When HumanWare first introduced the BrailleNote Apex, I was underwhelmed. It was smaller and had more internal memory than previous BrailleNote models, but it simply didn't seem to have sufficient features to warrant much fanfare. Since then, with the addition of new features and the growing popularity of the product, it seemed the time had come to give this latest iteration of the BrailleNote Apex a good look.
The BrailleNote Apex
The BrailleNote Apex is the latest in a line of braille and speech output notetakers initially launched by HumanWare over a decade ago. The Apex is far more than a notetaker, however. You can use it to read and write documents, keep your calendar, maintain databases of information important to you, read and write e-mail, access the Internet, read books from a variety of sources, listen to your favorite FM radio station, or play music from your own collection. You can play games, maintain your contacts list and pair it with an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. It offers wireless, Ethernet, USB, and Bluetooth connectivity options.
The Apex is available in voice-only and braille-plus-voice models, with your choice of braille or QWERTY keyboard for input. All models include speech output. For this evaluation, I used the 32-35ll unit with braille keyboard.
The Apex is sleek, lightweight, and comes in a soft leather case with carrying strap. The keyboard is beautifully responsive and the layout of the display and additional keys is ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing. On top of the unit is an 8-key braille keyboard. A scroll wheel is located in the middle of these keys (between dots 1 and 4) and a spacebar immediately below the scroll wheel. There are 32 braille cells with corresponding cursor routing buttons above each cell. On the front edge of the unit are thumb keys used for scrolling backward and forward while reading or in conjunction with other keys to perform a variety of tasks. There are three USB ports and one secure digital (SD) card slot, earphone and microphone jacks, an Ethernet port, and a VGA port for connecting an external monitor. The unit ships with carrying case, AC adapter, earphones, USB cable, USB-to-serial cable, HumanWare companion CD, and command summary in print and braille.
The Apex comes with perhaps the nicest case for a braille notetaking device I have seen. Made of soft leather with an adjustable shoulder strap, the case uses magnets to close the front flap so there is no irritating Velcro to grab onto clothing and other objects. The top flap includes a zippered pouch with ample room for spare thumb drives, earbuds, or your iPhone.
The Apex, like its predecessors, runs under the Windows CE operating system. Also like its predecessors, it includes a collection of applications rooted in KeySoft, a system designed for blind and visually impaired users. Quite arguably, it's KeySoft, now on version 9.2, that makes the Apex shine as a personal organizing and communications device for people with vision loss. Courtesy of KeySoft, the Apex offers KeyWord, an advanced word processor, the KeyPlan calendar, KeyList contacts manager, KeyBook book reader, KeyMail e-mail program, and KeyWeb Internet browser. Remarkably intuitive, robust, and responsive, KeySoft makes the Apex an immediately usable and often irresistible product.
The Apex excels in many ways, most notably with the ease of use it offers for keeping personal notes and writing documents or papers. I tend to keep all personal notes in Grade 3 braille (a kind of braille shorthand designed for personal use). If a hardcopy braille version of my notes is required, a file of such notes can simply be embossed and will appear as entered. The real thrill, however, came in writing a document for sharing. This, obviously, must be done in Grade 2 contracted braille. With KeyWord, you can format the document according to your specifications, edit it, and spell-check it. You can insert the date, time, or results of a calculation into your document, and can check your word count easily at any time. Each file you create is automatically saved as a KeyWord file, which can only be read on a BrailleNote product. If the document is for sharing, however, you can easily save it as a text or Microsoft Word document. You can then print the file or copy it to an SD card or thumb drive for transferring to a computer. If your plan is to e-mail the finished product, you don't even need to save a second copy of the file. The KeyMail program offers you the opportunity to send an attachment as a Microsoft Word file and does the conversion for you on the fly. While working on this evaluation, I wrote at least four articles for publication using this method and was delighted with the results. No, it's not perfect. The phrase "et al," for example, was once translated as "et also" and "e-mail" was translated as "every mail," but I quickly learned that inserting the letter sign prevented translation errors of this nature. The efficiency of being able to compose, edit, and send a document without cumbersome additional steps cannot be overstated.
KeyMail and KeyWeb
The Apex offers both WiFi and Ethernet connectivity. Once a connection is established, sending and receiving e-mail is quick and efficient. You can send and receive attachments with your messages easily, and perform all the other customary e-mail tasks. The Web browser, while not always consistent, was at times amazingly fast in loading pages.
Carrying your Personal Library
With the availability of three USB ports and an SD card slot in addition to the 8 GB of flash drive memory, the number of books you can carry with your Apex is virtually limitless. With the Apex, you can read books with DAISY formatting in text or audio, books that are printed in braille, and books that are recorded by human narrators. Sources of books that can be played or read on the Apex include Web Braille and NLS Bard (both from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped), Bookshare, Learning Ally, and Audible. (Each of these sources requires membership.) With KeyWeb, books can be directly downloaded for instant reading from Web Braille, and downloaded and unpacked for instant reading from Bookshare. NLS Bard books can be downloaded and unzipped directly on the Apex. You can, of course, listen to a variety of other MP3 files, whether audio books, podcasts, music, or other programming, through the media player. One nice feature, incidentally, of the media player is the moving progress indicator, a braille symbol that moves across the display to indicate the percentage of the file that has been played. By pressing on the desired cursor routing button, you can jump forward or back through a media file as well. Navigation options in any type of book are excellent, depending somewhat, of course, on the formatting with which the book was originally designed. In a DAISY book, for instance, you might be able to navigate by chapter, section, or page. If reading on the braille display, you can automatically scroll text, adjusting speed to suit your personal style. With speech, whether listening to synthesized speech or human narration, you can adjust speed and volume easily.
