Do your eyes ache from slogging through the latest Harry Potter, waiting for the now-legal Hermione to finally let her hair down and get jiggy? Rest your eyes, friend, help is on the way in the form of the Plustek BookReader, which does exactly what its name implies — it reads to you. Just plunk a novel on the platen, punch a button, and bingo boingo: you’re relaxing to the dulcet sounds of Jill, a computerized voice with a voracious appetite for literature. Granted, you still have to turn the pages, but you’ll never have to strain your ocular orbs again.
The BookReader is Plustek’s bid to revitalize the otherwise unexciting scanner category. The company gussied up its OpticBook 3600 (a scanner aimed at the comic book collector market — seriously), giving it the ability to read aloud or produce MP3 or WAV files that you can save for later or put on your iPod.
Now, this is not really meant for lazy readers or illiterate ex-Nazis with an eye for schoolboys, but it could be a helpful tool for the visually impaired.
Setting up and using the BookReader is straightforward, despite some shockingly loud audio prompts telling you repeatedly to be patient while the software installs. There’s also a litany of announcements made in accented English, including a British-sounding chap asking you to please “be shuah the BookReader is switch on.” But that appears to be his only line, as the reader’s primary voice, Jill, soon takes over.
Using the BookReader is simple: Put a book on it, press the button, and off you go. The buttons and power switch are marked in Braille for finger-readers, but you will really only use the main button most of the time. All of the desktop software’s menus read themselves when you mouse over them, and they have keyboard shortcuts, which is useful if you have reduced vision. Jill is pretty good at recognizing words. We tried out several books, including one heavy with medical jargon, and she held her own with just a few exceptions.
Those exceptions can be very confusing, especially if you can’t verify what was said visually. The OCR is not perfect, and it will occasionally jam two words together, making a tongue twister out of the resulting chimera. You can’t customize the dictionary to alter Jill’s interpretation of commonly-used but horribly-flubbed words, acronyms, or numbers. Also, if you have many numbers and or charts in your reading material, Jill makes a mess of it, spewing robotic jibber-jabber.
Useful as it is, we could not help noticing that the BookReader seems to be slightly undercooked. At $600, the unit seems to be terribly overpriced as well, especially since the the OpticBook it’s based on only costs $250 — and also has a text-to-speech function. If the software were cleaned up and Plustek took a bit more time making sure everything works right, the BookReader would be a better deal.
We don’t know if the association with a hot Nazi will help or hurt sales, but Plustek should not count on many people snapping these up, unless it lands a big contract with the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good.