Marking the Road to MP3 Player Accessibility: A Review of the Milestone 311
The first thing that struck me about the Milestone 311 was the seriousness and dedication that its Swiss inventors poured into making a device whose tactile and auditory features render it friendly and accessible to people who are blind. The second, when I donned a pair of headphones and listened to a piece of music, was the entirely scrumptious clarity of its sound delivery. But the Milestone 311, developed by the Swiss National Association for the Blind, in cooperation with Independent Living Aids, is difficult to categorize. It is a powerful handheld device that falls somewhere between off-the-shelf MP3 players and handheld digital players that are designed specifically for people who are blind. It cannot be fairly compared with a Book Port, for example, and it should not be compared with an iPod either. Its approach to many features differs just enough from other players to delight some and deter others.
What Is It?
You could describe the Milestone 311 as a digital voice recorder or an MP3 player. Both descriptions would be accurate, of course, but you could also describe it as a vigorous digital recording device for use with an external microphone or from another sound recording. You can even use it as a portable storage medium for documents and other files (although I would not recommend the expenditure of cash if data storage was your only intended use).
The Milestone 311 measures 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall (the size of a credit card, but a bit narrower at the bottom than at the top) and is about a half-inch thick. On the top edge is one tiny button (the Selector button), a USB port, and a connection for an AC power adapter. On the bottom edge is a headphone jack that doubles as an external microphone jack. The remaining five buttons on the face of the unit are distinctly shaped and textured, so that even those with limited finger sensitivity can readily identify them. These buttons are arranged after the fashion of a cursor cross around a center circle. There is a tiny round button with a raised rim for Record, a large concave circle for Play, prominently defined left and right arrow shapes for Rewind and Fast Forward, and a large button with a distinctly raised X at the bottom, called the Mode button. The front of the unit also sports a tiny built-in microphone and built-in speaker. On the right-hand edge is a slot for a secure digital (SD) card. All these elements are readily discernible by touch. The audible prompts and feedback messages are all spoken in a clear female voice.
Caption: The Milestone, about the size of a credit card, comes with a cord for wearing it around your neck.
The Milestone 311 has up to two hours of recording time in internal memory, which is automatically divided into five folders. Initially, these folders are labeled M1 through M5, but you have the easy option of adding voice labels to identify them. The available storage space for voice recordings or other files is easily expanded by the addition of an SD card, available in capacities of 128MB to 2GB. Once an SD card is on board, it, too, is automatically divided into the folders M1 through M5.
When you press the Selector button on top, the three modes are clearly spoken: Internal Memory, MP3 Player, and Memory Card Voice Recorder. This description, however, is initially confusing. Although it implies that there are three storage areas, there are actually only two. If you add a memory card, your files are stored either in the Internal Memory mode or on the memory card. The MP3 player is invoked when an MP3 file is being played from either of these locations.
What It Does
Although the unit has only six keys, you can do all kinds of things with them singly or in a variety of combinations. There is no on/off switch on the Milestone 311. If you pause it for 10 minutes, it goes into sleep mode. To wake it up, you press any button. If you pause a file and come back to it later, it will resume playing where you left off.
Within a folder, Fast Forward and Rewind work in the usual ways, and within a file, they can function like cue and review keys. With key combinations, you can navigate folders, erase files, lock and unlock the keypad, turn on the external recording source, and perform other functions. By pressing the Mode key (marked with a large, raised X), you can hear an announcement of which mode you are in, how much memory is available, and the battery status. Again, all this information is announced in a crisp female voice with a slight British accent.
As I stated earlier, the clarity and quality of sound are superb. Whether you are playing music, podcasts, audio books, or voice recordings, the delivery is excellent. Although most listening was done with headphones for this review, it is worth mentioning that, for such a small device, even the built-in speaker performs well.
The Milestone 311's performance as a recorder is also impressive. A short voice recording is made by pressing just one button, and a continuous recording is launched by pressing a two-key combination. Using the external recording source option, it is easy to record material from a laptop, CD player, or other device. While doing so resulted in excellent recordings, there was one drawback. Since the earphone jack is acting as external mic jack, there is no way to monitor when the recording has ended or is having difficulty. A work-around for this problem is to use a cable with a Y connection or headset splitter--with one end connected to the Milestone, and the other two going to the external device and headphones, respectively.
Transferring files to and from the Milestone 311 is easy. There is no special software to install. When connected to a PC, the Milestone functions like any USB storage device. All you have to do to load files is to copy them from a PC to the Milestone. The same USB connection can be used to charge the battery. And speaking of the USB connection, the Milestone has one of the easiest upgrade scenarios I have seen. When you receive an upgrade file, simply copy it to the root directory of internal memory, disconnect the Milestone from the PC, and Milestone takes over from there. After about two minutes, a spoken message tells you that the upgrade is successfully completed.
What It Does Not Do
Although you can copy Microsoft Word and other data files to the Milestone 311 for storage, you cannot listen to them. The Milestone has no internal speech synthesizer.
If a book or podcast is interrupted, the Milestone will begin playing at the same point when you resume listening. But there is no provision for bookmarks, so if you lose your place, locating it with the cue-and-review-style function can be tedious.
The Milestone 311 does not play Windows Media files. Although the company has been working to add the capability to play files from Audible.com, that feature had not yet been added at this writing, and there is as yet no certainty as to whether or when it will be available. One exciting feature that has been added is the ability to play DAISY files, but that feature was just being released at the time of this writing, so is not included in this review.
The unit comes with a USB cable, adapter, earbuds, optional neck lanyard, a braille "cheat sheet," and the user's guide in print. The manual is also loaded onto the unit as a Microsoft Word file, but you can access it only by connecting the Milestone to your PC and read it there or copy it to another drive.
- The Keyboard Lock is a nice feature, but it cannot be activated after a file is playing. It would be a good idea to make this feature available while the unit is actually playing a file.
- Extra bookmarks would be a bonus. The Milestone resumes playing at the same place in any of its folders when you return to an interrupted file, but the ability to set additional bookmarks would be useful in many applications. (The DAISY version is promised to offer up to 120 bookmarks, so in that format, they will be available.)
- When the two-key combination (Mode plus Play) is pressed to delete a message, there is a beep, and the deed is done. A confirmation message before you actually delete a message, such as "Are you sure you want to delete this message?" would be a welcome and wise addition.
- Although the braille starter sheet is helpful, more information needs to be provided to get a new customer started. Including the manual on a CD or a notice in both print and braille informing the user that the manual is stored on the Milestone's internal memory and can simply be copied is a simple fix that should be done immediately.
The Bottom Line
The Milestone 311 is a wonderful little MP3 player and voice recorder with loads of flexibility and impeccable accessibility appeal for users who are blind. At $369, however, in the U.S. market, it may be priced too high to enjoy the success it deserves. When there are other accessible devices at nearly the same price that do many of the same things and offer text-to-speech options, bookmarks, and other fine-tuning, customers with limited disposable income may well conclude that until it has more features, the Milestone is out of reach. If, on the other hand, your primary need is for an MP3 player that is easy to use, a digital recorder that is reliable and accessible, and consistently superb sound, price may not be an issue.
Manufacturer: Bones, Böhnirainstrasse 14, CH-8800 Thalwil, Switzerland; phone: +41-41-726 42 70; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.bones.ch>.
U.S. Distributor: Independent Living Aids, P.O. Box 9022, Hicksville, NY 11802-9022; phone: 800-537-2118; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.independentliving.com>.
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