by Brad Hodges
From the Editor: Summer convention season is a great time to shop for all kinds of assistive technology. The NFB exhibit hall brings it all together under one roof. So, if you know what you are looking for or even what questions to ask, you have a perfect opportunity to make an informed decision about what to buy at our National Convention. If you have been thinking about buying a Braille Notetaker, the following article will help you make the choice that's right for you. Brad Hodges is an access-technology specialist in the Technology Department at the National Center for the Blind. He works with Braille notetakers every day. This is his advice:
NFB Convention week is an exciting time for all who attend. This year's Philadelphia convention is shaping up to be among the best ever. One important activity for many Federationists who visit the exhibit hall is purchasing technology. Whether shoppers order equipment while at the convention or after returning home, the opportunity to see and get a hands-on look at the newest products often leads directly to a final purchase decision.
No device category has captured the attention or imagination of blind computer users more than Braille notetakers. These popular devices are well-established fixtures in many vender booths at convention. This year's crop of notetakers will offer more variety and more new technology than ever before.
So then, you ask yourself, is it a good year finally to buy that notetaker? Or should you upgrade your older model or move up to one with a refreshable Braille display? Those questions are not as easy to answer as they might appear at first blush. Why? The answer is much easier: change--lots and lots of change.
A bit of notetaker history may be instructive at this point in our discussion. Since their introduction over a dozen years ago, the Braille 'n Speak and Braille Lite, both products from Blazie Engineering, have enjoyed the lion's share of the notetaker market. Rival products have been introduced, and while they have had their adherents, it is safe to say that the Blazie family of notetakers has been the dominant set of products in this category. This decade-long position as number one in the notetaker market is now being challenged. Just before last year's convention Pulse Data International, a New Zealand-based manufacturer, introduced the Braille Note, a new and technically advanced notetaker which wowed all of those who read the specifications and list of features.
From their introduction in the mid 1980s the Blazie products have built their success on the same technical platform as the original Braille 'n Speak. This strategy was reasonable. It allowed software and hardware consistency as products were introduced and features added. Users who learned the operation of one Blazie device could easily move to a more advanced model.
At the same time radical changes and lightning-speed advances in the world of portable computing for the general public were taking place--remember the Braille notetaker predated the Palm Pilot by at least eight years. This fact notwithstanding, however, the general state of the art in portables soon overtook the Braille 'n Speak and its kin, which means that it has not been simple to connect a Blazie notetaker to a Windows computer for back-and-forth transfer of files. The most problematic area, however, has been the use of peripheral hardware. It has not been possible to use an off-the-shelf disk drive to store or transfer files to and from a Blazie notetaker. The result: extremely high prices for devices which sighted computer users can purchase for a fraction of the Blazie price at the computer store.
In the months since the introduction of the Braille Note a little more than a year ago, the rate of change in the notetaker arena has caught up with that of portable computers in general. Change has taken place in both the technical and corporate arenas. The most significant corporate change was the purchase of Blazie Engineering by Freedom Scientific. We have all heard the anecdotes and horror stories about the transition, so it is safe to conclude that the change has not been as smooth as it might have been. Simultaneous with these difficulties has been the sudden departure of Deane Blazie. While Mr. Blazie had reduced his day-to-day involvement with notetaker development following the sale of his company to Freedom, many have viewed his complete separation from Freedom as a signal that the race with Pulse Data was now on and that Freedom was not about to take any prisoners in the competition.
One of the most significant technical changes in the past several years is the introduction of hand-held computers. The most successful of these pocket-sized digital work horses is the Palm Pilot. In order to pack a lot of power into a small package, Microsoft introduced Windows-CE. What on earth is that, you ask? It is the operating system which allows many portable and palmtop computers to look and act like Windows computers with only a fraction of the memory or processor power of a desktop system. That sounds an awful lot like Braille notetakers, you say, and you would be right. But the technology used to operate palmtop computers has left Braille notetakers in the dust, despite the fact that our notetakers have been around for years longer.
In addition to providing a familiar look and feel, CE-equipped devices can seamlessly communicate information and transfer files to and from desktop systems. As a result you can, for example, read and create e-mail messages on a palmtop, then place them in a small base station connected to your desktop computer. After a few moments of back-and-forth data transfer, your e-mail has been transferred to the desktop and sent to your e-mail service. An understanding of this technological and corporate history may provide a helpful perspective.
Now here are some factors to consider as you approach the task of purchasing one of these alluring and useful devices.
