This Product Evaluation examines some of the stand-alone (hardware) and software players that will bring the next generation of Talking Books to you. The format in which books will be recorded is called Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY), also called Digital Talking Books. We evaluated stand-alone players and software-based players to be used on a computer. Since very few of you have been able to play with any of these products, we will spend more time describing them and how they work than on the details of how they perform. Also, since there were very few books available to test, we could not determine if some of the problems and quirks were caused by the players or by the way each book was produced. We were able to scrounge up The Book of Dragons; Alcohol, Aggression, and Teenagers; Heat Energy; Tourist Information about Hamburg; The World of Wine; the March 2000 issue of AccessWorld; and the Victor's manual.
The experience of listening to a Digital Talking Book is quite different from that of listening to a book on cassette. As with a cassette book, you can start at the beginning and listen to the whole book. If your cassette player allows, you can fast forward or rewind, listening for tones placed at the beginning of pages or at chapter headings. With the Digital Talking Book players, you can do this to an even greater degree and much more effectively. There are commands to move forward or back a page, a heading, a chapter, or a phrase. You can skip the acknowledgments, skip to the next story, or go back to hear something that you missed. No longer do you have to wait for that long rewind or fast forward; the Digital Talking Book players take you forward or backward almost instantaneously. They also allow you to increase or decrease the speed of the reading. They use speech compression—they cut the pauses between words rather than just increase the speed at which the book is played. So, your favorite narrator will seem to be reading very quickly in his or her own human voice, instead of sounding like a mouse. (For more detail about the features and history of Digital Talking Books, see "A New Look for the Book" in this issue.)
Victor Reader Pro
The Victor Reader Pro measures 8 x 7 x 1.5 inches and weighs 2.2 lb. It has a nickel metal hydride battery with a battery life of 4-5 hours. On the back of the unit is the on/off button to the far right, the A/C adapter just to the left, and a currently unused serial port at the left end. The earphone jack is near the front on the right side.
Caption: Victor Reader Pro.
The Victor has 23 control buttons on the top of the unit. In a row vertically on the left side are the key describer, bookmark, go to page, and quick bookmark buttons. On the right are the tone, speed and volume rocker switches, and the eject button. In between these two rows of controls is a 12-key telephone-style keypad. The 1-9 and 0 keys each serve their numeric functions as well as a second function (except for the 7 key, which currently has no second function). As on computer numeric keypads, numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8 move up, back, forward, and down through the text, respectively. The 1 key lets you go from book to book if more than one book is on the CD-ROM. The 3 key accesses the history list. The 5 key tells you the current page. The 9 key sets the amount of time the machine can be inactive before it will shut itself off. The 0/Info key announces the number of pages, total listening time, time elapsed, time remaining, the unit's software version and serial number, and manufacturer's contact information.
The PlexTalk measures 11.5 x 7 x 2.75 inches and weighs 4 lb. 7oz. (it has a nickel hydride battery.) The A/C adaptor is on the rear of the unit. The on/off rocker switch is near the back of the right side of the unit. Just in front of the switch is a dial, which is used to change the volume of PlexTalk's voice guide—a female voice that speaks the commands you enter and messages from the PlexTalk.
Caption: PlexTalk TK-300.
CDs are inserted into a caddy—a protective case—and then slid into a slot on the front of the machine. To the right of this slot, at the extreme right of the machine, is the square eject button. Altogether, there are 32 buttons and knobs to control the PlexTalk. The speaker is located toward the back on top of the unit. To the left of the speaker are the speed, volume and tone knobs, going from right to left. At the left front are the go back, play, and go forward buttons.
