For 30 years, a parade of refreshable braille devices has come and gone, delighting and amazing braille users with a wide array of features. Some have been simple terminals, braille devices that display for the reader whatever text is on the computer, tablet, or smart phone screen. These range in size from 14 to 80 cells, the smallest, at 3 by 5 inches, fitting into most pockets. Other more sophisticated machines in fierce competition for the business of braille users are the devices collectively referred to as notetakers. Many have extremely sophisticated applications onboard, enabling the user to handle email, read and write documents, search the internet, and more.
If, in all this progress, there is one commonly agreed upon quest, the holy grail of refreshable braille devices, if you will, it would be the widely held desire for a single device, preferably portable, that combined the familiar feel of a braille device while employing the very same applications used by sighted users and, indeed, by blind people themselves when stationed at a personal computer.
The ElBraille portable device, which recently began shipping from VFO Group (formerly Freedom Scientific) comes closer to fulfilling that collective wish than any other device in 20 years. There was, in the mid-90s, a stunning laptop that boasted a full-blown computer (a Pentium 5 processor and Windows 95) with a 40-cell refreshable braille display. Remarkable though it was, the SuperBraille never claimed much of the market. At a cost of $15,000 in 1995 dollars, very few units were sold. Besides bearing a price tag that put it beyond the means of most blind consumers, the SuperBraille weighed probably 15 pounds and was the size of a sturdy briefcase. Again, except for that one blip on the 30-year history of refreshable braille devices available to blind consumers, there hasn't been a product that has married the personal, familiar presence of braille to a device that used the same mainstream applications used by blind and sighted computer users at work, school, and home.
A Braille-Based Windows 10 Portable Computer
The 14-cell ElBraille, introduced last year and only very recently available for sale, is something like a docking station for the already popular Focus Blue 14. Its dimensions are 7.4 inches wide by 4.7 inches deep by 1.5 inches high. The information file loaded into the review unit stated the weight as 27 ounces, but it felt heavier to me. What makes the ElBraille special is that it's a full-blown Windows 10 computer.
The 14-cell model of the ElBraille has a similar footprint to a few other 18- or 20-cell braille notetakers that have been successful in the blindness market over the years. Its most dazzling feature, of course, is that it runs Windows 10 and, as of this writing, JAWS 18. In other words, the seasoned user of JAWS and braille can use applications that run on any Windows desktop machine--all of the familiar tools you use for word processing, web browsing, email, data management, and more--in a device that can fit easily into any backpack or briefcase.
The ElBraille actually comes in two flavors, the ElBraille 14, using a Focus Blue 14 for its braille display, and the ElBraille 40, using a 40-cell Focus. The ElBraille 14 was the model examined most closely for this review, and, as of December 2017, is the only model currently shipping. In the 14-cell version, the braille display and computer can be separated, so that the Focus 14 can be carried for use with a smart phone or other mobile device. The 40-cell version will be a single unit that incorporates a braille display and computer.
The Focus 14 snaps into the ElBraille, so all of the Focus 14 keys and controls are available, including the 8-key Perkins-style keyboard plus the Spacebar, cursor routing keys, and 12 other assorted buttons that perform various navigation and activation functions. Across the top of the ElBraille itself (and thus directly behind the Perkins-style keys when the Focus 14 is in place) are six buttons. The middle two in this row are used for increasing and decreasing volume. The outer four, dubbed E1 through E4, instantly perform a variety of functions such as announcing time, date, battery level, Wi-Fi connection, typing or recording a quick note, emergency reboot, and more. The ElBraille also offers the following:
- 160 GB internal memory
- 2 GB RAM
- Two stereo speakers
- Built-in microphone
- Sound and vibration feedback
- Three-color LED lights (providing power and connectivity information)
- Wireless and Bluetooth connectivity
- GPS receiver
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- built-in card slot for SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards of up to 256 GB
- USB 3.0 port
- Mini HDMI port
Fully charged, the ElBraille battery is good for at least 20 hours, even when using wireless connectivity. The unit can, of course, also be used while connected with the supplied AC adapter.
