RealSAM player on a table, next to another piece of assistive technology

RealSAM speaker review

Working as a rehab worker with blind and partially sighted people it was very much my job to encourage people new to sight loss to learn to love audio books. I’ve spent hours teaching people how to use cassette recorders, multi-track players and boom boxes. More recently I demonstrated the Dolphin Easy Reader app which allows quick and easy access to RNIB, Calibre and other libraries from all around the world. This is the app I prefer to use when reading for pleasure.

RealSAM speaker

So, as an avid reader, I was pretty excited when e-mail dropped in telling me RealSAM speaker had arrived. RealSAM is a totally voice driven system allowing access to the best part of thirty thousand talking books. This alone persuaded me to part with £20 to test the system out. Here’s a quick description:

RealSAM speaker is an app or a skill for a smart speaker so you’ll need Amazon Alexa or Google home speakers connected to broadband in order for it to work. You also need to register for a RealSAM account and pay your £20 (it’s £19.99 really); this is a subscription up until end of 2021, the price then increases to £100 (so put a note in your diary to avoid an unwelcome surprise).

Once you have registered and paid you are sent a pin code; on a Google device say: “talk to RealSAM”, or on Alexa: “open RealSAM”, you are then prompted to speak your pin number.

Library access

You need to be a member of a library to access it through RealSAM – it currently supports Calibre, Librivox and Torch Trust. These library accounts have to be linked to RealSAM before you can listen to any books. If you are not already a member of the above libraries, you will need to visit their respective websites and register first. Linking these libraries to RealSAM entails a call to the customer service team at RealSAM. This might seem a bit of a palaver, but the RealSAM customer service team make up for it by being friendly and helpful!

Once everything is linked and ready to go, say the wake-up words (“talk to RealSAM” or “wake up RealSAM”) and you are into the menus. Most people could operate probably RealSAM without any prior knowledge, just by following the voice prompts, but I would recommend listening to the user guide and learning some basic commands. You do need patience, practise, and perseverance to make the best of RealSAM. Listening to the instructions will save you time.

You will find access to Podcasts, Calibre Audio Library and Librivox, with others to follow. You need to listen patiently and respond to the voice prompts. Be prepared to become stuck in a loop or to fall out of the app back into your regular smart speaker application. As I write Calibre has become disconnected which means I need to call RealSAM support. It is a new system and it is improving, but this also means that there are often glitches. In the time I’ve had it, RealSAM has learnt to understand me better and is making good guesses at what I’m trying to say if I’m not clear. So that’s been a positive step forward.

Verdict

I think RealSAM is a step in the right direction. It has the potential to provide people with sight loss with quick and easy access to spoken word content through the power of their voice alone. However, much of the podcast content is already readily available via smart speaker and you can currently pay for books via Audible or Google books. These libraries have simple interfaces (and don’t usually require a call to customer services to set up).

If you can afford £20 then it’s worth trying RealSAM, and more users will presumably help improve the product. RealSAM offers the potential to store all my libraries in one place, accessible with an easy voice command, which is an exciting prospect. However, it’s not quite there yet. I know I’ll be sticking to Dolphin Easy Reader for now, because it edges ahead on advantages – not least portability. If I always listened in one place and had difficulty handling my phone then I would be tempted.

By Jonathan Ward, London Vision Development Manager, April 2021

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