The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  July 2005

(back) (next) (contents)

BrailleNote or PAC Mate:
A Matter of Personal Preference

by Danika Rockett
Jim Gashel, NFB executive director of strategic initiatives, is enthusiatic about his PAC Mate, which he uses with his cell phone to download email on his way to the office in the morning,  Mark Riccobono, NFB manager of education services, is equally committed to his Braille Mate.
Jim Gashel (right), NFB executive director of strategic initiatives, is enthusiastic about his PAC Mate, which he uses with his cell phone to download email on his way to the office in the morning. Mark Riccobono (left), NFB manager of education services, is equally committed to his BrailleNote

            From the Editor: On May 1, 2005, Danika Taylor, NFB copyeditor, married Don Rockett. When she returned from her honeymoon, she sat down to talk with several electronic notetaker users about the features they liked and did not like in the units they had chosen. Here is the result of those conversations. It is not a careful review by the International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC) staff, but it does contain interesting information and views. This is what she says:

             The decision to spend upwards of five thousand dollars on a device that can fit in the palm of a hand and allow blind people to read, write, keep track of appointments, and even do email on the go should not be taken lightly. For most of us contemplating the purchase of a Braille notetaker, the sticker shock involved in the process is also accompanied by the equally unsettling lists of technical specifications and claims and counterclaims which those who sell these devices make.

            In this article we turn directly to the experience of several longtime Federationists who use their notetakers every day. Their observations are based not on theoretical or technical data but on the reality of living day in and day out with a particular notetaker.

            If you would like to explore your personal notetaker needs with the experts at the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC), they invite you to do so. They can be reached at the technology answer line: (410) 659-9314, option 5 on the automated greeting.

Humanware's BrailleNote and Freedom Scientific's PAC Mate are two of the most popular Braille notetakers. For various reasons some users prefer one machine to the other, but just what is the difference between these two seemingly similar products?

            We might begin with physical characteristics, for herein lie the most obvious differences. The BrailleNote is smaller in height and width than the PAC Mate but slightly thicker. To be specific, the BrailleNote is 9.9 by 6.1 by 2 inches, and the PAC Mate is 11 by 6.81 by 1.93 inches. To be sure, these differences are slight, and as J.R. Westmoreland said in his 2005 CSUN (California State University at Northridge) conference paper titled “BrailleNote or PAC Mate: A Side-by-Side Comparison,” the difference in size is a “minor factor navigating in tight areas.” A smaller BrailleNote, the BrailleNote PK, is a mere 6.8 by 3.6 by 1.3 inches, but it comes with only an 18-cell display option, and at around $5,000 the smaller dimensions might not be worth the cost for many users.

            The weight of each product varies a bit depending on the model and the size of the refreshable Braille display. The 20-cell PAC Mate weighs 3 pounds, 9 ounces, whereas the 18-cell BrailleNote weighs 2.2 pounds; likewise, the 40-cell PAC Mate weighs 4 pounds, while the 32-cell BrailleNote weighs 2.9 pounds. Therefore, although the PAC Mate weighs more than the BrailleNote, the larger size of the PAC Mate's Braille display may be an important consideration for some users.

            Both machines have wireless network access support, the option of a QWERTY keyboard, and similar external connections and hardware slots. Of course these details vary slightly from model to model. J.R. Westmoreland praises the PAC Mate's support of CF cards. “The BrailleNote," he says, "has a limited number of cards that are supported. The PAC Mate, on the other hand, not only supports these cards but many other cards that have drivers for Pocket PC.”

            We could go on and on about the characteristics of each machine, but in the end the question of which is better comes down to personal preference. Diehard advocates exist for most notetakers on the market, depending on the individual user's needs.

            Adrienne Asch, Henry R. Luce Professor in Biology, Ethics, and the Politics of Human Reproduction at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, is a BrailleNote user. However, she is certainly not a diehard advocate. “The BrailleNote has many fine features," she says. "But it has a few major problems, at least from my point of view.”