To the right of these keys is a 12-button phone-style keypad, followed by a vertical row of 4 buttons. From back to front, these buttons are: 0, the time key, which announces the recorded, elapsed, and remaining time; the tree key, which announces header information; the page key, which announces the page number while playing or jumps to a specified page; and the bookmark key, which announces bookmark numbers and jumps to specified bookmarks. Above the phone-style keypad are the bookmark set key and bookmark delete key. To the left of the phone pad are the four arrow keys used for navigating through a book. The up and down keys move you through the various levels in which the book is indexed. The left and right arrows move you back or forward to the next position of the level you are on. For example, you can use the up arrow to move up from a heading to the chapter level, then use the right arrow to move ahead a chapter at a time. If you make a mistake or want to change the operation you are performing, the two keys above the arrow keys—the undo and redo buttons—can be used.
The numbered keys on the phone pad are used to key in a desired number for a page or a bookmark. For example, keying in 77 and pressing page will take you to page 77; keying in 3 and pressing the bookmark key will take you to the third bookmark as it is positioned chronologically in the book. To the left of the 0 is the previous key, and to the right is the next key. Like the numbers, pressing either one and the page or bookmark key will move you one step backwards or forwards.
When the PlexTalk is stopped, pressing the page key gives you the total number of pages in the book. While it is playing, pressing the page key will tell you which page you are on. To move to a given page, press the desired number on the phone pad and press the page button. PlexTalk will say the name of the page and commence reading. If the page doesn't exist or the format of the book doesn't include page markers, a buzzing sound will occur and the voice guide will say "no page."
To mark a particular point in the book, press the set bookmark button. The PlexTalk will tell you how many bookmarks are remaining; you can have up to 20 bookmarks. Note that the bookmark numbers do not correspond to the order in which you set them. Rather, they are numbered sequentially from start to finish of the book. For example, you may have set your first bookmark on page 33 and set a new one on page 10. The one at page 10 will now be bookmark 1, and the one on page 33 will be bookmark 2.
To find out which bookmark precedes your current position in the book, press the bookmark key and the voice guide will tell you its number. To go to a bookmark, press the number you desire and press the bookmark key. When a book is not playing, pressing the bookmark key will tell you the total number of bookmarks in the book.
The Victor and PlexTalk machines that we tested both performed basic reading functions well. Both units played books for long periods without problems. We were able to skip from chapter to chapter, section to section, and phrase to phrase. Some of the books we tried did not play on one of the units. However, by the time you read this, there will be a standard for creating Digital Talking Books—just as there is for videotapes—so that all books will play on all new machines introduced onto the market.
Differences between Machines Reviewed
CDs must be inserted into a caddy before inserting them in the PlexTalk. The caddy helps to protect the CD from damage, but it is difficult to open, especially for anyone who lacks good dexterity. The Victor does not use a caddy; CDs are inserted just as they are in your CD player.
The Victor is smaller, lighter, and definitely more portable than the PlexTalk. The Victor shuts off after a specified time of inactivity, up to an hour, to save battery life. The PlexTalk we tested did not have a sleep mode or automatic shut-off feature, though it does give you a message when the battery is low. When turning on the PlexTalk, you can use the tree key to get information about the status of your battery power. If the A/C power cable is not connected to recharge the battery, it will discharge to half after five days.
The page feature on the PlexTalk is rather straightforward. You just key in the page you want, press the page key, and PlexTalk begins reading the page. With the Victor, you have to press the go to page key, key in an entry, press enter, then press play for reading to begin.
Both machines allow you to mark a point of text on a CD with a bookmark. The Victor's bookmarking procedure is somewhat easier to learn because it makes use of only one command key and the enter key. Moreover, you can use the numbers on the phone pad to give your bookmark a specific number if you don't want Victor to assign one to it. The Victor lets you place a quick bookmark on the fly, marking just one position that you can quickly return to with the quick bookmark key. The PlexTalk automatically assigns numbers to bookmarks.
Once you have reached the end of a book, The PlexTalk will turn itself off. When you press play again, it will begin reading at the beginning of the book. If there is more than one book on the CD, PlexTalk remains in the book you were reading. Therefore, when it reaches the end, you have to direct PlexTalk to move ahead to the next book. The Victor stops at the end of a book and remains there until you instruct it to go to a page or to another book or to move back a level at a time.
