This page was last updated on December 31, 2010. I wrote this article solely to share my views and experiences regarding my search for the ultimate portable scanning/reading device and maybe give you some idea of what's out there. The information on this page such as pricing and available languages may not be accurate though. Whenever I come across new information I will update this page but I do not represent any of the companies named on this page and do not sell any of the products; I'm only the average AT user. Therefore you should always contact the company that develops and/or sells the product or visit their website before you make any purchasing decision.
Ever since I read about the KNFB Reader (about three years ago) the product intrigued me. For those of you who never heard of it, the KNFB Reader is an ultraportable scanning system (to scan and read text) brought to us by an American company (actually, it's a collaboration between mr. Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind; hence, K-NFB). With computers and printers getting smaller and even more portable I'd been wishing for a portable scanner for years. Granted, scanners are portable, strictly speaking, but in my opinion they're not small enough for use "on the go" and not practical either because one still needs a computer and most likely an outlet/wall socket to power the scanner. Using a separate, external camera (instead of a flatbed scanner) in conjunction with a netbook or mini laptop makes the configuration considerably smaller but still doesn't eliminate all of the drawbacks. Some companies sell really small scanners but from what I read I gather that they will scan separate sheets of paper but not books for example, let alone text on tins and boxes, signs and other not very flexible materials.
A handheld, battery powered device that would last me for several hours between (re)charges sounded good! The Reading Pen seemed like a nice option but I've been told by a knowledgeable salesperson that this is meant for dyslexic people and not for the blind. Why it wouldn't work for me I'm not totally sure; I'm guessing one has to put the pen across the text quite precisely rather than moving it across the page top to bottom and the software building a picture which it then interprets (OCR process). Obviously I won't be able to put the pen exactly on the text to be scanned. It's a pity it won't work though.
I do have a reading device called the Optacon (Optical to Tactile Converter) which I've had since 1994. I still use it occasionally and love it. Some people claim it's outdated and replaced by (flatbed) scanners; I disagree. In my opinion it still has its place in this world even though it's been out of production since the end of 1996. It has some unique features - or combination of features. It lets me read printed text (or look at images if I wanted to) by giving me a tactile representation of what the device's camera sees but it doesn't interpret (OCR) or save the information so it's not a scanner. The Optacon is very small, very portable and doesn't need any time to start, it's instantly ready to be used. In many ways it would be the answer to my portable scanner dream but there are two problems: it makes a noise that is quite audible and would probably annoy people terribly (especially at places like restaurants, museums and in meetings where people either expect some peace and quiet or need to concentrate) and the batteries are dead and can't be replaced due to the fact that the Optacon is no longer manufactured. I guess the Optacon world is running out of spare parts and I was extremely lucky when my Optacon needed some repair and a friend knew of a person who could (and would) do the job. It works again but needs an external source to power it (so I can't use it "unplugged" which somewhat limits its usability as a mobile device).
Even more exciting than the (stand-alone) KNFB Reader was the introduction of the KNFB Reader Mobile, an OCR and reading software that I can install on my mobile phone and which effectively turns the phone into a scanning device (or "reading machine"). It works like this: take a picture of the text using the phone's camera; the image is then imported into the program which performs the OCR (optical character recognition) thus rendering the text in digital characters and the program's built-in voice will read the text to me. The program is very rich in features (it also serves as a translator and recognizes different Dollar bills which have no distinctive tactile markings) and more features will be added in the future. For a long time there was no demo version and I haven't used the program myself. The KNFB Reader isn't cheap; initially the KNFB Reader software sold over here for 1325 Euro for the multilingual version; later, a single language version was added which sold for 1054 Euro. Such prices are always justified with the same phrase: "it's a niche market." Based on reactions I read on the internet about OCR programs for Mobile phones from people who are (mostly) not visually impaired I am convinced they could have marketed it much more widely and lowered the price. Recently (2nd quarter of 2010) the prices dropped to 1099 and 795 Euro respectively (multilingual / single language).
