If ever a technology was defined by its highs and lows, it’s E Ink, the monochrome screen system used in e-book readers from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony and other companies.
Its virtues are downright amazing. E Ink uses power so sparingly that e-reader battery life is measured in months, not hours. It’s highly readable in direct sunlight, the sort of environment that can bleach an iPad screen into utter illegibility. Unlike the LCDs used in tablets, smartphones and color readers such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire and B&N’s Nook Tablet, it never flickers, shimmers or casts your reflection back at you.
But as featured in pioneering devices such as Amazon.com’s early Kindles and an even earlier Sony Reader, E Ink was rife with drawbacks. Each time you flipped a “page,” you could see the display sluggishly refresh itself, with an unsightly flashing effect. The contrast was poor, and so few shades of gray were available that photographs looked like Etch-a-Sketch drawings.
Little by little, the E Ink folks and their hardware partners have reduced or eliminated these quirks. The best E Ink readers — Amazon’s Kindle Touch and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch — are highly-refined gadgets with 6″ touch-enabled E Ink screens that are a pleasure to use.
Except for one thing — and it’s a biggie.
Even in its much-improved current state, E Ink has remained devilishly tough to read in lousy lighting. Unlike color LCD displays, E Ink ones aren’t illuminated, and their contrast, while improved over previous versions, still isn’t great: they display dark gray “ink” on light-gray “paper.” If you want to read in bed and don’t want to disturb a snoozing spouse, you’ve been forced to clamp on a book light. (Amazon sells fourteen different models.)
Enter Barnes & Noble’s new Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. It’s nearly the same e-reader as the already-pleasing, paperback-like Simple Touch, with one gigantic improvement: on-demand lighting.
The Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight is $139; that’s $40 more than the non-lit version, which remains available, and the same price that Amazon charges for the version of the Kindle Touch that doesn’t include “Special Offer” ads. Barnes & Noble, which supplied me with a unit for review, says that it’ll begin shipping pre-ordered units to customers this week, but that they may be in short supply in its retail stores for a while. (The company helpfully suggests that anyone who wants one in time for Mother’s Day on May 13 should order right way.)
Now, effectively illuminating an E Ink screen is no cakewalk. Tellingly, Sony released a light-up Reader in 2009, but the results were murky and its successor reverted to a non-lit display.
Barnes & Noble’s version, however, works really well. When GlowLight is turned off, the fact that it’s been added doesn’t seem to hurt the clarity of the display; it remains very readable by E Ink standards, although I found that the Kindle Touch’s text looked a bit blacker in some situations.
When you need lighting, you hold down the reader’s home button for two seconds, and LEDs on the edge of the screen switch on. The illumination isn’t completely even — you can see the individual LEDs along the top flooding the display with light. But it makes the screen perfectly readable even in an otherwise pitch-black room, and also helps in environments where the lighting is so-so rather than nonexistent. (You can crank up the brightness manually if the default setting doesn’t do the trick.)
Of course, the problem with light-up screens is that they’re power hogs compared to standard E Ink. (That’s a big part of why Barnes & Noble quotes a battery life of “up to 11.5 hours” for its Nook Tablet, vs. “over two months” for the non-illuminated Nook Simple Touch and the Simple Touch with GlowLight with the light switched off.) B&N says that the new Nook’s battery will last for over a month with GlowLight turned on, if you read for half an hour a day; that presumably translates into fifteen hours of continuous use. In the real world, though, you won’t use GlowLight all the time — you’ll switch it on when you need it, and leave it off when you don’t.
The happy bottom line: you should be able to take a fully-charged Nook with GlowLight on vacation and read as much as you like, without ever having to worry about the battery level.
So GlowLight is a boon for the Nook Simple Touch, with little downside. How does that impact the never-ending battle between the Nook and its eternal arch-rival, the Kindle?
Well, first of all, there’s no such thing as “the Kindle.” Even if you take the color Kindle Fire out of the equation, Amazon sells nine different E Ink Kindles: you can pay as little as $79, for an ad-supported one with buttons instead of a touchscreen, or as much as $379, for the jumbo-sized, 3G-enabled Kindle DX. With the E Ink Nooks, you either pay $99 for the standard version or $139 for the one with GlowLight. (Sadly, there’s no 3G Nook: you need to be on a wifi network to download books and other content.)
The Nook with GlowLight’s most direct competitor is the no-ads, no-3G version of the Kindle Touch. They both sell for for $139. And it’s rare to find two rivals in any consumer-electronics category so evenly matched.
They’re both lightweight and compact, making them easy to tote almost anywhere. (The Nook is squatter and curvier — which makes it both cuter and a bit easier to grasp.) They both have well-done touch interfaces, with on-screen keyboards that are surprisingly usable.
Both readers provide access to a wealth of books, magazines and newspapers at reasonable prices. Most best-sellers are between $7.99 and $12.99 from both Barnes & Noble and Amazon; I did notice, however, that some titles, especially older ones, are a few dollars cheaper at Amazon.
Even when the two readers are different, things tend to balance out. The Kindle Touch has a robotic read-out-loud feature that’s not available for all books, a very basic MP3 player and a web browser that Amazon still dubs an experiment almost five years after it first appeared; the Nook Simple Touch has more ambitious social-networking features for communing with other book lovers. The Kindle Touch has 4GB of storage for books and other content; the Nook Simple Touch only has 2GB, but a MicroSD slot lets you increase that by up to 32GB.
For many people who are already devoted e-book readers, the Nook-or-Kindle conundrum boils down to a simple question: which bookseller have you been buying from? Most digital tomes are locked up with copy protection that only lets you read them on devices and apps supplied by the company that sold them to you. And as cool as GlowLight is, it’s unlikely to get Kindle customers with substantial investments in Amazon e-books to switch. They’d lose access to their library unless they bought everything all over again from Barnes & Noble.
If you’re not already married to one electronic bookseller, GlowLight is the first new killer feature to come along since the early days of E Ink. The Kindle Touch remains a fine product, and the $99 “Special Offers” variant is a good option if your budget is tight. But if you want an e-reader you can read in dim-to-nonexistent lighting without babysitting your battery, you want the new Nook. It’s the most usable, well-rounded, pleasing E Ink e-reader so far.