July 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 4

Product Evaluation

KeySoft 6.1: A Noteworthy Upgrade for Your HumanWare PDA

Back in the days when a notetaker that was portable and allowed a person who was blind to actually store notes, keep track of appointments, and maybe even calculate the amount of the tip for a well-served dinner, those of us who had grown up with only a slate and stylus and a Perkins Brailler were grateful. The liberty afforded by electronic devices--the luxury of being able to copy and delete text and write a new appointment or information between two already existing ones--were heady advances, indeed.

Fast-forward another decade or so, and portable devices for people who are blind became even more sophisticated. Rather than writing exclusively in braille, devices at the turn of the 21st century gave us the ability to exchange files easily with sighted colleagues and friends, to read and write e-mail messages when we were away from our desktop computers and--perhaps best of all--to carry around the equivalent of multiple shelves of braille volumes almost effortlessly. The most serious drawback of the marvelous paths that portable assistive technology has taken in the past 20 years is that, typically, the $3,000 or $5,000 device of today will be obsolete tomorrow--with the only option for staying current being to shelve the old one and shell out for the new. The HumanWare Group's recent Keysoft 6.1 upgrade for BrailleNote and VoiceNote devices represents a step forward in that regard.

When the then-Pulse Data HumanWare company introduced the small BrailleNote PK in 2004, it seemed as though the only way that consumers who had purchased BrailleNote or VoiceNote units in the past could enjoy the new features would be the familiar costly solution: discard the old and finance the new. To the company's credit, a respectable alternative has been made available. With the KeySoft 6.1 upgrade, your old BrailleNote or VoiceNote becomes a wireless device and gains some other improvements as well. In other words, HumanWare figured out a way to offer current functionality to customers who own older technology--and at a fraction of the cost of an entirely new product. Although KeySoft (KS) 6.1 is no panacea, it pretty much delivers what it promises, despite some definite bumps in the road.

How Did They Do It?

The BrailleNote and VoiceNote family of products are built on the Windows CE platform, which is hidden from the user by HumanWare's own KeySoft suite of programs. In 2000, engineers designed the products with serial, parallel, and infrared ports, as well as a slot for a PCMCIA card on the side. With a KeySoft 4.0 upgrade (which requires installation by HumanWare technicians), a second slot, this one for a compact flash card, is added on the back of the machine. Although units with 3.07 read-only memory (ROM) or higher are eligible for the 6.1 upgrade, the 4.0 board is essential, since the latest upgrade is installed from a compact flash card. If 4.0 or higher, with its compact flash slot, is already in place, KeySoft 6.1 can be installed by the customer with no need to ship the unit back to HumanWare. This installation actually burns a new image into the system ROM of your device, thus leaving you more flash disk space, and replaces your Windows CE Version 2.12 with Version 4.2.

An Upgrade in a Flash

Your upgrade package consists simply of a compact flash card attached to an eight-page braille instruction booklet (print is also included). The compact flash card's case is labeled in braille. The instructions are a bit daunting at first. Warnings to keep the AC adapter plugged in throughout the installation and to be sure never to press reset or to remove the compact flash during installation sparked a bit of apprehension. It turns out, however, that HumanWare is simply covering all bases and erring on the side of extra caution, rather than allowing the all-too- familiar "no one told me" disaster scenario. In fact, the instructions are clear and concise.

You are instructed to download a product key (a form of copy protection that avoids piracy by matching your particular hardware and software) from the HumanWare web site and to transfer it to your BrailleNote (preferably to the compact flash card containing the 6.1 upgrade). From there, you simply insert the card, plug in the AC adapter, issue a key command, and listen while the installation proceeds. Announcements, progress beeps, and/or steadily changing percentage indicators on the braille display provide you with assurance that the installation is indeed proceeding. When finished, the machine resets and eventually returns you to the Main Menu.

It warrants pointing out that shortly after the 6.1 upgrade began shipping in February 2005, HumanWare learned that many customers had a problem with e-mail. According to Jonathan Mosen, the product marketing manager of HumanWare's BrailleNote, there was no sure way to know which customers would or would not have this problem. In a few weeks' time, a patch (6.11), fixing this problem, was written and made available for download on the company's web site. Further comments on the 6.11 patch will appear later in this review.

