May 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 5

Product Evaluations and Guides

Braille Sense U2 Mini from HIMS: Good Things Do Come in Small Packages

The first thing that users of refreshable braille devices will find appealing about the new Braille Sense U2 Mini from HIMS is its wonderfully portable size. Advances in technology are decreasing the sizes of our devices while increasing their power, and this innovation benefits braille users. There have been small refreshable braille products in the past, but none with such an impressive combination of power, speed, and multiplicity of functions.

The Braille Sense U2 Mini can slide into any purse, backpack, or even roomy jacket pocket with ease, and it weighs less than a pound. Measuring 6.7 inches by 3.5 inches by 1 inch, it sports a nine-key Perkins-style keyboard, 18 eight-dot braille cells with 18 cursor routing buttons, a secure digital card slot (supporting SD cards of up to 64 GB, although users report success with larger ones), an OTG USB port, stereo headphone jack, and built-in speakers with excellent clarity and volume for such a small device. Four function keys, four scroll keys, and a panel of media controls add up to the same versatility and flexibility of control that users of other U2 products will recognize. The U2 Mini offers so many features that I suspect I'll leave at least one out of them out in this product review.

Out of the Box

The Braille Sense U2 Mini arrives with its own carrying case, AC adapter, battery charger, two user-replaceable lithium batteries, a CD with documentation, and a spiral-bound hardcopy braille command summary. The AC adapter can be connected directly to either the power port on the left side of the unit (with a convenient braille "dc" noting its position) or to the supplied battery charger. Since two batteries are supplied, one can be in the unit while the other is charging. The battery compartment is at the back left edge of the unit; popping the battery in and out is a simple task.

The U2 Mini has both wireless and Bluetooth connectivity, and the usual applications we've come to expect in such devices: word processing, web browsing, e-mail, and organizing tools like a calendar, address book, and database manager. With both braille and speech output, you can read or listen to documents in a wider variety of formats than available in perhaps any other note taking device including .brf, .txt, .rtf, .doc, docx, .pdf, and even .xls. (It should be noted that, while most of these features are available on most HIMS notetakers, the Excel Viewer is only available on the U2 products.) You can listen to and record from your favorite FM radio station or play a music collection you've organized yourself. You can also play a variety of other audio and video content. You can access books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Audible.com, Bookshare, Learning Ally and others. The DAISY player allows you to access books in DAISY, text, or audio formats.

Let's Talk about Those Extras

With the U2 Mini in your pocket, you can read books, documents, Microsoft Excel sheets, and your e-mail, or work on writing that novel you've been crafting in your head. Most of these are tasks we've come to expect in access technology products promoted as notetakers or personal organizers, but the U2 Mini offers a number of extra features that make it particularly attractive.

Under the menu HIMS calls Extras, you'll find quick launches for the following applications:

  • Dropbox
  • Google Maps
  • Bookshare
  • Excel Viewer for reading dictionaries
  • Sense Navigation GPS

If you have a Bookshare account, you will be thrilled at the speed with which this little Bookshare application can locate, download, and have a book ready for you to read. Dropbox provides quick access to your account if you use that service. The optional dictionary is available in English, Spanish, French, or Italian, and includes a thesaurus, as well as some additional features like geographical and population information for major cities throughout the world. The Sense Navigation application features the well-known Sendero GPS functionality designed for navigators who are blind. (The dictionary and GPS programs are available as optional additional purchases, and are not included in the price of the unit itself.)

While these are the items HIMS has chosen to categorize as "extras," there are several other bonus features found under other menus.

First, as with any Braille Sense product, you can download and install for free five Bible translations. These five versions of the Bible can then be easily navigated by version, book, chapter, and verse. You can set bookmarks and compare translations with ease. As with all material stored in the unit, you have the option of listening to the clear text-to-speech voice, reading silently in braille, or combining the two modalities.

Another batch of extras is found under the Social Networking menu.

Twitter, in particular, is extremely easy to use when accessed through the interface. The other two options here are Google Talk, and Sense Chat, an application that enables communication between two HIMS notetakers.

