A couple of months ago I received my Victor Reader Trek. It was a device I never thought I would ever want to own but after using it for only a short time I’m now realizing that it’s something I would not want to be without.
So What The Heck Is a Victor Trek?
For those who are unfamiliar with this product the Victor Reader Trek is a specialized device designed for the visually impaired. It allows the user to listen to books in a variety of formats from sources such as the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, Bookshare, Learning Ally and Audible. It can access newspapers and magazines available from the NFB Newsline service. It can read files in a variety of formats, including text only, Word, Braille and HTML. It has access to a generously-sized directory of Internet radio stations as well as podcasts. Its GPS features can provide walking or driving directions to a specific location as well as allowing you to identify points of interest and even add your own. It is small and so can easily be carried during travel.
My History With Victor Reader Products
I remember reading about what may have been the first Victor Reader device sometime around early 2000. I first read about it in a catalog from either Blazie Engineering or Freedom Scientific. The company was a distributor of this CD player but I never had a chance to use one at that time. I believe it was designed to play books in the DAISY format recorded onto CDs, such as what was once offered by Recording For The Blind, now Learning Ally. According to this microsite from Humanware the first Victor Reader was released in 1999, a year after I left Blazie Engineering. This article from the January 2004 Access World from the American Foundation for the Blind reviews four talking book players which were available at that time, including a player known as the Victor Reader Classic Plus, which I can only assume may have been the second Victor player to succeed the original. If you decide to read the review you’ll no doubt recognize some very familiar features which are still found on today’s Victor products, such as the number 5 key for the Where Am I function, the number 1 key to access the bookshelf and arrow-shaped keys for rewind and fast forward. Humanware has clearly demonstrated that when they find a convention that works well for their users they don’t try to change what they know is successful. Instead, they wisely keep their customers’ favorite features from one product to the next and this is commendable.
If you’re interested in exploring even more Victor Reader history you can watch this Youtube video from the Parkland Regional Library System which, at one time, was distributing the Victor Reader Classic X player for visually impaired patrons to borrow. This video contains a demonstration of how to use this player. Victor Reader customers will feel right at home with this demo as you hear not only the familiar tone that plays at startup but also the familiar “Welcome to Victor Reader” greeting. If you really want an even more immersive dive into nostalgia you can even read the manual for the Victor Reader Classic Plus from the above link although it is not from a Humanware Web site.
Humanware also released other CD players prior to the original Stream’s release, including the Victor Wave, which I never had a chance to use, as well as the Victor Vibe. The Vibe normally sold for what I think was over $200.00. At one point Recording for the Blind was offering the player at an incredible discount of $64.00. I initially wasn’t intending to purchase one as I associated RFB mostly with textbooks and I didn’t see myself ever needing a device to read them. My wife wisely thought otherwise and encouraged me to purchase it in the event that I might want to take classes at some point in the future. I had no idea at the time what a wise decision this was. I bought the player and, while I never used it for classes, I realized that RFB contained many books which were of great interest to me that I could not obtain from other sources. I wound up using the Victor Vibe for many years for both DAISY books as well as for CDs containing MP3 files, which the Vibe also supported. I went from thinking I would have no use for this device to realizing that I wouldn’t want to be without it. As you will soon discover this wouldn’t be the last time that I experienced such a shift in my thinking regarding a Victor Product.
When I was working as a computer instructor at Associated Services for the Blind the agency had the original Victor Reader Stream which I believe was released around 2007. I had first seen this product demonstrated when a student of mine told me about his experiences in using it with the BARD service which was in a pilot phase at that time. If you wanted to be a BARD beta tester you really had to have the Stream as it would be several years until NLS would release their digital talking book players. Later I found the first generation Stream bought by my employer and learned how to use it. I remember thinking that the navigation commands were extremely intuitive. While I never saw the second generation model I certainly heard about it and thought it sounded like a very nice device. However, I was becoming very comfortable using my iPhone and I felt that my phone was able to perform all of the functions that were available on the Stream. I was glad that the Stream was available for those who needed or wanted it. I recognized that it offered some definite advantages for those who found such features valuable, such as an interface that could be accessed with physical buttons, but I was convinced that I neither wanted or needed a Stream.
When Humanware released the Victor Reader Trek I had the same feelings. It sounded like a very cool product. I was glad that it was out there for those who needed it and I never thought badly about people who used one. However, I was convinced that, like the Stream, it just wasn’t for me.
