Blog Date: 
Saturday, April 14, 2012
Amy Mason

Braille displays seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance. More portable options which can interface with laptops, desktops, Macs, PCs and smart phones, particularly iOS devices have got more people excited about Braille displays than ever before. People are more excited about having Braille in more places, and conversations about possibly doing away with the traditional Braille notetaker have been popping up with increasing frequency.  New form factors seem to be arriving every year, and each batch of displays seems to offer new and exciting features.  The Braille Edge by HIMS is no exception to this rule.  It’s a compact, easy to carry display with a number of new and interesting features.  Thus, the question remains: How does it stack up against the competition?  This is as always, a bit of a complex question, so let’s dive right in.

The Braille Edge by HIMS is a 40-cell “smart” Braille display.  It is Bluetooth and USB enabled, and like most other displays of its class, it contains an internal rechargeable battery.    The front only has one small push button for powering on the display.  The left hand side contains a slot for a SD card (up to 32 GB are supported) and a small physical switch, which controls whether the device is in Bluetooth or USB connectivity mode.  The back holds two very small reset buttons, and the right side offers a mini USB port as well as a jack for a traditional power adapter.  Before we look at the major controls of the device, I want to just emphasize the importance of a couple of the ports and switches on the sides of the device.  First, because of the physical switch, it’s easy to turn Bluetooth on and off, and to know whether or not it’s on.  It’s not as easy to forget and burn prematurely through the battery as with other devices.  Second, although it does allow for charging via USB, it provides a wall charger, in the box, and charges fairly quickly with it.  For those who keep it connected to a computer via USB, it’s not necessary, but for Bluetooth users, or for those who use it mostly for its “smart” functions, the charger provides a great way to get rolling again quickly. 

Like other HIMS products, its “face” is mostly white with a black display and accent keys.  It has traditional Perkins style keys (including enter and backspace) above the display.  These keys are closer to the spacebar, and there is less curvature to the finger placement than on some other devices.  That being said, if a user is able to get comfortable with the key arrangement, (I don’t mind it at all, but others on the team who are more accustomed to products like the BrailleNote PK found the placement somewhat awkward to use.)  it’s really a pleasure to type on.  The keys have just the right amount of give to suit my personal preference, and I find I can type on it fairly quickly.  On either side of the Perkins keyboard, the Edge has four directional buttons placed in a circle.  The display and panning keys are just like those found on other HIMS products.  Each cell has a cursor routing key above it, and two panning keys flanking each side of the display.  Between the main keyboard and the display is a row of 8 small buttons which act as function keys, and largely correspond to well known Windows keys such as ESC, TAB, CTRL, ALT, INS, and others.  Thus, there are a lot of options for moving around and navigating quickly whether in the display’s firmware, or while using it with a screen access package. 

As previously mentioned, the Braille Edge is a “smart display” meaning that it is capable of reading and writing simple text and Braille files on an SD card. Users can carry a library of books in their pocket, or can use the display without connecting it first to another device if they need to quickly take class notes, or write down a phone number.  It is truly something of a hybrid between modern notetakers and a simple display for other devices.  The differences between the Edge’s firmware and that of a notetaker come down to matters of simplicity, and connectivity.  A full-blown notetaker will have internet access, and offer syncing of contacts, calendar and other important files between the device and the computer.  Furthermore, they can open a number of file formats not available to the Edge, and they offer internal translation for files between grade 1 and grade 2 Braille.  Finally, notetakers offer a scientific calculator, while in the case of an Edge, only simple calculations are supported.  That being said, if a user remembers that the Edge is a display first, and a quick notetaking option second, they are likely to be quite satisfied.  Personally, I would gladly give up almost every function in my notetaker for an extra 8 cells of Braille, so long as I could still read files on the go and for users like me, the Edge delivers in a big way.  It contains a simple schedule manager, alarm clock, calendar, clock, and countdown timer in addition to the previously mentioned notepad and calculator functions.  Inserting calculations, and the time and date into files are simple matters, and for a device that is going to essentially act as my notebook, and a really good Braille display, I couldn’t ask for more. 

