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Ask the Readers: Blindness Notetaker VS. Laptop or iPhone with Braille Display

Matt McCubbin Tuesday, 10-Jan-2012 1:59 PM ET
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We're often asked "should one purchase a dedicated blindness braille notetaker, or a laptop or iPhone and a braille display?"
Is there still a need for a dedicated notetaker, or have mainstream solutions paired with a display or keyboard replaced it?
If you've moved away from notetakers, are there features that could cause you to rekindle your prior love for a notetaking device? Sound off in the comments.

Category: Resources
Displaying 43 comments.
nimer Tuesday, 10-Jan-2012 2:36 PM ET:

With the advent of smaller braille displays like thre refreshabraille and the braille connect and with the advancements in accessibility on multiple mainstream platforms I'm afraid the days of the blindness assistive tech are numbered. Most of it is outdated, lacks storage, and is over the top on price. Some users want to keep it simple, so will opt for one of these devices, but most I think will go mainstream. It's more cost-effective even with the added purchase of a braille display.


DougS Tuesday, 10-Jan-2012 3:28 PM ET:

In the world of digital technology, everything seems to lose its luster or just plain become outdated. Unfortunately, even the blind friendly notetaker is one such device. If you can live without a braille display, mainstream devices are a total no brainer. As stated above, even when you add a braille display to a mainstream device, it still works out to be cheaper a lot of times. Cost effectivness isn't the only reason notetakers are going the way of the TRS80. Makers of these things have done a less than satisfactory job of keeping notetakers current. How did we manage to not have an android based notetaker for instance? If someone did that, their notetaker might have a place in this world just because we as a community would support them because there are many who just like the idea of a non apple PDA type device.


RainParade Tuesday, 10-Jan-2012 4:24 PM ET:

I am a reluctant Apex user. I also use an iPhone, a PC at work, and a Mac with Fusion and Windows 7 at home. Here’s my workflow: The BrailleNote is usually a terminal for one of my three other devices. I do not use the address list, planner, etc. However, I use the word processor for quick notes; book reader for pleasure reading; calculator and clock; and a custom database for face-to-face interviews at work. In each of those use cases, the instant-on of the device, plus the one chord to take me to the app, soundlessly, are the deciding factors. I will always need a flexible terminal for my more powerful devices. To me, this flexibility must include a set of basic utilities that is as quick and versatile as a print scratch pad and demands as little of my brain-power as possible. I will always want to jot notes in the word processor and flip between them and the terminal; and I will always want books in a format that can be activated in one switch, browsed by any element with one chord, and searched with one chord. Frankly, I also appreciate having a backup, albeit a dumber one, if my iPhone or other devices fail. None of this is to say that I appreciate paying almost six thousand dollars for what amounts to a Braille display strapped to a Palm Pilot circa 2000. I think that, given the low cost of processors and memory, the low-level tasks the BrailleNote does should be included on almost every Braille display. Again, there’s a clear need for an onboard equivalent to paper and pencil. The marketing of the BrailleNote far outstrips its ability to deliver when it comes to software. I might use the web browser or email client if I were in a hostage situation, but I would probably be a goner before I managed to send out a cry for help. The word processor needs an Undo function. The speech engine needs to go faster; I don’t want to switch to my Mac or PC every time I need to slog through some boring technical or academic stuff at 500 WPM, thanks. Books should permit annotations even when they aren’t DAISY: I’m just asking for permission to drop some Post-it notes. Load time between two book-length text files should not be noticeable time: that’s why we have RAM and, allegedly, software optimization. The BrailleSense and PacMate admittedly have most if not all of the same issues. My reluctance to use the BrailleNote goes further than my opinion of the software’s value. I abhor the cheaply constructed, jittery scroll wheel. I find the input keys enormously loud. The construction of the device is flimsy; nothing that costs so much should be made of plastic. I have nicer thermoses. The battery, compared to almost every other Braille display’s, is weak sauce, and the gauge of remaining charge is flighty and infuriating. The microphone makes me sound like a baby tooth calling for help through a goosedown pillow, wondering where its fairy is. At least the folks at HIMS used nicer plastic and a microphone that can beat my grandma’s answering machine in a fair fight. To sum up, the pricing of Braille displays of course hurts; notetaker pricing hurts double and it makes me sick to think about what I spend every 3-4 years to feel like a pro with a pencil. Because Braille NOtetakers are meant to do more, they are able to disappoint more. I would have hoped that by 2012 we would have found ourselves entering into a bargain with the notetaker companies wherein cash dollars have an inverse relationship with disappointment. No such luck.


bluecansam Wednesday, 11-Jan-2012 08:57 AM ET:

I just wanted to post and say that my opinion pretty much completely matches up with RainParade's. Well said! I would add, though, that portability, for me, will nearly always be a deciding factor. I could use a laptop and a Braille display to do more than a BrailleNote can, but that’s two clunky devices I have to cart around. I wish that BrailleNotes were a bit more powerful, had a better browser and email client, allowed SDKs so users could create apps, and that Braille Displays were much, much cheaper to manufacture. With how current technology is going, there’s no real reason for these not to be viable additions to any note taking device.


