November 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 11

Product Evaluations and Guides

A Comparative Review of the SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD Handheld Video Magnifiers

A wide range of handheld video magnifiers, also referred to as electronic magnifiers or CCTVs, exist on the market today. Many of these video magnifiers offer a wide range of features and price points. The SmartLux Digital by Eschenbach, and the Pebble HD by Enhanced Vision, are both priced at $595, but differ significantly in their features and design. In this comparative review, I'll be taking a closer look at the pros and cons of these video magnifiers. I'll also be addressing the question that many people are asking these days: is it possible for smartphones to provide a level of access similar to that of designated handheld video magnifiers?

Screenshot of SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD

Caption: Screenshot of SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD

Documentation and Online Resources

The SmartLux Digital's user manual is printed in 13 different languages. Although this strategy caters to the large international audience that Eschenbach serves, having to search the manual's pages for the English section for people with low vision doesn't lend itself to an easy out-of-the-box experience. The manual is printed in 14-point font throughout, and relies on black and white graphics. Increasing the font size to at least 18 point, and providing a single page overview of the device in English, would enhance the level of access for the average American user with low vision.

Eschenbach's website provides a brief overview of the SmartLux Digital, along with detailed specs. The company has also produced an excellent 3.5 minute YouTube video that not only describes how to use the SmartLux Digital, but also demonstrates the device in action. The only criticism I have of the online documentation and video is that the URL itself is very long, and the instructional information and video are nested deep within the Eschenbach website. The user manual is available for download on this same site.

The Pebble HD is supplied with a well-written user manual printed in 14-point font throughout, and black and white graphics. The "Note" sections throughout the manual are highlighted using a dark gray background, resulting in a low level of contrast for the reader. Increasing the font size to 18 point, using a thick border for the "Note" sections rather than the dark gray background, and providing a single page overview of the device would also further enhance the out-of-the-box experience for people with low vision.

The Enhanced Vision website provides an overview of the Pebble HD, along with detailed specs. The company has produced a YouTube video that includes a woman with low vision discussing the Pebble HD. However, the video appears to be more promotional than instructional, which reduces its effectiveness when it comes to learning how to use the device. Enhanced Vision also provides a link to download the user manual from their site.

Physical Design and Features

The SmartLux Digital comes with a power adapter and several universal attachments for international use, as well as a protective hard cover case. The Pebble HD comes with a power adapter, and a USB-to-mini power cable. It also comes with a carrying case with belt clip.

The SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD both come with the standard features that one would expect in a high-end portable video magnifier, such a range of magnification levels, a broad range of color modes, and independent light sources.

Magnification

The SmartLux Digital display measures approximately 5 inches, and offers four magnification settings. Although the Pebble HD offers a slightly smaller 4.3-inch display, it offers up to seven magnification settings. When reading 11-point font using the two devices set to their lowest level of magnification, they both displayed the font size at approximately .5 inch in height. However, when both devices were set to their highest level of magnification, the Pebble HD was able to produce a much larger image. The same 11-point font could be displayed an inch taller in height using the Pebble HD (2.75 inches versus 1.75 inches).

The additional magnification capabilities of the Pebble HD may have some tangible benefits in certain circumstances. However, it's also worth considering that the SmartLux Digital display size is slightly larger, thereby providing a somewhat larger viewing area when using the same level of magnification as the Pebble HD. Enhanced Vision offers an optional $20 stand for the Pebble HD, which allows the user to unfold the handle and use the device like a traditional handheld magnifier, while maintaining a consistent focal point to the surface with the use of the stand.

Both devices have their own strengths and weaknesses related to adjustment of magnification. The SmartLux Digital uses a single control to adjust magnification, which briefly flashes on the display in 30-point font. The ability to briefly see the level of magnification is a valuable feature. However, because only a single button is available to increase the level of magnification, and the SmartLux Digital provides no separate button to decrease the level of magnification, it's necessary to press the magnification button repeatedly to cycle back around to the desired level of magnification. Although this is easy enough to do, it can be a little cumbersome.

The Pebble HD has clearly marked buttons that include high contrast and tactile markings for increasing and decreasing magnification. However, there is no visual or auditory indicator that lets the user know the magnification setting.

Color Viewing Modes

The SmartLux Digital provides five color modes: true color, black/white, white/black, black/yellow, and yellow/black. Eschenbach wisely chose to include frequently used color schemes for people who are glare sensitive, and those who need additional contrast. The Pebble HD comes with 7 pre-set viewing modes, but if you include the additional options within its menu system, it offers an impressive 28 viewing modes.

