This article compares the new BookSense product sold by GW Micro and manufactured by Hims Co, LTD.” with the well-established VictorReader Stream manufactured and sold by HumanWare. Both products are ultra-portable devices that enable the blind to read audio books, access books in several electronic text formats and listen to music. I have presented this information in a way that expresses what I believe, in my personal and professional opinion, to be the pros and cons of the new BookSense as compared with the VictorReader Stream from the perspective of an advanced blind technology user who has owned the Stream for almost two years and has just started using the BookSense two days ago.
The BookSense sports a plethora of new features and enhancements over the VictorReader Stream which are the basis for the vast majority of its strengths.
BookSense has a text-to-speech synthesizer that seems far superior than that in the VR Stream. It uses the Kate and Paul voices at, I believe, 22 KHz. The vastly improved TTS engine is the primary reason I decided to purchase the BookSense despite my already owning a Stream. I read lots of electronic books during the fall and spring semesters in journalism school, and I was finding the TTS on the Stream slightly hard to handle for that purpose at times. In contrast, I have been reading a book I downloaded from Bookshare yesterday morning and have been enjoying it on the BookSense reading with the Kate voice. Kate and Paul are terrible when used as speech synthesizers for computers, in my opinion, but they’re quite appropriate for use on a book reading device like the BookSense. I heard these voices during the BookSense presentation, and I was sold after doing a bit more research.
BookSense is significantly smaller in size and lighter in weight as compared to the Stream. It is supplied with a lanyard that enables wearing the unit around the neck. The BookSense appears to be well-constructed with tough plastic and flatter buttons that seem to be less susceptible to wear and tear as compared to some of the controls found on the Stream.
BookSense enables charging of its battery through the USB connection while the Stream does not. This offers an obvious practical enhancement over the Stream, where only its proprietary charger may be used. Although charging through the USB connection requires a little more than twice the time (5 versus 2 hours) to complete, the increased flexibility more than makes up for that minor disadvantage.
BookSense supports many formats not available on the Stream, including Audible Enhanced (high quality stereo books from Audible.com), iTunes, MP4 and others. Support for WMA protected files, such as the Overdrive books you can acquire through public libraries, is promised in a future firmware upgrade.
BookSense has a clock! That’s right. The device can act as a talking clock and you can hear the time even when it is otherwise powered off. Hardware limitations mean that the Stream will never provide this unless a revision is made requiring owners to purchase new units or spend a significant amount of additional funds on an upgrade. Lack of a clock on the Stream means that formats like protected WMA will never be supported because they require adherence to expiration dates and similar licensing rules. Besides, I find it annoying that something as simple as a clock was left out of the design of the Stream.
BookSense incorporates a pair of internal stereo speakers that’s actually loud enough to be useful!
BookSense records in honest-to-goodness stereo MP3 or wave formats at sampling rates high enough to be useful for podcasting, sound seeing tours and other situations outside the traditional classroom scenario imagined by the designers of the Stream.
BookSense XT sports an FM radio that allows blind users to finally enjoy some of the basics the sighted have always had, including verbal frequency read-out and station presets. I know this is rather silly, but I’ve always wanted a radio that would tell me the frequency and allow me to store presets in a way that’s fully accessible. Of course, some ham radio gear has contained this level of accessibility for years, but it’s nice to finally see it on a broadcast receiver.
BookSense XT has 4 GB of internal Flash storage, where the Stream has none at all. The BookSense is supplied with a 2 GB SD card and the BookSense XT is supplied with an 8 GB SD card. You’re completely on your own to purchase an SD card for the Stream, which requires one to operate since it sports no internal storage.
The BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connection to a wireless headset. While this feature currently appears to be unreliable, I am confident the issues will be resolved in short order and the use of a wireless headset will be an enjoyable experience for BookSense XT owners.