Look, Mom, No Wires

Decidedly, the most exciting feature gained with KeySoft 6.1 is going wireless with your BrailleNote or VoiceNote. A new menu, called Connectivity, has been added to the Options menu, available from any application with one keystroke, in KeySoft. From here, you can create wireless, LAN (local area network), or dial-up connection configurations; scan for available wireless networks in airports, libraries, coffee shops, or other places where wireless networks are made available; and check the status of an active connection.

One change that past users of KeyMail will immediately note is that you must create the configuration for a particular dial-up or wireless connection in two places. First, from the KeyMail menu, you'll need to set up each of your e-mail accounts. Rather than all connection details, as in earlier versions, you are asked to provide the account name, your name, your user name, and your password and to provide the information for POP (Post Office Protocol) and SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) servers.

For a connection to become active, however, you must then add a record in the Connectivity menu. In addition to entering the same information as in KeyMail where the e-mail account is established, you add connection details, such as the telephone number for a dial-up connection, modem information, and whether or not to wait for a dial tone. While you can use the same e-mail account information for a wireless connection, you must set up the wireless configuration through the Connectivity menu. All these are relatively brief and painless exercises, detailed clearly in the sections that were added for 6.1 to the online user's manual. (For both dial-up and wireless configurations, default settings that will fit most situations are offered automatically.) Once the correct information is entered in both directories--KeyMail and Connectivity--you are ready to go online.

Even in dial-up connections, the response time and smoothness of operation in sending and receiving e-mail and loading web pages have been noticeably improved. With a wireless connection, the response and loading speeds are, of course, increased dramatically. For example, the 30 e-mail messages that formerly might have taken 30 minutes to download into the BrailleNote's inbox can, with a wireless connection, be ready for reading in 5 minutes or less. Although searching, browsing, and downloading materials from the Internet still won't seem quite as effortless as on your desktop computer, these functions, too, are significantly easier and more flexible than in previous versions. Best of all, of course, is the freedom to do the things that you need to do online quickly and from anywhere there is an available wireless network in the vicinity.

Pick a Card

Perhaps the most difficult task in testing the wireless feature of the upgraded BrailleNote was to determine which accessory was needed. There are, as I mentioned earlier, two card slots on the upgraded BrailleNote or VoiceNote. The manual instructs you to locate a wireless card to fit the PCMCIA slot on the side of the machine. It further states that the Cisco Aironet 340/350 is the only card that is supported. After several telephone calls and Internet searches for this particular wireless card in my area, I called HumanWare technical support to ask if any other card might be recommended. I was then informed that the card that was recommended was not the Cisco Aironet for the PCMCIA slot but, rather, an AmbiCom WL1100C, which fits into the compact flash slot on the back! Once this card was in hand, setting up the connection was literally a five-minute task.

The 6.11 Patch

I had been warned by HumanWare that some customers had difficulty using e-mail with the 6.1 upgrade and that the 6.11 patch was available online to correct the problem. While sending and receiving e-mail was immediately successful with the wireless card and configuration in place, there was about a 10% error rate--times when messages could not be sent or downloaded. To cover all bases, I downloaded the patch.

Downloading the patch is an easy and straightforward process that is clearly explained on the web site. A replacement file is downloaded, unzipped, and copied to the compact flash holding the original 6.1 upgrade. With the card in place and the AC adapter plugged into current, a key command is issued, and the installation begins. Once the installation began, the only indications that it was in process, however, were steady beeps and a single dot, traveling round and round cell 19 or so on the braille display. For a customer who uses braille exclusively, this would definitely be a bit disconcerting. The installation was completed without incident, however, ending with an automatic reset and return to the Main Menu.

As with the 6.1 upgrade before it, 6.11 left all the folders and files undisturbed in the BrailleNote, and all Connectivity and KeyMail records appeared unchanged. Initially, however, the unit was unable to connect using any of its dial-up or wireless configurations. The problem was finally solved when I deleted all the Connectivity records and reestablished them. The HumanWare representatives had never heard of this happening with the 6.11 installation, so it may have been one of those never-to-be-understood technological glitches. While it was definitely a nuisance to sort out, all Connectivity options worked once the data were entered anew.

