by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: Curtis Chong has been a member of the National Federation of the Blind since 1969. He has worked in private industry, in an agency for the blind, as the director of the NFB’s International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, and now as the coordinator of independent living technology for the New Mexico Commission for the Blind.
Although Curtis is probably best known for his work in computer technology, he has a particular fascination with digital recorders and players, including those specifically modified to meet the needs of the blind and the specialized formats provided to us. Here is what he has to say about the newly released Victor Stream:
On January 29, 2013, HumanWare announced the new Victor Reader Stream, declaring it to be "smaller, smarter, and wireless." You can read this announcement at <http://www.HumanWare.ca/web/en/Newsletter/111460.htm>.
As a longtime user of the Victor Reader Stream (I have been using this media player since its original release in 2007), I had been looking forward to this announcement. After all, five years without a significant hardware change is an eternity in a world where three months is considered to be an Internet year. I was also concerned that HumanWare might choose to forgo the development of a newer, more modern Victor Reader Stream because of a misplaced belief that the majority of blind people would prefer to read books and listen to music on the Apple iPhone (admittedly a very accessible and sophisticated piece of technology that has gained wide acceptance within the blind community). I, for one, am glad that HumanWare has chosen to invest time, money, and effort in the development of a newer Victor Reader Stream, and, as I hope to demonstrate in this article, the new Stream is, overall, a definite improvement over its predecessor.
The physical hardware of the new Stream is definitely smaller and more compact than the original. The keys and buttons on the new Stream are in the same place as they were in the original, and there is an additional button (to support Wi-Fi) just above the Number 2 key. The headphone jack has been moved to the top edge of the unit, and the battery is now part of the Stream's case. The speaker in the new Stream is quite a bit louder than it was in the original unit. Finally, the USB port and the AC power jack have been combined, and you can use the same cable to recharge the battery or connect the Stream to a computer or external storage device.
If you have a Victor Reader Stream and have mastered its many features, you will be pleased to know that you won't have to learn much more to use the new Stream. All of the Stream's functions are executed exactly the same as they were in the original. You press the same buttons to record and play back audio notes, change the speed, and traverse the bookshelf. You use precisely the same folders on your SD card to hold books, podcasts, music, and text files. You can update the Stream's firmware using the same procedure as with the original Stream. The new Stream continues to support downloading of described videos for authorized subscribers to Serotek's System Access Mobile Network. Finally, the Stream reads exactly the same type of books as its predecessor—including books from Audible.com, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and Bookshare®. "Well," you might ask, "if this is all true, then why should I even bother buying a new Victor Reader Stream?"
Perhaps the most noticeable change in the new Victor Reader Stream is the new text-to-speech engine, which uses the Acapela voices instead of Nuance Vocalizer. People who are not happy with the Nuance Vocalizer text-to-speech engine will probably find the Acapela voices more to their liking. As with the original Stream, you can choose between a male or female text-to-speech voice.
The new Victor Reader Stream now sports a clock. This is something which a lot of Stream users have been asking for. You can interrupt the playing of a song or the reading of a book and ask the Stream to tell you the current time and date. However, this is not an alarm clock.
When recording a lecture or notes, you can now plug in a headset and monitor the recording. The original Stream did not have this capability. Also recordings can now be produced in the MP3 format without the need to purchase additional features. You can now connect an external microphone to the Victor Reader Stream and create a stereo recording; and you can configure the stream to accept an in-line connection and record content from another audio device.
Wi-Fi is arguably the most significant if not the most noticeable enhancement provided in the new Victor Reader Stream. Wi-Fi requires the user to have an Internet connection and a router or modem with active Wi-Fi support. Through the Wi-Fi interface, Stream users can
In the interest of fairness I must point out two deficiencies that I have encountered with the new Victor Reader Stream. While these deficiencies do not detract from the Stream's ability to read books and play music, they do affect the Stream's Notes recorder.
1. Longtime Stream users who have been accustomed to using the Notes recorder to capture lectures or meetings will be disappointed to learn that the new Stream's Notes recorder, as it now functions, is more suited to recording personal notes than to large meetings. The sensitivity of the built-in microphone is definitely less than the built-in microphone on the original Stream. When I listen to the recorder using a pair of headphones, I hear a constant tone in the background, which becomes a part of the recording. You don't hear this tone in recordings made on the original Stream. I don't know whether or not a simple firmware update of the Stream will be enough to resolve this issue, but I do know that HumanWare is fully aware of the problem.
2. The new Victor Reader Stream is supposed to be capable of recording from an external stereo microphone. In my testing of this feature, I discovered that the sensitivity of the external microphone was lower than that necessary to produce a recording of acceptable quality. I used a professional-quality stereo microphone on the new Stream and compared this with a recording made using an Olympus digital recorder. While the Olympus recorder produced a very good recording with this microphone, the recording I got from the new Stream was too low in volume to be useful except as a means of dictating a personal note into the Stream—something that is more easily accomplished with the built-in microphone.
The new Victor Reader Stream continues the tradition established by its predecessor. It excels as a player of audio and text media. Its controls are easy to operate by touch—even for people with dexterity issues. It has a very long battery life—more than ten hours of continuous reading or playback. The potential of the Stream's Wi-Fi interface has just begun to be explored. If you already own a Victor Reader Stream, you should definitely give the new Stream a thorough examination and decide for yourself whether or not to make the investment. I think you will find it well worth your time and money.