September 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 9

Product Evaluations

PenFriend and Touch Memo: A Comparison of Labeling Tools

One of the most universal and all-encompassing challenges for any person who is blind or has low vision is the identification of objects not discernible by touch. Which bottle of pills is the antibiotic for your sinus infection and which for your high blood pressure? Which box in your freezer contains the sesame chicken dinner rather than the spinach lasagna or lima beans?

And then there are the documents. Somewhere on your desk is a letter from your accountant and somewhere else is an application for the local swim club. Just when you need one or the other immediately, they both feel like blank pieces of paper. Maybe you want to review the contents of that syllabus handed out on the first day of geometry class and you don't want to boot up your computer to download it. You want to make that brownie mix, but can't remember if it takes one egg or two, or if it's baked at 325 degrees or 350. Or maybe you want to make an impression with your deep philosophical convictions and but you aren't sure which t-shirt boasts that you're a Red Sox fan and which one broadcasts your favorite Gandhi quote.

The list of unidentifiable objects goes on and on. Every blind or visually impaired person can recount one or two amusing or devastating situations that have arisen when one object was mistaken for another. It may have been the can of peas you inadvertently emptied into the fruit salad, or the shirt with snowflakes and Santas you mistook for the plain red one and wore to a business meeting. Whatever the case, there are some new products on the market that offer fairly simple solutions to hundreds of labeling needs.


PenFriend was introduced about two years ago by the RNIB (formerly Royal National Institute for the Blind) in the United Kingdom. Although its shape and heft are more akin to a flashlight than a ballpoint pen, the PenFriend gets its name because it functions as a sort of audio "pen" for a person unable to identify objects by sight.

The device might be best described as barcode-scanner-meets-digital-recorder. To use it, you simply place the tip of the PenFriend to one of the supplied labels and make a recording. The recording might be as brief as, say, "New England style clam chowder" or as long as a 600-word letter. In either case, the entire recording will be associated with the tiny label, which you can then affix to the object in question. Later, when you want to identify the object, you again place the tip of the PenFriend to the label and your recording is played back to you.

Touch Memo

Touch Memo, a product similar to the PenFriend, appeared in the U.S. last year. Roughly the same size as the PenFriend (about six inches long), the Touch Memo is slightly lighter and more flat than round. Operation is the same as that of the PenFriend: press the tip of the device to one of the supplied labels, make your recording, and affix the label to its corresponding object. Later, touch the tip of the Touch Memo to the label, and the device will play your own recording back to you.


In the box with either the PenFriend or Touch Memo, you will get the device itself, a lanyard for hanging it around your neck, a USB connector for connecting to your computer, a set of labels of varying shapes and/or sizes, and a set of instructions. While each product provides printed instructions, these are, after all, products intended for use by blind people, so the approach to accessible instructions is significant. The Touch Memo includes a basic audio CD. The PenFriend shows a bit more imagination--providing a series of PenFriend pre-recorded labels, affixed to an insert in the box. Touch the PenFriend to any of these labels and you will immediately hear useful information--delivered in a decidedly British accent--regarding package contents, backing up your recordings, or downloading material from the RNIB site.

Performance Similarities and Differences

As described above, PenFriend and Touch Memo operate in similar fashion. Both offer an easy means for using labels more than once, by either deleting a label's recorded message or by recording over it. The buttons on both devices are easily differentiated by touch. On the Touch Memo, the buttons are Power, Record, and Delete. On the PenFriend, the buttons are Power, Mode, and Record. Each has a volume control--a wheel on the Touch Memo and a kind of rocker switch on the PenFriend. Buttons not in common are the Mode button on PenFriend, as mentioned above, and a Hold switch on the Touch Memo, which seems rather superfluous. The Mode button on PenFriend, incidentally, is designed for switching to an MP3 mode, included so that users can load MP3 files on the device for listening to podcasts or music.

Both units can be connected to a computer for backup via a USB port. Recordings on both can be heard either through the built-in speaker or through headphones. The PenFriend comes with two AAA batteries, which are easily replaced by the user. The Touch Memo has a rechargeable battery, which can be charged either via USB connection to your computer or with the included AC adapter.

The PenFriend comes with 127 labels, while the Touch Memo includes about 240. Additional labels are available for purchase for either unit; labels can be reused indefinitely.

The PenFriend's maximum capacity is estimated at 70 hours of recording, while the Touch Memo manual indicates a capacity of 83 hours. These estimates may be somewhat inaccurate, however, since the PenFriend also indicates a 1GB internal storage space and the Touch Memo 2GB. Additional storage for either unit is not an option. Both units have audible chimes and beeps to indicate the performance of various operations, and both power off automatically when not in use for more than about two minutes. Both provide adequate recording quality for the intended purpose.

Limitations on Label Treatment

I tested recordings in a variety of circumstances with both devices. The labeling performed perfectly after being in the freezer as well as in the medicine cabinet, file drawer, or pantry shelf. One distinct difference between the two is in the laundry room. While either can be affixed to clothing that is dry cleaned, only the Touch Memo suggests that its labels can survive the washing machine--though the labels' functionality will be destroyed by the clothes dyer or iron. A further caveat worth noting is that labels in clothing must be sewn in, which might diminish the appeal for some consumers.

The Bottom Line

For ease of use, efficiency, and versatility the PenFriend and Touch Memo are both excellent solutions to the ongoing labeling challenge.

Product Information

Available From:
Independent Living Aids
(800) 537-2118

Product:Touch Memo
Available From:

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