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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 6

Product Evaluation

Two New Portable Digital Book Players Enter the Market

In the May, July, and September 2008 issues of AccessWorld, we published a series of three articles discussing the accessibility of iPods and other digital audio players. In the September article, which focused on players designed specifically for people with vision loss, we determined Humanware's Victor Reader Stream was the leading product in the portable player category on the strength of its easy-to-learn interface and ability to play a wide range of books and music. However, the Stream is facing competition in the market from two new accessible digital audio players -- GW Micro's BookSense and the PLEXTALK Pocket (PTP1) from Shinano Kenshi.

Like the Stream, both of these new players have the ability to play digital music in various formats, as well as the ability to play DAISY and other digital books from sources like bookshare.org and the recorded books available from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). This article describes these new players and compares their features and functions with those of the Stream. I start with a description of each of the two new players, but to save space, I provide the following link to our September 2008 article, which includes a description of the Stream: Now Playing: A Review of the Accessibility of Digital Audio Players, Part 2: Assistive Technology Players.

However, for quick comparisons, I note here that the Stream costs $349, measures 4.6 by 2.6 by 0.9 inches, and weighs 6 ounces.

A photo of all 3 book players side by side from largest to smallest. The Stream is on the left, the PTP1 in the middle, and BookSense on the right.

Caption: The Victor Reader Stream, the PTP1, and BookSense.

The PLEXTALK Pocket PTP1

Priced at $349, the PLEXTALK Pocket, also called the PTP1, is manufactured by the Japanese company Shinano Kenshi, makers of the PTN1 CD players and PTR2 CD player/recorders. It measures 4.4 by 2.2 by 0.6 inches and weighs 3.9 ounces. It is shaped like a deck of cards, but thinner, perhaps a deck of cards with a quarter of the cards missing. This evaluation is based on software version 2.01.

Most of the controls are on the front face of the PTP1, with a monaural speaker running across the top of the front face. There are two buttons directly below the speaker, a Record button on the left and a Power button on the right. Below these buttons and in the middle is a familiar five-way control with the Play/Stop button in the middle surrounded by four navigation buttons. The Play/Stop button is concave for easy identification. There are two buttons each to the left and right of the five-way control. The top left button is the Go To key for going directly to pages and other navigation elements. Below the Go To key is the Bookmark key, which is used to set, move to, and delete bookmarks. The top right button is the Menu key, and you can also press and hold this button to enter or exit the key describer mode. Below the Menu key is the Title key, which you press to begin browsing for a book or song to play. The bottom half of the PTP1's front face is taken up by a 3-by-4 number pad similar to that found on a telephone. There is a substantial nib on the 5 Key, and there are two substantial nibs on the Power button for easy identification.

The right side panel of the PTP1 has a spring-action volume control at the top. You slide it up to increase or down to decrease volume, and it springs back to its middle position. Below the volume control is a key lock switch, which is used to avoid inadvertent button presses. The SD memory-card slot is on the left side panel, and the standard microphone jack and standard 3.5-mm headphone jack are on the top panel. A hole for attaching a lanyard is at the top left corner. The bottom panel has a jack for connecting the AC adapter on the left and a USB port on the right. The battery compartment is on the back panel.

The PTP1 has a lot of features packed into a small device. It has a recorded human voice for reading menus and other announcements and the Tom and Samantha voices from Nuance for reading text files and books from bookshare.org. The PTP1 is now compatible with the digitally recorded books available on the NLS' BARD web site, which adds to the books it can play from Bookshare and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D). It can also read electronic text files in .txt and .html formats. Although it is not currently compatible with recorded books from audible.com, the manufacturer tells us it is working on such compatibility with audible.com and hopes to support its books soon.

The PTP1 can play music in the MP3, WAV, and AMR-WB+ file formats. It has the ability to record short voice memos and has a substantial voice-recording capability, allowing you to create recordings with a DAISY structure for easy navigation. Other features of note include support for SD cards up to 32 GB in size, bookmarking capabilities, a built-in microphone, and a battery that can be charged from your PC as well as from the AC adapter.

testing the BookSense

Caption: AFB TECH staffer tests the BookSense.

The BookSense from GW Micro

The BookSense is sold by GW Micro, makers of the popular Window-Eyes screen reader. It is manufactured by HIMS Co., makers of the BrailleSense line of PDAs (personal digital assistants). It is available in two versions, standard and XT. The XT version is physically the same as the standard version, but it includes an FM radio, 4GB of built-in memory, and Bluetooth headset support. The standard version is priced at $349, and the XT version is priced at $499.

