Over a decade ago, HumanWare took the summer conventions by storm with its new product, the Victor Reader Stream. Similar in size to many cell phones at that time (a bit larger than most smart phones today), the Victor Reader Stream could play books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), books from Audible, and even had an internal text-to-speech capability that meant it could read books from Bookshare or, for that matter, any of your text documents.
The Stream, as most users came to call it, could play your music, too. For many people, it became the recorder and quick note taker of choice, as its built-in microphone produced a remarkably clear recording of quick notes, lectures, or other voice recordings.
Later, a second generation Stream was introduced, this time a bit smaller and offering wireless capabilities. In about 2011, a product with similar physical appearance was released by HumanWare for way-finding. The Trekker Breeze was a fair product, but slow to connect and a bit clunky by today's standards to carry on one's person. Again, we reviewed it in AccessWorld and were happy enough with it for the state of technology at that time.
Technology is a moving target, as we all know, sometimes changing faster than we can even analyze or write about. Looking back, it seems that many of us abandoned our Victor Reader Streams and other devices for the slimmer, sleeker iPhone. When Apple made the iPhone accessible, many blind consumers eventually discovered that it was all they needed. I have used only my phone for on-the-go reading for many years now, using the old Stream only very occasionally for testing purposes.
The Victor Reader Trek is Worth Examination
When HumanWare announced its brand-new Victor Reader Trek last summer, I was intrigued. Packing the power of the Victor Reader Stream (second generation) and the Trekker Breeze into one small package warranted examination. Blind consumers already were very divided regarding this product. While many were using their Victor Streams constantly, others argued that it was wiser somehow to put aside all those "specialty" products and use a mainstream product that everyone else (aka sighted folks) was using as well. Both perspectives have merit. Only spending time with this new product would enable me to figure out which made more sense.
Physical Description of the Reader Trek
HumanWare has a genuine knack for developing products that are esthetically pleasing to hold in your hand, with buttons and switches that are easily identified with or without vision. Even though I had never personally used a second-generation Victor Stream and my original Victor had spent most of its time in a drawer for the past five years, meeting the Victor Trek was something akin to a reunion with an old friend.
Weighing 5 ounces, the Victor Trek rests easily in one hand. The face has three distinctly shaped buttons across the top, a 12-key telephone style key pad, and four keys at the bottom. Most keys have functions in both reader and GPS modes. A boldly raised and easily identifiable line runs across the face of the unit, separating the number keys from the four at the bottom. Immediately below that line is key that serves both as a time and date announcer and as a sleep timer. Below it are the rewind, play/stop, and fast forward keys. On the top edge are the SD card slot and 3.5 mm jack for headphones or an external speaker. The bottom edge holds the micro USB port, used both for powering the unit and attaching other storage devices holding content to be played or copied. The left edge has the power button and up/down volume keys (also used to adjust speed and tone.) The right-hand edge holds the record button. Plenty of tactile markings render it nearly impossible to press the wrong key or even fumble about to find the desired one. The three keys across the top are uniquely shaped and widely spaced. On the number pad, the 5 has two dots, and the edges of the 2, 4, 6, and 8 keys are marked with raised semi-circles. The four keys at the bottom of the front face are also shaped intuitively as left and right arrows, rectangular play/stop, and an oval button for the sleep timer.
The Victor Trek comes in a silicone fitted case and includes a user-replaceable lithium-ion battery, ear buds, USB cable, power adapter, short USB cord for attaching external storage media, lanyard and belt clip. Maps relevant to your location are already on board — all of the United States and Canada for customers in these two countries.
The Trek has both wireless and Bluetooth capacities. Its battery life is reasonably good — lasting about 12 hours in my experience, longer if not using GPS or wireless features.
Features of the Victor Reader Trek
The Victor Trek can play DAISY, ePub, and other book formats. It can play books downloaded from the NLS, Bookshare, Audible, and other MP3 files. Its built-in text-to-speech capabilities allow it to read text and braille files, too.
It can download and play podcasts, stream Internet radio stations, and download all your favorite publications from NFB NEWSLINE.
My previous experience was with the original Victor Reader Stream, which does not have wireless connectivity. Adding wireless to the second-generation Stream was a huge improvement and thus equally welcome in the Victor Trek.
Once you have set up logins to your accounts with NLS BARD, Bookshare, and NFB NEWSLINE, downloading new books, magazines, and newspapers is blissfully simple and efficient.
You can add as many books from any of these sources as you like and they will be added to the download queue. If all of the items in the queue haven't downloaded during a given session, Victor Trek will continue the download process the next time the device is turned on. If you subscribe to a number of podcasts, for example, it is not uncommon to hear a pleasant background chime periodically as you are listening to a book, radio station, or podcast to announce that another download is complete.
You can set bookmarks in your text or audio books. These can be simple place markers inserted into the text. They can also be recorded bookmarks (a comment recorded with your own voice, for example, to remind you what is particularly valuable about a given segment of text), or they can be highlighted bookmarks in which you select a given sentence, phrase, or paragraph to be highlighted.
The Trek will keep your place in all of the books and magazines you are currently reading.
You can navigate books to whatever degree the individual markup of a book allows — chapters, parts, sections, etc. — and can do so easily with the 2, 4, 6, and 8 keys, which act as arrow keys on the number keypad. As indicated earlier, the up and down volume arrows also serve to adjust speed and tone.
The user's guide is always available by pressing and holding the number 1 key. The text-to-speech document can be navigated by major sections and subsections, as well as by screen, line, paragraph, or word. As with all text documents, a word can be spelled by focusing on it and selecting the Spell word option with the up and down arrows.