Since the health insurance company would not pay for the KNFB Reader software I went looking for alternatives that cost less. First, I found Multiscanner, a program made by Nokia and native to two of their phones. A free download of the software can be found on the internet. The reviews were a bit ambivalent ranging from "doesn't work" to "works perfectly". Supposedly it works on the N82 which is the phone I have. Downloading and installing it was easy. The nice thing about it is that it integrates with other programs so wherever you can access a jpg file containing text (I believe this is the only file format it supports) you can send it to Multiscanner which will perform the OCR process on it. You can choose either text scanning or business card scanning; in the latter case it supposedly puts the recognised text from the business card into the phone's contacts. Sounds very convenient. Starting the program the first screen lets me select "text scan" or "card scan". Mobile Speak (MS), which reads the text on the screen aloud, reads "card scan" but is sometimes silent when I arrow to text scan. However, giving the "read entire screen" command makes it read the "text scan" label. The first screen under "options" is not accessible: MS doesn't read any text to me. There are only a few options though so it is possible to learn them by heart and memorise the order in which they are listed (from right to left: open file, settings, update, help, exit). I found that I had to arrow right and left rather than up and down in this options menu. Once I get into the settings screen everything is read to me again. So that first options screen is a little hurdle but not impossible to overcome. Multiscanner was not designed for blind people and does not have its own built-in voice so everything is read by the screen reader (in my case Mobile Speak). The biggest problem I have is that I can't get anything legible out of the program. Holding the phone exactly in the right position over the text requires some practice so I asked my mother to play with it for a bit. She can see through the lens and determine whether the phone's camera could take a clear picture of the text. Although the view through the lens was promising, the resulting text was useless. I sent a .jpg file containing text to my phone. On the PC it converted to text quite nicely. Multiscanner recognised some text. Apparently the OCR engine is not as powerful as the one on the computer but it isn't rubbish either (as someone on the internet claimed). So it should work - but it still doesn't work for me; taking a picture and having the text recognised still doesn't result in anything meaningful. So much for that one.
Then I read about Textscout, a similar program made by a German company called Elumo. It initially sold for about 900 Euro but in October 2010 the price dropped to 599 Euro. Furthermore, there was a demo version long before there was one for the KNFB Reader. Textscout is a very nice, very accessible program. It may not have all of KNFB Reader's features but it certainly comes close when it comes to the scanning functionality; it will scan (+ OCR) and save documents and will tell you if the page was completely in view and if not, which part was missing. The unique thing about Textscout is that it does not perform the OCR process on the phone but rather sends the image over the internet to a computer where the process is performed and a text file is sent back to the phone. This has a few consequences:
you probably need a data plan (unless you only use wireless internet connections). The image files are about 200-250 kb in size so you might want to get yourself a generous data package allowing for quite a few megabytes of data transfer per month. Using the program abroad may get rather expensive.
If for whatever reason your phone does not have a signal and no wireless connection is available you can't have any text scanned.
I haven't used the KNFB Reader but I would think that in comparison the entire process takes a bit longer with Textscout (with all the data being sent back and forth).
The resulting text files are stored on your personal page on the internet. You can read and edit them, have them emailed to you or have an "archive" emailed to you periodically. I like this feature; you can access the files from any computer and so could others if you chose to share the login information (not something you should normally do but you could if you wanted to).
Another thing I really like about Textscout is that you can choose to have the scanned text read by your phone's screen reader. I think that is very clever as Textscout does not necessarily have to be available in your language; as long as you can deal with the menus in English and have a screen reader that is likely to speak your language you can read scanned text in your language. When I tried Textscout it was available in English and German so documents in those languages are read fine by Textscout's built-in voice. I used the English version and I found the voice to be pleasant and very clear. I got good scanning/OCR results too; pretty much as good as they get when using a computer and flatbed scanner. I believe that by now a number of other languages are supported. So in general I like the program; I think it's very good. I really like the "let your screen reader read the text" concept and the online saving of documents. It's cheaper than its famous American relative but a data plan would add some cost (if you don't have a data plan already). In my case, about sixteen months of proudly owning a data plan would bridge the difference in price between the German and the American products. The reason why I hesitate to go for Textscout is that I fear using it abroad would be expensive and that without a signal or wireless connection I'd be out of luck. When I emailed the company with questions about the program they were very kind and helpful. I still receive their very interesting newsletter and there is something in its tone, the sympathetic tone of the company, that always makes me want to buy their products. One important thing to note is that once the demo version expired I could no longer access the scanned texts online or via the Textscout software on the phone. Using the phone's own file manager I found the folder where the text files were stored on the phone so I could access the files that way but people might get a bit stressed when they find they can no longer read the text files going the usual route.