Similar to a candy bar-style cell phone, the BookSense measures 4.25 by 1.85 by 0.73 inches and weighs 4 ounces. We evaluated the XT version of the BookSense with software version 1.1.

The stereo speakers are at the top of the front face, and there is a raised button for playing the time and date in the center just below the speakers. Below that button is a five-way control with nibs on each of the four relatively large navigation buttons. The center button is relatively small, and it is the Menu button. Below the five-way control is a 3-by-4 number pad similar to that found on a telephone. There is a nib on the 5 key, and the number pad employs a "hills and valleys" approach where every other key is either slightly concave or slightly convex.

The Play/Pause button is at the top of the right side panel, and you can also press and hold this button to turn the BookSense on or off. Below the Play/Pause button is a Record button, and below that button is a key lock switch, which is used to avoid inadvertent button presses. At the top of the left side panel is a Mode button, which is used to switch the DAISY player, document reader, FM radio (XT only), and media player for listening to music and podcasts. Below the Mode button are the Up/Down Volume buttons and the SD memory card slot. A lanyard is attached in the middle of the top panel, with a standard microphone jack to its left and a standard 3.5-mm headphone jack to its right. The bottom panel has a jack for connecting the AC adapter on the left and a USB port on the right. The battery compartment is on the back panel.

Like the PTP1, the BookSense also has a lot of features packed into a small device. It features the Neo Speech Paul and Kate synthetic voices for reading menus, text files, and books from bookshare.org. In addition to Bookshare, the BookSense is compatible with recorded books from NLS, audible.com, as well as DAISY books from other sources. It can also read electronic text files in several formats, including TXT, BRL, BRF, DOC, DOCX, HTML, RTF, and XML.

The BookSense can play music in MP3, WAV, WMA, FLAC, OGG, MP4, and M4A formats. Like an iPod, it can also organize music by artist, album, or genre or in playlists. Other features of note include a voice memo feature with a built-in microphone, bookmarking capabilities, and a battery that can be charged from your PC as well as from the AC adapter.

Two men in an office setting, testing the PTP1

Caption: AFB TECH intern shows the PTP1's buttons to the author.

Getting on the Same Page: Comparing the PTP1, the BookSense, and the Victor Reader Stream

Tactile Controls

The controls on all three devices can be distinguished and used tactilely. While testing the devices in our lab, we found that once you get used to them, there is little difference in how easy it is to find and press the button you need. However, if we had to rank them, we think the Stream would be the easiest to use by those who may have less tactile sensation in their fingers. The PTP1 would be next because its five-way control is a bit easier to feel than the five-way control on the BookSense.

Speech Output

When I talk with people about speech synthesis, I find more and more it is an extremely subjective matter, so I do not want to get too much into the quality of the speech synthesis of these devices. For reading text files and bookshare books, the PTP1 features the Tom and Samantha voices from Nuance, as does the Stream. The BookSense uses the Neo Speech Paul and Kate voices, and it also uses these synthetic voices for navigating menus. The PTP1 also uses a synthetic voice for navigating menus, but the Stream features a recorded human voice for menu navigation.

Book and Text Navigation

Those of us who are avid readers will be interested in how effectively and efficiently a player navigates through a book's content, so I have devoted a little more space to this section. These navigation capabilities are particularly important when you need to get specific details like the spelling of a word or the measurements in a recipe, but they often affect reading enjoyment as well. Regarding navigation, we found the Stream to be superior on several fronts. The BookSense is second, and the PTP1 comes in third place.

The first area in which the Stream is superior is the navigation levels that are available when reading a Bookshare book. The PTP1 and BookSense can navigate by the DAISY navigation elements coded into the book itself, usually consisting of Level 1, Level 2, page, and phrase. However, the Stream also allows you to navigate these Bookshare books by line, sentence, word, and character. In addition, the Stream can navigate by word while spelling each word as you go. The PTP1 and BookSense have the ability to navigate by sentence, word, and character when reading files in .txt format, but neither has a "spell" navigation mode like the Stream. Also, the PTP has a noticeable two-to three-second delay when moving by these levels, which can be time consuming and frustrating when trying to spell a word character by character. In addition, when it moves by sentence or paragraph, the PTP1 continues reading rather than stopping at each sentence or paragraph, which is again a problem when you read for detail.

