capsule review

Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight Review: An E-Reader That Truly Lets You Read Anywhere

At a Glance
  • Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight

    PCWorld Rating

    The Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight's built-in light makes it the best e-reader you can buy today.

Barnes & Noble has made the best e-reader currently available even better by integrating a light source into it. Priced at $139 (as of April 24, 2012), the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight E Ink-based e-reader sets the standard for silky-smooth reading and shopping. And even better, you can enjoy reading it wherever you happen to be, whether you're lounging on the lawn in bright sunlight, or sitting under the covers with little to no light in the room.

Although monochromatic E Ink e-readers make sense in many circumstances, reading in the dark is not one of them. The bedside lamp, or the overhead light in an airplane, can often be overkill, and a disturbance to other people near you. With this e-reader, you’re paying a $40 premium for the honor of having a built-in light, but the versatility that the integrated reading light offers you is well worth the extra bucks.

The GlowLight makes the Nook Simple Touch e-reader highly adaptable to your environment--and it makes Barnes & Noble the first company to truly deliver on the promise of a built-in light source. Sony tried to do so four years ago, with its Reader PRS-700, but that model’s LED lighting, while useful in a pinch, barely reached the center of the page.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight doesn't have that problem. The LED light guide sits inside the Nook’s bezel, at the top of the 600-by-800-pixel, 6-inch E Ink Pearl display. The light shines down on the display, creating a mostly evenly lit surface. The illumination runs a little brighter near the top of the screen, but not distractingly so. While testing the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight, I found that the GlowLight transformed spots I formerly considered e-reader dead zones into bona fide reading spaces, whether I was in bed reading in the dark, or sitting on a red-eye flight looking to unwind with a book without disturbing my seatmates with the too-bright overhead light.

Personally, I’ve never found a clip-on light, usually at least a $20 option, to be adequate; it’s just one more thing for me to remember to carry around. More important, the light that the Nook SimpleTouch With GlowLight delivers is more subtle and targeted than anything a clip-on light or overhead light could ever hope to achieve, and that alone makes the built-in light a win. It even came in handy in ambient-light situations, such as in a sunlight-kissed airplane with no cabin lights on; in this environment, the GlowLight caused the text on the Nook Simple Touch to pop more, and made it easier to read.

In practice, accessing the GlowLight is dead simple, and requires no fumbling in the dark. Just tap and hold the 'n' button at the bottom of the screen, and the light comes on; the longer you hold, the brighter it gets. (You tap and hold again to turn the GlowLight off.) You can also adjust the light directly from an on-screen slider control, by tapping at the top status bar of the Nook.

As you might expect, the GlowLight takes a toll on the Nook’s battery life. With the GlowLight on for about 30 minutes a day (and Wi-Fi off), Barnes & Noble says, you can expect to get about one month of battery life; that’s half of the over two months quoted for the original Nook Simple Touch. If you fall asleep while reading, however, you won’t drain the battery: The light will time out automatically after 5 minutes of inactivity.

This new model retains the dimensions of the original Nook Simple Touch e-reader, measuring 6.5 by 5.0 by 0.47 inches. That means it is a half-inch wider than the fourth-generation Amazon Kindle. (The original Nook Simple Touch remains in B&N’s lineup, and drops to the second spot on our Top E-Readers chart behind its GlowLight cousin.) In spite of the addition of the GlowLight, this e-reader weighs ever-so-slightly less than its predecessor, shaving 15 grams, or 0.03 pound, off the Simple Touch’s 0.47-pound weight. It's still slightly heavier than the $79 fourth-generation Kindle With Special Offers (0.37 pound). Unlike Amazon’s e-readers, though, Barnes & Noble continues to offer an ad-free experience, at no extra cost.

Without the light on, the new GlowLight e-reader stands out only due to the decorative gray trim surrounding the outer edge of the front bezel. Although I generally prefer all-black bezels, since they help text pop from the screen, I found that the gray trim didn't detract from the readability of text.

Like the Nook Simple Touch before it, the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight uses Neonode's Zeforce infrared touch technology. The touchscreen is a pleasure to use; it was highly responsive to my swipes and taps, even when I was rapidly typing out searches in the Nook store or setting up the e-reader’s Wi-Fi connection. I also found the new Nook to be remarkably well balanced to hold, in one hand or two.The e-reader's front and back both have a rubber finish, and the backplate cover dips comfortably, effectively giving the Nook a built-in hand grip.

Using the Nook, Revisited

So much of the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight is an echo of its non-glowworm cousin. It remains intuitive to navigate. A button with a lowercase 'n' beneath the screen serves as the home button (in addition to activating the GlowLight). The 'n' starts the Nook’s wake-up process; you then slide your finger along the screen to wake the device fully. The button also returns you to the on-screen quick-navigation buttons (home, library, shop, search, GlowLight, and settings).

At the back of the e-reader, you’ll find the power button, shaped to match your fingertip. The power button doubles as another way to wake the e-reader, and it can serve to power down the unit entirely.

