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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 3

Product Evaluation

The Next Generation: A Review of Personal Digital Assistants, Part 2

In Part 1 of this article in the January 2005 AccessWorld, we reviewed two accessible personal digital assistants (PDAs): the BrailleNote PK from Pulse Data and the Braille Hansone (now known as the Braille Sense and distributed by GW Micro) from HIMS Company. Here we review the PAC Mate, Freedom Scientific's PDA, originally released in 2002. The PAC Mate, currently in its second generation, having undergone significant hardware and software revisions, provides access to the Pocket PC suite of applications via a version of its JAWS screen reader. Pocket PC is a suite of applications produced by Microsoft designed for handheld devices. The Pocket PC applications are available on many mainstream PDAs currently on the market. Although the product offers users some unique functionality and access to a wide variety of off-the-shelf software designed for the Pocket PC environment, some of its most basic operations still pose challenges for users who are blind or visually impaired.

Physical Description and Available Options

PAC Mate, like most of the adapted PDAs currently on the market, is available with either a braille or QWERTY (typewriter style) keyboard. Users have the option of purchasing either a 20- or 40-cell refreshable braille display or using the product without refreshable braille. During our evaluation, we reviewed a PAC Mate with braille input (the PAC Mate BX) and a 40-cell refreshable braille display. Unlike its competitors, PAC Mate's braille display can be detached. This unique functionality allows you to decide when and where you want refreshable braille. Detaching the display significantly decreases the product's weight. When a 40-cell braille display is connected, the PAC Mate BX (the version with the braille input keys) weighs approximately 4 pounds. When the display is detached, the product weighs a little less than 2 pounds. When not connected to the PAC Mate, the braille display can be connected to a desktop for refreshable braille access from either JAWS or Window-Eyes. When using JAWS, the display is automatically detected by the screen reader. We found connecting and disconnecting the braille display to the PAC Mate to be a fairly simple procedure that was well documented.

Figure Photos of the PAC Mate with a braille keyboard and without (top) and with (bottom) a braille display.

Caption: The PAC Mate BX alone (top) and with 40-cell detachable braille display (bottom).

The detachable display simply slides into the front of the PAC Mate. Above the braille cells is a double row of touch cursor keys. The row closest to the display provides the traditional function of moving the cursor to the desired cell. The top row of touch cursors allows you to scroll the display and control some braille functions. The outermost 15 touch cursor buttons on each side are used for scrolling the display. The 10 controls in the middle of the display are used for functions such as turning braille translation on or off and moving the braille display to the top of the current window. Several raised dots have been placed above this row of touch cursors to help you locate the controls that perform functions. Even with these dots, quickly finding the exact key needed to perform a specific function may be difficult for some users. A whiz wheel is located at either end of the braille display. These two controls can be used to scroll the display and set to perform other functions.

The top surface of the PAC Mate itself has eight braille input keys, eight function keys, a spacebar, and a rubber cross known as a cursor cross. The braille input keys are placed ergonomically near the rear of the top surface. As is the case with other accessible PDA products, dot 7 serves as a Backspace key and dot 8 serves as an Enter key. Directly behind each braille input key is a small round function key. These eight function keys are used for commonly performed tasks, such as opening the start menu or minimizing an application. Some of these keys are also used to launch commonly used applications, such as the calculator. The spacebar is located near the front of this area and is easily reachable while entering text. Directly behind the spacebar is the cursor cross. This cross is used much like arrow keys are used on a standard keyboard. This control is very helpful when navigating menus or moving quickly through documents. The left rear corner of this surface contains a built-in microphone, and the right rear corner contains the product's speaker. The built-in microphone is very handy when using applications such as the voice recorder or other third-party software.

The back panel of the PAC Mate contains a variety of useful connectivity options. Two Compact Flash card slots allow you to insert a Compact Flash peripheral, such as a wireless Ethernet card, and a Compact Flash memory card at the same time. An infrared port can be used to beam files or other items to other handheld devices or laptops with infrared capability. The mini-USB (universal serial bus) port can be used to connect the PAC Mate to a computer or other USB-enabled devices. During our evaluation, we attempted to plug a full-sized USB keyboard into the product. This full-sized keyboard was not acknowledged by the operating system and could not be used to control the PAC Mate. We were able to connect the product successfully to a PC and a USB-enabled printer using this port. The rear panel also contains headphone and microphone jacks, a port for the AC adapter, and the unit's power switch.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the PAC Mate is the case that ships with the product. It is simply a bag that can be used to hold the product. In order to switch on the product or use any of its functions, the PAC Mate must be completely removed from this bag. Having this laptop-like approach to handheld computing is not conducive to individuals who want to use their PAC Mate on the go. Another company, Executive Products, does sell a PAC Mate case that allows you to use the PAC Mate while in its case. However, this case is not discussed in the user documentation, and must be purchased separately.

