by Michael Geno

Here's a riddle. What weighs 6 ounces and is small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, can store more than 100 CDs of audio books or music, live recordings, and even speak file names, text files of books, mail, and other documents such as calendar schedules or address books? Playback volume, tone, and speed can be changed without experiencing pitch changes. This device can even store, play, and bookmark more than 30 NLS talking books and magazines (after the authorization process). It can also store and play audio files of radio shows, television programs or full-length movies any time you are on the go, or relaxing at home.

While a portable laptop computer can do most of these things, the answer is not a computer, nor an iPod, MP3 player, portable tape recorder, or Olympus digital player recorder. The answer is: the Victor Reader Stream.

Since the year 2000, digital audio devices have been getting smaller and smaller while the amount of audio material that can be stored and quickly accessed on them is steadily increasing. The newest generation of handheld digital audio recorders and players have no moving parts, and can be easily carried in a pocket or purse. Most that are smaller than a pack of gum have very few buttons, and present barriers to the blind because of their dependence upon visual navigation of a pointer to access many features on their display menu. The good news is that some companies are removing these barriers and developing products that go beyond what you might imagine is accessible to the blind. HumanWare is one of those companies. The Victor Reader Stream has become one of the company's hottest selling products.

Until you test drive the Victor Reader Stream for yourself, you really won't know what you're missing. This digital audio device offers much more than you would expect. Find someone who already owns one, and check it out. What follows is what I discovered after testing this easy-to-use product. General Description & Features

The Victor Reader Stream is about as thick as a deck of cards, and can be held in one hand much like a small calculator. It can easily be operated with one hand, and runs for 15 hours on a four-hour battery charge. It has a built-in speaker and microphone, and can be connected to a computer or other audio amplification equipment. It is not configured to record from other audio devices directly. I have not tried an attenuated patch cord to see if this can be done using the microphone jack. A USB cable is used to load audio and text file information.

The description of its buttons makes it seem harder to operate than it really is. This is because it has been designed to follow standard conventions you already know. For example, 12 of the buttons on the face of the Stream are assigned numbers just like the buttons on a standard touch- tone telephone. Another set of three buttons on the bottom of the key display are like those of other CD or tape recorder buttons that use the left button to go back, the right to go forward, while the middle button places the unit in play or pause mode.

There are two arrow buttons on the left edge of the Stream as you hold it in your hand facing you. The lowest of these buttons, shaped like an arrow pointing down, can be pressed to lower the playback volume, speed, and tone. The up-arrow-shaped button just above it raises volume, speed, and tone. The round button on the top left edge of the Stream above the arrow buttons is the on-off switch. One small button on the right edge of the Stream starts and stops recording. The top portion of the face display has two grilles. The left covers a built-in mono speaker, and the right grille protects a built-in mono microphone. Just below the left grille is a square- shaped "Go To" button. Below the right microphone grille is a diamond-shaped "Bookmark" button. Between these buttons is a green LED indicator light that stays on when the Stream is on, and blinks when it is charging.

Moving left to right on the top edge are ports for a mini USB cable, a memory card slot, and a port for the power cord. Above the record button are two mini audio jacks. The top one is for stereo earbuds that come with the Stream; it can also be used to connect the Stream to headphones or an amplified speaker system. The other jack is for an external microphone. Learning How It Works

The first function I recommend beginners to take advantage of after pressing the power button until the Stream comes on and says, "Welcome to the Victor Stream," is to press and hold down the number 1 key until the built-in user manual begins speaking. Then you can use the bottom center "play" button to stop or continue listening to this manual. Another excellent option is to press and hold down the 0 button in the phone pad array until the Stream announces that the Key Describer feature is on. This mode allows you to press any button on the device to hear what its name is and what it does. Pressing again and holding down the 0 will turn off the Key Describer feature. Why You Will Want One

The current Victor Reader Stream's basic male announcing voice is clear and pleasant. But the female synthesized voice that reads text file names or books seems a bit harsh and repetitive in her reading inflection. Even so, this voice is generally understandable, and has a male option as an alternative firmware upgrade. Both synthesized and recorded audio books can be easily slowed down or made faster without any pitch change. This is a definite advantage over taped books that sound like Mickey Mouse when played faster, or digital CD audio books that allow no speed changes at all. The shuffle option for playing folders of music files is a real plus. Now you can mix the variety of 100 music CDs or more without any changer delays. You can easily delete any books or folders you no longer need or want to store or hear.