The Stream's convenient Rewind and Fast Forward buttons are another navigation advantage over the BookSense and PTP1. This advantage is evident when you listen to books with a text format as well as recorded audio books, like those from NLS or audible.com. If you miss something while reading with the Stream, you can simply press the Rewind button to move quickly back 5 seconds per press to reread what you missed. Although the PTP1 has a Rewind feature, it is not as efficient because of the time it takes. You have to press and hold the left arrow to activate the rewind feature and wait several seconds for beeps to indicate you are rewinding. In text files, you move back five phrases per beep, which could move you a paragraph or up to several pages back, depending on the book's markup. In recorded audio files, each beep moves you back 5 seconds, but again it is inefficient. It takes 5.5 seconds to move back 5 seconds, and 11 seconds to move back 20 seconds. The BookSense performs even worse in this category because it has no rewind feature at all. It does have, however, a time-jump feature to move back or forward by 1-minute intervals in recorded books.

The PTP1 has the additional problem of not being able to speak the title of many Bookshare books when you arrow through your books. Instead of speaking the name of the books like the Stream and BookSense do, it speaks the first phrase in the book, which is often just the word "Notice." There is also a noticeable two-to three-second delay when you arrow through your books on the PTP1.

Search Feature

Although many of you may consider a search feature to be a navigation feature, it can be so crucial for a student that I decided to give it a section of its own. Although its search feature, of course, does not work in a recorded audio book, the Stream allows you to search for any word or phrase in a text or Bookshare file. To enter your search terms, you use the multi-tap method that many people use for composing text messages on their cell phones. However, the PTP has no search feature at all. Although the BookSense does have a search feature, it does not work in Bookshare books, and it has limited practical use, because instead of having the ability to enter a search term, you have to be positioned in your book on the actual word you want to find. You can see where this can be a problem. Imagine you want to find a passage in which a certain character is introduced in the book, and, of course, you will not be able to perform the search until you first find the scene in which the character is introduced.

Portability

If you are like me and find that a smaller player fits your active lifestyle, the BookSense is the smallest of these devices, with a total size of 5.7 cubic inches. The PTP is next at 7.3 cubic inches, and the Stream is the largest at 10.8 cubic inches. The PTP and BookSense weigh virtually the same at 3.9 and 4 ounces, respectively, but the Stream is 50% heavier at 6 ounces.

Recording Capabilities

Here is a category in which the PTP1 stands head and shoulders above the other two players, and the Stream actually comes out in third place. The Stream and BookSense both have the ability to record short memos, and you can also make longer recordings, such as of a lecture or other presentation. In addition, you can place bookmarks in the recording to make it easier to find certain parts of the recording. The BookSense records in MP3 or WAV formats, and can record in mono or stereo. The Stream records in the AMR-WideBand+ (AMR-WB+) audio format and only records in mono. The Stream is also limited in that you have to use the Stream's companion software to convert its recordings into WAV format if you want to listen to them on your computer.

The PTP1 has all the recording capabilities listed for the Stream and BookSense and can record in mono or stereo. However, it also has several more recording options and settings, and it can create its own DAISY recordings. It has six preset recording modes for such situations as when you are recording a lecture or making a recording from a CD or analog cassette. It also has the ability to customize your own recording modes with various parameters, such as the level of audio quality and the level of background noise. You can edit and insert headings into your DAISY recording, and it automatically places phrase markers at appropriate places, such as when a professor pauses during a presentation. The PTP1 also has a "Build Book" feature, which allows you to share your recording with others who have other DAISY hardware or software players.

Battery Life and Battery Charging

When testing the battery life of these players, we found their performance was consistent with the manufacturers' claims. The Stream provides about 16 hours of continuous play when fully charged, the BookSense provides 12 hours, and the PTP1 provides 10 hours. To charge fully from a drained battery, the BookSense takes roughly two hours using an AC adapter or five hours using a PC. The PTP1 takes four hours either way, and the Stream takes four hours using the AC adapter, but it cannot be charged with a PC. It should be noted that charging and the battery life of each of these devices are affected by use conditions and ambient temperature and their capacity to store a charge reduces over time.

Each device also has a command for announcing the remaining battery charge, and we like that the PTP1 announces it as a percentage, so you know exactly how much you have left. The BookSense provides the second-highest level of accuracy by reporting the charge level as a number between 1 and 10. The Stream simply announces the battery as being high, medium, low, or critically low. Each warns you when the battery needs to be charged.