Music to Some Ears

Another fun addition that will be new to some users is enhancement to the Media Player in BrailleNote products. MP3 files can be played, paused, and stopped much like opening or closing any other kind of file. You can skip through the file, get track information, and increase the volume of the MP3 file without affecting the volume of the BrailleNote's speech. On units with a braille display, a progress indicator moves along the display. On a 32-cell display, in other words, the symbol is in cell 1 at the beginning, cell 16 halfway through the track, and cell 32 at the end. You can skip through the file by pressing on the touch cursors. If, for instance, you want to move to the middle of the track, press on the touch cursor above cell 18 or 19. The progress indicator immediately jumps to that cell, and the audio skips to that point accordingly.

Although BrailleNote's Media Player wouldn't be the preferred method for enjoying your MP3 music collection, the sound quality is quite adequate for spoken tracks. While all controls worked exactly as described, the unit completely locked when some MP3 files were attempted and, for others, displayed the response "Could not play media file. Sample rate is unsupported." Although more of the files that were tested were successful than not, nowhere in the documentation was there an explanation of which MP3 files would and would not play properly or how to tell the difference.

A Few Unexpected Extras

As I stated earlier, units with ROM versions back to 3.07 can be upgraded to include all the new features, but if they are earlier than 4.0, the current motherboard must first be installed. If you will be making both changes at once, you are in for some other pleasant surprises. The most significant of these surprises is the completely rebuilt KeyPlan calendar. In the earlier versions of KeySoft, the calendar was, for me at least, a useless feature. It took too long to enter data, the options were limited, and the whole program seemed too clumsy to be worth the time it took to use it. The new KeyPlan, by contrast, responds quickly, is easy to use, and is rich in useful features. If you want to be reminded of an appointment, you can set the alarm to remind you any amount of time in advance from a minute to a month or longer. If you try to set an appointment during a time that you have already scheduled one, you will immediately be alerted. If you want to set a recurring appointment for the same time every Monday, every other Tuesday, or the second day of the month, the task is easily accomplished. (Another fun feature is that you can enter dates from 30 or 50 or 100 years ago to find out which day of the week you or your grandmother or George Washington was born on.)

Another surprise is the updated approach to storing and transferring files. The Superdrive accessory, sold with the earliest BrailleNotes, was a clunky solution to storage and file transfer from the beginning. With the addition of a compact flash slot, an additional drive is readily available, and files are easily transferred via the card (and a USB card reader) from the PC to BrailleNote and back again.

Setting a Trend

HumanWare's BrailleNote family of products were groundbreaking technology when they were introduced five years ago, and the company has again set a new trend by developing a new sort of upgrade to existing products, rather than leaving customers in the proverbial dust while blazing ahead with newer, smaller technology. The cost for the KeySoft upgrade varies, depending on the version that is already owned, but it is considerably less than the price to purchase a new device. As with smaller, newer products, you can have wireless, dial-up, and LAN connectivity; easy portable access to the Internet and e-mail; a functional calendar; and the old familiar features of word processing, address book, clock, book reader, scientific calculator, and built-in translation for switching between print and braille files. You can convert documents to a variety of formats for either importing or exporting, and your e-mail messages, if written in contracted braille, are automatically translated to print when you send them. As has been the case with the BrailleNote family, context-sensitive help is always available and usually excellent.

Having the complete user's manual always available is also a plus. A few areas in which the product may be improved in this regard would be to include in the hard-copy braille instructions a reference to where one may locate the "What's New" or "readme" file on the BrailleNote pertaining to the upgrade. (I stumbled upon it almost accidentally, buried in the General folder, when this review was nearly completed!) After I put in some time to tweak settings and learn the new features, this KeySoft upgrade ultimately feels much like having a brand-new BrailleNote.

Manufacturer's Comments


"Thanks to AccessWorld for a very thorough and methodical review of KeySoft 6.1. As noted, this release not only adds significant functionality, but it also changes the very operating system in the BrailleNote. We're proud that we've been able to implement a completely accessible operating system upgrade, while also keeping all data intact.

While HumanWare will continue to release new technologies to keep its products on the cutting edge, we believe it's important to get as much functionality from existing hardware as possible, since not everyone is able to invest in new hardware.

We'll continue to build innovative products to empower blind people in the information age."

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Product Information

Product: KeySoft 6.1

Manufacturer: HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393 or 925-680-7100; e-mail: <usinfo@humanware.com>; web site: <www.HumanWare.com>.

Price: $399. If you have an upgrade left on a service maintenance agreement, the price is $230.

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