Braille Monitor                                                                 December 2006


An Examination of Four Stand-alone Reading Machines

by Steven Booth, Mike Tindell, and Anne Taylor

From the Editor: Anne Taylor is the manager of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. Steve Booth and Mike Tindell are both access technology specialists on the IBTC staff. If you can't afford a Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader and you don't have a computer, reader software, and an optical character recognition scanner, one of the readers reviewed in the following article may be just what you are looking for. Read on.

How many times have you been expecting a letter, but when a plausible envelope arrived, you wondered, "Is this it or something else?" How many times has a new book been released that you really want to read without waiting until it has been recorded? If you do not use a computer with a scanner and software for reading print documents aloud, one excellent tool for dealing with such tasks independently is a stand-alone reading machine. In this article we will discuss four commonly used reading machines: the Portset, the SARA, the ScannaR, and the Extreme Reader XR10. Each unit has built-in internal speakers, a flatbed scanner, a hard drive for storing data, and a control panel or small keyboard. Because no computer skills are needed, many people find a stand-alone reading machine easy to use.

The Portset Reader

Reviewed by Steven Booth

Steve Booth with the Portset Reader

The Portset Reader consists of one rectangular unit that sits on any flat surface and measures approximately 18.5 by 10.5 by 4.5 inches. It comes with an AC power cord, which plugs into the rear of the unit, and a set of headphones. These three pieces comprise the entire machine. Weighing just under twelve pounds, it is one of the lightest stand-alone reading systems. On the top of the reader is the scanning surface with the scanner cover hinged at the back. The scanner surface can handle paper which is 8.5 by 11 inches or the somewhat larger, A4 pages (which are not as large as legal-size paper and common in the United Kingdom). The Portset Reader has a built-in 3.5-inch disk drive for extra file storage.

The Portset will detect page orientation, so printed pages can be placed either upside down or right side up in relation to the user. Additionally, pages can be placed toward either the back or the front of the scanner and along either the right or left edge. To begin, lift the cover and place a page or a book flat on the scanner, reading-side down. If both pages of a book will fit, the top of the book must be toward the right side of the reader so that the pages will be read in the correct order.

The on/off power switch is at the back of the Reader. To operate the Portset, locate the keys on the panel on the front side of the rectangular unit. They are tilted slightly upward for easy navigation. The keys consist of the scan/read key, which is larger than the other keys and is at the left side of the panel. To the right of the scan/read key is an arrow pad with four keys arranged with one key on top and three keys on the bottom row, as on a computer keyboard. Each key has a raised line at the edge which helps define its function such as up, down, left, or right. These four keys are used for reading and selecting items. To the right of this group of keys is another group of six keys across a top row and one key below. The top row of six keys has three keys, then a space, then another three keys. From left to right they are called key 1 through key 6. In the first set of three keys, under keys 1 and 2, is the function key, which is larger than keys 1 through 6. It performs no action when pressed by itself. When pressed in combination with other keys, it provides additional functions for the other keys. On the right side of the front panel is a rotary dial volume control. The unit also has a headphone jack for private listening.

When first turned on, the system beeps to let the user know it is loading the program. After about thirty seconds you hear a brief set of tones and an introductory message, and status messages tell you what scanning selections are in effect and which voices are being used. (More on these later.) The system is ready to use after it says "Reader ready." To scan the page or book, place it face down on the scanner and press the scan/read key. You will hear the scanner move down the page and messages telling you that the reader is scanning and then conducting recognition. When finished, the ready-to-read message sounds, and the machine will begin reading the document automatically. While reading, you can pause reading by pressing key 6. You can use the arrow keys to move up or down the lines or sentence-by-sentence (automatically stopping at punctuation marks). The Reader provides extensive help messages at each stage, and its user guide is available both on the system and in print.

Functions can change both the voice and the speed of the voice. Nine voice speeds are available with three voices for American English and additional voices for British English. Consult your dealer to find out what other languages are available and can be installed when you order a Portset.

Files can be stored in the Reader for reading later. If a document contains multiple pages, all the pages may be appended while scanning and reading. This means that the saved file will read back as a continuous document without page breaks. If you prefer, each page may be saved or deleted.

The Portset Reader has several modes of operation. Settings can be modified to scan printed pages containing columns or to allow the user to scan across the page to assist in reading bills and memos. The scanner brightness and contrast may be changed, which is necessary when documents are of poor quality.

