Product Evaluation: Braille Sense OnHand Notetaker and PDA from HIMS, Inc.
In conjunction with opening its first US office in Austin, Texas, the Korea-based HIMS, Inc. introduced a new member of their Braille Sense line, the Braille Sense OnHand. The OnHand is a very small and powerful braille notetaker and PDA with both braille and speech output. It's designed specifically for blind people and is capable of interfacing with loads of off-the-shelf mainstream products.
The Braille Sense OnHand measures 4 by 7 by 1.5 inches high, and comes in a sturdy protective case with shoulder strap. All buttons and ports are accessible without removing the case. The device sports a white top panel on a black body. The top face of the unit has an eight-key Perkins-style keyboard below which is a row of four evenly spaced function keys. Below the function keys are the 18 cursor routing buttons and their corresponding 18 8-dot braille cells on the display. The braille display is particularly pleasing; all keys and buttons are logically and conveniently located.
On either side of the braille display are two keys that can be used for scrolling the display for reading, or activated in concert with other buttons and keys for a host of operations. The front edge of the unit holds a 3-position audio mode switch and five buttons related to audio functions; the left side of the unit holds the AC adapter port, a USB port, and a convenient lock switch; the right side holds the SC card slot and external microphone and headset jacks. On the top panel of the unit, between and above the dots 1 and 7 keys of the keyboard is the external speaker. On the bottom back edge of the unit is the battery door. The OnHand comes with a unique battery that has clear tactile guides to assist in its removal and replacement.
General Features and Overview
The Braille Sense OnHand offers both braille and high-quality speech output. Either can be turned off at any time with a keystroke. The unit can run on either its user-replaceable battery or AC power. It comes equipped with a spare battery and clever battery charger with audible indications to notify the user that the battery is ready for use (a full charge takes about 3 hours).
The OnHand's range of capabilities is truly impressive. You can use it to take notes; keep your calendar; track addresses and other contact information; listen to music, podcasts, audio books, or the FM radio; read your e-mail; browse the Internet and stream content; build databases; and access both text and audio DAISY content. You can pair the OnHand with your smartphone or other Bluetooth device, use its built-in compass and GPS capabilities to map out routes to desired locations, and even play games. You can, of course, check the time and date, set alarms and reminders, use a scientific calculator, and read a wide variety of file types transferred from your computer or other devices. Five versions of the Bible, both New and Old Testament, are fully searchable and easily navigated by book, chapter, and verse once loaded onto the unit.
As with other Braille Sense devices, getting started with the OnHand involves learning some basic navigation functions. In general, Braille Sense navigation patterns are somewhat like the patterns used to find your way around a Windows-based computer. The primary operations of the function keys, for example, will remind you of your Windows Start key, Alt, Tab, and sometimes other operations. Pressing F1 brings up the File Manager, which is home base. While there are shortcuts to most applications, you can always locate everything by starting with the File Manager. Once there, press Enter to go directly to any selected file. Navigation at this point is typical, moving from available drives to folders, sub-folders, and ultimately files. The device sometimes got stuck while navigating this way, but starting over at the File Manager solved the glitch each time.
Once you've selected the file you'd like to use, the OnHand will usually open it in the appropriate application automatically. The list of file types this product can access is fairly extensive: doc, docx, pdf, txt, rtf, brf, brl, and hbl (Braille Sense braille files). The media player will play mp2, mp3, mp4, ogg, wav, and wma files as well as a host of less common file types.
Again, finding your way around the Braille Sense OnHand is often similar to finding your way around a Windows-based PC. You can have multiple applications open, and switch with a few keystrokes (F2 + F3) from one to another. You might be writing a document in the word processor, for example, while also listening to your favorite NPR station on the FM radio or your favorite Tim McGraw song in the media player. Concurrently, you can open the Web browser to look up the weather forecast, or check your e-mail through the OnHand's e-mail program. You can check the title bar of the particular program in focus or rotate from one application to another with F2 + F3.
