Newly Enlightened E-Readers

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It must be great to be an architecture critic. You write about a building once, and your review remains basically fresh forever.

When you're a tech critic, though, the state of the art changes monthly, if not hourly. You toil over writing a masterpiece, and it winds up having the shelf life of milk.

It could be worse. Instead of writing about gadgets, you could be stuck with an even worse treadmill job: making them.

Pity, for example, the poor slobs at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, locked in an endless battle for e-reader supremacy. They play an annual game of leapfrog that would exhaust frogs.

"I see your new color tablet," says Barnes & Noble's Nook team, "and I raise you one higher-resolution screen!"

"Oh, yeah?" says Amazon's Kindle team. "Well, you know the Nook with a self-illuminated screen that you introduced in April? We have one with a better backlight. Take that!"

That's a real example. There are two kinds of e-book gadgets. There are those with E Ink screens (cheap, light, thin, no color, long battery life, great to read in bright sunlight, useless in the dark). And there are those with color screens (heavier, thicker, pricier, great to read in low light, tough to read in sunlight).

People who opt for E Ink rave about the "printed" look of the black text on a light gray "page." They can also be found spending $60 on a case that contains a tiny flip-up flashlight -- or just carrying one around on a keychain -- so that they can read in bed or in other darkish situations. E Ink is so much like paper, it doesn't light up on its own.

In April, Barnes & Noble changed the game: it offered an E Ink e-reader whose background lights up with a soft glow, like a digital watch. With the introduction of that model -- the efficiently named Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight -- the company hacked off one enormous item on the list of E Ink drawbacks. Not only is reading in bed practical, it's actually superior to reading an actual book, since the gentle glowing screen is nowhere near bright enough to keep a sleeping partner awake.

Your move, Kindle.

Amazon's response to the B&NNSTGL (now $120) is the new Kindle Paperwhite (same price). The headline here is that the Paperwhite's lighting is better than the Nook's.

At top brightness, it's much brighter. More usefully, its lighting is far more even than the Nook's, whose edge-mounted lamps can create subtle "hot spots" at the top and bottom of the page, sometimes spilling out from there. How much unevenness depends on how high you've turned up the light. But in the hot spots, the black letters of the text show less contrast.

The Kindle Paperwhite has hot spots, too, but only at the bottom edge, where the four low-power LED bulbs sit. (Amazon says that from there, the light is pumped out across the screen through a flattened fiber optic cable.) In the middle of the page, where the text is, the lighting is perfectly even: no low-contrast text areas.

The Kindle's screen also packs in 212 tiny dots an inch, compared with the Nook's 167, for visibly sharper text.

Both models have touch screens, which is a real joy; you can tap lightly to turn the page or bring up a panel that controls type size, font choice, margins and line spacing. But on the Kindle's screen, you can use two fingers. That's primarily useful when you want to adjust the type size (most of us will, in fact, be over 40 at some point); you can just spread two fingers apart, as on an iPad, without having to open some settings screen.

When viewed side-by-side with the Nook GlowLight, the Paperwhite is much more comfortable to read. You could argue that that's an important factor in a reading tablet.

The Kindle Paperwhite and Nook are about the same height (4.6 inches), but the Kindle is 0.4 inch narrower and slightly thinner. Thin is great -- you can cradle the entire thing in one hand; on the other hand, the Nook's soft-touch back panel has a gentle sculptured ridge that makes one-handed holding comfortable and secure.

All right, the Paperwhite has superior lighting and sharpness. The Nook, however, has some persuasive counterarguments of its own -- starting with the value.

Both readers may seem to cost $120, but for that money, Barnes & Noble includes a wall charger. (The Kindle charges only from the USB jack on a computer, unless you spring $10 more for the charger.)

The Kindle displays ads. They appear on the screen saver and across the bottom of the Home screen.

Now, those ads -- commonplace in the Kindle line -- are a brazen move by Amazon. You might think that it's obnoxious for Amazon to advertise on a gadget you own. You'd think that your personal property would be exempt from commercial intrusions; it would be like finding ads on your car's dashboard or your phone's Home screen.

In practice, however, most Kindlers don't seem to mind. You can pay $20 extra to have them removed, but few people bother. The ads are fairly subtle, they appear only in places where you don't spend much time, and $20 is $20.

Still, the Nook never puts ads on your screen.

The Nook has a half-ounce weight advantage, which is important in a gadget that you hold all the time. It also has physical, clicking page-turn buttons on each side of the screen, which accounts for its extra width.

The Nook also has a memory-card slot for more storage. The Kindle offers two gigabytes of storage, which the company says is enough for more than 1,000 books, so running out of room isn't a knuckle-biting concern. Besides, you get unlimited storage on Amazon.com for anything you've bought from its e-book store; you can re-download any book when you need it. (Especially if you've sprung an extra $60 for the cellular version, which gets you online wherever you are -- no charge.)

But if you're a candidate for the next mission to Alpha Centauri, it's good to know that the Nook is ready for a bigger library.

You can turn off the backlighting on the Nook, too. On the Kindle, it's on all the time. You can turn it way down low, but not off. Amazon's rationale is that the light imposes no battery-life penalty, so why not simplify life and have it on all the time? Even with the light on, the Kindle lasts eight weeks of reading 30 minutes a day (with Wi-Fi off); that's twice as long as the Nook with the same settings.

You have a dizzying number of options in e-readers these days. You can go with an iPad ($500 and up, gorgeous, big, heavy, almost as useful as a laptop). You could get a $200 color touch-screen reader (Kindle HD, Google's Nexus 7 or the coming Nook HD), which offers great reading and movie viewing, and a few apps.

But if what you mostly want to do is read, a self-illuminating E Ink reader still sits at the sweetest spot on the price-weight-size-beach-bedroom matrix.

Both of these light-up readers are backed by e-bookstores that would raise the Library of Congress's eyebrows. Both are oozing with features -- annotations, dictionary definitions and so on.

The glowy Nook has more hardware features and a better price. But if you're choosing an E Ink reader over the color models, it's because what you intend to do mostly is stare at that screen, lost in your reading. In that case, the display of the page is more important than any other factor, and that's where the Kindle Paperwhite shines.

E-mail: pogue@nytimes.com

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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