Hands-On: Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight, Uh, Glows, With Light

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Today, Barnes & Noble announced a new upgrade to the (pretty excellent) Nook Simple Touch ebook reader: illumination. The Simple Touch With GlowLight, as it’ll be called, is in just about every way the same as the non-bright Simple Touch, except it has a little LED at the top of the screen so you can read it in the dark without an external light source.

Electrophoretic displays like the Nook’s (and the Kindle’s, and the Kobo’s, and the Sony Reader’s) function in practical use basically like a sheet of paper. That means they’re super easy on the eyes, since there’s no light shining in your eyes all the time as with an LCD (like on a tablet or smartphone). But it also means that they’re hard to read in low light, since they don’t provide any light of their own.

The Simple Touch With GlowLight (awkward name! I’m going to call it the GlowNook from now on) isn’t the first LED-lit electrophoretic reader–Sony’s had one for awhile–but it’s the first one that really works. Sony’s had serious glare problems, and the lighting itself wasn’t even. The GlowNook is front-lit by a strip of LED light at the top edge of the screen, and some kind of proprietary system of (invisible) lenses and prisms bounces the light back and forth for more evenness. (My finger did not cast a shadow.) I’m not sure exactly how it works, but it lines up with this TechCrunch report on new electrophoretic screens (rumored to be included in the next Kindle as well). It does in fact glow softly, rather than harshly, but Barnes & Noble told me the LED is on top of the screen rather than below it.

It is definitely brighter right up at the top, but from about a centimeter down until the very bottom of the screen, the GlowNook remains evenly lit. The lighting is grey, too, which is good. Not yellow, not blue. On the Wikipedia shades of gray scale, it’s about a silver. It’s a nice color, silver. Elegant and understated. Good gray.

And there’s an anti-glare film built in–previously this was available only as an option–so there’s very little glare at all. (Glare was an issue in the Sony LED-lit reader, making it harder to see in sunlight.)

I found it very comfortable to read in the dark, so it’s a good option if you do a lot of that (or if a bedside lamp disturbs your sleeping partner).

It’s easy to use; you just hold down the Nook/home button, located on the front of the screen, for a couple seconds and the light pops up. There’s a sliding bar so you can adjust the level of brightness–in all likelihood, you’ll want just a touch of light, and that option is certainly there. Using the touchscreen doesn’t affect the light, since the light is below the outer anti-glare coating. Otherwise it’s about the same as the regular Simple Touch, which, by the way, it’s not replacing–it’ll be available alongside its dark little brother. Using the light cuts the battery life, but not by too much–B&N claims a month of battery life when lit, and the regular two months when dark, so it’ll still be a long-lived gadget.

The new Simple Touch will be available for pre-ordering on April 12, with availability sometime in early May, for $139. That’s a fair price; the Kindle Touch, which I actually didn’t love, and which does not have an included light, also costs $139 in its ad-free model (with ads, it’s only $99, and the ads are pretty inoffensive, so.). But I actually like the Simple Touch more than the Kindle Touch–the Simple Touch retains its page-turning buttons, which for me are a much better option than swiping the screen–so if you’re not locked into Amazon’s Kindle store already, it’s definitely worth taking a look.