Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight review: much improved, but the competition is still winning

There's a lot to be said for being first. Barnes & Noble beat the competition to the punch with the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight -- an e-reader with built-in front lighting. And though we busted the company's chops with regards to its claims of keeping marriages together, the feature really did feel like the next big step forward for e-readers. Naturally, then, Amazon and Kobo released similar offerings soon after, with front lighting that frankly blew the Nook out of the water. As those companies further iterated their lines, Barnes & Noble maintained radio silence, something many chalked up to troubles with its hardware division.

A year and a half after the release of its last reader, the GlowLight has finally returned with an abbreviated name and an improved feature set. The new Nook GlowLight ($119) features a revised design, weighs noticeably less than its predecessor and, most notably, brings an improved front light. But while it ushers in some welcome tweaks, the loss of the Simple Touch name also marks the abandonment of some beloved features that helped set the line apart in the first place.

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Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight review

Hardware

Barnes & Noble has always scored points by keeping things different. As most of its competition moved toward a utilitarian black, rectangular design, the Nook Simple Touch has remained tailored for the physical act of reading. For the past few iterations, the company's flagship readers have been stubby, matte gray affairs that put function over form. Indeed, you can see echoes of the Simple Touch line, even though Barnes & Noble dropped "Simple Touch" from the name. The fully rounded corners are intact here, making it more comfortable to press the reader into your palm. The fact that it's shed a good deal of weight helps, as well. The new Nook weighs a scant 6.2 ounces, an impressive drop from 7 ounces on the last Simple Touch. It's also lighter than the new Kindle Paperwhite, which weighs 7.3. All told, it's remarkably light. We were even a bit surprised when we picked it up; the reader weighs about the same as a mass-market paperback.

The company's shaved a few fractions of an inch off the device, too -- down to 0.42 inch from 0.47. At the same time, it kept the height and width the same at 6.5 x 5 inches. That's thanks in no small part to the retention of sizable bezels that will give you a place to rest your thumb while reading so you don't accidentally trigger a page turn on the touchscreen. Sadly, however, the physical page-turn buttons have bitten the dust. We asked a Barnes & Noble rep why the company opted to pull the plug on one of the Nook's more distinguishing physical traits and didn't get a satisfactory answer -- just a sense that they had outstayed their welcome as remnants of a time before E Ink touchscreens. A bummer, that.

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The Nook has, however, held onto the trademark "n" button that graces the lower bezel on all of B&N's devices, serving as both a home button and a trigger for the front light (when you hold it down). The latter is a nice use of a front-and-center button, eliminating the need to fumble through the device's touch interface to light things up, though it does introduce the risk of having the light turn on accidentally in your bag. This will happen to you at some point. Count on it. For what it's worth, Barnes & Noble claims that given the generous battery life, accidental triggers aren't actually a big deal.

Some cosmetic changes: The Simple Touch's familiar dark gray coloring is gone now, traded in for white, which the company believes will prove less distracting than the competition's black frames when placed against the pale, glowing screen. Honestly, we can't say we cared one way or another. We do, however, appreciate the subtle light gray of the "Nook" logo on the top bezel -- a nice change from Amazon's increasingly aggressive approach to device branding.

A light gray rubber bumper runs around the perimeter of the reader. The rep who showed us the device initially wouldn't go so far as to use the word "rugged" (he probably didn't want to encourage drop testing), but suggested that the bumper might make the reader more durable. The power button has been moved to the left side of the reader, and is much smaller and thinner than the one that used to sit on the back of the Simple Touch devices. Barnes & Noble made this move so that users wouldn't accidentally turn the reader off. Even so, we watched an employee accidentally hit the button on the new reader a few times while taking the optional cover on and off. Life is full of trade-offs. Finishing up our tour, the micro-USB port is located on the bottom, as it was before.

A quick scan around the sides reveals a glaring omission: the microSD slot. That's right, Barnes & Noble has put the kibosh on expandable memory here. We'll admit that we didn't really use it on our old Nooks -- the built-in memory and cloud storage have us pretty much covered. Still, it's a bummer to see the company abandon another feature that helped set its offerings apart from the Kindle. All's not lost, though. You might not be able to outfit your reader with 32GB, but the company has at least expanded the internal storage to 4GB (2.5 gigs of which you'll actually be able to use). That's twice that what both the Paperwhite and last-gen Nook have to offer.

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The rear cover is pretty minimal, in part because that power button's been shifted to a different part of the device. Also gone, sadly, is the concave surface -- yet another distinction that made B&N's previous readers conform nicely to the hand. The Nook GlowLight is still comfortable enough to hold, but as a marathon reader, I'm in favor of any design decision that improves the ergonomics. With those two features gone, the rear is a stark, white soft-touch landscape broken up only by a large, indented lowercase "n" in the center and a small, light gray Nook logo and the standard FCC fine print on the bottom.

The processor speed remains the same at 800MHz, which has since been outdone by the Kindle's new 1GHz chip. Rated battery life remains the same too, even if Barnes & Noble has adjusted its claims from "two months" to "eight weeks." This time, the company is also claiming that you should be able to enjoy that kind of runtime even when the front light is on (at the default setting, mind). That usage is based on 30 minutes of reading time a day, with the WiFi switched off.