I found while testing a Portset Reader on multiple documents that occasionally the Reader would not respond to key pressing if I did not listen all the way to the end of a status message. Once that message had finished speaking, however, the keys would again respond.
Recognition is good when the settings match the documents. However, I found I frequently had to change scanner settings for contrast and brightness to accommodate different kinds of documents. Therefore some practice is needed to become familiar with the use of the function key and the modes of operation. With a bit of practice most people will be able to use this system for general reading. Its light weight and reasonably small size make it possible to move it around a home or office as necessary. Because it is housed in one unit, there are no cables other than the AC power cord to connect and disconnect.

If you want a relatively easy reader with the ability to modify settings, the Portset may be for you. Manufactured by Portset Systems in England, it is available in the United States from Technologies for the Visually Impaired, 9 Nolan Court, Hauppauge, New York 11788; (631) 724-4479; toll-free (866) 689-5672; Web site <>; <>. Current Sale Price: $2,595.

Reviewed by Mike Tindell

Mike Tindell (left) is seated at the SARA. Beside him are Anne Taylor (standing) and Steve Booth (seated).

The SARA (which stands for Scanning And Reading Appliance) is a stand-alone reading machine. The dimensions of the rectangular SARA are 20 inches long by 12 inches wide by 3.5 inches deep. It weights about eighteen pounds. It has a 60 GB hard drive, a CD/DVD burner for storing files, and a slot for playing a CD. You can connect it to a television or to a computer to save and view scanned images in large type. The unit has front-mounted stereo speakers and a built-in microphone for recording file names of the materials you scan and save. Across the top is the flatbed scanner. On the front of the device is a jack for connecting headphones or stereo speakers. The SARA works well for scanning hardback and paperback books, saving the files, then reading them aloud on command. Forty public domain books are preloaded in SARA for your reading pleasure. The buttons, although numerous, are large and easy to find. All menu items and choices are spoken aloud. As software updates are available for the SARA, they are provided on DVD with instructions.

The front of the machine has two steps, first a small rise, then a large rise to the flatbed scanner across the top. The vertical front of the first step has seven buttons. The tread (if the machine were a staircase) is slightly tilted and has eleven buttons. The riser of the next step has speakers on the left and right with a slot for a CD between them and one button above the slot for ejecting the CD.

Rotate the machine so that the back faces you. On the far left is a power supply connector. Moving to the right, you find a TV Out connector for viewing scanned images on a television. To its right the VGA port connects a computer monitor.

Returning to the front side, the riser of the first stair (the one closest to the user) has seven buttons. From left to right these are power button, volume (rock left to decrease volume and right to increase volume), four user-assignable function keys, and a voice-rate rocker switch (to adjust the speed of the speech). At the right-hand end is a hole for the headset jack.

The slanted surface of the first tread has two buttons to the left and two to the right of a central group of seven buttons for navigation. The scan button is located on the far left and above the read/pause button. To the far right is the menu button above the help button. The navigation section has a select button in the middle of arrow keys for up, down, left, and right. A raised line on each button indicates its direction. To the left of the left arrow button is the rewind button. Similarly, to the right of the right arrow button is the fast-forward button. The rewind and fast-forward buttons have double raised lines showing their direction.

Press the scan button to start and stop scanning. Press the read button to start and stop reading. The menu key is used to enter and exit menus.

Here are some of the ways to use this reading machine. When pressed, the scan button, located on the top left of the unit, scans a page, processes the text, then reads it aloud. SARA has a mode called "scan in background" that allows the user to scan several pages while the unit is reading other pages. This is not the default mode when the scanner is unpacked. The double arrow keys, both left and right, can be disabled or can be set to take the user forward or backward by sentence, paragraph, or page. The up and down arrow keys move line by line, and the left and right arrows move word by word. The select button speaks a word when pressed once, spells a word when pressed twice, and spells the word phonetically when pressed three times. The help key is a key describer that announces the function of each key (press the help key then any other key to hear its function).

When you press the menu key, you are at the file menu. Here you can open files, burn files to CD, save or erase files from the hard drive, open and close documents, and create blank documents. Press down arrow to locate the go to menu. This option allows the user to go to the top and bottom of documents, next and previous page, next and previous paragraph, and next and previous sentence.
SARA has a DAISY feature. It will play all three DAISY formats, audio CD, MP3, Wave, and CDA files. It can open files in the doc, xml, rtf, and txt formats. The voice settings menu allows a user to change the voice rate and choose from a selection of voices. Different settings can be chosen for the menu and reading voices. If the text is written in English, Spanish, French, or German, SARA can read the text in those languages. For others it is best to contact the dealer to check for availability.

In the scanning settings menu the user can choose among ignore or divide columns, scan-and-read mode, scan-in-background mode, or scan-and-replace mode. If the user makes a mistake and begins scanning a page which is not the next page in order in a book or multi-page document, the command to scan-and-replace will replace the last page scanned with the next page scanned, and the user can continue scanning correctly from that point.

