An Evaluation of the HumanWare Victor Reader Stream (New Generation)
Since its release in 2007, the Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare has been one of the most popular and successful portable DAISY players on the market. The Stream can play many file formats, including DAISY Talking Books, NISO Books, HTML files, text files, MP3 media files, and files in the OGG Vorbis format. HumanWare released an updated version of the Stream in February 2013. I love my classic Stream, and I had high hopes for the new model. Sadly, the updated device fell short of my expectations.
What's in the Box
The package contains the Stream with the SD card inserted, a USB power adapter, a Micro USB cable that is meant to connect the Stream to the AC Adapter or a computer, a short Micro USB cord with a standard USB female port on the opposite end for connecting NLS book cartridges or USB flash drives, a silicone case, a pair of ear bud headphones, and warranty information. The device and peripherals are packaged in a molded plastic tray underneath which you'll find the warranty information.
The Stream is 4.5 by 2.4 by 0.7 inches and weighs 3.9 ounces with the battery inserted. The top edge of the Stream houses the SD card slot in the center and the 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, which protrudes from the plastic exterior of the Stream, on the right. The right side of the player contains a recessed 3.5 millimeter microphone jack at the top, with a "Record" key, which has a barely detectable tactile dot, just below.
The front of the player is separated into two sections containing various keys. At the very top, there are three keys spaced slightly apart. The first is a square-shaped "Go To" key with a raised area in the center. Located above this key is a small hole which is the internal microphone. To the right of the "Go To" key is the round, smooth "Wireless" key. There is an LED indicator just beside the "Wireless" key, which provides a visual indication of wireless status. On the far right is the smooth, diamond-shaped "Bookmark" key. Below these three keys are keys resembling the keypad of a telephone. These keys are rectangular and smooth with the exception of the "5" key, which has two raised dots on the left and right edges of the key for orientation. These keys can be used for number and text entry or for various other functions when you are not in a text or number entry field. Below these twelve keys is a raised line that separates the bottom keys from the telephone keypad. Just below the line in the center is a smooth, oval-shaped "Sleep" key. The bottom row of keys are completely smooth and contain a left pointing arrow-shaped "Rewind" key on the left, a square "Play/Stop" key in the center, and a right pointing arrow-shaped "Fast Forward" key on the right.
The right edge of the player contains three keys near the top. The top key is a smooth, round "Power" key that you press and hold to turn the player on and off. Pressing and releasing this key while you use the player cycles through audio adjustments, such as speed, pitch, volume, and tone. Below this key are two arrow-shaped keys pointing upward and downward. These are used to increase or decrease the selected audio setting, such as pitch or speed. The back of the player is mostly taken up by a battery cover. There is a release for this battery door towards the top of the player.
The Stream has a built-in user guide. Once the device is turned on, you can press and hold the "1" key to access the user guide at any time. The guide is read using the text-to-speech (TTS) voice you have selected. You can also access the Key Describer Mode by holding the "0" key. The Stream is automatically in Key Describer Mode if you activate it without the SD card inserted. The TTS voice will also tell you how to enter the user guide. This is a useful feature so that new users can easily find the documentation. You can also find an HTML file of the documentation on the HumanWare Stream Support website. The HTML file is well structured with headings for easy navigation with a screen reader. The built-in user guide has navigation heading options as well.
The documentation is very thorough. All of the functions are described well, and all supported files are discussed with details regarding their behavior on the Stream. An appendix is included where you can find technical information about the Stream, and any errors that the Stream can report are explained. Overall, the Stream's documentation is easily accessible, descriptive, and easily navigated.
The Stream Bookshelves
The Stream can play many different types of digital media. These files are separated by type into various bookshelves: Talking Books, Other Books, Music, Podcasts, Notes, and Text Files. The "1" key provides access to the Bookshelf and is used to cycle through the various bookshelves on the Stream. Once you have cycled to the desired bookshelf, you can use the "4" and "6" keys to cycle through the books on the bookshelf and the "2" and "8" keys to scroll through the various navigation levels. For example, on the Music bookshelf, you can either navigate by file or folder by using the "2" and "8" keys to cycle between these levels. Folders located inside other folders are listed as levels 2, 3, 4, and so on. You can play a book or file using the "Play/Stop" key or move into a book or folder, but not play it, with the "Confirm" key. You can delete a book or file by pressing the "3" key.