Chad Wednesday, 11-Jan-2012 09:03 AM ET:

As a general rule, I prefer to use mainstream technology over proprietary, blindness-specific products. Years ago I bought a PAC Mate with a 40-cell Braille display, thinking that the bulk of the cost would be purchasing the display and that I could upgrade the PAC mate's hardware as it would mature. Sadly, while possessing a lot of potential, the PAC mate's hardware hasn't been upgraded significantly. However, to Freedom Scientific's credit, my Pac Mate still functions well after five or six years of use, and I still use it for reading books, jotting down notes, and a few other functions. Having owned an iPhone for two years, I find it an intriguing prospect to use an Apple product paired with a bluetooth Braille display. This would theoretically allow you to purchase something like an iPad and a bluetooth Braille display for around $3300, which is around half the cost of blindness-specific units like the BrailleNote or Braille Sense. The tradeoff is that you are carrying around two products instead of one, and you have to ensure that both are charged. Nevertheless, this potentially cost-effective solution is quite compelling for voc-rehab agencies, educational institutions, and the federal government, who are being forced to make their dollars count as the result of budget cuts. As these agencies are likely the most common purchasers of notetakers due to their prohibitive expense, the manufactureres will take a hit if their primary customer decides to invest their dollars elsewhere. This would theoretically force them to innovate in order to compete, or drive them out of business. It will be a hard sell for procurers of notetakers if you can accomplish the same tasks and more with an iPad and a Braille display for half the price of a notetaker. If an Android notetaker comes on the scene, I will investigate it, but the only compelling reason I see for notetakers to survive is the use of Braille. Unfortunately, the cost of Braille displays will likely remain high in the future, which will keep these devices expensive.


deanm Wednesday, 11-Jan-2012 10:09 AM ET:

Indeed RainParade pretty much summed up the Apex experience, but despite all that, I always cringe when people proclaim that the functionality of a dedicated notetaker can be replaced by a combo of a braille display with a mobile phone. I do not know if the situation is better with Android phones; I haven't heard tell that it is. With the iPhone, limitations on their bluetooth implementation preclude doing extensive braille writing using a braille device for input. The translation system is different from what most users are accustomed to, but even if you adapt to that, the system works inconsistently. Characters are back-translated when they shouldn't be, sometimes in sequence, leading to some difficult results to correct. This has been my experience using two displays, and has been confirmed by other users. Additionally, it is virtually impossible to search for text within an app on the iPhone and have the cursor land on it, it is difficult on the iPhone to work with the range of file formats supported on the Apex, andno real word processing app is accessible. Combinations of, say, a netbook and a braille display, while a lot less expensive than a new notetaker, are simply unwieldy, and they also depend on expensive screen readers, at least on the windows side. So for the serious braille user, there is still a place for dedicated notetakers, however antiquated and ill-supported they may be.


Bargain Hound Wednesday, 11-Jan-2012 3:12 PM ET:

Yes, hats off to blindness-specific note takers, they always will have a place! Great reasons were given in above comments and it must also be borne in mind that PC use can be very frustrating and, at times, maddening. Even with a screen reader, I often shake my head, asking myself what this darn PC is doing now and is it doing what I think it's doing. With note takers, operations are much better defined. I also get really tired of trying to search out info regarding how to do this and that using a PC, there is no one info repository and it gets even more interesting if instructions say to click the blue button or some such impossibility for a totally blind PC user, even with a screen reader. With note takers, all instructions are in the manual and other readily available guides, on manufacturers' and resellers' sites and from the company by phone or E-mail and there are E-mail lists for answers and suggestions, affording ease of research for users. Another point: If seated in a confined space, one small product is sure easier to use than a mainstream device and a display would be and how would you conveniently stand, for instance, during church services, to use that combo? I condemn note takers being called ghetto products, there is no room for such disparagement. Another reason for not making cost the primary issue: I have never heard many sighted people complain about car prices and it is my understanding that today, the average car cost is $20,000 and, of course, it only goes up from there, such as for Lamberghinis, et cetera. If car manufacture, so ubiquitous today, is still so expensive, why wouldn't Braille display technology be costly? The fact that the blindness market is a niche one must also be taken into account. Remember also that one person's obsolescence is another's perfect fit. Beth


darknexus Wednesday, 11-Jan-2012 4:13 PM ET:

Blindness notetakers are dying. There's no way around it. Regardless of what you think about their functionality, the inflated cost, outdated hardware, and limited flexibility combined will kill them in the end. Most blind people that I know who have one of these devices didn't even purchase them; their respective agencies did. With the economy in a backslide and funds at an all-time low, one of two things will have to happen: the blindness technology companies will either have to cut their prices way down, or they will die off. That's the essence of a free market, and these companies are not exempt from the rules of economics. I, for one, will be glad when they die off. This ultra-expensive, proprietary technology does nothing except set us apart from our peers and isolate us. They had their place two decades ago, when most mainstream devices weren't accessible and we couldn't have a PDA in our pocket. Their time, however, has passed. The argument about having two devices is ridiculous when one of them can fit in your pocket. Sure, the translation system can be different especially in the case of an Apple device, but all things change in time. In our world of technology, one either must change with it or fall behind, whether they be blind or not.


RainParade Wednesday, 11-Jan-2012 4:52 PM ET:

