Editors' note (October 30, 2013): Barnes & Noble has replaced the 2012 model reviewed here with the updated
What's the No. 1 requested feature people want in an e-ink e-reader?
According to Barnes & Noble, it's an integrated light, which is why the company spent the last two years developing the $139 Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. Except for a gray rather than black border around the edge, the new model looks identical to the standard $99 Nook Simple Touch. But it's slightly lighter, weighing 6.95 ounces instead of 7.48 ounces, and has an ever so slightly more responsive touch screen.
Until now, e-ink's chief selling points have been how readable it is outdoors, even in bright sunlight, and that it's very energy efficient. While the lack of a backlight was touted as reducing eyestrain, the inability to read in the dark or dimly lit environments has always been one of e-ink's weaknesses. You either had to buy a clip-on light or a case that had an integrated flip-out light built into it. Amazon charges $59.99 for its Kindle Touch Lighted Leather Cover.
Barnes & Noble is not the first to integrate a light into its e-ink e-reader (Sony was with its PRS-700), but after playing around with the device for several days, I can say that it's the first company to do it in a truly successful manner. Yes, there's some slight unevenness in the lighting at the very top of the e-reader -- it's brighter at the top edge -- but overall, the lighting displays uniformly across the screen. This was not the case with Sony's PRS-700, which had a much more uneven look, though the light worked OK and was usable.
Barnes & Noble says the GlowLight technology was designed in-house at the company's office in Palo Alto, Calif., and has a patent pending. It's important to note that the glow technology isn't a backlight but rather a form of LED front-lighting. You activate the light by holding down the Nook button on the front and shut it off the same way. You can also dim the light to avoid bothering a bed partner who's trying to sleep. I tended to use the light at about 50 percent brightness, and found that to be quite ample in a totally dark room.
The light actually fades on and also fades off -- a nice touch -- and the GlowLight really does appear as more of a glow than an overhead lighting source splashed across the screen. I've used clip-on lights, as well as Amazon's lighted Kindle covers, and while they work well enough, this is a more elegant and convenient solution with more even distribution of light across the display.
But does the integrated light affect contrast at all? Some CNET readers have asked that question, after their experience with Sony's PRS-700. The problem there wasn't the uneven lighting so much as the fact that the contrast was significantly reduced, leaving letters looking dull and less than crisp on the screen (this was due to the way Sony implemented the touch-screen with an extra layer of glass).
I was concerned about contrast loss so I compared the GlowLight model with the original Nook Simple. Side by side, I noticed that the text on the original Nook is ever so slightly darker. You really have to look to notice it, but I noticed a very slight difference.
To make sure I wasn't imagining things, I had fellow CNET editor Scott Stein offer a second opinion. Without telling him which model was which, he, too, said the text on the original Nook looked a tiny bit darker.
I'm not sure whether this is due to the design of the lighting scheme or whether it is somehow attributable to the antiglare screen protector, which is included with the e-reader and comes preinstalled on the screen. (Barnes & Noble also includes an AC adapter and USB cable for charging the device; the Kindle only ships with the cable).
Interestingly, you can't even tell that a screen protector is installed on the device, and I couldn't figure out how you'd go about removing it. When I asked Barnes & Noble about it, a rep told me that it's laminated on the device and shouldn't be removed because it will degrade the display. "That [the screen protector] is now built in to the device providing screen protection, antiglare capabilities, and other optical functions to create a uniform light as never seen before on an E Ink device," the rep said.
It does seem to help a slight bit with glare, but I still encountered some glare from my office lights overhead when I held the Nook at certain angles.
Either way, though, both Scott Stein and I felt that the tiny difference in contrast was slight enough that users shouldn't be concerned. It's not a big deal.
Same design, different color border
As I said, the only way to tell the two Nook Simple Touch models apart is that the GlowLight version has a gray rather than black border.
At 6.95 ounces, the GlowLight is now a half ounce lighter than the Kindle Touch Wi-Fi, which weighs in at 7.5 ounces. While that Kindle model is narrower than the Nook (which looks squatter by comparison), the Kindle leaves off the hard page-turn buttons found on the sides of Nook, which some people really like.
Like the original Nook Simple Touch, the designers coated the GlowLight Nook with something called soft-touch paint, which gives it a smooth rubberized feel. That's nice, but the downside to this type of finish is that it does show finger smudges, so you'll regularly have to wipe down the back of the device unless you buy a cover (plenty are available).
As it stands, chances are you'll end up holding it more from one side of the device or the other (depending on whether you're a righty or lefty) and position your index finger around the back of the device in the middle. With the middle of the back indented slightly, you get a little ridge to grip the Nook from the back. Of course, if you want to see how it feels in your hand, all you have to do is walk into a Barnes & Noble store.