Podcasts Made Easy
HumanWare gets its customers started with a number of popular podcasts — mostly related to blindness, music, and current events — but searching, browsing, and subscribing to podcasts from the limitless reservoir of news and entertainment is again easy and intuitive. Similarly, the ability to stream thousands of Internet radio stations can provide endless entertainment and enlightenment. Here, too, HumanWare provides a playlist to get you started. Labeled "English North America," it includes a sampling of stations throughout the US and Canada featuring jazz, folk, country, or classical music, and news from various perspectives. (Information stations include the BBC World Service, NPR, C-SPAN, and several blindness related stations.)
Searching for a podcast, a radio station, or a book title is all done with the number pad. The bookmark key is used to change to uppercase, lowercase, or numbers. If, for example, you want to search for the podcast Fresh Air, you your press the 3 key 3 times and hear "D E F" followed by a click to indicate that the letter has been entered. If you want to enter a search string that is all numeric, press the bookmark key until you hear "numeric," indicating that the keys then represent only numbers.
Wherever you are in the Trek's various functions, the pound key is used to confirm and the star key to cancel.
Trekking with the Victor Reader Trek: GPS
To get started with the GPS feature of the Victor Reader Trek, the unit needs to recognize where you are. When the online button, a round button in the center of the top row of buttons is pressed, the Trek announces, "Searching for satellites." This is the most tedious of the device's learning curves — so much so that I initially wondered if this function worked at all. Actually, it just takes several minutes to locate satellites the first time you launch the GPS feature. Subsequent sessions seem to get shorter and shorter, until it is sometimes just a matter of seconds for the Trek to get its bearings.
If the GPS function is not used for a few days, it reverts to the painfully slow process of searching. Once the satellites are seen and location detected, using the Trek feature of the Victor Reader Trek is more or less smooth sailing.
You can simply walk a route and have the Trek record it for later, identifying intersections, landmarks, and points of interest along the way. You can map a route from where you are standing to where you are going, and you can record in your own voice names for landmarks you wish to find again. Victor Reader Trek begins operating in pedestrian mode, but you can switch to vehicle mode when you need information when traveling by car, bus, or train.
Key assignments are often intuitive here, carrying over from the Bookshelf key commands. The number 5 key, for example, is the Where Am I? key when using the GPS function (as it also is when in a book or text file). Press and hold the 5 key and you can hear a list of landmarks nearby.
The excruciating slowness to recognize position, particularly when the unit has not been used for three or more days, was disappointing. Once it detected the position of the device, however, the GPS feature performed well enough and the information was excellent. The Trek provides compass direction, current location, altitude, the speed at which you are walking, and descriptions of intersections. It gives you turn-by-turn navigation and allows you to explore your surroundings. The sometimes several-minute lag in the GPS start up could be a deterrent for customers who will not be using the way-finding functions on a daily basis.
To Trek or Not to Trek
Here are a few examples of how the Victor Trek's various functions can pull together for dazzling access to information:
- I am listening to a favorite radio station via the Trek's Internet radio function. A brief story about a new Indian restaurant catches my attention. I move to the GPS function (waiting for the Trek to locate satellites and identify my position) and map a route to the restaurant. It is less than five miles from me, so I can plan a future dining excursion!
- Another time, I hear an interview with an author who, new to me, has written a book of particular interest. I switch to the online bookshelf, navigate to NLS and search for the author's name. Within minutes, I am listening to the prologue.
- Today, I am reading my local newspaper (via NFB NEWSLINE) and come across an article about Michelle Wolf's remarks at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Wanting to find out who Michelle Wolf is, I move to the Trek's Wikipedia option to search for more information. Immediately, the text-to-speech voice is reading a full-blown article about the comedian and writer. (At this point, I can also pause to check the spelling of her name.)
- The newspaper article mentioned an interview with Wolf on Fresh Air, so I move to my podcasts where I quickly locate that interview.
Circling back to that debate regarding mainstream versus specialty products for the blind and visually impaired, I am realizing how much I have appreciated the Trek while studying it for this review. Arguably, all of the Trek's functions might also be accomplished with a smart phone. That said, there are definitely some powerful advantages to using the Trek rather than the mainstream touchscreens offered by smart phones.
First, the Trek is dedicated to downloading, streaming, and playing information relevant to reading and way-finding. You won't get interrupted by phone call, text message, or social media alerts.
Secondly, not all blind and visually impaired people have warmed to smartphone touchscreens. There is a definite comfort factor to tangible buttons you can press. While I personally have not had difficulty mastering the touchscreen concept and use my iPhone for all of the tasks the Victor Reader Trek can perform, it is frequently faster and much more effortless to rotate from books to podcasts to NEWSLINE to GPS and so on with the straightforward and intuitive navigation offered by this specialty product and its authentic buttons. The ability to quickly record a note, record a landmark with your own voice, or insert a recorded or electronic bookmark into any book, document, or podcast you are playing is a wonderfully welcome convenience.
For some, playing braille files on the Trek may well be the only way to access the many books available exclusively in .brf formats.
Although the Victor Reader Trek was announced in the summer of 2017, customers ordering in the summer or fall reported not receiving their units until January and February of 2018. Customer service at HumanWare says that production has caught up with demand and that there are now ample units in stock.
At $699 USD and $895 CAD, the Victor Reader Trek is not a casual purchase for most people. It is, however, a remarkably powerful and versatile device with room to grow that will make an excellent addition to any blind person's collection of valuable tools.
For more information, visit HumanWare on the web or call: 800-722-3393.
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