The Next Generation: A Review of Personal Digital Assistants, Part 1
This is the first of a two-part evaluation of four personal digital assistants (PDAs.) In this article, we review the BrailleNote PK from Pulse Data and the Braille Hansone from HIMS Company. In the March 2005 issue, we will review the PAC Mate from Freedom Scientific and VisuAide's Maestro. These products are all much more than notetakers, the term often used to describe the old Braille 'n Speak. They all include, in a small package, sophisticated word processors, appointment calendars, address books, e-mail capabilities, web browsers, media players, and multiple ways to connect with a personal computer and other devices.
A major trend in the consumer electronics industry is constantly to decrease the size of products. Everything from cell phones to laptops is shrinking. Fortunately, this trend is not limited to mainstream products. In July 2004, Pulse Data International announced the newest member of the BrailleNote family of products--the BrailleNote PK--which is the smallest Windows-based accessible PDA currently on the market. Weighing about a pound and measuring approximately 7 inches wide by 4 inches deep and 2 inches thick, this tiny case packs most of the functions of other BrailleNote products and then some. Offering both refreshable braille and speech output and running Pulse Data's familiar Keysoft suite of applications, this accessible PDA truly puts computing power in the palm of your hand.
Despite its size, the BrailleNote PK has many controls and ports. The front edge of the PK contains a small four-way joystick. This joystick can be used to move quickly through menus or documents, all with one finger. Pressing on this control also allows you to select a menu option. Immediately to the left of the joystick on the front panel is a small button. Although the user manual makes no mention of it, the audio tutorial states that it is reserved for future use.
Caption: The BrailleNote PK has many controls and ports.
The top surface of the BrailleNote PK contains five major types of controls. Two smooth keys located on the top front edge both serve as spacebars. On either side of the spacebars, there are two small, slightly indented buttons. These four buttons are called control keys and control power and reset options. The BrailleNote PK does not have an on/off switch. Turning the product on and off is accomplished by holding down one of these control keys. The fact that these keys are slightly indented and need to be held down reduces the possibility of accidentally switching the product on or off. The exact function of all four of these control keys is not clearly stated in the user guide.
An 18-cell refreshable braille display is located behind the spacebars and control keys. Each cell of the display has a corresponding cursor-routing key directly above it. Pulse Data recently changed to a new supplier of refreshable braille cells. As a result, the refreshable braille display in the BrailleNote PK is much quieter than the displays found on older products.
On either side of the refreshable braille display are three small buttons arranged vertically. These six keys are used to scroll the braille display. In addition to standard scrolling functions, such as previous and next, the top key on each side allows you to start and control the speed of automatic scrolling of the display. Immediately behind the display, eight square braille input keys are positioned. The outer keys are located farther back than the inner keys to allow for proper finger placement. As with the display, these input keys are among the quietest we have ever encountered on an accessible PDA. Their placement and the location of the spacebars below the braille display takes some adjustment for new users.
The back panel of the PK contains all the connection ports. In addition to standard power and headphone jacks, the product offers a USB (universal serial bus) port, a Compact Flash slot, and a serial port. The serial port is not a standard nine-pin port. Cables are included that allow users to connect the product to standard serial devices. Likewise, the USB port must be used with the cable supplied by Pulse Data. As was the case with previous BrailleNote products, the Compact Flash slot can be used for storage or to plug in a Compact Flash accessory, such as a modem or Ethernet card. Unlike other BrailleNote products, the PK does not contain a parallel or infrared port. The infrared port has been replaced with a small Bluetooth antenna that protrudes approximately a half inch from the back panel. The PK also does not contain a built-in modem.
The BrailleNote PK comes with a carrying case that allows easy access to almost all controls and ports. The case fits securely around the PK and can easily be attached to an included shoulder strap.
