July 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 3

Product Review

Refreshabraille Portable Braille Display and Keyboard: A Product Evaluation

In 1997, I purchased a state-of-the-art braille display for my desktop computer. Its 85 cells were housed on a flat board that was considerably heavier and bigger than the largest laptops of today. Although the package included a custom-made backpack (nearly twice the length of any other backpack I have ever owned), I never carried that display anywhere. For one thing, it cost between $12,000 and $15,000, and for another, it was simply too large and heavy to carry out of the office. For the computing culture of the time, it was a remarkable tool, and it still functions well today. But for blind and sighted users of technology, today's computing culture requires tools that lend themselves to being as mobile as we are. With its 18-cell Refreshabraille, the American Printing House (APH) for the Blind has accomplished precisely that, and produced a product with remarkable versatility as well.


The APH Refreshabraille has a footprint about the size of a standard index card (about 3 by 5 inches) and weighs about 11 ounces. Housed in a sturdy metal case, it is both a braille display and keyboard. With the unit oriented as the manufacturer suggests, the braille display itself is at the top or furthest from you. There are 18 8-dot piezoelectrical braille cells. Below these are 18 corresponding cursor routing buttons, and below those are three evenly spaced rectangular buttons. Next are the six keys for braille input, arranged in a straight line. Just below the six keys, positioned in the center as a space bar might, is a round joystick or navigation stick, and directly below it is the actual space bar. On either side of the space bar are two more keys, used for braille dots 7 and 8 and for several other functions. It should be noted that while most devices offering 8-dot braille input position the keys for dots 7 and 8 on the same line as the keys for dots 1 through 6, thus requiring the user to use the little finger of each hand to activate them, the Refreshabraille's smaller width necessitated placing these two keys below the rest and are thus activated with the thumbs.

Centered along the front edge (closest to you) of the device is the power button. The power button is flush with the edge of the unit itself, so that the overall shape and feel of the unit is smooth and sleek. The USB port is located in a cleverly cut out section on the bottom of the unit, so that when a USB connection is used, it lies neatly beneath the braille display and is completely protected.

The Refreshabraille battery requires about two hours to fully charge and provides about 30 hours of use via Bluetooth or up to 100 hours on a USB connection before recharging. Although it can be charged via an AC adapter, APH does not include one in the package, assuming that most customers will prefer the convenience of charging via the provided USB cable. If a customer's circumstances or preferences dictate charging the unit with AC power, however, any standard AC adapter will work. The battery is not user replaceable. However, according to the documentation, APH anticipates that customers will use their units for many years before ever needing to worry about sending them back for battery replacement.

The Refreshabraille package includes a USB cable (with a mini USB connector for the Refreshabraille and a standard connector for plugging into a PC or other device), a CD containing all documentation and available drivers, and hardcopy quick-start sheets in both print and braille.

When powered off, all dots on the display are in the "up" position. Pressing the power button for about two seconds causes the unit to vibrate briefly and then display the message "APH" plus serial number. Holding the power button in again results in another vibration and puts all of the dots in the up position, indicating that the unit is powered off. If powered on while connected to a USB port, the message "charging" is displayed.

You can check battery status and other settings regardless of whether the unit is connected to a device by pressing a combination of buttons on the unit. Changing any of the menu settings is easily accomplished by pressing a corresponding cursor routing key and selecting the desired choice.

Making Connections

Using either its USB or Bluetooth capabilities, the Refreshabraille can facilitate braille input and output with a variety of assistive technology devices. In addition to braille support for any computer running JAWS or Window-Eyes, the Refreshabraille also works well with a wide variety of Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones and PDAs. (It is no coincidence that the footprint of the Refreshabraille is exactly the same as the Braille Plus Mobile Manager, the APH adaptation of the LevelStar Icon. The two products stack nicely or can be placed neatly in a vertical or horizontal configuration, still taking less table-top space than a dinner plate. The Refreshabraille works particularly well with the Braille Plus Mobile Manager and LevelStar Icon.)

