The Braille Monitor                                                                                       April 2003

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Laptop Computers and Electronic Notetakers for the Blind: A Comparison

by Curtis Chong

Curtis Chong using a laptop.
Curtis Chong using a laptop.

From the Editor: Are you struggling to decide between buying a laptop computer and an electronic notetaker? Curtis Chong, who is now the director of field operations and access technology at the Iowa Department for the Blind, has compiled a very useful list of pros and cons for both of these electronic wonders. In his job Chong is responsible for internal information technology, vocational rehabilitation, independent living, and all programs dealing with access technology, including the department's Project Assist program, which provides tutorials to run software with specific versions of various screen-access software. Here is his distilled wisdom and experience on this important subject:

Blind people often need portable electronic devices to perform such tasks as notetaking, dealing with e-mail, word processing, appointment management, and so forth. Traditionally the solution has centered on off-the-shelf laptop computers equipped with screen-access technology or specialized devices for the blind, often referred to as notetakers or PDAs (personal data assistants). This document attempts to provide a concise list of advantages and disadvantages for each class of device to enable potential buyers to make a more informed decision.

Laptop Computers

Off-the-shelf laptop computers running Windows function very much like desktop computers except that they are smaller and more portable. Braille, talking, or magnification screen-access technology can be added to this class of computer. As a rule refreshable Braille displays are not built in, but portable displays can be obtained and connected. Synthesized speech is generated through the laptop's sound card; an external speech synthesizer can be attached if necessary.

Advantages of Laptop Computers

* Laptops are fully functional computers, able to run the same software as a desktop computer. In fact they can replace a desktop computer.

* Technical support for laptop computers is widely available and not restricted to a vendor selling blindness products.

* A typical laptop will have gigabytes of hard disk space and hundreds of megabytes of random access memory--significantly more than a typical PDA for the blind.

* Laptops can read and burn CDs.

* If the user knows how to operate a desktop computer, little additional training is required to use a laptop.

*When using a laptop, it is much easier to exchange files with other people.

*Laptops can more easily be connected to devices such as scanners or printers, and the technical support required for such connections is not limited to a specialized vendor selling products for the blind.

*With appropriate software (e.g., ZoomText or MAGic), enlargement of information on the display is possible.

Disadvantages of Laptop Computers

*All of the components to make a laptop usable by a blind person are generally not available from one source. Typically the laptop is acquired from one dealer, and the access technology comes from one or two companies, depending on whether a Braille display is involved.

*Laptops have a relatively short battery life (typically five hours).

*It takes minutes to boot up a laptop computer, thirty seconds if resuming function from a sleep or hibernation mode.

*Laptops are typically heavier and bulkier than PDAs for the blind.

*Laptops do not provide direct Braille keyboard input--that is, a person who knows how to enter Braille but who cannot type would not be able to use a laptop without QWERTY keyboard training.

*Selecting and then attaching a refreshable Braille display to a laptop requires some technical knowledge and support from specialized vendors.

*It is relatively difficult to use a connected refreshable Braille display with no speech running--that is, laptops are harder to use by people who are deaf-blind.

Personal Data Assistants for the Blind

These devices are often referred to as "notetakers," although the actual note-taking function is a relatively small fraction of what they can do. They are truly personal data assistants. Devices which fall into this class include Braille 'n Speak, Type 'n Speak, Braille Lite Millennium (or 2000), Type Lite, BrailleNote (and VoiceNote), and PAC Mate. The Braille 'n Speak, Type 'n Speak, and VoiceNote do not have refreshable Braille display capability. The PAC Mate currently being shipped does not either, but plans have been announced to produce PAC Mates with built-in refreshable Braille displays.

Advantages of Personal Data Assistants for the Blind

*All accessibility is built in. There is no screen access software to buy.

*Because they are designed for the blind, it is much more likely that documentation and training materials will be available in alternative formats.

*Start-up time is very rapid. It takes seconds to get back into a file.

*Battery life is much better than a laptop. Twenty-plus hours is typical.

*Typically a PDA for the blind is smaller and more portable than a laptop.

*The PDA for the blind and accompanying accessories can be purchased from a single vendor.

*No additional effort or technical knowledge is necessary to get the Braille display to work when it is part of the unit.

*Generally Braille displays can be used without speech running.

*Direct Braille input is possible.

Disadvantages of Personal Data Assistants for the Blind

*PDAs for the blind have no visual display. Display magnification is simply not an option.

*When using a PDA with direct Braille-input capability, one has to be concerned about forward- and back-translation issues, if files are to be exchanged with sighted classmates, friends, or co-workers. Though the promotional literature may make this seem easy, in reality the user must have a minimal knowledge of the issues involved with Braille grade translation.

*Formatting material for visual use requires attention to details that a laptop user need not worry about. This is especially true for PDAs for the blind with direct Braille-input capability.

*PDAs for the blind cannot read or create CDs.

*Sharing files with classmates, friends, and co-workers is not as simple as it is when using a laptop. In most cases files created in the format native to the PDA are not easily read with mainstream technologies.

*PDAs for the blind cannot run off-the-shelf applications which, on a laptop, have a good chance of working with nonvisual access technology. They certainly cannot run the full-function Microsoft or Corel Office suites.

*Technical support must be supplied either by the vendor or by someone trained by the vendor. PDAs for the blind are not well understood or supported outside of the blindness field.

*PDAs for the blind are not equivalent to laptop computers. They possess less storage and processing power and are not designed to be the primary method for information processing and exchange. While many laptops have more than 512 megabytes of random access memory, even the largest PDA for the blind has only about 100 megabytes. A laptop can contain more than forty gigabytes of hard disk drive storage capacity, whereas a PDA for the blind might today support a mini disk drive with about five gigabytes.

So there you have it. No one answer is right for everybody, and no single choice can meet anyone's every need. Here, at least, are the issues that will help people make the most informed decisions for themselves.

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