SARA works well for those who use large print. You can attach the SARA to a computer monitor or television. In the visual settings menu you can choose any one of seven fonts and nine color combinations of letter and background and adjust the point size of the letters from 14 to 144. Text spacing can be set from one to six spaces between letters. SARA will highlight each word as it is spoken aloud.

Some have commented that the menu structure of the SARA is somewhat difficult to move around in. However, for most documents no scanner adjustments are necessary. For basic operation the user need only press the scan key and the read/pause key in order to hear page after page read aloud.

The SARA is manufactured and sold by Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, Florida 33716-1805; (727) 803-8000; toll-free (800) 444-4443; tech support (737) 803-8600; Web site <>; <>. Current price: $2,795.

The ScannaR

Reviewed by Mike Tindell

Mike Tindell and the ScannaR

ScannaR (notice the capital R on the end of the word) is another stand-alone reading machine designed to scan a document, process the text, and read it aloud using synthetic speech. The ScannaR provides reliable scanning and text recognition, along with several voices to choose from for the reading and menu voices. The unit is rectangular, 19.3 inches long by 12.8 inches wide by 3.5 inches deep, and weighs fifteen pounds. The power cable is connected to the back of the unit, and all operations are done from the panel of buttons and knobs on the front. The ScannaR will speak the menu as buttons are pressed and tell the user which options the up and down buttons offer at different points in the menu.

Moving along the front of the unit from left to right, you find a power button, a headphone jack, the external speaker, then two knobs aligned one above the other. The top knob is for controlling volume, and the bottom is for controlling reading voice rate. Located to the right of the knobs is the start button, followed by the pause button. To the right of the pause button are two more buttons set one above the other for choosing up and down movement. The last button at the right end is the stop/menu button.

Place a printed page face down on the glass scanning plate. The only function of the power button is to power the ScannaR on and off. Press this button. Many of the other buttons have multiple functions, depending on which function is being performed. To scan and read the document, press the start button. The scanner will scan the text and, after it completes its scan, begin reading aloud. Press pause, and the reading will pause. To resume reading, press pause again. If no text is being read, the stop button serves as a menu button. Move through the menus with the up and down arrow buttons. Use the pause button to select a menu item.

The first option in the menu is new document. If the current document has not been saved, you will be asked if you wish to save the current document. Use the up and down buttons to choose yes, no, or cancel. The menu voice will present the options aurally and tell the user which button to press for each option.

Unlike other stand-alone readers, the ScannaR often requires the user to press two keys simultaneously to choose an action. In the menu, for example, open document is selected by pressing pause. This places the user in a list of files. To select a file as the names are spoken aloud, use the arrow keys. To delete a file, press and hold start while pressing pause. You will be asked if you wish to delete the document; the choices voiced are yes or no. Press pause to register the selected choice. Additionally, you can go to the top of the list, the bottom of the list, or move up or down by ten files at a time. This is done by simultaneously pressing different combinations of two keys on the unit. The ScannaR has only a few keys, but many possibilities in its menu.

Document info will tell you the number of pages in the open document as well as your position in the file. When reading a document, you can set up to eight flags to find your spot quickly. You can quickly move from flag to flag or delete flags. When a document is closed, a bookmark is automatically set at the last reading position. The next time this document is opened, the user is automatically taken to this spot in the text.

The feature called key description doesn't speak the function of each key as it is pressed but gives a list of all shortcut keys. Within the main menu the last function, settings, offers several possibilities. The first menu choice can change the function of the navigation keys in order to move through the document by line, sentence, paragraph, or page. The default choice is line. Other features in the settings menu concern the reading voice. They allow the user to change the voice, change the speed of the voice, and change the language used when reading. The next option is menu voice, which can change the voice and the rate at which the voice speaks menu items.

Another sub-menu under settings is called scanner. In this menu the user can read or ignore columns and change brightness and contrast settings. Values can be chosen between minus-1000 and 1000 for both brightness and contrast on the pages being scanned. The next item in the menu is image type. The user can choose between black on white or gray scale, which is recommended for colored documents. The next sub-menu under settings is language for text recognition. The default language is English, but the user can change to other languages.

The next item in the settings menu is general. All of the items in this sub-menu are check boxes that can be selected or unselected by pressing the start key. When the settings are set the way you want them, press pause to save the settings. One useful feature in this sub-menu will have ScannaR automatically give a signal when scanning is started or stopped.