GlowLight is the big feature upgrade
As noted, except for the integrated GlowLight, this model offers almost identical specs as the original Nook Simple Touch, which remains on the market and costs $99 ($40 less).
Barnes & Noble reps told me the battery is the same size. What they didn't tell me was what was tweaked to shave off that half ounce and what had changed to improve the performance of the touch screen. All the reps said was that it was a hardware change rather than a software fix, so owners of the original Nook will have to live with the responsiveness they have, which is already quite decent.
In my evaluation, I really didn't notice a significant difference in the performance between the original Nook Simple Touch and the new model. If there is one, it's very subtle (it's not like moving from the first-gen iPad to the third-gen iPad, for example). As for battery life, I used the e-reader with the GlowLight on for three consecutive nights for about 45 minutes each time. I also read a bit during the day. The battery life indicator still appears full, which is probably due to the fact that I kept the Wi-Fi off almost the whole time.
Aside from the GlowLight, one key differentiating point between the Nook and both the $79 2011 Kindle and the $99 Kindle Touch is Barnes & Noble's inclusion of an expansion slot for adding additional memory. However, the Kindle Touch does offer integrated audio, which allows you to listen to MP3 music (and other audio files, including audio books) while you're reading, as well as have books read to you -- or at least those with the text-to-speech feature enabled (publishers decide whether to enable this feature or not).
Otherwise, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight is delivering the standard features we expect to see on an e-ink e-book reader: 6-inch Pearl e-ink touch-screen, Wi-Fi, social media sharing features with other Nook users, and a rechargeable battery via the Micro-USB port. Though you're locked into the Barnes & Noble ecosystem (e-books, newspapers, and magazines), the Nook also supports the more open EPUB and PDF formats (including those with Adobe copy-protection). Some e-books (at the publishers' discretion) can also be "lent" to fellow Nook owners for two weeks at a time, and the Nook Simple Touch supports free e-book loaners from local libraries.
Also notable: unlike the $79 Kindle, $99 Kindle Touch, and $149 Kindle Touch 3G, the Nook Simple Touch is ad-free.
We awarded the original Nook Simple Touch an Editors' Choice when it was released because it offered an excellent combination of design, features, and was the best performing touch-screen e-ink reader at the time it was released.
Barnes & Noble has come a long way since it released its first e-ink Nook, which distinguished itself with a strip of color LCD and had its share of bugs at launch.
Today, the overall user experience, from the hardware design to the user interface, improved shopping, long battery life, fast page turns, and supplemental reading features (built-in dictionary, highlighting/note-taking, social media, and plenty of font choices) is really quite good. Reading magazines and newspapers (most require a subscription) also works surprisingly well now on these types of devices, even ones this small and lacking color (no, the photos don't look so hot).
True, the Kindle Touch does have a few features not found in the Nook Simple Touch. As I said, there's no sound here. For many, that's not a big deal. Also, Amazon does offer a broader lending feature for Prime members ($79 a year), with a growing list of titles that can be checked out for a month for free (caveat: you can only check out one book a month and many of these books are self-published titles, though some big-name authors are available). And the Kindle does offer a basic Web browser, as well as Wikipedia and Google lookup from within the text you're reading.
But more and more there isn't a whole lot of difference among e-readers (we also awarded an Editors' Choice to the Kindle Touch), so a key differentiating feature like a built-in GlowLight is a big deal, particularly for folks who've been waiting for just such a feature.
The big question, of course, is whether that integrated light is worth the $40 extra. Cases with integrated lights generally cost more than $40, and while clip-on lights typically cost only around $20, they aren't as elegant a lighting solution. Barnes & Noble is also throwing in the aforementioned AC adapter along with that preinstalled antiglare screen protector that most people won't notice is there.
When it comes to e-reader price points, $10 or $20 can make a big difference, and I could quibble about how the GlowLight Nook should be priced slightly cheaper (ideally it would). That said, if this is a feature you've been waiting for, I have no problem telling you that it's worth paying the extra dough simply because the new Nook is, as Barnes & Noble suggests, "amazing in bed."
That integrated light should also appeal to folks who don't have an e-ink e-reader yet and aren't wed to the Amazon ecosystem. Selling existing Kindle users on the new Nook is a much bigger challenge, but certainly many Kindle users will look upon it with envy.
As one of the engineers behind the GlowLight told me, if nothing else, Barnes & Noble has set the standard for e-ink e-readers going forward. In other words, the next Kindle will almost assuredly have an integrated light, but for the moment anyway, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight is the only e-ink e-reader that has it. Props for that.