The BrailleNote PK's user manual is stored on the product and is provided on CD-ROM. The product also ships with one volume of braille. This volume is the first chapter of the PK's users guide and provides basic information, such as the features of keys, basic navigation, and general familiarization with the hardware. It also shows users how to access the entire user manual stored on the PK. The unit we tested did not include a single piece of printed documentation. The CD-ROM includes the user manual in text, PDF (portable document format), and HTML (hypertext markup language) formats. The full version of the manual does a good job of explaining all the product's features in detail.
The CD also includes an audio tutorial. This nine-part tutorial, produced by Jonathan Mosen, the marketing manager of Pulse Data's Blindness Products, provides an excellent overview and brief demonstration of the key features of the BrailleNote PK. It would be helpful, however, if this tutorial were provided on a Compact Flash card, so users without a PC could access the tutorial directly using the BrailleNote PK's media player.
In addition to the manual and tutorial, the BrailleNote PK includes the context-sensitive Help feature that previous BrailleNote users have come to know. Pressing chord h (that is, holding down the spacebar and pressing the keys for a braille h), will cause Keysoft to announce what commands and actions are currently available.
Those who are familiar with the BrailleNote PK's larger siblings will be happy to know that KeyWord is very much a part of this product. For those who are unfamiliar with KeyWord, the application allows you to edit and navigate documents quickly and efficiently. The word processor provides logical keystrokes that allow you to move through a document by sentence, word, or character. The application also offers functions, such as Find and Replace, the ability to perform complex formatting operations, and an easy-to-use Spell Checker. The PK easily converts documents between contracted and uncontracted braille. Since KeyWord can read and save documents in both Microsoft Word and WordPerfect file formats, BrailleNote PK users can type documents in contracted braille and then easily share their work with sighted colleagues. One notable difference between the BrailleNote PK and other BrailleNote products is the lack of printing commands in the KeyWord menu on the PK. To print a document, it must first be transferred to a PC. When we used this application, we found the joystick control, located on the front of the PK, particularly useful for quickly moving through large documents.
Planning Your Life
With today's busy lifestyle, we all have appointments and events we need to remember. KeyPlan, the BrailleNote PK's planner, can assist you with this task. The application allows you easily to schedule, reschedule, and review upcoming appointments. Since it is compatible with Microsoft Outlook, items in your Outlook calendar can be synchronized with KeyPlan. Because the Outlook calendar can be difficult for some screen-reader users to access, having the ability to read this information on the BrailleNote PK is helpful.
When you schedule a new appointment, KeyPlan allows you to specify the length, location, and recurrence of an appointment. The recurrence feature is especially useful for meetings that are held on a regular basis, such as the first Tuesday of each month. When you indicate the length of a meeting, you can enter either the length of the appointment or the ending time. It is also possible to indicate that this will be an all-day appointment. Unlike other calendar applications, it is not possible to set a default meeting length. Unless otherwise indicated, KeyPlan automatically assumes that all appointments will last 30 minutes.
From any Keysoft application, pressing one keystroke causes KeyPlan to announce your next scheduled appointment. The only issue we had with this feature is when we scheduled an all-day appointment. By default, when an all-day appointment is scheduled, KeyPlan marks this time as free. Even if the title and location of an appointment are entered, KeyPlan does not change this setting. Unless you manually indicate that this block of time should be considered busy or out of office, KeyPlan will not recognize this appointment when the next appointment keystroke is made.
Connecting in New Ways
The BrailleNote PK offers you new ways to connect to the outside world. Gone are the days of plugging into large parallel ports or aligning infrared ports. As mentioned earlier, the infrared port has been replaced by Bluetooth technology. Bluetooth allows the BrailleNote PK to connect wirelessly with other Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as cell phones and keyboards. Unlike infrared, these devices do not need to be in a direct line of sight with the PK. When the Bluetooth option is activated, using the new connections menu, the BrailleNote PK begins to search for other Bluetooth-enabled devices within range. Since Bluetooth typically has a range of approximately 30 feet, all Bluetooth-enabled devices in this area will be displayed.
