I know many have a great disdain for audio books, but I rather like them. They are ideal for commuting (far better than most morning/talk radio drivel) and long drives to and from hikes. Nonetheless, I’m still a bit self-conscious when I swing by the audio book section of my local book store. It was on one such trip recently, however, that I saw these self-playing audio books hanging in the same section as CD and cassette audio books. Essentially its a small digital audio player complete with batteries and headphones, with a specific book preloaded. The manufacturer is a company called Playaway and I decided to take a closer look.

My first suspicion was that these were related to those awful self-destructing DVDs several manufacturers have been pushing. Each is about the size of a deck of playing cards and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the devices is reusable and is even powered by a AAA (included). And not only are they resusable, Playaway encourages you to share them with friends & family or donate them (Playaway includes some interesting suggestions including trading them with other users).

A small lanyard is included to allow the user to wear the player around her neck, although I would have preferred a clip instead. Features are basic but sufficient for audio book listening:

  • 10 level volume control
  • 3 level voice/reader speed control
  • Set bookmark (up to 50 user set markers)
  • Skip back/forward by chapters
  • Fast forward / Reverse within a chapter
  • Power/Pause/Off button
  • B&W LCD screen (shows time, features, battery life, etc)
  • 3.5mm headphone jack (compatible with most custome earphones and output devices such as car adaptors, fm transmitters, etc)
  • Earbuds

Now the drawbacks… they aren’t cheap. At about $40-50 each they could add up very quickly, making even a small digital music player and downloaded audio books a cheaper option (50% to 75% cheaper per title) for the “power user”. They are reasonable close to the cost of normal audio book CDs though. The current Playaway library is small and focuses primarily on bestsellers and wide appeal titles (in all fairness, they are adding more quickly. There does not appear to be anyway to offload the content of Playaway or alter it, although I’m sure it’s only a matter of cracking one open, violating all manner of EULAs and applying a bit of solder and wire. But if you’re headed down that road, you might as well install Linux while you’re in there. :-)

My final conclusion is that they are a neat implementation, great “grab and go” travel niceties. I applaud Playaway’s realistic and open-minded view towards sharing them. If you consume very large numbers of audio books or are looking for specialty topics, I’d recommend a nice mid-range digital music player and one of many download services.