Navigation During Media Playback
Once you have selected a book and have begun playback with the "Play/Stop" key, the navigation keys will be used for book navigation. The "2" and "8" keys are used to cycle through different navigation elements, and the "4" and "6" keys are used to move backward and forward using the selected navigation element. Depending on which bookshelf you are on, you will have different navigation elements available. For example, if you are listening to a file on your Music bookshelf, you can select file or folder navigation. If you are listening to a file on the Podcasts bookshelf, you only are able to navigate by time jump intervals. If you accidentally press the "4" or "6" keys during playback, you can cancel the move and return to the position where you were reading by pressing the "* [asterisk]" key, which functions as the "Cancel" key, within ten seconds of the error. You can also navigate by short intervals by pressing the "Fast Forward" and "Rewind" keys. Holding these keys skips quickly through the file, and if you press and hold them, you will skip by increasing intervals indicated by a time announcement. When the Stream begins to jump by intervals, it will play a small clip of the new playback position in the audio. If you press and hold the "Fast Forward" or "Rewind" keys in a text file or DAISY book in text playback mode, it will jump by percentage intervals. The Stream announces the percentage skipped, but it will not read the contents of the file unless you release the key.
You can also navigate by using the "Go To" key. Pressing this key will provide a prompt to go to a certain element, such as page or heading. You can repeatedly press the "Go To" key to move through the various prompts available in a given file or book. You can then use the telephone style keypad to enter the number of the element you are attempting to navigate to. In files with digital text, you will also be provided with a search option. You use the telephone keypad to enter letters, numbers, and symbols in a similar manner to entering text on a cell phone with only a telephone keypad. For example, the "2" key contains the letters "A," "B," and "C." To enter a "C," you would press the "2" key three times quickly. The Stream will announce "C," and it will be entered into the text field. You can press the "Rewind" key to backspace a character and the "Fast Forward" key to read what is entered into the field. You press the "Confirm" key or the "Play/Stop" key to go to the first occurrence of your search criteria. Once you have searched for a word or phrase, you can cycle through its occurrences by using the "4" and "6" keys. This search option appears below the lowest form of navigation available in the current book and can be cycled to and from with the other navigation elements. For example, if you search for something in a Bookshare book, the search option will appear below the character element in the elements list using the "2" and "8" keys.
Bookmarks and Other Keys Used During Playback
You may add various types of bookmarks during book playback. Bookmarks are managed by using the diamond-shaped "Bookmark" key on the upper right side of the device, above the "3" key. To insert a bookmark, you press the "Bookmark" key twice. The first press is the prompt for going to a certain bookmark, and the second is the prompt for inserting a bookmark. You can confirm the entry of a bookmark at the current reading position by pressing the "Play/Stop" key or the "Confirm" key. You can press the "Record" key to insert an audio bookmark. An audio bookmark can be up to a minute long, and it will be played when you reach its position in the book.
After the "Insert Bookmark" prompt is the "Insert Highlight Bookmark" prompt. This allows you to highlight a portion of text by placing bookmarks at either end of the passage. You first navigate to the "Insert Highlight Bookmark" prompt where you can set your starting position. Next, you find the end of the passage you would like to bookmark and press the "Bookmark" key once. The Stream will announce "End Highlight Bookmark," and you can then press the "Confirm" key to set the ending position of your highlight bookmark. If you rewind and place the end position of the highlight bookmark before the starting position, the Stream will reverse their names so that the end position is the start position and the start is the end. You can go to a bookmark by either pressing the "Bookmark" key once to go to the "Go to Bookmark" prompt and then entering the number of the bookmark you would like to move to, or by pressing the "Bookmark" key four times to get to the bookmark list. You can then use the "4" and "6" keys to move through the bookmarks you have placed. When moving to a bookmark, the bookmark type and number will be announced, and playback will automatically begin from that point. You can remove your bookmarks by pressing the "Bookmark" key five times. The Stream will announce "Remove Bookmark," and you can enter the number of the bookmark to be removed and press "Confirm." You can enter the number "99999" to have all bookmarks removed.
