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An audiobook player designed for the blind

Donald Bell offers his impressions of the Humanware VictorReader Stream, an MP3 and audiobook player designed specifically for the needs of the blind and visually impaired.

One of the least appreciated conveniences MP3 players have given us is the capability to fit a library of audiobooks in our pocket. For those with vision impairment or blindness, the ease of instantly downloading digital audiobooks is especially liberating, compared with the days of CDs and cassettes. Unfortunately, most MP3 players simply aren't designed with accessibility in mind, keeping the convenience of digital audiobooks out of reach for those who would most appreciate it.

The HumanWare VictorReader Stream digital-audio player isn't particularly slim, attractive, or affordable ($349), but its unique design is made specifically for the needs of blind and vision-impaired users. The device is laid out similarly to a large mobile phone, complete with a spacious numerical keypad and dedicated volume buttons on the side. A numerical keypad may seem like an odd choice of navigation for a portable audio player, but in its defense, few other interfaces are as instantly and universally recognizable to the touch. The tricky part is remembering exactly what each key represents. For instance, repeatedly pressing the number one will cycle you though the Stream's main menu categories, each announced over your headphones or the internal speaker in a pleasant synthetic voice.

Photo of the VictorReader Stream.
The VictorReader Stream may look like a phone, but it's actually an MP3 and audiobook player designed for the blind and visually impaired. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

Below the keypad are basic playback controls (Play, Pause, Reverse, and Skip), each differentiated by the shape of its key. You'll also find an oval-shaped key above the play button that advances the built-in sleep timer in increments of 15 minutes, in case you have a tendency to doze off while listening to books.

The top edge of the Stream includes a Mini-USB port for connecting to a Mac or PC, an SD card slot that supports SD and SDHC cards up to 16GB, and a power adapter connection. Humanware includes a power adapter with the Stream, which is a good thing since the internal battery doesn't charge over USB. The battery reaches full charge in about four hours, offering up to 15 hours of playback time. The battery is also replaceable through a compartment on the back, making it possible to keep multiple batteries on hand or to easily replace old batteries after they wear out.

A button for recording voice memos is located on the right edge of the Stream, along with a headphone output and a minijack microphone input. A microphone isn't necessary, though, since there's an excellent internal mic on the front of the player. Recordings are made in a rare AMR-WB+ audio format, which can be converted to WAV using the included Stream Companion software. The software also works as an interface for moving music, audiobooks, podcasts, or text files from your computer to the Stream. If you prefer not to use the software, drag-and-drop is also supported.

While the VictorReader Stream is capable of playing multiple music formats (FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, MP3, MPEG2, WAV, WMA 9) with surprisingly excellent audio quality, its main purpose is playing audiobooks. The Stream supports Talking Book formats from the National Library Service, such as DAISY, NISO, and NIMAS, and can also accept NLS book cartridges with an optional snap-on adapter. Audible and MP3 audiobooks are also compatible with the Stream, and sorted into separate directories in the main menu.

Regardless of file type, one feature of the Stream that audiobook fans will find advantageous is the capability to place and recall multiple bookmarks--up to 9,998 of them, in fact. Unlike the iPod's single automatic placeholder capability, bookmarking with the Stream makes it easier to share the device between multiple users without running the risk of loosing one's place in an audio file.

Another big advantage the Stream has over the iPod is the capability to directly convert any text file (txt, rtf, html, xml, brf) into speech using an onboard synthetic voice (Nuance Vocalizer for Mobile). It's certainly nicer to hear books read by a recorded human voice than a synthetic one, but since not every book or publication is so lucky to get the professional audiobook treatment, the Stream's text-to-speech functionality is extremely handy.

All in all, the VictorReader Stream is a solid product with a design and feature set that reveal a considerable amount of thought on behalf of the manufacturer for its audience. The $349 price tag isn't cheap, but it is typical compared with similar devices.