By JP Mangalindan
June 26, 2013

FORTUNE — Unfortunately for Barnes & Noble, its Nook readers and tablets just haven’t been the home run the struggling bookseller had hoped, a hard truth that became clear when the company reported a $118.6 million net loss for its fiscal fourth quarter this week.

“It’s no secret the HD and HD+ didn’t quite meet our expectations in terms of sales,” Stephane Maes, Barnes & Noble (BKS) VP of product, told Fortune this May. Indeed, the company’s tablet shipments tumbled to 1 million in the fourth quarter, down from 1.4 million a year earlier, according to research firm IDC. Part of that has to do with the simple fact that Barnes & Noble didn’t differentiate its product enough from competition like the Kindle, which Amazon (AMZN) has aggressively plugged as a superior product on its site and in ad campaigns.

Now in an abrupt about-face, Barnes & Noble announced alongside earnings that it would stop manufacturing its own tablets and let interested third-party manufacturers potentially make their own Nook-compatible devices. (It will continue to sell its traditional Nook e-readers for the time being.) For all the grief Barnes & Noble has been getting of late, and the looming question of whether the Nook now is a dying brand, it’s easy to overlook the simple truth that the Nook reader and tablets remain quality products that have pioneered some important needle-moving features in the e-reading market. Here are just three:

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Built-in illumination

When the
Kindle Paperwhite
launched last fall, it got positive reviews for its built-in illumination technology. No longer would millions of e-bookworms have to turn on a nearby lamp, use a special case, or attach an awkward portable light to read in the dark. But while the Paperwhite may do it best, it wasn’t the first such mainstream e-reader to the market. That honor goes to the somewhat awkwardly-named
Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight
, introduced in 2012. Using a combination of LED lights and a thin film that sits atop the entire screen, the LEDs pipe out light, and the film acts as a conduit, distributing that light across the screen. It’s a technology somewhat similar to one used by the Paperwhite, which arrived more than a year later. The Nook’s lighting isn’t quite as smooth and uniform as the Paperwhite’s — something borne out
in our review
back then — but it more than gets the job done.

Superior hardware design (mostly)
For a company that had never designed hardware before, the Nook e-readers are excellent examples of industrial design that outshine many competitors, even their Kindle counterparts. With its contoured soft, black rubbery back, the Simple Touch still looks slick two years later and remains hands-down the most comfortable e-reader to hold for long bouts of time. And while the latest Nook tablets, the HD and HD+, are far less impressive, the Nook Color and Tablet, designed by go-to tech industrial designer Yves Behar, were the best reading-focused tablets for their time, trouncing the first-generation Kindle Fire.

Excellent “three-tap” software
Great hardware would be nothing without equally good software to back it up, and the Nook readers had this, too. The Simple Touch launched with an interface so simple and elegant that executives promised users should only have to tap up to three times to get anywhere they wanted to go. And unless you’re banging out the name of a title in a book search, that’s pretty much held true. The Nook tablet software has changed a lot in three years, first from an experience that emphasized a lot — perhaps too many — shortcuts to items like books, apps, and music, but a major overhaul earlier this year cleaned things up and made it easier to use and sophisticated. And by letting Nook owners readers also buy from Google’s (GOOG) online store, Google Play, it did something Amazon likely wouldn’t do and opened up its ecosystem.

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