Technologizer

Hands On with Barnes & Noble’s New Nook Simple Touch E-Reader with GlowLight

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

More than most technologies I can think of, the E Ink screens used in monochrome e-readers such as Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch and Amazon.com’s Kindle Touch present a stark set of tradeoffs. If you don’t mind the lack of color, their virtues are considerable: they don’t get bleached out in bright sun and allow for an e-reader to go for weeks between charges.

But the same E Ink displays that are wonderfully legible in bright light are impossible to read in a dark room. And if the lighting is so-so — like it is on, say, an airplane — E Ink displays are readable, but murky and not very appealing. In either of these cases, you’re far better of with a color LCD such as the ones on B&N’s Nook Tablet and Nook Color, Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the iPad.

But now bookselling behemoth Barnes & Noble has a fix. It’s called the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, and it’s an E Ink Nook with a 6″ screen that lights up on demand. I got a hands-on sneak peek today and was generally impressed.

Illuminated E Ink isn’t a new idea: Sony released one of its Readers with a lit screen back in 2009. But in that version, the lighting hurt the clarity of the screen. The company dropped the feature in later models.

Judging from my demo of the Nook with GlowLight, Barnes & Noble has figured out how to make the idea make sense. This Simple Touch is essentially the same as its appealing predecessor — which remains available — except that when you press and hold the e-reader’s “N” button, LEDs along the edge of the display turn on, blanketing the screen in light. The illumination isn’t perfectly even — I could make out discrete beams emanating from the LEDs along the top edge — but it’s bright enough to make the display perfectly legible in very dark environments, without lighting up the entire room in the way that backlit LCD displays tend to do. (That’s an important point if you’re reading in bed and someone else is trying to sleep.)

Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

In a room in which the lighting is merely mediocre rather than almost non-existent, GlowLight still makes a difference — it gets rid of the grayishness of standard E Ink. I’d certainly prefer it, although it does make it more obvious that you’re looking at an electronic display. (You can adjust the brightness to your liking — and with any luck, the Nook kiosks in Barnes & Noble stores will set things up so you can judge the screen with your own eyeballs.)

The lighting option would be useful even if it was a ravenous battery hog, but according to B&N’s claims, it appears to be reasonably efficient. The company says that the Simple Touch with GlowLight will go for two months between charges if you don’t use the light at all; if you use it for a half-hour a day, you’ll still get a month on a charge. Presumably, that translates into about fifteen hours of continuous use with the light on. (It shuts off automatically after five minutes of no usage, so you won’t kill the battery if you fall asleep with the light on.)

Barnes & Noble says that the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight will be available in early May at its own stores, Best Buy, Target, Walmart and other retailers; it’ll sell for $139. The non-lit Simple Touch will stay around at $99. Amazon, meanwhile, has a non-touch Kindle at $99 (or $79 with “special offer” ads), the Kindle Touch at $139 (or $99 with special offers) and the Kindle Touch with 3G at $189 (or $149 with special offers). Sony’s Reader is $129. And I’m not even going to mention other contenders such as Kobo. (Whoops, I just did!)

Whew. That’s a lot of choices. At $139, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight competes most directly with Amazon’s no-special-offers Kindle Touch. And the lit screen is a pretty compelling selling point — at least as long as you haven’t already sunk much money into a collection of Kindle books, since they can’t be read on the Nook.

Me, I do most of my e-reading on my iPad; it may be much bigger, heavier, and pricier than any of the E Ink readers, but I almost always have it with me anyhow. Still, there seems to be a healthy market for more traditional e-readers. I’m pleased to see that they’re continuing to evolve, and I’m curious to see how long this Nook’s GlowLight screen remains a unique point in its favor.

MORE: back in February, B&N knocked the starting price of its Nook Tablet down to $199.

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