Key Lock

Each of these players has the ability to lock the keys to avoid inadvertent key presses. The PTP1 and Booksense have a convenient slider switch on the side panel to unlock. However, the Stream has a harder-to-remember sequence of pressing and holding the asterisk (*) key to lock and holding down the 1, 2, and 3 keys in sequence to unlock.

Documentation

Each of these players comes with accessible, well-organized user manuals in MS Word format on a CD. The manuals all describe the physical layout of the players well and provide all the information you need to learn to use the players. The PTP1 and Stream also come with the manuals pre-loaded. The PTP1 manual includes an extensive explanation of DAISY files for those who are interested and a convenient linked table of contents for easy navigation throughout the manual.

Low Vision

Although there is no display screen, and these devices are designed to be used primarily with non-visual techniques, people with low vision will be interested in the visual nature of the buttons and their labels. For people with low vision, one of the most important reasons for having large fonts and highly contrasting colors on these players is they will make them easier to learn to use. The PLEXTALK Pocket has a black case with a highly contrasting white number pad and navigation buttons. The number pad buttons are labeled with a black 16 point font. This highly contrasting, larger-font interface design is preferred by people with low vision, and it would be helpful if the BookSense and Stream would more closely follow its lead.

Miscellaneous

Here are a handful of items with a bit of information that may be of interest:

  • The BookSense and PTP1 both have a convenient clock, but the Stream does not.
  • The internal speakers on the BookSense and PTP1 are louder than the Stream's, but we would not consider any of them of a high-enough quality for listening to music.
  • The BookSense XT is the only device with a built-in FM radio. It has six presets and the ability to scan to the next station and to record radio broadcasts.
  • You have to turn off the PTP1 before you insert or remove the SD memory card.
  • It is easier to load content onto the PTP1 because you do not need to worry about putting different types of content into specific folders. You just load content on the memory card, and the PTP1 automatically organizes it.
  • Speaking as someone with dozens of AC adapters, I find it convenient that the AC adapter for the BookSense comes with a braille label on it.

The Bottom Line

People with vision loss now have three solid accessible digital audio players from which to choose, and these three products should push each other competitively toward even more higher-quality improvements. All of us in the AFB TECH lab who had a chance to use the devices agree each is a good-quality product with its own advantages. I still prefer the Stream for its superior navigation options and its search feature. However, if making recordings is your highest priority, the PTP1 would be the choice for you. Alternatively, if you prefer a built-in FM radio, 4GB of internal memory, the ability to read MS Word documents, and a smaller size, then the BookSense XT is for you. Also, if you like having a clock, then these two new players will be of interest.

There is one thing to keep in mind regardless of what I have written in this article. These are all software-based players, and we already know the manufacturers are committed to working on updates. In fact, just as I submitted this article to my AccessWorld editor, a new software update was announced for the PTP1, claiming enhanced navigation features. The software for the Stream has been regularly updated and improved since its introduction. You can check the manufacturers' web sites to learn of more updates, and you can download the user manuals to learn more details about each device.

Product Information

Product: PLEXTALK Pocket PTP1.

Manufacturer: Shinano Kenshi Co., 6-15-26, Chuo, Ueda-shi Nagano-ken 386-0012 Japan; phone: +81-268-28-8282; web site: www.plextalk.com., For links to U.S. distributors, go to http://www.plextalk.com/in/sales.html.

Price: $349.

Product: BookSense.

Manufacturer: HIMS Co., sold by GW Micro, 725 Airport North Office Park, Fort Wayne, IN 46825; phone: 260-489-3671; web site: www.gwmicro.com.

Price: Standard: $349; XT: $499.

Product: Victor Reader Stream.

Manufacturer: HumanWare: (800) 722-3393; web site: www.humanware.com.

Price: $349.

Manufacturers' Comments

GW Micro

Dear AccessWorld,

Many thanks for writing this article and for the chance to publish our comments.

  1. 1. BookSense description.
    • The time and date button gives the day of the week and also works regardless of whether the BookSense is powered on or off.
    • The record button has 2 small nibs to distinguish it from the Play/Pause button.
    • The standard microphone jack also doubles as a line in jack for use with an audio patch cable.
  2. 2. BookSense features.
    • RFB&D support is in progress but not yet available. We hope to have it in the next firmware.
    • Audible books support format 4 and enhanced. Currently, I believe only BookSense supports enhanced Audible.
  3. 3. Book and text navigation.

