Sometimes, you want to curl up in bed with a good e-book, but you don't want to disturb your sleeping partner by turning on a light. Barnes & Noble has solved this thorny issue with the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight. This 7-ounce E Ink e-reader features a glare-free screen for beach reading, long battery life and (finally) a screen with a built-in night-light so you can finish that last chapter before nodding off. At $139, this device costs $40 more than its nonilluminated older sibling. But is that money well spent?
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The third-generation Nook looks nearly identical to the graphite Nook Simple Touch, except for a light gray sliver rim around the edge. While the dimensions of the two are the same (6.5 x 5.0 x 0.47 inches), the third generation Simple Touch weighs 6.95 ounces, compared to 7.48 ounces on the previous version. While it may not seem like much, the half-ounce difference makes for more comfortable longer reading sessions, as does the soft-coated, rubbery contours of the backside.
The E Ink display, which is slightly inset, features an infrared-controlled touch screen that is generally responsive. The Nook Simple Touch comes with a built-in anti-glare screen protector. We expected it to feel gritty, but we couldn't discern any difference when compared to the E Ink screen on the Kindle Touch.
The Power button still sits on the back at the top, and a stylized N-shaped Menu button sits beneath the front display. Along the right side of the back is a microSD port cover that didn't sit as flush as we'd have liked. Flanking the screen are two rubbery page-turn buttons on each side that were easy to press. Helpfully, in the Settings menu, you can decide if the top or bottom buttons will turn the page forward or back. Whichever button acts as Page Forward will also, when held down, activate Fast Page, miming the act of flipping through the pages of a physical book.
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Under the top edge of the display is a line of LED lights that illuminate the screen in a bath of subtle light. This GlowLight technology, as Barnes & Noble calls it, is meant to let Nook users read in bed without disturbing their partners or someone sitting next to you on an airplane.
In our experience, the blue GlowLight appeared fairly uniform across the screen and did improve our reading experience, even in slightly dim rooms. With its brightness turned to 100 percent (it's adjustable via a control panel), the GlowLight averaged 135 lux. That's less than half the tablet category average of 359 lux as well as the iPad (386 lux), but for long e-reading sessions, we prefer the soft blue glow in the dark to the iPad's bright shine.
Display and Reading Experience
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The 6-inch display on the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight is based on the same Pearl E Ink technology found on Kindle e-readers and the previous generation Nook. It offers 16 levels of grayscale. Text appears crisp and clear on the new Nook, not unlike its competitors. Graphics, such as book covers, look as good in grayscale as we'd expect, which is to say good, but not black-and-white photograph good.
Barnes & Noble built in a glare-free screen protection layer for better reading in direct light. However, when compared in bright light with a Kindle Touch with no screen protector, we didn't see much of a difference. It's no contest between the Nook and iPad in daylight, though.
Page turns were remarkably swift and smooth. In a side-by-side comparison with the Kindle Touch, the Nook displayed almost none of the traditional flash and blink that notably slows its Amazon competitor.
We're especially happy Barnes & Noble retained three page turn options. Users can swipe or tap the left or right edges (without needing a map of the correct areas, as you do with the Kindle Touch). Or you can use the physical buttons on either side of the screen.
Inside books are six font face options (half serif and half sans-serif) and seven text sizes from which to choose. Users can also adjust line spacing and margins or choose to use the publisher's defaults for each book.
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Nothing much has changed in the Nook Simple Touch interface in the last year. It still runs Android 2.1 with a Barnes & Noble custom skin. The Home screen still presents an overview of the e-book you're reading, other recently opened or acquired material and recommendations on what to read next.
At the top right sits a Wi-Fi icon and a little light bulb icon that, when pressed, opens a control panel for toggling the GlowLight on and off and for adjusting the brightness level.
The N Menu button offers access to the Home screen, Library, the Barnes & Noble store, an internal search function, the GlowLight control panel and Settings. Pressing and holding the N button for a couple seconds also turns on and off the GlowLight.
You will not find games, music, audiobooks or a Web browser on this e-reader.
Notes, Bookmarks, Sharing, and Nook Friends
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The Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight's on-screen keyboard is rarely needed. When it is, it pops up out of the bottom of the screen, sometimes obscuring content you're typing. It's most helpful for searching the store or making notes in text. The keyboard itself uses the full screen, with bigger keys than those found on the Kindle Touch. The device kept up with our typing, but it flicked as the letters appeared on screen.
