Review of Freedom Scientific's ElBraille

Posted by Karl Belanger | 11/27/2017 | Access Technology
Product photo of the ElBraille and Focus 14 courtesy of Freedom Scientific.

The ElBraille consists of a small Windows 10 computer built into a case for the Focus 14 Blue Braille display. The case feels quite sturdy, and the overall concept is a very good one. The unit comes with instructions in Braille and a protective carrying case which feels well-built and should do a good job of protecting the ElBraille. Unfortunately, there are several issues that, when taken together, make the ElBraille a much less appealing option.

Purchasing the ElBraille

Unlike similar devices, VFO has decided to take a modular approach with selling the ElBraille. The ElBraille is just the computer dock for the Focus 14. If you currently own a Focus 14 and/or a JAWS license, you can use those. If not, you must buy the ElBraille at $1,795 and the display and JAWS separately at their regular prices. The price for the unit itself is rather high, especially when the hardware specifications of the device are taken into account. With an Intel Atom® processor and two gigabytes of RAM, the ElBraille is roughly comparable to budget friendly Windows tablets.

Physical Description

The ElBraille consists of two parts: the dock, which holds the processor, battery, and other internals; and a Focus 14 Blue Braille display. The dock consists of a tray with an open front end, which is also higher at the back. The Focus 14 is inserted into the ElBraille back end first. The USB cord is plugged into the left side, then the display is lowered until the hooks at the front edge engage with the slots in the bottom of the display. Along the left side are a micro-HDMI port and a slot for a SIM card to connect to an LTE network. The right side has a headphone jack, an SD card slot, a USB port, and the proprietary charging port. There is nothing on the back of the device. On the top left edge there is a power button, and behind that a cover over the Focus display’s USB port and power button. Behind the display on the top of the ElBraille are four buttons, with a volume rocker in between the second and third. From left to right, these buttons access the ElBraille menu, provide battery and network status, announce and display the time and date, and open the notes application. When connecting or removing the charger, the ElBraille plays an ascending or descending tone and also vibrates the device.

ElBraille Custom Menus and Applications

The buttons on the back edge of the ElBraille provide access to a number of custom functions. Pressing the first button opens a menu with direct shortcuts to a number of programs including the calculator, Firefox, Skype, Balabolka book reader, a notes program, and Microsoft Office 365 (if installed). There is also a utilities menu which provides access to settings and documentation for the ElBraille. Pressing and holding the first button brings up a self-voicing menu where you can force restart JAWS or restart/shutdown the system. Pressing or double-pressing the second key once announces the battery or network status respectively, and the third key announces the time or date. The fourth key opens the ElNotes application, which allows for taking both text and voice notes, which can later be reviewed, and the text notes can be searched.

The ElBraille menu provides quick access to a variety of applications. The Miranda instant messaging program, Skype, Firefox, the Balabolka book reader, and Windows Live Mail all come preinstalled. The menu also provides access to the calculator, Notepad, and a submenu for MS Word, MS Outlook, etc., if they are installed. The utilities submenu provides access to ElBraille settings, where it is possible to change when the device beeps or vibrates, whether the LTE modem is on or off, among others. Also under utilities are a keyboard editor where the physical buttons can be reassigned, a firmware updates feature, and help documentation.

Using the ElBraille

When the ElBraille is turned on by pressing and holding the power button, the device will vibrate, then start emitting a series of short beeps. As each stage of the boot finishes, the device will vibrate again and the beeping will pause. This repeats a few times until the beeping stops and JAWS comes up talking. The Focus will also turn on and off several times. The first time JAWS loads, it will present you with the update authorization screen. Otherwise, there is no first run experience; you are dropped at the Windows desktop. For anyone who has used a Braille display with JAWS as the primary means of accessing a computer, turning on the ElBraille will be just like booting up any other Windows PC. For those who haven’t used a Braille display with JAWS extensively, a tutorial would come in quite handy. There are a lot of keys to learn, some of which are layered, some context specific, and while having the Braille manual is useful, a simple on-device tutorial to familiarize users especially with the keyboard emulation, would make the learning curve a lot less steep. Having no first run setup means that users will have to know where to look to connect to Wi-Fi, set the time and date if it is incorrect, add their Microsoft account, etc.

Performance

With a processor clocking in at under two gigahertz and just two gigabytes of RAM, I wasn’t expecting a lot out of the ElBraille. After using it and putting it through its paces, it generally holds up well when doing one thing at a time or using a couple light duty applications, but it slows down once you get a few windows open. The most immediate thing I noticed was the lag when using alt+tab. With only a few things open, moving between applications regularly took over a second, sometimes as much as two. The next issue was that, in some situations, the display would update long after JAWS had started speaking. One area where this was particularly noticeable was in Excel. For example, if I wrote the sentence, “This is a test,” in cell A1, then moved away and back, JAWS would announce “This is a test.” The display would update, then JAWS would announce “A1”. Instances like this make the ElBraille very difficult to use without speech, as it would be very easy to move past content unintentionally if the display isn’t keeping up. I also noticed fairly frequent long loading times, which would sometimes cause the device to stop responding entirely for a few seconds, slow download speeds compared to other devices on the same network, and a couple of hard crashes with nothing particularly strenuous going on. These crashes required a hard reboot by holding in the power button until the device turned off as the emergency menu even stopped working.

Other Observed Design Oddities and Issues

The ElBraille comes with a version of Windows 10 that is from sometime in the first part of this year, as it is before the creators’ update. Furthermore, the 32-bit edition is installed rather than the 64-bit. While neither of these are deal breakers in themselves, it is not possible to directly upgrade to the 64-bit edition without doing a clean install, and it is disappointing to see a new device starting behind the curve, especially given the accessibility improvements in the creator’s update.

No Sleep or Hibernate

It is not possible to put the ElBraille into any form of standby mode. There is only full on or shut off. This is very unfortunate and has several implications. First, there is no way to carry the device around without potentially causing unwanted button presses. It is possible to use a JAWS-specific lock command to lock the keyboard keys, but then JAWS makes an announcement that the keys are locked every so often. The next problem is that there is no way to preserve battery life without a full shutdown. While the battery life is very good, if you’re not going to use the ElBraille for a while, it is necessary to do a full shutdown, then wait for it to boot when you go to use it next.

Occasional Extra-Long Startup

With no apparent cause, upon turning the ElBraille back on after a normal shutdown, the unit will take several minutes to boot, rather than the usual 20-30 seconds. The system eventually boots normally, but this can still be disruptive and confusing.

Potentially Inadequate Ventilation

While the ElBraille does have a fan, there are only a few holes which might be ventilation, some under the Braille display. The carrying case looks like it may even help the device retain heat. This means that the ElBraille can get quite warm under even light operation, and adding in charging the battery can be enough to make the fan come on. This isn’t helped by the speed problems feeling worse when the unit was warm, which leads me to believe that the ElBraille’s processor has some aggressive overheat protection.

Final Thoughts

As a media consumption and light duty productivity machine, the ElBraille works just fine. It runs well with just one or two things open, the speakers sound good, and the battery life is great. However, with specs in line with under $200 Windows tablets, the ElBraille doesn’t hold up as a productivity device. The Braille lag, long load times, and delays when switching between applications all contribute to a significant blow to efficiency when attempting to work on multiple things at once. Given all of that, the steep price, and that it is based around the relatively fragile Focus 14, potential users should consider carefully what they plan to use it for before purchasing.

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