Image Quality

Both devices provide the option of changing the levels of brightness for the display. The SmartLux Digital offers three levels of brightness (100%, 75%, and 50%), and the Pebble HD offers five levels of brightness (1--5). Overall, both the SmartLux Digital and the Pebble HD provide excellent image quality. They also provide rapid auto-focus, which is important when switching between viewing distances and tasks. The SmartLux Digital tends to mute the colors slightly compared to the Pebble HD, and would display white or near-white colors with a light blue hue. The Pebble HD more accurately displayed colors, and provided a slightly brighter image overall. For people who are highly glare sensitive, the slightly muted image that the SmartLux Digital provides may be preferable, but for individuals who prefer higher contrast (e.g., individuals with macular degeneration) the brighter image provided by the Pebble HD may be more effective.

Both devices are equipped with foldable stands that allow them to operate in a "writing position" when on a flat surface. This can be functional for tasks such as writing checks or signing one's name, or for tasks that require both hands, such as threading a needle. The image quality of the SmartLux Digital was superior to the Pebble HD in the writing position. It offered slightly less image distortion, presumably because its camera is positioned in closer proximity to the surface area, and at a reduced angle to the surface than that of the Pebble HD.

The quality and positioning of lighting is an important factor that directly impacts image quality. The SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD operate extremely well in this regard. Both devices are equipped with two strategically positioned LED lights on the underside of the devices that can easily be turned on or off as needed. Enhanced Vision was especially creative with the way in which the emitted light of the Pebble HD is effectively funneled through the well-designed opening of the handle while in the folded position.

Portability

When it comes to portability, the Pebble HD has several advantages over the SmartLux Digital. It's slightly narrower in width than the SmartLux Digital, and 1.5 inches shorter in length. The Pebble HD comes with a carrying case and belt clip, whereas the SmartLux Digital comes with a larger case that makes it much less convenient to carry. The Pebble HD is also slightly lighter, weighing 7.1 ounces compared to the 7.8 ounces of the SmartLux Digital. The versatile handle of the Pebble HD also unfolds, thereby allowing it to be held in the same way as a traditional handheld magnifier. The SmartLux Digital offers no such option.

Freeze Image Features

Both devices allow the user to freeze an image, and then save it for retrieval at a later date. The SmartLux Digital saves up to 20 images, and the Pebble HD can save approximately 200 images. The Pebble HD also provides the option to transfer images to a computer via a USB cable included with the device.

Battery Life and Status Indicator

For both devices, a fully charged battery will last for about 2.5 to 3 hours, depending on the brightness settings and the use of the LED lights. The SmartLux Digital does take considerably less time to charge: 2 hours, versus the Pebble HD's 4 hours. It can take up to 9 hours to fully charge the Pebble HD when using a computer USB. Both devices provide an on-screen display of the battery status when first turned on. The Pebble HD also indicates its battery status while in standby mode using small blue and amber LED lights located on the side of the device.

The SmartLux Digital switches itself off when idle for more than three minutes to avoid battery drainage. The Pebble HD goes into standby mode after left idle for more than three minutes. This is a very useful feature, since it's easy to be distracted by a phone call or a doorbell while the devices are in use.

Auditory Feedback

Integrating audio feedback--such as clicks, beeps, and the reading of menu items--into the functionality of a device can provide a user with low vision additional confirmation that a desired action or function has taken place. Audio feedback can also provide access to options that may otherwise be inaccessible.

The SmartLux Digital provides no audio feedback. It's evident that Eschenbach's intention with the SmartLux Digital was to offer a video magnifier that was simple and intuitive, at the expense of more feature-rich options. Adding an audible indicator when the device is turned on and off would provide additional reinforcement to a user with low vision that the power button was indeed held in long enough to switch modes. Integrating audio "clicks" when changing color modes, magnification levels, and especially brightness settings, can help confirm changes. When adjusting the level of brightness on the SmartLux Digital, one of three numbers (50, 75, or 100) temporarily appears on the display in 11-point font. Choosing such a small font size to convey a feature as important as the level of brightness, and not providing any audio feedback equivalent, is a significant shortcoming. Displaying the brightness level using a larger font size (22 point or larger) would increase the level of access for the target population that the SmartLux Digital is designed for, and would reduce or eliminate the need for its audio equivalent.

The feature-rich Pebble HD integrates multiple varieties of audio feedback with almost every feature and option. It also provides five volume levels to choose from, which are easily accessed on the fly with the scroll wheel located on the top left of the device. Its audio output includes beeps, clicks, and the audio output of the available options within its menus. There is one downside worth mentioning. The Pebble HD does not give audio feedback on the magnification level being used, which is one of the most important features of the device. It also does not offer on-screen display of the magnification level being used, which makes the lack of audio feedback in this area even more essential.

Comparing the SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD to Smartphones

As the image quality and displays of many smartphones continue to improve and increase in size, consumers and low vision specialists continue to debate whether or not smartphones are able to take the place of handheld video magnifiers such as the SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD. A strong argument can be made that smartphones already are being used as portable video magnifiers. I addressed this topic in a previous AccessWorld article, A Comparative Review of iPhone Magnifier Apps.