For the braille-using JAWS veteran, there is something undeniably exhilarating when first booting up this machine. The familiarity of JAWS and Windows in such a small device--and a device with a braille display--is initially thrilling because it is unique. While the learning curve may be a bit steep for some, that excitement is not unwarranted.
Mainstream Windows Applications
Because it runs Windows 10, the ElBraille connects quickly and easily to any wireless network. In fact, I found it easier to connect than my Windows 10 laptop! All of the familiar Windows terrain is at your fingertips: the Desktop, Task Manager, System Tray, Start menu--the usual Windows environment is entirely intact.
Although the particular unit I used for review did not have Microsoft Office installed, the ElBraille does indeed support Microsoft Office 2016, 2013, and 2007, and I witnessed the action of these programs loading and running on another ElBraille sufficiently to give that area of performance high marks.
For accessing the internet, I used Mozilla Firefox, but any popular web browser that cooperates with JAWS and Windows 10 will suffice; again, the familiarity and speed added up to a pleasant experience. Web pages loaded quickly, and all of the routine JAWS navigation keys for jumping to headings, buttons, form controls, etc., worked beautifully.
While the ElBraille is a fully formed Windows 10 computer in a tiny package, it also boasts some specialty features as a braille notetaker. Sometimes, what we need is not the magnificence of a high-speed computer but simply the ability to jot a quick note. ElBraille provides for that with just a few keystrokes, which open the familiar Notepad application for typing a quick text note. This is done through the special ElBraille menu, which provides quick access to a handful of features users might want to launch quickly, bypassing the usual navigation steps. Speaking of quick access, the initial boot-up process is not fast. It takes some time. Because the battery life is so good, I found it best to leave the machine running rather than repeatedly powering on and off.
Robust Performance with a Learning Curve
As a bona fide portable computer with both speech and braille output, the ElBraille definitely succeeds. It is not, however, a device that will please all blind computer users.
The ElBraille does not have a screen or a QWERTY keyboard. The only visual indicators are the three LED lights that provide information regarding power and connectivity.
For those readers familiar with JAWS (or any screen reader) the problem will be readily apparent. How does one simulate those numerous keystrokes that render navigation and screen access so manageable?
The answer is an ingenious collection of combination keys that dedicated braille users will probably relish and others perhaps not so much!
Some of these commands are executed by a combination of one or more of the dot 1-6 keys along with dot 8 and the Spacebar. Those familiar with braille devices will recognize this system immediately as chording, a practice that dates back to the first refreshable braille devices in the 1980s. Dot 6, for example, is assigned as Alt. Thus, dot 6 + dot 8 + the Spacebar simulates pressing the Alt key on a QWERTY keyboard. Dot 2 is for Insert. Thus, dot 2 + dot 8 + Spacebar equals a press of the Insert key. Up and Down Arrow are simulated by dots 1 and dot 4 chords, respectively. Thus, for example, the command for continuous reading in JAWS, typically executed by pressing Insert + Down Arrow is accomplished by pressing dot 2 + dot 8 + Spacebar (Insert) followed by dot 4 + Spacebar (Down Arrow).
While this may seem daunting or cumbersome, it actually became quite easy after a bit of practice, and would undoubtedly seem so for most experienced braille keyboard users.
Some will find the absence of the screen and QWERTY keyboard sacrifices not worth making. Many seasoned users of both braille and JAWS will, however, welcome this as the closest yet we've come to that holy grail of braille computers.
For customers who already own a copy of JAWS and a Focus 14 braille display, the cost of the ElBraille is $1,795. The Focus 14 itself is $995, and JAWS Home Edition is $900. Thus, if you are purchasing all three at once, the total cost $3,690. To order or for additional information, visit the Freedom Scientific website or call 800-444-4443.
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