Editors' note (October 30, 2013): Barnes & Noble has replaced the 2012 model reviewed here with the updated Nook GlowLight, which retails for $119. Remaining stock of this older model can still be purchased for $99 while supplies last.
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.