           Footnotes, or rather the lack thereof, are among Dr. Asch's complaints. “The BrailleNote will not permit the writing of footnotes or endnotes in Microsoft Word documents,” she says. Therefore any articles she writes requiring footnotes or endnotes--and she is a prolific academic scholar--must be written, or at least finished, on the computer using a Braille display or speech, which can be inconvenient and is certainly inefficient.

           The BrailleNote “will also not display footnotes or endnotes in Word documents sent to me,” she continues. "This means that I must open the file on a laptop or desktop computer and convert it to ASCII format. If I don't have computer access, I simply cannot read the footnotes or endnotes." These complaints are important, but they demonstrate how much personal needs and preferences determine which notetaker to buy. A person who does not regularly use footnotes or endnotes may not be bothered by the fact that no device using Pocket PC can identify footnotes and endnotes at all.

           Another problem for Dr. Asch involves formatting. "Although the manual claims that documents can be prepared in Braille and then formatted for printing, that claim is only partly accurate," she says. "If one wishes to create italicized, bolded, or underlined material in a printed document, one cannot use the format menu within the Braille document to do so. One must manually do this formatting from within the translated file."

            She also faults the BrailleNote for reading fewer and fewer of the many documents she wants it to display. "More and more email attachments are in formats, whether advanced versions of Microsoft Word, RTF, or some other format that the BrailleNote will not display," she complains. "Again, the only solution is to take the file to a standard laptop or desktop, convert it to an ASCII text file, and then return the newly formatted file to the BrailleNote. This conversion means a loss of formatting, meaning that I cannot edit the document in the same format in which it was sent to me. The device is no longer a reliable method of reading documents prepared in electronic form that are given to me at meetings, conferences, and the like. I will soon find that I must travel with a laptop, if only to convert the documents I am given, in order to do my actual reading on the BrailleNote. I had hoped with the newest software upgrade, 6.11, that I would have solved the problem of unreadable documents; I have not solved it. When I send examples of unreadable documents to Humanware's technical support staff, they generally tell me that they too cannot read them on their machines, but they have no suggestions or solutions."

           Mark Riccobono, National Federation of the Blind manager of education programs, is a satisfied BrailleNote user. In fact he liked the BrailleNote so much that he recently upgraded to the smaller BrailleNote PK. He says that the PK is similar to the previous models, other than the size (it is currently the smallest notetaker on the market) and the USB port.

           Unlike Adrienne Asch, Mark Riccobono is not bothered by the BrailleNote's inability to deal with footnotes or endnotes. It isn't that he doesn't use them, but he considers his BrailleNote more of a supplement to his PC than a stand-alone computer, so he doesn't mind transferring documents for editing. One feature he enjoys is the PK's portability and power. "I can carry around my contacts and synchronize them with Microsoft Outlook," he says. "I am on the road a lot, and if I meet someone, it is easy to enter the information into my PK. Then, when I get to the office, I simply synchronize the information with Outlook, and it is there. Also the calendar feature is a major advantage because it too synchronizes with Outlook. And I can work on documents while I am commuting, then transfer them to my PC when I get to work. Basically I treat my PK like a PDA, not like a PC replacement."

           He admits, however, that formatting causes the occasional frustration. "Transferring from a Word document causes it to appear in a different format, which destroys the formatting, so I have to go back and correct it. That is definitely frustrating sometimes, especially when I am in a hurry. But I don't worry about it too much because I use my PC most of the time."

           Another disadvantage of the PK is its lack of audio streaming ability. While the PAC Mate has the ability to stream audio from the Internet, the PK does not. Anyone who knows Riccobono knows he is an avid baseball fan, and the feature he would most like to see added to the PK is the ability to stream audio, especially baseball broadcasts. Like Dr. Asch's, his complaints are a matter of personal preference. Not every user will consider streaming audio to be a priority when making a purchasing decision.

