In the July 2020 issue of Access World, I reviewed the Mantis Q, the result of a collaboration between APH and Humanware. I pointed out that one of the Mantis Q's major highlights is the minimal learning curve for users. A built-in QWERTY keyboard means no longer needing to learn and use a set of braille-specific commands to emulate certain operating system or screen reader keystrokes. Turns out there's another company with similar visions of consumers spending less hands-on time with their command reference materials.
The QBraille XL is the latest 40-cell offering from HIMS, featuring a traditional Perkins-style keyboard, a full function row, modifier keys, and almost anything else not covering text entry. Onboard applications include a notepad, DAISY reader, alarm clock, calculator, and calendar. It supports six simultaneous Bluetooth connections and one USB connection.
Orienting the QBraille with the Braille display closest to you, the layout is as follows. Along the right side, the USB-C port is closest to you. Behind this, you will find an SD Card slot. The QBraille XL supports SDHC Cards of up to 32 GB.
Along the back is the recessed Hard Reset button that must be activated by using a paperclip or other small object. The left side of the unit has the Power/Sleep/Wake button. Pressing it for a few seconds will either wake the QBraille up or put it to sleep; pressing it for five seconds will either shut it down or boot it up.
On the top surface and closest to you are 40 braille cells with their corresponding cursor routing buttons. At each end of the display are two buttons for scrolling. Behind the display, you will find the lower row of keys. However, the various keys on the QBraille XL are not in nice rows as a general rule. As such, we will first explore the keys on the far left surface. Closest to you is the Mode button, which allows you to toggle Hybrid Mode, above that is the Pairing key, and above that is Escape. To the right of the Paring Key is a column with four keys. From top to bottom, they are: Shift, Caps Lock, Tab, and F1. To the right of F1 are the rest of the Function keys. Every fourth function key has a tactile marking, with space between every group of four.
To the right of F12 is a traditional six-pack of keys arranged in a three-by-two grid. The left column from top to bottom is Insert, Home and End. The right column is Delete, Page Up, and Page down. Underneath the End key are the directional arrows in their logical positions.
The very bottom row is Control, Function, Windows, Alt, Space, Alt, Applications, and Control (Microsoft layout). For the Apple layout, the order is Function, Control, Option, Command, Space, Command, Option, and Control. Above this row are the remaining 8 keys of the standard Perkins keyboard.
What's In the Box?
The package you receive will include the QBraille XL, a 2 GB SD card, a USB C cable, power adaptor, the first two chapters of the manual in braille, and a protective carrying case with shoulder strap. The case has a solid build with access to all ports and buttons, allowing the device to be used on the go when opened. The cover is secured by a magnetic closure.
After turning on the QBraille for the first time, you may wish to configure how it functions. When booting the device, you will be placed in the main menu, with the first option being the Notepad. To jump directly to Options, press O. Within the Options menu, you can set options for the type of braille for keyboard entry, reading, and your braille table. Ten languages are supported, along with US, UK, and UEB. You can also choose how the QBraille behaves upon startup, specifying if you wish to have it start at the Main Menu, with a newly opened document in Notepad, in Terminal Mode, or in the Calculator. Finally, there are options for Bluetooth, System Message Display Time, Power Saving Mode, One-Handed Mode, Keyboard Layout, Mass Storage Mode, and a few others. Many of these options are self-explanatory, and the manual is very thorough concerning these features.
For users of the Braille Edge, another HIMS product, many functions will be very familiar. The Notepad is where you will be able to browse files located on the SD card. You can also copy or paste files to other folders, and view information about the file. If you have the option to view file information turned on in the Options menu, the particulars are available for each file automatically. Unlike the Scratchpad feature on the Focus series of displays, the QBraille also will display keyboard shortcuts for the Notepad and any other application if this option is turned on.
The keyboard command structure resembles that of Windows. To open a file, press Control + O on the Perkins-style keyboard. Control + N will create a new document. This is also the case with several editing commands such as copy, cut, paste, find, selecting text, and many more. There are also Perkins keyboard commands, and the ability to mark blocks of text on which you can then carry out any number of editing actions. Pressing Spacebar + M, or the Alt key, will take you into the Notepad's menu. Windows users will feel right at home as the menu structure closely resembles that of other typical text editors.
The QBraille supports the reading of BRF, BRL, TXT, RTF, DOCX and PDF files. It supports the saving and editing of TXT and BRL files. If you open any of the other formats mentioned and edit it, that file will be saved as a TXT file.
