by Paul Edwards
I think I am only stating facts when I say that by far the most widely used NLS-compatible small player is the Victor Reader Stream. This product is made by HumanWare and, early this year, the "second generation" Stream was announced by HumanWare. I was one of its first customers and I need to begin this review by saying unequivocably that I and many other people were not impressed with the product. It promised a lot and delivered very little when it came out. It still has a ways to go to fully live up to the hype that preceded it. However, it now does some things effectively and automatically that make it well worth considering.
The new Stream is a little smaller than its predecessor and there is really virtually no learning curve for those who already have an original Stream. The controls are exactly the same, except that there is one additional button between the "go to" key and the "bookmark key." This button performs a number of functions which we will get to later.
The new Stream is supposed to have better voices and better speakers. I think the first is true, but I am not so sure about the second assertion. It is perhaps a little louder but not very much. I think that synthetic speech is extremely subjective so you should take what I am about to say as one man's opinion. The new stream arrives loaded with Heather and Ryan. If you have heard the voices on the Stratus, these are the same folks. I am not a fan of Ryan, but Heather is a strong voice. There are other options you can load from the HumanWare web site. Initially, I loaded the British English voices. I happen to think they are better than Heather and Samantha. However, I believe that there is a third alternative that is better than either of the others. These are the Australian voices: Tyler and Lucy. Each of these three options are available where there are updates to the Stream software on the HumanWare web page. Once you have changed voices, new updates that come to your machine do not change your choice.
When the new Stream came out, that was really the only substantive difference that was apparent. It is a significant one, though, particularly for folks who are not technologically savvy. If you can get your wireless to work, the new Stream tells you when there is a new update and then, when you are ready, downloads and installs it directly into your machine.
When the machine was first announced, there were all kinds of capabilities that were supposed to be available. Most of these related directly to the wireless capability of the new machine. Most of them were not yet available when the machine came out and, as of Oct. 24, 2013, some of the promised options are still not there. We were promised that we could play Internet radio stations. We still can't as far as I know, to offer just one example. However, particularly with the last update, the new Stream can do some impressive things.
Before I get to those, let me make clear that the new Stream is capable of playing NLS BARD talking books and does a very good job of doing that. It also does a good job of playing a range of file types in audio and text formats. My machine came set to read UEB braille and that can create problems if you are trying to read current Bookshare books. There is a spot in the menus that allows you to change to U.S. braille. (You access the menus using the 7 key on the numeric keypad.) Eventually you will probably need to switch back to UEB and it is good that this capability is already built into the device.
The first major update that was released allowed the new Stream to play Audible books which are commercially available books that can be bought from Amazon. It does a good job with these, as did its predecessor.
It is with the second major update, however, that the second-generation Stream begins to live up to its promise. With that update, the device did two major things. First, it allowed the direct downloading of books from Bookshare. Most other devices allow you to look at the most recent books that have been released by Bookshare and also allow for a single search option. The Stream takes a slightly different approach. It allows you to search in one of three ways. You can search by author, by title or using both criteria. You use the numeric key pad in the same way as phones use it for texting to write in your search term. Once you complete your search, you have the option of choosing a book from a list and then downloading it directly to your machine. This process is handled well. It downloads the DAISY version, automatically takes it apart and makes it available in an area of internal memory that comes with the machine. Of course, you have to go through the process of putting in your Bookshare user name and password before you can access this feature. You also have the option of moving a book you have downloaded onto your SD card. While the book is open, just press the 3 key. I have not had any problems with this feature. It is well designed and functions well.
The second feature included in the latest update is access to NFB-Newsline (R). As I am sure all of you know, this service allows access to a broad array of newspapers and magazines. Again, you have to enter your user name and pin number before you can use Newsline. I have found this feature particularly handy. You must go to the Newsline's online page and choose your favorites for your machine. Among others you can, of course, choose to read "The ACB Braille Forum" in both its versions. Once I chose my newspapers and magazines, I had to add a new task to my daily routine. I turn wireless on using the new button. It actually says "airplane mode off" when turning wireless on every morning and, within a few seconds, my choices are loaded onto my Stream ready for me to read. Again, this system has worked well. There have been a couple of times when there appear to have been glitches, but these corrected themselves. Again, you can move periodicals to your card if you wish. However, you do not need to do so. Old issues are automatically deleted when you load new ones.
I am sure there is more to come with the second-generation Stream. For now, though, with its new features it is beginning to live up to the hype that accompanied its launch. I suppose that the last thing I would say is this. If all the tech things I have talked about here are not your thing, your old faithful Stream will continue to serve you well. If you read a lot of text files, the new voices are better. If you are primarily using the Stream to read NLS talking books, I do not think there is enough to justify spending the $369 that the new Stream costs. Shipping in the U.S. will cost between $20 and $30. If there are taxes in your state, these will be added. If, on the other hand, you are a Bookshare user or like to get quick, easy access to lots of newspapers or magazines, this is a device you should seriously consider acquiring. For more information, check out the HumanWare web page at www.humanware.com.