           As for audio quality, though, Chad Allen, government programs specialist (intern) for the National Federation of the Blind, loves the fact that his BrailleNote PK has stereo quality audio for his enjoyment while listening to the many MP3s he has downloaded onto the device. Allen also praises the built-in Bluetooth technology feature on the PK. "I use my Nokia 6620 model cell phone to surf the Internet on my PK," he says. "I use the Mobile Speak software and my cell phone as a modem, and I have another Internet-surfing option anywhere I go." The BrailleNote PK comes with Bluetooth technology installed, whereas this technology must be purchased separately for other notetaking devices. Again, for those who are less computer savvy or are not interested in the capacity to surf the Internet at a moment's notice, this technology does not factor heavily into the decision-making process.

           Allen, a Jaws user, mentions that Freedom Scientific does not support the use of Jaws with competing notetakers such as Humanware's BrailleNote PK. "I didn't know this when I purchased the device. I assumed I could use the Jaws screen reader on a PC with my PK doubling as a refreshable Braille Display, but it didn't work. I was disappointed because I had to purchase and install a new screen reader, but overall the PK is a great notetaker, and I am very satisfied with it."

           Eric Duffy is an NFB leader in Ohio. He is technologically sophisticated and spends a significant amount of time helping other blind people solve technology problems. This is what he says about his decision to use the PAC Mate: "I was a Braille ’n Speak user beginning in the late eighties. I then got a Braille Lite not long after it came out. Both of these devices were good-quality notetakers, but they are not even in the same league with the PAC Mate. It is far more than a note taker. The capacity and versatility of the PAC Mate exceed that of the Braille ’n Speak and Braille Lite, first developed by Blazie Engineering and now supported, at least minimally, by Freedom Scientific.

            "The BrailleNote was the first product in what most of us think of as the modern class of notetakers for the blind. I had heard about the BrailleNote before it hit the market, and I began to use one as soon as I could get my hands on a loaner unit. I liked some things about it but before buying decided to wait to try the new product from Freedom Scientific that was soon to be released. I really wanted to compare the BrailleNote and PAC Mate and make an informed choice about which product would best meet my needs. I have chosen the PAC Mate. Here are my thoughts about both products.

            "The BrailleNote is still a proprietary product, which is to say that the Keysoft user interface and suite of applications is developed and supported by the manufacturer of the BrailleNote, Humanware. So off-the-shelf products cannot be used with the BrailleNote.

            "I like the fact that the PAC Mate runs on a Windows®Mobile–based technology. This is the same system that sighted consumers use to operate their PDAs. Programs released for PDAs in the general market can more easily be adapted for the PAC Mate.

            "I use the PAC Mate every day for word processing, email, and more. I like the fact that I can synchronize email as well as contacts and files between the PAC Mate and my PC. Using the PAC Mate, I can write email messages using contracted Braille and with a key stroke have the message translated to computer Braille and sent. I can work in Pocket Word using contracted Braille and have the file easily translated into print.

            "I am pleased with the connectivity of the PAC Mate. Because of it I am no longer tied to my computer to be productive. I can send files to my computer or through email using my wireless network or Active Sync. It is also possible to beam files from one Pac Mate to another or for that matter send them to a laptop or a PDA. I can have instant access to information in contracted Braille as long as the producer of the file can beam it to me or put it on a flash drive.

            “I have learned by painful experience that, if I want to be absolutely certain that I do not lose the data I am working with, I must store it in internal flash. When storing information in main memory, one runs the risk of losing it when the PAC Mate crashes, which it does more frequently than I would like, or if it is necessary to perform a hard reset. Information can also be lost if the battery gets too low. In theory, because the PAC Mate has an internal battery, one can wait up to seventy-two hours after the battery dies before recharging the unit without losing data, but theory and reality are very different, and users have learned the hard way not to let the battery lose its charge completely.