Beth, I empathize with your love of your notetaker. Mine is by my side almost at all times. However, I think it’s important to separate our love of a literacy and fluidity that is still novel from a trend of mediocrity in design an prices that have plateaued at the stratospheric. Let me tell you what I did about that pesky problem of standing up, moving around or fitting into cramped subway seats with my BrailleNote-iPhone combo. I had a case made. The case has a vertical mount on the backboard so that, with the BrailleNote’s USB end resting on my lap, I can use all device controls or reach above/between the center thumb keys to access the iPhone touchscreen. It’s perfect. My case is aluminium inside, leather outside, with metal D-rings and a leather strap. All thumb keys are exposed with no leather divisions because I didn’t like the way those divisions felt. I also went ahead and covered up the blinkie lights and video port, exposed each USB port separately and added a Velcro on the backboard, which you cannot see, to make real sure the BrailleNote never ever comes out of the case. I was my only design team. I spent $30 on leather, $5 on aluminium, $5 on a strap, $2 on Velcro and $0 on the D-rings because I took them off an old handbag. What I’m trying to say here is that good design doesn’t have to be costly and it doesn’t require genius. I think anyone who pays thousands for one of these devices deserves a case that is rugged, classy and versatile. Now, about cars. Cars. They have hundreds of moving parts, from the combustion engine to the windshield wipers to the locking mechanisms. They contain the equivalent of two chairs and a couch, and many allow these amenities to warm up, recline and do other cool stuff. Cars are heavily regulated and, in consequence, lots of R&D money goes into (I hope) safety and infrastructure. Cars use heavy-duty metal that is so valuable that even scrap can be, and is, sold. Cars use temperature-resistant, heavy-duty paint; embedded computer systems for steering, cooling, heating, media, gas and speed readouts, and navigation. Cars contain expensive materials like nylon and shatter-proof glass. I’m sorry but there is no more comparision between a car and a notetaking than there is between a notetaker and any other dear thing: Birkenbag, hot tub, necessary medical procedure. Let me put it another way. Sighted Americans spend a low of $200 to a high of $1000 for notetakers: tablets, Kindles, Nooks, Galaxies, Primes. They use those things for word processing, planning, contacts, email, the Internet, media, databases, calculators, book reading, games, and file management: sound familiar? But also for video chat, Netflix, tuning instruments, browsing recipes, checking the weather, taking photos and scanning barcodes. Sounds less familiar. I have to imagine that, if sighted Americans found that their tablet habit suddenly cost six to thirty times as much as it does today, with an accompanying decrement in features, technical support hours and upgrade cycles, there would be an outcry that would make the Windows Vista launch look like a ticker-tape parade. I think it’s legitimate that we forgive (for now) the high cost of Braille cells, the shortened tech support hours that arise from serving a small market, slightly longer turnaround times for repairs: the kind of things that are clearly matters of necessity. However, I think that it is dangerous to consider every software, hardware, marketing or design flaw through, forgive me this pun, rose-tinted specs. There is no good economic, development cycle-related or market-related reason why devices need to use old code, anemic apps, or cheap shells and cases. No reason at all.


miahtech Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 03:01 AM ET:

For almost all people, I would highly recommend a bluetooth keyboard, and an IPhone. Much cheaper and works very well. If you want a Braille display as well, I would suggest getting a bluetooth display. The blindness notetaker is not worth obtaining for most people. They are over priced, always behind current technology standards, and if something breaks, a lot more complicated to get repaired or replaced in a decent amount of time.


bluecansam Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 08:41 AM ET:

You can fit a laptop in your pocket? I’ve obviously been shopping in the wrong computer stores. There is already one major factor that sets us apart from our peers, and that is our blindness; I don’t think the fact that we’re using an iPhone will somehow, amazingly negate that. I’m not making excuses for Humanware or Freedom Scientific because I think everyone here has thoroughly outlined all the major issues, and they all come down on the side of these companies doing more for the community. However, if all these conditions were met—better software, casing, processing speed, functionality, etc—there would be no reason not to get a note taking device. I would much rather use a device that has the same functionality as an iPhone, laptop, whatever that allows me to use speech output and Braille, and look weird pulling out a strange device that no one else in the office has, rather than pulling out an iPhone, looking hip and only having speech. I’m content with being different. It’s productivity, flexibility, my ability to adapt and learn that will allow me to keep up, and liking my note taker doesn’t impede that at all. These products need to get better, no one is denying that, but they do and will always, in my opinion, have a place in the blind community.


hillco Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 11:51 AM ET:

A lot of good points here. One thing some notetakers can do which an iphone can't quite do yet is allow for easy book reading and navigation. I have the Learning Ally app and the bookshare app, and neither work as well as doing the same job on a vr stream or icon. My biggest problem with pda's for the blind, other than their price, is the problem of repairs. I've sent my Icon in a couple of times and waited, and waited and waited. If you rely on a piece of technology, and paid big money for it, the least the manufacturer could do is have an advanced replacement program and a quick and easy way to snap out your memory card, hard drive or whatever, stick it into a replacement unit and get on with your life. Lacking that just proves that these companies aren't all that concerned with user productivity. The great thing about an iphone is that if it dies, I can part with a great big chunk of change (or maybe I'm due for an upgrade anyway) and be back in business within a few hours. Now if there was just a decent word processor, the Learning ally app had rewind and fast forward, and it could read nls books, I'd be perfectly content.


mehgcap Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 2:05 PM ET:

