Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

A New Audio-Book Option Emerges

Books on cassette or cd, longstanding favorites for family car trips, daily commutes and business travel, are nothing new. But audio books have been given new life in the past few years, thanks to online services like Audible.com and iTunes. On these services, you can purchase an audio book in the form of a digital file, download it into your computer, and then transfer the selection to an iPod or other portable music player for use wherever you go.

For most people, this isn’t difficult. But some folks find the download-and-transfer process intimidating, or too much of a hassle. Others worry about downloading any files from the Internet, for security reasons; or they shun the large files required to hold spoken books, due to storage capacity issues on their computers or players.

Playaway
The front of each Playaway is decorated with the same illustration and title as found on the physical book’s cover.

For these minorities, there’s now another audio-book option, a device we’ve been testing over the past couple of weeks. It’s digital, portable and uses no tapes or discs. Yet it never requires any file downloading or transferring. This new gadget is a digital audio book permanently encased in its own audio player, and it’s called Playaway, from Findaway World LLC — a company in Ohio.

Playaway was introduced just about two months ago, so it has only 32 titles available so far, compared with 11,000 on iTunes and 26,000 on Audible.com. Most Playaways contain only one book, though a few come bundled with two titles by the same author. Each book costs between $35 and $55 — including both the player and the content. The company says the new product is being sold at major stores, including Barnes & Noble, Borders, Office Max and Officemax.com.

You can’t connect a Playaway to a computer, or erase books from it, or add books or music to it. In effect, each Playaway is a book, which happens to come with a cheap player. The Playaway stores its book content permanently on a memory chip inside. The book doesn’t expire, so you can collect multiple Playaways and listen to them multiple times, or pass them on to friends or relatives, like paper books — something that’s harder to do with book files meant for an iPod. All you have to do is replace the battery when it wears out.

Essentially, Playaway is a money-for-time or money-for-hassle trade-off. Over time, it will cost much more than other methods for listening to audio books, but it’s also much simpler. We can’t recommend Playaway for anyone who already has a computer and an iPod or other portable music player, and knows how to do downloads and transfers. But, for other folks who crave audio books and have deep pockets, it might work well.

The device measures roughly three inches high by two inches wide, and is about a quarter of an inch thick in the thickest spot, where an included AAA battery is stored. A Playaway comes with its own set of earbuds, which plug directly into the device. (You can also use your own earbuds if you have a better pair that you’d prefer using.) To start, simply attach the earbuds and press a button to begin listening to your book.

To test these tiny gadgets, we each listened to a Playaway — David McCullough’s “1776″ and Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”; they cost $50 and $35, respectively. We also passed out three other titles to three of Katie’s family members during a holiday vacation that included two five-hour plane trips. Our guinea pigs listened to “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim” by David Sedaris ($35), “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People/The 8th Habit, From Effectiveness to Greatness” by Stephen R. Covey ($40) and “Learn Anywhere! Spanish — The Complete Language Course” from Penton Overseas Inc. ($45).

Overall, we liked Playaway, and we found it simple to use when we followed a small sheet of included instructions. But we found the cost of each to be quite high, when compared with the audio books on Apple’s iTunes Music Store — some as much as $18 more. Of course, the Playaway titles include the built-in player, while the Apple titles, which come from Audible.com, require a computer and an iPod for the same portability.

Findaway is hoping you won’t mind paying extra to eliminate the extra steps of online purchasing, downloading, and then transferring the audio file to your portable music player. But, to put things in perspective, you could buy an iPod Shuffle for the price of two $50 Playaways. Better yet, for the price of four “1776″ Playaways ($50 each), you could buy an iPod Nano, which plays audio books, along with music, and can even display photos on its color screen.

Compared with books on CD, Playaways were still more expensive. Dan Brown’s best seller, “The DaVinci Code,” costs about $30 for an audio CD at Borders, $32 on iTunes, and $50 through Playaway.

The front of each Playaway is decorated with the same illustration and title as found on the physical book’s cover, so it looks like you have a mini version of the book hanging from your neck when you use the included lanyard. This is a nice plug for authors who don’t get as well advertised when their book is heard on a standard iPod.

Bookmarks, a popular digital feature, are offered on the Playaway. These are digital placeholders, and up to 50 can be set throughout the book by pressing a small button in the player’s upper right-hand corner. Skip Back and Skip Forward buttons let you skip through your book to the next chapter break or the next bookmark, whichever comes first.

We pressed another button, Reverse, to automatically rewind 15 seconds during an especially detailed part of “1776,” and Fast Forward performs the same function in the other direction.

The Playaway Button, in the center of the device below a tiny grayscale screen, performs four functions: power on, play, pause and power off. Play and pause worked when we pressed this button once, briefly; power off required that we hold the button down until we saw an on-screen, five-second countdown before the player turned off.

The screen itself was minute, but served its purpose. It displayed the current time of the book and also told us what chapter we were hearing. A battery indicator tells you how much juice is left on your AAA battery; books that run longer than nine hours come with two batteries.

We liked Playaway’s Voice Speed button, which adjusted the speed of the narrator to three different paces. But the Volume control was cheap and clumsy. It works only in one direction — up. So, to lower the volume, you first have to raise it all the way to the loudest level, before the control cycles back to the lower levels. You really have to blast the sound painfully, even if what you really want is to make it quieter.

Playaway is easy to use, and certainly very convenient. But unless you have some reason to dislike downloading books, and have lots of cash, it’s not the best way to go.


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