The last twelve months have been a heck of a roller-coaster ride for venerable bookseller and gadget-maker-come-lately Barnes & Noble. A year ago, it released nice new Nook HD tablets which offered, among other things, movies from B&N’s own new video store. Then it released a software update that let Nook tablet owners buy stuff from Google’s Play store. Then it slashed prices. Then it said it was going to stop designing its own tablets. Then it seemed to backtrack on that decision.
And now it’s going back to basics. The company has started selling a new monochrome e-reader, the Nook GlowLight. It replaces last year’s wordier Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight, and sells for $119. It’s the closest thing that Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, also recently updated, has to an archrival. The company gave me a preview last week.
There’s nothing radically new about the new GlowLight, but it does have lots of little tweaks, starting with the the color of the case — an off-white shade that’s strikingly different from the grays and blacks that most other e-readers have always sported. B&N says that giving the case a paper-like color is less distracting, and judging from my peek, it may have a point.
The new GlowLight weighs just 6.2 ounces — less than the old one, and over an ounce less than the new Paperwhite. It’s easy to hold and…well, cute, in a way that the more austere Paperwhite is not. But I did miss one feature from the last model: dedicated page-turn buttons as an alternative to on-screen swiping.
The screen still uses E Ink technology, but B&N says it’s evened out the backlight — although I noticed a bit of waviness at the top of the display — and worked to minimize the unsightly ghosting and flashing effect which have been downsides of E Ink. It’s also commissioned custom typefaces from Monotype. Not surprisingly, it says that it’s got a better E Ink screen than Amazon has on the Kindle; I’ll wait until I can compare both of them in a variety of environments before I come to any definitive conclusions.
As with all E Ink readers, power consumption puts almost anything else with a battery inside to shame: eight weeks with or without the backlight on, assuming you read for half an hour a day. The new model has 4GB of internal storage, double the Paperwhite’s capacity and good, B&N says, for up to 2000 books — which is, presumably, enough for anyone.
Amazon has been busy stuffing its e-reader with features, including X-Ray, which provides addtional information on characters and other aspects of the book you’re reading, a tool for reviewing words you’ve learned from a text, and — coming soon — its FreeTime kid-friendly environment and GoodReads social network. Barnes & Noble doesn’t have anything to match most of this.
But rather than crying uncle, it’s trying to promote simplicity and its bookselling chops as GlowLight advantages. For instance, it’s touting the fact that the e-reader will recommend books to you based on hand-picked lists chosen by real people rather than by using an algorithm. As before, the interface also lacks any counterpart to the on-device ads which Amazon calls “Special Offers.” We’ll see if consumers buy the idea that less is more.
During my demo of the new GlowLight, I chatted with Mahesh Veerina, a former Motorola and Nokia executive who was two weeks into his new job as chief operating officer of Nook Media, the Barnes & Noble subsidiary responsible for devices and digital content. I asked him about the mixed messages the company has sent about its plans for additional tablets, and he clarified: It’s not ruling out the possibility of designing further color models, but has decided that it’s not in its best interest to take on Apple, Google and Samsung with do-everything models which are as much about movies, music gaming and apps as anything else. Which means that this new e-reader’s focus on the basics of e-reading isn’t just a return to the company’s book-centric roots — it’s also a preview of its future.