There are some clear advantages to using a designated video magnifier such as the SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD. Portable video magnifiers have been specifically designed with low vision users in mind. Features such as physical high contrast buttons, and options that are tailored specifically for people with low vision, are difficult to equal in a smartphone and app. The camera placement of most handheld video magnifiers is in the center of the device, allowing for a more intuitive and natural placement of the device over the desired item. Smartphones typically have the camera located towards the periphery of the device. Signing up for an Apple or Google Play account, and then being able to download and access specific magnifier apps, also requires an interest and skill level that some people simply may not wish to pursue. Although there are some excellent smartphones on the market today such as the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 that do especially well in low light situations, the image quality of many smartphones does not compare to that of portable video magnifiers. Smartphones are also not equipped with stabilizing stands for surface reading and writing. Another important factor to consider is the battery life of a smartphone. Using a smartphone for magnification and lighting purposes can quickly draw down battery charge.

The Bottom Line

Although the SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD share several common features such as varying color modes and magnification, there are some fundamental differences between these handheld video magnifiers. Which device works better for an individual will largely depend on his or her unique needs and preferences. At the expense of offering a wider array of options and features, Eschenbach has focused on simplifying its device as much as possible in order to improve ease of use. Enhanced Vision, on the other hand, has provided many more options and features with its Pebble HD, making it not as user friendly. As an example, the SmartLux Digital has a total of four buttons that operate the entire device. The Pebble HD has a total of eight buttons, including the scroll wheel's dual function, and offers an extensive list of menu items that can only be accessed by pressing and holding a combination of two buttons at the same time. I would highly recommend keeping the user's manual close by until a comfort level has been established with the device, and all of the preferred settings have been made.

The SmartLux turns on and is ready to use in less than three seconds, compared to more than 20 seconds when using the Pebble HD. When taking the Pebble HD out of standby mode, it still takes approximately five seconds before it can be used.

When it comes to portability, a very important feature when using these devices in various settings, the Pebble HD comes out ahead. Its display size is slightly smaller than the SmartLux Digital, but if the user is willing to sacrifice a small amount of screen real estate for a lot more portability, the Pebble HD is the better choice.

Overall, the SmartLux Digital and Pebble HD both offer an excellent experience when it comes to magnification and image quality. One size does not fit all, and deciding on which device is best will boil down to what the most important features are for a particular person. Both devices come with a 2-year warranty.

Manufacturers' Comments

Comments from Enhanced Vision

We appreciate your efforts in reviewing the Pebble HD magnifier and look forward to partnering with AccessWorld on future projects.

While Pebble HD and SmartLux are in the same product category, we firmly believe that Pebble HD is a superior product, which offers the customer a great experience with its ergonomic design and many user-friendly features. It is important to note Pebble HD is also available in the "Basic" model, which reduces the number of active controls to four (on/off, magnification increase or decrease, and mode). This is the ideal choice for those users who do not need the on-screen calendar, clock, and image storage features. The magnification and mode buttons are black and white, providing high contrast for easier access.

The comments regarding changes to font size and type are noted and will be incorporated in a future version of the Pebble's user manual.

Enhanced Vision's promotional videos are found to be useful for anyone interested in getting an overview of the product. Enhanced Vision representatives, located throughout the USA, will, on request, provide onsite training to any customer.

Our customers typically do not charge Pebble HD using a computer USB port, since they are provided a wall charger for that function, which charges the battery much more efficiently and quickly.

Look for audio feedback of the magnification levels, reduced startup time, and other features in the next generation of Pebble HD.

Enhanced Vision products are designed and assembled in the USA.

For additional information, please visit the Enhanced Vision website or call 800-440-9476.

Marc Stenzel
Vice President Sales and Business Development, Enhanced Vision

Comments from Eschenbach

Eschenbach thanks AccessWorld for taking the time to review our SmartLux Digital portable video magnifier. We are always working to improve our products and appreciate the feedback provided in the product review. In fact, due to the feedback, we will be shortening our URL for our video and plan on updating our User Manual to incorporate a larger font size. A few other things to mention about the SmartLux Digital are that the screen has a hard coat on it as well as an anti-glare film. These features may lower the brightness of the image slightly, but will reduce the bothersome reflections from bright overhead light sources to help improve the overall user experience. Also, the SmartLux Digital's internal rechargeable battery is in an accessible compartment so it can be replaced if needed. This means users don't need to purchase a whole new video magnifier if the battery needs to be replaced after the warranty expires--users can just buy a new battery which costs much less than a new video magnifier.

For more information, visit the Eschenbach website or call 1 (800) 487-5389.

Timothy Gels
Marketing Manager, Eschenbach Optik of America, Inc.

Product Information

Product Name: SmartLux Digital
Price: $595
Manufacturer: Eschenbach Optik of America
Telephone: 800-487-5389

Product Name: Pebble HD
Price: $595
Optional Pebble HD Stand: $20
Manufacturer: Enhanced Vision
Telephone: 714-374-1829

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