the Sage (left) offers noticeably better contrast. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

When compared side-by-side, the Kobo Sage’s screen looks every bit as good as the Kobo Libra’s, but while the Libra’s peek brightness looks ever so slightly more intense, text on the the Sage’s screen definitely has more contrast, and to the discerning eye, the new E Ink Carta 1200 screen looks like a definite upgrade.

The Kobo Sage (left, top) features the same raised lip on the edge as the Kobo Libra (right, bottom) making it easier to hold and grip single-handed, as well as a pair of page turn navigation buttons. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) The Kobo Sage (left, top) features the same raised lip on the edge as the Kobo Libra (right, bottom) making it easier to hold and grip single-handed, as well as a pair of page turn navigation buttons. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

To make reading with a one-handed grip easier, the Sage also carries forward the Libra’s raised edge and although the lip is much less substantial on the Sage, it works just as well. Unlike the larger Kobo Elipsa, the Sage also features a pair of forward and back navigation buttons for flipping pages without having to touch the screen. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Navigation buttons on e-readers are always a good thing and I’m glad to see Kobo still including them.

The Kobo Sage passes the USB-C test with flying colours. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) The Kobo Sage passes the USB-C test with flying colours. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

The new Kobo Sage also passes the USB-C port test with flying colours. Rest in peace, microUSB, minus the peace part — you deserve to suffer for what you put us through.

Note-Taking Is a Bonus

If you’re a prolific note-taker and go through legal pads like it’s no tomorrow, the new Kobo Sage probably isn’t for you. Your needs will undoubtedly be better met by larger, fuller-featured e-notes like the reMarkable 2 or the Kobo Elipsa.

As is evident by the fact that Kobo hasn’t even included the “My Notebooks” section on the Sage’s home screen like it does with the larger Elipsa (it’s instead accessible under the “More” option), even Kobo sees note-taking as playing second fiddle to the Sage’s e-reader functionality.

The Kobo Sage is a solid e-note device, but you won't find the wealth of customizability that devices such as the reMarkable 2 offer. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) The Kobo Sage is a solid e-note device, but you won’t find the wealth of customizability that devices such as the reMarkable 2 offer. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

But that’s not to say the Sage disappoints as an e-note. From my testing it performs just as well as the larger Elipsa does, with basic options for the type of stroke you’re using, as well as the ability to convert hand-written notes into editable text. Neither device can compare with the note-taking customizability offered by the reMarkable 2 — even the Sage’s choice of background templates is limited to just four basic options. While it performed well with cursive writing, the simulated pen on paper experience starts to lag just a bit when I’m quickly jotting notes using my own awful handwriting technique that falls somewhere between all-caps printing and chicken scratch.

Kobo doesn't use Wacom's stylus technology, so not only does the Kobo Stylus require a AAAA battery, it's also the only stylus that works with the Kobo Sage. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) Kobo doesn’t use Wacom’s stylus technology, so not only does the Kobo Stylus require a AAAA battery, it’s also the only stylus that works with the Kobo Sage. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

Kobo also doesn’t offer the Sage as a bundle with the Kobo Stylus. If you intend to use it as an e-note you’ll have to add $US40 ($54) to the Sage’s $US260 ($353) price tag. On top of that, Kobo doesn’t utilise Wacom’s battery-free stylus technology that devices like the Onyx Boox Nova Air do. The stylus runs on a single AAAA battery that will occasionally need to be replaced, and while it does include very useful shortcut buttons for highlighting or erasing text, if you don’t like the design, that’s too bad. Unlike Wacom-based devices that work with any Wacom-compatible stylus, the Kobo Stylus is the only option for the Kobo Sage.

A Strong Case For a Better Case

For a few years now, Kobo has made a folio-style case for its e-readers that does the usual tricks like awaken or put the device into sleep mode when the cover is opened or closed, with the added bonus of a lid that can be folded origami-style to create a stand.

The lid of the Kobo SleepCover cleverly transforms into a display stand. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) The lid of the Kobo SleepCover cleverly transforms into a display stand. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

It’s a simple gimmick but the $US50 ($68) Kobo SleepCover works well in both landscape and portrait orientations, and with the Sage, Kobo has found a way to make it work even better.

Instead of snapping into the SleepCover case, the Kobo Sage magnetically attaches to it, making it much easier to attach and remove. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) Instead of snapping into the SleepCover case, the Kobo Sage magnetically attaches to it, making it much easier to attach and remove. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

Instead of the e-reader snapping into a plastic housing, the new SleepCover magnetically attaches to the back of the Sage, making it especially easy to remove (and quickly reinstall again) when you’re holding the device one-handed and want it to be as light as possible.

Kobo also offers a pricier PowerCover case for the Kobo Sage, which includes its own battery that will significantly extend the life of the e-reader. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski - Gizmodo) Kobo also offers a pricier PowerCover case for the Kobo Sage, which includes its own battery that will significantly extend the life of the e-reader. (Photo: Andrew Liszewski – Gizmodo)

A new $US80 ($108) Kobo PowerCover is also available. While we weren’t able to test it ourselves, it features an additional battery that continually charges the Sage’s own 1,200 mAh power pack through a series of small contacts. The PowerCover case dramatically extends the e-reader’s battery life, and provides a spot to securely store the Kobo Stylus should you opt for it. Otherwise, unlike other e-note devices, the Kobo Stylus can’t magnetically dock itself to the edge of the Sage for storage.

Is It Time to Buy an E-Note?

If you’ve been curious whether an E Ink device will finally let you ditch the mountains of Moleskines, notepads, and random sticky notes cluttering your desk, the Kobo Sage is currently the cheapest e-note option on the market, and might be the best place to start. At A$509 (with the stylus) it’s still far from cheap, but it’s A$20 cheaper than the Onyx Boox Nova Air, and A$170 cheaper than the reMarkable 2. It’s also not the most feature-rich e-note available — the Onyx devices run Android, which gives users access to thousands of apps, including multiple ebook stores, while the reMarkable 2 includes its own cloud-syncing ecosystem instead of simply relying on Dropbox like Kobo does. But should you decide digital note-taking on the Kobo Sage isn’t for you, you’ll be left with one of the best e-readers on the market featuring the latest and greatest electronic paper technology from E Ink.

If you have no interest in saying goodbye to your fancy leather-bound tomes full of inspirational ideas, the Kobo Sage is more money than you need to spend on an excellent e-reader. The Kobo Libra 2, which debuted alongside the Sage for A$160 less, gives you the same excellent E Ink Carta 1200 screen, a similar design that’s easy to use one-handed thanks to dedicated page turn buttons, and a larger battery. If you’re not already committed to the Amazon ebook store, Kobo’s e-readers remain an excellent alternative.