July 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 4

Product Evaluation

The 40th Cell: A Review of the Focus Braille Display

The updated versions of the Focus braille displays from Freedom Scientific were released in early 2005. This new display, available with either 40 or 80 cells, offers improved ergonomic design, additional controls, and smoother braille cells. We evaluated the Focus 40-cell display, and, since most braille displays receive all the information they display from the screen reader being used, we evaluated the Focus using both JAWS 6.0 and Window-Eyes 5.0.

Physical Description

The first thing that many users will notice when they examine the new Focus display is the greater prominence of many of the controls. The front panel, for example, contains three sets of distinct keys. The outermost set is the Panning controls--long keys that can easily be found and pressed with the thumb while reading the display. Moving toward the center, the next set of controls is the Rocker keys--short rectangular buttons with a distinctive horizontal groove in the center--that can be pressed either up or down and are often used to scroll to the next line of a document. The innermost controls on the front panel consist of two round buttons, which are known as the General Display buttons.

Photo of the Focus 40.

Caption: The Freedom Scientific Focus braille display with 40 cells.

The front portion of the top surface of the display is slightly lower than the rest of the product's surface. This lower area contains 3 small rectangular keys at the front edge and 8 square keys that are directly behind these controls. The 3 keys that are near the front are a spacebar and 2 Shift keys. The 8 keys that are behind these controls are the Braille Input keys, which are laid out in a standard Perkins-style configuration. Although these keys are called input keys, neither screen reader currently supports the ability to input text directly using these keys. All 11 keys on this front lower surface are slightly raised and easy to locate. This is a tremendous improvement over the same keys on earlier models of this product.

Directly behind and slightly above the Braille Input keys are the 40 refreshable braille cells. At either end of this line of cells is a Whiz Wheel. As was the case with previous Freedom Scientific braille products, the Whiz Wheels can be turned up or down and can be depressed for additional functionality. Immediately behind the Focus's braille cells are two rows of 40 Touch Cursor controls. Each Touch Cursor control is a small rectangular button. When JAWS or Window-Eyes is used, the first row or the row that is the closest to the cells performs the traditional role of routing the cursor to the cell that is immediately below the Touch Cursor control. Several inches behind the far row of Touch Cursor controls is a metal bar with five tactile markings at various points along its front surface. As we describe later, this bar assists users in locating specific Touch Cursor keys on the second row.

The Focus can be connected to a computer only via a single USB port. This port is located on the far left panel of the display and serves as the product's power source as well. Since this is the only option for powering the display, some notebook or palmtop users may need to purchase a powered USB hub to use the product. For most users, however, this solution should not pose a problem.

The Focus ships with an attachment that can serve as both a keyboard rest and a handle for carrying the display. This device is attached by sliding it into a metal fitting on the back of the Focus and securing it with two thumb screws. The attachment can then fold in several directions, allowing it to perform a variety of tasks. When we used this attachment as a keyboard tray, we found that it worked well for a variety of different-sized keyboards. The attachment also allows the keyboard to be positioned close to the refreshable braille cells. When we used it as a handle for the display, however, we had some difficulty getting it to hold the display in place. The display also ships with a leather carrying case that can hold both the display and the attachment.


There are a variety of documentation options for the Focus braille display. The product ships with documentation in braille, in print, and on CD-ROM. The user guide provides well-organized instructions for setting up and learning the basic functions of the product. An electronic version of this document is also available for download from the Freedom Scientific web site.

Support with JAWS

When the Focus is used with JAWS, many commonly used braille-display, screen-reader, and Windows commands can be issued without ever touching the computer keyboard. Commands, such as minimizing all application windows, placing the focus on the next control in a dialogue box (tabbing to the next control), and displaying the top line of the current window, are all possible using the eight braille input keys. Additional commands are available by using these keys in combination with the spacebar and the two Shift keys that are located immediately below the input keys. The only problem with this arrangement is that some commands that are available with the left Shift key are not available with the right Shift key, and vice versa. Copying currently selected text to the clipboard, for example, can be accomplished by holding the Focus's left Shift key and entering c (dots 1, 4) on the braille input keys. This command is not possible with the right shift key. Associating commands with only one of the two shift keys is done to maximize the number of commands that can be performed with the Focus. It may, however, confuse some users.