There is also BeyoCBS, another German product made by Beyo. They make a stand-alone scanning/OCR/reading device which I believe costs a few thousand Euro but they also have a software version for mobile phones. The price of version 2.0 of this software is 199 Euro and they too offer a very easy to obtain demo version. Installing version 1.3.1 (I believe) on a Nokia N82 running Mobile Speak version 3.82 didn't bring me much success. I emailed the company about my problems and everyone (including the two owners) was very patient, kind and really open to feedback (even if "feedback" meant a problem). They acknowledged there was a problem and said it was probably due to the program consuming all of the phone's CPU power. After I installed Mobile Speak version 4 I decided to try again, running a newer version of BeyoCBS (v1.4.2). Once I got the settings right (auto shoot off, flash on) it worked. The only real imperfections that I could see were that scanned documents could not be saved (so you couldn't go back and re-read a document) and BeyoCBS' built-in English voice insisted on reading the document before my screen reader got a chance to take over; this made reading a document somewhat slow. Well, at least BeyoCBS didn't (and doesn't) disable the screen reader altogether as I believe the KNFB Reader does. There were both an English and a German version of the program with built-in voices speaking the respective languages. The two annoyances mentioned above are fixed in version 2. This version supports more languages and stores the OCR results automatically. You can open and read them again using the BeyoCBS program or you can find them using file manager and perform all of the normally available actions such as sending, deleting etcetera. With these improvements I see the program as a serious competitor to the KNFB Reader, catering to those who are happy with a program that offers basic scanning/OCR/read&store functionality at a much more affordable price. I can't compare the quality of the OCR results as I haven't tried the KNFB Reader yet and I haven't really practised to obtain the best possible results with BeyoCBS but they're good enough to get a good idea of the document's contents and now that I can send them to my braille computer and read them in braille it should be even easier to decipher the text. A visually impaired friend and I were able, with the help of BeyoCBS, to figure out that a shop that would normally be open was now closed for some time due to "circumstances" - a note on the inside shop window. The program is now available in something like fifteen languages; each download is a single language package and I don't think you can install more than one. However, this doesn't have to be a problem since you can stop BeyoCBS' voice and let your screen reader do the talking.
STAND-ALONE DEVICES SUCH AS INTEL READER AND CLEARREADER+
It's interesting to see how different companies jump on the bandwagon of portable reading solutions. Like I mentioned before, KNFB and Beyo already sold stand-alone scanning/OCR/reading devices years ago. Intel came out with a stand-alone reading device not too long ago, the Intel Reader, which sells in the U.S. for something like 1500 dollars. If ever it comes to Europe it may very well cost the best part of 1500 Euro. That's how things usually are. For now it's not an option as I believe it only speaks English thus making text in "foreign" languages sound weird. It's bigger and more expensive than the mobile phone solutions but I'm sure there's a market for it. Not everybody likes a mobile phone's keypad. Choice is a good thing. (Reviews of the Intel Reader can be found in the audio section at blindbargains.com.) The latest addition to the market of mobile stand-alone scanning&reading devices is Optelec's Clearreader+. It costs over 2000 Euro as far as I know.
So to sum it all up:
A (mini) laptop + (ultra portable) scanner or camera:
is a configuration consisting of multiple components making it somewhat cumbersome to use "on the go";
may need an external source to power it;
flatbed scanners or ultra portable scanners are not as flexible in what they can scan
the hardware would generally be mainstream which usually gives you more choices, more flexibility in combining components and costs less. You could probably get the package for some 1150 Euro based on a netbook/minilaptop, scanner/camera including scanning program (hopefully sufficiently accessible to perform the basic tasks) and magnification/speech software (no braille, mainly marketed to partially sighted people). Using regular screen reader software meant for use by blind people adds at least 400 Euro to this price bringing it to 1550 Euro. Having said that, if you're brave enough to try a free screen reader this configuration would only cost you a few hundred Euro. Some form of screen reading software is absolutely necessary.
