Meet Barnes & Noble's new Nook

April 12, 2012: 4:30 PM ET

The latest version of the company's e-reader features some very bright features.

FORTUNE -- Ask a Nook or Kindle owner what they love about their readers, and they may rattle off several points: they're affordable, lightweight, and easy to read e-books indoors or outside. What Barnes & Noble believes users don't love is trying to read such devices in low light. In an era of such whiz-bang technology as touch screens and pervasive wireless networks, clip-on flashlights aren't exactly state-of-the-art.

To that end, Barnes & Noble (BKS) is introducing an updated version of its NOOK Simple Touch. Launching early next month, the new $139 Nook includes a new kind of lighting called "GlowLight," embedded directly into the display itself. That, the company says, makes it the first e-reader with an e-ink screen to integrate a light directly into the device. GlowLight works through 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, evenly distributing that light across the screen so readers don't experience what Stephane Maes, Barnes and Noble's Vice President of Product, calls a harsh "spotlight experience."

According to Maes, the Nook light add-on remains one of the top accessories owners purchase, along with an anti-glare film. So when the team set out to design the next Nook, they included both features. "One of the greatest challenges, if you're not doing right, is it makes the devices heavier, it takes away form that paper-like feel," says Maes. We wanted to maintain the great e-ink experience." The new Nook adds features, but also sheds 15 grams of weight.

It also won't skimp on battery life. With GlowLight on, readers should expect to go one month in between charges, and with the light off, expect two months of battery life with WiFi off. At worst, that puts it in the same league of battery life as Amazon's (AMZN) $79 Kindle; at best, it's the same as the last generation Nook e-reader and on par with Amazon's Kindle Touch, which the Seattle-based e-commerce giant rolled out late last year.

Maes doesn't pull any punches when he compares the new Nook to Amazon's counterpart. An ad-free version of the Kindle Touch sells for the same price as the ad-free Nook will, and when you factor in extra accessories like Amazon's own $60 leather-bound case with a light, he argues they push the price even higher. Otherwise, the Nook will feature a more responsive touch interface thanks to tweaks made to the software, but remain largely the same as its predecessor.

How the newest Nook performs will be something analysts watch closely. Although the overall Nook business is expected to generate $1.5 billion in sales for the company this year, Maes admits the Simple Touch, which launched last spring, has not sold as well as the company had hoped despite universally favorable reviews from tech critics. "The Nook [is] an unapologetic, laser-beam focused e-reader that does little else ... but what it does do, it does exceptionally well, better than its nearest rival, the Kindle," Fortune wrote last year.

The newly-illuminated Nook Simple Touch alongside last year's model. Photo: JP Mangalindan/Fortune.com

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JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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