Last year’s Nook GlowLight 4e showcased a leaner device from the legendary bookseller that signaled Barnes & Noble was still in the e-reader game, one that sacrificed features to lower costs, pairing everything down into a decent, if unspectacular, reading experience. While that stripped-back version traded functionality for price, it was a device chock full of caveats that made it a hard sell in a land brimming with better performing alternatives.
The GlowLight 4 Plus goes in the opposite direction; bigger, beefier, and pricier. It comes with a larger screen, more memory, better lighting, waterproofing, and even audiobook support. And we can’t forget those physical buttons! But more isn’t always better. Readers eager to avoid (or escape) Amazon or Kobo’s ecosystems may have yet another option to choose from with B&N’s latest, but there’s no question it’s going to be a harder sell than before.
While still a capable e-reader that boasts several very attractive features and specs, this year’s model feels at odds with itself. Too often, the GlowLight 4 Plus feels like an e-reader designed by people who don’t have much experience actually using an e-reader. While it still delivers a solid reading experience overall, it’s difficult to overlook how poorly implemented its features are when the core reading experience is purely average.
Design: Basic, Bigger, Buttons
At first glance it seems like the GlowLight 4 Plus recycled much of 2019’s GlowLight Plus design and functionality, including that model’s larger screen, physical buttons, and audio features. That means a bigger, slightly heavier e-reader that measures 7.8″ x 5.7″ x .03″ and weighs 10oz. It’s a smart design that looks like a smaller version of Apple’s iPad Air, a huge compliment, even if its matte black plastic body attracts more fingerprints than bees to honey.
We’ve come to expect physical buttons from Nook e-readers at this point and this one doesn’t disappoint, retaining the brand’s familiar two sets of vertical physical buttons just to the left and right of the screen. Not only do these let you navigate forward/back while reading (you can still change their orientation in the settings) but they let you scroll up/down when browsing B&N’s digital storefront. And that’s all they do, which is disappointing (more on this later).
The other other physical distinctions on this Nook are the single power/standby button on the right side, a USB Type-C charge/transfer port on the bottom and a much welcome 3.5mm audio jack to its right to output audiobook play. Sadly, the physical Nook (“N) home button has been replaced with a touch version that’s nowhere as accurate as the real thing.
The Screen, Tech, and Compatibility
The biggest feature to the GlowLight 4 Plus is, literally, that huge 7.8” E Ink screen, which displays black and white text and images at a crisp and clear 1,404 x 1,872 resolution at 300 PPI. As comics and graphic novels have become more popular than ever it’s always nice to see e-readers rise to the occasion. The screen is also flush with the front of the device, which is great if you’re a fan of the flush (sorry, recessed fans).
B&N’s trademarked GlowLight backlight is here, of course, and that includes basic backlighting and blue-light filters. Both cover that giant screen evenly and look great, even at low-light or in complete darkness. Sliders let you adjust both light and blue-light filter intensity levels (warm to cool), and you can program the GlowLight filters to adjust throughout the day or set up a manual schedule. Which you totally should because your eyeballs will thank you.
This Nook sees a sizable storage bump to 32GB (though only about 28GB will be available), which should be more than enough for your digital collection of books and audiobooks. While the list of supported file types isn’t huge (Nook’s “officially” only supported ePub and PDF) you probably won’t be lacking for content. This is Barnes & Noble we’re talking about, which means a huge selection of books and magazines available in their digital store, and if that’s not enough you can sideload your own ePub and PDF files.
You can also add books borrowed from your local library via Overdrive, you’ll just have to use Adobe Digital Editions, a clunky piece of software that’s sure to turn some users off. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least it’s an option.
As with other Nook e-readers connectivity is entirely either via WiFi (802.11 b/g/n) or via USB. Which here is USB Type-C, thankfully. Bluetooth and 3.5mm outputs are present but only for outputting audio from audiobooks.
This Nook has waterproofing rated at IPx7 protection, which means accidental drops in tubs and pools (or occasional splashes) doesn’t mean the story has to end. B&N suggests you not submerge it in 3 feet of fresh water for more than 30 minutes, which sounds more like cooking than reading.
B&N also promises “weeks” of battery life on a single charge, but that’s with very basic usage – and minimal lighting. Listening to audiobooks via Bluetooth will deplete it even faster, but we’re still talking about a healthy battery life on a single charge. Just keep a charge cable (and adapter) at the ready and you shouldn’t ever worry about running on empty.
