August 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 4

Accessibility Options

Productivity on the Go: Notetakers, Netbooks, and Everything in Between

Mobile computing options appear to grow more complex every few weeks. Not too long ago, the specialized notetaker was, almost without exception, the default choice for blind and visually impaired individuals who wanted a portable, flexible productivity tool. Today, the notetaker is no longer the only tool of choice for individuals who need an on-the-go, accessible, and powerful tool for the office or classroom. Over the past several years, advances in laptop, netbook, and even smartphone technology have introduced many new and very attractive options.

Productivity or Lifestyle

Traditional notetakers, as well as netbook or laptop computers, function primarily as productivity tools. They mirror the scope and range of the personal computer (PC) in terms of the functions and applications they support. Full-featured word processing, databases, and other applications associated with PC office suites are available. However, some very specialized differences are apparent, as most notetakers have braille input and output, built-in speech synthesis, and support for specialized book formats. Still, the goals of a notetaker, netbook, laptop computer, or desktop are often comparable.

On the other hand, no one would confuse a smartphone or iPod with a computer. These pocketsize devices serve those who want instant access to services such as e-mail and text messaging. These "lifestyle" devices take advantage of increased memory and processor power to emulate some functions that were previously reserved for the desktop or laptop computer. However, the smartphone's small or virtual keyboards, relatively short battery life, and small screens combine to limit the intensity and depth of smartphone use for extended periods of time.

Luckily, numerous products are available to meet individual lifestyle and productivity needs. Perhaps a netbook with screen-access software or a traditional notetaker is what you need. On the other hand, an iPod Touch or iPhone with VoiceOver may do the trick. Chances are very good, however, that things aren't going to be so clear-cut once you make the decision to jump into the mobile pond or upgrade your current technology. We hope that this article, as well as AccessWorld's earlier coverage of mobile computing, can help you to identify options and ease the decision-making jitters.

The Netbook/Laptop Choice

In the September 2009 issue of AccessWorld, we explored the popularity of netbook computers. As background, you may want to read "Is a Netbook Computer Right for You?" to review some important information.

Laptops and netbooks offer an experience that most closely resembles that of a desktop. Windows 7 and Mac OS are the same when installed on either a mobile or desktop computer. Screen-access products, screen enlargement, and Apple's VoiceOver will behave similarly regardless of the physical size of the machine on which they are installed. Thus, the netbook or laptop may offer some distinct advantages when training time and price are of paramount importance. All of the skills you have mastered while using a desktop system will be transferable to a netbook or laptop system. At the same time, once a desktop solution is successfully configured for accessibility, the configuration can almost always be replicated on a portable system using the same assistive technology.

Specialized business and educational software that has been designed to operate specifically on Windows or Mac OS may limit mobile platform options. As well, the specific screen-access technology required to support these applications might decrease hardware options.

Some computing tasks important to AccessWorld readers may determine appropriate mobile solutions. Optical character recognition (OCR) is an excellent and very common example. If you are using, or contemplating using, Kurzweil or OpenBook products, then a Windows laptop will be the machine of choice. When combined with a mobile scanner or one of the recently announced camera solutions, even the OCR program benefits from a modest makeover.

Access to particular file formats, which can be a confusing and complex topic even for the most technically minded, can't be overlooked. Of particular importance are portable document format (PDF) files. For students and professionals who must read PDFs directly, only a Windows- or Mac OS-equipped computer will support the Adobe Reader program, which is required to open and read PDF files with assistive technology. Once again, existing screen-access technology can be installed and configured to operate consistently on both a desktop and mobile system. As an alternative, PDF files can be converted to other formats and shared with notetakers, smartphones, and other mobile technology.

An obvious limitation of the off-the-shelf netbook or laptop is the requirement to provide your own assistive technology. If you already use a screen-access program on a desktop system, installing it on an additional netbook or laptop computer should be relatively straightforward. Most licenses allow an individual to install a screenreader or screen-enlargement program on several computers.

Beyond speech, the choices for braille access with a netbook or laptop vary in both size and price. For example, a 40-character display may be a good fit for use with a traditional laptop. Both USB and wireless Bluetooth connectivity are available. Many assistive technology manufacturers offer braille display product lines. Specialized companies, such as Alva and Handy Tech, also sell display options designed to partner with netbooks and laptops.

Enter the Smartphone

In early June, Apple introduced a new version of its operating system for the iPhone line of devices, iOS 4. Included on the list of new features is refreshable braille support. According to Apple, more than 30 braille devices will be supported by its iOS 4 products, iPhone, iPod, and the iPad.

Early reports from several well-respected sources are cautiously enthusiastic. Some basic questions arose with the new device support. After spending limited time interacting with the braille features, we have confirmed that full navigation among applications and within an application is provided. Navigation relies on the keys and conventions of each braille display, making it relatively easy to explore and understand the use of the display with an Apple product. Because control keys, such as "home," have been assigned hardware values by Apple, some manufacturers report keyboard conflicts. AccessWorld will follow this development and plans to report in more detail in future issues.