One tiny navigation aid I especially appreciated throughout the Braille Sense system is the numeric location indicator. For example, if you are reading e-mail, you will see "3/25" on your braille display to indicate that the active message is the third of 25. Similarly, the Braille Sense will always show you how many items or applications are open at a given time.
The OnHand always opens with whatever application and/or file was displayed when you last shut the unit down.
The Braille Sense OnHand has far too many features to elaborate on each application extensively. All applications function well and many function extremely well. Online help is always available from within every application.
Web, E-mail, and Contacts
Because the OnHand has both wireless and Bluetooth capabilities, you can access the Internet from anywhere.
The Web browser's Favorites lists is pre-populated with selections of particular interest to blind users. The browser allows navigation by links, headings, or chunks of text, and has no problems downloading files or streaming audio content.
E-mail reading and navigation is effortless. The OnHand's e-mail program translates your contracted braille-written messages into standard text for your recipients, and translates incoming messages into Grade 2 braille.
The address manager includes all of the usual fields as well as an unlimited multi-edit box for inserting any text that might help you remember details of a particular contact.
Upgrades to the OnHand can be downloaded and installed by the user.
The word processor, which opens a blank document when launched, allows you to select, cut, copy, and paste as you would in any similar program. You can format files for braille or print output and send them to a printer or embosser.
The FM radio allows you to type in a target frequency, scan for frequencies, and establish presets. The radio always displays the frequency of the current station. The utilities installed on the OnHand include a scientific calculator, stopwatch, and alarm clock. The Braille Sense OnHand can be connected directly to a computer for use as a mass storage device, a feature long overdue in the world of braille notetaking devices. Simply connect the device to any computer and it will show up as an additional drive for the seamless transfer of files to and from the unit.
If you have an account with Bookshare, the OnHand can download and unpack a book for reading with just a few easy keystrokes. If you choose a DAISY-formatted version, the book can be easily navigated in the Braille Sense DAISY player, moving forward or back by page, heading, time, or bookmark depending on the mark-up of the particular book.
Finally, while not yet available at this writing, the ability to download and play digital talking books from the NLS BARD site set to be released soon.
It's surprising to me that a device so rigorously designed is missing a couple basic elements. First, although general notes of any sort can be entered into a blank word processing document or entered into the schedule or address manager, a simple notes feature— an instantly available location for entering a quick bit of information— would be extremely useful. Secondly, although a free dictionary has been included in the Favorites list within the Web browser, a built-in dictionary would be more expedient.
The only serious negative in this product is the user's manual. There are many sections in which the translation from Korean to English is so poor as to render the intended meanings incomprehensible. At other times, instructions are incomplete or even incorrect.
The technical support staff in the Austin office is extremely competent, knowledgeable, and patient, and bridges the gaps in the written documentation. A more usable manual would go a long way toward efficiency for company and customers alike.
The Bottom Line
One dilemma faced by blind computer users has long been the choice between a mainstream product that can enable the user to easily exchange information with sighted colleagues and friends, and the specialized blindness product that offers braille and speech output and features of particular interest to blind people. With its Braille Sense products, HIMS has taken a major step toward incorporating both concepts into a single product, resulting in extremely powerful devices designed for blind users but capable of interfacing with a myriad of mainstream applications and file types. Most promising of all, perhaps, is that the OnHand's easily upgradable status renders it an outstanding product with an ongoing potential for enhancement.
Note: Although this is a review of the Braille Sense OnHand, all functions discussed are also available in the Braille Sense Plus, which has a 32-cell braille display, 8GB rather than 4GB internal memory, built-in LCD display, Ethernet port, compact flash card slot and host USB port. The Braille Sense Plus is larger and heavier and costs about $1,000 more than the OnHand.
Product: Braille Sense OnHand.
Price: $4,995 (Sense Navigation, the GPS application for the Braille Sense OnHand, is based on the popular Sendero GPS software and is an additional $1,595).
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