July 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 4

Product Evaluation

Read All Day with Playaway

Imagine this scenario. You have your boarding pass, and your flight is due to take off in about an hour when you remember the one thing you forgot to pack: a book. You forgot to load any books onto your BrailleNote or PAC Mate. You did not bring your cassette or CD player, and the omission is making you miserable. You will have time to read on the airplane and at your destination, but you do not have any reading material with you. A sighted person could dash into a bookstore or gift shop at the airport and buy a best-seller in five minutes, thus solving the no-book problem. But for people who are blind or have low vision, it is not so easy.

For the advantage of instant readiness (or should I say "instant reading-ness"?), the Playaway warrants investigation. This new kid on the digital books block is ready to go right out of the package. No CD player, MP3 player, or computer is required.


The Playaway is an audio book--the same production that you can hear if you purchase a copy of the book on CDs or cassettes or as a download from an online source like Audible.com. But with Playaway, the audio content and the vehicle for hearing it are one and the same.

The first things that you notice when you hold a Playaway book in your hand are its esthetically pleasing design and light weight. Weighing just 2 ounces, this sleek little "book" is about the size of a credit card, but slightly thicker at the top. The front (smooth to the touch) looks just like the book cover of the print equivalent--with the cover art, title, author, and imprint. Flip it over, and the bottom half (again, smooth to the touch) bears the blurb that appears on the back of the printed book jacket (the publisher's promotional information and excerpts from reviews), together with production credit for the audio book inside. The top half sports a grid of eight buttons: the top row of three buttons, the second row of two buttons on either side of the tiny display window, and the bottom row of three buttons. On the top right edge is the universal headset jack.

Each Playaway book package includes the book, a pair of headphones, an optional lanyard (which can be attached to hang the book round your neck), and a spare AAA battery. (One battery is already loaded in the unit, with a tab to pull off when you are ready to begin listening.) With a Playaway book, you can literally take it out of the package, plug in the headphones, press Play, and begin listening to your newly purchased thriller or self-help book.

Functionality and Friendliness

The layout of the buttons is excellent. The buttons are prominent and arranged in a perfect rectangle for easy tactile discernment. The Play button (the center key on the bottom row) is also distinguished by the addition of a little nib pointing downward. From left to right, the controls include (top row) Volume, Speed, Bookmark; (middle row) Chapter Back, Chapter Forward; (bottom row) Rewind, Play/Pause, Fast Forward.

Activating the book is quirky. You need to press Play for a considerable length of time--about five to six seconds--and then quickly press it again. Pausing and resuming are accomplished by quick presses, and then to power down completely, you need again to hold the Play button down for a much longer time.

To increase the volume, you press the Volume key continuously. When you get to the loudest point, however, the volume simply cycles again, so that you go from 100 percent volume to no volume with a single press of the key. This situation can be disconcerting for a person who is visually impaired, since there is no audible cue to let you know that the unit is still on. With some experimentation, however, it will become only a minor annoyance.

The Speed control, similarly, cycles through its three choices repeatedly. The bottom Rewind and Forward buttons work in a cue-and-review style, moving short distances backward or forward through the text by small increments. The Chapter buttons, on the other hand, move immediately back or forward to the next chapter (or designated audio segment).

The Bookmark feature is useless to a person who is blind. Revisiting or skipping forward to another section of the book, however, is relatively easy with the four buttons just described.

The audio quality of Playaway books is extremely good. The content itself is the same as is available in other audio formats, such as a CD format or a download from Audible.com, and the quality and clarity of the sound are excellent. The universal headset jack makes it easy to play these books through the provided ear buds, as well as through any other headset, portable speakers, or your home or car stereo system. The content is as final as the print pages of a hardcover book. If you buy, say, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, that book will always be the only book inside the particular Playaway. You do not add to it or delete it; rather, you simply enjoy each Playaway as the individual audio book that it is.

Downplaying Playaway

Some audio book enthusiasts who are accustomed to free library books or discounted ones from Audible.com may find Playaway a bit pricey. At roughly $35 to $50 each, however, the prices are comparable to purchasing an audio book on CDs or cassettes. The greatest drawback to this new product is the limited content. As of this writing, only about 60 titles were listed on the Playaway web site--only a few more than were available at the beginning of 2006. They range from thrillers and best-sellers through self-help books, biographies, and children's books. Since the product is less than a year old, only time will tell how much and how quickly the list of available titles will increase.

The product has no automatic shutoff, so if you do not see the lighted display to remind you that the book is playing, you can wear down the battery. If you do shut it off, Playaway always resumes playing at the same point in the book when you pick it up again.

Playaway books are sold online, as well as in many Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores. Although this novel product should certainly not be considered a replacement for more sophisticated assistive technology approaches to listening to recorded books, it is definitely a viable addition to the recommended list of sources of audio books. With a longer list of titles, an automatic shutoff feature, and an accessible bookmarking function, Playaway could be a hot product, indeed. As it is, Playaway books certainly offer a great option for people who are new to the audio book genre and give experienced audio book listeners the kind of book that they can pick up, pay for, and start reading on their way out of the bookstore.

To order Playaway books or locate book stores that carry the product in your zip-code area, visit the web site <www.playawaybooks.com>.

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Product Information

Product: Playaway.

Manufacturer: Findaway World, 23 Bell Street, Chagrin Falls, OH 44022; phone: 877-893-0808 or 440-893-0808; fax: 440-893-0809; web site: <www.playaway.com>.

Price: $35 to $55.

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