What you use Bluetooth for depends on what kind of device you connect or pair with. If you pair the PK with a Bluetooth keyboard, you can control the product using a QWERTY keyboard. If your PC is Bluetooth enabled or has a Bluetooth adapter, you can establish an ActiveSync connection and transfer files wirelessly. During our evaluation, we paired the PK with a Nokia 6620 cell phone. Using the cell phone as a modem, we were able to connect to the Internet and access e-mail.
Another new connection option is support for Wireless Fidelity (WiFi.) WiFi allows the BrailleNote PK to connect to the Internet or a computer network wirelessly. For this feature to be active, a separate WiFi Compact Flash card (which usually sells for less than $75) must be purchased. Once this card has been inserted, the BrailleNote PK will be able to access the web at any location that has a wireless hot spot. Many businesses and public locations, such as Starbucks, hotels, and airports, have wireless hot spots. Some of these locations charge a small fee for web access, but others do not. In addition to web access, the BrailleNote PK's WiFi access also allows you to log on to computer networks. In a work environment, this means that provided that your company has a wireless network, you could access all the files stored on public network drives using only your BrailleNote PK.
Now that you have all these new ways to get connected, what are you going to do with that access? One option is to send and receive e-mail using the BrailleNote PK's built-in e-mail application, KeyMail. Although the interface may be a bit clumsy at times, KeyMail offers BrailleNote users many powerful e-mail features. This application allows you to send and receive e-mail with attachments; to sort mail into predefined folders; and to save connection settings, so you can easily access more than one e-mail account.
Using KeyList, the BrailleNote PK's contact-management system, KeyMail offers a versatile address book, which is convenient for users who want to read messages when they are not at home. When sending messages, KeyMail allows users to type their messages in contracted braille. When the messages are sent, the PK automatically back translates this text. Similarly, if you attempt to attach a file to an e-mail message that is a KeyWord document, the PK can automatically translate this document into a standard format, such as Microsoft Word.
One problem we encountered when using KeyMail was the lack of intuitive commands. The command to activate the action menu, for example, is a chord with dots 2-6. If there is a logical reason for this key combination, we could not determine what it was. Difficult-to-remember commands, such as this, may make the application a bit tricky for new users to learn.
The other major problem we had when using this application was its constant prompting. When closing a message that has been read, for instance, most e-mail applications simply mark the message as read and return you to the list of messages. KeyMail, on the other hand, prompts you to move the message to a different folder each time the message is closed. This constant prompting for information or actions to be taken makes the application frustrating, especially for advanced users who want to perform common e-mail tasks quickly.
Browsing the Web
The BrailleNote PK includes an upgraded version of KeyWeb, Pulse Data's web browser that has been designed specifically for the BrailleNote family of products. Once the commands for this browser are mastered, KeyWeb offers users efficient access to web sites. You can navigate the page using standard BrailleNote reading commands or move by link, frame, heading, or input control.
The browser has many of the features you would expect on a desktop browser, such as a favorites list and the ability to read web pages offline. We tested KeyWeb with a variety of simple and complex web sites and had few problems. Sites that contained popup ads, such as CNN, occasionally caused the browser to crash, but this was not a common occurrence and was corrected with a reset of the PK. Filling out online forms and downloading files were also accomplished with no major problems. Although it has a media player, the BrailleNote PK cannot handle streaming media from the web, such as Internet radio.
The Bottom Line
With its compact size and range of powerful features, the BrailleNote PK is an impressive addition to the accessible PDA line of products. Its WiFi and Bluetooth capability make connecting to the outside world simple and efficient. Users who are familiar with the BrailleNote series of products can pick up the product and start using it immediately. For those who have never used Keysoft before, the supplied documentation will have you using the basic features of the product in no time. As is the case with most new products, the BrailleNote PK has a few new-product quirks, such as unused or unexplained controls and the lack of printed documentation. These are not major problems, however, and do not detract from the overall experience with the product. If you are considering the purchase of an accessible PDA and are looking for a powerful product that is small, you should definitely consider the BrailleNote PK.
