The Best of Both Worlds: The QBraille XL Almost Perfectly Blends a Braille Display and a USB Keyboard

A person's hands rest on a HIMS QBraille XL device.

The Best of Both Worlds: The QBraille XL Almost Perfectly Blends a Braille Display and a USB Keyboard

Have you ever found yourself struggling to remember the series of commands needed to perform a keyboard shortcut on your display? Have you ever needed to do a command that isn’t configured on your display? Have you found yourself switching back and forth between your computer keyboard and your display to accomplish your work? If so, then the QBraille XL from HIMS may just be the perfect device for you.

The QBraille XL is a forty-cell display that takes a standard Perkins-style Braille keyboard and adds all the function and navigation keys of a standard keyboard. The result is that you can type in Braille while being able to perform all the shortcuts and commands you’re used to with the standard keyboard keys. For example, control+f is done by holding the control key and pressing the dots for the letter f, and commands like control+tab or alt+f4 are done using the same keys you are used to. This is made possible by some software that makes the display appear to a connected device as both a Braille display and a regular USB or Bluetooth keyboard. Even if you haven’t configured the display with your screen reader, the navigation keys and computer Braille input will work perfectly, though you will not have Braille output. The QBraille also has a small suite of internal applications. I won’t be focusing too much time on these as they are very similar to those found on the Braille Edge. The only new internal application that the QBraille has is a DAISY reader for reading textbooks from services like Bookshare. The QBraille does not have speech built in so the DAISY reader is Braille only.

The Hardware

The edges of the QBraille are fairly clean, with the only thing on the left side being the power button, and the front and back edges completely empty aside from a small hard reset button near the right of the back edge. The right side has a USB C port for charging and connections over USB, and behind that an SD-card slot. A card must be installed for the notepad and DAISY reader to function. On the top front of the unit is a forty-cell display, with the standard panning and cursor routing keys that are common to all HIMS displays. Above the display is the keyboard. The main portion of the keyboard is a standard Perkins keyboard that any display user will be familiar with. On the same row as the spacebar are several keys. From left to right there is control, function, Windows, and alt. To the right of the spacebar are another alt, applications, and the right control key. On the far right are the arrow keys just as on a standard keyboard. Above the arrows is the standard six-pack of keys that you find on most keyboards. This is arranged in two columns of three keys with insert and delete on the top row, home and end below insert, and page up and down below the delete key. Above the Braille keys is a row containing escape on the far left, then the standard f1 through f12 keys. Below f1 are tab, caps lock, and shift. Below the escape key are the paring and mode buttons which have various functions when you’re connected to a device. The QBraille also comes with a protective case that looks fairly sturdy and fits the device very snugly.

The Software

The QBraille will take a little under thirty seconds to start up, and will display progress messages on the display. Once it starts, you will be at the main menu. The menu has several options: notepad, DAISY reader, applications, options, and information. The applications folder contains an alarm, clock, calculator, and calendar. As mentioned earlier, if you have used or read about the Braille Edge in the past, these will be quite familiar to you. You will first want to go into the options menu to set your preferred Braille language and grade, whether you want sounds to play, and other settings. Most of the QBraille’s magic happens in the connectivity mode. When you select connectivity from the main menu, you have a choice between USB, Bluetooth keyboard, or Bluetooth display. If you choose one of the Bluetooth options, you will be placed into pairing mode, then into terminal mode once a device is paired. If you select USB, you are directly placed in terminal mode. Once you have at least one connection, pressing the pairing button plus f1-f12 switches between Bluetooth connections, and pairing+escape switches to the USB connection. The QBraille supports up to six unique devices, with a display and keyboard connection for each, for a total of twelve Bluetooth connections plus a USB connection. All the major operating systems and screen readers are supported.

Using the QBraille with Other Devices

Setting Things Up

If you’re using a USB connection, the keyboard mode is active immediately. In this mode you can use all the standard function keys and type in Braille, but there will be no Braille output. In order to make things fully functional you will need to download the HIMS USB driver if you’re on Windows, and configure your screen reader to use the display. Once this is done you will automatically be put in hybrid mode. In this mode the display will output Braille normally and the keyboard will operate in the keyboard mode. To have the keyboard work through the normal Braille display drivers, press the mode button to turn hybrid mode off. To set up a Bluetooth device, you will first need to select Bluetooth display and pair it as you would any display, then select Bluetooth keyboard and pair that as well. Once this is done you will be in hybrid mode. Once you have at least one connection, you will need to use the pairing and function keys to switch to an empty slot to pair either a new display connection or a new keyboard connection. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a way to view a list of established connections, nor a way to clear one specific connection. During testing, one of the keyboard connections automatically connected to someone else’s Mac, and the only way I found to clear it was to reset all pairing information through the options mode.

Using the QBraille XL

Once you’re connected, you have two options for how to work with the display. If hybrid mode is off, the QBraille functions like any other display, using the command set in your screen reader of choice. However, if hybrid mode is on, all the function keys behave as they would on a regular keyboard, and Braille input works a little differently. Pressing the pairing and mode buttons together toggles between the various available input modes. For me, the choices are computer Braille, U.S. uncontracted, U.S. contracted, UEB uncontracted, and UEB contracted. For computer Braille, the keys are directly sent through to the device. For the others, the text is sent when the spacebar is pressed. This seems to work well and I haven’t experienced any issues with lag or missed characters when typing quickly into a document. This does have one drawback, specifically when using single letter navigation when browsing a web page. When entering a letter, such as h for heading, the QBraille will enter the word "have" if you’re in contracted mode, unless you use the letter sign. Even so, or if you’re in uncontracted mode, the space is still entered which can cause unwanted actions. The best thing I’ve found to do if you want to browse a web page in hybrid mode is to change the input mode to computer Braille. Then the letters behave exactly as desired. I also noticed an issue with hybrid mode on an iPhone, where using the Voiceover quicknav commands that require multiple arrow keys don’t work. The arrow keys simply get sent one right after the other. Another thing to be aware of is that performing some shortcuts requires a bit of hand gymnastics because of how the keys are placed. For example, doing insert+n to open the NVDA menu requires you to reach for the insert key with your pinky while pressing the Braille keys with the rest of your hand, which could be a problem for someone with small hands. I might try the Windows sticky keys feature in this circumstance. HIMS might also consider adding an on-device solution for this.

Final Thoughts

The QBraille XL is a solid device that makes using a computer much more pleasant to use. On mobile devices it also allows for the benefits of both a Braille display and a Bluetooth keyboard. The internal applications, while basic, provide a nice way to take some notes, read a book, or use the basic scheduler. The experience is not perfect as mentioned earlier, but the few caveats do little to mar what is overall an excellent device. Since it’s a forty-cell display with an expanded keyboard, some may consider it a bit too large for everyday carry outside of a laptop bag or briefcase, but given that its major draw appears to be for working with a computer I don’t see the size as a major concern. If you’re an office worker, or do any significant work on your computer, the QBraille XL is worth a serious look.

—Karl Belanger