I have used a BrailleNote since 2002. At first, it was the most incredible thing ever, especially once keyweb came along and I started learning how to go online, get emails, and so on. Now, I have an iPod Touch and use the apex as a braille keyboard/display. Having used the two in combination and separately for about a year now, I can honestly say that I would be okay with switching to a dedicated display with my iPod and getting rid of the apex completely. As others have said, Humanware (and other blindness companies) rely on very outdated hardware (a 500mhz processor? really?) and underwhelming software, then charge an arm and a leg for it. I understand that things must cost more, but $200 per upgrade, when that upgrade only introduces a couple new features? All my iOS upgrades are free, and include huge lists of improvements, fixes, and new features, most or all of which are completely accessible. The notetaker, I feel, has a place in certain settings, but not all. The wordprocessor (mostly for its handling of braille, not its actual wordprocessing features) is best on a notetaker; the calculator is easiest since you can just type in what you want, in Nemeth or your favorite code, instead of finding and hitting buttons on a screen; and the book handling capabilities rival those of other platforms. However, I rarely use the calculator, and there may well be an app that lets you type in an expression; I do the bulk of wordprocessing on my pc, relying on a mobile solution only for taking notes anyway; I almost never have to move around a book, so iBooks or Read2Go work very well for me. Are there features of notetakers that should come to iOS? Certainly, including more keyboard navigation, better braille support (though the computer braille support in iOS5 has made brailling on my iPod very easy and I no longer have translation problems), and keyboard shortcuts to launch apps and perform different functions. However, look at how far iOS has come in the last few years in terms of accessibility, then tell me that more features will never arrive. You simply cannot do it. As to laptops, I agree with other posters that a huge part of a mobile solution is just that: mobility. I use the iPod/apex combo because it is portable and I can use it even when standing or walking around. A laptop, even a netbook, requires you to open it, make sure the display is connected (probably needing headphones initially to keep your screen reader from telling the whole room what you are up to), then doing something with it while you use the keyboard on the braille display. If you use the laptop's keyboard, you still have to put the display somewhere, which seems like an awkward prospect on a bus, subway, or even in a low-space setting like a church service or a class with small desks. With the iPod, I can leave speech off and I just have to enter terminal mode on the apex, unlock the iPod, and wait a few seconds for the two to connect. To jot a note, I would then search for the notes app and open it. Is it as simple as turning on the apex, hitting the wordprocessor hotkey, and creating a new file? No, but it is also much better than dealing with a laptop, then having to deal with two full-sized devices just to write something down. In summary, I think notetakers are going to be gone soon unless companies get their act together and start adding features, both in hardware and software, that users want. Personally, I am okay with this and will recommend mainstream solutions, or at least solutions that do not cost thousands (NVDA over JFW, for instance) whenever possible. In fact, my former braille instructor recently asked me what I recommend for an upcoming braille student: Braillenote or iPod with a display. I had to go with the iPod simply because it is so much more capable than the Braillenote. As one small example, I got a dictionary app for free that does everything I could ask for in a dictionary. A similar app for the Apex would cost $200; I could put down $30 more and get a second iPod for that price!


Bargain Hound Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 2:38 PM ET:

Hi again, I need to state that I do not now own a note taker, I am researching them. Another comments about carrying a PC and a Braille display: I would think accidentally hitting keys would be more likely on a PC than on a note taker and you also have to wake up the PC, make sure the screen is off or at the appropriate brightness. Give me a Braille keyboard anytime for live note taking, for speed and accuracy. I believe HIMS has a program for getting a loaner Braille Sense note taker product to you if yours is being repaired. Even though most people seem unhappy with note takers' software, companies do update and, from what I have read, the process seems extremely easy and pleasant, something I cannot say for mainstream PC updating. Beth


Wildebrew Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 3:45 PM ET:

Whereas I do not currently own a notetaker, I have used them in the past. A few things confuse me. @Bargainhound, how can typing on a braille keyboard possibly be faster than regular typing? If that is true for you, you're definitely one of few people with excellent mastery of grade II and supremely skilled fingers. I know I could not come close and I don't like braille typing if I can avoid it. I have a 12-inch Lenovo X220 with 9-hour battery life, 4gb memor i5 processor etc etc. It wakes up in about 5 seconds without problems and I work without braille in smaller settings, like on a bus or on an airplane without any hassle. It all depends on people's approaches, but we need to keep in mind that far more users use speech only than braille, and people who use both probably more often go with speech only over braille only when given an option, not unless the subject is math or something to do with highly technical code that does not lend itself well to synthesizer reading. With regards to the two-device problem. I've used a Braillepen12 comfortably with my iPhone while it is stuck in my pocket, so it's not like I need to hold two devices at once for work, and they're both comfortably small. All that being said, if a dedicated braille notetaker came along that runs on a mainstream OS and can run mainstream applications, at a reasonable price tag that does not rely on proprietary applications for things like word processing etc, a device with capable enough hardware and mainstream software that can be updated as technology evolves, I'd be interested. As far as I understand that is what the Irion/BraillePlus notetaker is supposed to be, though there are clearly technical hurdles as it is already almost a year late. I give them a bit of a leeway, adapting Android to a Braille notetaker is definitely a challenge in its own right. But it brings up another point with the A.T. companies. It seems they have no notion of customer service or responsibility. Remember the Blio fiasco and the Blio is not even accessible still .. not fully, Humanware advertizing the Brailliant displays as compatible with Apple when the driver had not even been signed by Apple, the fact that the BrailleNote cannot even read DocX files (or could not a few months ago, possible there may have been an upgrade since). What if these companies, instead of putting resources into proprietary hardware and software, used the same resources to improve braille input and output for mainstrea devices, for instance, wouldn't that be a smarter approach. They know about Assistive Technology, voice synthesis, non-visual user interfaces, braille etc, but they are no experts in writing Word processing or calculator apps. Wouldn't it be most efficient to leave that work and the hardware manufacturing to mainstream companies who do it better and in larger quanities, driving down the price?


hillco Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 5:48 PM ET:

Wildebrew, you make a good point. Software today is so complex and we expect so much out of it, that it truly makes no sense for a small company to attempt to write a word processor or spreadsheet from the ground up. I'm sure modifying an open-source app isn't any kind of picnic, some mind reading is likely rquired, but where would you even begin to write a word processor that can interface with microsoft word files? I suspect it is a lot simpler to modify existing software to produce accessible output than it would be to attempt to write the software from scratch, which seems to be the path some note-taker developers have taken. It is no wonder they are farther behind every year.


darknexus Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 8:20 PM ET:

@Bluecansam: When did I ever mention laptops as pocket devices? I mean devices like an iPhone, iPod Touch, or other PDA. Even these outstrip a notetaker, and will most certainly fit in your pocket.


darknexus Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 8:25 PM ET:

@@Hillco: Remember that we're not just talking about iPhones when it comes to mainstream devices. The Daisy apps for iPhone leave quite a bit to be desired, however, Darwin Reader for Android is really nice. However, I wish the V Stream would go away due to its shoddy workmanship. It's unacceptable for a $350 device to have such a background audio hiss; a digital device absolutely should not sound like a tape player from fifteen years ago. This is the trouble with both blindness companies and the majority of the blind community: most of us are so used to getting crap quality at tripple the cost that these companies just continue to give it to us. I for one have been voting with my wallet for mainstream devices for the past several years. It's time to end this.


