Sometimes simple is better than complex, slow has more appeal than fast, minimal leads to more productivity than a smorgasbord of features. For the last year or so, my personal quest in the writing tools department was to find a device that would allow me to write—just WRITE already, with immediacy and simplicity, without loading specific programs or entering a parade of keystrokes. I wanted to do that writing in braille, on a fairly small piece of equipment, and to have a relatively straightforward way to transfer what I'd written to a computer for final editing and formatting. Of course, given today's access and mainstream technology arena, particularly when it comes to braille devices, the object of my quest needed to interface with other devices as well, namely my iPhone and Windows-based screen reader. It also needed Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and USB connectivity.. Finally, and this goes almost without saying, a perfectly productive, albeit simple, braille device would provide ready access to reading books and documents in a variety of formats. HumanWare's Brailliant BI 40X refreshable braille display looked like it just might meet the mark.
Meet the Brailliant 40X
The Brailliant BI 40X is a 40-cell smart braille display. Although not a full-blown note taker, it offers Wi-fi, Bluetooth, and USB connectivity. Its suite of KeySoft Lite applications includes a simple text editor, a file manager, a calculator, a book reader, and a slew of convenient features. It provides easy access to Bookshare, NFB NEWSLINE, and NLS BARD—provided that you have accounts with those services—and its 40-cell display, Perkins-style keyboard, thumb keys, and other buttons add up to a pleasant and ergonomic braille-reading experience.
The top surface of the display, from back to front, features 8 brailling keys for dots 1-8, 40 cursor routing buttons, 40 braille cells, 6 command keys (3 at either end of the display, arranged to simulate the shape of a braille cell), and two Spacebars (positioned conveniently under left and/or right thumbs).
On the front edge are the four thumb keys, used for navigation, with a round Home/Select button in the center. On the left edge, from back to front, are the USB-c port (used for connecting the display to a computer or AC power adapter), Power button, and USB-a port (for attaching external storage devices.) On the right edge are an earphone jack and volume up and down buttons, none of which do anything at this point. The Brailliant BI 40X also includes on its top surface built-in stereo speakers, which carry nothing other than machine beeps at this time. HumanWare has indicated that audio will be added at a later date.
We all know the frustration that sometimes accompanies acquainting ourselves with new technology. My unboxing and introduction to the Brailliant 40X, however, could not have been a happier experience. Within an hour, I had unpacked the unit, connected it to AC power, established connection with my wireless network, logged into NLS BARD, and was auto-scrolling through the onboard User's Guide. The keyboard and braille display provide an easy and comfortable writing experience. While the inadvertent execution of commands doesn't occur as often as on some devices, I initially found that my spaces were not being inserted between words. Like many others who type rapidly, I have struggled with some braille notetakers executing unwanted commands or adding/omitting characters as a penalty for speedy typing. Making use of both space bars actually helped minimize this particular annoyance after a few weeks. I'm a longtime fan of thumb keys for navigation, but for those who are not so enamored, the command keys at either end of the display perform the panning function nicely as well.
Since my personal quest had writing as its foremost criterion, I'll address that feature straightaway.
Writing on the Brailliant BI 40x
Bearing in mind that KeyPad is designed to be a simple text editor, most expected features are present. You can select text to copy, cut, and paste to other files or locations within a file. The context menu is always available if you forget a key command. Some of the key combinations for commands are a bit quirky, but the only really troubling ones are those that are not present. You can't move forward and back, for example, by paragraph or line or page.
While KeyPad is intended to be a basic text editor, not a full-blown desktop publishing program, it will be significantly improved by the addition of a few simple features. The two I most miss are a spellchecking function and the ability to identify my location within a file. The "where am I" command indicates in books, for example, the current heading (e.g., heading 4 of 52), but there is no equivalent function to indicate the location or number of words, characters, lines, etc., within the text editor.
Those absences aside, writing on the Brailliant provides exactly the experience of simplicity and immediacy outlined above. You can wake up the device and take a note. It's that simple. Press the Power button and you can be typing in a file in five seconds.
Writing and reviewing what you have written is a pleasant experience; copying the file for uploading to a computer or sharing with a colleague is accomplished easily by attaching a USB flash drive.
Establishing a connection with my Wi-Fi network and iPhone was perhaps a faster and easier process than I have ever witnessed with a braille display. Similarly, when I traveled to a friend's home and later to a hotel, I had the same fast, seamless experience when adding another Wi-Fi network.
I connected the display to three different iPhones, and was again pleased with the quick response. Connection to iOS devices, incidentally, is accomplished through the Buetooth setting on your iOS device, rather than in the VoiceOver menu. The Brailliant BI 40X promises to reconnect with iPhones without taking the phone out of your pocket. I found this to be a bit more temperamental than would be desired. In short, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Choosing the "reconnect devices" option in the connections menu, however, usually solves the problem. The experience of moving back and forth between, say, documents or books and incoming messages on the iPhone was straightforward and efficient.
With the Brailliant BI 40X, you can access files in brf, txt, doc, docx, pef, pdf, DAISY, html, and rtf, among other formats.