My biggest gripe with the Nook's design concerns its physical navigation buttons. Though they're slightly improved over the controls on the original Nook Simple Touch, the page-forward and page-back buttons on the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight are still stiff, and require a very precise and deep press to activate.

One other nitpick: The contrast is not as good on the GlowLight version as on the plain Nook Simple Touch. This problem appears to result from the antiglare protector on the GlowLight model; the background of the display is a darker gray than on the plain Nook, and that in turn causes black text on the GlowLight version to lack the same oomph as on the ordinary Nook.

I hold out hope that the contrast might be adjustable via a future firmware update. The original Nook Simple Touch had suffered from contrast issues, and that model got a firmware update in November 2011 that greatly improved the contrast of text and graphics; as a result, blacks appeared darker, and text and graphics jumped off the screen. That firmware update introduced the Nook’s text-smoothing enhancements, too. Thanks to those improvements, plus the flexible font options, Nook models now have the best-looking text you can buy on an e-reader today.

The Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight also provides speedy page-refresh rates and page turns. The e-reader still does a full refresh once every sixth page, but by performing what appears to be a fast dissolve between pages, B&N lets you effectively move ahead through dozens of pages, while mitigating the annoying page-flashing effect long associated with E Ink. B&N does targeted refreshes on a page that has just graphics changing (for example, in the e-reader's bookstore), and on areas that have a heavy redraw.

Navigating the Interface

You can turn pages by tapping on the left or right side of the screen, though if you prefer you can swipe left to right (and, on some screens, even vertically) to change pages too. While reading, you can tap at the top of the screen to reveal a status bar, which shows the battery status, a clock, and a tap-to-add bookmark; it also reveals the same book-navigation buttons that you would get if you tapped in the center of the page. The buttons jump you to the table of contents, let you search for a word or passage within a book, help you move to a specific page within a book using a slider (and kudos to B&N for including here just how many pages are left in the chapter), or allow you to adjust text options (you can choose from six not-so-different fonts and seven very different font sizes).

I found it annoying that I'd often have to move my hand all the way up to the top to find the X icon to close out of a page. Practically all other on-screen navigation is in the lower half of the screen, which made that finger travel feel inefficient. Beyond that one interface hassle, though, B&N's otherwise clean, logical software design is impressive. The company clearly gave some thought to the layout, as well as to how things operate. The interface is good, at times even great--but not perfect.

An example is how B&N has implemented its notes and highlights features. Really, these remain the most usable examples of such features that I've seen on an e-reader to date. You tap and hold your finger on a word to select it; afterward, you can either drag the pins to select a passage, or choose an action such as adding a note or looking up the word in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. Unfortunately, you can't view all notes, highlights, or a combination of the two; instead, you see just a teaser of the passage under a tab for notes and highlights in the table of contents.

For now, you can view and share highlighted quotes with Gmail contacts, via Facebook or Twitter. You can also share information about books you're reading, to make a recommendation, post your reading status, rate and review a book, or like it on Facebook. The Nook Simple Touch has the same Nook Friends capabilities as the Nook Color and Nook Tablet do; this social platform moves reading away from being a solitary exercise, but it does so in a less intrusive, less all-about-me way than on competitor Kobo's social platform. And it makes the functions far easier to use than on Amazon's Kindle.

Other Features

The bookstore portal has been redesigned. Its new interface, coupled with the touchscreen, makes shopping far simpler than before. The Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight has 2GB of built-in storage, plus a MicroSDHC card slot for additional storage hidden beneath a secure flap on the side. In addition to sideloading ePub and PDF files, the Nook reads JPEG, GIF, PNG, and BMP image files. Unlike many other e-readers, however, the Nook reflows PDF text, which makes it great for reading words, but a mixed bag if you're trying to view a document that's heavy on its particular layout.

The e-reader runs Android 2.1, which makes changes and tweaks via firmware update viable. But the device has no Web browser and no on-board e-mail client, disappointing omissions given how central these items can be to reading.

Setting up the 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi is easy. The device automatically searches for and reconnects to your last network, even when booting up after a complete shutdown. Users get free Wi-Fi access at AT&T hotspots nationwide.

Bottom Line

At $139, the Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight is the best e-reader you can buy today. The built-in light makes for a compelling addition, and puts this speedy e-reader in a class by itself until other manufacturers play catch-up. The illumination alone is worth the premium, but honestly it’s not so much of a premium when you consider that archrival Amazon continues to sell its Amazon Kindle Touch, without “Special Offers” advertisements and lacking a light, at $139. That alone should make bookworms bask in the glow of the Simple Touch With GlowLight.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Nook Simple Touch With GlowLight's built-in light makes it the best e-reader you can buy today.

    Pros

    • Easy-to-hold, lightweight design
    • Built-in LED light for reading in the dark
    • Responsive touchscreen interface

    Cons

    • Physical page-turn buttons are still too stiff
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