Bargain Hound Thursday, 12-Jan-2012 10:47 PM ET:

Let's not forget that lovely software category called anti everything, that is, anti virus, anti spyware, you name it. Norton was the bane of my existence, it fouled up Serotek's System Access and System Access Mobile Network, as do other anti software things and I'm sure this is true with other PC screen readers. Even Vipre, GFI's anti product, which is almost always terrific on all counts, put Serotek's products out of commission for about a day, when GFI put out an update. Serotek and GFI fixed the problem, to their credit. Anti software can also play havoc with your patience by being accessibility bears, though GFI is very accessible. With note takers, you are blessedly free of anti stuff. If, despite our best efforts, a note taker is ever stolen, what the heck would a sighted person do with it? First of all, most sighted people wouldn't know a Perkins keyboard from a hole in the wall and secondly, since the data is in Braille, it couldn't be read by the sighted thief. I admit that, if speech is on and/or the keyboard is QWERTY, security could be compromised. Beth


marrigo Friday, 13-Jan-2012 1:49 PM ET:

I think main stream should be used whenever possible, and with the size of laptops decreasing, for example, the macbook air, you have something that is just about as portable and boots just as fast as a note taker. Even adding a braille display to one of these is cheaper than a note taker. I heard recently that a new update for the braille note was released and the big highlight was the ability to read PDF files. Let's see, how long have we been able to do that on the PC and Mac platforms? I remember hearing an interview last year about a braille note update that it could now handle tables in word documents. Of course, only for office 2003, 2007 and 2010 did not work. It simply makes no sense to purchase a product that costs more, yet does less, uses proprietary software and is behind the times. And, as mobile platforms continue to get better, everything I have just said will become true for them as well. Another example of this are these stand alone reading machines, all they do is take a picture and read the text. The price? Around $1700 to over $2000. For that price, you could get at least 2, and probably 3 computers that do that and much more. This can also be applied to GPS. It makes no sense to pay between $900 and $1400 for a blindness specific GPS product when the iphone and android provide options that will do almost everything the blindness products do. I could probably think of more contrasts like this but I think the point is obvious. It simply makes no sense, from a financial or technical perspective to continue to purchase these blindness specific products, no advantage and all disadvantage.


hillco Friday, 13-Jan-2012 3:15 PM ET:

Darknexus, I'll admit I'm not up on the android stuff. Frankly, it is going to have to settle down a lot before I can get interested in it. All I had to do to make my iphone work is go in through itunes and turn on the speech. I don't think android is or can ever be that simple, too many cooks are spoiling the soup. I really notice little hiss with my vr stream, that which I hear may well come from the recording it is playing. I'll admit that its own recordings aren't very good, though. I can't imagine a future for the portable notetaker for the blind. Android on the aph device may be interesting, but a big price tag and poor service will likely keep me far away. The others I know of were nowhere near state of the art last time I looked at them. I'll stick with my iphone and icon until the icon dies, then I'll likely buy another book reader to handle nls, RFB&D and open library daisy and call it good enough. I could just use my vr stream, but it is several years old, maybe something better will come out.


darknexus Friday, 13-Jan-2012 8:03 PM ET:

@Hillco: You can hear the hiss on the stream when it's not even playing, as the audio hardware isn't properly grounded or shielded. I know, I've taken several apart in order to repair them. Little hiss is not good enough. At that price, there'd better be no hiss at all, no noise, no audio issues of any kind. Unfortunately, there are such issues. I'll give it that the stream is the only book player to have audio problems, however, as the Booksense and the rest sound quite good. My point though was that, for the cost of one of those readers, we as a community should really be demanding muych higher quality control or else we need to show these companies that they can't mess us around with impunity and stop buying their overpriced, sub-par devices. As for Android, I agree that it's not for everyone although I happen to like it. I brought that up because some people in this thread seem fixated on the iPhone, as a reminder that even if the iPhone can't do something, there's usually another mainstream option that will.


bscheur Saturday, 14-Jan-2012 03:38 AM ET:

What we must be mindful of is that access is still not a right, it's a privilege. Less than one one hundreth of a percent of Iphone apps are fully accessible. We are so insignificant a market that a platform or code change can make our access go away in a heartbeat. Having just sold my BSP and purchased an Onhand that can work as a Braille display with an Iphone, it seems to me to be the best of both worlds. But for accuracy, formatting, and presentation where, for example, legal or proposal documents or serious work are required, allow me to work in Braille, as bad as these notetaker products are Barry


hillco Saturday, 14-Jan-2012 08:36 AM ET:

Darknexus: I agree with the grounding issues. I never hear the problem on headphones, but connecting the stream to certain speakers without a filter is a major problem. I agree that we aren't exactly getting what we pay for with these devices. You'd think that they would be built for the audience, rugged and with good sound since blind people do like to take things with them and many will notice the bad sound. I'm really glad to see new options besides over-priced under-performing notetakers for the blind. I suspect that if the notetakers for the blind have any future at all, they will have to adopt android or some other form of linux. Microsoft doesn't seem to care much about pda's for their mobile o/s.