The auto shut-off and sleep feature is great for saving battery life. I have even used the sleep shut-off feature to keep me on schedule when reading books during a break or lunch hour. One press of the sleep button sets the Stream to fully shut off in 15 minutes. You can press the sleep button up to four times to increase the sleep shut-off time 15 minutes with each press up to a 60-minute maximum. A fifth press turns off sleep mode. I was surprised to discover that the Stream bookmarks each book you have started, and remembers them when it turns off in sleep mode, or after you pause or stop. This feature allows you to listen to more than one book or folder and leave them without losing your last listening point. The Stream will resume play from the exact place you stopped listening in each file you left off in every sub-folder except music. (However, it does remember the last played position for the entire music structure.) I have stopped listening in up to 14 separate books, magazines, recorded meetings, movies, and TV shows, and was able to resume listening exactly from where I left off in each one. The Stream went far beyond my expectations with this automatic saving and remembering each last listening point in every book or folder.

Automatically set markers you can resume play from should not be confused with stationary bookmarks you number and insert yourself anywhere in a book or audio file. The difference in these stationary bookmarks is that they all remain until you remove them regardless of your last listening point. You can jump to any of these bookmarks using the "Go To" button. These markers differ from the pause/stop bookmarks that are automatically placed and temporarily remembered by the Stream until you play beyond them. The automatic bookmarks remember the position where you last stopped in any given book, and are automatically reset at the point where you stop listening or turn off the Stream.

Navigating of text files or address and phone files by sentence, word, or even character by character is an important option. The Stream is especially useful when spelling names, addresses, and reading the digits of phone numbers. Slowing the reading speed also helps when reviewing strings of numbers.

My final commendation relates to the Stream's ability to make use of standard memory SD card storage that can be removed and replaced. These postage-stamp-sized cards can also be read and written to using a standard card reader connected to a computer. An exciting spin-off of this option is the on-line access to and downloading of NLS digital talking books that can be decompressed and copied to these cards, and listened to immediately on the Stream in clear CD quality audio. The added bonus you will find hard to live without after you have enjoyed it is the ability the Stream gives you to quickly jump to book chapters, sub-sections, and if available, specific page markers.

The Victor Stream I carry with me now has more than 20 downloaded magazines and talking books on one guitar-pick-sized flash memory card, along with two complete audio versions of Bibles. Also on this digital storage card are 39 books in text files, and various audio program listening folders with old-time radio shows, TV programs, and audio tracks of movies. I have also recorded my reading of each weekly calendar schedule in notes I can easily change or remove. I also can access text files of my personal address and phone book with inserted bookmarks I can jump to for quick reference, and this 8-gig digital storage card is not yet full. I still have room to record hours of live audio notes about product information in stores, names and addresses of people I meet, or recordings of meetings I need to review and bookmark for a later time. And it is easy to carry more of these flash cards if I need to place another one in the Stream's card reading slot for more memory storage options. Improvements & Wish List

Despite all this good news, there are things I believe can be added or improved to make the Victor Stream more functional and versatile. For example, I really don't see the need for the indicator light constantly drawing power from a device designed for consumers who cannot see it. I also question why the sleep feature, which is a timer option, was not integrated with a fully functioning talking clock and calendar. It would be nice to have a time-date function alarm set option for reminders with selectable alarms much like those available on Olympus digital audio products. The Stream also needs a sturdy eyelet loop so that a safety strap can be fastened directly to it.

