The Hable One: A Quality Braille Keyboard for Your Smartphone
By Karl Belanger
The Orbit Writer came on the market in 2020 as an inexpensive Braille input keyboard for use with smartphones and computers. The Hable One is another Braille input keyboard, designed specifically for smartphones. Unlike the Orbit Writer, the Hable has keys arranged to make it easier to hold and type. If you have used Braille input on your phone in the screen away mode, the keyboard closely mimics that arrangement. The Hable is a solid little device that works well for both typing in Braille and controlling the phone. At $350 it’s a bit on the expensive side, but it certainly feels sturdy and may certainly be worth it if you do a lot of Braille input on the go.
Physical Description of the Hable One
When you receive your Hable, it comes with a USB C cable as well as a wrist strap. The Hable keyboard is rectangular and plastic. Hold the keyboard with the On/Off switch facing up and the keys pointed away from you. The bottom of the device has four rubber feet so it can be set on a table. The front edge contains the On/Off switch. The switch is a slider switch. Push it to the right to turn the device on, and it will spring back to the center. Pushing the switch left turns the device off, and it does not spring back. The back edge contains the USB C port for charging in the center, a small recessed Reset button to the right of it, and a lanyard attachment point near the right corner. The top face of the keyboard contains two columns of three keys, which are the Braille dots, and two larger keys, representing dots 7 and 8, to the outside of those columns. When you hold the device in your hand, your middle three fingers rest on Braille keys, and your thumb and pinky support the device. By default, dots 1 and 4 are closest to the On/Off switch, but this can be reversed if you desire.
Getting Started with the Hable
Push the On/Off switch to the right and the keyboard will turn on. This is represented by two short vibrations. The keyboard is now in pairing mode. Go to your phone’s Bluetooth settings and connect to the Hable One. After your device connects, the Hable will vibrate once, and you’re ready to start working with the phone. The Hable can remember five devices, and will always attempt to connect to the last used device first. If that device isn’t found, it will proceed down the list until it finds one. Unfortunately, there is not currently a way to switch between devices or specify a device to connect to. Additionally, the keyboard has an Android mode and an iOS mode. The first time you connect to a device the mode will be set automatically. If you pair with the other device type, you need to switch the mode manually. To switch modes, hold all six dots to enter the Hable menu, then hold dot 1 for Android or dot 2 for iOS. The Hable menu will be discussed later in this post.
Pressing any dot combination on the Hable types that dot combination. Issuing commands works one of two ways. Either you hold a dot combination, such as dots 1-2 for Back or dots 1-2-5 for Home, or you hold a key and press another key. To move to the next item (the flick right gesture), hold dot 7 and press dot 8 repeatedly. To move to the previous item (the flick left gesture), hold dot 8 and press dot 7 repeatedly. Similarly, to adjust the VoiceOver rotor in iOS, hold dot 7 and press dot 5-6, to move down the list, or hold dots 5-6 and press dot 7 to move back. This concept holds for any movement commands. For commands where you hold keys, the Hable will vibrate to let you know when you’ve held the keys long enough. You can change the hold duration in the Hable menu.
Using the Hable One
Once the keyboard is connected, pressing and holding the letter H for Home or B for Back until the device vibrates will get you out of the pairing menu. You can then navigate around your phone as you see fit. Holding dot 7 and pressing dot 8 repeatedly will move you through items on the screen, equivalent to flicking right. Holding dot 8 and repeatedly pressing dot 7 will move you back through items, equivalent to flicking left. To activate something you’ve landed on, press dots 7 and 8 together. On both Android and iOS, you can hold dot 7 and press dot 6 to simulate a flick down, and hold dot 6 and press dot 7 to simulate a flick up. Unfortunately, only iOS lets you adjust the rotor, called “reading controls” on Android, with holding dot 7 and pressing dots 5 and 6. This means that on Android, you need to reach over to the phone to change the reading control, and adjust the behavior of the flick up and down commands. In addition to the movement commands, there are many press and hold commands. As mentioned earlier, holding B goes back and H goes to the home screen. Holding M mutes Talkback or Voiceover, holding P plays or pauses media, and holding dots 2 and 3 open the app switcher. There are many other commands that you can find in the Hable manual. On iOS, you can do just about everything, including enabling screen curtain and adjusting the volume. Android has a few extra features like opening some apps directly, but these aren’t customizable, and some of the useful shortcuts that iOS has, like scrolling, are missing on Android, making the whole experience somewhat less efficient.
The Hable Menu
Holding all six keys opens the Hable menu. This menu allows you to change many settings of the Hable, as well as check battery status and clear the Bluetooth pairing. In each case, after holding all six dots, press and hold a dot combination. For example, hold dots 3 and 6 to check battery status, dot 1 for Android, dot 2 for iOS, or dots 1, 2, and 3 to adjust the hold time. If you want to change dot positions, hold down the letter X, dots 1-3-4-6. This will swap the positions of dots 1 and 3, and dots 4 and 6. After changing a setting, the Hable menu closes.
The Android App Menu
On Android only, holding dot 3 opens the App menu. From here you can hold different dot combinations to open commonly used apps. For example, you can hold dot 1 to open the calculator, dots 1 and 5 for Email, or dots 1, 3 and 4 for Maps. I wish there was a way to customize the apps or add your own, but as it is, this is a nice shortcut to apps which some may find useful.
