December 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 12

Product Evaluations and Guides

The Mountbatten Braille Writer Learning System from HARPO: Good for Children of all Ages

The Mountbatten Braille Writer Learning System (MB-LS) from HARPO is a device, roughly the size of a computer printer, that helps children learn braille. It's much more than just a braille embosser, boasting many advanced features including a music player and the ability to use Nemeth code. HumanWare is the exclusive dealer for the MB-LS in the United States.

From the Mountbatten website:

"Literacy skills are basic to all learning, and learning is fundamental to every child's success. The MB Learning System has been designed for children who need braille. It is a fun and inclusive introduction to braille literacy and provides a solid foundation for a lifetime of learning. It is suitable for the very first stages of braille instruction through high school and beyond. With its exceptional flexibility and range of functions, the MB Learning System is a solution for meeting ever changing educational and teaching goals. It contains tools that are simply not offered by more traditional devices.

  • Reinforces recognition of braille characters--utilizing speech output to enable and promote experiential learning.
  • Allows pre-braille activities and play for young children long before they are physically able to use traditional mechanical braille writers.
  • Develops technology and braille as Life Skills--concepts of using files and editing documents are introduced at a basic level, all in the context of learning braille.
  • Introduces organizational concepts such as planning and time management--using the built-in clock and diary functions. Removes attitudinal barriers by taking the "mystery" out of Braille--sighted teachers, peers, and family can connect a regular PC keyboard and write in braille.
  • Assists with inclusion and participation--the student's work is displayed on the Mimic screen.

Literacy through braille opens up the world of communication and expression--essential for living successfully. Braille fulfills needs that cannot be addressed by verbal and audio methods. The MB Learning System is the ideal platform for launching children into the world of braille literacy."


The unit's dimensions are 4.5 inches by 9.44 inches by 17.7 inches. It weighs 10.3 lbs. There are two serial connections, one parallel connection, Bluetooth SMART connectivity, and USB and PS/2 ports.


A QWERTY keyboard can be connected to the MB-LS. The MB-LS can emboss on standard copier paper, labels, and thicker braille paper. There is a graphics maker setting and the unit can also be used as a music player and editor. The keyboard has a light touch so young children can use it. There is internal memory for file storage. The MB-LS can connect to a PC via a USB port.

The MB-LS can be used with an AC power or with its internal rechargeable battery.

What's in the Box

The box contains the MB-LS, a print version of the user guide, an envelope containing 20 lb. paper, print stickers for the keyboard, a CD with software for transferring files to and from a PC, a USB cable, and a two-piece AC adapter.

Getting Help

HumanWare provides phone support for the MB-LS at 800-722-3393. Other help includes a PDF copy of the user guide and training videos. There is also a help feature on the unit. Additional material is available on the Mountbatten Brailler website. Visit the Resources and Downloads sections of the site. the user guide includes helpful and useful instructions for the main functions of the device


The Power switch is located on the lower left front of the keyboard. When turned on, the brailler will speak a greeting and say whether it is in Learn Mode or Advanced Mode. It will also say "Mimic Not Found," unless you have a Mimic display connected. The Mimic is a small display that is available separately. It displays in text whatever is written in braille.

The Keyboard

The MB-LS keyboard layout is somewhat different than that of a standard Perkins Brailler. For example, on the Perkins there are three keys on one side, a spacebar in the middle, and three keys on the other side. On the MB-LS, the six keys used to create braille dots are in the middle of the keyboard. They are oval shaped and are arranged in a slight curve. Each dot key is flat in the middle with a ridge on the outside.

To the left of the dot keys is another oval key, but this one has ridges on the top surface. This is the Backspace key. The Enter key is similar and is located to the right of the dot keys. With your fingers on the dot keys, you can reach the Backspace and Enter keys with your pinkies.

Between and slightly below the two sets of dot keys is a small, smooth button. This is the command key. With your fingers on the dot keys, the New Line key will be under your left thumb and the Space key will be under your right thumb. These keys are smooth and not quite rectangular. The Tab and Back Tab keys are at the top right and top left of the keyboard respectively.

Embossing Area

At the back of the keyboard is the embossing area. There is a ruler for measuring paper. Just behind the ruler is the embossing head. After the head embosses a character, it moves one space to the right. The paper lever for inserting paper is to the far right.

