For years, the only practical alternative e-reader to Amazon’s Kindle was a Kobo. But after a long time away, Barnes & Noble is back in the game with its new GlowLight 4 e-readers. The company recently released the $119.99 Nook GlowLight 4e, the budget-friendly version of the $149.99 Nook Glowlight 4 introduced in December. With its physical page-turning buttons, USB-C support, and 212dpi resolution, this new entry-level model seems like a strong contender.
On paper, that is. After testing the e-reader for about a week, I’m not convinced it’s worth it — unless you’re really into physical page-turning buttons.
It’s mainly those buttons that make the GlowLight 4e stand out from other e-readers in this price range. Like its more expensive sibling, the GlowLight 4e’s buttons are located on the right and left sides of the display for turning pages. This is a feature typically reserved for more expensive Amazon and Kobo e-readers, and even the $139.99 Kindle Paperwhite lacks it. They make it easy to quickly turn pages without needing to swipe across the touchscreen, which — like many e-reader displays at this price point — can be slow to respond.
By default, the buttons at the top turn the page forward while the bottom ones turn it back, although you can reverse the order. You can also double-click the buttons to move forward or backward a chapter or quickly “flip” through pages by pressing and holding down the button that turns pages forward. Additionally, you can use the buttons to scroll up and down the list of books Barnes & Noble sells.
The only problem? These buttons stopped working the second time I turned on the GlowLight 4e. It took two consecutive reboots of the device to get them working again. They’ve not caused any problems since, but I don’t know if this issue will resurface in, say, a month and become a regular occurrence. Barnes & Noble spokesperson Braeden Boyle says this wasn’t a problem the company came across during its internal course of testing, however, so there’s a possibility this could just be a problem unique to my device. Still, it’s not reassuring to have this happen at all in the relatively short time I’ve been using the Nook.
Weighing just six ounces and measuring 6.11-inches tall, the thin, rectangular GlowLight 4e is lightweight and easy to slip into a purse. It has a soft-touch finish that’s comfortable to hold while reading, even with just one hand. Yet, given it’s a more entry-level model, Barnes & Noble naturally traded off some features for others. For instance, unlike the $139.99 Kindle Paperwhite, it’s not waterproof and lacks speakers, a headphone jack, and Bluetooth support. As a result, you won’t be able to listen to audiobooks — something you could do even using the cheaper entry-level $89.99 Kindle.
But, unlike the Kindle and even Kobo’s $119.99 Clara HD, the GlowLight 4e actually has a USB-C port (although you’ll have to provide your own charging brick). These can charge faster than micro USB cables, and Barnes & Noble says a 5-watt charger should top it up in about 2.5 hours. That’s an accurate estimation — I was able to charge the device from 50 to 100 percent within an hour.
Barnes & Noble claims the GlowLight 4e should run “for weeks.” After a week’s worth of testing, reading for 20–30 minutes each day with Wi-Fi on and the screen at 50 percent brightness, the battery level dropped by 60 percent. I anticipate, then, that the battery life will last close to two weeks or about roughly six hours on a single charge with Wi-Fi on and the light at about half strength. With Wi-Fi and the light occasionally turned off, it might last a few more days of use — or about three weeks total — which isn’t terrible. Yet, given that for $20 more you can get a Paperwhite that last months, I was hoping for longer battery life.
At 221dpi, the GlowLight 4e’s E Ink display is superior to Amazon’s Kindle, which offers a disappointingly low 167ppi resolution but is not quite as sharp as the Kobo Clara HD’s 300ppi display. If sharp text matters more to you than physical page-turning buttons, this could be an issue. It wasn’t a dealbreaker for me, though. The text is still comfortable to read, and I could easily adjust text sizes and fonts to make it easier to look at if needed. Plus, as you can guess from its name, the GlowLight 4e comes with an adjustable backlight, which makes text much easier to see — especially at night. However, the light doesn’t have color temperature adjustment that makes it easier to read after sundown, which both Kobo’s Clara HD and the Kindle Paperwhite offer. Without it, reading for longer than 30 minutes before bed strained my eyes, especially because I don’t have great eyesight.
In addition, while the GlowLight 4e’s semi-matte display looks crisp and clear in direct sunlight, it doesn’t get rid of the glare, as Barnes & Noble promises, but just reduces it. Under direct sunlight, I also noticed a slight reduction in contrast and sharpness levels. The display is also supposed to be resistant to both scratches and fingerprints. Thankfully so far, the GlowLight 4e lives up to its potential in this regard.
Actually using the screen to navigate the interface requires patience. The touchscreen was slow to respond, making going through the setup process, finding a book, and adjusting settings a chore. Things get more enjoyable once you’ve navigated away from the main menu to reading, though. Save for adjusting settings like text size, you don’t need to use the touchscreen while reading since you can rely on the buttons to very quickly flip pages. Plus, the GlowLight 4e doesn’t have any ads, which you have to pay extra to remove when you buy a Kindle.
In contrast to Amazon’s Kindle but like Kobo’s e-readers, the Nook supports the ePub format so you can read books obtained outside of its bookstore. I was happy to find that it’s relatively easy to quickly sideload ePub files to it. Within 10 seconds, I was able to connect the Nook to my MacBook Air using the USB-C cable and drag and drop an ePub file into the e-reader. You could do the same on a Kindle, but this is a long, complicated process involving the Calibre app — at least for now. There are rumors that the Kindle’s “Send to Kindle” function will soon be able to easily convert ePub files into a format Kindles can read, which could level the playing field here.
You can also borrow library ebooks, but the process could be faster and simpler. It took a few minutes to borrow a book and transfer it using Adobe Digital Editions and a USB-C cable. Amazon, in contrast, has partnered with library programs like Overdrive so you can wirelessly borrow a book. Meanwhile, Overdrive’s library is conveniently built right into Kobo’s e-readers.
For an entry-level e-reader, the Nook GlowLight 4e overall delivers a good core reading experience. However, my main gripe is the price. With the Nook GlowLight 4e, Barnes & Noble is trying to deliver a budget-friendly alternative to e-readers that offers page-turning buttons, which tend to be the most expensive. The company naturally cut some corners to make that happen, but when the product’s distinguishing feature temporarily stops working after just a day of use, maybe they cut too many. Plus, some features are too core to the everyday reading experience to trade when you’re paying $119.99. Kobo’s ad-free Clara HD costs the same amount, but you can read it at night without straining your eyes thanks to adjustable color temperature settings. Battery life that lasts a few weeks is good and comparable to Kobo’s Clara HD, but the new Kindle Paperwhite will last you months for just $20 more.
Ultimately, if you don’t want to be tied to Amazon and don’t need physical buttons, Kobo’s e-readers are still the better alternative. But, if you don’t care who makes your e-reader (and don’t mainly buy books from Barnes & Noble), it’s worth spending the extra $20 on the Kindle Paperwhite — or at least waiting for it to go on sale. Except for an ad-free experience, you’ll get most of the perks Kobo’s Clara HD offers but with water resistance, extra storage, an incredible battery life, fast performance, a headphone jack, and access to Amazon’s frequently discounted ebooks — and the list goes on. Again, there just aren’t physical buttons. But, for me at least, they’re not really worth it.
Photography by Sheena Vasani / The Verge