This is by no means an authoritative guide to choosing a reading pen. Nevertheless, having owned and used one for three years, from a user’s perspective, there are some things that really matter that one should take note of when purchasing a reading pen. Before I go further, I should clarify that although the points below may apply to reading pens in general, they are more based on my experience with a Chinese reading pen, specifically, the Emoti Reading Pen.
1. It has to be very easy to use
Kids are the ones who use the reading pen so operation-wise, it has to be very very easy so that even a young preschooler can operate it, even know how to charge it, without the help of an adult. I actually own a different kind of Chinese reading pen that is not that easy to operate. It works quite differently from the Emoti one and is more complicated to operate. Although kids are generally quite smart and can learn very fast, given two pens, I would pick the easier one any time.
Kids are not the only one who need to know how to operate the reading pen. Ease of use also applies to the adults because we are the ones who will do the harder stuff like loading the audio files of the books into the pen. I once owned an English reading pen that required, firstly, for us to install a certain software into our computer in order for the computer to communicate with the pen. Secondly, the capacity of the pen was so small that every time we changed a batch of books (4 or 5 per batch), we had to reload the content into the pen. It was very troublesome and we did not like it at all.
In comparison, the Emoti pen worked like an external storage device, just like an external HDD or a thumb drive. It does not require a special software to work. And its capacity is big enough to load almost everything inside. This difference is enough to make or break the deal for us.
2. Quality of the Pen
Kids are the ones who use the reading pen so it has to be hardy and cannot break on impact or malfunction when the on/off button gets pressed too often too fast. I think this is pretty common sense. Among the pens that I have owned so far, I have to say that the Emoti one is still the last one standing.
3. Range of books available
A reading pen makes reading books easier. Therefore, the pen can only be useful if there are books it can read. Books and reading pens are tied together. If you buy Brand A reading pen, the pen can only read books from the same brand. Hence, if Brand A carries more books than Brand B, then Brand A reading pen will be more useful to you than Brand B’s reading pen. In a way, you can say that the value of the pen is not reflected by its price but by the availability of books it can read. A very cheap pen with limited books is pretty much a waste of money compared to a more expensive pen with a lot of books available. This is because it is not about how much absolute dollars we fork out for the pen but how much value we are getting out of the money we paid.
I don’t know about you but personally, I find that choosing Chinese books for my kids is so much harder than choosing English books. First of all, what I find interesting may not interest them. Second of all, what I find manageable may be completely over their heads. I learned to take pains to read through, at least flip through some pages, and actually read the content in order to judge whether the books are suitable or not. If there are not many books available, choosing the right books become much harder.
Having said that, it is quite pointless if there are books but none good. From my experience, sellers like to appeal to parents’ wish for academic excellence by stocking a lot of books on learning. E.g. books on vocabulary, Chinese word lists, Left brain right brain activities, learning activities. These books have their uses but they are frankly uninteresting and do not have literary quality. The other kind of books that these sellers like to push to parents in a bid to appeal (again) to their quest for academic excellence are the books on Idioms (成语), or classic studies like San Zi Jing (三字经) and Di Zi Gui (弟子规). It would be a very rare child who will find these interesting read and want to read it on his own. It would be rather incredible to expect these books to cultivate a love of reading in a child.
4. Quality of books available
When it comes to fiction and stories, the most commonly seen among reading pen books are the standard western fairy tales or Chinese historical stories. Some of the translation are not well done, and illustration very dated. There are actually a lot of quality Chinese story books with great content and illustration. Right now, not many have made it into the Reading Pen range. Emoti seems to have the most books compared to the other reading pens and among the books they carry, there are at least some titles that are of reasonable quality. Eg. the 笨笨猪 series by 杨虹樱. This is why I am sticking to this brand and have recently upgraded to a newer version.
5. Support and Warranty
Reading Pen, plus the accompanying books, is not a small investment. Ideally, the company can be around for a long, long time so that there is always technical and sales support available, and there will always be new content coming out. Imagine buying a set of pen and books only to have the company disappearing from the scene next year and there are no more new books to be had. A reading pen is not like another toy – when it is out of order, just buy a new one. Because it costs a bit of money, especially if you include the costs of additional books, I do feel that being able to get replacement or repair services easily is an important issue. The other reading pen set that I have is of a more questionable quality and I tend to use it with trepidation for fear that it would breakdown. Getting it fixed or replaced is a pain.
Repair and replacement is not the only issue that we have to think about. Aftersales support include downloading of content into the pen. Sometimes, for one reason or another, we may face with a situation where we need to load content into the pen. It is important that we can get hold of the audio file of the content easily and be able to load it in easily. Thankfully, my Emoti pen comes with all the books preloaded. The audio files can also be downloaded from Emoti’s website. So this definitely gives me peace of mind. This is also the very reason why even though now it is much easier to get cheaper reading pens online from China, I am hesitatnt to get them this way. I much prefer the security of knowing where and how I can get things working and where I can get the audio files again should I need the support.
Disclosure : Emoti was very kind to give me a set of its latest model when I approached them with the intention of paying for an upgrade. I am under no obligation to write a blurb in exchange for the pen. The idea for this article came about because recently I came across quite a number of people who were thinking of getting a reading pen and they have asked me for some information on choosing one.