Full Stream Ahead: A Review of the VictorReader Stream
Few new products in the assistive technology arena have drawn as much enthusiasm as the debut of the Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare Canada in July 2007. Largely responsible for its instant popularity was the accompanying announcement that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) will launch a website that will be accessible to any eligible patron for downloading Digital Talking Books. The prospect of being able to play the familiar and loved NLS Talking Books on a handheld player--with the convenience of digital markup in the bargain--prompted many customers who are blind or have low vision to grab their credit cards and order, in many cases without having examined the product in advance.
Shipment of the VictorReader Stream began in early September, and the enthusiasm is still spreading. In November, more features were added, and there is a promise of more to come. What sets the Stream apart, in large measure, is the multiplicity of tasks it can perform. On this single device, you can store and listen to Talking Books from NLS, DAISY books from Bookshare, your music collection, and any text file from your computer. The Stream doubles as a handy voice recorder for personal notes, meetings, or lectures, and, as of November 15, is equipped to play books and programs from Audible.com. Perhaps most surprising is that it sells for $329 plus shipping, an unusually affordable price in the assistive technology market.
The Stream is a handheld device (similar in size to a deck of cards and weighing about 6 ounces) that has been designed with users who are blind or have low vision in mind. Its controls are all tactile and easy to operate, with the only visual indicator being a small LED (light-emitting diode) that enables the user with low vision to know when the unit is off, on, or charging. There are, of course, audio indicators for all the operations as well.
As I mentioned earlier, the Stream fits in the palm of your hand. The front contains a 12-button telephone-style keypad. The 5 key has the familiar nib for quick orientation. Above the 1 key is a square button, the Go To page or Heading key, and above the 3 key a diamond-shaped button, which is the Bookmark key. At the top are the small speaker grill and internal microphone. Below the keypad is a raised-line separator, below which are four more buttons. The bottom three are the Play/Stop button, flanked by the Rewind and Forward keys. The fourth key, centered above them, is a sleep timer. On the left edge of the unit are the round Power button and two arrow-shaped buttons that are used to control volume, speed, and tone. On the right edge are headphone and external microphone jacks and the Record button. Across the top is the small USB port; the AC adapter jack; and, in the center, the slot for the SD (secure digital) card, which stores all contents played on the Stream.
All content to be played on the Stream must be stored on an SD card. Although a USB cable is included in the package, it is recommended that you transfer data directly from your computer to the SD card using a card reader (a small device about the size of a thumb drive, with a USB connector for plugging into your computer at one end and a slot for the SD card at the other). Whether you transfer material to the card directly or to the Stream itself, the process could not be simpler. Material is simply copied from one place to the other using Windows Explorer; no special software is required. However, NLS books must be unzipped, and each book has about 20 files.
VictorReader Stream has its own folder structure that must be maintained for materials to play properly. Each SD card that is used has a folder called Talking Books (which is for NLS books and other DAISY content), a folder for music, a folder for text files, and a folder called Other Books. On November 15, HumanWare released an update that includes the capability of playing materials that are downloaded from Audible.com.
Although a folder called Audible must be created using the Audible Manager software, the Audible books are actually placed in the Other Books folder. This may sound confusing, but all of the setup and transferring of content is so intuitively designed that it remained confusing only for a minute or two.
Everything in the Stream is voice guided. For permanent messages--power on, power off, the names of folders, the number of books on a bookshelf, the functions of navigation keys, and so on--the voice heard is male, the "Victor voice," which will be familiar to any customer who has owned previous products in the VictorReader line. The built-in text-to-speech synthesizer is "Vocalizer," a female voice that is clear and easy on the ear.
Each of the Stream's folders is called a bookshelf. When you press the 1 key on the keypad, the Stream cycles through these bookshelves--Talking Books, Music, Text Files, Other Books, and Notes. The Victor voice (the male recorded voice) announces the name of the bookshelf and the number of books it contains. To go through the list of books on a given shelf, you use the 4 and 6 keys to move backward and forward through the list. This list of books is spoken by the female voice of Vocalizer. For DAISY books, the book title on the bookshelf is announced in the book narrator's voice.
What really makes the VictorReader Stream shine is the range of navigation possibilities that it offers. All navigation is done using the 2, 4, 6, and 8 keys on the keypad and is highly intuitive and easy to learn. In a Digital Talking Book or magazine from NLS, for example, you may be able to move forward and back by chapter, section, or other heading. Victor's time-jump feature allows you to move back or forward by 1-, 5-, or 10-minute intervals. With the bookmark feature, you can set bookmarks to highlight particular spots to return to, or you can place a highlight bookmark to bookmark a specific passage or quote.