The Joy of Reading
Braille readers are as opinionated about the desired length of braille displays as most people are about room temperature and political party, but I'm not one of them. I love braille and am happy to read it on any display of any length. That said, the Brailliant BI 40X is one of the most enjoyable electronic braille reading experiences I have had to date.
The braille itself is lovely. The ease of panning backward or forward with either thumb keys or command keys provides comfortable ergonomic choices for all. Auto-scrolling is easily turned on and off, sped up or slowed down.
The quirkiness of assigned commands is a factor again, however, when auto-scrolling. You can turn it on with C 6, the bottom-most key of the three command keys at the right end of the display, but you have to use Perkins key combinations to speed it up or slow it down. If the ability to assign one's own key commands becomes available in a future update, assigning command keys at either end of the display to decrease or increase scrolling speed will be at the top of my personal customization list.
The most dazzling of this display's wow factors, though, is in the lightning fast access it affords to unlimited books, magazines, and newspapers!
In the Online Services menu, you can log in to Bookshare, NLS BARD, and NFB NEWSLINE. (You must, of course, have an account with each of these services in order to take full advantage of this feature.) After one successful log in, you only need to open the desired menu option to access new content. You can, incidentally, have NFB NEWSLINE download new issues of your chosen publications automatically every day. The thrill of carrying today's (and yesterday's and last week's, if desired) issues of the Washington Post, New York Times, and several other local papers around with me in a single slim device along with a few dozen bestsellers and a profusion of other documents is nothing short of dazzling. Of course, finding time to read them, along with all the braille books and magazines downloaded from NLS BARD and Bookshare is another matter!
Logging into these services for browsing and downloading is done through the Online Services menu. Reading and/or manipulating the collection of downloaded items can be accomplished in the Victor Reader menu. Here, in the Book List option, you will find all downloaded materials from the content sources offered in Online Services. Titles are organized alphabetically, not by content source, so today's Miami Herald might be tucked between Maggie's Miracle from NLS BARD and Missy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure from Bookshare. Any book or publication selected from your Book List, however, loads instantaneously and puts you at the precise point where you were last reading in that publication. The Recently Read option in the Victor Reader menu, presents you with the five most recently opened books or publications, providing quick and easy access to your current reads of choice.
Setting and retrieving bookmarks works well, as does selecting navigation levels. In publications that are marked up accordingly, you can jump forward or back by article or chapter title, section, or subsection, and so on. How effective this type of navigation is, of course, is dependent on the degree to which levels were indicated by the originating source.
The "Where am I" command (dots 1-5-6 with Spacebar) works well in content downloaded from Online Services. Checking location with this command will give you the heading number, such as 4 of 54, percentage, and sometimes page number of your current reading position. It is frustrating that this same function is not available elsewhere. Large docx files, for example, would be much more conveniently navigated if information regarding percentage or page number within the file was available.
The Brailliant BI 40X has a basic calculator, using computer braille, and results obtained there as well as current time and/or date can be inserted into files. The file manager offers the expected features. You can examine file lists, delete and rename files, and move files between drives. One odd omission is that you cannot discover the amount of available space on a given drive. A HumanWare representative said this function will be added, however, with the release of version 1.2.
The Bottom Line
The Brailliant BI 40X represents a new class of braille devices, which I'm calling smart braille displays. Like earlier products, it can act as a screen or terminal for your computer or smartphone, offering the intimacy of braille output along with the ease of braille input. Without the complexity of a full-featured notetaker, it also offers access to online sources of books and periodicals, along with the opportunity to highlight, bookmark, and make notes regarding the material being read. My personal quest was to find a device that would allow me to connect to other devices, read books and documents, and have immediate access to a tool for writing. Whether I want to jot down a phone number or draft an article like this one, the Brailliant BI 40X meets that criteria beautifully.
Pooling that immediate access to a writing tool with a rich and varied reading experience, easy connectivity, the familiarity of braille writing and reading, all in a lightweight sleek package, has the overall impact of delivering what many of us have been seeking. It isn't perfect. A dictionary, a spellchecker, or, at the very least, a mechanism for identifying one's location within any type of file, are small additions that would vastly improve this product. It's basically a newborn, though, and as such can be viewed as a work in progress. A few commands don't deliver as promised. And a few functions can't be found. Maybe that's why some of its menus have only one optionù indications that its creators planned for it to have room to grow. I look forward to updates, and am glad HumanWare didn't wait any longer. As powerful and fun to use as the Brailliant BI 40X is thus far, it's safe to say that we can probably expect future updates will render it an even more dynamic tool for braille readers and writers.
Although not reviewed for this evaluation, the Brailliant BI 20X is a smaller version with exactly the same functionality as the Brailliant BI 40X. The 20X has, obviously, 20 cells rather than 40, has Bluetooth 4.0 rather than 5.0, and an SD card slot rather than USB port for external storage.
Both can be ordered from local HumanWare dealers or directly from HumanWare, 800-722-3393. The Brailliant BI 40X is priced at $3,195 and the Brailliant BI 20X at $1,895.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- The 40-Cell Question: A Comparison of 40-Cell Braille Displays by Scott Davert
- A Review of the QBraille XL from HIMS Inc., A Braille Display with Elements of a QWERTY Keyboard by Scott Davert
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