ron govin Saturday, 14-Jan-2012 1:03 PM ET:

In all of the comments I've read so far I haven't heard much about how folks are using their notetakers or I-devices. I work for the Department of Rehabilitation in California and want to start purchasing devices for our clients but I'm curious, for example, I know that e-mailing is possible on the i-phone, but what about word-processing, and reading of txtbooks? 96 per cent of my clients have low vision and are wanting to go to school. How's accessibility and dealing with such issues as magnification?


darknexus Saturday, 14-Jan-2012 5:28 PM ET:


darknexus Saturday, 14-Jan-2012 5:28 PM ET:


hillco Saturday, 14-Jan-2012 8:52 PM ET:

ron govin: I'll admit I'm not really up on the low vision stuff since I'm totally blind. I don't think they ever really marketed notetakers to low vision people. They have likely been stuck with laptops. If I were in your position, I'd start checking out things like the Ipad. I understand they have pretty good enlargement features and they should be able to use the bookshare and Learning Ally apps just like the iphone. There are various word processor options for the devices some may be better than what can be done on a phone. I suspect partially sighted will have fewer problems dealing with software accessibility I'm sure things are coming for Android as well, it is just hard to pick an Android tablet that will still be supported by its manufacturer in six months.


celticwolf Sunday, 15-Jan-2012 8:10 PM ET:

I personally feel that the need for devices tailored specifically for the blind is not as great as in the past. though, that isn't to say that they still aren't useful. Not that long ago notetakers were really the only technology availible to a blind person, allowing them the ability to have a calendar, word processor etc. I think though, with the advent of the Iphone and Android it has really changed the world of accessibility. It used to be that I felt I needed a notetaker in order to really be able to manage things. additionally, accessible gps would have been invaluable. I had a braille 'N speak 640 in school but since the school system bought it I was not able to keep it when I graduated. I used to want a Braillenote with GPS it was always on my agenda but I could never afford it. now that I have my iPhone however, my desire to obtain one of the notetaker devices has lessened For several reasons. First and foremost is cost. I am able to buy a mainstream iPhone with a built in speech program. I don't have to pay for any additional software to have the same access as any sighted person. I don't have to continually purchase upgrades for the phone. I have a money reader which I paid only a few bucks for. I know it is 10 dollars now but even that is nothing compared to the stand alone money reader that is expressly made for the blind with a 100 dollar price tag. I have gps capability with Navigon. I paid 30 bucks for it on black Friday. show me a gps for the blind that is any where near that price. It is nice to be more on even footing with my sighted co-workers and friends. I am going to play with Prizmo now that I have the 4s and see how legible my text scans are. If I get reliable results that lessens my need to purchase a KNFB reader and the phone to use it plus the software to make the phone speak. there is a rumer that NLS is creating an app to play NLS digital downloads. If this is true, I will not need my Victor stream which means one less thing to carry when I travel since my phone would be able to do it all for me. while it is true that there are a host of apps that are inaccessible it is also true that there are many that work right from the start. Also, many developers are more than willing to make an app accessible if they are made aware that it isn't. I speak specifically of the iPhone because it is what I own. I would love to get my hands on an android and play with it to learn all about its capabilities and what it adds to the accessibility market. what frustrates me about devices made exclusively for the blind are cost, proprietary software and how cheaply it is made. This has all been addressed in comments above. Jaws for instance has a large price tag, plus paying for all the upgrades and it is so buggy. a product that costs about 1000 should not lock up as often as it does on my I7 machine running windows 7. it is the reason I am going to switch to Mac for my next computer. I will have a screen reader that isn't made by a separate company, but by the makers of the Operating system itself. My hope is that mainstream devices having built in accessibility will force the adaptive technology companies to lower prices and improve the product in order to compete in this changing market. the price is what is driving so many people away.


hillco Monday, 16-Jan-2012 11:04 AM ET:

celticwolf: Not to go too far off on a tangent, one of the largest things keeping me away from the mac is that ms-office isn't accessible. I've heard that some versions of open office or libre office might be, but finding specifics on it in a google search seems impossible. Mac is a great solution, unless you need software.


ron govin Monday, 16-Jan-2012 12:40 PM ET:

I'd like more discussion on the accessibility of open office and libra office. Are they accessible,even somewhat to the iphone or i-pad? I'm assuming they are on the mac but I'm thinking they are and if that's true then we have a viable solution.


Bargain Hound Monday, 16-Jan-2012 2:44 PM ET:

I just read that putting a PC to sleep causes problems for screen reader use, so this function should be disabled. Therefore, you would have to completely turn off the portable PC and Braille display for transport, which could be inefficient at times. The note takers turn on and off instantly, which is great! HIMS is coming out with a new note taker soon, it will be discussed at ATIA in a few weeks. I also read that, about every 3 years, PCs become obsolete and I would guess this would also be true of mobile devices. Of course, one person's obsolescence is another's comfort zone but my point is that tech keeps marching on, whether blindness-related or not. Sighted people can and do spend thousands on systems, depending on their needs.


celticwolf Monday, 16-Jan-2012 3:04 PM ET:

While the need for technology specifically for the blind isn't as great for me. I do think having the freedom to choose is what is so great about this. Not long ago we didn't have a choice in what technology we wanted to use. It is true that sighted people can choose to pay thousands on a product but they don't have too. They could get something that is more reasonably priced. Until recently, That was not an option for the blind community. In the past you had to pay loads just to be on somewhat of an even playing field with the sighted community. Now there is a choice and I think that is what is beautiful. I remember my first cell phone. It was a Nokia 6620 with Talks. That was all that was really availible to me. Now you have mobile speak, The iPhone, Andriod. There are so many more options.


hillco Monday, 16-Jan-2012 3:05 PM ET:

Bargain Hound: No, a properly running pc can be put to sleep with speech. Works fine both on my laptops and all my desktops. If you have problems, it is likely due to driver issues that you need to solve. The libreoffice version for the ipad must be very new, if it is available testing would be a good thing to get done. If you can find any specifics on which libreoffice version works with voiceover on the mac, you're doing better than I am.