Photo of the PAC Mate with a QWERTY-style keyboard and a 40-cell braille display.

Caption: The PAC Mate also comes with a QWERTY-style keyboard.

Documentation and Online Help

PAC Mate comes with two compact disks (CDs). Unfortunately, neither one is labeled in braille. The user documentation CD contains the complete user manual in hypertext markup language (HTML). According to information on the CD, this manual is also available as a text-only file and as a portable document format (PDF) file from the Freedom Scientific web site. Aside from the manual, the CD contains a wealth of other information, including a getting started tutorial in MP3 audio and several guides for basic and advanced users. All this information is accessed using a series of web pages. The CD does a nice job of providing information for users of both the BX and QX (QWERTY-style) models of the product. The other CD provided is the Pocket PC Companion disk. This CD, provided by Microsoft, contains the latest version of ActiveSync (a utility used to transfer data between the PAC Mate and a desktop computer), a copy of Microsoft Outlook, and several other utilities. The web pages used to navigate the contents of this CD are not fully accessible, and may present problems for inexperienced visually impaired web surfers. In addition to these two CDs, the PAC Mate BX ships with several braille documents. These include several Quick Start cards that describe various aspects of the PAC Mate and a guide for new users of the product.

While you are using various features of the product, several help options are available. Context-sensitive help provides information on the current application or dialog. Although this help is useful in knowing the purpose of a specific dialog or available commands within an application, it does not provide help on the currently highlighted control. For this type of help, users will want to activate the product's Control Help. This command looks at the currently highlighted control, such as radio button or edit box, and attempts to provide keystrokes that can be used to alter the control. Unfortunately, these two help systems are not linked to each other. Therefore, in order to get general and control-specific help, it is necessary to issue both commands. PAC Mate uses a large number of layered commands, issued by pressing two distinct keystrokes, one after another. Layered Command Help allows you to determine which commands are available after the first keystroke in the sequence has been pressed. PAC Mate also offers a searchable help system that provides detailed information on all applications. The system is Web based and is fairly easy to use for individuals who are comfortable with PAC Mate's Web browser commands.

General Navigation

The PAC Mate's main screen is the Today screen. In Windows CE, the Today screen is similar to the desktop in other versions of Windows. This screen alerts you if you have new e-mail, upcoming appointments, or pending tasks. The screen also displays the name of the user (very handy when two or more PAC Mate users get together), the current date, and the battery status. While working with the product, we found that the battery status indicator was occasionally read incorrectly when the product was switched on. When this occurred, the speech would say one thing and the display would show something else. Moving around the Today screen with the cursor cross would correct this problem.

PAC Mate offers a number of ways for users to launch applications. Some applications, such as the Inbox and Task Manager, can be launched directly from the Today screen, simply by pressing Enter on the associated indicator. As noted above, other applications can be quickly opened using four of the function keys located immediately above each braille input key. Finally, as in other versions of Windows, all applications are listed and can be opened using the Start menu. Once you have completed work within an application, pressing the F1 function key, located above dot 1 on the braille input keys will cause PAC Mate to announce that the application has been closed. In reality however, pressing this key does not actually close the application: it simply minimizes it. These minimized applications are still listed in a menu that PAC Mate calls Recent Applications. To exit an application completely, you must perform several obscure commands, which differ depending on what application is to be exited and are not well documented. Falsely stating that the application has been closed when in fact it has simply been minimized may confuse some users of the product. However, having quick access (the recent applications list is available using another one of the function keys) is convenient when you are working in several applications at once.

Read This First

Prior to using any of PAC Mate's applications, users would be wise to read the help information on the particular application. Several applications that are part of the Pocket PC suite, such as the games, are totally inaccessible. When these applications are run, PAC Mate provides no indication that this application cannot be used by a user who is blind or visually impaired. This information is, however, listed in the application's Help menu.

A Tale of Two Word Processors

PAC Mate ships with two separate word-processing applications. Pocket Word is the word-processing component of the Pocket PC suite of applications, and is also available on many other Pocket-PC-based PDAs. Although this application allows you to perform basic word-processing tasks, it lacks more sophisticated functions, such as the ability to print a document. Support for contracted braille input within Pocket Word is also a bit cumbersome. Although it is possible to enter contracted braille in this application, several commands must be issued before and after the text is entered. These commands are not listed in the context-sensitive help for Pocket Word.