Typing with the Hable One
Any time you enter a text field, you can start typing in Braille. Translation actually happens on the keyboard, rather than through Voiceover or Talkback. I can’t specifically speak to how well the Hable deals with all the translation rules, but I didn’t notice any glaring problems during my testing. When you type a number sign, the Hable vibrates twice quickly. Any number you type will be sent as a number, until you type another character or press Space. When the Hable leaves numbers mode, it does two slower vibrations. I have had no issues entering passwords or other alpha-numeric combinations with this device. Similarly, for capital letters, pressing dot 6 once will give a short vibration, and the next typed letter will be capitalized. Pressing it twice does a longer vibration, and everything is capitalized until you press Space, at which point it does two slow vibrations. Finally, pressing dot 6 three times acts as caps lock. The Hable does the longest vibration, and everything is capitalized from then on. To cancel this mode, press dot 6 then dot 3, and the Hable does three slow vibrations. While typing, it’s possible to move around by character or word, and dot 7 acts as Backspace and dot 8 as Space. Pressing dots 1+8 is Enter, and will send messages or activate other default buttons. Dots 2+8 will create a new line instead of activating a default button. Overall, typing with the Hable One works well and is very efficient.
The Bluetooth Pairing Issue
As of when this post was written, there is an issue when clearing Bluetooth pairings that can temporarily render the device useless. If you clear the Bluetooth records from the Hable, but it is still a valid device in your phone, it can result in the Hable failing to connect and shutting off. When the pairings are cleared in the Hable, a remnant of the connection info can be left on the device, resulting in it still seeing the phone as a valid target. However, since the info has mostly been deleted, the connection fails and the Hable shuts down after several attempts. To work around this issue, always make sure you clear the pairing from your phone, either before or after you delete it from the Hable.
My Impressions of the Hable One
I really like the Hable One. It feels sturdy, works well, and is easy to use. The navigation is intuitive once you get the hang of it, and typing is quick and fluid. Unfortunately, it’s not perfect, especially on Android. As mentioned previously, The Android interface is missing a lot of those quality of life shortcuts like scrolling and volume adjustment, which allow for full use of your phone without taking your hands off the keyboard. The biggest missing feature on Android is definitely the inability to adjust reading controls, as it makes navigating in a lot of areas less efficient. The Android app menu, while an interesting idea, is less useful than it could be as you can’t configure which apps open with the various options. For example, one of the options is for the calculator, which I never use on my phone. It would be nice to be able to swap it out with something I use regularly, like the Audible app.
With all these commands, the Hable One does have a decent learning curve. You’ll definitely find yourself referring back to the manual frequently while you get accustomed to the Hable. Personally, I found the hold one key and press another system the Hable uses fairly intuitive, and I suspect most people will pick it up fairly quickly.
Updating the Hable is another potential area of concern for some. Right now, the Hable can only be updated using a Windows computer. This will prevent many users from accessing the latest software features. An app would serve the Hable One very well here. The app could allow for updating the device over Bluetooth, as well as showing the battery life and customizing the Hable’s settings without requiring the Hable menu.
Hable One vs Orbit Writer
At the beginning of the post I referenced the Orbit Writer, the primary competitor to the Hable One as another Smartphone Braille keyboard. During testing, I have been considering several comparisons between the two devices.
The Orbit Reader is considerably cheaper than the Hable One, costing only $100 compared to the Hable’s $350.
Physical Layout and Build Quality
The Hable feels sturdier in the hand. It is clearly well built and should stand up to a lot of abuse. The Orbit reader feels somewhat more fragile. While it should be fine for general use, I’m less confident it would stand up over a longer period of time. The layout is also very different. The Orbit writer uses a standard Perkins layout, with the Spacebar plus dots 7 and 8 at the bottom, and the six dots across the top with a four-way Navigation button in the center. The Orbit Writer also uses Micro USB, where the Hable charges via USB C.
Both the Orbit Writer and Hable One have significant strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their software. The Hable One handles Braille translation directly, removing the potential for inconsistencies between platforms. It also has a number of shortcuts and commands that work on both Android and iOS. The Orbit uses the platform’s Braille Translation, so is limited to whatever commands that screen reader supports. On the other hand, the Orbit is more broadly compatible, being able to function as a standard keyboard using computer Braille. It also works via USB or Bluetooth with computers. The Hable currently only supports updating over USB, and only supports typing via Bluetooth on Windows. I would very much like to see the Hable One introduce wired support and Windows/Mac compatibility in a future update. This would greatly increase its reach and appeal. If the Hable One could function as a keyboard with desktop operating systems, and still provide contracted Braille input, that would be very powerful.
The Hable One is a solid device that does what it sets out to do quite well. The unit seems like it should hold up well, and the interface lets you do most things on a smartphone. There is definitely room for improvement on Android, and no real PCS support, but these issues can be improved with software updates. If you like the screen away mode of typing in Braille on your phone but want physical keys, or don’t find the Orbit Writer comfortable for typing on the go, definitely give the Hable One a look. The Hable One is available in the US through Florida Vision Technology, and you can find documentation at the main Hable One site.