Tech Review: The Chameleon 20 Braille Display from APH
The Chameleon 20 is one of two new Braille displays from the American Printing House for the Blind. The other is the Mantis Q40. Both of them share many of the same features, with the primary difference being the hardware. The Mantis Q40, reviewed previously on this blog, has a forty-cell display and a standard laptop keyboard. The Chameleon 20 has a twenty-cell display and a standard Perkins-style Braille keyboard. The Chameleon also comes with three different bumper cases and a carry case. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to tell the three bumpers (which are teal, pomegranate, and purple) apart as there is no tactile marking on the case. APH informed me that they attempted to add Braille labels, but they quickly fell off the case, and embossing the letters directly into the case would have delayed production significantly.
The Chameleon measures roughly 3.5 by 7 by 1 inches, and weighs just about a pound. The front edge of the device contains four thumb keys with a home button in the middle. If you’ve used other Humanware devices, they operate exactly the same. The keys on the far left and right move to the previous or next item, and the two closer to the middle pan the display left and right. The home button is used to go back to the menu from any application. The left edge contains a standard USB port near the front for connecting a flash drive, then the power button, and finally a USB C port for charging or connecting to another device. The only thing on the back edge, near the left side of the unit, is an SD-Card slot. The right edge has two volume buttons and an audio jack, which are not currently usable. According to APH, the Chameleon will eventually have full text-to-speech output, as well as the ability to play certain types of audio files and books, depending on what they are able to negotiate with providers. The top face has two spacebars at the front edge, with the twenty-cell display behind them. There are also cursor routing keys right behind each cell. Near the back edge is the eight-key Perkins style keyboard.
When you get your Chameleon you will likely want to plug it in to charge first. When it’s plugged in and turned off, the display shows “Charging.” If you press the power button briefly, the battery percent will be shown on the display also. The message changes to “Charge Complete” once the device is fully charged. Press and hold the power button for a few seconds to turn the unit on. The word “Starting” will be displayed, along with two dots moving in a circle as a progress indicator. After a few seconds the main menu will come up.
Using the Chameleon 20
The Chameleon has a number of apps including:
- Editor (for writing and reading text documents)
- Terminal (where you can connect the display to other devices via USB or Bluetooth)
- Library (shows all books you have either downloaded, copied to the device, or that are contained on inserted flash drives or SD cards)
- Calculator (a basic calculator)
- File Manager (create, delete, move, and copy files and folders)
- Date and Time (view and set the date and time)
- Settings (configure various settings and check for firmware updates)
- Online Services (download books from either Bookshare or NFB-NEWSLINE®)
From the main menu you can select any app by using the previous and next thumb keys or space+dot1 or space+dot4. Press enter on the app you want and it will open. At any time you can press enter+P to check the battery status, enter+T to check the time, or enter+D to check the date. You can also tap the power button to put the device to sleep. It goes to sleep and wakes up instantly. This makes jotting down a quick note in the editor very simple as you can just hit the button and you’ll be right where you left off. Type the note, press space+S to save, hit the power button, then continue on with your day.
The editor is the first app in the menu. It’s a basic editor, with standard copy, cut, and paste, as well as find and replace features, but not much else. You can type in the Braille code of your choice, and it will save properly as a text file. You can also use auto-scroll with space+dots1,2,4,5,6 to read through a document without pressing the panning buttons all the time. One other feature of the editor is read only mode, which is toggled with space+X. This lets you read through a document without worrying about accidentally changing anything.
The library app is where you can read any books you’ve downloaded from Bookshare or NFB-NEWSLINE. Book List displays all the books downloaded on the device. Here you can move books to or from external storage, if it is attached, or delete a book you’ve already read. The Recently Read option, as its name implies, lets you see the books you’ve read last. Lastly, you can search for a book in your library. Pressing enter on a book in any mode opens it in the book reader.
Reading a Book
The book reader displays the opened book, either Daisy or BRF. When reading a book, you can auto-scroll, set and jump to bookmarks, and move by various navigation elements. Press space+T to bring up a list of navigation types in the current book. After selecting one, use the previous and next thumb keys to move by the selected element. You can also go directly to a specific page, heading, or percent of the book.
One feature I’d like to see added is the ability to add notes to bookmarks. Since it’s not possible to type directly into a book, this would be a convenient way for students to reference specific points in a book they’re reading, and a good substitute for writing notes in the margins.
The file manager does just what you’d expect. You can view all the files and folders on your device and any connected storage. You can also cut, copy, move, rename, and delete files or folders. You can also create new folders from here. If you have a book on an SD card, attempting to copy it to the books folder on the device via the file manager will result in an error. You must use the copy feature in the library to move a book.
If you plug the Chameleon into a computer, it will show up as a disk drive, and you can move files to or from the device as you wish.
The calculator is a basic calculator. You can do the four basic math operations, as well as exponents, square roots, percents, and factorials. All commands must either be entered in computer Braille or selected from the context menu.