A variety of mobile choices are available in addition to the iPhone. AccessWorld announced the release of HumanWare USA's Oratio screenreader for BlackBerry in its March 2010 edition. Those who need to use BlackBerry technology provided by an employer have eagerly anticipated this solution.

In addition, several other smartphone options that use third-party solutions, including Nuance TALKS and Mobile Speak, are available. Both applications are installed on a smartphone typically purchased from a cellular provider. Prices and functionality vary among products and are subject to change as cell companies introduce and drop phones. AccessWorld has covered smartphones and both Mobile Speak and TALKS for the past several years in many articles. Because models and accessibility are subject to change, it is important to investigate carefully the current availability of a product or program you may read about, either in this publication or elsewhere.

Braille displays and braille input devices can be used as companions for smartphones. As with laptops and netbooks, several manufacturers offer products in a variety of sizes and configurations. The smallest display/braille keyboard hybrids are barely larger than a typical smartphone or iPhone. Twelve braille characters are used on these very small devices. Larger models with 18, 20, 32, 40, or more cells are also available.

Device Size and Hours of Use

Do you anticipate spending several hours in class or working in a mobile setting, or are you interested in a series of quick "on-and-off" tasks, such as looking up addresses and tracking appointments? The laptop or netbook is large compared with some options and Windows and Mac OS take time to boot up. Some devices, especially larger laptops, don't run all day on a single charge, which may exclude them from consideration.

Specific Tasks

It is important to identify specific tasks that you require of the mobile system. As mentioned above, many devices cannot handle certain file formats. Still others cannot handle braille input or output. Establishing your expectations and creating a clear list of your priorities is very useful.

Training and Tutoring

Some systems will allow you to extend your knowledge of desktop computers to the mobile arena. Other interfaces may be new and require that you master new concepts and computer skills. Having a clear understanding of the scope and cost of training is important to maximize the effectiveness of a system.

Future Updates

All computer technology changes at an astonishing rate. If you purchase a conventional netbook, replacing it in 18 to 24 months isn't as difficult as replacing a full-featured braille notetaker. It is important to understand a manufacturer's future plans and the support that manufacturer will provide for the product you are considering.

Supported Formats and Styles

Most students and many professionals need to create documents and other print materials that conform to certain standards. These may be as simple as margin spacing and type size in a class project or paper. A requirement to submit documents compliant with more complex and exacting standards may also be encountered, including the use of footnotes, tables of content, and research citations. Submitting electronic files in specific formats is a given for most business and school situations in which computer files are submitted directly. A mobile system that isn't able to create the file format you need isn't going to be useful.

Networked Data Sharing

Keeping track of calendars, contacts, and to-do lists is a hallmark of mobile devices. The methods that are used to support the necessary updating of this information may differ dramatically. In some instances, you may be required to physically connect the mobile device to a primary desktop system and run a sync program every time you wish to update. Other technologies accomplish the same task wirelessly using either WiFi or cellular networks. Having a clear understanding of how you want to stay updated is worthy of a good deal of attention.

Complexity of Configuration

The cliché that less is more may very well have been coined to describe mobile technology. All things being equal, using fewer devices to meet your mobile computing needs is likely to be the best option. Combining several products to work as a coordinated package may be necessary if no individual product meets all of your criteria.


For some readers of this publication, the name Dean Blazie is familiar. If so, it may also be synonymous with a particular category of specialized product for the blind and visually impaired. The Braille 'n Speak was introduced almost 20 years ago. From that time, the notetaker has occupied a special and important place in the lives of many assistive technology users.

The earliest notetakers were unadorned yet functional boxes roughly the size of a paperback book. A braille keyboard and basic control keys occupied the top surface of the device. Output was provided by means of synthesized speech through either a speaker or earphone.

The revolutionary features of these notetakers included their ability to accept input almost immediately after flipping the on switch. A single and consistent interface made it easy to learn how to manage the applications suite included on the device. Applications included basic word processing, a calendar and appointment keeper, address and phone books, as well as a scientific calculator and other utilities.

Specialized conventions for navigation, which used the space bar in combination with the eight keys of the computer braille keyboard, were provided in order to maximize operation efficiency and reduce the number of keys required for both input and navigation. Many of these conventions are still used on today's notetakers that feature braille input.

Almost immediately after the advent of the first notetaker, the Braille 'n Speak's new competitors introduced additional features and functionality. Refreshable braille displays and QWERTY keyboards were the most obvious advances made throughout the 1990s.

The basic format of notetakers available today has been established for at least the last 10 years. Typically, a company offers between four and six models in a product line. These include units with speech-only output or speech and refreshable Braille output. Either Braille or QWERTY input can be selected depending on the user's preference. In addition, braille displays of either 18 to 20 or 32 to 40 characters are offered with either style of keyboard. The price range of notetakers also varies quite widely. Units with speech-only output and either braille or QWERTY input are priced in the $2,000 range. A full-feature machine with 32 characters of refreshable braille is available at the $6,000 price point. Smaller braille displays of 18 or 20 characters reduce the price somewhat, typically to around $4,000.

