No Second Fiddle: A Review of the Maestro
This article reviews the Maestro from HumanWare, the first accessible off-the-shelf personal digital assistant (PDA). Mainstream PDAs include 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.
Rather than designing a product specifically for people who are blind or have low vision, some companies are working on different ways of adapting mainstream PDAs. The major advantage of adapting an off-the-shelf product is a drastic reduction in price. The primary disadvantages are the inaccessibility of the PDA's touch screen and the visual nature of indications of when the PDA is on or off and whether the battery is currently charging. The Maestro solves these problems by adding speech output to selected applications through the Eloquence synthesizer and uses a tactile keypad overlay as an alternative to the PDA's touch screen for data entry. We tested the Maestro on an HP iPAQ PDA.
The Maestro HP iPAQ is rectangular in shape and silver in color. It should be noted that the HP iPAQ will soon be replaced by the Dell Axim X50 PDA. The Dell PDA has a longer shelf life on the mainstream market and will ensure that it will no longer be necessary for the user to reinstall the Maestro software when the PDA's battery runs down. We needed to reinstall the Maestro software several times during this evaluation. The specially designed tactile keypad fits securely over the touch pad of the PDA. This component is also silver with buttons that are black and yellow. The keyboard is held in place by a cloth strap that slips over the back of the iPAQ. The Maestro measures approximately 4.5 inches x 2.7 inches x 0.5 inches and weighs 4.67 ounces.
Caption: The Maestro.
All the Maestro's buttons are located on the front surface. The On button is located near the top edge in the center inside a tactile U-shaped line on the iPAQ. At this end of the product, this is the only button that is located on the actual surface of the PDA. The rest of the buttons are located on the tactile keypad, which is divided into two parts. The top part of the keypad contains 12 round buttons that are arranged like a telephone keypad; these are the Maestro's input keys. The top part of the keypad also contains 6 additional keys, including a Backspace key and 2 Validate keys. When you enter text using the 12 input keys, you use the Validate keys to confirm that you have finished entering a character. There is a finger-width space between the keys for input and the functions-style keys that are below them. On the left is a vertical row of 4 function keys (F1-F4) and a circle cross that is used for navigating menus. The button in the middle of the circle cross is the Enter button. The Home, Page Up, Page Down, and End buttons are to the right of the circle cross. Beneath the down arrow key and between the F4 and the End keys, you will find the Tab and Shift-Tab keys. This end of the product contains 5 keys on the surface of the PDA. These 5 function keys are, from left to right, Escape, Control, Record, Shift, and System Bar/Off). The Record button is inside a navigation square.
Directly below the record button and on the edge of the Maestro is the USB port. This port can accept the AC adapter or can be used to place the product on the cradle that is used to connect the Maestro to your computer. To the left of the USB port is the infrared port. At the top and along the left side of the Maestro is a button that is not labeled and has no current function. The top left edge of the Maestro contains a headphone jack and the flash card slot.
The cradle is a separate item that the Maestro needs to connect to your computer to transfer files via Microsoft ActiveSync or to charge the battery. The cradle attaches to a PC via the USB cable. The AC adapter also can hook to the cradle so that the Maestro can rest in the cradle and get charged while being used. The cradle measures 3 1/8 inches x 2 1/4 inches x 5 inches and weighs 6.1 ounces.
Getting Started and Getting Help
The Maestro package includes a Getting Started document in print and in braille, a tactile diagram of the Maestro keypad with braille labels, and a user's guide and Quick Reference guide in Microsoft Word format. There is also online help.
The Quick Reference guide and manual orient you to the Maestro keypad, identify the buttons, and explain how the unit operates. The manual goes through each application on the PDA that has been made accessible and lists keystrokes that are used to accomplish tasks. We found numerous grammatical mistakes in the English documentation. The process of transferring files to and from the Maestro needs more explanation.
The Maestro's Contacts program lets you input and edit contact information for friends and colleagues. Individual contacts can be classified as business, personal, holiday, or recent. You can use the Maestro's arrow keys to move through the list of names, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses. The Maestro provides fast access to a telephone number and a quick way to take down a person's information.
The Maestro's calendar provides a reliable way to keep track of appointments. You can schedule and review appointments, and the Maestro allows you to set alarms to make sure that you do not miss a meeting. The calendar application is an attractive part of the Maestro, since the unit is small enough for you to carry with you all day.
Text Notes is a simple word-processing application. You can create new files, open old files, copy and paste, cut text, and more. The Maestro saves documents in Pocket Word format, but it can read Microsoft Word documents, rich text documents, and plain text documents. Text Notes files can be saved on the main memory of the PDA, saved on a storage card, or sent via ActiveSync to another computer.
For inputting text in Text Notes, it is beneficial to get to know a bit about the Maestro's tactile keypad. There are two ways that the keypad can be set up to enter data--telephone input and braille input. The difference between the two is that when the keyboard is set to the telephone keypad, all the keys are used just like on a standard telephone. For example, typing the letter b requires hitting the number 2 button three times because each press cycles through the characters 2, a, b, and c. Once you hear the letter b, you use the Validate button to accept the letter. Each number contains at least three letters of the alphabet except for number 1, which contains punctuation marks. When the keyboard is set to the braille keypad, only the first two columns and the four rows are used. It is set up just like a standard braille cell, although each dot is hit separately to make the letter. For example, to enter the letter h, you need to hit dots 1-2-5 separately and then hit the Validate button. The Validate button is used for both input methods, and it is much like an Enter or Accept button.
A quicker and easier option for data entry is an infrared keyboard. This small, QWERTY keyboard works when it is near the infrared port of the Maestro. You can type normally on this keyboard.