Creating notes is as easy as pressing and holding your finger over a word in the text of a book. When you've got the word or quote highlighted, a pop-up menu appears at the bottom of the display for highlighting, adding notes, checking a definition or sharing passages via email, Facebook or Twitter. Thankfully, you do not have to see every passage that other readers have thought important enough to highlight, as you do on the Kindle by default.
On Facebook messages, the book's cover appears with a link to buy the book, along with the quote. Via Twitter, a select passage automatically carries a shortened link to buy the book and the hashtag #Nook. Although you can connect your Google+ contacts through the Nook Simple Touch, you cannot share a passage easily to Google+.
When you select Add Note, a pop-up text box and keyboard appear. Selecting Done closes this window and puts a small post-it icon in the margin near the highlighted text.
Nook Friends connects users with Barnes & Noble accounts to Nook-based social reading. Limited to Nook and Nook Color users (not those with just the mobile apps), this basic social network is meant to mirror the ways people share books and recommendations offline.
On the Nook, you can see a news feed of updates from your Nook Friends, including how far they are in books and the ones they've reviewed. You can also see which of their books are lendable and request a book from a friend. We didn't find this feature particularly useful because it offers such a limited user base. You can invite friends to join, but they'll still need to be Nook owners.
Content and Shopping Experience
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Currently, the Barnes & Noble e-book catalog has more than 2.5 million titles. That's about 1 million more than the Kindle offers, but that same figure can be attributed to public-domain books from Google Books. We found a complete selection of New York Times bestsellers from the e-books, fiction hardcover and print/e-book lists in the Barnes & Noble store.
The Nook Newsstand has more than 240 magazines and 40 newspapers available for digital subscription. By comparison, the Kindle store offers 171 magazines and 191 newspapers
The shopping interface is simple and easy to navigate, thanks to the touch screen. Downloads continue to be quick and painless over Wi-Fi. During our tests, we downloaded the current issue of National Geographic in 10 seconds. We were ready to read "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman in 7 seconds, and the most recent issue of The Onion in 8 seconds.
In addition to Wi-Fi, Barnes & Noble offers free in-store Wi-Fi to all Nook users, plus free Wi-Fi at AT&T hotspots across the U.S. (more than 24,000 so far).
Unfortunately, the Nook search function is still flawed. No matter from which section you're browsing, searching for a phrase brings up results from the entire catalog, not just books or magazines.
As the Nook reads e-books in the EPUB file format, owners won't be limited to Barnes & Noble's store. Books from Borders, Google, Kobo and Sony will work, too. And you can borrow local library books for free. However, users won't be able to read Amazon e-books or Apple's iBooks here.
Barnes & Noble's e-reader only supports PDF-formatted documents. We were disappointed not to find RTF, DOC or TXT file support. However, when we popped in an 8GB microSD card, the content was immediately added to our library. Amazon assigns an email address to each Kindle so you can send files that way.
The Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight offers 2GB of internal storage, which the company claims will hold up to 1,000 books and more. But in the fine print, you'll note that only 1GB is available for content, and 750MB is reserved exclusively for Barnes & Noble content. With 17 periodicals and 13 books, plus the two preloaded user guides, our unit had 240MB free. The good news is that the device supports up to 32GB of microSD card storage.
Barnes & Noble claims that the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight will last for three weeks with Wi-Fi on and GlowLight off. With Wi-Fi off and GlowLight off, you should get two months of endurance. But most impressively, with GlowLight continuously on and Wi-Fi off, this e-reader should go for a month on one charge. During two days of regular use, with the GlowLight on and off, and Wi-Fi on, we saw about a 15 percent dip in the battery.
Options and Accessories
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The $99 Nook Simple Touch is still for sale. It does not come with the wall plug power adapter ($9.95) or a built-in screen protector ($19.95), which are included with the $139 GlowLight model. And if you add a somewhat clunky night-light attachment, you'll pay about $15.
A Barnes & Noble Membership costs $25 per year. From Barnes & Noble, a member gets free shipping, in-store discounts and $10 off the purchase of a Nook. Plus, you get $50 credit at Barnes & Noble for content, such as e-books, but you don't get the free lending library Amazon Prime membership offers.
At $139, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight is $40 more expensive than the Amazon Kindle Touch and the Nook Simple Touch, and prices itself out of the impulse-buy category. However, its additional features -- an industry-first front-lit screen, anti-glare layer, and faster page-turn times -- will make this version of the Nook Simple Touch appealing for heavy readers.