RainParade Monday, 16-Jan-2012 10:24 PM ET:

Ron: To my knowledge, there is no solution on Mac, iPhone or iPad that makes word processing accessible to the degree that JAWS and WindowEyes do with Word. Although basic word processing, including spell checking and formatting, can be performed with VoieOver using Textedit or Pages on the Mac; and Pages on the IOS devices; there are access limitations when it comes to inserting footnotes, creating tables of contents, editing tabular data, and performing other tasks which arise often in academic and vocational settings. The person who said that the Mac is great unless you need software made a trenchant point: blind people who use Macs recreationally and who do not need to do heavy work on their Macs may find the Mac experience very pleasant. Unfortunately, most of us do have to do heavy work at some point, whether it be writing term papers or preparing taxes. For that, in my professional opinion, we still need Windows. Hopefully that will change, and one can hasten the change by writing to developers about accessibility issues and encouraging legislation that mandates readily achievable changes to software architecture as strongly as the ADA does for brick-and-mortar establishments. Meanwhile, I believe you have a separate question about the viability of IOS devices for blind and low-vision users. My perception has been that most blind users do quite well and feel quite warmly toward these devices, especially when presented with the touchscreen and keyboard to work with. Braille implementation is problematic for users who type slowly, as has been mentioned by others on this thread; and it can be disappointingly laggy and uneven when navigating long documents; but it is adequate for short reading tasks, handling email and the Web. Low vision users can benefit from the built-in magnification on the iPad, which is easy to master. However, they will experience some pixelation after about 3X, and I think it's important to provide low-vision users with a kickstand that supports multiple angles so they aren't tempted to bend over a table for close reading and ruin their posture. I'm also concerned that, because the interface provides Voiceover or magnification but not both simultaneously (on IOS devices), low-vision users who would reach maximum productivity on a Mac or PC by using Voiceover for long reading and Zoom for spelling and clarification are instead forced to choose. When forced, most low-vision users will choose magnification, despite the decrease in reading speed, headaches and fatigue that may come with this choice. It's true that users can toggle between the two modalities but many find that process so disorienting and disruptive to the user experience that they elect not to. In sum, I would go over issues of posture, potential fatigue, efficiency and pixelation before recommending IOS devices to low vision users; for this demographic, an 11-inchMacbbook Air might be a worthwhile alternative and a wise investment to those who plan to use the device as a primary productivity tool. Despite its limitations, I have personally found the IOS platform to boost my productivity. I use Dropbox to place articles on my device for review on the train, where i also go over and answer my emails with the aid of a Braille display. I manage my grocery deliveries with an iPhone app that is much more friendly than the full website of the delivery service; same goes for Amazon. I use TrunkNotes to take notes that, again, I sync to Dropbox so they will be there on my computer when I get home. (Recall that I said that Braille implementation is a bit taught in long documents: I use the standard Apple wireless keyboard for this task and spot-check the Braille display if I've erred. A bit of a bulky layout but I prefer it to hiding behind a laptop in class). I manage paper money with MoneyReader and confirm my location with Sendero Look-Around, Google Maps and the compass. I occasionally use VoiceMemos: for example, taking down a group of names at a meeting where it would be inconvenient to unpack a keyboard. I get a steady stream of news from Instapaper, NFB Newsline and podcasts. I manage my exercise data with Nike Training Club. I use AllRecipes for cooking ideas. i do most of my messaging and a bit of my email with dictation via Siri. And I do compose rough drafts of papers on my iPhone with a keyboard, although they've got to stop off at Dropbox and get final formatting touch-ups on my computer before they're ready for prime-time. Oh, and speaking of prime-time, I use Netflix, which is loads more accessible on the IOS platform than on either Mac or PC, primarily because jumping forward and back are actually possible within IOS. I highly recommend www.applevis.com as a jumping-off point if you'd like to learn more about the IS devices, or Mac, from a blindness perspective. The community over there is energetic, articulate and accurate. I think you'll find that it is a great spot for catching accessibility improvements - and backslides - as they occur, and you'll get much more of the specific commentary you're seeking than you could ever possibly read. A final word on applying what you know about these or any other devices to the assistive technology decision process: It's a thin line between educating the consumer and choosing for him or her. Personally, I like to make sure the individual gets lots of hands-on time with each alternative under consideration. If he or she has questions I can't answer, we go online together, or start making calls. I try to look at each individual's situation and construct a decision tree based on potential issues: Is size and weight an issue? Does the individual usually use speech and magnification together? Will the individual be working much with PDFs? Collaborating with visual readers? Basically, if you listen to what the individual says during an initial interview and bear in mind everything you've just learned about his or her use cases, you can very easily jot down a checklist and take the individual through what the salient benefits and drawbacks of each device are likely to be. It isn't foolproof but it beats making a decision for someone or, worse, failing to give professional guidance in the name of informed choice. Most important of all, making assessment a collaborative, critical process is a way of modeling critical consumership that the individual may use on his or her own in future.


darknexus Tuesday, 17-Jan-2012 9:11 PM ET:

@Bargain Hound: The sleep issue you state is JAWS specific and only applies to certain video cards. Don't believe everything you read, and quite honestly, I wish jaws would just flop since it's stereotyping every screen reader in existance. To elaborate on the technical details of the problem in a nutshell: JAWS video intercept has an issue where, if the driver or another application does a direct write to the display (such as that used by DirectX or to refresh and reinitialize the card), the video intercept appears blank to jaws. This has been a bug for years, which shows you just how much Freedom Science Fiction care about actually fixing their software. They know about this and have done nothing. The reason this affects sleep is that some cards, such as older Intel models, reinitialize the video card upon wake-up. This is, from a technical standpoint, a logical thing to do to insure that the video device is in a coherent state before attempting to display anything. Again, this affects jaws and only jaws. No other Windows-based screen access solution has any trouble with direct display writes. The number of misconceptions jaws bugs cause in the blind community is quite staggering.


marrigo Saturday, 21-Jan-2012 11:33 PM ET:

Wanted to comment on a few things here. First, regarding the mac, I have 3 macs here and no longer have a PC, I only have to use windows for one thing, a certain chat client, other than that, I do everything on the mac. As has been stated, word processing works well, you can deal with tables, but you need to use a command to convert them to text to read them, hopefully this will be improved in the future. Microsoft office is not accessible on the mac, mainly because Microsoft refuses to use the accessibility tools that Apple has provided, but there are alternatives. Text edit and pages will handle Word documents, the newest version of Open Office is also useable on the mac. For spreadsheets, there is a good program available called tables. I have an iphone here which I use from time to time, but I use android as my every day platform because some things are actually easier and faster, and I can type much faster with a hardware keyboard. It's good that we have access to the top 2 smart phone platforms, hopefully when windows 8 is released, it will solve the issue of accessibility with Microsoft's mobile platform, since they are also planning to use windows 8 on phones, hopefully it will take the place of windows phone 7. I don't think that legal action is the best approach to get manufacturers to make their products accessible. Rather, we need to make them aware that we are consumers as well, and that we would be willing to purchase their products if they were accessible. We are a bigger market than many people realize, and if manufacturers realize this, ¬hopefully they would want to make their products universally accessible. Usually when accessibility is required through legal action, it results in a half baked solution that only does the minimum to satisfy the legal requirement, we deserve much better than that.


janbrown Tuesday, 24-Jan-2012 6:29 PM ET:

I believe it is important to use a product that works, whether it is main stream or not. I have a blindness only mobility aid, my Guide Dog. Only blind people use Guide Dogs. They work for those of us who use them. It is not for everyone. I am totally blind and type rapidly both in braille and print. I have an older Braillenote Empower 7.5. I love it for taking down a phone number, writing poetry or simply writing in braille. I think in braille. I am aware this puts me in a minority, but that is fine. I have not purchased an Apex because of the cost. I have a new I-Phone and am not sure how to use it so I can get the most out of it. Concerning my Victor, I would never travel without it. I never noticed any hiss and my boze ear buds make it sound wonderful. The simplicity of the braillenote has a great deal to recommend it though the technology is not current. I'm not current either as I am still using xp and like it that way. When windows 8 comes out, I may get a Mac and retire my ancient desk top. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Jan


emerson Saturday, 04-Feb-2012 4:50 PM ET:

I don't have a smartphone; I'm a PC user, use Win7 and Jaws; I'm a braille user, have a pac mate and Apex and use both for different purposes. I'm blind and hearing-impaired, so braille is vital for me. I'm in the minority too, but what I have meets my needs. I tried a Mac last year and hated it from the start, so got rid of it. Jaws braille support has got me really spoiled. Mary


mrwhitty Monday, 06-Feb-2012 8:41 PM ET:

I agree with all of the different points that were made in this post. I myself am using a Braillenote MPower and like it very much. The only thing that I wish it had more memory. I do not like the Apex, because it only has USB ports. Whereas, the MPower has both CF and SD slots. Maybe what Humanware could have done with the Pcmci port is to convert it to a solid state hard drive which would give it more memory.


janbrown Friday, 17-Feb-2012 1:38 PM ET:

Hi all: I want to know from the point of view of a braille user and fan how bad the I-phone is with a braille display? After using my Empower, will I be disappointed? I'm trying to decide whether to purchase the Apex or the APH braille display. I love my braille and quickness of a dedicated braille product, so please only respond if you are a significant braille user. Thanks, Jan


mehgcap Wednesday, 22-Feb-2012 1:26 PM ET:

Jan: I use an apex with my iPod all the time. It is not as fast, since you do not have first-letter navigation or shortcut keys. However, that is partially made up for by the ability to touch the screen. Once you know, for instance, where your mail app is on the screen, touching it is as fast as hitting a hotkey. The other major disadvantage is braille translation. I can't type up math in UEB code and send it to my professor, for example. However, iOS5 introduced computer braille; you can type in grade 2 (which can be a slow, frustrating experience) or computer braille, and you can view text in both codes as well. This means that translation as the bn does it is not necessary, but it also means that fast grade 2 typists may be disappointed. Overall, the iPhone is an entirely new way of doing things. Some tasks are slower, some are faster, and some are just different. If you get (or got) the apex, you can use that as a braille display for the iPhone by using the braille terminal.


janbrown Wednesday, 22-Feb-2012 7:40 PM ET:

Hello, I am afraid the Apex will not be manufactured just because of economics, not because of anything I know. In what way is braille harder on the I-phone? Can I simply write fast in grade two braille, print documents and the like? I have not heard what using a simple braille display is like with the phone. Jan


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