    • In the current 1.1 firmware, the navigation of sentence, line, page, word, character, and spell is available in all documents of the document reader, not just with text files, but also with rtf, doc, docx, html, xml, and brl. I.E. all supported electronic documents.
    • Currently, the DAISY reader in version 1.1 only allows navigation by the markup such as heading and phrase; however, in the new firmware release hopefully later in November or early December, the same navigation of sentence, word, character, etc. will also be available in DAISY text content.
    • Regarding movement by time, with firmware 1.1 the smallest increment in NLS books is 1 minute. However in all other audio books such as audible books or recorded mp3, smallest increments are 5 seconds. This has been corrected for the new firmware of the BookSense so the smallest increments are 5 seconds for all recorded material.

    Also, if you are in a document such as txt, rtf, ETC, you can move backwards or forwards by the selected section, sentence, word, character, page, etc.

  4. 4. Recording.
    • In addition to recording in MP3 or WAV, you can select the sampling rate which helps in determining the quality of your recording.
    • You can choose to record from a line in source such as a CD or cassette.
    • You can adjust the sensitivity of the microphone.
  5. 5. Miscellaneous
    • The clock speaks the day of the week as well.
    • The clock works regardless of whether the BookSense is on or off.
    • The speakers are stereo speakers.
    • You can record the radio in MP3 or WAV.
    • It should be noted the BookSense XT is the only unit of the 3 devices to have Bluetooth.
    • It should be noted the standard BookSense is ruby red while the BookSense XT is off-white.

Shinano Kenshi Co.

Dear AccessWorld,

We offer the updated version 3.0 firmware for the PLEXTALK Pocket via the PLEXTALK website www.plextalk.com

In addition to the formats listed in the article, version 3.0 now supports the following: Serotek, Microsoft Word.doc file formats, Unprotected Windows Media Audio (WMA), and Read How You Want.

  • Audible.com support by the end of December 2009.
  • Version 3.0 also includes the following improvements and enhancements.
  • PLEXTALK Pocket now announces the title of Bookshare content and can now properly navigate this content by page.
  • All key responses have been improved. A key confirmation sound or a voice prompt comes up more quickly after pressing a key.
  • PLEXTALK can now announce an album or track name.
  • Automatic bookmark numbering.
  • When you select a title after pressing the Title Key, Pocket PTP1 makes more simple announcements than the previous versions.
  • PLEXTALK plays text files more naturally when going to the next line.
  • We added two navigation levels for text playback; line and screen. Now you can navigate a text file by screen, paragraph, line, sentence, word, or character, and a DAISY title by heading (level 1 to 6), group, page, phrase, screen, paragraph, line, sentence, word, or character if such items are defined on the DAISY title.
  • We added a DAISY-like level navigation feature for html files by recognizing H1 through H6 heading levels.
  • We improved the recording sound quality by MP3 for DAISY recording and voice memos.
  • New MP3 high-quality modes when backing up a music CD. You can select 'MP3 256kbps high-quality' or 'MP3 128kbps high-quality' in addition to the previous modes, 'MP3 256kbps', 'MP3 128kbps,' and 'PCM'.
  • We enhanced the compatibility with a variety of MP3 formats.

For more information, please go to www.plextalk.com

HumanWare

Dear AccessWorld,

Your article is informative and objective, and we appreciate that AFB provides AccessWorld to inform the community. We would also like to provide the following additional information about the Stream.

Search: You mentioned the multi-tap search of the Stream, but the Stream also has the feature of finding the next occurrence of the word you are currently positioned at.

Battery: Some of our users tell us they appreciate that the Stream does not have a standby mode that uses battery power when the unit is powered off.

Bookmarking: We believe the Stream has the most extensive bookmarking features including simple, highlight, and audio bookmarking as well as an option to alert you during playback when you pass over a bookmark.

This includes auto-announcing your voice recording for an audio bookmark. Since an audio bookmark is equivalent to a print reader writing in the margins its value is enhanced by automatically playing that voice recording when you later replay the bookmarked passage. In other words, a print reader would see his margin comments so a talking book reader should similarly hear his voice comments.

Best regards,
The Team at HumanWare

This product evaluation was funded by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.

Related Articles

Now Playing: A Review of the Accessibility of Digital Audio Players, Part 1 by Darren Burton and Charles Wesley Clements
Now Playing: A Review of the Accessibility of Digital Audio Players, Part 2: Assistive Technology Players by Darren Burton


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