July 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 4

Product Evaluation

Braille on Display: The ALVA Satellite Traveler and the Braille Star

This article evaluates the features of two of the newest braille displays on the market. Though the functionality of these displays varies, depending on which Windows-based screen reader is driving the displays, the features of the displays are separate.

In the early 1980s, Telesensory Corporation's VersaBraille was the first product to use a refreshable braille display. The text on the display was changed by raising and lowering different combinations of pins electronically to produce in braille what appeared on a portion of the screen. Since then, refreshable braille displays have increased dramatically in features and functionality. However, the cost of braille technology has remained extremely high—about $70 per braille cell. Recently, several new displays have come on the market that offer a variety of attractive features.

Displays typically have a variety of keys for navigating around the information on the screen, and some displays have a great many more keys than others. A braille display, like a speech synthesizer, requires software to run. In Windows, it is the screen reader that provides the interface between the braille display and the computer applications you need to use.

Because the screen reader presents information that appears on the screen and determines the relationship among items, the manufacturer of the screen reader is responsible for providing the programming that allows a braille display to handle navigation. This interplay between the braille display and the screen-reader software makes it difficult to sort out the unavoidable access problems that come up while using a display. It is usually unclear whether a different screen reader or another braille display would work better or if the quirk is an intrinsic characteristic of braille.

Testing was done on a Sony Vaio Pentium III 866 MHZ with 128 MB RAM, Windows 2000, and JAWS for Windows, as well as on a Pentium II 233 machine with 64 MB RAM, Windows 98 SE, and both JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes.

Braille Star 40

The Braille Star 40 is the newest refreshable braille display from Handy Tech and Pulse Data International. Although it is manufactured by Handy Tech, it was jointly developed by both of these companies and is sold and supported in the United States by Pulse Data HumanWare. The Braille Star 40 is a powerful refreshable braille display that also contains a fully functioning editor and file system. These features allow you to create, edit, and read files when Braille Star is not connected to a computer.

At First Look

One of the first things that catches your attention when you examine the Braille Star 40 for the first time is the detachable, laptop-sized QWERTY-style keyboard that sits on top of the unit. This keyboard can be used either to enter text in the editor or to control your PC. In front of the keyboard is a concave area containing 40 braille cells and 40 cursor-routing keys. This concave setup places the braille cells on a unique angle for reading. At both ends of the line of braille cells, Handy Tech has placed a rocker-type control. These controls are known as triple-action keys. Each of these controls can be pressed at the top, in the center, or at the bottom. Pressing in each area performs a different action. Ten thumb key-style controls are located at the front edge of the product. These controls represent eight braille input keys and two spacebars. The product connects to a computer using either a USB or a serial port. The back panel contains both these ports, as well as a switch for controlling which port is currently active. For laptop users, the minikeyboard can be detached and the top panel can be slid back, creating an extended shelf. Although this procedure is well described in the manual, we found the process difficult to perform when we evaluated the product.

Using the Braille Star 40 as a Display

The Braille Star 40 is supported by Jaws for Windows and Window-Eyes, both of which take full advantage of Braille Star's array of features and controls. The triple-action keys, for example, are used by both packages to move up or down one line. Scrolling within a line is accomplished by using either the left or right spacebar. Although most of these key combinations worked well, we found a few of them to be less than intuitive. In JAWS for Windows, for example, pressing the middle of the left triple-action key and pressing down on the right triple-action key is the command to simulate an ALT Tab. Pressing the middle of the left triple-action key and pressing up on the right triple-action key simulates a Delete key. When we evaluated the product, more than one item was accidentally deleted when we tried to switch between applications. While in display mode, the braille input keys on the front of the Braille Star are used to toggle many popular screen-reader functions, such as the grade of braille being displayed. It is important to note that these braille input keys can be used only to input text to the Braille Star's internal editor. They cannot be used to braille text directly into the word processor on your PC.


Text can be entered in the Braille Star's editor using either the mini-QWERTY keyboard or the braille input keys on the front of the unit. While evaluating the product, we found that the angle and texture of the braille input keys made it uncomfortable to enter braille for an extended period. Regardless of how you enter text, you have Braille Star's editor at your disposal. This is a fully functioning editor with a variety of features, such as cut and copy, insert or overtype modes, and the ability to set up to 10 bookmarks per file.

Files can be sent between the Braille Star 40 and a PC using a supplied communications program. These files can be either text files or Grade 2 braille files, such as web-braille books. The Braille Star 40 has four megabytes of available memory for storing such files. Once a file is stored, it can be viewed, opened for editing, or deleted. The Braille Star does not give you the ability to rename files or to organize them in any type of directory structure.

The Braille Star 40 does not have any type of braille-translation capabilities. That is, files are stored and transmitted exactly as they are entered. So, if you use the braille input keys to compose a document and transmit that document to your PC, you will have a document in Grade 2 braille on your computer. Or if you send a text file to the Braille Star, you will have to read that document in computer braille.

Menu System

While in editor mode, the Braille Star offers an extensive menu system. These menus can be used to save and retrieve files, check the status of the device, change numerous options, and load different braille tables. Braille Star uses braille tables to decide which dots should make up each braille character for menus and messages. This feature comes in handy when you are working with multiple languages.