Connectivity: Since the notetaker must perform a number of tasks, you may want to be able to share data with other devices such as your desktop. How does the notetaker you are considering accomplish this task? Two approaches are currently being taken. The first is to support the full array of standard off-the-shelf portable peripherals. The PCMCIA card standard is used to provide an interface from the notetaker. Floppy disk drives, ZIP drives, and Super Disks can be purchased inexpensively and connected to the notetaker. Be clear which of these data-storage systems best meets your needs. Remember, if you connect a Super Disk drive to your notetaker, you need to have one on your PC as well.
The second approach you will encounter is Flash-Card memory. These small plastic cards have been popularized by digital camera users. With no moving parts and the ability to hold over a hundred megabytes of memory, the Flash Card is easy to move from the notetaker to an inexpensive reader connected to your desktop or laptop.
A final consideration of the notetaker's connectivity is how well it can synchronize the files which you have created on it to your desktop. This technique is sometimes referred to as "hot sync." The software supplied by the notetaker manufacturer as well as the hardware standards will make the task relatively easy or difficult. The trend to standard operating systems such as Windows CE should help to simplify this task dramatically. Look closely at the steps involved in data transfer if you plan to connect your notetaker to a desktop computer regularly.
In theory the Windows-CE operating system makes this task easier. Individual applications may either capitalize on this advantage or render it pointless.
Software: Unlike using a PC, with a notetaker you cannot choose from among several software applications to accomplish a given task. For instance, if you like the word processor built into the system, great. If you can't stand it, you're out of luck. So it is critical that you evaluate the software included with the notetaker. Ease of use is the first element to consider. As you approach the device for the first time, do you find the software intuitive, or does it rely on a complex scheme of commands that you must memorize or look up? Can you follow the ideas the software developers have used to design the application?
Your knowledge of a previous version of a company's software is important. If you have already invested time and effort learning one set of programs, will you need to spend a significant amount of time learning new ones? If you will, what advantages does the system have , and are they worth the trouble?
Hardware: Remember, these are devices which you will touch. You will handle them for many hours. How does the device feel under the hand? How do the keys feel and act? Note whether the Braille characters you actually produce when you try writing are the ones you expected. How loud is the keyboard? Some users find certain notetaker keyboards inappropriately loud for use in meetings.
Physical characteristics of Braille displays differ on all notetakers which use refreshable Braille. How does this one feel under the fingers? Will you enjoy reading the display during extended reading sessions? Are the height and size of the dots pleasing? How does the texture of the cell background feel?
Do you find special features attractive? As the pace of new notetaker development quickens, so will the introduction of new control features. Advance bars are being supplemented or replaced by thumb keys for navigation, whiz wheels for quick movement through a document, and other innovations.
E-mail and the Internet: You will notice that the current generation of notetakers includes modems. While manufacturers are quick to point out this fact, find out whether the software for sending and receiving e-mail is available for use. If it is, can you connect to your current e-mail account? If you are looking for new service, can you choose among all services, or are you restricted to a shell account, which is a type of service no longer available generally?
The most advanced palmtop devices for sighted computer users allow limited access to information from the Internet. If this is a feature which interests you in a Braille notetaker, determine whether or not the model you are interested in currently supports data retrieval from the Internet. If not, what are the plans for this feature, and what limitations will there be on the kinds of information you can retrieve? For sighted users of palmtop Internet access, a separate monthly service fee is generally associated with obtaining access to the data service.
Training: The notetaker is a powerful, advanced piece of technology. It is worthy of your attention in order to exploit all of its advantages fully. As you evaluate the units on display, find out about training. Does one unit require more training than another one because of software design? Do you have access to friends or colleagues who are already knowledgeable in the use of one device versus others? Is tutorial training available to you?
Current offerings: Two rival product families predominate, Braille Note and Braille Lite Millennium. Each line has notetakers which offer both Braille-and-speech and speech-only configurations.
In the future: Because the pace of development has increased and because of the popularity of notetakers, we anticipate significantly more powerful devices to be offered in the next nine to twelve months. It is reasonable to anticipate the introduction of a totally new product from Freedom Scientific. Whether it physically resembles the Millennium is difficult to predict. There is no question that the operating system will be updated significantly.
The Braille Note, on the other hand, is a relatively new piece of hardware. For this reason we do not expect to see radical physical changes in the next twenty-four months or so. We can expect that additional software will be introduced for the Braille Note and that it will take full advantage of the Windows-CE operating system.
A totally new notetaker product is expected to reach North America from Germany. While we do not believe it will be available for purchase at convention, it is safe to include it on a list of candidates for fall-winter 2001 purchase.
Now that notetakers have begun to change almost as rapidly as computers in general, what should I do? There is no simple answer to this question. It is important that you evaluate all offerings currently available and judge them based on your planned use. If you have the option of postponing purchase until late summer or perhaps fall, you may benefit from the expected new developments in these devices.