            “Freedom Scientific strongly recommends that one use Active Sync or Sprite Backup to be sure that data and settings are not lost. Sprite Backup involves saving data to a flash card, and Active Sync enables a backup directly to a PC.

            “I very much like the fact that the Braille display can be detached from the PAC Mate. If I am having a problem with my display, I can return it for service without having to send the Pac Mate back. Of course the reverse is true as well. If I am having a problem with the PAC Mate, I can use the display with my PC while the main unit is being repaired. I don't enjoy having to pay extra for Bluetooth cards, WiFi cards, and other peripherals, But again, if I have a faulty card, I can replace it without having to send the entire unit in for service.

            “It does seem to me that the BrailleNote is most useful for those who do not need or want to connect to other devices. The operating system is simple, and the learning curve is easy. Freedom Scientific markets the Pac Mate by saying that, if you know JAWS and if you know Windows, you know how to use the PAC Mate. Although I don't fully agree with that statement, knowing these programs certainly shortens the learning curve for new PAC Mate users, yet there is still a good bit to master.

            “I do have two serious concerns about the PAC Mate. The first is that Pocket Word is not as functional as it could and should be. In fact it is really better to work in FSEdit, the word-processing program developed by Freedom Scientific. When told about problems that crop up for users who are trying to edit files in Pocket Word, Freedom staff respond by saying that the problem is Microsoft's. The same response occurs when problems with other programs are mentioned. I believe that, if a program has been installed on the PAC Mate by Freedom Scientific, any problems that arise are its responsibility. This is especially true because Freedom promotes the PAC Mate by saying it works with Word and other programs it has not created.

            “It also advertises the PAC Mate as a machine that can support many off-the-shelf programs and devices. Freedom Scientific recommends a Web site called <www.pacmategear.com> as the place to find and order up-to-date information about programs and devices that run on the PAC Mate--that is, until a problem develops. Then <www.pacmategear.com> is strictly unofficial. It seems to me that Freedom cannot expect to have it both ways; either it advertises that the site carries programs and equipment that are compatible with the PAC Mate and Freedom supports and will trouble-shoot them, or the company should not try to expand the attractiveness of its product by nominally affiliating itself with programs and hardware it disavows when trouble strikes.

            “Another ongoing issue is the fact that Freedom announced its intent to release a global positioning system (GPS) program for the PAC Mate over a year ago and began accepting orders and payment for it. When pressed to divulge what is going on with the GPS, which is still not available, Freedom just says that it is waiting for Destonator, the publisher of the software platform for the GPS system, to make the software changes necessary to run on the PAC Mate. The cynic in me suspects that Freedom announced the GPS system in June of 2004 knowing that it would not be ready for months but eager to stay competitive with the BrailleNote, which already had a functioning GPS system. All software producers exhibit unconstructive optimism about when new products will be available, but accepting orders and billing for the programs months or years ahead of delivery strikes me as unfair. My advice to potential notetaker users is to be sure that the products and features they find attractive and plan to order really are already available or will be so in the very near future.”

            There you have the thoughts and experiences of several BrailleNote and PAC Mate users. When all is said and done, a number of notetaking devices are on the market. Cost will usually be a factor in deciding which one to purchase because many of these devices cost several thousand dollars. Potential buyers must consider how they intend to use the notetaker in order to determine which features are necessities and which are just added bonuses. Visiting the Web sites of companies that build or sell notetaking devices can provide lots of information, like specs, prices, and features of different machines, but talking with current users is always a great way to get sensible, useful information about the various models currently on the market. Remember also that the staff of the International Braille and Technology Center of the Jernigan Institute answer questions about notetakers every day. Their expertise and assistance are never more than a phone call or email away.

            In short, no electronic notetaker is right for everyone. If you are considering buying one of these little marvels, take the time to work with each device you are considering. Think about how you will use the notetaker, and try using each to undertake the tasks you are likely to ask your notetaker to perform. You will not avoid all the headaches in this way, but you will certainly cut down on them.

(back) (next) (contents)