Finally, but certainly no less important, the BookSense is sold in the United States by GW Micro, developers of the popular Window-Eyes screen reader and a company known for its high touch and attention to customer service and support.
Despite the arrival of this new book reader and player on the market, there is no combination of hardware and firmware that is 100 percent perfect. This couldn’t be more true in the case of the BookSense. It is quite likely, however, that many if not all the disadvantages of the BookSense will be addressed in the near future by GW Micro and Hims, its South Korean manufacturer.
HumanWare has done an excellent job with the controls on the VR Stream, making it, perhaps, one of the easiest blindness technology products to use in the field as of this writing in mid-2009. All controls on the Stream feature good spacing and tactile features making them easy to identify and locate from a blind perspective. Although it is obvious that efforts were made to ensure a similarly easy experience with BookSense, its flatter, smoother controls may put off some users who might find them difficult to manage due to other conditions such as nerve damage in the fingers from diabetes.
On a similar note, HumanWare does a good job of packaging the Stream. The accompanying CD-ROM containing companion software, documentation and the tutorial is supplied in a case that is labeled in Braille for easy identification. The power supply has a rather unique rectangular shape and features several smoothed edges that make it easy to identify and set it apart from other adapters. In comparison, the BookSense CD-ROM, which contains no audio tutorial or companion software, is supplied in a basic paper sleeve with no Braille label, making it just another CD among many in one’s collection. The power supply for the BookSense does feature a nice Braille label, but a switch found next to the plug provides no Braille or tactile indicator. Presuming this switch controls the AC input voltage, one might wonder how long it will take for GW Micro technical support to start dealing with burned up adapters and related hardware problems.
Documentation is another strong point in favor of the Stream. The CD-ROM accompanying the Stream features documentation in several text formats and an excellent audio tutorial created by Jeff Bishop, a broadcaster, Window-Eyes script developer and well-recognized participant in the connected online blind community. If you purchase your Stream from a dealer along with an SD card, it may contain some of this documentation in a form that is ready to read right on the Stream out of the box. In contrast, the CD-ROM accompanying the BookSense contains only the user’s manual in four text formats: rich-text format (RTF), plain text (TXT) and two Microsoft Word documents (the older DOC and the newer DOCX). There is no audio tutorial or other content. Despite the fact that both the BookSense and BookSense XT are supplied with SD cards and the BookSense XT sports internal storage, the manual is not available on the BookSense until the user copies it to the appropriate folder.
Full text navigation is available on the Stream starting at the character level and moving all the way through paragraphs, pages and headings according to the format being read. In comparison, BookSense does not currently allow character-level navigation in text DAISY files such as those supplied by Bookshare. It is hoped this serious oversight will be corrected very soon. It is important to note that the Stream experienced similar challenges in version 1.0 of its firmware.
Overall simplicity and usability are solidly in the Stream’s favor. Each button on the Stream has a well-defined function, menus are simple in nature and it is not necessary to understand Windows or other GUI concepts in order to become an expert user of the Stream. In comparison, the BookSense is a complex device. The manual describes the use of controls including combo boxes, dialogue boxes, edit boxes and menus. Each primary feature (Book Reader, DAISY Player, Media Player, Radio) is considered an application. It may be presumed that the extensive feature set found on the BookSense makes the complexity a necessary evil.
Though the BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connecting to a wireless headset, this functionality currently contains a serious bug making it unreliable. Several new BookSense owners have reported that, after reading for a short time, all audio goes silent and the BookSense completely locks up. GW Micro and the product’s manufacturer are aware of this concern and are working to remedy the issue as soon as possible.
Finally, the BookSense is a new, version 1.0 product. There are bugs, oversights and unforeseen challenges that the Stream has already surpassed during its two years in the marketplace. As the BookSense matures, bugs will be squashed and exciting new features will be added. At the same time, HumanWare representatives have assured the blind community that the Stream will continue to prosper.
Thanks go to several Twitter followers for clarifications and updates.