I loaded a text file that was 212.3 KB, which is the size of a small book, and it accurately displayed in contracted braille. The load time was around thirty seconds. Smaller files, such as the text of another article I'm writing that were about 9 KB in size, loaded in less than five seconds. Editing documents in text format is also a pleasant experience, as you can edit the newly translated document in contracted braille and then press Ctrl + S to save your changes. The translation and saving process took about 10 seconds when I made modifications to the 212 KB TXT file. With the aforementioned article, saving back to TXT took about 3 seconds. I opened a 309 KB RTF document and it took about 45 seconds to load. Note that very large text files can be read on the QBraille, but they will take significantly longer. I loaded a 3.45 MB TXT file, and it took approximately two minutes and fifteen seconds. DOCX files also take similar amounts of time to load and save. Regardless of size, BRF and BRL files seem to load nearly instantaneously.
The opening of PDF files takes considerably longer. I opened a document that was 129 pages and it took the QBraille nearly two minutes to load. A 12-page PDF file opened in thirty seconds. Note that even if the PDF document has structural elements such as headings, the QBraille will not carry those over when the PDF files are opened.
Reading without the option of modifying the open file is also done through the notepad. Use Ctrl + R to open the currently selected file in read only mode. This mode also provides a bookmarking feature. If you close the file you have been reading, the QBraille will remember your position.
In addition to all of the formats I've covered for reading material, the QBraille comes with a DAISY reader. This reader supports text-only DAISY files, and does not support DAISY audio content.
If you download a DAISY text-only book from Bookshare, extracting all of the files to the same folder allows you to read them on the QBraille. The QBraille supports the robust navigability offered by DAISY, which makes jumping through a book much more convenient if proper markup is used in the file.
Two of my favorite ways to jump through a DAISY book are by either heading or paragraph. While not necessarily useful when reading a novel, this method can make hierarchical navigation of an encyclopedia or textbook much easier. If each article or chapter is divided by heading level, I can quickly jump from heading to heading or in some cases, be even more granular. This is also true of content from NFB Newsline. While direct downloading is not possible from the QBraille, the advantage to using it is that you have shortcut keys that allow you to quickly jump among the available elements and then to jump from, say, paragraph to paragraph. While you can accomplish this through the menu system like you can on the Mantis, doing so is not necessary with the QBraille. Options are also available in the DAISY reader to add and delete bookmarks, find text, and go to a specific page. Load times for books were similar to the text-only version of the content.
The QBraille has a small set of applications that offer additional features, including a Calculator, Alarm Clock, Stopwatch, Timer and Calendar. A brief discussion about each will follow; details can be found in the manual.
The Calculator requires you use computer braille when typing. It can perform the basic four arithmetic operations, calculate percentages, and perform exponential operations. You can move through the different calculations by using the Arrow keys and delete the entries you do not want. You can then save the file, if you wish. You can also paste the calculations into the Notepad if you want them to be part of a document. If you are not accustomed to using computer braille, the manual has a list of the computer braille symbols that may assist.
The Timer and Stopwatch allow you to count down and add up time, respectively. You can start and stop the time elapsed and clear this as needed. I was hoping the timer would also vibrate when the time is up, but it only made noise. Vibratory feedback would also be helpful for anyone doing a timed presentation. Having the option to set the alert to vibrate only would discretely let the user know that time is up.
The Alarm application allows you to set an alarm to alert you during a designated time. I set three different alarms at different times of the day and they all went off when I left the unit asleep.
The Calendar allows you to create, edit, and delete appointments. You can also search your list of appointments, copy them to the clipboard, back them up, and restore them. I scheduled three different appointments using this application and was alerted when I had specified the alarm to sound. The option of vibration only would be helpful, as it could get the users attention without emitting a noise.
The Time and Date application allows you to set the time and date. All of these applications allow the user to utilize the keyboard commands found on the Braille Edge, but also include equivalent commands using the Arrow and Alt keys.
Connecting to External Devices
The QBraille is capable of connecting up to six Bluetooth devices and one USB connection to a computer. Unlike the Mantis, keyboard shortcuts are available to quickly jump among connected devices. The following evaluation was done using firmware version 2.4 20200702 of the QBraille. The QBraille supports many screen readers on Windows and supports earlier versions of iOS. For a complete list of the screen readers supported, please consult the manual. I do not have access to every screen reader the QBraille supports, but have used my available resources to test as many options as I could.
Before configuring the QBraille on any Windows device, you will need to first install the USB driver. After the driver has been successfully installed, you should be able to use your screen reader with the QBraille.
