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Let there be E-ink light: Barnes & Noble launches Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight

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It’s kind of shocking to think that E-Ink e-book readers have been around for several years, yet nobody has figured out an integrated way to light up the screens. Until now, that is.

Barnes & Noble today is launching a new $139 version of the Nook Simple Touch with technology it’s calling GlowLight. Basically, it’s a built-in light that illuminates the E-Ink screen from above, which means you can now successfully read in bed without the need for a bright light.

B&N built up this device’s launch with a lot of secrecy among the press, but some of that momentum was blown yesterday when store signage revealed the new Nook Simple Touch’s existence. But even though I knew what to expect, the device is still impressive. Finally, you can get an E-ink reader that can light itself without the need for a special case or external light. B&N isn’t alone in this either, TechCrunch reported last week that Amazon is exploring similar technology for the Kindle.

B&N has been working on the technology for over a year, Nook head of user experience Michelle Warvel told VentureBeat in an interview today.

She walked me through an elaborate setup at a New York City hotel that showed off the new Nook’s strengths. First I saw how it compared in direct sunlight against the iPad and Kindle Fire (this was no contest, E-Ink has always been great in sunlight). The new Nook Simple Touch also includes a built-in glare protector, for even better reading in sunlight.

To replicate the bedroom experience, B&N set up a darkened room in the hotel’s penthouse to show off the new GlowLight display. It’s activated by simply holding down the Nook’s home button, and offers plenty of light even at the lower settings. Warvel tells me that the light isn’t a huge battery drain — you can read for 30 minutes a day for an entire month without needing a recharge.

Surprisingly, Barnes & Noble was also able to make the new Nook Simple Touch lighter than its predecessor. The device is now under seven ounces. Warvel stressed the importance of being first to offer an E-Ink reader with a light, as well as the fact that the Nook team paid special attention to the ergonomics of the device and the look of the fonts on the Nook’s screen.

B&N has never been lacking in hardware expertise — just look at how it managed to work with a noted design team for the Nook Color and Nook Tablet — but the company’s e-book ecosystem is still second to Amazon’s Kindle bookstore, in my opinion. Amazon has a wider selection of books, and you also get access to its rich library of Kindle Singles. There was no mention of how B&N would be shaping up its digital bookstore. The entire focus today was on the new hardware.

The new Nook is a big step for Barnes & Noble, but the real question is if consumers will find GlowLight a worthy enough addition to upgrade or change platforms from the Kindle.

The GlowLight-equipped Nook Simple Touch is available for pre-order today for $139 and will be available in early May.