A Change of Heart
During the past few years As I read more about the Trek I began to find it intriguing. I don’t really know if the product was starting to sound more attractive to me or if I was just wanting the challenge of learning how to use a new gadget but I was really starting to think about the possibility of purchasing one. I was not willing to pay the full price of a new unit but I decided that if I found someone willing to sell one in good condition and at the right price I’d go for it.
I posted a message on a mailing list expressing my interest in purchasing a used Trek if anyone had one they were willing to part with. Shortly after that post I was contacted by someone who I had purchased an item a while ago who told me she was selling her Trek and the price she was offering was excellent. As I had a great experience in purchasing used equipment from her in the past I knew she was trustworthy and the next day I sent her the money for what would be, for me, my new Victor Reader Trek.
Before I received my Trek I spent some time reading portions of the user’s manual so that I would have some working knowledge of the device’s layout and basic commands by the time my Trek would arrive. The manual is comprehensive and well-written. It helped me to visualize the layout of the device along with how to perform all of the Trek’s various functions.
Later that week the Trek arrived. Not surprisingly, the unit was, as I expected, in excellent condition. The seller also shipped the original silicon-type case the Trek was supplied with, a working battery and even an SD card! The only extra accessory that I ordered was the leather carrying case from Executive Products. I ordered it from Humanware as their price was a bit more inexpensive compared to the price charged by Executive Products. It will offer a bit more protection and it seems like a safer case for traveling.
When I received it I wasted no time in setting it up and configuring it to sign into the various services that I wanted to connect it to, such as BARD, Bookshare and NFB Newsline. While the Trek does not connect to Learning Ally’s catalog I did install the authorization key which allows it to play books from that service. Later on I also set it up with my Audible account.
There’s So Much to Like About The Trek
I know that I wrote how comfortable I was using my iPhone and that I felt there was no need in my life for a Victor product. While I definitely have a good comfort level with the iPhone, and with touch screen devices in general, I have definitely seen how a device like the Victor Reader Trek can actually complement a device like the iPhone and how it even has some advantages over using one. I’ll list a few that come to mind.
A Consistent Interface
The Victor products, both the Stream and the Trek, offer one consistent interface for anything that I am reading and from every library that the books originate from. Whether I’m reading a newspaper from NFB Newsline or a book from Bookshare or Learning Ally there is only one interface to learn. The commands to play, rewind and add bookmarks don’t change whether I’m reading a book from Bookshare or from BARD. Compare this to an iPhone where you must learn the interface for each app: NFB Newsline, BARD Mobile, Learning Ally, Voice Dream Reader and Audible might have very similar ways of doing things but each app has its differences that need to be learned in order for readers to use them efficiently. Most of them are easy but some, like the Learning Ally app, can be a bit more challenging.
There’s nothing more aggravating than unintentionally stopping the reading of a book if I accidentally touch the screen of my iPhone. Sure, I can lock it after invoking the command to read continuously but I don’t always remember to do that and you can’t do that with the NFB Newsline app since locking the phone stops VoiceOver from speaking. With the Trek moving my fingers across the keypad even for a second doesn’t interrupt the reading.
Want To Read a Book? Just Press Play
You also have the rewind button to the left of the Play button and a Fast Forward button to its right, with the buttons being shaped like arrows pointing to the left for rewind or to the right for fast forward. If you hold down these buttons you will be able to skip backward or forward in larger increments, such as one minute, five minutes, etc.
You can use the buttons on the numeric keypad to navigate by different increments. You could press the numbers 4 or 6 (left and right arrow) to navigate your book by character, word or line. Pressing the 2 or 8 keys (up arrow or down arrow) changes these navigation levels. If the book has appropriate DAISY markup you can navigate by section or by subsection. As an example, with a level 1 setting you might be able to move from one chapter to the next. A level 2 navigation setting might allow you to navigate from section 1.1 to section 1.2. It all depends upon the structure of the book.
The Trek’s bookshelf feature is extremely organized, allowing you to easily navigate through the list of available books and files in several categories, such as Bookshare, NLS Bard, text files, etc.
Direct PC Transfers
The primary method for transferring files from a PC to an iPhone is by using iTunes. This software is one of the most unintuitive and clunky applications I have ever used and I try to use it as little as possible. Because the Trek is seen as a drive when I connect it to my PC transferring files from my PC to the Trek is as simple as using copy and paste commands with File Explorer. I also really like the Humanware Companion software for facilitating these transfers, particularly if you have DAISY books with cryptic file names since the software cleans this up by providing clear and meaningful file names. It also ensures that the files that you transfer to the Trek are always placed in the correct folder, such as placing all DAISY files into the $VRDTB folder on the SD card, with each book occupying its own subfolder.