The MB-LS has a reading table, a small flat piece of metal behind the embossing head that holds the paper when you want to read it. Above the reading table is the paper bail, which is a round bar with rollers that hold the paper. The paper bail is not required when embossing single sheets, so it can be removed and replaced as necessary. Attached to the reading table are left and right margin adjusters. Paper grip wheels are in the front of the margin adjusters. To the left side of the embossing head is the paper advance knob. It is recessed and feels like a wheel on its side. Use this knob to adjust the top edge of the paper.

Left Side

Closest to you is the headphone jack followed by the jack for the AC adaptor. The next object is the speaker.

Right Side

The port closest to you is the USB port. It is used to connect the MB-LS to a PC. The next port is used to connect a Mimic display. Only one of these ports can be used at a time.

The Back

On the back, there is another serial port used for sending or receiving information via a device with a serial port. There is also a port for a PC keyboard (PS/2 type.)

Using the MB-LS

By default the MB-LS is in Learn Mode. All keys are spoken as they are pressed. There are two ways to load paper into the machine, from the top or from the back. Either method works well. Both ways involve lifting the paper lever. When lifted, the MB-LS will say, "Paper lever up." Remove paper by lifting the paper lever and taking the paper out.

There is no need to perform a carriage return because the MB-LS does this automatically, a very convenient feature. However, if you want to start a new line before the end of the previous line, press the New Line key.

Issuing Commands

The MB-LS can perform a long list of commands. It's not possible to remember them all, but fortunately there is a list in the user guide. Almost all commands begin with the Command key, followed by typing a combination of keys, and then typing the Enter key. For example, the Command key followed by the letter c, then the letter e, and finally the Enter key is the command to center text. This command is a toggle and is off by default.

The Command key is inactive by default. This prevents a beginning student from issuing incorrect commands. Activate the key by holding down the Tab, Back Tab, New Line and Space keys at the same time. This is a toggle, so typing those keys when the Command key is activated will turn it off. The MB-LS will say "Command on" when it's activated and "Command off" when it's deactivated

There is another type of command called a chorded command. These involve typing letters or numbers and the space key. For these commands, the command key is not used. An example of a chorded command is pressing the letter t and the space key at the same time, which will move one tab ahead. The MB-LS will say "Tab."

Using Different Paper

The paper that comes with the MB-LS is recommended and the unit is set up for this paper. The thicker the paper, the louder the sound will be when embossing. It is certainly possible to use heavier paper, such as standard braille paper. The impact force of the embossing head will need to be increased in order to emboss thicker paper properly. To increase the force of the embossing head, press the Command and Backspace keys simultaneously. The MB-LS will indicate that force is being increased. Type the Command and Tab keys simultaneously to reduce the force.


The MB-LS contains two different types of speech, recorded and synthesized. When in Learn Mode, the only option is recorded speech. When in Advanced Mode, the default is synthesized speech, but recorded speech is an option.

When recorded speech is being used, all keys, functions, and commands will be spoken. However, through commands it is possible to modify what the MB-LS is saying.

Synthesized speech in Advanced Mode allows for a greater degree of customization. Rate, pitch, amount of spoken punctuation and many more options are available. These options are in the speech menu which is activated by simultaneously pressing s, the Space key, and the New Line key. Although there is a speech menu, you will need to know which keys control which actions. For example, typing dot 5 will increase the speech rate while typing dot 2 will decrease it. Typing the letter p repeatedly will change how much punctuation is spoken.

Correcting Mistakes

The MB-LS will automatically erase an error. If you've typed a wrong letter, backspace once to get to it. Next, either type the correct letter or if you wanted a space instead of a letter, press the Space key. This feature works well.

Creating and Saving a File

The MB-LS contains enough memory to store approximately 600 braille pages. It is possible to type a file into the unit and then emboss it at a later time, but this is a multi-step process. First the embossing head needs to be turned off and a series of commands need to be entered. These commands are similar to what you would type to create a file and save it on a computer, but there are more keystrokes involved. Saved files can be appended, but the new text will be placed at the end of the file. Once the file has been created, it can be embossed by typing Command+E+M+B+ the file name and then the Enter key. Files can be deleted by typing Command+D+E+L+ the file name and then the Enter key.

The Editor

The Editor is an advanced feature that lets the user create, open, edit, and save a file. There is an extensive list of commands that can be used to navigate, edit, replace, move, and delete content.

Braille Translation

The MB-LS can receive information from a PC keyboard or computer and translate the information into braille. This is called Forward Translation. By installing MB-LS software on a PC, braille can be translated into print on the PC. Braille can also be printed to text on a compatible printer. This is called Back Translation. Forward Translation and Back Translation cannot be activated at the same time.