The CD that ships with the Refreshabraille contains drivers for interfacing the display with JAWS or Window-Eyes on a PC, or Talks or Mobile Speak on a mobile phone. Installing the drivers was straightforward. Instructions given were clear and easy to follow, and installations ran as expected. The only serious roadblock in this regard came with connecting Refreshabraille to an Asus EEE netbook. Because the netbook has no CD drive, logic dictated that copying the files to a USB flash drive and running them from there should serve as a reliable substitute. It didn't. Once an external CD drive was connected and the necessary file drawn from there, however, the connection was made swiftly and solidly. Because few laptops and netbooks come equipped with built-in CD drives, the addition of some secondary media source (an SD card or flash drive, for instance) containing all necessary documentation and drivers would be a welcome enhancement to this product.

If you have an Icon from LevelStar or Braille Plus Mobile Manager from APH, the interface between Refreshabraille and these devices is particularly impressive. Initially, there was some difficulty connecting to Braille Plus via Bluetooth. The USB connection was made almost instantly and worked exactly as it should, but the wireless advantage of Bluetooth connection is, of course, one of the product's attractive features. It turned out that the unit required reflashing, a brief and painless exercise, but such effort should be unnecessary. In any event, once the issue was resolved, the Bluetooth connection was swift and seamless and worked beautifully. It should be noted that Refreshabraille can connect to only one device at a time. If, for example, you pair it with a PDA and a mobile phone, you will need to break and re-establish the connections (pairings) accordingly.

How It Works

Once the Refreshabraille is properly connected, the APH power-up message plus serial number is immediately replaced by whatever message is displayed on the visual screen of the computer, PDA, or phone being accessed. To bring focus to a particular character shown on the display, the corresponding cursor routing button can be pressed. To move forward and back through the information displayed, the left and right buttons below the cursor routing keys act as panning or scrolling keys. The joystick can be employed at this point, to arrow up and down lists or lines of text, and pressed to select an item from a menu. Text can be entered from the braille-input keys, which offer smooth and quiet operation. What type of braille is entered, of course, depends on the setting of the device being accessed with the Refreshabraille. Entering text in Microsoft Word, for example, on my netbook, I enter computer braille (basically Grade 1 plus ASCII punctuation marks). With the Braille Plus Mobile Manager, on the other hand, which is already set to translate braille, I enter Grade 2 characters. It is worth mentioning that for those key combinations that require the addition of dots 7 and/or 8, the placement of those keys (requiring action with the thumbs rather than pinkie fingers) is a bit awkward at first, but quickly becomes comfortable.

Driving Your Device from Refreshabraille

Although many users find that the access a refreshable braille display product affords a blind user to the computer or other screen is payback enough for purchasing such a unit, it warrants stressing that the Refreshabraille is also a keyboard, and thus facilitates braille input. In addition to typing text from the Refreshabraille, whether it's just sending a text through your phone or composing your first novel on the computer, you can issue a host of other commands from the braille keyboard as well. Each of the screen-reading applications with which Refreshabraille interfaces provides its own list of key assignments, some much more detailed than others. Somewhat akin to the chording technique for issuing commands on a variety of braille notetakers, Refreshabraille's eight braille dot keys, space bar, joystick, and sometimes scrolling keys and/or cursor routing buttons are called to service in myriad combinations to enable the user to issue such keystroke commands as "tab," "enter," "backspace," "page-up," "page-down," etc., all from the Refreshabraille itself. The key here is versatility. If your preferred method of entering data or issuing commands is from your computer's keyboard or mobile phone, there is no need to issue any commands or text strings from the Refreshabraille. You can simply use it as a tactile "window" to the screen in question.

Bottom Line

The Refreshabraille portable braille display and keyboard is an example of what assistive technology for blind and low-vision people should be. Clearly, the product design was well conceived and well executed, and the result, albeit complex and powerful technology, is relatively simple for the typical user to enjoy. If having braille access to your computer, your phone, or compatible PDA is of high importance to you, this is a versatile and relatively affordable product that stands alone in the blindness products marketplace. The APH Refreshabraille sells for $1,695. For more information or to order, visit the APH website or call 800-223-1839.

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