For all practical purposes, the Focus braille display must be used with JAWS 6.0 or higher. Detailed instructions are provided for installing the display with earlier versions of JAWS, but these instructions involve some complicated steps. Most users will need to upgrade to at least JAWS 6.0 if they want to use this display.

The Second Row of Touch Cursor Keys

Many commands that are available with the Braille Input keys are also available using the second or top row of Touch Cursor keys. On the Focus40, the outermost 13 keys on both the left and right side of this row scrolls the display left or right. The 14 keys in the middle perform a variety of tasks, including moving Focus to the next control in a dialogue box, switching between contracted and uncontracted braille, and displaying the top line of the current window. This top row of Cursor Routing keys can also be used to place the Focus in an Auto Advance mode. While in Auto Advance, the display automatically shows the next 40 or 80 characters of a document after a user-selected period. Keys for increasing or decreasing the Auto Advance speed are also included in this row. For individuals who are fluent braille readers, Auto Advance is a great way to move through large documents. It can also be activated and controlled using the General Display button located on the front panel of the display.

Braille Flash Messages

When using JAWS 6.0 or higher, users of the Focus braille display have access to a feature that was originally introduced in the PAC Mate personal digital assistant. Braille Flash messages are messages that appear on the display for a limited amount of time. These messages may be error messages, such as a low battery indicator, or user-requested messages, such as the current time. Flash messages can be made to disappear by simply pressing any of the Cursor Routing keys. In addition, it is possible to request the Focus to display the last Flash message using a specific Cursor Routing key on the upper row of keys. Although these messages are helpful for intermediate and advanced users, they may confuse new users or slow braille readers. To allow for this possibility, JAWS 6.0 provides a dialogue box that permits users to disable Flash messages. Other settings, such as the time for which Flash messages will be shown, are also configurable within this dialogue box.

Support with Window-Eyes

The new version of the Focus braille display is not directly supported by Window-Eyes version 5.0. Window-Eyes does support the original version of the Focus, and the same drivers can be used to operate the new version of the display. Thus, several new features that were incorporated into the latest version of the Focus, such as the top row of Touch Cursor keys, are not supported by Window-Eyes. Other features, such as the Whiz Wheels, which have been in both versions of the product, are supported. In fact, Window-Eyes makes excellent use of the Whiz Wheels. By default, pressing on the right Whiz Wheel switches between six- and eight-dot braille; pressing on the left Whiz Wheel determines which cursor is tracked by the display. Window-Eyes also makes great use of the eight braille input keys, the spacebar, and the two Shift keys. The spacebar, for example, allows you to switch quickly between contracted and uncontracted braille. Among other things, the Braille Input keys can be used to tab through a dialogue box and move the mouse pointer to various points on the screen. Although it does not offer as many commands as JAWS, Window-Eyes provides strong support for the Focus displays.

Smoother Cells

One of the major marketing claims in promoting this product is that the braille cells are smoother and feel more like paper braille. When we compared this product to the previous version of the Focus, we found that the braille cells on the newer version were easier to read. The display is particularly smooth when the dots are lowered. With these improvements, new users find refreshable braille somewhat easier to read, and experienced braille display users may feel more comfortable using the product.

Another option for improving the readability of braille for users of the Focus and JAWS is the ability to determine the firmness of the dots. When set to a higher level, this setting allegedly makes the braille sharper. JAWS users can adjust the firmness from 0 to 100, with 0 providing the least amount of firmness. During our evaluation, we asked several users to read the display at various levels of firmness. Most users did not notice a significant amount of difference between the lowest and the highest firmness settings. Increasing the firmness setting did not enable any of the users we tested to read the display faster or more accurately.

The Bottom Line

The changes that have been made in the most recent version of the Focus series of braille displays significantly improve the product's usability, especially for individuals who use the JAWS screen reader. Using the combination of JAWS and the Focus, it is possible to perform a large number of common tasks without ever touching the computer keyboard. The second row of Touch Cursor controls and the redesigned Braille Input keys truly enhance this version of the product. For individuals who are interested in a high-quality and relatively inexpensive braille display, we recommend trying the new Focus.

View the Product Features as a graphic

View the Product Features as text

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View the Product Ratings as text

Product Information

Product: Focus 40

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific Blind/Low Vision Group, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805; phone: 800-444-4443; e-mail: <Sales@freedomscientific.com>; web site: <www.freedomscientific.com>.

Price: $3,495.

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