The BrailleSense 6: Better, Faster, Familiar
by Karl Belanger
The BrailleSense 6 is the latest in the BrailleSense line of notetakers from HIMS. The unit is an upgrade from the BrailleSense Polaris, and shares a very similar look and feel. The 6 now runs on Android 10, has an Octa-core processor 6GB of Ram, Bluetooth 5.1, and now has multiple USB C ports. If you have used any BrailleSense model over the years, the interface will be very familiar, and if you used the Polaris, the Android implementation will be just about the same, only supporting more apps due to the updated version of Android. Some have expressed concerns about a new device launching with a version of Android that is already two years old. While this concern is not entirely unfounded, with how fragmented Android is, and the number of devices running older versions of Android still on the market, the impact should be fairly minimal.
The BrailleSense 6 shares many physical characteristics with the BrailleSense Polaris. The top of the unit contains the Perkins keyboard with Control and Alt on either side of the spacebar, F1 and F2 to the far left, and F3 and F4 to the far right. The function keys previously were much lower to the case and were very distinguishable from the other keys. On this unit, the function keys look much more similar to the Control and Alt keys, making it harder to tell them apart. In front of the keyboard is the braille display with the usual two panning buttons on either end and the cursor routing buttons above each cell. Behind the keyboard are the two speakers with an LCD screen in the middle. The left side of the unit has the volume buttons closest to the front, followed by the headphone and microphone jacks, which have the Braille letter H and M above them to distinguish each jack, and an SD-Card slot. The only thing on the back is a standard USB port a couple inches in from the left side. The right side has another standard USB port in the middle, with two USB C ports, one on either side. The one toward the back of the unit is intended for charging the unit and connecting to computers and has a Braille P embossed above it, while the one toward the front, labeled with a Braille V, is used for video out and connecting to other accessories. The front panel, from left to right, contains the slider switch for key lock, then the mode switch for the media keys, followed by the media keys themselves, and lastly the power button. The bottom of the unit has the serial number in print and Braille near the front edge, then the battery taking up a large portion of the back half of the bottom, and the camera to the right of the battery. The case, just like the one for the Polaris, snaps over the unit. Most of both sides are cut out, exposing the USB and other ports. There is also a cutout on the bottom for the camera. The cover folds over from the back and attaches magnetically, and there are two metal rings on the front corners to attach the shoulder strap.
Once you turn on the unit by pressing the power button for a couple seconds, the BrailleSense goes through a boot sequence, then comes up to the main menu. As mentioned earlier, the main menu will instantly be familiar to any user of a previous BrailleSense product. The BrailleSense series also stays very close to the common Braille display commands, with Space+Dot1 and Space+Dot4 to move up and down the menu or a document, Space+Dot4,5 for Tab and Space+Dot1,2 for Shift+Tab. Space+E functions like Escape, and Space+Z functions similarly to Alt+F4. This will make it easy for users of other displays to pick up and use the BrailleSense with a minimal learning curve. The File Manager is the first item in the main menu, then Word Processor and Notepad, then the other options that are traditionally on the BrailleSense menu. The Play Store is near the bottom of the menu, as well as an all apps menu, which displays all installed Android apps.
Factory Resetting the BrailleSense 6
If you need to wipe the unit for any reason, you can use the Android Backup and Reset option from the BrailleSense settings. Once the unit has been reset, it brings up the Android setup screens. While these are accessible, if a user is buying a unit second hand, and is not familiar with how the BrailleSense handles Android applications, they may have some difficulties. It may be worth putting in a brief tutorial that discusses Android navigation at the start of this process.
The File manager lets you access the internal storage, called the Flashdisk, as well as any USB drives or SD cards you have inserted. It is also possible to connect your Google Drive account and manage files from there like any other drive. All the expected file operations are there, including copying and moving files and folders, opening files in specific programs, and more.
Word Processor and Notepad
The BrailleSense contains two similar programs for writing documents, Word Processor and Notepad. The Word Processor is designed for handling more complex documents, and can open Word, PDF and PowerPoint files. The Notepad, in contrast, is designed for text files and handles TXT and Braille files. It lacks many of the formatting options that the Word Processor has, and is intended for creating .brf files for embossing and documents without much formatting. Unfortunately, this is not entirely clear unless you take the time to look at the different settings, and may confuse some users. While you cannot save in all formats in both programs, both will open most file types. This could potentially result in issues if, for example, a user opens a heavily formatted document in the notepad, makes an edit, and saves the document. They will lose some of the formatting, requiring more editing later.
Introduced with the Polaris, the math application allows for writing equations in Nemeth or UEB math. You can then graph the equation, and insert it into the Word processor for doing math assignments or technical documents. You can also enter math mode directly from the word processor, type your equation and have it inserted directly. Despite the limitations of the single line display, the math app does an excellent job of conveying the shape of the graph. Students at all levels of math should find this utility very useful.
Other Internal Programs
Just as on previous BrailleSense models, the expected programs are all here. Email, web browser, Google search, Daisy player, FM radio, address manager, and more all make their appearance. Most of the programs are relatively unchanged, whith a few exceptions. Email now handles exchange accounts without needing a separate app, the Dictionary app is now included, and the Bible app is now ffreely downloadable. There is also now a dedicated Bookshare downloader, a document reader and a podcasts app. If you are familiar with any of these on previous models, you will be instantly comfortable with them on the BrailleSense 6.
One of the biggest changes on the BrailleSense 6 is that it is now running Android 10 instead of Android 5 on the Polaris. This means that many more apps are compatible this time, and things generally run much more smoothly. Whether watching Youtube, reading books, or playing games, the Android performance on the BrailleSense 6 handled it well. There are just a couple areas where things could be improved. First, when focused on changing content such as a download progress, video timer, or a resource counter in a game, the content doesn’t automatically update on the Braille display. It would be nice if the Braille display could keep current, just as in the clock and other internal programs on the BrailleSense. Second, while it is possible to disable the mobile screen reader for self-voicing applications, there is no actual way to control the application unless you attach an external keyboard or other device. Once you do, it’s possible to use those applications, including fairly demanding games, with no issue. It would be nice to have the keyboard work for at least computer Braille and basic navigation when the screen reader is off. The app keys could also function as up, down, right, left, and Enter, to help enable self-voicing apps.
Using External Accessories with the BrailleSense 6
The BrailleSense 6 works with a variety of accessories. As long as it works with a modern Android device, it will likely work with the BrailleSense. While we did not have many devices to test with, HIMS has produced videos demonstrating USB C accessories. We did test with a Logitech wireless keyboard and the BrailleSense recognized the USB receiver immediately. The unit also works well with Bluetooth headsets, which can be paired through the Bluetooth manager in the settings menu.
The BrailleSense 6 is a very capable device for any blind student or professional who wants an all-in-one device for productivity and gaming. While a Braille display and a smartphone is still the cheaper option by a good margin, there is definitely something to be said for the convenience of everything in one device designed for accessibility. While it is slightly concerning that the BrailleSense launched with a version of Android that is already nominally out of date, the impact is very minor, and HIMS has stated that they will update the version of Android in the future. If you’re a current Polaris user, the BrailleSense 6 is worth the upgrade for the significantly improved performance and app compatibility.