More Book Than Nook: Can Barnes & Noble Makes Its E-Reader Feel Like The Real (Paper) Thing?

The refreshed Nook Simple Touch GlowLight features a brighter, sharper display; lighter body; and improved recommendations.

To compete against the Kindle, Barnes & Noble is going back to its roots, leveraging decades of bookseller expertise to make its Nook e-reader feel more like a paper book. Released Wednesday, the new Nook Simple Touch GlowLight features a brighter, sharper display; lighter body; improved recommendations; and more–for $119. Barnes & Noble members will also get a 10% discount, undercutting the newly refreshed, ad-supported Kindle Paperwhite.


It seems like a simple idea to illuminate an e-reader, but it took a few years after these devices entered the market before this became a staple feature of e-readers. Barnes & Noble was first to introduce an illuminated e-reader with the debut of the Nook Simple Touch GlowLight last year. Amazon has since followed Nook’s lead, introducing the Kindle Paperwhite soon after and refreshing it in September. “It was such an intuitive solution,” Nook vice president of product marketing Claudia Romanini Backus told Fast Company. “We were first to market because we understand these were the things that customers care about.”

With the refresh, Nook has continued to improve its screen. The e-ink display is sharper, with 62% more pixels than the previous model. The glow is also brighter than before; in an informal side-by-side test with both models on full brightness, it’s apparent to the naked eye that the Nook’s light makes the Paperwhite look almost warm in color (see slideshow).

Nook’s e-ink display has also been improved so that the screen no longer flashes after the user flips through a certain number of pages. “Eliminating that [flashing] helped achieve that paper-like experience,” Romanini Backus said. Though page flashes have been removed from the reading experience, the display refreshes in other views, such as the home screen and shopping screen. Furthermore, an antiglare coating makes it suitable for reading in direct sunlight while also improving its durability.

One of the most visible changes to the Nook is a new silicone trim. Bordering the e-reader, it was designed to improve the comfort of holding the Nook in one hand. “It almost looks like the margin of a page, a real page,” Romanini Backus added. At 6.2 ounces, the body has shaved off three-quarters of an ounce from the previous Nook and is more than an ounce lighter than the latest Kindle Paperwhite. Battery life remains unchanged at eight weeks.

“Customers coming into our stores are really thinking, ‘Why should I buy an e-reader, or why should I read digitally at the end of the day?'” Romanini Backus said. These changes “really, truly [create] a natural, immersive reading experience.”

Of course, not all of the changes are focused on replicating paper books. One of the technologies Nook is hoping will help it stand out is its new approach to book recommendations. Using data-driven curation, Barnes & Noble’s chief bookseller and his team assemble their reading picks for customers. “They have this deep bookseller knowledge. They learn this in the store–how do you set up end caps, set up tables–and mash this up with metadata,” said Nook chief operating officer Mahesh Veerina, who joined the company in September. “That’s one of the real differentiators and value that Barnes & Noble can bring.”


While Barnes & Noble is banking on its in-house expertise, it’s apparent Amazon has taken a different approach, relying on its Goodreads acquisition and its large community of readers to provide recommendations. Furthermore, Amazon continues to offer a number of perks that are unmatched by Nook. Prime subscribers can borrow books through the Kindle Lending Library, and on Tuesday, the retailer launched its Matchbook service, which lets Kindle owners buy digital copies of books they’ve purchased for $2.99 or less. Barnes & Noble has also made strides to bridge digital and physical reading in an attempt to convert in-store customers to Nook owners. People with Nook devices can walk into any Barnes & Noble location for customer service and support as well as full reading access for an hour when connected to the wireless network.

Even with all the improvements to Nook, Veerina recognizes the e-reader still has ground to gain against the Kindle. “This market is still an early-adopter market,” he said. “But as the underdog, one of the things we have is to drive innovation.”

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.