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Barnes & Noble’s Nook Gets a Backlight

Both Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook deserve a lot of credit for getting people to read more, thanks in large part to the instant gratification experience of buying and downloading books on the fly. But the e-ink versions of both readers had the same fatal flaw — they’re useless in bed at night, unless you want to turn on a light and wake your partner.

As it has several times before, perpetual underdog Barnes & Noble has temporarily leapfrogged the competition with a simple welcome upgrade to its Nook Simple Touch reader — a backlight.

This modest change is merely the latest skirmish between the two bookselling giants, which have been locked in a years-long battle to sell you reading devices tied to their respective online bookstores. First, both the Nook and Kindle added touchscreens last year in tit-for-tat upgrades, and now the Nook has a soft blue-tinged backlight behind the screen, called GlowLight.

We tried one of the new Nook Simple touch GlowLight readers, and the light, activated by holding down the menu button, produces a pleasing glow that seems to come from behind the screen, like holding a candle behind a sheet of paper. The light is adjustable, and at least in our initial impressions, didn’t seem to kill the battery life. It’s not an in-your-face new feature, but definitely an overdue evolutionary change.

When it comes to e-readers, we’d generally give the edge to Barnes & Noble for hardware (even if Amazon is better at building a great ecosystem of books, apps, and even video). The new backlit Nook does however face two big problems. Adding the light bumps the price up from $99 to $139 — which is a pretty steep increase — and Amazon has always been quick to play catchup, and could easily have a backlit version of the Kindle Touch ready to ship in weeks, if not sooner.

Despite how much we liked the new Nook Simple Touch, Amazon’s Kindle will still probably outsell it. That’s because it turns out that an online shopping mall that nearly everyone uses is a better way to get products into the hands of consumers than a shrinking collection of retail stores mostly used to house Starbucks locations and free public restrooms.

The new Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight is available to pre-order now for $139, and should start shipping by May 7. But, if you own an e-reader, or plan on buying one, please use it read something other than The Hunger Games.