Using a PC to transfer books is very important if you have reading material that doesn’t originate from one of the Trek’s built-in online sources. As an example, I have many talking books from Learning Ally. The Trek (and I assume the Stream) do support books from this library once the proper authorization key has been installed but they are currently not in the list of online bookshelves. This is really not a problem since you can transfer as many Learning Ally books as you want using your PC. You can also transfer other DAISY books using this method, such as books that you have already downloaded from the BARD service from NLS. When you transfer DAISY books from your PC to the Trek you do need to ensure that they are moved to the $VRDTB folder onto your unit’s SD card. Using the Humanware Companion software ensures that books are always transferred to the correct folder.
Support For Contracted Braille Files
The various apps on my iPhone allow me to read files in many different formats. If I have a Braille display connected to my iPhone I could read contracted Braille files but there’s no app that I’m aware of that allows me to read Braille files using speech output. The Trek effortlessly allows me to listen to and navigate Braille formatted documents as easily as text files. This means that the Trek can read Braille files from BARD along with Grade 2 files that I may have translated from text files. When navigating text character by character the Trek doesn’t read the Grade 2 symbols but instead treats the characters as though you were reading a standard text file. It feels almost magical to me and it’s a credit to the Trek’s Braille to text translation capabilities.
A Replaceable Battery
If you eventually find that your Trek’s battery isn’t holding a charge as long as it used to or if you just want a spare battery for those long road trips or plane rides where an outlet might not be handy this is easily accomplished. The battery is easy to remove and replace with a new battery costing $36.00.
Save Your Phone’s Battery
I remember one day returning home from vacation when I had used my iPhone for quite a while in the airport getting navigation assistance from AIRA. In the cab riding home from the airport my phone battery was pretty low by then and I was pushing it even more by running both Blindsquare and Google Maps in order to hear not only streets and points of interest but also the driving directions so that I could keep track of where we were heading. Had I had a dedicated GPS device like the Trek I could have saved my phone’s precious battery while using the Trek as my dedicated GPS solution. Not to mention that the next time I’m at the airport I can use my Trek to read my book while saving even more battery power on my iPhone.
Swappable SD Cards
While some Android phones allow for SD cards to be added and removed not all of them have this capability, including the newest Galaxy S21 phones from Samsung. Of course, Apple phones and tablets don’t allow for this, either. The Trek officially supports SD cards with up to 32 GB of storage but many users, myself included, have used SD cards with the Trek with even more capacity. I’m currently using an SD card with 256 GB of storage. Of course, how many files an SD card can hold totally depends on the format of those files along with the duration of the book or audio file. . A long audio book from BARD will consume much more space than that same file in a plain text format. On my current SD card I have over 70 books from NLS, Learning Ally, Bookshare and Audible with a little over 200 GB free. And if I should ever exhaust the capacity of that card and still want more material I can just pop in another SD card and copy even more books!
My Wish List For New Features and Improvements
No product, no matter how wonderful and functional it might be, is perfect. There is always room for improvement and the Trek is no exception. Here is a list of features and improvements I’d like to see Humanware consider adding to make the Trek even more awesome. I have grouped this list categorized by importance with what I consider to be the most important items first.
A Better Speaker
This is perhaps my biggest issue and main complaint about the Trek. This device is sold for $795.00 in the United States. It is an audio-only product specifically designed for blind users, many of whom are very particular and discerning when it comes to how a product sounds. It does not support Braille (more about that later.) It does not have a screen. It offers no visual apps and services. The Trek was built specifically for blind users by a company with decades of experience designing specialized products for the blindness market. Given these factors I would have expected Humanware to prioritize on how a unit containing these features with its price tag sounds when not only listening to books but when playing music, podcasts and Internet radio. While I won’t say that the speaker sounds horrible there are times when I feel like I’m listening to an AM radio instead of a specialized unit with a rather expensive price tag. This device should sound as good as (if not better than) any of today’s smart phones but yet I maintain that it does not. At one point some Trek units were shipped with speakers which were not of the best quality. As of May of 2021 Humanware was allowing users who had such units to mail their Trek to the company for a free replacement. Thinking that I must have had one of these units I made arrangements with Humanware to have my speaker replaced. I must give the company a tremendous commendation in this regard as they could not have handled the situation more promptly and professionally than they did with my unit. They sent UPS to my home to pick up my package. The driver even had the appropriate address label. All I needed to do was to ensure that the unit was packaged securely, which it was. A week later my Trek was returned to me. I believe it was shipped with two-day shipping and had it not been for Memorial Day I might have even received it earlier. I shipped the unit without its battery and was surprised and quite pleased when I noticed that Humanware even provided me with an extra battery at no cost, something I neither expected or requested. Again, Humanware handled this situation with the utmost professionalism and I could not have asked for better service. Except for a speaker producing excellent sound. While the new speaker might have sounded a bit better than the one in my unit I don’t think that it was a major improvement. If Humanware chooses to design an updated Victor product with new hardware I do hope they will make the audio a higher priority.