Using JAWS 2020.2008.24 over a USB connection, I was able to type in contracted braille without issues. For output, I needed to set it up with JAWS after the driver installation. Using the standard installation process for JAWS, I did not encounter any challenges during set up. With some limitations, the QBraille functions as advertised. Most keyboard combinations function as if connected to a standard QWERTY keyboard. One exception is that if you have three windows open and wish to switch to the one most in the background, this does not work. Pressing Alt + Tab will allow you to switch to the window behind the one you are currently in, but pressing Alt + Tab again will take you back to the window from which you came. It doesn't matter how quickly you press the key combination, it's not possible to reach that third window. There are less productive ways to get to that third window, such as pressing insert F10 to pull up a list of available Windows, but Alt + Tab, when it functions correctly, is much more effective for me.
Bluetooth connectivity worked with some further limitations. While I can pan around the text, and edit it using the cursor routing buttons when on USB, this functionality does not work over Bluetooth. I tried with 2 different PCs with the same result. If I were someone who didn't mind being tethered to my computer with a USB cable, this would not be such a concern. However, if you plan to use Bluetooth with JAWS and the QBraille for editing, you can use your arrow keys, but all of those efforts to maneuver the cursor represent a serious efficiency hit. HIMS has indicated that they are aware of this bug, and that they will be issuing an update when it has been resolved.
I used NVDA 2020.2 for this section. Though there is a delay between what I write and when it appears on the braille display, none of the input gets lost over either Bluetooth or USB. With contracted braille, there are still some random translation issues when editing, but it otherwise functions well. Just like with JAWS, the Alt + Tab combination does not allow the user to move to a third or fourth window. Unlike JAWS, I did not experience issues panning the braille display or using the Cursor Routing buttons while connected through Bluetooth.
VoiceOver on iOS
I used iOS 13.7 on an iPhone SE 2020 to evaluate the QBraille. if you wish to use the QBraille like a conventional display, you will still go to Settings > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Braille and pair the QBraille like any other display. If you wish to take advantage of Hybrid Mode, you will also need to pair the QBraille through Settings > Bluetooth. This is so that the other keys on the display function as they should. While in hybrid mode, I found that when setting my VoiceOver modifier key to Caps Lock, none of the VoiceOver-specific commands worked. Setting the VoiceOver modifier keys to Control and Option solved this issue. Hybrid Mode is particularly helpful for keyboard commands that are not VoiceOver-specific. If you wish to send an email, you can use Command + Shift + D. If you wish to execute the same command with the Perkins keyboard, you have to quickly press a sequence of three different key combinations.
Inevitably, and regardless of the display in use, contracted braille input will occasionally introduce additional layers of complexity into seemingly routine tasks. For example, I observed that single-letter QuickNav commands for Web documents did not work when using hybrid mode with the entry grade set to "US Contracted." The alternative is mapping my own commands, or performing the equivalent braille-specific commands outside of hybrid mode. Setting the braille entry grade to "Computer Braille eliminates this issue altogether.
A MacBook Air 2020 running Mac OS 10.15.6 was used to conduct this evaluation. As with iOS, I found that using Caps Lock as a VoiceOver modifier key presented some challenges. Commands that include Shift do not reliably work. This behavior is only somewhat improved when using the device over USB. However, the Mac responded well when Control and Option were used over both protocols. Writing contracted braille using the hybrid mode presented a delay of a few seconds, but as with NVDA, no characters were missed even when typing rapidly. Operating in the standard (non-hybrid) mode, all conventional braille display commands appear to work as expected. Just like iOS, you must change the entry grade on the display to computer braille for the single-letter QuickNav commands to work.
With a few fixes, I feel that the QBraille could be a great contender for the more advanced screen reader user. HIMS has gone too great lengths to design a product that bridges the gap between paradigms, each with an abundance of idiosyncrasies. However, having to move in slower ways when I have more than two windows open gives me pause to consider the tradeoff. Further, as I am a Windows user who requires the use of JAWS for essential job duties, I would want to utilize the Bluetooth connectivity to its fullest advantage. The battery life of the QBraille seems to be between 16 to18 hours, which is quite impressive. The braille has a bit of a spongy feel to it, but is very sharp. I also appreciate the fact that HIMS continues to design their products with options for those who only have use of one hand. With a few fixes, I feel this device would suit the needs of customers like myself and many other more advanced users. At present, I'm choosing to remain cautiously optimistic that the issues mentioned above will be solved to offer even a more seamless experience.
Manufacturer: HIMS Inc.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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