"Hansone" means "to see the world through one fingertip" in Korean. Because this meaning didn't translate to English speakers, HIMS is changing the name to Braille SENSE. You may find it under either name.
The Braille Hansone measures 9 inches by 5 inches by 1.5 inches and weighs 2.7 pounds. It has an 8-key braille keyboard; dot 7 is the Backspace key, and dot 8 is the Enter key. There are four oval-shaped function keys; F1 and F2 are to the left of the spacebar, and F3 and F4 are to the right of the spacebar. F1 opens the unit's main Program menu, F2 opens each individual program menu, F3 is the Tab key, and F4 is the Escape key.
An LCD (liquid crystal display) is located in the middle, above the braille keyboard. At the edges, above the Enter and Backspace keys, are two stereo speakers.
A 32-cell braille display is below the keyboard. Directly above the display are 32 cursor-routing buttons that are used to move the cursor to the right place for editing. At the right end of the row of cursor-routing buttons is an Advance key for scrolling the braille display forward, and at the left end is the Scroll Back button.
On the Braille Hansone's front panel, from left to right, are the microphone jack, the stereo headphone jack, and five buttons for recording and playing back audio: the Previous, Record, Stop, Play/Pause and Next buttons. From the front to the back of the unit, on the right side, are the on/off switch, the AC adapter, and the compartment for the detachable Lithium Ion battery. The left side of the unit contains two compact flash slots. The back panel of the Braille Hansone contains, from left to right, an infrared port, two USB ports, a network (LAN) connection, a parallel port, a video output port, and a serial port.
Getting Started and Getting Help
The Braille Hansone's manual explains what each function does and lists the commands. However, it does not do a good job of explaining what happens when you actually turn on the Hansone and try to open and read a file in the word processor or open and play a file in the media player.
In fact, when you turn the unit on, it does not announce which application is running or give the name of the current file if you are in the word processor. The manual is poorly written, and we learned how to use most functions by trial and error or by e-mailing technical support.
The Braille Hansone runs on Windows CE.NET, and its applications are proprietary programs written by the manufacturer. The interface resembles Windows on a desktop computer. So, for example, in a menu, you arrow down to the choice you want and tab to the Confirm button to make a selection.
When you select the word processor from the Braille Hansone's main menu, a new, blank document is opened. As on your desktop computer, to open an existing document, you press the Menu command, which opens a dialogue box. In this dialogue box, you can type in a file name or review a list of existing files. You navigate in this dialogue box by pressing Tab (dots 4-5 with the spacebar) and Shift-Tab (dots 1-2 with the spacebar). You must also select the file format you want; to open a Word document, for instance, you can type in the full name of the desired file or scroll through a list of all Word documents one at a time.
To delete a block of text, you mark the beginning of the block by opening the Menu with spacebar-M and selecting Edit and then Block. You then move the cursor to the end of the desired block, enter the Menu again, select Edit, and choose Delete. There is no message asking you to confirm that you want to delete the block. The Braille Hansone has no spell checker. The Braille Hansone supports files in the following formats: HBL (the unit's default format), BRL, TXT, and Word 2000 or earlier.
The Braille Hansone's Address Manager lets you add, edit, and search for an address. When you open the Address Manager, the Find Address dialogue box opens. You can enter data in the Name field or any of 15 other fields and press Enter to search. To add an address, you press the spacebar with M for Menu and select Add Address. The manual incorrectly states that "You type in appropriate information for each field and press Enter or press down arrow key (Space-4) to move to the next field." Actually, you must press the down arrow key; pressing Enter saves the data and returns you to the Name prompt to start adding another new address. When you finish adding data for a contact, you must tab to the Confirm button to add the address.