What They Do

The modern notetaker is a device that, in many important ways, rivals a notebook computer in both power and the variety of applications and tasks it is designed to perform. All of the notetakers we are familiar with include a full suite of applications and utilities. In addition to those tasks managed by the earliest devices, Web browsing, e-mail, audio book management, GPS support, audio recording, and music playback are available on current units.

Because notetakers have been designed to operate exclusively in the nonvisual domain, many features that address braille input and output are integrated into the typical notetaker. Examples of this close integration include the ability to enter computer code such as an e-mail address directly and the back-and-forth translation between contracted braille and text for word processor operation.

Is a Notetaker the Best Choice?

Comparing the functionality of each of these utilities and applications to those available on the PC or a notebook computer is an important exercise when deciding which device is best for an individual situation. Because the notetaker differs technically from notebooks and desktop computers, a mobile version of Windows is used as the operating system. Although powerful in comparison to the first notetakers, this version of Windows places some limitations on the applications notetakers are able to offer.

If you might share files, such as those from a word processor, with others who use conventional computers, it is important to understand how specific formatting and output from a particular application will behave. If the file is transferred to a PC, will formatting display correctly, or will it be lost? Can the notetaker create and recognize the formatting that is required for specific tasks, such as observing style conventions for particular professional documents? The visual appearance of printed output is also important in many situations when work is printed directly from the notetaker. Testing a model under consideration with the specific printer and in the context of your workflow is advisable.

Some specific concerns often arise when using the word processor on a notetaker. If footnotes and margin control are important to your workflow, ensuring you understand the capability of the word processor is a must.

Similarly, certain Web-browsing limitations may exist with the browser available on a specific notetaker. Because browsers intended for mobile use may not have as many features as their notebook or desktop counterparts, a clear understanding of what a notetaker browser can and cannot do is important for the intensive Web user.

Because notetakers are intended to be productivity tools, they are designed to operate for extended periods of time on a single battery charge. It is reasonable to expect that a fully charged machine will operate for an entire day at the office or in class. The longevity of a single charge has been one of the most important features of this class of equipment. Only some Windows netbooks and MacBooks can rival the notetaker for battery-powered running time.

The notetaker's relatively compact size and speed at boot up time are often identified as important features. An address book or appointment keeper is only good once you can get it open, and in a busy professional or school environment, time is of the essence.

Some functions that are available on a notetaker have no netbook or desktop counterpart. Real-time GPS navigation is the most significant of these. Notetakers, by virtue of their portability and specialized design are an excellent platform to support GPS applications. All of the notetakers we are familiar with support additional GPS-based technology. With these add-on products, navigation in both a pedestrian and car mode is offered along with the ability to browse and locate points of interest from an extensive database. Trip planning and creating favorites is also supported.

Because notetakers require mastery of a set of commands and navigation conventions that can differ quite dramatically from the traditional computer, planning for tutorial support and ongoing training on the finer points of the machine should take place in advance of a purchase. Establishing a good relationship with an independent dealer or directly with the device supplier is advisable as part of the pre-purchase process.

Notetaker Checklist

A notetaker represents a substantial expenditure for those who purchase the device directly. It may also be provided by a rehabilitation agency as a one-time-only proposition. Thus, the process of selecting the best model is very important.

I have worked with many individuals who have had to decide on a notetaker. One experience that many of them share is some confusion recalling reactions to notetakers, which can take place because typically only one manufacturer's line is auditioned at a time. Taking some time to plan your auditions and record information to compare after the final candidate has been examined can make for a smoother decision-making process.

Here are some items you may wish to make note of as you audition each line of notetakers. Assigning an A, B, or C grade or a number value to each might be useful. Taking some notes about your reactions can also help you to recall your experience several days or weeks after trying a notetaker.


General impression
Sound or loudness of keyboard
Arrangement and convenience of keys under the fingers
Location of function and navigation keys
Amount of pressure required to activate keys
Fatigue or tiredness of fingers after audition

Size and Shape

General impressions
Ease of use without placing it on a hard surface
Ease of use on the lap
Ease of opening case to turn on or off quickly
Ease of turning on and off
Ease of locating connecter ports and memory card slots
Ease of connecting charger
Compatibility with any particular case or tote you are planning to carry

Braille Display

General impressions
Position and convenience of navigation keys
Responsiveness of display when using navigation keys
Responsiveness of display for braille input
Evenness and consistency of cells across the display
Convenience of finger orientation moving from display to keyboard
Convenience of display across all positions of notetaker use

Audio and Speech

General impressions
Text-to-speech engine(s) available
Quality of text-to-speech output
Quality of prompting and system messages
Quality of recorded voice narration
Quality of recorded music playback


Start-up and shut-down times and convenience
Consistency and layout of menus and options within and among all applications
Familiarity with menus and operating conventions
Specific file formats that need to be supported
Braille embossers and/or printers supported directly
Networking and connectivity provided and/or required
E-mail formats supported
Prospects for manufacturer support and operating system updates
Pricing for future operating system updates
Pricing for service
Service procedures, shipping procedures, and turnaround times
Tutorial or product training provided with purchase
Availability of additional tutorial support
Availability of self-paced training options

Previous Article | Next Article | Table of Contents

Copyright © 2010 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.