When you read a file from the text files folder, a different set of navigational elements are offered. Here, you can navigate by screen, line, sentence, character, or word. In a file with DAISY markup--such as a book from Bookshare or a newspaper from NFB Newsline--you have the best of both worlds with the ability to move by line, sentence, character, or word, but also navigational levels 1, 2, and 3, which make it possible to move by section, chapter, or article.
Within the music bookshelf, there is a different style of navigation. You can navigate by folder or file. You can set the menu to random selection (shuffle) mode, and you can use the Go To key to go to a specific song, rather than a page. (This works only if you remember the number of the file where that particular song is stored.)
- You can jump from textbook to newspaper to music to your favorite fantasy, and the Stream will remember where you left off and resume playing from that point when you return.
- Variable speed is available in all books, including those from Audible.com. In the music folder, however, where altered speed is not desirable, the speed is automatically set to 0 (normal). Then, when you return to a book or file in one of the other areas, the speed setting that you chose there is resumed.
- Bookmarking capabilities are available in all areas, including the music folders.
- When moving through the music folder--as is the case anywhere else in the Stream--Vocalizer announces the file number and name of the track.
- You can delete a note or book or other file with the press of a button.
- The lithium battery (which is user replaceable) takes 4 hours to charge fully and lasts for 12-15 hours.
- By pressing the Info key, 0, you can find out at any time how much battery power is remaining, how much of the file you have heard and how much remains, the number of headings and bookmarks in the current book, and a few other things.
What the Stream Does Not Do
Well, the Stream will not make coffee, of course, and it does not vacuum. But here are a few other features or lack thereof worth noting:
- It plays MP3 files, but does not play WMA files. In other words, you cannot play music stored in Windows Media Player files or recorded books downloaded from Unabridged.com or NetLibrary.
- The Stream does not have a clock or alarm feature. (It does, however, have a sleep timer, which allows you to set the unit to shut off in 15, 30, 45, or 60 minutes).
- The built-in speaker is not good for listening to more than status information while charging or transferring content. At its maximum volume, it can be heard only in a quiet room and in close proximity to the ear. Existing cell phone technology offers speaker designs that are both compact and have a clear and listenable signal. The Stream should do the same. For times when headphones are not the desired listening mode, however, small external speakers work well.
- It should also be pointed out that although the 5 key does have a small, raised dot for orientation, it is much too faint to be useful to most customers.
At this writing, HumanWare is waiting for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) to release its user authorization key for unlocking RFB&D files. When it does, which RFB&D promised would be in mid-December, but has not happened at the time of this writing, the Stream will also be able to play the vast library of textbooks that RFB&D offers in its AudioPlus format. (These books include DAISY markup, including a level for page numbers.) Also expected to be released in December is HumanWare's Stream Companion software, which will provide a simple interface for moving Talking Books from PC to Stream, and a provision for converting 3 GP audio notes files to .wav files. HumanWare was also on the brink of releasing an additional voice for the Vocalizer synthesizer. The current female voice is called Samantha; the new voice is called Tom. Each is integrated into its own software version, so users will have the choice of putting one or the other in the Victor Stream, not both at the same time. Listen to the samples of the Samantha and Tom voices, as well as the Victor voice attached to this article.
The Bottom Line
All too often, people who are blind or have low vision have raced to catch up and have tools that are at least on par with those of sighted people. Once in a while, assistive technology actually puts them in an advantageous position. VictorReader Stream may well be one of these exceptions. Pulling my own unit out on a bus or train, I can listen to any one of a dozen novels or collections of poetry, three newspapers with today's date on them, my own favorite music collection, a television episode (recorded and converted to an MP3 file), any one of a variety of favorite radio broadcasts, one of the dozens of documents and webpages I need or want to review, and more. Sure, there is room for improvement. But the VictorReader Stream offers an abundance of features in a tiny, powerful package and is one product that warrants a sustaining of that original excitement.
"Incorporating so many advanced features into a portable and inexpensive package was a challenging an exciting project for HumanWare. We appreciate the enthusiastic response of the marketplace, and we continue to work on new features and improvements. Playback of both WMA recorded audio and BRF braille text formats are in development and are expected soon. To keep up to date on Stream developments, we invite you to subscribe to the Stream e-mail announcements list. Visit <www.humanware.ca/USA/stream.html> and select the register to Stream News Wire link."
Manufacturer: HumanWare Canada: 445, rue du Parc Industriel, Longueuil, Quebec J4H 3V7, Canada; phone: 888-723-7273 or 819-471-4818; e-mail: <email@example.com>; website: <www.humanware.ca>.
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