The Victor loads books faster than the PlexTalk does. It started reading five to eight seconds sooner than the PlexTalk did. The fastest for Victor was 14 seconds, and the longest for PlexTalk was 26 seconds.
Another option for reading Digital Talking Books is a software-based player that can be installed on a laptop or desktop computer. We tested LP Player from Labyrinten Data. You can access LP Player's controls with standard Windows menus or shortcut keys. The up, down, left, and right arrows are used to navigate through the book. Left and right arrows move back and forward, respectively, a phrase at a time. Adding the control key allows you to move level by level, and header to header (section by section).
We did have some trouble navigating through the various levels. It seemed at times that we could not move from one heading to another heading between chapters until we first went up a level and moved from the previous chapter to the next chapter. This problem was especially evident when we moved backwards a section at a time. Also, the key combinations didn't always change the level, so we had to go to the menus to make the change.
Not all the Digital Talking Books we tested allowed us to use the navigation features of LP Player, though they all allowed us to navigate using the Victor or PlexTalk. When we became lost or uncertain what level heading we were on, the where am I feature was helpful.
The page feature worked most of the time, though in one of the books it occasionally got stuck, that is, you couldn't page up or page down to the next page. There is also a go to page feature so that you could jump immediately to that page. Bookmarks worked just as they do on the stand-alone units. It is necessary to assign a number to your bookmark; LP Player will not assign one for you.
You can insert up to 10 bookmarks and can go to a bookmark by typing in the number of the bookmark you would like. One nice feature LP Player has that the two stand-alone players we tested didn't have was a find feature that allows you to search for a string of words that appear in the book. This feature worked well in the heat energy book, but did not always find words in the dragons book.
Because software-based players work on your laptop computer, they offer the attractive possibility of not having to carry an extra gadget on a business trip or vacation. Since they have standard Windows menus, there is no need to learn the function of a lot of buttons and knobs.
Turn Up the Music!
Had enough of reading or studying? These Digital Talking Book players are also CD players. You can move from track to track and go directly to the song you want to listen to. They also announce the elapsed and remaining time for both the current track and the entire CD.
The Final Chapter
All products we tested, stand alone and software based, handled basic reading well. They have a lot of features that people who are blind or visually impaired have been craving for a long time. The models reviewed here are ideal for students who need the same kind of detailed access to written materials that their sighted classmates have. Advanced users will also be thrilled and spend hours playing with the buttons and learning the intricacies of each feature.
We strongly believe that simplified versions of Digital Talking Book players (with complete documentation) need to be produced to satisfy the average user. As you can tell from this article, current models just have too many buttons, knobs, and features. The average reader of Talking Books is used to a machine with only play, stop, rewind, fast forward, and eject buttons. We also believe that the buttons that remain on future models must be labeled tactilely. The future of reading is exciting. The last thing that we want is for the machines designed to bring that future to us to scare some of us away.
Plextor: "An enhanced CD-based Talking Book player, PlexTalk, is available now with a phone-style keypad and rechargeable battery. A basic unit with less functionality is also available for less cost. The portable player/recorder is also under development and is scheduled for release early next year."
VisuAide: "VisuAide now offers two new products designed to make Digital Talking Book technology even more accessible to persons with visual disabilities. Victor Reader Classic, a new simplified portable unit for leisure reading, offers basic navigation features like browsing the table of contents and skipping from section to section or from page to page. Victor Reader Soft is a software version of the Digital Talking Book player."
Manufacturer: Plextor; phone: 978-725-8965 or 408-980-1838, x168; e-mail: email@example.com; web site: http://www.plextor.com.jp/ereader/er_1.html. Price: $495.
Victor Reader Pro
Manufacturer: VisuAide; phone: 819-471-4818 or 888-723-7273; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: www.visuaide.com. Price: $495.
Manufacturer: Labyrinten Data, Dolphin Computer Access Group; phone +44(0)1905-754577; e-mail: email@example.com; web site: http://www.audiopublisher.com.