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Nook GlowLight e-ink e-reader review: The Kindle Paperwhite's close competitor

While it doesn't necessarily beat the Kindle Paperwhite, the $119 Nook GlowLight is an excellent e-reader that's strongly worth considering if you don't want to buy into the Amazon ecosystem.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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8 min read

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Editors' note: Effective November 21, 2014, Barnes & Noble has dropped the price of the Nook GlowLight from $119 to $99.

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8.1

Nook GlowLight e-ink e-reader

The Good

Barnes & Noble's second-generation <b>Nook GlowLight</b> improves on an already good e-reader, with a lighter design than the Kindle Paperwhite, improved lighting scheme, sharper text, and other enhancements, including the elimination of page flashing. You get 4GB of internal memory and there's a ring of silicone rubber around the frame to help protect the device in the event of a fall.

The Bad

Lacks the expansion slot and page-turn buttons found on previous models. While the device is responsive, Barnes & Noble would have ideally equipped it with a faster processor. White finish can show some grime from your hands. Nook content ecosystem is good but can't match Kindle's.

The Bottom Line

While it doesn't necessarily beat the Kindle Paperwhite, the $119 Nook GlowLight is an excellent e-reader that's strongly worth considering if you don't want to buy into the Amazon ecosystem.

Barnes & Noble's next-generation 6-inch e-ink e-reader, the Nook GlowLight, shares the same shape as the earlier Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight, but it sheds its carbon-colored shell for a warmer, off-white housing that has a rubberized gray trim around its border. The silicone rim helps you get a good grip on the device, and it's also supposed to help protect the device in the event of a drop. Just as importantly, the device as a whole has been trimmed down from the previous GlowLight model, dropping from 6.95 ounces to 6.2 ounces (175g), which works out to 15 percent lighter than Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite. (For those following the 6-inch e-reader weight standings, the Kobo Aura is the lightest, weighing 1 gram less than the Nook GlowLight.)

I liked the overall look and feel of the new Nook. The back has a soft-to-the-touch finish, and since it's white, it doesn't show fingerprints like the previous model did. However, it can pick up some grime from your hands, so don't expect it to stay totally white over the long haul (you can wipe it down, of course).

The GlowLight, which features an improved lighting scheme, is shipping now for $119 (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

While Barnes & Noble has thankfully eliminated the "Simple Touch" title from the device's name, this is a touch-screen e-reader that sports a display with the same resolution (1,024x758 pixels, 212ppi) as the Kindle Paperwhite and delivers similarly sharp text. It's nicely responsive, though I would have liked to have seen Barnes & Noble go with the 1GHz processor that's in the Paperwhite (and the Kobo Glo) instead of sticking with an 800MHz processor. The difference is very slight, but in comparing it to the Kindle Paperwhite, the Amazon e-reader is a touch zippier. We're talking fractions of a second, but page turns are ever so slightly faster on the Kindle.

Aside from improving the display and slimming the chassis, the biggest enhancement Barnes & Noble has made is to the integrated light -- the GlowLight is now significantly brighter at its highest setting, looks whiter, and displays more evenly across the screen. At its highest setting, the Nook's light is a bit brighter than the Kindle Paperwhite's, which has also been made brighter (it's a plus that it gets as bright as it does, but the majority of people keep the light at more of a medium setting, particularly for nighttime reading).

On top of all that, Barnes & Noble has completely eliminated the flashing you typically get from e-ink-based e-readers. With e-ink, the screen needs to refresh every so often, which is what causes the flash. When you go back to the home screen, the display does flash, but it seems less jarring because you're not in the middle of turning a page while reading.

Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight e-reader gets brighter (pictures)

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The Kindle has no physical buttons on the device beyond an on/off button. The Nook's pretty minimalist now too, doing away with the physical page-turn buttons, which some people liked but others considered superfluous. But the Nook retains its "n" shaped hard home button at the bottom of the e-reader, which many people, including me, appreciate. Hold it down and the light comes on (or turns off if it's already on).

This model comes with 4GB of internal memory instead of the Paperwhite's 2GB; that said, "only" 2.5GB of that space is reserved for content. That's enough for 2,000 books on the Nook, versus 1,100 on the Paperwhite. Unlike previous Nooks, the GlowLight lacks a microSD expansion slot. I'm not sure who needs to carry around more than 2,000 books at a time, but dropping the expandable storage has certainly angered commenters on B&N's own site.

Based on 30 minutes of reading time per day, both the Paperwhite and the new Nook offer up to two months of battery life with wireless off and, in the case of the Nook, with the GlowLight at its default brightness setting (or set to "off"). In other words, they're both very energy-efficient.

Unsurprisingly, Barnes & Noble has matched the $119 price of the base Wi-Fi-only Kindle Paperwhite, which is known as the Kindle Paperwhite with Special Offers because it serves up some small ads at the bottom of the home page and as screensavers when the device is in sleep mode. Some people don't mind or even notice the Special Offers, while some people hate them. If you're willing to pay an extra $20, you can get the version of the Kindle that's ad-free. The Nook doesn't have any ads, though it does surface new books in its "Now on Nook" section in the lower half of the home screen. It's pretty low-key -- only one book appears as a promo -- and the interface as a whole is clean and uncluttered.

Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight silicone trim
The device has a silicone trim around its edge to protect it in the event of a drop (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

It's worth noting that Barnes & Noble is offering an additional discount through the end of the year: new and existing Barnes & Noble members get a 10 percent discount on the Nook GlowLight. You could put that $11.90 toward one of the new Clip Covers, which attach to the left or right side of device and protect the screen while adding very little weight to your e-reader. The new covers are a tad pricey at $21.95 -- they feel like they're worth about $14.95 -- but they do give the device a bit of Apple flair (yes, they look like an Apple Smart Cover, although they don't feature a built-in magnet, which is too bad).

Why buy the Nook GlowLight over the Kindle Paperwhite?
Barnes & Noble was one of the first to market with an integrated light (Sony was first, but no one really remembers that), and when the Nook Simple Touch with GlowLight hit the market, Amazon was still several months away from releasing the first-generation Paperwhite.

But that was then and this is now. Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite 2013 is a very solid product that earned a CNET Editors' Choice Award. The new Nook GlowLight measures up well against it. It has a few advantages (it's a little lighter, has more memory, and for those who don't like ads, there aren't any). Barnes & Noble also likes to point out that you can get in-person assistance with your device by stepping into a Barnes & Noble brick and mortar store, where you can read any Nook book for free for one hour while connected to Wi-Fi at any location. Also, the company has improved the shopping experience on the device. And last but not least, there are new optimized fonts to choose from.

Unlike Amazon Kindles, the Nook can be used to read EPUB files purchased from third-party retailers beyond Barnes & Noble. It can also read PDFs (though anyone who's doing serious PDF reading should opt for a tablet instead). And Barnes & Noble also offers a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, too.

Ultimately, from a hardware standpoint -- and a pure reading experience -- there isn't a whole lot that separates the two devices. As I said, text looks sharp on both devices, with good contrast. But there are small differences. Interestingly, the Nook's screen feels very smooth while the Kindle's screen has a little more texture to it. I found the Kindle's touch-sensitivity more precise. By that I mean, single words were easier to select for look up in the dictionary and it was easier to highlight sections.

Barnes & Noble Nook GlowLight display
The Nook GlowLight displays more uniformly across the screen, is whiter and brighter (click image to enlarge). Sarah Tew/CNET

I can't say I really preferred one design over the other. I liked that the Nook felt a little lighter in hand -- and liked how it felt in hand -- but if you're not a fan of white borders, you'll be more attracted to the Kindle (the black border can help slightly with contrast perception). And the white can end up showing some grime from your hands.

I could delve further into the nuances of each device's design and operation. But suffice to say I'd be perfectly happy using either one and both the Kindle and Nook platforms have apps for smartphones, tablets and computers, so you can access your e-books across multiple devices without a problem. Also, both companies offer a selection of digital magazines and newspapers that are available on their e-ink e-readers. And both allow you to add e-books checked out from public libraries.

At the end of the day, however, even with Barnes & Noble improving its Nook shopping experience, Amazon's content ecosystem is still superior.

You can argue whether it's good or bad for the publishing industry or authors as a whole, but Amazon's cutthroat pricing strategy is certainly great for shoppers. Many e-books are just cheaper on Kindle versus Nook (and other third-party stores).

The back of the device (click image to enlarge).

If you're an Amazon Prime member ($79 per year), the deal gets even sweeter. The Kindle Lending Library gives you free access to more than 350,000 titles. (Yes, many of them are obscure, but there are plenty of mainstream gems on there, including the entire Harry Potter series.)

Other Kindle niceties include Kindle Matchbook (get the e-book version of a print book purchase at a reduced price); the ability to upgrade to an Audible audiobook version of a title for a few dollars more, and "Whispersync" between the e-book and audio version; and integrated "X-ray" and Wikipedia lookups (especially good for thick narratives like the "Game of Thrones" books).

Amazon is also touting some additional features that are coming soon. Kindle Freetime is a kid-centric program that helps parents encourage and monitor their children's reading, and it includes access to a stream of books for $2.99 per month. And Kindles will soon include Goodreads integration, so you can share book recommendations and highlights with friends (Amazon bought Goodreads earlier this year).

Kindle also has a "send to Kindle" option that lets you send any webpage to the Kindle for reading later. Kobo offers similar integration with the Pocket app. The Nook doesn't have a similar feature at this time.

Finally, Amazon's e-book selection is just larger, with (according to Amazon) over 400,000 e-books you won't find from other retailers.

Barnes & Noble's strengths as a bookseller and recommendation/discovery engine shouldn't be overlooked -- it's good at it. But it needs to continue to offer up distinguishing features that are both useful and marketable to maintain the allure of its platform in the face of such intense competition from Amazon, which seems to introduce some new Kindle initiative or feature every few weeks.

Barnes & Noble is selling Clip Covers ($21.95) that protect the screen while adding very little weight to the device.

Conclusion
In many ways, Barnes & Noble has done exactly what Amazon did with its second-generation Kindle Paperwhite. It's taken a good product and made it better, with a lighter design, improved lighting scheme, sharper text, and other enhancements, including the elimination of page flashing. Those are all positives, but I don't think the new Nook GlowLight brings anything so revolutionary or different to the world of e-reading that one might turn from being a Kindle customer to being a Nook customer. However, I do think the new GlowLight will help Barnes & Noble retain its existing customers and maybe even acquire some new ones who aren't ensconced in the formidable Kindle ecosystem.

The new Nook is slightly thinner than the previous model and also charges via USB. Sarah Tew/CNET

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8.1

Nook GlowLight e-ink e-reader

Score Breakdown

Design 9Ecosystem 7Features 8Performance 8Value 8