The Braille Star 40 is powered by four user-replaceable rechargeable batteries. According to the manual, when fully charged, these batteries should last for approximately 20 hours of use. The batteries can be fully recharged in approximately 3 hours, and the Braille Star is fully operational while charging. The status menu contains several items that give current information on the batteries. This information is, however, in a submenu of the status menu entitled ACCU. It is unclear what ACCU stands for, but placing this information under this heading may be confusing for a new user of the product.

ALVA Satellite

The ALVA Satellite series is not a newcomer to the braille display market. These versatile displays have been around for a number of years. What is new, however, is ALVA's new Traveler. This 44-cell display is the newest product in the satellite series and can run exclusively on USB power. Thus, no batteries or power cord are necessary when using the display as a USB device. When connected to a computer via a serial port, an external power supply can be used to power the Traveler. This loss of on-board batteries significantly reduces the weight of the unit. This lighter-weight sibling still has all the features of the other products in the satellite series. These features include two rows of cursor-routing keys, two sets of six keys for controlling Windows and screen-reader functions, six front-panel keys for scrolling the display, and a menu system for changing numerous aspects of the display. All this in an ergonomically designed case.

Two Rows of Cursor Routing Keys

One unique feature of the ALVA Satellite is its two rows of cursor-routing keys. With most screen readers, the bottom row of keys serves as traditional cursor-routing keys. The top row of cursor routing keys, or Double Touch cursors, can serve a variety of functions, depending on which screen reader is driving the display. These keys can execute actions, such as a right mouse click on a single character, or announce additional information about a character, such as its attribute information—underline, bold, and so forth.

The Satellite also contains two six-key Satellite Keypads, positioned below and at either end of the line of braille cells. ALVA refers to these keypads as the Windows keypad and the screen-reader keypad. True to their names, they allow you to control Windows and basic screen-reader functions. While the screen reader decides which of these keys will do what, ALVA's menu system provides the ability to reverse these keypads. If your Windows keypad is located on the left keypad, for example, and you are left-handed and want to access the functions mapped to the screen-reader keypad quickly, you could easily reverse the role of these keypads to suit your needs.

What Is My Status?

Status cells are a feature of several new refreshable braille displays. They are a small number of cells that display information about what is being shown on the rest of the display. Status cells may, for example, indicate how much of the current line of text is being shown on the display or which cursor is currently active. The ALVA Satellite has three status cells. Using the internal menu system, the user has the option to have these status cells appear on the left or right side of the braille display line or have them not appear at all. When the status cells are active, they are separated from the rest of the display by a single empty braille cell. Screen-reader vendors not only take advantage of these status cells for displaying important information, they also make use of the cursor-routing keys above the status cells for performing additional functions.

Internal Menu

The ALVA Satellite has an internal menu system that allows you to change many aspects of the display. Through this menu, you can decide where or if the status cells will be positioned, rearrange the functions of the front panel controls, and even change the dot pressure of the braille cells. Setting a lighter braille-cell pressure makes the braille appear faded, whereas increasing this setting makes the dots appear sharper. The internal menu system also allows you to check the status of the display.

Connecting the Dots

Both these products offer a variety of features that make it convenient to use a braille display with a Windows-based screen reader. Their innovative controls and configurability give the braille user a wealth of options. The Braille Star contains features that make it more than a simple braille display. ALVA's menu options make the Satellite much more configurable. If you are in the market for a braille display, I would highly recommend taking a careful look at both of these products.

Manufacturers' Comments


"The ALVA Satellite braille display series was specifically designed to enhance the performance of a blind user working within a graphical user interface, such as any of the Microsoft Windows operating systems and Office suites. The combined features of the Double Touch Cursors, Satellite keypads, and front-panel navigation keys significantly improve efficiency for the user by reducing the amount of hand movement between the braille display and computer keyboard. Most recently, ALVA released a new set of hardware drivers, version 3.0, which not only made the ALVA Satellite braille displays compatible with Windows XP, but improved the overall performance and response of the braille display with a screen reader. In late summer 2002, a new edition to the Satellite series will be available in answer to those customers who desire an 80-character display. The ALVA Satellite 584 will have all the features of the popular ALVA Satellite 570 Pro, but in an extrawide profile. Finally, we are also expecting to release the first braille solution to the Macintosh in late summer 2002. Our objective is to provide a variety of choices within the ALVA Satellite series to satisfy the needs of both students and professionals who demand high-quality refreshable braille to access computers."

Pulse Data HumanWare

"Added to all the standard capabilities of an ergonomically designed braille terminal, Braille Star 40 continues functioning when it is unplugged from your computer. Go to a meeting, review or take notes, read a book on the bus, or move files between your computer and the Braille Star. An 80-cell Braille Star is expected in summer 2002."

Product Information

ALVA Satellite Traveler

Manufacturer: ALVA Access Group Inc., 436 14th Street, Suite 700, Oakland CA 94612; phone: 888-318-ALVA (2582); e-mail: <info@aagi.com>; web site: <www.aagi.com>. Price: $5,995.

Product Information

Braille Star 40

Manufacturer: Pulse Data HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393; web site: <www.humanware.com>. Price: $5,995.

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