Review: The Kobo Sage is an excellent, multi-functional eBook reader - but at a cost

Kobo Sage ebook reader
Are the notetaking and Bluetooth functions worth the premium price? Photo credit: Newshub

As soon as eBook readers became a thing it was inevitable I was going to get one. That's just part and parcel of being a technology fiend who wants to try new things.

For well over a decade now, that means weekends away and overseas trips have always been accompanied by hundreds of books on a device, generally a Kobo or a Kindle.

Then earlier this year the iPad Mini came into my life. Suddenly the single functionality of the Kobo that sat on my bedside table seemed almost quaint when compared to the glorious multi-functional screens of the tablet.

But the launch of the new Kobo Sage offers more functionality and it's time to revisit that decision. Could the new eBook reader from the Canadian company seize back its position at the top of the pile?

I've been using the Kobo Sage for around 10 days now and here are my thoughts.

The good

The biggest physical difference between the new device and my previous Kobo is the addition of buttons on the side of the screen.

The early iterations of eBook readers tended to have buttons, but they were ditched in favour of touchscreen only navigation.

Until their reappearance here, I didn't realise how much I missed them. Nothing beats the physical act of turning the page in an actual book, but clicking a button feels so much more natural than dragging a finger on the screen. And much less prone to error.

I was also pleased that the buttons automatically reorientated when turning the eBook reader upside down or into landscape mode. It not only covers how left-handed people are likely to hold the device, but gives more flexibility for everyone in finding the orientation that suits them best.

I love that kind of detail. It shows there's been some thought to how the device will be used and doesn't presume everyone does the same thing.

The eight-inch HD flush E Ink Carta 1200 touchscreen is an absolute pleasure to read with (and write on). It offers 1440x1920 resolution at 300ppi, and even with my dodgy old eyes the text was as sharp as I've seen on an eBook reader.

It's also very quick. It's noticeably faster than my previous generation reader, both on start-up and refreshing pages. The lag has been reduced to the point where it's barely noticeable.

The Kobo Sage eBook reader
Photo credit: Newshub

It's also got a massive 32GB of storage on it. That might not seem a lot when mobile phones have many multiples of that these days, but with an average epub format book at around 1MB in size, that will store enough books to read one per day for nearly 90 years.

Some of that space is for audiobooks, of course, with Bluetooth connectivity added for the first time so you can listen with your favourite headphones.

The functionality works absolutely fine, but it's not something I'm interested in. I don't listen to books in bed, only when I'm exercising or driving. More importantly, however, you're currently limited to using Kobo's own audiobook store.

It didn't take me long to realise I wouldn't be buying there on a regular basis. They have plenty of audiobooks, but they are not cheap. Typical new releases ran from between $30 and $50 and that's way beyond what I'm prepared to pay.

Another piece of functionality brought to this size of eReader for the first time is the ability to hand-write annotations in your books using the Kobo stylus.

You can do this with the previously launched Elipsa, but that's bigger and much more cumbersome to use in bed. It's a better integrated experience here because of the size alone.

Use of the stylus, as it was when I previously tried it, is very good.

Not only did it feel natural thanks to the touch of the stylus on the screen, it's also great at recognising even my bad handwriting.

The Kobo Sage eBook reader
Photo credit: Newshub

There are two formats of digital notebooks - freehand, which just retains your scribbles and handwritten notes, and text, with the latter converting handwriting to text at your request.

But the fun really came from using the stylus while reading.

Paragraphs that moved me, made me laugh or gave me pause for reflection have always been a pain to try and re-find later on. Here it becomes easy to do so and I got used to reading with the stylus in my hand, poised for when some words grab my attention.

The Kobo Sage is also water resistant, with an IPX8 rating that allows it to be submerged for up to 60 minutes in 2m of water.

Unfortunately I have no tub in my house, because there's nothing I love more than luxuriating in a hot bath, reading a great book and then ultimately falling asleep and dropping the book in the water. I can't count the number of times that's happened and it'd be not the problem it normally is with this device.

One final thing - the Kobo wouldn't be the same without the functionality that makes it the best on the market for me - its connection with Overdrive and hence Auckland Libraries. Thankfully it's still front and centre.

From the homepage it was easy to access my library's catalogue, browse for eBooks and graphic novels and borrow them quickly and easily. They're automatically downloaded onto the device and available to read within seconds. It's like magic.

Unfortunately that functionality hasn't yet extended to audiobooks - but I have my fingers crossed that it will be delivered at some point.

The Kobo Sage eBook reader
Photo credit: Newshub

The bad

There's no getting around the major downside to the Kobo Sage: How much it costs. The device alone will set you back $499.

Then you have to fork out extra if you want both the stylus and the power cover, which has a battery and keeps the Sage topped up with juice. They will cost you $79.95 and $139.95 respectively.

For those keeping count, that puts the total price above that of the Elipsa bundle I reviewed earlier this year, and that's got the much bigger screen.

It seems an odd pricing decision by the company and means if annotating books or writing on a digital notepad isn't something you foresee doing then one of the cheaper options on the market will provide more value for money.

I'm left puzzled at the decision to not create a Sage bundle that includes the very things that make this device seem worthwhile. Perhaps that will come later?

The Kobo Sage eBook reader
Photo credit: Newshub

While I like the protection the device's cover offers it did add a surprising amount of weight. It transforms it from being able to be held in one hand to a two-hand experience.

It meant I often took the Kobo out of the case when in bed - the Sage weighs in at just 241g and is much more comfortable to use without it.

That cover also has another flaw. The power on/off button is situated on the back of the device, which is completely covered by the case.

It's not a game changer, it's just one of those quirks that seems odd in the bigger scheme of things.

The final flaw is altogether more hilarious.

Users can define a bedtime so the Kobo automatically alters the colour and warmth of the screen using something called ComfortLight Pro. It's supposed to reduce the amount of blue light just before you head off to sleep.

Unfortunately the earliest you can set your bedtime to, according to my testing, is 9pm which I'm a little embarrassed to admit is too late for me.

The Kobo Sage eBook reader
Photo credit: Newshub

As someone who's up and about very early, I'm already in the Land of Nod by then, meaning I have to manually set the colour and warmth if I want less blue light.

I have a feeling this says way more about me than it does the Kobo.

The verdict

The Sage, despite its name evoking the worst herb in the world, is something I'm happy to say I thoroughly enjoyed using.

Not only has it proved to be an excellent eBook reader, I started using it to highlight passages in books that I wanted to revisit and to think about more for the first time. That's been driven by the increased isolation of lockdown and inevitable soul-searching that goes along with such a thing.

It has made one thing clear to me, though. The temptation with the iPad Mini was to skip from the book I was reading to a game or even to some social media doom scrolling.

With the Kobo, that's not something I want to do and that comes as a relief.

The Kobo Sage eBook reader
Photo credit: Newshub

Yes, it's expensive and there are cheaper options out there if you don't want a stylus and audiobook playing functionality, but I'm convinced. Not only has the Sage reclaimed its place as the number one eBook reader in the Kilpatrick household, it made me reconsider what I want out of the experience.

Whether that's something you want or desire will determine whether this is an expensive luxury you can avoid or a necessity.

Newshub was supplied with a Kobo Sage eBook reader for this review.