In order to provide a more powerful word processor that contains improved support for contracted braille, Freedom Scientific has written FS Edit. Although it goes against the philosophy of using off-the-shelf software that PAC Mate strives to achieve, this is the word-processing program most users with low vision will want to utilize. FS Edit allows users to create, edit, format, and save documents easily. The program does a good job of handling contracted braille, allowing you to enter contracted input and warning you when back translation is necessary. FS Edit even has the ability to translate an uncontracted document and send it to a braille embosser. However, since PAC Mate does not contain a parallel port, and there are currently few braille embossers on the market with USB ports, a network connection or USB converter is necessary in most cases to emboss directly from the PAC Mate. Editing and formatting documents is accomplished using several layered commands. Spell checking a document is simple and thoroughly explained in the documentation.

Planning Your Life

Many people who maintain busy schedules need some type of calendar that allows them to schedule, reschedule, and review daily appointments quickly. PAC Mate's calendar does a nice job of filling this need. Appointments can be scheduled or rescheduled with a few simple keystrokes. When the device is in standard view, using the left and right arrow keys displays the next or previous day. In this view, all appointments for the currently highlighted day can be reviewed with the Up and Down Arrow keys. Switching to Calendar view allows you to move around quickly by month, week, or day. In this view, PAC Mate simply indicates if a particular day has appointments scheduled. Pressing Enter places the calendar back in standard mode and allows all appointments for that day to be reviewed. Pressing Enter on a specific appointment reveals all the details for the appointment. PAC Mate's calendar can be synchronized with Microsoft Outlook. Unlike Outlook, PAC Mate's calendar is extremely accessible and intuitive. For these reasons, many users use only the PAC Mate calendar in a corporate setting. The most serious drawback to this application is its lack of support for contracted braille. When you are entering information into an appointment, everything must be typed out in uncontracted braille. This drawback greatly decreases the convenience of this otherwise easy-to-use application.

Taking Notes

PAC Mate includes a small notetaking application to be used for jotting down short bits of information. Once you have jumped through the contracted braille hoops, you can enter notes in contracted braille. As an alternative, you can use the voice recorder to record short voice notes. With the use of either method, this application is an excellent way of saving brief bits of information such as names and telephone numbers.

E-mail

Not too long ago, in order to send or receive electronic mail (e-mail), you had to be sitting in front of a computer that was connected to the Internet. With the popularity of wireless networking, desktop synchronization, and PDAs that can handle e-mail, this is definitely no longer the case. PAC Mate's e-mail application allows you to send and receive e-mail virtually anywhere. If you have access to a wireless network, simply insert a wireless network Compact Flash card into your PAC Mate and you can be connected to the world. If you don't have access to any type of Internet connection, PAC Mate allows you to compose and read e-mail while offline. The next time you connect the product to the Internet, your messages will be sent and any new messages will be downloaded. As an alternative, if you have a desktop computer running Microsoft Outlook, you can use Microsoft ActiveSync to synchronize PAC Mate's Inbox with the Inbox on your desktop. This is a very convenient way of reading and responding to e-mail when you are away from your desk. All commonly used e-mail features, such as forwarding, replying, and sending and receiving messages with attachments, are available. PAC Mate's e-mail application does utilize a fair number of layered commands. As explained earlier, layered commands require you to press several keystrokes to perform a function. In order to send a message, for example, you must press the sh chord (dots 1, 4, and 6 with the spacebar) and then press the letter S. Remembering all these layered commands may be a bit tricky for new users, but PAC Mate's help system does provide assistance.

As with the desktop version of Microsoft Outlook, PAC Mate's e-mail application uses the Contact Manager as its address book. Entering information into the Contact Manager is fairly straightforward and is well explained in the documentation. Once your contact's information has been entered (either manually or through synchronization with Microsoft Outlook), simply selecting the name from a list will enter the correct e-mail address in the To: field of an outgoing message. When composing a message, it is possible to enter contracted braille. For this to be possible, however, the keystrokes to activate the automatic translator must be pressed before you enter any text. When you have completed your message, a special Translate and Send command is available.

Browsing the Web

Since PAC Mate uses Pocket Internet Explorer (IE--the browser portion of the Pocket PC suite) and a modified version of JAWS for Windows screen reader, browsing the Web using the PAC Mate has a very familiar feel. Individuals who use JAWS to browse the Web can use some of the same commands when navigating the Web with the PAC Mate. Pressing the letter H, for example, will jump you to the next heading on the page. Combining this keystroke with the backspace key will move to the prior heading. Some commands, however, are not the same. Opening a new page, for instance, is accomplished by pressing the letter G on the PAC Mate. When we asked Freedom Scientific about this, we were told that G stands for go to the address bar. Since many desktop users press either Control O or F6 to open a new page, it would make sense to have the same command on the PAC Mate.

The combination of JAWS and Pocket IE provides users with a variety of useful features. Most IE features, such as a history list, a list of favorites, and the ability to save pages for offline viewing, are available. When PAC Mate is loading a new Web page, a series of progress clicks are played. This is an excellent feature, especially for users who access the Web with a slow Internet connection. The only problem we encountered when browsing the web occurred on sites that opened pages in additional windows. When these new windows were opened, PAC Mate would occasionally lock up or read garbled information.

