Barnes & Noble is adding a brilliant light to its e-reader. Does it work? And, is it enough to goose sales?
FORTUNE — Although black-and-white e-readers are generally lighter, cheaper, and snappier than they used to be, they still don’t excel in low light. That’s an area where tablets and their brightly lit color screens have a clear advantage. With its new $139 Nook, arriving this week, Barnes and Noble BKS aims to fix that.
Save for a slight, gray border, this new WiFi-only Nook appears identical to last year’s. It has the same curvy, rubbery plastic body; the same 6-inch-sized touch-friendly black-and-white e-ink display; and, even the same components inside. The industrial design may be a year old now, but it’s still one of the best-looking — and best-feeling — around. In fact, that contoured back makes it one of the most comfortable e-readers to hold for long bouts of reading, more so than the newer Amazon AMZN Kindle or Kindle Touch, which are thinner and flatter.
This particular Nook shirks a clip-on light in favor of a light integrated into the screen itself. The company calls this technology GlowLight. Using a group of small LED bulbs along the top and a thin film that sits on the 6-inch touch-sensitive display, the Nook creates and spreads light evenly across the screen so you won’t get what the company calls a “spotlight effect.” To turn it on, hold down the n-shaped home button below the screen for two seconds; to turn it off, simply hold the button down again. Brightness is tweakable in the settings.
In practice, the GlowLight works largely as advertised. Those LEDs create a soft, focused almost uniform glow across the “page.” It’s more than enough for users to read, but generally not harsh enough to bother people nearby — something I confirmed during a recent cross-country flight. From some angles, users will notice this effect is slightly more intense at the very top of the display, where the light originates. It never affected the reading experience, but it is noticeable.
During four days of testing, reading with this feature on became preferable to having it off. Oddly enough, reading on the Nook actually felt easier on the eyes than doing the same on e-readers lacking this feature. This may be because the light literally sits atop the actual text, rather than behind it. As for battery life, the company claims there won’t be a significant hit. If you read half-an-hour a day with GlowLight on, expect to go over one month between charges, and over two months with it off. I haven’t had the Nook long enough to test that for myself, but previous experiences with Nook e-readers have lived up to the company’s claims.
Barnes & Noble has also made some software tweaks to make the experience of using this year’s Nook more responsive. It shows in areas like the virtual keyboard, which delivers less delay in-between key strokes, and puts the Kindle Touch’s generally sluggish experience to shame.
While the Nook is better designed than its Amazon counterparts, at $139, it comes at a steeper price, existing in a range that’s neither here nor there. It’s not as impulse-worthy as the $79 Kindle or $99 Kindle Touch. And though it’s not much cheaper than the more robust $199 Kindle Fire or even the company’s Nook Tablet, it lacks the broader multimedia features of both. That could make the Nook a harder sell for some, particularly for those locked into an ecosystem like Amazon’s. (Those users may not have to wait long, anyway, because if reports are true, a Kindle with light is on the way.)
But if pricing isn’t an issue, this Nook warrants a look.