E Ink readers like the Kindle and the NOOK are great for reading in the sunshine, but when it gets dark out, you face a problem: You either have to attach a flashlight to the device or turn on a light in your home.
With its newest NOOK Simple Touch, which comes with an embedded technology called GlowLight, Barnes & Noble thinks it has eliminated that problem forever.
Announced on Thursday afternoon, the new device becomes the first E Ink reader whose screen is also backlit. Barnes & Noble representatives say that the new screen illumination technology, which can be toggled on and off, makes its new NOOK Simple Touch the only device with a screen that is really readable both in direct sunlight as well as in the dark.
After trying the new NOOK Simple Touch in both the darkness and the light, and comparing its readability to a new iPad and an E Ink Kindle Touch under similar conditions, I've gotta say: Barnes & Noble might have something game-changing for the e-reader market.
The new reader has the same size and shape of the old NOOK, and is actually a bit lighter than the older model NOOK Simple Touch (which was already pretty light to begin with). What really separates the new NOOK Simple Touch from the current pack of tablets and e-readers, however, is its GlowLight, which illuminates the NOOK's screen from the edges. When you're outside, you can turn the GlowLight off to get the pure E Ink experience; when you're in the dark, the amount of light emanating from the screen can be adjusted with a slider. It's exactly the way you would adjust the brightness on an iPad or Kindle Fire, except the display isn't LCD; it's E Ink. That means you can actually see the screen if you're reading at the beach or by the poolside.
If the NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight works like it did in my demo -- and there's no reason to think it wouldn't -- it becomes the only e-reader that you can truly use anywhere and anytime. It's also perhaps the only e-reader worth buying if you've got the cash and are in the market for a reading-only device. The new device will cost $139, which is $40 more than the NOOK Simple Touch without GlowLight and $60 more than the cheapest Kindle, an ad-supported Wi-Fi version. You are essentially paying for an e-reader whose screen can also light up by itself -- no lamps, no reading lights.
Now, at a price point of $139, you're rubbing up against full-fledged tablet territory, and the NOOK Simple Touch is but a single-function e-reader without any apps or real web access. Devices with both of those things aren't much more expensive than the $139 Simple Touch: Amazon's Kindle Fire, for example, is $199, and Barnes & Noble's NOOK Color is $179. That slim price difference makes it clear that the NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight is for hardcore readers (people who are hardcore about reading, not people who read hardcore material) who want to be able to use a single device both indoors and out.
(Funny side note: Barnes & Noble is actually pitching the Simple Touch as the perfect device for couples, and its testing area for journalists was just a queen-sized bed in a dark room. The pitch goes something like this: if your partner likes to read in bed, and the light from the iPad or the bedside lamp bothers you while you're trying to sleep, you should buy him or her a NOOK Simple Touch. The light emitted from it is indeed gentler than that of an iPad, though it's unclear whether it's a big enough difference to convince buyers.)
What is clear is that E Ink screens like those on the Kindle and NOOK have long outperformed LCD screens like those on the iPad -- whose colors tend to "wash out" in the sun in daylight reading tests. And Barnes & Noble representatives said their backlight doesn't strain the eyes like iPad LCD screens.
This is Barnes & Noble's answer to the charge that E Ink readers are useless at night, and it's a definitive, convincing response. Pre-orders for the $139 NOOK Simple Touch begin immediately on the Barnes & Noble website, and the device will be released in May, in time for Mother's Day, according to a Barnes & Noble spokesperson.
Below, check out a bunch of in-person photos of the new NOOK Simple Touch with GlowLight, including photos of the bed that Barnes & Noble had me try out the device on. Also see side-to-side shots with the old NOOK Simple Touch, which will remain on sale, by the way, for $99, for those who don't mind their bedside lamps.