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Nook GlowLight 4 review

The Nook GlowLight 4 is a competent e-reader, but offers a bare-bones user experience

Nook glowlight 4
(Image: © Barnes & Noble)

Our Verdict

The Nook GlowLight 4 is a slight improvement on its predecessor, offering smoother performance and a solid reading experience. Almost everything else about the device ranges from “underwhelming” to “disastrous,” though.

For

  • Solid reading experience
  • Sleek, lightweight design
  • Fewer distractions than Kindle

Against

  • Miserable sideloading experience
  • Fewer extra features than competitors
  • No significant upgrades since GlowLight 3

Tom's Guide Verdict

The Nook GlowLight 4 is a slight improvement on its predecessor, offering smoother performance and a solid reading experience. Almost everything else about the device ranges from “underwhelming” to “disastrous,” though.

Pros

  • +

    Solid reading experience

  • +

    Sleek, lightweight design

  • +

    Fewer distractions than Kindle

Cons

  • -

    Miserable sideloading experience

  • -

    Fewer extra features than competitors

  • -

    No significant upgrades since GlowLight 3

Nook GlowLight 4 review: Specs

Price: $140
Display size: 6 inches
Resolution (points-per-inch): 300
Storage: 32 GB
Battery life: Approximately one month
Dimensions: 6.2 x 4.8 x 0.2 inches
Weight: 6.0 ounces
Ports: USB-C
Wireless charging: No
Extras: Color temperature, Barnes & Noble in-store perks

I’m not exactly sure who the target audience is for the Nook GlowLight 4. I think, perhaps, it’s people like me, who have stubbornly hung onto their original Nooks or Nook Simple Touches for the last 10-plus years, but who won’t get an Amazon Kindle out of sheer stubbornness. Beyond that, I'm having trouble coming up with a large demographic.

Think about it. There’s no reason for Nook GlowLight 3 owners to upgrade, since the benefits over the previous model are marginal. There’s no reason for Kindle or Kobo owners to switch, since the GlowLight 4 is a weaker device overall. There’s no reason for casual readers to buy one, since their smartphone or tablet can fulfill the same function almost as well. Even if you’re dead-set on buying an e-reader for the first time, there’s no particular benefit that the Nook can offer over its two closest competitors.

The best thing I can say about the Nook GlowLight 4 is that if you know exactly what you want to read and successfully load it onto your device, you’ll be able to read it in peace for as long as you like. As a distraction-free way to read books without straining your eyes, the GlowLight 4 succeeds. That’s reason enough to give it at least a mild recommendation.

But there’s so much that Barnes & Noble needed to fix from the GlowLight 3, and so little that actually got done. If you need to replace an old Nook and can’t stomach the thought of losing your library, this Nook GlowLight 4 review will show it's a fine device. Otherwise, though, you’d be much happier with one of the best Kindles or a Kobo.

Nook GlowLight 4 review: Price and availability

If you decide to buy a Nook GlowLight 4, you at least won’t have to put much thought into which version to buy. There’s one configuration, which comes with a 6-inch e-ink screen, 32 GB storage and a USB-C charging port. It costs $150, but Barnes & Noble members can save 10%, knocking the price down to $135.

Barnes & Noble also sells the Nook 10” HD Tablet Designed with Lenovo for $130, but this is a more traditional LCD screen tablet. It’s not an e-reader.

Nook GlowLight 4 review: Design

If you’ve used an e-reader anytime in the last decade, the Nook GlowLight 4 should feel pretty intuitive. It’s a thin rectangular device, about the size of a mass-market paperback, but much lighter and thinner. At 6.2 x 4.8 x 0.2 inches and 6 ounces, it’s small enough to stash in almost any bag, and light enough to hold for hours while you read.

Nook glowlight 4 side view

(Image credit: Barnes & Noble)

Like most dedicated e-readers, the GlowLight 4 eschews the LCD screens common to smartphones, tablets and computers, opting instead for an e-ink display. If you’ve never used an e-ink device before, it’s tailor-made for immersive reading. A static e-ink display doesn’t consume any energy. As such, e-readers can last an extremely long time on a single charge (up to a month, in the GlowLight 4’s case), and don’t tire your eyes out as quickly as LCDs, which refresh dozens of times per second.

Nook glowlight 4

(Image credit: Barnes & Noble)

One major advantage of the GlowLight 4 over comparably priced Kindle and Kobo devices is its physical page-turn buttons. While you need to buy super-premium Kindle and Kobo models ($180 and up) to get physical buttons, the GlowLight 4 includes them by default. Furthermore, you get these buttons on either side of the screen, unlike Kindle and Kobo, which put both physical buttons off to one side. The GlowLight 4 has a better, more naturalistic layout, and the buttons make a big difference, particularly since it means your screen won’t be covered in fingerprints.

Otherwise, the GlowLight 4 looks like a traditional e-reader. It has a power button on top, a USB-C charging port on the bottom, a “Nook” logo on the back and not much else. The only big difference from the GlowLight 3 is that the GlowLight 4’s chassis is slightly smaller, and the page-turn buttons are on the edges of the bezel rather than the center.

Nook GlowLight 4 review: Interface

There are two main components to the Nook Glowlight 4’s interface: the reading experience, and what I’ll call “everything else” — settings, lighting, buying new books and so forth. Generally speaking, the GlowLight 4’s reading experience is excellent, while “everything else” ranges from “fine” to “a nightmare.”

To give credit where it’s due, I actually prefer the GlowLight 4’s core reading experience to that of the Kindle. Unlike the Kindle, which crams its books full of Goodreads and social media functionality (Editor's Note: which you can spend time disabling, if you're like us), Nook books are quiet. There’s nothing between you and the printed word. You simply buy or borrow a book, open it up, and read until you no longer feel like reading. I also have to give Barnes & Noble credit for solving the terrible screen flashing and interminable load times from the GlowLight 3. The GlowLight 4, like any good e-reader, does precisely one thing, and does so very well.

