An Evaluation of the Olympus DM-4 Digital Recorder
When the Olympus DS-30, DS-40, and DS-50 digital recorders came on the market a few years ago, word spread quickly throughout the community of blind and visually impaired technology fans. In particular, those interested in sophisticated recording equipment welcomed the sleek, pocket-sized recorders that delivered superb sound in a small package. Better still, the units were mainstream but offered enough accessibility that individuals unable to see the LED displays could operate them.
Apparently, the makers of the Olympus digital recorders heard enough feedback from customers with vision loss that they wanted to make a good thing even better. When the Olympus DM-4 became available, all company promotional materials referenced its usability by blind and visually impaired individuals, and Olympus Imaging America, Inc., was eager to have one of us at AccessWorld take the new model for a test drive.
The results are impressive on the one hand and frustrating on the other. Perhaps the best news is that this is yet another superb, sleek little recorder capable of recording in a number of settings and delivering excellent results. Its built-in noise-canceling feature and variety of recording settings will please the most seasoned audiophile. In addition to recording anything from personal memos to lectures to full-blown concerts with its built-in directional microphone (not to mention from such devices as your telephone, computer, or stereo via direct hookup), the Olympus DM-4 also comes out of the box prepared to accept music, podcasts, audio books, and text files from your computer. You can even attach a digital camera and display pictures on its LED display. Getting from here to there, however, is where the frustration enters the stage.
The Olympus DM-4 measures about 1-3/4 by 4-1/4 inches. The LED display occupies about two-thirds of the front of the unit. The external speaker grill occupies about one inch above the display. The buttons (five of them plus an oval of up-down and right-left arrow buttons plus a center OK button) fill up the remaining third. There is a directional stereo microphone on the top with a jack for attaching an external microphone if desired. On the left is a slot for the microSD card and a headphone jack. On the right is the power button. On the bottom edge is the jack for the AC adapter (included) and the USB cable (also included). The unit runs on lithium-ion batteries (one is included and the batteries are user replaceable) that can be charged via either its AC adapter or by attaching the USB cable to your computer. Battery life is excellent, although the manual does suggest using the AC adapter if possible for particularly long recording sessions. For storage, the unit features 8 GB of internal memory and potentially unlimited storage if you take advantage of the microSD card slot on the side.
For personal recordings, the unit comes already set up with folders labeled A through E, reminiscent of the earlier Olympus recorders. In addition, there are folders already established to accept music, podcasts, Audible.com materials, and DAISY and text files. Each category can hold up to 999 files per folder or, counted another way, up to 8,000 songs or 1,000 audio books and 999 each of the other types of files. The unit has a clock, calendar, and can handle up to three preset alarms. It comes ready to present information in one of three languages: English, French, or Spanish. The built-in speech for voice guidance is the same relatively clear, female voice employed in earlier Olympus products. (I say "relatively clear" here because she does seem to drop her d's and t's, so that "artist" sounds more like "arist" and "recorder" like "recorer," but most people accustomed to a variety of speech products will probably find these to be negligible affectations.)
Getting started is no piece of cake. The unit's "Quick Start" guide, for instance (which is provided in print only), tells you to begin recording by selecting folder A through E, but doesn't tell you how to access said folders. The "Detailed Instructions" file, downloadable from the Olympus site, is a PDF file. This file is readable with screen-reading software, but refers to many of the functions as symbols, so that following the instructions without sighted assistance is cumbersome at best. Sight is definitely required to turn on voice guidance initially, which enables the menus to speak. From there, navigation is decidedly easier, but not universally available as not all menu items have voice tags attached.
In setting the time, for example, voice guidance can get you into the menu to set the time. Once there, however, the hours and minutes are not announced. With experimentation and patience, it is possible to set the clock independently by counting beeps, but the method is inconvenient at best. The same is true for setting the date and alarms.
The Olympus DM-4 can handle a variety of audio formats, including WAV, MP3, and WMA files. Transferring music, audio books, or other content to the Olympus DM-4 is straightforward. The "Detailed Instructions" file stresses the importance of using the dedicated USB cable so vehemently that I lacked the courage to try another method, but I did find this a bit unusual. That said, with the unit attached via USB to your computer, moving material from one device to the other is similar to doing so with any portable device. You can accomplish the task using Windows Explorer, iTunes, or Audible Manager (depending on the type of content being transferred) and, as with many other portable devices, you simply need to be sure to put content in its appropriate location.
Listening to content, particularly music, is where the somewhat steep learning curve for this device pays off. Listening to material on the Olympus DM-4 is pure pleasure, particularly when using headphones. Moving from folder to folder and file to file within the Olympus DM-4 is possible without seeing the visual display. Once you become acclimated to the method of navigating the folder structure, jumping from book to music to podcast to personal memo is quick and easy.
Although the Olympus DM-4 is a digital recorder and player of inarguably high quality, it is somewhat troubling that the company's promotional materials state that it is a product accessible to people with visual impairments or dyslexia. Whereas the device does indeed have voice guidance throughout most menus, there are a great number of areas for which necessary information is displayed on the screen while the unit remains silent. When exiting one menu to locate another, for example, the unit says nothing, although the display clearly indicates that the next menu or next level has been reached. Some menu items are spoken, but once the item is opened, the speech is absent (such as system information). When attempting to do certain routine tasks, spoken confirmation can be found, but only in a work-around sort of way. When erasing a file, for instance, once the "Erase" function has been selected, one might assume that pressing OK would initiate the process. However, it is first necessary to arrow up, again, to "Start Erase" and then to press OK once more.
Several areas seem to function in this manner; that is, by arrowing away from the item and then back to it again, the internal speech confirms that you are where you want to be. Needless to say, for the user who is able to decipher what is displayed on the screen, such desired confirmation is always immediate. One item from the primary menu, the Audio Diary, seemed to have no accessibility whatsoever. When this item is selected, a blank calendar appears on the display, but there is no voice guidance to assist a person with visual impairment or dyslexia in using it.
In some instances, the user guide prepares one for the inconsistencies. Forward and rewind, the manual tells us, do not work in DAISY or text files. Although the power switch offers a "hold" position, a great convenience to prevent the unit from inadvertently coming on in a pocket or briefcase, the visually impaired user has no way of confirming that the function is in effect. Further, "If you press any button in Hold mode," the Detailed Instructions file informs us, "the LED indicator light flashes blue, but no operation is performed."
Again, these may be minor nuisances to some users, and for many of the nonverbal oversights in the product, workarounds exist. But if the manufacturer's aim was to make a product fully accessible to people who are blind or dyslexic, they have not quite yet met the goal.
The Bottom Line
If you want a multipurpose, high-performance digital recorder that will deliver excellent sound and record anything from your Sunday school lesson to your music collection, audio book, podcast, or personal notes, and if you don't mind spending some intense concentration time with sighted assistance to get up to speed with its operation, then this is a marvelous product. If, on the other hand, accessible instructions and a fully accessible product are must-haves, you might want to keep shopping.
The Olympus DM-4 sells for $300. Package includes a lithium-ion battery, AC adapter, and USB cable.
For more information, visit the Olympus America website
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