The rounded bottom of the Stream is not very practical. Without a flat base the Stream cannot be stood upright. I recommend stabilizing it with a hinged prop fin attached to the battery storage door in the lower back of the unit. Standing the Stream up would help with built-in microphone recording and better listening to the built-in speaker in some situations.

Supplied with the Stream is a 4-inch cable used to connect a USB memory stick storage device. This adds to the data accessed by the Stream, but is not convenient or secure as an active connection. The mini USB socket holds the connecting cable with friction only. The socket connection cannot withstand the torque of a thumb drive hanging on the stiff short cable supplied with the Stream. Too many times while I was listening to a book or audio file using a USB memory stick on the end of the short cable, the Stream lost the connection, and the playback stopped. Perhaps a more flexible connecting cable would help, but this option needs to go back to the drawing board. I do not recommend using this set-up unless you plan to listen to it flat on a stationary table without moving it around.

The most useful function of the mini USB port is to connect to a computer using the longer cable also supplied with each Victor Reader Stream. USB connections are commonly used for transferring data and files to and from the inserted SD storage card. Standard Windows Explorer functions work very well when connecting the Stream to a computer, even though the data transfer speed is relatively low. Using a separate SD card reader connected to your computer transfers information to these storage cards at a much faster rate. Also, a separate card reader is helpful to install the NLS book decryption file and any firmware upgrades. I highly recommend buying an 8-gig SD storage card and USB flash card reader at the same time you purchase the Stream. I am not sure why HumanWare does not supply these as standard accessories with each unit, especially when they seem to be very necessary and useful.

It would be an improvement if the Stream used standard batteries. The battery now supplied seems to be a type that may not be generally available. I like to carry a replacement battery with portable devices as a back-up when recharging opportunities are too few for the hours of expected use.

Currently, the digital recording format the Stream uses is very different from standard audio formats that can be played and edited using common computer applications. I recommend instead that the Stream record in stereo as well as mono in a more standard format, such as MP3 or .wav files. Some have also suggested that the Stream include a stereo line-in recording jack for direct dubbing of external audio sources. It is very easy to delete a folder from the flash memory card. But the Stream does not seem to be able to delete a single file. This feature would be nice, especially in the "other books" and "music" folders. As I finish listening to some files I no longer wish to hear again, it would be beneficial to delete them. I understand that this is now possible in the version 2.0 firmware upgrade.

A nice bonus as a playback option in the music folders would be a cross fader. This would remove the silent gap between music files and fade out the end of one song while fading in the beginning of the next. This option is already available in many computer audio programs and some small MP3 players. Combined with shuffle play, this would make the Stream's music folder output sound much like a radio station broadcast. But this station would only play music you choose, no commercials.

Diabetics with limited feeling in their fingers have noted that the dot typically found on the number 5 button is not pronounced enough as a tactile landmark on the number pad. The majority of those I have spoken with also say that the built-in speaker volume needs to be much louder than is now possible. I agree. Then there are those who assert that the over $300 price is more than many can afford. I have seen boom boxes and other toys carried around and used by the blind that cost as much or more than the Victor Stream and do far less. While I hope that the price will eventually come down, the Victor Stream is already worth the investment.

I do not work for the company, and have received no compensation in any way from HumanWare that influenced my opinions in this report. Now when I go out of the house, I always carry my keys, wallet, cane, and my Victor Stream. It is there to entertain and work for me when and where I need it. This audio product has supplied me with portable talking books and Bibles, CD changer and player, radio and TV programs, audio movie theater, and text file or book reader. It records meetings and information for me on the fly, and makes each of these recordings immediately retrievable with an assigned number and "Go To" function. Would we have ever dreamed that something small enough to fit in a shirt pocket would do all this? I can only marvel at the potential advancements in audio products that will be available to us in the next 10 years.

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