Date and Time
The date and time app simply displays the time and date. You can change the time date, daylight savings time setting, and time format through the context menu. The app does not have any capability for alarms or timers at this point.
User Guide and Power Off
The user guide is the next to last option in the menu and simply brings up the Chameleon’s manual in the book reader. The power off option brings up a prompt to shut down the device, with an Ok or Cancel button. You can also access this prompt by holding in the power button for a few seconds while the device is turned on.
Connecting to Other Devices
The terminal app is just below Editor in the main menu. When you open it you can select either USB or Bluetooth. If you select USB, the device simply displays Braille Display and you can connect to your screen reader of choice. Before you can select Bluetooth, you must choose the third option in the menu, labeled Add Bluetooth Device. This will turn Bluetooth on if it’s not already, and prompt you to locate the Chameleon in the host device’s settings. Then, pair the Chameleon as you would any other Braille display. Once you’ve paired a device, it will show up in the Bluetooth connections menu. Just press enter on the desired connection to connect. If you put the Chameleon to sleep, and it doesn’t reconnect to a Bluetooth device when you wake it back up, hit the Reconnect Devices option in the main terminal menu. The Chameleon will deactivate and reactivate Bluetooth, and your device should reconnect automatically.
Once the Chameleon is connected by either Bluetooth or USB, the Chameleon works like any other Braille display. As the Chameleon isn’t yet supported by Android devices, I primarily used it with my computer and NVDA. Everything worked well over both Bluetooth and USB. I browsed the web, and typed part of this post with the Chameleon with no issues.
In order to connect to NVDA, you will need to be running at least version 2020.1, and version 2020 for JAWS. To use the Chameleon with older versions, you will need to download a driver package from the APH site. There is currently a newer version of the JAWS driver which will be included in the next JAWS Update, or can be downloaded from the Chameleon page on the APH site.
This is where you can connect to either Bookshare or NFB-NEWSLINE to download books. In either case, you must be connected to Wi-Fi in settings. You will first be prompted for your username and password. Then, you can start browsing books.
Once you’re logged into Bookshare, you can browse by most popular, most recent, by category, or do a title, author, or keyword search. The last option lets you remove the account or select between Daisy or BRF. Once you get to a list of books, press enter on the one you want. The next screen shows you the title, author, and description, along with a download button. While the book is downloading, the word Loading is displayed, along with three periods that appear and disappear to indicate something is happening. I’d like to see this replaced with a progress indicator, especially for large books.
After logging into NFB-NEWSLINE, you will be presented with three options. Configure Account lets you remove the account, set the update frequency, and choose whether or not to keep outdated issues. Next is the Manage Publications section. Here, you will find a list of various categories, such as national newspapers and magazines, as well as newspapers from each state the service supports. Selecting an item from a category will add it to your subscriptions list, indicated by a line of dots 7 and 8 running below the name. Once you’ve made your selections, pressing Sync Content Now from the initial menu will download the latest issues of your publications. Again, there is no percentage indicator. This could be especially helpful here as large sync jobs can take a while. APH have indicated that a download manager is coming in a firmware update, which will include percentages of downloads.
The settings menu is where you can configure various options, connect to WiFi, set a Braille profile, and update the firmware. The User Settings section is where you can turn on Airplane mode, set the display time for messages, how long your device waits before going to sleep, and several notification options. Braille Profiles lets you set what Braille codes are used for input and output. You can have multiple profiles as you prefer. The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth sections let you add, remove, and configure networks and devices, respectively. Lastly, the About section shows the firmware version, serial number, and other information, and there is a Check for Updates option at the end. Checking for and downloading updates was very straightforward, although there was no way to get the progress of the download. Unfortunately, there is no battery status display in any of the menus, and while it can be checked with enter+P, this is nowhere other than the manual. The About menu would be a great place for this.
The Chameleon is a great device. It’s very small and portable, and the online functionality, while limited, does what its designed to do mostly well. As I mentioned, having more progress detail on large downloads, and handling large downloads would both make things a bit smoother. The editor is great for basic notes, and should work well for people on the go.
This device will likely be a great portable display for many users, not just students. When APH enables the audio jack, and depending on what it can do, the Chameleon 20 will only get more appealing. One aspect that I think a number of people will be looking forward to is the return of a simple note taker with full speech support.
From time to time I talk to people who are still making the older note takers, even sometimes as far back as the Braille N’ Speak, work for them because of the simplicity. They want the ability to turn it on, start typing, save a file such as a shopping or phone list, then turn it off again with minimal extra features. Some other displays have features like this, but they don’t have speech output. For some, such as beginning Braille readers, text-to-speech on a device can help supplement the Braille, or let them take a break from reading and just listen for a bit. Once the Chameleon gets full TTS capability, it will offer something that few if any devices have offered since the Braille Lite series: a simple, easy to use device for reading and writing files with minimal extra bells and whistles that has full support for both Braille and speech.