Support For More Libraries
In the United States the Trek provides its users direct access to the catalogs of NLS, Bookshare and NFB Newsline. The device can also play titles from Learning Ally and Audible. I would really like to see direct access to more specialized as well as mainstream libraries where users can search for and browse their respective collections. Learning Ally, while not free to new members, offers around 80,000 recorded books in DAISY format. Many members of Recording for the Blind are “grandfathered” into the program and may receive an unlimited lifetime subscription to the service. Their catalog includes some titles that I can’t easily locate from other sources and I find it to be a valuable resource. The Trek does support the playback of Learning Ally titles but what I’d like to see is direct access to its catalog.
There are other services to add to this wish list of direct catalog access. The Internet Archive is a massive source of public domain material containing, among other things, over 35 million text files, over 3 million radio show archives and over 7 thousand old time radio shows. Imagine being able to access this collection of files from your Victor product.
Other libraries include:
- Project Gutenberg is perhaps one of the oldest online libraries containing over sixty thousand public domain titles.
- The Online Books Page contains over three million titles from across the Web.
- Librivox contains MP3 files of public domain books and short stories read by volunteers.
Of course these content providers would need to provide Humanware direct access to their catalogs, such as an API, and we don’t necessarily know which libraries provide one. I do know that Project Gutenberg allows users of the Voice Dream Reader app the capability to download books from their library. In theory, this means that Victor Reader products could be provided with similar access.
Support For Kindle Books
I wanted to put this item in its own category because of how popular Kindle is along with its incredible collection of books. Can you imagine having access to all of the millions of books available from the Kindle store? I realize that purchasing the content from a Stream would present some challenges but it would be amazing if it even could support the Kindle file format just as it can with Audible and Learning Ally.
Choices For More Voices
I do appreciate that we have access to Ryan and Sharon from Acapela but I’d prefer to have some additional choices for each regional firmware. While I like the Ryan voice I much prefer the Colibri version from Acapela which, to my ear, sounds much more pleasant to listen to. The Sharon voice doesn’t generate high enough frequencies for my ear which is one reason why I prefer the voice that they call Will.
Faster Input Method For Entering Text
I am guessing that if Peter Tucic, Humanware’s brand ambassador, received a dollar for every time he heard this suggestion he could comfortably retire for the rest of his life. I really don’t want to see Peter leave Humanware but at the risk of contributing to his retirement fund I’m going to put this out there.
There are times when it is necessary to enter text on the Trek’s keyboard such as when performing a search for a book or a podcast. People who remember the days of sending text messages on their flip phone’s numeric keypad know that they used the numbers which corresponded with their associated letters, such as 2 for A, B and C, 3 for D, E and F, etc. This is how letters and other characters are entered on the Trek and this method works fairly efficiently for me … except for when you’re entering two letters associated with the same number.
For example, suppose I want to search for the ACB Conference and Convention podcast and I want to enter ACB into the search field. Because the letters ACB are generated by pressing the number 2 I would need to enter 222 onto the keypad. All well and good but because these letters are all generated by entering the same number I need to press the number 2 and when I hear the Trek say “a” I have to wait for a confirmation click before I enter the number 2 three times to get to the letter C. I then need to wait for the click again to confirm that the letter C was entered and then do the same thing for entering the letter B. I think there are several ways in which this could be addressed. One way would be to allow pressing the Goto key above the numeric keypad to tell the Trek that you want the last letter which was spoken to be accepted but the current method could still be kept for users who have grown accustomed to how data entry currently functions.
