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The story of Barnes & Noble’s attempts to have a presence in the digital e-reader market have been, charitably, fairly rocky. I won’t go through the entire history here, but recent years have seen the sole remaining brick and mortar book superstore attempt a revival in the arena with a few interesting attempts at bridging the gap between ink and E Ink, hoping to regain some of the glory lost to rivals Amazon and Kobo while letting customers know they can still trust the brand.
None did this better than last year’s Nook GlowLight 4, a return-to-form e-reader that didn’t wow anyone with cutting-edge features or performance but was instead a fine device that did signal B&N was back in the game and should be taken seriously. Now comes its successor, or should I say, its subordinate: the Nook GlowLight 4e, a stripped down version of the OG model that omits several features to reach a slightly more affordable price point.
The NOOK GlowLight 4e is a very capable, super light, and very good e-reader that only really feels compromised when compared to its competitors. It lacks the marquee features of the more basic Kindles and Kobo readers like waterproofing and audiobook support, but does have physical buttons and a respectable screen that’s a joy to read on. From a price-to-feature ratio it’s definitely middle-tier, and for some this will be enough. For others, these compromises will be asking too much. The real question then becomes: in a world of Kindles and Kobos is there any room left for Barnes & Noble?
Design: Basic and Buttons
The Nook GlowLight 4e isn’t going to turn any heads, not that it has to, because you’ve seen this design before. It’s exactly the same as its predecessor, the GlowLight 4 – and almost every other e-reader out there. At just 6.93″ x 5.0″ x 0.38″ it’s among the smaller readers out there, at weighing just 6oz it’s also one of the lightest. Seriously, it’s almost featherweight.
What does help distinguish the GlowLight 4e from the crowd, however, are its physical buttons; two sets of vertically elongated physical buttons located just to the left and right of the screen. These let you navigate forward/back while reading (you can change this in the settings) or even up/down when browsing the store.
There’s also a physical Nook (“N”) home button on the center-bottom that lets you return to the home screen, activate the Glow light, and more. The only other physical button is the tiny power/standby nub on the center-top, nicely recessed away from accidental presses.
The Screen, Tech, and Compatibility
The Nook GlowLight 4e is a reduced version of its predecessor, the GlowLight 4, which is fine, though there’s a few places where you can really feel the cuts. Primarily is the display: a recessed 6” E Ink touchscreen with a resolution of 212 PPI that keeps the GlowLight backlighting but cuts the bluelight-filtering (i.e. Night Mode) entirely. The screen generally looks fine (more on this below), however, and is actually crisper than most entry-level readers, and the backlights are evenly distributed throughout.
Internally you’ll get just 8GB onboard memory, of which only 5GB is actually available for usage. Again, this is comparable to more entry-level readers. The supported file list is much tinier than the competition, but don’t let that scare you off. Apart from the huge library of books and magazines available in the B&N digital store you can also sideload your own ePub and PDF files, as well as DRM protected Adobe ePub and PDF files.
While you can download and read library books on the Nook GlowLight 4e, doing so requires using Adobe Digital Editions, as do the DRM files, a clunky piece of software that’s sure to turn some users off.
Connectivity is entirely either via WiFi (802.11 b/g/n) or via USB. Speaking of which, one nice perk is the USB Type-C port on the bottom instead of the Micro USB version found on most less expensive readers – Kindles and Kobos included.
B&N promises “weeks” of battery life on a single charge, but that’s with very basic usage – and minimal lighting. During my testing, which included heavy usage and copious lighting, I found the GlowLight 4e held up just fine during a single week before it needed a good recharge. To be fair, estimating battery life is a fool’s errand but it shouldn’t be difficult keeping your reader charged and ready to go.
The Nook Experience: Basically Good
If you’ve used any mainstream digital e-reader over the last decade you know what to expect when navigating the Nook’s system, for the most part. The core reading experience, once you open your content, remains largely the same as well. The GlowLight 4e offers a pleasant, very good reading experience for text-based content.
Anything else, like image-heavy content, comics, or manga…not so much. The screen is simply too small and the performance isn’t up to the task. That goes for most PDF files, too, which you probably don’t want to read on the GlowLight 4e’s smaller screen anyway.
Tapping the center-top screen opens up options like chapters, fonts, margins, bookmarks, and more. This is also where you’re able to adjust the GlowLight settings – which here is only the brightness levels. Hint: once adjusted, long-pressing the “N” button while reading can turn the light on/off in a few seconds, which is a nice shortcut.
The rest of the reading experience follows suit as long-presses bring up dictionary definitions, highlighting options, small note-taking, and searching through the book. There’s not much in the way of extras, to be honest, but all the basics you’d expect from a digital reading experience are here.
I just wish navigating the overall Nook interface was a little easier to navigate. Browsing the B&N bookstore feels clunky and slow – it was easier browsing on a different device than it was using the Nook version. Even switching from book to the multiple storefronts feels less intuitive than it should, often requiring using the “N” button to navigate the Nook’s confusing menus. Plus, technical glitches, such as taps not registering or pages flickering too long, mar what should have been a smoother, more enjoyable experience.
I’m sorry, but the Barnes & Noble software team have their work cut out for them if they hope to give Nook users the same level of competence found in other readers, at least when it comes to navigating the core software UI.
It should be noted the Nook GlowLight 4e is missing several features users have come to expect from a dedicated reader. There’s no waterproof protection at all, there’s no audiobook support (despite B&N having their own audiobook subscription service), you won’t get the eyeball-saving blue-light filtering or Bluetooth support, and there’s not much else to the stock reading experience other than just the basics. There’s no integration with any popular reading or note-taking service at all, and you can bet there’s no web browser hidden away in the background – experimental or otherwise.
Despite all the checkmarks it appears to be missing there’s no question the Nook GlowLight 4e still has plenty to offer. More than anything, those physical buttons are its best selling points, and while it may not have the biggest or best screen, a 6” 212 PPI E Ink screen is still pretty great to read on. 5GB memory may not sound like much, but it’s still a lot of room to sideload your own books onto.
And it’s not like you’ll ever run out of things to read. The digital Barnes ‘n Noble storefront is massive, second only to Amazon, and users can even go into an actual store for some basic technical support. And speaking of Amazon, this isn’t an Amazon.com device, meaning no ads on the lockscreen you need to pay to remove, or no Amazon anything. Those who may have ethical or moral objections against the online retail giant have another alternative to browse and support.
Conclusion: Good Enough
It’s hard to recommend the Nook GlowLight 4e without considering all its flaws, everything it’s missing, especially when there are better e-readers out there. Difficult…but not impossible, because there’s a case worth making that not everyone will need every bell and whistle found in those other readers. At the end of the day this is a perfectly fine entry-level e-reading device that’s fun to read on, weighs practically nothing, and lets you grow your digital library outside of Amazon’s walled garden. And it’s nice to have Barnes & Noble back in the game again, well, competition is always a very good thing.