There are just a few things that we found that can be a bit confusing or took too much time to do. First, text has to be entered in computer braille, not in contracted (grade 2) braille. Second, we could not copy and paste by using the shortcut keys; rather, we had to copy and paste by activating many steps in the menus. Finally, the program has no Spell Check, although, it does have the Find and Replace feature.
The onboard help for Text Notes is clear in describing how to create new documents, create folders, edit documents, and much more. We were able to read long articles and even books using Text Notes. Books needed to be broken down into files about 100 pages long on a computer and then transferred to the Maestro's flash card. You press the Control key to stop reading a document. When you resume reading, Maestro starts right at the point where you left off. This was true even if we saved the file, exited the program, and then ran the program again and reopened the document.
Vocal Notes is a quick and easy way to record a message to yourself, such as about a lunch date, a grocery list, or contact information for a friend or relative, or to record a beautiful bird call. It is easy to use Vocal Notes and to play back the message that was recorded.
You can append information to a note that you previously recorded. For example, if you need to add more items to your shopping list, you can supplement your shopping list file without erasing what you already recorded or having to make a whole new file just for those items. Recorded notes are saved in WAV file format and can be stored on the main memory of the PDA, saved to a storage card, or sent via ActiveSync to another computer. Onboard Help for Vocal Notes is clear in describing how to record, store, and play back notes.
The Trekker global positioning satellite (GPS) system has been integrated into the Maestro package and runs on the same PDA. In addition to the PDA, Trekker adds a GPS receiver, a speaker, and a battery pack. All these components are attached to a strap that is worn around the neck. Trekker weighs 1.3 pounds. You can read more about Trekker's basic functions in our review in the November 2004 issue of AccessWorld.
New in Trekker Version 2.6
Trekker's controls and navigation keys have been integrated into the Maestro keypad and menus. Trekker uses the function keys; the cursor cross; the Home, Page Up, Page Down, and End keys; and the keys across the bottom of the PDA. To start using Trekker, you select Trekker from the Maestro's main menu. You also must plug the connector for Trekker's speaker, worn on the strap near your ear, into the headphone jack on the PDA.
When you turn Trekker on, it begins searching for satellites to provide the GPS information that is needed to announce your location. You hear a series of beeps during the satellite search. When a GPS signal is received, usually in two to three minutes, Trekker announces the name of the street on which you are walking. When you are about 30 feet from an intersection, Trekker describes the intersection, for example, "Four-way intersection, Austin Street crossing Continental Avenue."
The unit contains points of interest from a commercial database, including restaurants, banks, schools, and gas stations. When you arrive near one of these locations, Trekker announces it, for instance, "Citibank on your right." (This feature can be turned off if desired.) You can add your own points of interest to the list using the microphone that is built into the PDA. You press the Record button, on the left side of the PDA, and speak your message. You must make the initial recording at the location, such as at the entrance to a train station, but you can edit the recording later to provide a longer description of the location. Since Trekker uses a commercial database, the emphasis is on places that would interest drivers. Many local stores are omitted and must be entered by the user.
You now have access to both the braille and telephone keypads for entering data while using Trekker. So you can choose the keypad you prefer. Trekker dialogue boxes are now standard, matching those found in the other accessible applications on the PDA. Trekker now includes access to the PDA's clock, battery-level indicator, and available memory.
A Key Describer mode is available to help you learn the keys for Trekker commands. The PDA allows you to run more than one program at a time, so it is not necessary to exit Trekker to add a name and telephone number to your contacts list.
When you press the Where Am I? button, Trekker announces the direction in which you are heading, along with the street on which you are traveling and the next intersection, so you know immediately whether you are going where you want to go. It is also now easier to create a route to follow as you travel. You set your starting point--your office, for example--and then tab to the OK button. Next you choose your destination. In either case, you can type in the name of a location or choose from your personal points of interest or from a list of points in Trekker's database. Once the route is set, Trekker guides you from start to finish. One caveat is that Trekker requires you to begin your route at a specific intersection. If you activate a route and begin half a block from that designated intersection, Trekker reports that you are off route.
During testing, announcements of points of interest were more consistent than in our previous evaluation of Trekker. Announcements of intersections were also consistent. However, Trekker sometimes announced the "next" intersection after the tester had begun crossing the street or even after he finished crossing it. Both these problems are explained by the fact that, for civilian use, GPS is accurate only down to about 30 feet. But this fact emphasizes the point that GPS devices are just a supplement to a cane or a dog guide.
The Bottom Line
Clever adaptations and the inclusion of Trekker on the same PDA will make Maestro an enticing option for people who already have a computer but are searching for a small, lightweight device for keeping track of contacts, staying on schedule, and reading documents. The installation procedure, the time-consuming way of entering data on the keypad, and the need to connect Maestro to a computer make it difficult for us to recommend it as a device for beginners. Increasing the number of accessible applications on the PDA will make Maestro a much more attractive product.
"We would like to thank AccessWorld for reviewing Maestro and for letting more users know about our products. As was mentioned in this review, Maestro provides different ways to input data. For short data entry, the tactile keyboard is an alternative as efficient as the Graffiti or other stylus methods that are available for sighted users on the PDA. We will continue working to provide expanded and more efficient notetaking capability. Version 1.1, to be released soon, will allow the use of Bluetooth QWERTY and braille external keyboards, as well as contracted braille. In addition, HumanWare is preparing new applications. Among them are an E-mail Manager, a Web Browser, Media Player, and Victor Reader (our DAISY book player). For new features and accessories, keep checking our web site."
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Manufacturer: HumanWare Canada, 841, Jean-Paul-Vincent, Longueuil, Quebec, Canada, J4G 1R3; phone: 888-723-7273 or 450-463-1717; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.humanware.ca>.
Price: Maestro: $1,195, Trekker Pro (Trekker plus Maestro): $1,895.
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