While looking at the firmware inside the device, I feel I need to mention the most interesting option I have yet seen as a peripheral for a Braille display.  While being used in its internal mode, it allows a user to connect a computer mouse to help in selecting text, moving quickly through a document (using the scroll wheel similarly to how Freedom Scientific’s “Whiz Wheels” function,) and to make choices in the menus.  It’s an interesting idea which I like, but to be honest, I wouldn’t use it much because when I am using the display to simply read something, it mostly sits on my lap like a notetaker, and there’s no room for  a mouse in this context.  That being said, it’s clever, and it’s exciting to see the possibilities.  It’s a shame that a mouse cannot control the display when it’s connected to a PC because it would be great for moving through documents at a desk. 

While I am airing my wish list, I would like to mention two other hopes I have for the line in the future.  First, and most importantly, I like a larger display and don’t mind carrying a 40-cell device around, but I know a lot of people who would just drool over a device with the same high quality build, excellent price point, and smart features with an 18 or 20-cell display and smaller form factor.  Second, the display comes with a very serviceable carry bag, but I wish it was more of an always on case.  One of my favorite uses for it is to read on the go, and I feel unprotected with it just sitting on my lap without any protection. 

HIMS has provided nearly everything a user could want for getting started in the box with the Edge.  It comes with a power cord, USB cable, USB adaptor (for connecting a mouse), 2 GB SD card, and the leather (or faux leather, who can really tell these days?) carry bag.  It also comes with the manual in print, and on a CD which also is meant to carry any necessary drivers.

Due to an unfortunate production error, the CD shipped with our Braille Edge did not contain the JAWS driver for the device, and when I went to get it from the website, it wasn’t yet available online.  I called HIMS tech support, and they were able to e-mail me the driver without any problem.  This is an unfortunate oversight that I hope will be corrected quickly as it is the only hassle I really encountered in setting up the Edge to work with my computer. 

I want to preface this section by saying I love the device, and for the right type of user, it’s likely to be a perfect fit.  (I would consider myself the right type of user, by the way.)  That being said, I have to shake my finger at HIMS a little for falling into the same trap as has befallen other manufacturers recently.  The website and documentation once again claim support for iOS and Mac hardware, and due to some sort of hang-up on Apple’s part, its not there yet.  We all know its coming, and that when it gets here, the experience is likely to be fabulous, but until the display is able to work with these devices, it’s just better for the company to say that its not there yet as customers can be somewhat put off by getting a device and having to wait for weeks or months to use it the way they intended.

I have to mention two more unfortunate occurrences I also encountered with the Edge.  The first is squarely my own fault, and definitely makes me look a little silly, but I bet I won’t be the only notetaker user who does it.  If you turn the device off without saving your note file... it won’t auto-save like a notetaker does.  Enough said?  I feel sheepish, but when a device at least looks and acts like a notetaker, it’s easy to fall into old habits, and it’s just something that users of the device should be aware of.  The second occurrence, I still can’t say what happened, but for no reason I can fathom, it locked the keyboard one day.  It responded to use of the mouse, the Bluetooth switch, and the reset button, but I couldn’t write on the keyboard, use cursor routing keys, or any other navigational button on the top.  Eventually, right after I called up tech support (of course), it came out of it of its own accord.  Hasn’t done anything like it since, so I expect it’s just a fluke, but only fair to share the good, the bad, and the ugly, so there it is. 

Final verdict?  I love it.  I deeply wish that HIMS had waited to announce support for Apple till it was there, because it really can affect an organization’s credibility. As of late, this seems to be an unfortunate, and increasingly problematic issue for display manufacturers lately.  To be fair, it looks like it is largely caused by problems on Apple’s part, but its important for people to be aware of the limitation going in.  If you are looking for an iOS compatible device, you may want to wait and see what support is like when it’s available, but if that’s not your primary plan for using the display at $3000 it’s a good solid device, with a lot of really interesting hybrid features. Give it a look.