The U2 line of products from HIMS offers the particularly entertaining capability of streaming certain audio and video content, including YouTube. Under the Media menu, along with the FM radio and DAISY player present in all the HIMS notetakers, U2 users have a YouTube option. As is the case with all of the online applications such as Dropbox, Twitter, Google Search, etc., the YouTube application is beautifully straightforward and easy to use.

Deafblind Appeal

There are a few features in the Braille Sense U2 Mini that will be of particular interest to deafblind users. Sense Chat mentioned above is one, providing one way for two users of Braille Sense products to communicate. Another innovative feature is the vibrating motor. Alerts and alarms can be set to emit sound, vibration, or both. This particular option, of course, will be useful to anyone not wishing to make noise in a meeting or other place where it might be disruptive, but also makes alerts and alarms fully accessible to individuals unable to hear.

The HIMS Chat free iOS app is designed for face-to-face communication between a deaf-blind person and someone who is sighted and hearing. Words entered on the iOS device appear on the U2 braille display, and words typed on the U2 appear on the phone's screen. It should be noted that, for this review, I found greater success using the built-in iOS Notes app for this purpose, but it warrants mentioning that HIMS is working toward this area of accessibility.

Connections

In addition to the communication functions mentioned above, the U2 Mini can act as a braille terminal for a computer or iOS device. By pairing it with your iPhone or iPad, you can read books, documents, or send and receive e-mail and text messages entirely from the braille keyboard and display of the U2 Mini. This extends the use of the iPhone to people not able to hear VoiceOver, but is also a welcome alternative to many braille users with or without hearing.

The U2 can be connected to a computer for transferring files back and forth as you would with a flash drive or other storage device, and you can send documents for sharing with others in hardcopy either to a conventional printer or braille embosser.

An Interactive Company

At the recent CSUN conference in San Diego, California, HIMS was celebrating the 15th anniversary of its presence in the United States. To mark the occasion, a robot was hired to mingle at a HIMS reception and introduce certain HIMS sessions. The company had an impressive presence in the exhibit hall, and a number of coffee shop gift cards were distributed randomly to keep presentations lively. The interactive and festive efforts were reflective of the connected persona the company has been establishing for itself in this country. On a HIMS Notetakers e-mail listserv, for example, company representatives are highly visible, fielding questions and providing information on a daily basis. In the two months that I had the U2 Mini for review, problems occurred with a variety of third-party applications--Dropbox, YouTube, Bookshare--and in each instance, employees representing the company were quick to inform list members that the problems were noted and being addressed. Also impressive was the speed with which developers addressed each of these issues restored functionality.

As problems were fixed or enhancements incorporated, announcements were distributed informing users of the patch or firmware upgrade, always accompanied by clear step-by-step instructions for installation. During the review period, I executed such upgrades, using both online and offline methods, and was impressed with the smoothness of the ride and quality of progress feedback. The latest firmware upgrade, incidentally, included a fix for YouTube, addition of access to the online DAISY collection for Canadians who are blind, a Power Point file viewer, and a Nemeth translator. These latest features were not available in time to be included in this review, but immediate feedback from users has been extremely positive.

Conclusion

As technology advances, products are decreasing in size while increasing in power, thus making it progressively easier to carry fewer and smaller pieces of equipment to stay connected. For people who are blind, the one-size-fits-all approach to technology is a bit more complicated than for sighted peers with the same requirements, but a product like the Braille Sense U2 Mini is bringing parity considerably closer. With this product and an iPhone, for example, there is little in the way of connectivity and information manipulation that cannot be accomplished. That said, it should be noted that, in order to maintain the attractive small size, there are only 18 braille cells on this braille display, and many braille users may find that inadequate for reading books or other large amounts of text. The additional battery was definitely a smart decision, and since the battery seemed to last only about 8 hours between charges, many users will prefer to carry that extra battery at all times.

The bottom line is that this is an extremely versatile, responsive, and robust product and, at $3,995, we could almost add affordable to the list of adjectives as well. HIMS Inc. is carving an impressive niche as a blindness products company that is engaged with its customers and responsive to customer feedback. That style will certainly factor in as users of braille technology update equipment. It is a style that HIMS will be wise to continue and one that other companies would be wise to emulate.

Product Information

Braille Sense U2 Mini
Price: $3,995
Available from:
HIMS
Phone: 888-520-4467
Fax: 512-837-2011
sales@hims-inc.com

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