A Comparison of Three Low-Cost, Hand-Held, Camera-Model Video Magnifiers: Vision Booster Magnifier, Carson DR-200 ezRead, and Wireless Electronic Reading Aid
Hand-held, camera-model electronic magnifiers are easily transportable tools for viewing text and graphics. These types of magnifiers connect to a standard television or a computer monitor. You place the camera—which is usually similar in design (though often slightly larger) to a computer mouse—on top of the material to be viewed and then move the camera over the text or graphic, which is then magnified on the connected screen. Because these units require external power, they are not totally portable. Prices for products in this category range from $40 to $1,000. The three products reviewed here each sell for less than $150.
These types of electronic magnifiers can be very useful for accomplishing short reading or viewing tasks, such as reading the listings in your local newspaper TV guide, looking at a map, or viewing photographs. Camera-model magnifiers are not ideal for extended reading tasks, however, as maintaining a 90-degree angle between the camera lens and the lines of text while moving the device back and forth across the reading surface is physically difficult to accomplish for longer periods of time. Despite these limitations, the relatively low cost and transportability of these types of magnifiers make them attractive. Because of the availability of televisions, you can bring these small devices with you to a wide variety of environments in order to accomplish short reading tasks or view graphical information.
Vision Booster Magnifier from Rx Optics
At $39, the Vision Booster Magnifier (VBM) is the least expensive of the three devices reviewed here. It's essentially a modified webcam that connects to the USB port of PC computers running the Windows XP or higher operating system. The box contains the camera, a software CD, and an instruction sheet. The minimum system requirements for this device are:
- IBM compatible computer (not available for Mac)
- Intel PIII CPU or higher
- 128MB of RAM
- CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive
- 3D display card with 64MB of RAM that supports 32-bit color
- At least one USB 2 or compatible USB 1.1 port available
- Windows XP (with Service Pack 2 or higher) or Vista Home or Professional edition (not compatible with Windows 7)
- 40GB or larger hard drive
The VBM comes with three pages of installation and use instructions. The print used for the instructions ranges from 6- to 12-point font, which is considerably smaller than the 18-point font recommended by the American Printing House for the Blind for people with low vision. Graphical images of computer screens are provided to assist with the installation of the software, but the details on these graphics are miniscule. An online manual is not available and the About section of the Help menu provides the version number of the software and nothing else.
The VBM is lightweight and approximately the size and shape of a computer mouse. The wire coming out of the device has an in-line on/off switch and ends in a USB plug. A raised dome on top of the VBM can be rotated approximately 180 degrees to assist the user in adjusting the direction of the camera in order to line up text for reading. The device simply plugs into an open USB port on the computer. (To ensure that the camera is recognized by the computer, the VBM should always be plugged into the same USB port.)
Caption: The Vision Booster Magnifier
After plugging the camera into an open USB port, Windows will display a message indicating that new hardware has been found. Inserting the CD will present an installation icon that you double click to begin the installation process. During the installation, a screen appears with the following warning:
The software you are installing has not passed the Windows Logo testing to verify its compatibility with Windows XP.… Continuing your installation of this software may impair or destabilize the operation of your system either immediately or in the future. Microsoft strongly recommends that you stop this installation now and contact the software vendor for software that has passed Windows Logo testing.
Without explaining why, the printed instructions suggest ignoring this message and selecting the "Continue Anyway" button. If you choose not to ignore the warning, you will be unable to complete the installation. After selecting the "Continue Anyway" button, a similar message appears warning about the hardware. Again, the printed instructions suggest ignoring this message and selecting "Continue Anyway." Once the installation is finished you are instructed to restart your computer. I experienced no hardware or software problems with my computer related to installing and using this software and the VBM.
Using the VBM
After restarting the computer, an icon appears on the bottom right side of the screen. You can right-click the mouse on this icon to display a menu. Selecting Zoom brings up a screen that allows you to control the magnification level of the camera. After checking the "Enable Zoom" box, a vertical slider can be adjusted with the mouse or the arrow keys to increase the magnification. No magnification power indicator (e.g., 2x, 3x) is given, but you are able to see the image enlarge. Printed information on the box indicates that the device magnifies up to 24x. Each time you wish to adjust the magnification, these steps must be repeated; there isn't a quick key or shortcut command, or any type of physical control on the camera itself that allows for adjustment.
The VBM offers both color and black-and-white viewing modes. The color mode is useful when viewing photographs and other graphic elements, but when viewing text, it creates a shadow around each letter that becomes more pronounced as the magnification increases. This shadowing also appears in the black-and-white mode, but is only noticeable at higher levels of magnification. In both modes, text becomes pixelated (takes on a stair-step or jagged look) as you begin to increase the magnification.
Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid
The Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid connects directly to a standard television with a composite video input jack (NTSC), and does not require software installation. The unit sells for approximately $99, and is slightly larger than a computer mouse. If you have smaller hands you may find the unit to be a bit large. The packaging includes the camera, a power cord, and a cable to connect the camera to a TV.
