I have always been a fan of dedicated notetakers for people who are blind. I’ve always used one product or another, even as others have abandoned them in favor of braille displays paired to iOS or Android devices. I have used a braille display with my iPhone and love the portability and mainstream applications available to me with that method, but I still enjoy having a device with a braille display built in.
The BrailleNote Touch Plus
When HumanWare announced the release of their original BrailleNote Touch product in 2016, I was more than happy to review the Google certified device for AccessWorld. I was pleased with what I saw and was in need of a new notetaker, so I ended up purchasing a BrailleNote Touch. After owning it for a while I came to feel that, as good as it was, the Touch definitely fit into the “version 1 product” category. The device was slower than I liked, I had some issues with TouchBraille—the ability to type in braille right on the glass surface of the tablet—behaving erratically at times, and although HumanWare’s own suite of applications behaved beautifully on the Touch, many third-party Android apps did not.
In 2018, HumanWare announced the release of the BrailleNote Touch Plus—a significant refresh of the original BrailleNote Touch. One of the biggest hardware design changes for me was that the Touch’s power button was recessed more than the original, which reduced the chance of the device activating while it was in my briefcase. It was also nice that the accessibility features of the Touch Plus no longer resided on an SD card inside the unit, but were permanently mounted inside the device.
I immediately realized that the BrailleNote Plus was blazing fast compared to anything I had used before. It now runs Android 8.1 Orio, and HumanWare says it will be able to upgrade the operating system as a result of the new hardware components that reside in the BrailleNote Touch Plus. You can read all the technical details about the Plus on this page.
In addition to its speed, I find that the Plus works much better than the original with third-party Android applications. HumanWare’s suite of KeySoft applications, such as word processor and calculator, continue to work nicely. I especially enjoy using the BrailleNote Touch Plus’s KeyPlan application for managing my calendar events. Since I have both the Touch and my iPhone synced to Google Calendar and Contacts, I am able to seamlessly manage appointments and contact information across all of my devices.
I like the USB-C connectivity of the BrailleNote Touch Plus, a step up from the micro USB connection that broke on my original Touch.
I have had no problems with TouchBraille on the Plus, and although I still use the hardware keyboard that is built into the Touch’s case, I use TouchBraille in meetings and other places where I don’t want to make any noise at all.
I usually use the notetaker without speech, but when I fire up the Touch plus Acapela Sharon compact voice installed on the unit by default, I find that it works with no stuttering. There are other voices one can put on the device if desired.
I have traditionally not enjoyed using email with any of the dedicated notetakers I’ve owned or reviewed for AccessWorld. The BrailleNote Touch Plus changes that. I still prefer my iPhone, Mac or PC for email, but I find myself increasingly willing to take care of email chores on the Touch when it is sitting on my lap being used for other purposes.
It’s a good thing our assistive technology devices don’t have human emotions, because there’s just no nice way to say it: the BrailleNote Touch Plus is a bit on the hefty side, weighting in at about 2 pounds. It is 0.8 inches high, 9.5 inches wide, and 6.3 inches deep. You’d better have a sturdy briefcase with plenty of room for carrying it around. The carrying case includes a long strap that makes it easy to carry in a cross-body fashion for comfort and safety if you prefer to keep it on your body instead of in a briefcase or backpack.
HumanWare replaced the Victor Reader app with a new Dolphin Easy Reader app for reading books. It isn’t as easy to listen to audio files, read books, and do anything else in one app as it was with the Victor Reader app. I expect that HumanWare will continue working with Dolphin to make this app better and more full-featured on the BrailleNote Touch Plus.
I continue to be frustrated by the inability to play music in the background while I’m working with other apps. I’m okay with using Google’s music app to play MP3 files in my music therapy practice, but I can’t quickly switch to the word processor to make a quick note without the music stopping. I’ve not yet found an audio app that I like using that plays music in the background.
As much as I like the new Chrome browser that replaced the BrailleNote Touch’s original KeyWeb application, there are times when the new browser gets a bit bogged down by certain websites. Again, I’m sure this will be improved in future updates to the device.
You can purchase a 32-cell BrailleNote Touch Plus in the United States for $5,695.00, and you can purchase an 18-cell unit for $4,195.00. Don’t expect to shrink the size of the BrailleNote Touch Plus by purchasing the 18-cell unit. You just get fewer braille cells in the same device. The thinking is that you might want to upgrade and add the extra cells later.
The BrailleSense Polaris
HIMS Inc., own Google certified notetaker is called the BrailleSense Polaris. Again, I had the privilege of reviewing the Polaris for AccessWorld.