Third-Party Applications

With the popularity of mainstream mobile computing, a large number of applications are being written for the Windows CE operating system. One of PAC Mate's biggest selling points is its ability to run these applications. Some applications will work with the PAC Mate immediately. Scripts (computer code that fine-tunes the way JAWS interacts with a particular program) have been written for other applications. To assist in locating applications that work well with the PAC Mate, several users of the product have created a web site accessible at <www.pacmategear.com>. This site lists, among other things, third-party applications that work well on the PAC Mate. These applications include an audio recorder; several instant message clients (the programs that let users exchange messages in real time with friends or family who are currently online); and an application that allows you to load and search reference materials, including an entire encyclopedia.

One of the third-party applications most users will want to explore is a system backup utility called Sprite Backup. During the short time that we took to evaluate the product, we experienced two system crashes that could not be fixed with a warm reboot. (A warm reboot restarts the PAC Mate but does not erase any data.) When this occurred, it was necessary to perform a cold reboot, which erased all data files we currently had saved on the product and reset all settings to their factory defaults. Freedom Scientific acknowledges that this type of reset is occasionally necessary, and therefore advises PAC Mate users to back up their data on a regular basis. Sprite Backup can be used for just this purpose. This application, available on the Pocket PC companion CD, can quickly back up all of your PAC Mate data files to a Compact Flash card.

When it comes to accessing information, some terrific applications work well with PAC Mate. Audible.com <www.Audible.com> is a web site that produces audio files of books and magazines for the general public. To play these files, members must have software that handles Audible's proprietary file format. Since many users want to listen to Audible files on their Windows-CE-based PDAs, Audible has created a software player for this operating system. PAC Mate users can download and use this application to listen to books and magazines.

Windows Media Player allows PAC Mate to play streaming Internet radio and other audio files. A software application that allows PAC Mate users to download and open files from Bookshare <www.Bookshare.org> is also available.

The Bottom Line

The ability to detach a refreshable braille display and access a large number of third-party mobileware applications makes PAC Mate a unique product in the accessible PDA arena. However, PAC Mate does have some problems. The most glaring are its lack of consistent support for contracted braille and its occasional instability. However, as demonstrated in "A Packed Day with My PAC Mate" in the January 2005 issue of AccessWorld, many users are very happy with the product and use it on a daily basis. If you are in the market for an accessible PDA, the PAC Mate may be the solution you are looking for.

The BrailleNote PK performed best of the three products tested in our evaluation. It is easy to learn and use. Its main drawback is that it is currently a closed system--it cannot run third-party Windows CE applications, which the PAC Mate is able to do. However, we experienced software problems during the PAC Mate evaluation, and were frustrated with the lack of support for contracted braille. The Braille Hansone (since renamed Braille Sense) is now distributed in the U.S. by GW Micro, and its manual has been revised. At the time of testing, it did not perform as well as the BrailleNote PK or the PAC Mate.

Freedom Scientific's Comments

"Thank you for your review of the PAC Mate. It is not an easy task to cover all the things a person can do with a PAC Mate. Kolby Garrison covered quite a few in the January article "A Packed Day with My PAC Mate," and users continually post experiences on <www.pacmategear.com> (check out the new Jawbreaker game scripts).

We will release our fourth major update of the PAC Mate since December 2003 by the time this article is published. Among the new features is the ability to control JAWS on your desktop with your PAC Mate, using your QX or BX keyboard and your PAC Mate's speech and braille display. We will also have released our DAISY player for the PAC Mate, FSReader, our GPS solution StreetTalk™, and FSCommander, which lets you control your TV, VCR, DVD, stereo, or any appliance with an infrared remote control with your PAC Mate from 30 feet away. Keep checking <www.pacmategear.com> and our new PAC Mate Headquarters at <www.freedomscientific.com> for new applications and accessories that work with the PAC Mate and to be sure you are on the latest release and have downloaded any additional utilities you would like to use, like a second language synthesizer. The community of PAC Mate users is growing, exciting and eager to help new users."


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Product Information

Product: Pac Mate.

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, Blindness and Low Vision Group, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800-444-4443; e-mail: <Sales@freedomscientific.com>; web site: <www.FreedomScientific.com>.

Price: PAC Mate BX400 and QX400: $2,395; PAC Mate BX420 and QX420: $3,795; PAC Mate BX440 and QX440: $5,595.

Related Articles

It's in Your Hands: A Review of the PAC Mate and the VoiceNote by Jim Denham and Jay Leventhal
The Next Generation: A Review of Personal Digital Assistants, Part 1 by Jim Denham, Jay Leventhal, and Heather McComas
A Packed Day with My PAC Mate by Kolby Garrison


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Copyright © 2005 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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