The GuideReader Pod: Read Books on Your TV
Like the Victor Reader Stream and other similar devices, the GuideReader Pod lets you download and read books from various online libraries or from a local flash drive or microSD card. The difference with the GuideReader Pod is that it connects to a TV and can display books with a variety of fonts, colors, and highlighting for low-vision users. The GuideReader Pod consists of a box, similar to an Apple or Fire TV box, and a fairly simple remote to control the device. It connects to your TV through an HDMI cable. You can get books from a number of online libraries, depending on your country. In the United States, we get access to Bookshare, NLS BARD, epubBooks, and Project Gutenberg, as well as NFB-NEWSLINE® and Bookshare’s periodicals section for newspapers.
The GuideReader Pod consists of a rectangular box with rounded corners. On the front right corner is the power button. Press this to turn the device on. On the left side of the device are two USB ports and a microSD card slot. The back contains an HDMI port, the power port, an ethernet jack, and a headphone jack on the back right corner. The headphone jack will not work with headphones that have a microphone or remote on the cable, which seems like a strange oversight these days given that most newer headphones have these. The box also gets a bit warm during use. The remote is shaped like a standard TV remote, with a row of two buttons, a four-way directional ring with an OK button in the center, another row of two buttons below that, and finally a solid bar that controls the volume. In the very top right corner of the remote is a small button used to pair the remote to the pod. In the first row of two buttons are a context menu button on the left, and a help button on the right. Below this is a large circular ring with a button in the middle. The outer ring is used for navigation, with small dots on the up, down, left, and right buttons. The center button acts as an OK, select, and play/pause button. Two more buttons are below the ring, with a back button on the left and a button to pause or repeat the speech to the right. The last control on the remote is a solid bar that adjusts the volume. Push the left end to lower the volume and the right end to raise it. When you get the pod, the remote should already be paired.
Turning on the pod via the power button doesn’t produce any indication that anything is happening to a totally blind user. After about thirty seconds, the main menu will come up and play a short musical chime to let you know the device is loaded. You will hear an announcement that you are on the main menu and you will hear the first option, which will be continue to read the last opened item. The main menu has six options: continue reading, books, newspapers and magazines, tools, settings, and shutdown. The continue reading option loads the last book or newspaper that you were reading. The last option lets you power off or restart the GuideReader Pod.
Downloading and Reading Books
Selecting the books option gives a menu with three options: my books, find a book, and read a book on an external device. My books brings up a list of all the books you have downloaded to the GuideReader Pod. The manual and a few public domain books are included by default. The find option lets you download books from various services. In the United States, the services available are Bookshare, NLS BARD, epubBooks, and Project Gutenberg. Bookshare and NLS BARD require you to log in, while the others let you browse and download for free. Logging in presents an on-screen QWERTY keyboard which you can navigate around with the remote. Once logged in, you have all the usual browse options that you would expect. In BARD for example, you can browse the recently added books and magazines, search the collection, or browse your wish list. Once you find a book, you can use the context menu button to get more information about the book or hit the OK button to download it. Once a book is downloaded, it appears in the my books section.
Once you’ve downloaded your books, the my books menu provides a list of all the books on the device, with the most recent at the top.
Once you open a book, things behave slightly differently depending on if the book has text or is audio only. In either case, pressing the OK button will start or stop reading, and the context menu button will open a list of all sections in the book. The headings list acts like a tree view, with first level headings in a list, and pressing right on a heading will expand it to show any headings under it. When you’re ready to start reading, press OK. If the book is an audio book, such as from BARD, pressing left and right will fast forward or rewind through the book, and up and down will change the amount left or right moves by. If the book has text, pressing right or down will move you down by one line, and left or up will move you up. Visually, an audiobook shows a graphic of a tape player with the heads turning, and the elapsed and total time of the book. For a book with text, there is synchronized text with a highlight and audio.
Reading Books on an External Device
The GuideReader Pod supports the ability to read books from a flash drive or microSD card. Choose the option from the books menu, and the pod will present a list of connected devices. When you choose the device, it will be scanned for any compatible books and you will receive a please wait message. Once the search is complete, you will be presented with a list of books that were found. You can press OK on a book to read it or use the context menu to delete it, but there is no way to copy books to the internal storage that I could find. Just to see what would happen, I plugged in my four terabyte portable USB hard drive. The pod powered the drive with no issues and it showed up in the list, but it unfortunately crashed and restarted after about thirty seconds of trying to index the drive. While I didn’t really expect the pod to work with something that large, I wish there was a mode to just browse everything on the drive. The other issue I came across was that an epub book I loaded was completely silent when I tried to navigate or read. After a bit of trial and error, I found that turning off “book voice” in settings fixed the problem. What I suspect happened was the book was coded in such a way that the pod thought there was audio there when there wasn’t. It would be nice to see a way to toggle between the book voice and the GuideReader voice from within the current book, rather than relying on a single system-wide setting.
The GuideReader Pod also supports NFB-NEWSLINE and Bookshare’s periodicals section. To access these, go to the newspapers and magazines option off the main menu. Once you’ve logged in, you can choose to review your subscriptions, essentially your favorites, or browse all available publications. Once you download an item, it appears in your list of books just like any other downloaded book.
Tools and Settings
The tools menu contains the help and tutorials for the pod, in addition to the full manual in the books list. Settings is where you can connect to the internet, adjust display and speech options, check for updates, and more. I will cover the low-vision options in a moment, but they are quite comprehensive. Speech options include on/off, high and low verbosity, voice selection, rate and volume, and whether to use the book’s audio or the pod’s voice when reading books that have both. My only complaint with the speech settings is that I wish there was a wider range of rate choices. Even at ten, the maximum, I found myself wishing for an eleven or twelve, especially when navigating the menus. Another feature some might find beneficial would be separate message and reading voice rates (i.e., having one speed for navigating and another for reading).
Using the GuideReader Pod Visually
The GuideReader Pod allows for a fairly broad set of customization options for low-vision users. As I am totally blind myself, I asked one of my colleagues to evaluate the low-vision features. There are a number of foreground, background, and highlight options, in addition to cursor shapes, fonts, and the ability to turn on and off the reader highlight. The GuideReader Pod uses a color highlight when navigating menus, and my colleague expressed that the available color combinations were not ideal for her level of vision, and that she would prefer a focus rectangle around the selected option. When reading, the highlight was easy to follow and the text was clear and large. Other than the issue with the menu highlight, she was rather pleased with the visibility of the text and the number of customization options.
The GuideReader Pod is designed for the specific purpose of reading books both with audio and visually on a TV. I see this being particularly useful for low-vision users, especially seniors, who want to have their book on a large screen while also having the benefit of audio to improve comprehension or for when their eyes get tired. It could also be useful when a parent and child want to read together and at least one is low-vision. The execution is excellent, with simple menus and an easy-to-understand remote cutting out most of the complexity. The only improvements for the low-vision features that we found were the option to have a focus rectangle instead of highlight colors, and possibly color sliders for foreground, background, and highlight colors to give people total customization over the visuals. If you’re looking for an easy way to read a wide variety of content on a large screen, then give the GuideReader Pod a look. It’s available from Irie-AT in the United States for just under $500.