The reading interface is mostly good as well. When you’re in a book, you can tap the screen to jump to distant pages, or to select a particular chapter. You can also alter font size, font style, margins, line spacing and justification. You can look for keywords, add bookmarks, highlight and make notes.

You can adjust the titular GlowLight with two quick menu taps, and you can also activate a helpful Night Mode. This shifts the Nook's color temperature over the course of the day, from cool blues in the morning, to warm oranges at night. This might help you sleep better if you read right before bed; otherwise, it's easy enough to turn off.

Woman reading Nook glowlight 4

(Image credit: Barnes & Noble)

I have only two complaints here. The first is that Amazon lets you sideload your own fonts to the Kindle; while the Nook, on the other hand, offers seven fonts, and that’s all you’ll get, unless you root the device. The GlowLight feature is also less precise than I’d like, since you have to drag a slider around rather than specifying discrete levels. You can’t save your favorite lighting levels, and there’s no adaptive brightness. Both of these were issues last time around, and Barnes & Noble had plenty of time to address them.

Beyond that, you can organize your books on the Library screen, play with display options in Settings, read snippets of recommended books in Readouts, or Search for books, both in your library and in the Barnes & Noble digital storefront.

Nook Glowlight 4 review: Content

Buying new books is simple enough. You simply open the store, find the book you want (you can search, browse, or get individualized recommendations) and pay for it via credit card or gift card. New books download to your device automatically, and with 32 GB storage, you can store tens of thousands of books. (I’m not exactly sure why Barnes & Noble upped the storage from 8 GB to 32 GB, as mainstream book files rarely exceed 10 MB, but more storage is never a bad thing.)

While Barnes & Noble’s shop isn’t quite as rich as Amazon’s, you’ll be able to find what you need, provided that you like books that have been in print sometime in the last 20 years or so. Barnes & Noble advertises that it has more than 4.5 million books on offer, from classics to New York Times bestsellers, and I’ve never had too much trouble finding what I needed to read, from ‘50s sci-fi to brand-new lit fic. You can even drop into a Barnes & Noble store and read pretty much anything for as long as you stay, much like picking a book up off the shelf and sitting with it for an hour or two.

Nook glowlight 4 library

(Image credit: Barnes & Noble)

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the process of sideloading content to a Nook. Back when the Nook debuted, its open EPUB file format was a big boon over the Kindle, with its walled-garden MOBI files. EPUB compatibility was particularly helpful for downloading from local libraries, something that the Kindle didn’t offer at all.

Now, however, the tables have turned. While the Nook continues to rely on antiquated Adobe Digital Editions technology and side-loading via USB cables, Amazon has partnered with library programs to allow wireless loans. Even the otherwise-unremarkable Kobo has surpassed the Nook, as you can browse Overdrive library books right from a Kobo device.

Conversely, trying to borrow library books on the GlowLight 4 was somehow — against all conceivable odds — even worse than trying to borrow them on the GlowLight 3. Last time around, the Nook refused to recognize that my library loans were valid; this time, I could not get my computer to recognize the Nook at all.

If you run into trouble trying to sideload books, Barnes & Noble offers outdated troubleshooting advice that blames Adobe; Adobe offers outdated troubleshooting advice that blames Barnes & Noble. Neither company has lifted a finger to improve the process in the last few years. Without rehashing the whole miserable process, it took full resets of both the GlowLight 4 and Adobe Digital Editions before they started playing nicely together. Even then, the Nook would still sometimes insist that I wasn’t ejecting the device properly, so it had to delete all of my sideloaded files in retaliation.

As I told another Tom’s Guide editor after I wasted a whole morning on this process, “I haven't bought a physical book in over a decade, but nonsense like this is enough to make me go back.”

Nook GlowLight 4 review: Battery life

One area where the Nook GlowLight 4 fully lives up to its potential is in the battery life department. Barnes & Noble claims that the device can last up to a month on a single charge. This is obviously dependent on a ton of different factors, such as your reading speed, your lighting options, your Wi-Fi connectivity and so forth. But the bottom line is that you won’t have to charge the device very often. That’s a good thing, considering that it’s not uncommon for serious readers to plant themselves in front of a book for hours and hours at a time.

Nook glowlight 4

(Image credit: Barnes & Noble)

The only metric I can offer is that when I first received the GlowLight 4, I charged it to 100%. A week later, after reading infrequently with the light at half-strength and the Wi-Fi off, I brought it down to about 75% charge. That’s in line with Barnes & Noble’s estimate, although I imagine it will start draining faster once I sit down for a marathon session.

Nook GlowLight 4 review: Verdict

When I reviewed the Nook GlowLight 3, the three issues that drove me up the wall were the slow load times, the incessant screen flashing and the near-impossibility of sideloading content. Barnes & Noble has fixed the first two problems, while keeping the distraction-free reading experience intact. However, sideloading is as miserable as ever, and that’s a big problem when an open file format is your biggest advantage over the competition.

Over the past few years, both Kindle and Kobo have made great strides in improving the user experience, with features such as waterproofing, adaptive brightness and a variety of different hardware options at different prices. This Nook GlowLight 4 review shows that this model doesn’t have any of those things. It’s the mildest possible upgrade for an e-reader that needed a significant overhaul — and it needed that significant overhaul three years ago.

If you’re like me, and simply can’t let go of your hard-won Barnes & Noble ebook library, I’ll begrudgingly recommend the GlowLight 4. It could have been much worse. But I’d really like to see Barnes & Noble give its venerable old e-reader a top-to-bottom refresh before the company has to bow out of the hardware game forever.

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.