There were things I really liked about the Polaris. Like the BrailleNote Touch, the Polaris had a 32-cell braille display and a Perkins-style keyboard. Because the Polaris does not have a glass surface for typing, nor does it have a built-in method that allows others to see what is on your tablet, the form factor of the Polaris is much smaller and lighter. It is worth noting that both notetakers allow you to connect to a monitor so that a sighted person can see what is happening on the unit. I also liked the dedicated buttons on the front of the Polaris for controlling applications or playing media, depending on what you want to do. Finally, the ability to lock all the keys on the Polaris made it nearly impossible to accidentally press keys on the unit while keeping it secure in my briefcase.
As with HumanWare’s product, HIMS did a great job of developing apps for the Polaris that worked wonderfully. Like the BrailleNote Touch, I found the performance of the Polaris to be slower than I would have liked, and I was once again not pleased with the way many third-party Android apps behaved on the Polaris.
After the release of the original BrailleSense Polaris, HIMS released the BrailleSense Polaris Mini, a 20-cell braille display with pretty much the same functionality of its big brother. I also reviewed this device for AccessWorld. The Mini is about half the size of the original Polaris, making it even more portable than the original.
I wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that the BrailleNote Touch was still running Android KitKat while the Polaris was running Lollipop because both companies updated their respective suite of applications very frequently.
Did I mention portability earlier? The BrailleSense Polaris definitely has that going for it. The dimensions of the Polaris are 9.64 x 5.66 x 0.74 inches and it weighs 1.65 pounds. If you want fewer braille cells and even more portability, the BrailleSense Polaris Mini comes in at 7.28 x 4.05 x 0.90 inches and weighs 0.91 pounds.
You can purchase the BrailleSense Polaris for $5,795.00, or the BrailleSense Polaris Mini for $4,195.00.
I really enjoy the ability to lock the buttons on the unit when carrying it around, and the media player is the best I’ve used on any product. If money was no object, I would own a BrailleSense Polaris simply for my music therapy practice because of its size and the performance of the media player; I am able to play music in the background while jotting down notes about a session. The FM radio included in the unit works surprisingly well in my rural environment and I found it a pleasure to use. The Polaris products have some word processing functions I miss when using my Touch. I like the ability to set bookmarks within a file, and oddly enough, the ability to easily remove blank lines from a document.
The BrailleSense Polaris products are definitely slower than the latest version of the BrailleNote Touch, and this is especially noticeable for me when browsing the Web or using email. I don’t find the calendar and contacts applications as intuitive to use as the Touch’s apps, and I prefer the way the BrailleNote Touch seamlessly gets you up and running on the Net when you set up a new device.
The BrailleSense Polaris behaves more like a traditional notetaker to me, whereas the Touch makes me feel as though I’m using an Android device with a braille display included.
How To Decide Which Product Is Right For You
It appears that both HumanWare and HIMS Inc. are serious about developing notetakers that are relevant in the 21st century. Both products are Google certified, and both companies mention education heavily when talking about their respective products. The BrailleSense and BrailleNote Touch products both work with third-party Android apps, although your mileage will vary depending on the apps you like to use. Both companies have created dedicated applications for common tasks such as word processing and managing contacts and appointments. If you are familiar with the BrailleSense ecosystem, you may want to stick with the Polaris, and the same goes for anyone who already feels comfortable with previous BrailleNote products:you might feel more comfortable migrating to the latest BrailleNote device from HumanWare.
Both companies produce YouTube videos demonstrating various features of their products, although I would personally like to see much more content in this area from both parties. HumanWare has a huge advantage over HIMS thanks to a comprehensive BrailleNote Touch tutorial produced by Mystic Access. An updated tutorial covering the features of the BrailleNote Touch Plus is coming soon. HIMS would do well to consider a similar offering for its products.
I once heard someone ask a blind technology expert which screen reader was the best one. At the time, there were two major screen readers on the market. The answer was “the one that has just released the most recent update.” I feel the same way about these notetakers. Right now, HumanWare has a leg up on the competition, but the company shouldn't get comfortable in the top spot. HIMS has a great product going for it as well, and we can only wait and see what future versions of the BrailleSense Polaris and BrailleSense Polaris Mini bring to the table.
Product: BrailleNote Touch Plus
Phone: 800 722-3393
Product: BrailleSense Polaris and BrailleSense Polaris Mini
Company: HIMS Inc.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- The BrailleSense Polaris Mini from HIMS: A Big Product in a Small Package by Jamie Pauls
- New Standards for Braille Displays are on the Horizon by Scott Davert
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