When a product comes on the mainstream market that is actually user friendly to people who are blind, word travels fast in our community. So it has been with the new Olympus DS-30, DS-40, and DS-50 digital voice recorders, released early in 2007. Although not intended specifically for use by people who are unable to read the display, these small but mighty player-recorders are extremely, although not completely, accessible for those without vision. The three models vary only slightly, the primary difference being storage capacity. The DS-30 offers 256 MB, the DS-40 offers 512 MB, and the DS-50 offers 1 GB (up to 275 hours) of stored music, books, podcasts, or personal recordings or a mix of all of them. For this evaluation, the DS-40 with 512 MB was used.
What It Looks Like and What It Can Do
The Olympus DS-40 presents a sleek, esthetically pleasing, package. Measuring about 4.25 inches long, 1 inch wide, and less than half an inch thick, it can easily fit into a shirt pocket or small handbag. The package includes a USB cable for connecting to your computer, earbuds, and an optional wrist strap. It runs for what seems like a long time on two AA batteries. All the buttons are easily discernible by touch and are logically arranged. On the front surface, the upper half is devoted to the visual display. Below the display are the buttons for folder selection, menus, and general navigation. On the right side of the unit are tactilely distinct buttons for Record, Stop, Play, and Power, and on the left side is a sliding switch for setting the microphone's sensitivity. The unit has a small, built-in speaker, but to appreciate the superb stereo sound, headphones are recommended.
One distinction that sets the Olympus DS series apart from other handheld players is the range of material it plays. The unit can play both MP3 and WMA files and podcasts and is compatible with Audible.com. And, as I mentioned earlier, its sound quality for both music and spoken word is outstanding. Where the unit shines most brightly, however, is its capacity as a tiny digital recorder.
The Olympus has its own stereo microphone and, although the microphone can be detached and an external microphone can be connected in its place, it would rarely be necessary to do so. There are three microphone settings—dictation, lecture, and conference—and with these settings properly adjusted, the Olympus delivers an excellent recording for any purpose, from a personal memo to a public lecture, performance, or discussion among a small group of people. I tested it in these and many other settings and found the quality of every recording to be consistently and delightfully clear.
A pleasant female voice provides oral feedback for most, but not all, menu and navigation functions. When you scroll through the menu options, all are spoken. From the menu you can set recording levels, microphone sensitivity, playback speed, volume and speed of the voice guidance itself, and several other options. You cannot, however, take advantage of the alarm feature, the time and date setting, or the timer for when to start and stop a prescheduled recording. With both Voice Guidance and Beep Tones turned on, it is relatively easy to adjust all the settings to your preference.
The unit comes with folders already set up. These folders are simply labeled Folder A through E, plus folders specifically intended for Audible, Music, and Podcasts. To transfer music or other files to the Olympus, all you need to do is connect the unit via its USB cable and copy the desired files using Windows Explorer. Transferring books from Audible.com is also straightforward. After you select the Olympus as your desired device in your Audible.com account, you can transfer the materials with a few keystrokes.
A Few Niceties
A few random features on these units warrant bonus points. A Hold button on the side of the unit locks the current mode in place. If you are recording a lengthy lecture or meeting, for example, pressing Record and then Hold will ensure continuous recording until Hold is released and Stop is pressed. Similarly, the Hold feature can be used as a kind of standby mode when the unit is not in use, thus preventing it from recording accidentally when it is resting in a pocket or bag.
Menu options allow you to select an entire folder to be played (a preferable option for listening to music) or only one file at a time (more useful when listening to individual recordings you have made or segments of an audio book). And speaking of audio books, Olympus resumes where you left off. If, in other words, you are listening to a thriller today in the Audible folder and then switch tomorrow to Folder A to record a meeting and Folder B to make personal notes, the Olympus will go back to the point you last heard when you finally return to your book. To erase a file, you simply press the Erase button (a tiny round button on the lower front that cannot be confused with any other button) and then press the equivalent of an Up arrow to begin the process. Only then will the Olympus erase the file and announce "Erase finished" when the job is complete.
The playback speed can be set, in the menus, from .5 to .875 for slow and 1.25 to 1.5 for fast. Once the speed is set, it can be altered on the fly by pressing the Playback key until the desired speed is reached. It has three positions—slow, normal, and fast—and just cycles through these positions with each press of the button. This feature, when used in tandem with the Fast Forward and Rewind features, makes reviewing a particular passage especially easy and efficient.
The Bottom Line
The Olympus DS series of digital recorders are not 100% accessible to a user who is blind, but come closer to the mark than any other commercially available product of their kind. They offer clear speech and easy navigation, sophisticated yet simple recording capabilities, and outstanding sound quality. It is important to note that these units do not have a built-in text-to-speech feature, so playing computer files, other than audio ones, is not an option. If you are looking for an attractive, compact device that performs well in all kinds of recording settings and plays music, audio books, and podcasts to boot, the Olympus DS series has carved a unique niche of excellence.
Product: Olympus Digital Voice Recorders, DS-30, DS-40, and DS-50.
Manufacturer: Olympus America, 3500 Corporate Parkway, P.O. Box 610, Center Valley, PA 18034-0610; phone: 888-553-4448; web site: <www.olympusamerica.com>.
U.S. Sales Outlets: Numerous online and brick-and-mortar retail stores, such as <www.amazon.com>, <www.startstop.com>, and Circuit City.
Price: About $150 for the DS-30 or DS-40 and about $250 for the DS-50 (with a carrying case and remote control).