Why e-readers evolved a lot today: Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Glo

For all of the good things about e-readers — their portability, capacity and convenience — they seem a bit old-fashioned. That isn’t just because they are single-function devices (after all, books are, too) but because the grayish tinge on e-ink screens looks outdated. Today, though, with the announcements of the front-lit Kindle (s AMZN) Paperwhite and Kobo Glo, e-readers took a big step forward and became more appealing for avid readers.

To be sure, Barnes & Noble (s bks) was first to launch a front-lit e-reader, the $139 Nook Touch with GlowLight, and until today it’s been the only front-lit e-reader on the market. Unfortunately, Barnes & Noble experienced “production scaling issues” that prevented it from fulfilling GlowLight orders for a few months. The Nook with GlowLight is back in stock now, but as of today it doesn’t matter since the Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Glo have better displays.

Nook with GlowLight has a regular e-ink screen. When you hold it (without its light turned on) next to a Nook without a GlowLight, their screens look the same — grayish. Compare the Kindle Paperwhite to an earlier generation Kindle, though, and their screens don’t look the same. Amazon says the Paperwhite contains 62 percent more pixels and 25 percent increased contrast, and you can see that just by looking at it — even when the light isn’t on. (Update: Some commenters, using other photos online, say the Kindle Paperwhite does not have a brighter screen when the light is turned off. Holding my Kindle Touch up to the Paperwhite at the event, I could see a difference in resolution but should have been more hesitant to claim anything about the brightness of the screen with the light turned off. When we get a Paperwhite for review, I’ll have more pictures for you.) In other words, we’re not just getting a light here, we’re getting an improved display overall. The Kobo Glo has an XGA e-ink screen, which also means better resolution and contrast.

The biggest difference between the Kindle Paperwhite and the front-lit devices from Barnes & Noble and Kobo, though, is battery life. Jeff Bezos said during Thursday’s press conference that Amazon expects people to leave the light on all the time, even in bright rooms. While Barnes & Noble stressed the Nook with GlowLight’s use in bed, in a dark room, as your partner sleeps next to you, Bezos says Amazon “figured out early” that people want the light on by default. We’re used to staring at well-lit computer and tablet screens, after all. So the Kindle Paperwhite’s battery life is 8 weeks with the light on (based on half an hour of reading a day). Meanwhile, Nook with GlowLight’s battery life is a month with the light on (based on half an hour of reading a day) and two months with it off. Kobo’s is worse: A month with the light off, “up to 55 hours of continuous use” with the light on.

Finally, assuming that you’re okay with ads, Amazon beats the competition on price as well as other features. The Kindle Paperwhite WiFi is $119 with special offers, $139 without, and the Kindle Paperwhite 3G is $179 with Special Offers and $199 without. (Yes, $199 is a lot to pay for an e-reader. It’s as much as the newly announced 7-inch, 16 GB Kindle Fire HD.) Nook and Kobo don’t have ads, but the Kobo Glo is $129.99 and Nook with GlowLight is $139.

Overall, we saw today that e-readers can continue to improve even without adding more tablet-like features. The Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Glo are still single-function devices (Kindle’s “experimental browser” aside), but they’re substantially better than what was on the market before. That suggests we shouldn’t rule e-readers out, or assume that tablets are going to subsume them.