Surfing the Web
The Braille Hansone has a built-in LAN connection but no modem. Before you launch the web browser, you must set your web connection, LAN or modem, in the Utilities menu. You then select Web Browser from the main menu to get connected. During our tests, the Braille Hansone connected successfully to our network only about one in every three times. It was often necessary to reset the unit before getting connected.
Web pages load slowly on the Braille Hansone, even with a high-speed connection. As a page loads, the braille display shows the percentage loaded, but we were unable to get the unit to speak this percentage. When the page is done loading, the unit speaks the first line of text. "Skip to Content" links, used for jumping past the navigation bar and other repetitive links, consistently did not work with the Braille Hansone.
The text on web pages is reformatted to be read on the Braille Hansone's 32-character braille display. This was especially frustrating, since we could not get the Braille Hansone to read a full screen or a full web page continuously. We were able to read only by line, which made reading articles and other information tedious.
The Braille Hansone can download and play Windows Media files. It does not play RealAudio files. If you attempt to open a RealAudio file, the unit freezes, and you must reset it. Freezing also occurred when we tried to open some web pages.
Planning Your Life
The Braille Hansone's Schedule Manager allows you to schedule meetings and other items. The Schedule Manager opens in the Find Date dialogue box. If you press Enter on the current date, you will find a list of that day's appointments. Once you hit Enter, you cannot move through the calendar to check or set appointments for the following day or the day afterward. You must return to the Find Date dialogue box. From there, you can navigate by day, week, month, or year.
When an alarm rings to alert you of an appointment, you press Backspace-Enter to silence the alarm. The unit then announces the reason for the alarm and exits from the Schedule Manager. So, if you miss the announcement, the information is gone. Also, the speech is choppy when the alarm is going off.
To schedule an appointment, you press the Menu command and select Add Schedule. You move to the date you want and press Enter. You then fill in the subject and time of the appointment, tab to the Confirm button, and press Enter. You are then returned to the Appointment Date prompt, rather than being able to read and confirm the appointment you just set.
In the Utilities menu, you can set and check the date and time. When you select "check date and time," the Braille Hansone announces and displays the time. You must press Tab to have the date announced and displayed in braille. The Utilities menu also includes a calculator, pronunciation dictionary, and stopwatch.
The Bottom Line
The Braille Hansone offers yet another option for a PDA with braille and speech output. The unit can be confusing to learn and use, since its manual is poorly written, its applications do not behave like those of other PDAs on the market, and it does not provide feedback at certain times. For example, the Braille Hansone gives no audible indication or message on the braille display when the AC adapter is plugged in or unplugged. Like many new products in this field, the Braille Hansone apparently has not been used by enough people to discover its bugs and to point out the places where it acts erratically. We have pointed out some of the areas that need work and anticipate that we will find a better product the next time we evaluate it.
"We appreciate your evaluation of our product. The Braille Hansone has many new features. It provides an LCD monitor for text display and VGA output for magnified text display for people who have low vision who have to learn braille. We will soon upgrade our software with more useful features. The user interface of the Braille Hansone is based on that of Windows. Conventional notetaker users may have difficulty using the Braille Hansone. But it is easy and fast for Windows users to learn and use the unit.
"We are now rewriting our user manual to make it more informative. And we will also add a Quick Start Guide for beginners.
"A software upgrade will be available by the time this article is published. This upgrade will include an improvement of features and corrected bugs, including the advice of AccessWorld."
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Manufacturer: Pulse Data International, 1 Expo Place, P.O. Box 3044, Christchurch, New Zealand; phone 64 3 384 4555; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.pulsedata.com>.
U.S. Distributor: Pulse Data HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 925-680-7100 or 800-722-3393; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.pulsedata.com>.
Manufacturer: HIMS Company, High-Tech Venture Hall 5104, 53-3, Eueon-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon, Korea 305-701; phone: 82-42-864-4460; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.hansone.net>.
It's in Your Hands: A Review of the PAC Mate and the VoiceNote by Jim Denham and Jay Leventhal
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