The world of ebook readers is dominated by Amazon and its range of Kindle gadgets. Some have colour screens and run apps, others have monochrome screens using e-ink display technology. These don’t run apps, can’t surf the internet easily and barely work for anything other than books. So why would anyone buy one?
The truth is that though they’re only good for one thing, they’re tremendously good at it. Firstly, though, the obvious downsides: ebook readers lack the physicality of, you know, real books and paper remains easier to navigate, especially if you want to flip back and forth between pages. Real books are also better when it comes to remembering what you’ve read – text isn’t pinned to the same part of a page if it’s all electronic.
But electronic books offer extreme portability – you can carry 2,000 novels and more in a lightweight, pocketable package. Not to mention connectivity: finish the third Harry Potter book and you can download the next one before you can say accio book and without any need to visit a bookshop either - it's just a wi-fi (or in some cases 3G) connection away. And unlike colour-screen tablets, e-ink displays are easily readable in bright sunshine, even through sunglasses.
The final benefit of e-ink readers is battery life. Where an iPad has 10 hours’ battery life, e-ink readers last for weeks. That’s because e-ink works using tiny balls under the screen, which are black on one side, white on the other. An electrical current tells each one which way to face, with the black sides forming the text. Power is only consumed during the page turns, otherwise the display is fixed in place almost indefinitely.
E-ink does however have a real readability issue. For the greatest clarity, the entire page needs to be refreshed every few pages, usually around six. The refresh is an extended and unwatchable experience. But there’s no way round it as without it artefacts are left onscreen which make the print look muddy.
Until now. US book publisher Barnes & Noble has its own range of ebook readers, though a smaller range than Amazon. Its latest model, out today, is called the Nook GlowLight. And it has somehow managed to get rid of those intrusive page refreshes. They happen during transitions from the home page to the page of a book, but not as you’re reading. This is a big improvement over other readers and makes for a much more immersive experience. It puts Barnes and Noble in the forefront, though expect rivals such as Amazon and Kobo to catch up.
GlowLight refers to the way the screen lights up so you can read in darker environments. Unlike colour screens, this is a frontlight, not a backlight. So it’s lighting the screen, not shining in your eyes. And unlike some front-lit displays, this is an even, attractive light. It’s restful to read even for extended periods.
The Nook GlowLight feels comfortable to hold: a matte-finish plastic back and rubberised edging. It is wider and squatter than the Kindle with a marginally bigger display. Like Amazon and Kobo, Barnes & Noble has a huge selection of ebooks – over three million, including a million free titles. And also like the others there are apps so you can read Nook books on an iPad or Android device – which is useful if you switch tablets in the future. The Nook iPad app is appealing and accessible. Unlike Kindle, when you choose a free sample to read, the sample is instantly available on multiple devices, not just books you’ve bought.
The Nook Glowlight has fonts to choose from according to taste, but also the option to lock the ebook to publishers’ defaults, though this is less appealing to look at.
There’s no 3G version of the GlowLight, so you do need to be in a wi-fi area to download more books. It uses an infra-red touchscreen, not a capacitive screen as the latest Kindle does. This means you can turn the page with gloves on or by poking the screen with a pen, say.
There are screens with higher-resolution displays and extra features but this is a well-priced and appealing ebook reader with excellent front lighting and that brilliant key extra: pages that don’t flash at you.