There are two keys you can use to gain information about the currently playing book or file: the "Where Am I" key ("5") and the "Info" key ("0"). Pressing the "5" key during playback will provide information about your position in the book or file. For example, if you press this key in a Bookshare DAISY book, the Stream will announce the current percentage, the page, the heading, and the current heading title. After this announcement, playback will resume at the point where you pressed the key. If you press this key twice during the playback of an audio file, such as a file on the Podcasts or Music bookshelves, you will be given the tag information for that file. Pressing the "0" key will give you information about the current book or file as well as other information about your Stream, such as the wireless status, battery status, and information on your SD card. The information will be read automatically. These keys only work during media playback and pressing them while you are on a bookshelf will launch the selected file and immediately play the info for that key. The "9" key can be pressed during media playback to cycle between recorded audio and digital text if this is supported in your book. Pressing this key on the Music bookshelf will shuffle the files, and pressing it again will return the files to their original order.
Settings Menu and Recording
You can enter the various settings menus at any time by pressing the "7" key unless you are in the midst of recording. To cycle through the various settings menus, press the "7" key multiple times. When you are in a menu, you can use the "2" and "8" keys to move between individual settings and the "4" and "6" keys to make adjustments for the selected setting. You must press the "Confirm" or "Play/Stop" key to set the chosen option for a setting. If you use the "Confirm" key to select an option, you will remain in the menu, but if you use the "Play/Stop" key, you will be returned to playback. Just as the "5" and "0" keys launch the selected book if you press them while you are on a bookshelf, the Settings menu will also launch a book before opening it if you are on a bookshelf and not in playback mode.
The settings are separated into various menus that cycle in a similar manner to the bookshelves. For example, you press the "7" key multiple times to move between menus. The menus will wrap to the first menu if you press "7" while in the final menu. The first menu is the Navigation and Playback menu. Here you can set files to play on a loop, enable and disable various time jump intervals, set the playback of auditory information (such as bookmarks), and set the ability to adjust pitch or tone from the "Power" key. The second menu allows you to set the types of information that will be read during DAISY book playback. Some of these include footnotes and producer notes. You can set these to always be read, never be read, or be read on demand by using the "Confirm" key during playback. The next menu allows you to set your TTS voice and braille translation table, and the following menu allows you to set your preferred type of recording format for audio notes and the recording source. For example, you can set the Stream to record from an external microphone. The final settings menu contains the option to format your SD card, which erases its contents and places the default Stream bookshelf folders on the card. The card will also be automatically renamed to "VRStream."
You can create audio recordings called Notes by pressing the "Record" key on the side of the Stream. Press and release this key to begin recording and press it again when you are finished, or hold it in while recording and release it when you are finished. When you begin a recording, the Stream will announce, "Start Recording," and then play the sound that indicates the start of playback to note that you are now recording. Pause the recording by pressing the "Play/Stop" key, and cancel the recording with the "Cancel" key. Humanware has added the ability to add bookmarks during recording. Press the "Bookmark" key to insert a bookmark during recording (you will not hear a tone to indicate the bookmark was inserted). The bookmark is placed several seconds after you press the key.
Notes are automatically saved to the Notes bookshelf where they are labeled with a number. Deleting a note does not erase that number's use from memory, however. For example, if you record three notes and delete the first note and record another note afterward, the new note will be labeled Note 4.