Note: after I initially published this post a good friend of mine emailed me to say that the Trek had an option which would eliminate this problem. She is absolutely correct. If you enable the option to only speak the final character when entering data you don’t need to pause and wait for the character to be entered. As an example, if I wanted to enter the letter C I could quickly press 222. As soon as the Trek confirms this by speaking the letter C the character is immediately entered. Once I realized this I decided to keep this setting enabled since it greatly speeds up data entry. I’d still like to see my suggestion considered, however, for people who would like to hear each character as you press numbers on the keypad.
Allow Chapter Navigation in Podcasts
Some podcasts support the ability to navigate an individual episode by sections or chapters. I’d love to see this as an option in the Victor products. Users could press 4 or 6 to move to the previous or next chapter, respectively.
Support Braille Displays Where Appropriate
I do realize that this suggestion simply doesn’t apply to some of the functions of the Trek. After all, you can’t have Braille output for a Bard or Learning Ally title, although I think every Braille user would agree this would be a wonderful feature. Braille also couldn’t be supported for other audio-only experiences, such as with podcasts, Internet radio and other MP3 files. However, it would be very considerate to Braille display users, particularly for those who are deaf-blind, if the Trek would send the output of text, Word, BRF and Bookshare files to a Braille display. I realize that many Braille displays already offer native support for these files, including Humanware’s own Brailliant products. However, it possibly might benefit deaf-blind users or those who are hard of hearing by allowing them to gain instant Braille access to the Trek’s GPS features.
Speak Points of Interest in Driving Mode
One thing that I love about the Blindsquare app on iOS is that it does read POIs while driving. I personally like hearing about the various restaurants, gas stations, supermarkets and other businesses as I’m passing them and I wish that the Trek allowed for this, as well.
Report 100% Battery Level During Charging
This is a very minor request but it would be nice to have an optional message letting the user know that the battery is fully charged. This would give them the option of removing the plug at that point if they wanted to continue using the Trek on battery power.
DAISY Recording Capabilities
I own a Plextalk Pocket and as a player its features are average. I didn’t really want it as a book player, however, but what attracted me to that device was its recording capabilities. One feature that I like about the Plextalk Pocket is its ability to add DAISY markup to a recording. This allows you to produce your own DAISY talking book, either with the unit’s built-in mic or from a recording from another device. I realize that Humanware’s products are called the Victor Reader and not the Victor Recorder but since they’re already excellent at DAISY playback I would personally love to see some additional recording capabilities, particularly those that allow for the inclusion and editing of DAISY markup.
Allow Users to Swap The Commands For Key Describer And The Built-in Users Guide
This is probably an odd request and I’ll bet it’s one that Humanware doesn’t often receive so an explanation is in order. Over the years I have used five different screen readers which allow pressing and holding the insert key along with the number 1 to enter or exit keyboard help mode. This mode allows you to press a key on your keyboard to hear what that key does without performing its function. I’m so used to this convention that I often press and hold the number 1 key on my Trek to go into key describer mode. Instead, the Trek uses this command to open the built-in user’s guide. Pressing and holding the 0 key enters and exits key describer mode. I realize that if these commands were reversed it might cause long-time Trek users the same type of confusion. Therefore, I’m suggesting a command in one of the menus to allow users to swap these two commands. This would then allow me to press and hold the number 1 to enter and exit key describer mode while pressing and holding the 0 key would enter or exit the users guide.
For The Next Victor Product
The following suggestions probably can’t be implemented on the current Victor Reader devices. However, if Humanware decides to produce a new next generation Victor Reader Stream or Trek I would love to see the following features on such a device.
- Allow Bluetooth keyboard support for text entry. This would make text entry so much easier and faster. It would also allow users who prefer Braille input to use an Orbit Writer.
- Include a camera for OCR. The current Victor Reader products are extremely versatile when it comes to how many different sources and file formats are supported. I think that having the ability to have a printed page as another source would really add to how much reading you could actually do with your Victor Reader.
- Implement Bluetooth 5.1
- Allow voice dictation as an alternative to using the numeric keypad for text entry input.
Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t written anything about the Trek’s GPS features. While I’ve had an opportunity to try it out in driving mode I rarely travel these days and so the GPS is the feature I’ve so far used the least. I will eventually have opportunities to use it and there’s always the virtual exploration mode. Even so I don’t regret purchasing this unit. It has great reading features from a variety of sources, is easy to use and is a great complement to my iPhone. If you’re a user of any of Humanware’s Victor Reader products please feel free to leave your opinions about your device in the comments.