If you can’t be first to market, you may have to settle for making better products. That’s Barnes & Noble Inc.’s strategy for its Nook line of e-book readers, and I’d say it’s working.
Microsoft Corp. just slipped Barnes & Noble $300 million in exchange for a stake in the Nook business - a pretty strong vote of confidence.
And the new Nook Simple Touch e-reader, featuring an impressive upgrade called GlowLight, is another confidence-builder. At $139, it’s the best “pure’’ e-book reader available. There are no frills, like an MP3 music player or a Web browser - just sleek and simple access to millions of books, magazines, and newspapers, even in the dark.
It’s a strong comeback for Barnes & Noble, which began building e-readers in 2009, far behind Amazon.com and its dominant Kindle readers. The original Nook was a mediocre device that combined a black-and-white E Ink main screen with a smaller color LCD navigation screen. But the company rebounded nicely the following year with the Nook Color, an 8-inch all-LCD reader that doubled as a pretty good tablet computer.
In 2011 came the Nook Tablet, a still better device that is superior to Amazon’s own tablet computer, the Kindle Fire. Also in 2011, Barnes & Noble debuted the Simple Touch e-reader, the first Nook to rely entirely on E Ink technology. Against Amazon’s latest Kindle, the Simple Touch was the clear winner because it used a touchscreen control system instead of push buttons. The Simple Touch was so good that Amazon quickly brought out a touchscreen Kindle of its own.
Digital innovation has done wonders for Barnes & Noble. Even as sales stagnate at the company’s traditional bookstores, e-book hardware and software sales have soared, rising 38 percent last quarter alone. Microsoft, desperate for a foothold in tablet computing, will happily pay a mere $300 million to ride along. In return, Barnes & Noble gets Microsoft cash and brains to develop the next generation of Nooks, which will no doubt use the new Windows 8 operating system.
Judging by the new Simple Touch, however, Barnes & Noble’s engineers have been doing quite well on their own. In most respects, not much has changed with the Simple Touch. It uses Wi-Fi to download books, magazines, and newspapers; there are buttons on the left and right edges for turning pages, but you can also just tap the screen; and there’s a Micro SD slot where you can install up to 32 gigabytes of additional memory.
But there’s one major difference with the new Nook: It’s readable in the dark.
The LCD screens on an iPad or Kindle Fire are illuminated by bright lights mounted behind them. While that allows you to read from them in a pitch-black room, it also makes the screens hard to read in bright sunlight. With E Ink, it’s the opposite. These screens work like ink printed on paper, so they work well on a sunny day, or in a well-lit room. But turn off the light, and the screen becomes invisible.
Sony Corp., a minor player in the e-reader game, addressed this problem some years back, with a lighted E Ink device. But Barnes & Noble engineers have done it right, putting little lamps at the top edge of the screen that shed a soft bluish light across the entire reading surface. The result is a gentle, subtle light that’s ideal for late-night reading for those who don’t sleep alone. And there’s a slider control to brighten or dim the screen.
Barnes & Noble says the GlowLight system places little burden on the Nook’s rechargeable battery. The company says that if you turn off the Wi-Fi service, use the light for half an hour per day, and turn the e-book’s “pages’’ once per minute, you can expect to get a month’s reading from a full charge, compared with two months if you never use the light. Since the device was released only last week, I haven’t had it long enough to verify those claims, but I’ll keep an eye on it for you.
Amazon reportedly has a lighted Kindle in the works. It will probably include other attractive features, such as the built-in MP3 music player found on other Kindles, and a price discount if you let Amazon beam advertisements onto the device. Until then, it’s easy to find the most appealing e-book reader. Just follow the glow.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.