The Stream has seen several changes. The unit is somewhat smaller with the sides curving inward towards the back of the device and the corners are more rounded. The unit now has a Micro USB port, and the new charger is a USB charger compatible with mainstream technology. The speaker and the microphone are louder. The unit is noticeably faster, and the TTS voices are now high quality human-sounding voices provided by Acapela instead of Nuance's Vocalizer. The features of the original Stream Soft Pack are now included with the unit, including support of the DOCX and EPUB file formats as well as the option to record in MP3 or WAV. The ability to record in the older recording format is no longer supported, but older files can still be played.
The Stream now has a clock feature, which can be viewed by pressing the "Sleep" key, and it also has wireless capabilities. Pressing the "Wireless" key will announce if the wireless is enabled or disabled, while pressing and holding the key activates or deactivates the wireless feature. You can enter the Wireless menu by pressing the "Wireless" key when the wireless feature is turned on and then pressing the "7" key. You can connect to wireless networks by either entering the network information manually, scanning for available networks, or importing a profile from a file generated using the HumanWare Companion software. Once connected, you can use this menu to be sure you are connected to the Internet. The device downloads a file from the HumanWare website to test this, and it is placed on your Text bookshelf. At this time, the only function of this technology is to wirelessly update the Stream with new software and to obtain National Library Service user keys for playing BARD digital Talking Books. The battery level is now announced as a percentage instead of a relative vague level, such as "High" or "Medium." The battery is now connected to the battery cover, and it is released by pressing upward on a switch on the back of the device. (The previous model had a battery cover that was somewhat difficult to remove for some users.)
Problems with the New Model
The new Stream has several hardware and software problems. The new speaker is somewhat muffled compared to the speaker on the previous model. The original Stream speaker is quieter but clearer than the new speaker. There is a high-pitched, low-volume tone audible behind all recordings no matter the recording format, which is distracting and makes the device useless for creating recordings meant to be shared with others. The United States Acapela voices Heather and Ryan are difficult to understand as well, particularly at faster speeds. However, you can reinstall the Stream software with United Kingdom voices Rachael and Graham, which are much clearer even at high speeds.
The booting and shutdown times are much longer on the new Stream. This is especially true during shutdown when the power-off sound is heard several seconds before the device actually shuts down. If you are on the Music bookshelf, increasing the bass will sometimes cause scratchy distortion in certain audio files with pronounced bass, a problem not present on the original Stream. The LED indicator on the new Stream is faint and located on the side next to the "Power" key, which makes it difficult to see. The LED placement on the original Stream, on the front of the device between the "Go To" and "Bookmark" keys, is better.
The Bottom Line
The new Stream has some improvements over the original, but several issues have been introduced in the new model. At the moment, if you have an original Stream, it's not worth upgrading to the new one. The device will be worth purchasing once some bugs are corrected and the ability to download books wirelessly from the Internet is added. If you can't stand to listen to the Vocalizer voices, you may want to upgrade to the new model as it offers some higher quality voices. Even with its problems, HumanWare has produced a device that has the possibility to grow into a desirable reading solution for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Thank you for a thorough review of the features and functions of the Victor Reader Stream, it is appreciated. HumanWare has reduced the size of the Stream by some 28%, while still maintaining the same familiar key pad spacing of the original, which our loyal users will appreciate. We also kept the familiar Bookshelf structure and navigation tools to make it easy to adapt to for existing users and easy to learn for new users. Thank you for describing these in detail in the review.
The wireless component is built into the hardware already, and a number of exciting wireless features will be added in future software updates. Meanwhile, HumanWare is working hard in collaboration with over a dozen different international organizations and content providers to help move their content toward a wirelessly downloadable format into the Stream. Having the National Library Service's Key available this way, as you mentioned, is a great start. The good news is that wireless software updates are now possible with this latest model, so keeping your new Stream up-to-date with the latest features will be that much easier. The other issues mentioned are duly noted, and will be considered as we continuously improve our products into the future.
Technical Product Manager - Victor Reader Products
Product: Victor Reader Stream (New Generation)
Available From: HumanWare
Phone Number: 1-800-722-3393
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