Before any of these processes can occur, a series of commands needs to be entered. First, braille translation only works when the MB-LS is in Advanced Mode. . By default the MB-LS will emboss in Grade 2 braille, but this can easily be changed to grade 1 braille.

Using a PC Keyboard

The MB-LS has a PS/2 port where a PC QWERTY keyboard can be attached. A keyboard with a USB connector will not work. To connect the PC keyboard, first make sure the MB-LS is off. The connecting port is on the back of the MB-LS on the right. Be careful inserting the PS/2 connector into the port as the pins are easily bent. Once the keyboard is connected, turn the MB-LS on.

To start the embossing process, type Command+F+E and the Enter key. Next, start typing on the keyboard. The MB-LS will not immediately start embossing. It will speak the letters as soon as you start typing. After 80 characters are typed, the MB-LS will start embossing. According to the manual, the reason for this is that the unit checks to ensure that all contractions and braille rules are written correctly. Keep typing while the unit is embossing. If you have finished typing, but the MB-LS hasn't embossed all you've typed, press the Enter key twice and the remaining letters will be embossed.

You can have your writing embossed in uncontracted braille. This is called Basic Forward Translation. Make sure the FE command has been activated and then type the command FB. When text is typed on the keyboard, it will be embossed in uncontracted braille, and each word will be embossed after the spacebar is pressed. The FB command is a toggle, so typing it again will exit this mode and go back to contracted braille. It is possible to enter the necessary commands on the keyboard rather than on the MB-LS.

All operations for working with the PS/2 keyboard and the MB-LS worked very well.

Using the MB-LS with a PC

Any file being sent to the MB-LS from a PC must be in text format. Before connecting the PC to the MB-LS, install the included MB-Comm software on the PC. A braille file can be sent to a PC or to a supported printer.

MB-LS and an iOS Device: the MBMimic App

The free MBMimic iOS app can communicate with the MB-LS via Bluetooth and is designed for teachers who use the brailler with their students. I used the iOS version of the app on an iPhone 5 and found it to be accessible (there is an Android version of MBMimic, but I have not evaluated its accessibility).

When the app opens there are three tabs on the bottom: Active Users, Archived Users, and Mountbatten. The first tab lets teachers enter the names of students. The Archived tab contains information on previous students, and the Mountbatten tab is for communicating with the MB-LS. When the Active Users tab is selected, there is an Add button in the upper right corner. Activating this tab brings up edit boxes to enter a student's first and last name plus a display name.

MBMimic allows for sending files to the MB-LS and from the MB-LS to the iOS device. Another useful feature of the app is White Board. It can be found in the Mountbatten tab. Once the MB-LS and iOS device are connected and the White Board option is selected, whatever is typed on the iOS device will automatically be embossed on the MB-LS and whatever is being embossed on the MB-LS will appear on the iOS device. For an excellent podcast on using the MBMimic with the MB-LS, check out David Woodbridge's AppleVis Podcast.

Additional Features

The MB-LS has many other features including a calendar; the ability to make simple graphics; a music setting where the user can compose, edit, and play simple melodies; and both a basic and scientific calculator.

The Bottom Line

The MB-LS is a powerful, multifunction tool for teaching braille to a wide range of students. The MB-LS performed very well throughout the evaluation process. The number of different commands can definitely be overwhelming; a young student would probably need to learn a few commands at a time. The user guide does a very good job of explaining the many features of the MB-LS. The Mountbatten website contains some very useful resources such as lesson plans, learning activities, and information for parents and families.

Product Information

Product: Mountbatten Braille Learning System
Price: $4,495
Mountbatten Braille Writer
Price: $2,750
Manufacturer: Harpo
Contact: 800-722-3393

Manufacturer's Comments

For many years the Mountbatten has been a fun tool for very young children to be introduced to braille by "scribbling" dots, and to both auditorily hear and touch the dots as they learn to write braille. The Mountbatten's easy, electronic touch encourages preschool students to effortlessly enjoy writing braille. The Mimic visual display has evolved to a new Bluetooth feature that connects to the Mountbatten Mimic iOS app, modernizing the ability for students to interact and participate with their peers and parents. The app allows streamline switching between contracted and uncontracted and UEB Braille. The Mountbatten Learning System has many advanced features, including the editor, and serves as a perfect transition to a note taker as the student advances. There is also an optional carrying case that protects and makes transporting the Mountbatten easier. Thank you AccessWorld, for your very informative review.


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