Stand-alone specialised mobile scanning/reading devices either cost thousands of Euro or don't speak my language making reading a text in my native language quite a challenge. They are great for people who feel intimidated by full-fledged computers or don't like the small keypads on mobile phones.
Software on a mobile phone gives you the smallest, most flexible scanning/reading device. The supported phones typically cost 300 Euro and up. As far as I know the options are
the first program of its kind
price is a disappointment: 1099 Euro for the multilingual and 795 Euro for the single language version
screenreader software is not necessary (in fact, if present it's disabled as far as I know)
many languages available
demo version introduced only after about 21 months; no simple, straightforward download it seems (you need to contact the company or a dealer to obtain a trial license)
the entire process (scanning/OCR/reading) takes place on the phone (offline - no data connection required)
total cost 1095 / 1399 Euro based on a 300 Euro phone and the single language / multilingual version of the KNFB Reader
the program is free
integrates nicely into the Nokia software
basic features: scan, OCR, save text
screen reader software is required as Multiscanner itself does not speak the text on the screen
Mobile Speak does not read all the options aloud but the short list of options should be easy to memorise
in my experience, using the Nokia N82 and Mobile Speak 3.82 and 4, the OCR results are useless (no meaningful text)
the entire process takes place on the phone (offline)
total cost 530 Euro based on a 300 Euro phone and the Mobile Speak screen reader version 4
the price of 595 Euro may just bring the program within reach
demo version that can simply be downloaded without any hassle
if you only read text in one of the eight supported languages (June 2010) a screen reader is not required (once you create a hotkey to start the program)
three languages can be installed at the same time (making the program multilingual)
the program does not have to speak your language as you can choose to let the screen reading software read the text to you
OCR takes place online which will often add the cost of data transfer (especially if used abroad - unless you can use a wireless internet connection) and without a signal or wireless internet you can't have any image "converted" to text
text is also stored online and you can log in to your personal page from any computer to access these texts
the program is very accessible: options and menus are read nicely
the built-in English voice I worked with was very clear and pleasant
very sympathetic company, made me want to buy from them; helpful and open to consumers' feedback
after the demo expires you cannot access your scanned documents anymore via the Textscout website or the Textscout software on the phone (this could take you by surprise)
total cost 895 Euro (data cost not included) based on a 300 Euro phone and assuming you don't need a screen reader. If you do need a screen reader, eithr to get to the program on your phone or to read text in an unsupported language, Mobile Speak v4 would bring the price to 1125 Euro
more affordable at 199 Euro
basic: scan, OCR, read, save text automatically, open (and re-read) saved document
demo version, easy to download
reads resulting text in one of fifteen languages (not multilingual - only one language can be installed)
the two voices I tried were really clear and nice to listen to
screen reading software required to read text in other languages (screen reader is not disabled)
accessible: built-in voice reads options/menus
the entire scan/OCR/reading process takes place on the phone
friendly company, caring and helpful owners and staff
Beyo GmbH is extremely generous to users upgrading from version 1.x to version 2.0
total cost 499 Euro based on a 300 Euro phone and assuming you do not need a screen reader; if you do need a screen reader, Mobile Speak v4 would bring the total cost to 729 Euro
Maybe I'll try the demo version of the KNFB Reader just to see how the OCR results compare with those of BeyoCBS but Beyo GmbH has made my dream come true of a small, compact, flexible, battery powered device that will both scan and save text offline and read it in my native language. I am still very interested to see how the KNFB Reader and its alternatives develop. In my opinion BeyoCBS is serious competition for the Americans and rightly gets the attention of international dealers of assistive technology. I certainly recommend BeyoCBS to people who would like to have a good, affordable mobile scanning&reading solution. It's still a pity that Multiscanner doesn't seem to work for me. However, I recently obtained an E71, one of the phones that comes with this program pre-installed (on the memory card) so once I figure out how this phone works I will give Multiscanner another try.