Display

DNP Nook GlowLight review

The 6-inch form factor has dominated the e-reader market. It's not for a lack of innovation, though. Others have experimented with larger and smaller screens, only to find little more than niche success. Six inches will likely continue to remain the sweet spot for these E Ink devices. Indeed, Barnes & Noble has stuck to its guns here. Also unsurprising: the company has bumped up the reader's screen density from 167 pixels per pinch to the industry-standard 212 ppi and brought the resolution to 1,024 x 758 (keep in mind, of course, that all e-reader manufacturers are working with very similar -- if not wholly the same -- products from E Ink). Sure enough, the screen is sharper here -- so much so that it's now on par with the Kindle Paperwhite and Kobo Aura. If you want things to be really sharp, you'll want to take a closer look at Kobo's 265-ppi Aura HD, but for the vast majority of readers, the GlowLight's Pearl E Ink display should be sufficient.

This latest E Ink display brings couple of additional changes. For starters, image ghosting has been reduced -- a welcome improvement for those reading image-heavy files like manga or PDFs. Also, as it did on the Kobo Aura, E Ink has managed to eliminate those pesky full-page refreshes, which used to come every half-dozen pages or so. Also much appreciated. You will, however, see a full-black flash on the display when the reader performs tasks like transitioning from the home screen to a text page. Strangely, Barnes & Noble is the only one of the big three e-reader manufacturers that has yet to graduate to capacitive touch. Instead, the company has stuck with infrared, which means touch isn't quite as accurate. If you've used the last couple of Nook readers, however, you know the technology mostly gets the job done.

DNP Nook GlowLight review

In retrospect, the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight felt a bit rushed; it was as if the company sacrificed certain aspects of its front-lighting technology in order to ensure it beat its competitors to market. As novel as that front light seemed at the time, the arrival of superior displays from Amazon and Kobo made the flaws in Barnes & Noble's device all the more apparent -- the bluish tinge and the generally spotty nature of coverage. It took a bit longer than expected, but the Nook line finally has a response in the form of the new GlowLight.

By every measure, the screen is vastly improved. The light looks whiter and coverage is much more even than before. It's still not quite there, though. Since Kobo and Kindle have had an extra generation to perfect and tweak their own products, B&N still hasn't quite caught up. In particular, there's a visible light source (the gap required for infrared technology may be somewhat to blame here) and generally uneven coverage at the top, resulting in a slightly off-color tinge. It likely won't bother most readers -- particularly those who've grown accustomed to reading on the last-generation Nook -- but those who've spent time with the most recent Paperwhite or Kobo may be bothered by the imperfect light distribution.

Software

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Barnes & Noble patted itself on the back for streamlining the Nook's software. As much as resolution and pixel density have been improved over the past couple of years, these products simply aren't designed to handle lots of images at once. Along the top of the home page, you'll find buttons for returning to your most recently read text and notifications (which thus far in our reading experience have been limited to slightly pushy suggestions that we share our reading experience with friends), along with the time, WiFi signal, battery life and an icon for adjusting the front lighting.

Half of the home page is devoted to Reading Now, which displays the covers of the last three books you've opened, the most recent of which is larger than the rest and has your progress displayed. Below this, there's Now on Nook, which displays a selection from its store and quite a bit of white space. We'd prefer to have the full page devoted to reading selections, but hey, Barnes & Noble has to sell some books, right? Below this is a link to your library, search and the e-book shop. The de-cluttering is even more apparent in the shop, where the selections have been grouped categories and more white space has been included throughout, making it much easier to find your way around the place.

As for the reading experience, things haven't changed much. You'll see the title at the top of the page when you first open a book. Otherwise, the page is pretty much all text, save for the bottom, where you'll see your page number and the book's total page count. Tap this area and the title, time and icons for the GlowLight and battery life will pop up on the top. Along the bottom are squares for the book's contents, search and text. Unfortunately, you still can't adjust the font by pinching to zoom.

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Tap through the menu and you'll see seven different font sizes, six styles and three options for both line spacing and margins. There's also an option to go with the publisher's default settings. The selection pales in comparison to what Kobo offers, but odds are you'll be able to find something to your liking. Hold down on text and you'll see options for highlighting, adding notes, consulting Merriam-Webster's dictionary, and sharing things over email, Facebook and Twitter. When highlighted, a dialog bubble pops up briefly at the top, showing your selection, as well.

Barnes & Noble has generally taken a "less is more" approach to software this time around, avoiding most bells and whistles. Many hardcore readers will appreciate the focus on the reading experience, though recent software upgrades from its competitors highlight what a few extra features can add to the experience. Amazon, for example, is doing interesting things with X-Ray and Goodreads, while Kobo's surely won over some new fans with the addition of Pocket integration.

Wrap-up

DNP Nook GlowLight review

It took a year and a half, but the new Nook is finally here. So was it worth the wait? Kind of. If you gave up and bought a new Kindle or Kobo, we can't say we blame you -- and you probably don't regret your purchase, either. But if you've been holding out as a Barnes & Noble devotee, you can rest assured this is the best Nook yet. It's also fairly priced: at $119, it's $40 cheaper than the Aura, and costs the same as the new Kindle Paperwhite (and even that costs more if you want it without ads).

The new GlowLight is lighter than its predecessor with a sharper, better-lit display, though that front lighting still has a ways to go to catch up with the competition. It's also sad to see bits like the concave back and physical page-turn buttons disappear with this upgrade. Barnes & Noble still has a bit of an advantage with its physical stores, which offer Nook users free in-store WiFi and device help. Even so, the company's going to have to bring some real innovation on the hardware and software front if it wants to continue to be a player.

Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren contributed to this review.

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Barnes & Noble

Nook GlowLight

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Much-improved frontlight
  • Better display than last time

Cons

  • No more physical page buttons
  • The microSD slot has been removed
  • Frontlighting still not on par with the competition
Summary

The GlowLight has a much nicer display than the last-gen model, but other e-readers still offer better screens. In the meantime, too, the GlowLight has lost some defining features like a microSD slot and physical page turn buttons.