Caption: The Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid
Documentation for the ezRead consists of a single sheet. The size of the text is approximately 9-point--again, considerably smaller than the 18-point font recommended by the American Printing House for the Blind for people with low vision. The documentation provides basic instruction on:
- Installing the batteries
- Using the power adapter
- Connecting the digital reader to a TV
- Using the digital reader
The device is very simple to use; the power button is the only button on the unit. The instructions indicate that there is a low battery indicator light just above the power button. The following specifications are provided:
- Magnification: 5.3x on a14-inch TV, 8x on a 21-inch TV, 12.2x on a 32-inch TV
- Field of view: 56 by 42 mm
- Illumination: Built-in LED
- Resolution: 250K pixels
- Interface: TV NTSC
- Power: Three AAA batteries (not included), 110V power adapter
Using the ezRead
One of the first things the user will notice about this device is that the image is bright on the edges of the screen and a bit darker in the middle. This is due to the fact that the three LED lights located on each side of the camera lens are not strong enough to fully illuminate the total area under the camera. Most users will probably not find this uneven light distribution to be a deterrent to reading with the device, because the overall illumination is adequate. The camera provides a nice, sharp, distortion-free image even as the camera is moved over the reading material. The camera can be used with the AC power cord or operated on three AAA batteries.
The ezRead provides only one level of magnification, which is determined by the size of the TV the device is connected to. When the device is connected to the AC power adapter, two wires come of the device at the end closest to the user. At times these wires can interfere with the smooth movement of the device.
Electronic Reading Aid
The Electronic Reading Aid (ERA) is available in wireless and wired models. The device is slightly larger than a standard computer mouse. The box for the wireless model includes:
- Wireless Electronic Reading Aid
- Receiver (also functions as base) with power/video cable
- Power adapter
- Carry bag
- User's Guide
The wireless version of the ERA costs approximately $140 (the wired version costs approximately $99). Neither model connects to a computer and therefore software installation is not required.
Caption: The Electronic Reading Aid
The ERA comes with a seven-page User's Guide. The main text of the guide ranges from 10- to 12-point type, with titles in 14-point type. As with the documentation for the other models reviewed, the type is far too small to be read easily, and is considerably smaller than the 18-point font recommended by the American Printing House for the Blind for people with low vision. The guide includes a labeled diagram of the unit, but the numerals used in the diagram are approximately 6-point type, which makes it difficult for most users to benefit from this information. Instructions are provided for connecting the unit to a standard television via the yellow RCA video input jack, and for connecting to a standard AC power outlet. The device must be charged before use; the red light on the receiver/base will go out when the charging is complete and the unit is ready to use.
Using the Wireless ERA
The wireless ERA has the following features:
- Magnification (on 20-inch monitor): 20x (up to 70x digitally)
- Freeze and D-freeze current image
- Zoom in/out digitally
- Viewing modes: full color, high-contrast positive, high-contrast negative
- Control buttons: magnify, mode, freeze and d-freeze, de-magnify, power on/off, power indicator
- Camera unit is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery
- Rechargeable battery lasts 5-6 hours
- Base unit is powered by AC/DC adapter
- AC/DC adapter included: AC 100V-240V; DC 5V
- Wireless tech: 2.4GHz
- Unique guiding wheel mechanism
- Four wheels that keep it steady when moving from left to right
- Unit net weight: 274g
The wireless ERA provides a clear, bright image of the reading material. The buttons that increase and decrease the magnification are easy to operate with either the left or right hand. The magnification range is 1X, 1.1X, 1.25X, 1.5X, 1.7X, 2X, 2.5X, and 3.5X. The exact degree of magnification varies according to the size of the connected television or monitor. Even at the highest degree of magnification, the pixelation of text is less noticeable with this unit than with either of the other two devices reviewed here. The wireless ERA rolls easily over the material to be viewed. The device's freeze feature allows you to take a picture of the material within the camera's viewfinder. This image remains on the screen until you deselect the freeze option, which allows you to remove the material if necessary while still viewing the image.
The feature of the wireless ERA that will make it attractive to many users is its wireless capability. There is no physical wire between the camera and the base/receiver unit. A user can connect the base/receiver unit to a large screen television in their home, sit in their favorite easy chair, and read text or view pictures without being encumbered by any wires. For example: I can envision watching TV and wanting to know if my favorite show is coming on tonight or not. I pick up my remote control for my TV and switch it to the AV input where I have the wireless ERA connected. I turn on the ERA's camera and begin searching the local TV listings in the newspaper while viewing the text on the screen. Others just might enjoy reading their mail or looking at some photos on their large screen TV while using the device from the comfort of their sofa or favorite chair.
It must be noted that as the distance from the camera to the receiver is increased, there is a noticeable flicker in the image when the camera is moved quickly. You can adjust the speed of movement to minimize this distortion.
The Vision Booster Magnifier can be a useful tool for individuals with low vision who need an inexpensive tool for viewing graphics, objects, or small quantities of text while working on their computer. For example, an office worker who deals with hand-edited spreadsheets and text documents received from a co-worker might find the VBM a useful tool for viewing the edits and then quickly switching to the electronic document to make the changes.
The Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid is a good option for people with low vision who need an inexpensive, easily transportable tool for viewing graphics, objects, or small quantities of text. The price of the unit is attractive, but the inability to adjust the magnification range limits its usefulness.
The wireless Electronic Reading Aid is a good choice for those who would like to avoid dealing with the cords and cables needed to use most electronic magnifiers. Its wider range of magnification powers, freeze mode, and different viewing modes make it potentially more useful than the other models in accomplishing a wider array of tasks.
Product: Vision Booster Magnifier
Manufacturer: Available from various online sources and
42 Executive Blvd.
Farmingdale, NY 11735
Product: Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid
Carson Optical, Inc.
35 Gilpin Avenue
Hauppauge, NY 11788
Product: Electronic Reading Aid
Price: $99 wired; $140 wireless
Mattingly Low Vision, Inc.
2361 Bear Rock Glen
Escondido, CA 92026
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