On the positive side, the reading voices are varied and pleasant, and recognition of text is very fast and accurate. One problem I discovered in testing the ScannaR is that it would sometimes lock up when setting and deleting flags. This required a reboot before the unit would operate again. Also it seemed unnecessarily difficult that two of the most commonly needed commands were two levels down in the command structure and required two keys pressed simultaneously. I suggest the commands for delete a document and go to top and bottom of file should move to the main navigation menu in a future update. Another common feature of most machines designed for use by blind people is a key that, when pressed, names each key or its function when the second key is pressed. However, in order to use this feature in the ScannaR, you must already have a working knowledge of the machine in order to dig down through its help menu. Once at the key describer menu, commands are listed in separate groups, and you must use two keys together to get to the different groups. I suggest that most users would appreciate a key describer that can be more easily found and used.

ScannaR is sold by HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, California 94520; (925) 680-7100; toll-free (800) 722-3393; Web site <>; <>. Current price: $2,995.

Extreme Reader XR10

Reviewed by Anne Taylor

Anne Taylor and the Extreme Reader XR10

The Extreme Reader XR10 reads printed text aloud and can read aloud books that are on CDs and floppy disks. It has one function for readers who need magnification. A cable connects an external keyboard that can be moved around to an advantageous position by the user. The Reader can access many file types, has two on-board storage drives, a hard drive, and a 3.5-inch floppy drive. The Extreme Reader XR10 is complete in five pieces: the machine (a computer CPU), a small-sized scanner attached to the top of the computer by Velcro strips, a power cord, an external keyboard, and an external MP3 player with buttons designed for use by blind people. This machine is the only stand-alone reading system that uses AT&T Natural Voices (one male and one female) as one of its two speech-synthesizer options. The alternate speech option is Microsoft Speech (one male, one female).

This reading machine can read aloud books or documents in the following commonly used file formats: text only format (txt), rich text format (rtf), Microsoft Word format (doc), and portable document format (pdf). These files must be located on a floppy disk. If the books or documents are on an audio CD, they must be in one of these file formats: DAISY version 2 audio files, Wave audio files, or CDA audio files. Currently the Extreme Reader XR10 cannot read MP3 files on CD.

No file can be saved to a CD at this time; instead, the user can export a scanned file to the MP3 player provided. Files can also be stored on the hard drive or the floppy drive. Currently the CD drive can be used only to read documents, not to save them. Note that a scanned file can be saved as only a txt-formatted file or as an MP3-formatted file. Since the stand-alone reading machine is generally designed for people who are not advanced computer users, the limited number of file types is not considered a serious disadvantage.

With the small external keyboard a user can control speech rate, select voice preferences, navigate between folders and files, move between sentences, or move from word to word within a specific file. The Extreme Reader XR10 has an excellent help feature. If a user forgets the keyboard layout, he or she can press the help key at the top left of the keyboard to hear the system announce the functions of every key, starting with the top row and moving from left to right. Note that the key describer runs through the entire set every time it is pressed. It does not describe one key only. However, since there are only fourteen buttons (a row of four, a second row of four, and a bottom row of two buttons, plus four navigation keys), this is not a great problem. To help a user with the layout of the external keyboard, each key contains tactile markings. For example, the help key has a print question mark on its face.

The Extreme Reader XR10 has several modes to accommodate different types of printed information. Currency mode is used for scanning banknotes, column mode scans books or magazines, and tabular mode scans across the page for reading one-column books or financial statements and invoices. To change from one mode to another, the change mode key cycles the user through all of the mode options. Once a desired mode is announced, the start/scan key must be pressed to start the scanning process. As with all scanners, each page must be fully processed before the reader begins reading the words aloud. However, after the first page is processed, that page will be read aloud while the scanner processes the next page, which allows for continuous reading.

The Extreme Reader XR10 features several modes used to control all of the storage drives and exporting audio files from a CD to the external MP3 player. For example, to play a book recorded on a CD, insert the CD, choose CD mode, then press the scan/start button.
Those who prefer magnification can connect the Extreme Reader XR10 to a computer monitor. By default the magnification is set to 28-point type, and the font is Arial. As the reader highlights each word, the unit reads it aloud. The user cannot now change the size of the print or the font, but I recommend that this limitation be changed in future upgrades.

I observed that the user interface of the Extreme Reader XR10 is quite logical. For instance, to move forward one word at a time, press shift and the forward key, and to move backward one word at a time, press shift with the backward key. By default the machine reads English only, but it supports other languages. Contact the manufacturer to learn what is available.

The Extreme Reader XR10 is manufactured and sold by Guerilla Technologies, 5029 SE Horseshoe Point Road, Stuart, Florida 34997; (772) 283-0500; Web site <>; email by online form. Current price: $3,495.

We hope that after reading these reviews of four popular flatbed stand-alone scanners, you have a better perspective on what is currently available for purchase. If you have further questions, call the National Federation of the Blind technology answer line at (410) 659-9314, option 5.