The Nook Experience: Basic
Reading content on the Nook isn’t much different than any other e-reader out there, especially once your content is loaded. Navigating through B&N’s main menus and libraries can be a little confusing, however, as you have to use different input methods (the top taskbar and “N” button) to switch between the storefront and your libraries. This can make using the Nook feel less integrated and more like different ideas stitched together.
All the expected features of page-turning, long-pressing words to bring up definitions, highlighting text, note-taking, and bookmarking are all there. It’s pretty barebones but a decent experience overall if all you want to do is read. Tapping the center-top screen opens up options like chapters, fonts, margins, bookmarks, and more. Here you’re able to adjust the GlowLight settings like backlighting and temperature levels and that’s about it.
Performance is generally laggy even doing basic tasks, especially when looking up definitions or using any of the extras. There’s no integration with any popular reading or note-taking services, and no web browser is available if you need one (also disappointing as it’s easy to download books from the Project Gutenberg website).
Kobo and Kindle readers offer paragraphs (!) of supported formats, while Nook’s “suggested” file formats, apart from B&N’s proprietary store, are limited to epub and PDF. It’s possible to convert unsupported files and sideload them via USB, and you can sideload books from your local library’s OverDrive account, though you’ll need to use Adobe Digital Editions, a horrible piece of software seemingly from a different era.
Audiobooks: Sounds Good
At long last, Barnes & Noble’s Nook gets full support for the company’s sizable audiobook catalog, which can be enjoyed a la carte or buffet-style via their audiobook subscription service. It may not be as extensive or indexed as Amazon’s Audible, but it’s hardly a slouch. Chances are good you’ll find what you’re looking for with prices similar to the competition, and the Nook is the only e-reader that lets you use standard 3.5mm headphones to listen. Long live the 3.5mm jack!
Playback sounds great even if the audio player is as basic as they come, on par with what you’d find on rival Kobo or Kindles. It’s easy to cycle between tracks, speed forward and back at 30-second intervals, add bookmarks, and modify playback speeds up to 3.5x for that truly chipmunk experience. There is considerable lag when doing any of this, however, given you have to use the E Ink touchscreen, but it’s not terrible.
Some caveats, however; audiobook support is for audiobooks purchased from B&N only, which means no sideloading your own files or from your local library, which isn’t different from using a Kobo or Kindle device. But those listening with Bluetooth should use caution; volume buttons can cycle 30-seconds forward/back or adjust the volume depending if you quick or long-press the button.
Speaking of volume, remember those physical buttons mentioned above? They’re pretty nice moving pages back and forth, but (for whatever reason) are completely useless for audiobooks, which is a shame as the only ways to adjust volume levels is the laggy touchscreen slider or via wonky Bluetooth; using the physical buttons already there would’ve made a lot of sense.
As much as it might seem unfair to directly compare one device to another, in the case of the Nook GlowLight 4 Plus it’s necessary given Barnes & Noble is selling it at a price comparable to more feature-rich, better performing e-readers. Whether it’s limitations will be enough to steer you away may depend on how you intend to consume content, but you should be aware of what they are.
While the GlowLight’s compatibility is the smallest of any major e-reader, at least you’re able to convert most formats and sideload them onto the device. However, as mentioned above, the inability to rotate your screen to landscape isn’t just a waste of that lovely big screen, it means reading PDFs (one of the formats natively supported) like graphic novels or textbooks can be hit or miss.
Other e-readers like Kobo’s Libra 2 or Amazon’s Oasis also feature physical buttons, but their designs favor 2 buttons on tapered edges to better distribute the device’s weight. Their solution to offering both left and right-handed usage is simple and serves a dual purpose; reorient the device and the screen will flip accordingly.
The GlowLight 4 Plus, unfortunately, places all four of its physical buttons directly in the center of the device, which means there’s no easy way to reach them unless you’re holding the Nook at the center with both hands. Also, the Nook home button is no longer physical, but a touch button that often fails to register taps. It also doesn’t quickly activate the marquee GlowLight backlighting like its predecessors did, which is disappointing. Worse, its placement means you’ll have to futz your fingers between the different input methods as you can’t access all your library and store options from the big touchscreen alone.
Conclusion: A Hard Sell
Frankly, asking anyone to give up their Kobo or Kindle e-readers for a Nook at this point is a hard sell, and there’s little reason to recommend Barnes & Noble’s Nook GlowLight 4 Plus to anyone unless they consciously want a product that too often disappoints. The large screen looks great but there’s no landscape mode, and while audiobook support is nice the core reading experience is slower and laggier than the competition. Coupled with a design that undermines its physical buttons and this Nook is a prime example of over-engineered and poorly implemented features working against each other for a less comfortable, clunkier reading experience.