Getting Organized with KeySoft
The KeySoft database manager, address list, and planner are all included on the Apex, as in earlier BrailleNote models, and all programs continue to be intuitive and easy to use. With the database manager, you can keep track of your music collection, books you have read, or any other large body of information, and it's easy to locate existing records. The calendar is particularly useful, bringing up any date quickly and allowing you to search forward or back for particular entries. You can set an alarm with any given entry and have it sound off for any amount of time from one minute to three weeks in advance of the appointment. You can also set up an appointment with an alarm to sound off daily or weekly at the same time, such as a wake-up alarm each day for 6:15 a.m. The alarm tone is perhaps the most piercing of any device I've heard, which is could be a definite plus for sound sleepers or those who need rousing when engrossed in a single task!
The file manager is another great tool for organization. From here, you perform the usual tasks of copying, renaming, or erasing files or folders. The Browse feature is particularly nice, allowing you to examine the file contents of a given drive or folder and open items directly from the file manager. You can translate files from braille to text, zip and unzip files or entire folders, and convert PDF files to KeyWord. All of these functions are performed easily and almost instantly.
Pairing the BrailleNote Apex with Other Devices
The BrailleNote Apex also serves nicely as a braille display for your computer or as both screen and input device for your iPhone or other iOS device. Connecting to your iPhone or other iOS device is easy enough, although requires a bit of patience. For braille fans, this pairing makes the reading and writing of text messages and e-mails on your iPhone lightning fast and fun. An added bonus of using this feature is that, while navigating the iPhone screen via the Apex, I found that I gained a much more vivid picture of the layout of various iPhone screens. Once the connection is established, you can easily move in and out of braille terminal. For example, you can be working on writing a report in KeyWord, pop into the braille terminal mode to read a text that has just come in on your iPhone, and then back out again to continue writing your report, enter a date in the calendar, or switch on the FM radio.
There are some attractive additional packages you can purchase to install on the BrailleNote Apex. The first and most essential of these I'll mention here is the Concise Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus. At this writing, the BrailleNote Apex (and some earlier BrailleNote models) represents the only product of this type to offer a complete onboard dictionary and thesaurus. From anywhere within the Apex, a single key command will take you directly into either the dictionary or thesaurus. You can enter a word in contracted or uncontracted braille to look up definitions or synonyms and, if desired, insert the word directly into a document. If you're reading a textbook or novel in the book reader and encounter an unfamiliar word, you can look it up and, in a matter of seconds, have the definition at your fingertips. There is no dictionary product available to blind users as efficient to use as this one, and HumanWare is to be commended for having incorporated it. Even though it is an additional purchase, it should be considered an essential for anyone who plans to use the Apex for writing coherent documents, papers, letters, or e-mail messages.
The BrailleNote was the first such product to partner with Sendero Group in bringing an outstanding GPS product to blind users, and this excellent navigational product is available as an additional purchase for the Apex. With the Sendero GPS software installed on your Apex, you can get step-by-step instructions on a route, discover points of interest around you, plan a route while sitting at your desk, or provide instructions to your favorite driver. Like all other features on the Apex, the Sendero GPS information can be both spoken and displayed in braille. The third add-on available is a Nemeth tutorial. This is a collection of lessons in the Nemeth code, the braille mathematics system developed by Dr. Abraham Nemeth. Introducing all symbols from the most basic through those required for complex mathematics, this tutorial provides the student with both reading and writing practice toward building familiarity with the Nemeth code.
Installation and Upgrades
The unit I tested had all of the above three additional packages installed. At one point, the unit completely froze and a hard reset was required. The good news is that my files were still intact. Those additional applications, however, were no longer available after the restart. Re-installing them turned out to be pleasantly straightforward and fast. There was no need to connect to AC power and no complicated procedure to follow. I simply put the missing software on a USB flash drive, inserted the flash drive into the Apex, and pressed Reset. That's all there was to it. The NLS key and future KeySoft versions are installed in the same easy manner.
Although the Apex can convert and read PDF files nicely, it can't read DOCX files from Microsoft Word 2007 or 2010. It also does not have a global search function for files. On the unit I tested, the battery life was very short (less than 8 hours of constant use) and, most troubling of all, the Reset button was quite often required when the unit completely froze. Usually, this resulted in no inconvenience greater than losing a few minutes, since once Reset had been pressed, all functions returned. On one such occasion, however, the NLS key had recently been installed and pressing Reset caused it to disappear.
A Lock switch would be extremely useful, to avoid inadvertently turning the power on when in transit.
The BrailleNote Apex is an extremely portable, versatile organizer designed with blind users in mind. The keyboard is quick and responsive and KeySoft is highly intuitive, particularly for a braille user. You can read and write documents, e-mail messages, and even iPhone texts in the comfort zone of contracted braille and have them translated for you on the fly. You can read books encompassing a variety of formats and sources, listen to music and podcasts, record lectures, listen to the radio, search the Web, keep your calendar, and manage your contacts. With available additional packages, you can have a fully function GPS device, dictionary, and tutorial on the Nemeth mathematics code. The frequent freezes requiring a quick reset pose a nuisance factor that should not be ignored, but if you could own only one piece of access technology, the BrailleNote Apex would be a fabulous first choice.