by Anne Taylor
From the Editor: Anne Taylor is a Computer Specialist who works in the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. Every so often the technology staff conducts a comparison of various kinds of access equipment in order to assist those considering purchasing such equipment. This time the equipment is Braille embossers. This is what Mrs. Taylor has to say:
It is safe to say that the Braille embossers (thirty-one of them) we display in the NFB's International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) are the most numerous and expensive access technology equipment we have in this comprehensive facility. As we all know, there is no such thing as a free lunch, especially in the access-technology market. The embosser prices range from $1,695 to $86,000 among thirty-one models (twenty-seven of which are currently used widely around the world). Many visitors come to us asking which embosser they should purchase. This article discusses the factors to be considered in making a wise decision. Our assessments of the various producers follow. At the end you will find a chart comparing embossing speeds.
Begin your search by making a wish list for an embosser, jotting down your actual needs:
* What is the volume of Braille you are going to produce, and how frequently are you going to use the embosser? The slowest embosser prints at approximately ten characters per second (CPS); the fastest embosser prints at approximately 800 CPS, and generally faster means more expensive. Why pay thousands of additional dollars for an embosser that can print at a higher speed than you need?
* Embossing Braille is a very active mechanical process which often creates a lot of noise. Is the noise going to be a problem in the environment in which the embosser will operate? Will you need to buy a soundproof case too?
* How will this embosser be used? Bearing in mind that embossers weigh from twelve to more than three hundred pounds, how often will you need to move it between home and school or back and forth to an office? Should it be portable or stationary, come with its own sturdy carrying case, or need no more than a dust cover?
* Who will be reading the Braille material? If he or she is a fluent Braille reader, the quality of the Braille produced is crucial. The embosser must produce dots of a height that will be easy to read. Some do this better than others. To save expense on costly Braille paper, many prefer embossers that produce interpoint Braille (Braille on both sides of the page). Because it is difficult for sighted teachers or transcribers to sight-read interpoint Braille, you may decide the best embosser is one that can print both single-sided and interpoint Braille.
* How hard is it to get a customer service representative on the phone? How difficult is it to obtain parts or the services of a repairman if your expensive machine breaks down? Keep in mind that the larger embossers need periodic preventive maintenance from a trained technician, and many popular, large-capacity Braille embossers are not manufactured in this country. What is the company's track record for customer service?
* How fast is it really? To go beyond the facts published by one individual company, where can you get an unbiased comparison of all the embossers that interest you? Yes, right here in this article from the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind.
Let's talk a bit about the suppliers of Braille embossers and mention some factors which distinguish their embossers from the competition. Enabling Technologies Company, of Jensen Beach, Florida, is the most widely known supplier of Braille embossers sold in the United States. Having been in business for about fifteen years, this company sells embossers ranging in price from $2,195 to $33,000. However, the most widely sold are in two series: the Romeos and the Juliets. In our experience these embossers have a strong track record for reliability. Another good point is that all of their embossers have very similar configuration menus. Once you've learned to operate one of their embossers, you are likely to learn very quickly how to run any of their other embossers.
On the other hand, Enabling Technologies' embossers are probably more suitable for tech-savvy users. The biggest problem is that the embosser configuration menus are governed by entering sequences of numbers on a telephone-like keypad. This system requires the user either to have an excellent memory or to have the user's manual handy at all times. As for turn-around time on customer service, no expert in the Enabling technical support department will take calls directly to deal with an immediate problem. Instead callers are instructed to leave a message on the company's voicemail. We can report that the technical support staff has been prompt in returning calls.
Sighted Electronics, in Westwood, New Jersey, is rapidly gaining a bigger share of the embosser market. A major importer of Braille embossers from Europe, its product lines include the Thiel Braille embossers from Germany and Index Braille embossers from Sweden. Both brands are widely used here and in Europe. We found that some Index embossers can occasionally be temperamental, especially the Index Everest and Index 4x4 Pro, both of which tend to jam when the print job is lengthy. However, this line of embossers has spoken menus, which are easy to follow, and the embossers have buttons labeled in both print and Braille. Because of this, users can configure the embosser quickly. Only two Thiel embossers, the Impacto and the Porta-Thiel, are sold in this country. Neither is prone to breakdowns. We appreciate the fact that, when one calls the Sighted Electronics technical support department, usually a live human being answers the phone.
Freedom Scientific, Blind/Low Vision Group, of St. Petersburg, Florida, sells the Braille Blazer, the Braille Inferno, and the VersaPoint Duo. This last is made by Enabling Technologies Company, therefore its shape, size, and reliability are similar to those of Enabling's other embossers. Both the Braille Blazer and the Braille Inferno are lightweight embossers equipped with a spoken menu and are not suitable for large Braille-production jobs. As with any other big company's technical support line today, customers have to get through the telephone menu and may be on hold for a while before the call is answered. Also the voice menu often directs callers to a different, toll phone number for specific-product technical support. Patient customers do get the help they need.
American Thermoform Corporation of La Verne, California, imports Braillo embossers from Norway. Agencies producing Braille books or magazines often buy a Braillo because it has a well-deserved reputation for trouble-free bulk production. However, if you have a breakdown or it's time to replace a part, start hoping that the part is in stock in California because you will wait at least a week to get back in production if the replacement part must come through customs from Norway. Additionally, a blind user cannot operate the Braillo independently since it has no voice output, only menu options shown on the LCD screen. American Thermoform does have a toll-free number and is good at giving directions over the phone for repairs that can be done in-house.
N. V. Interpoint is located in Leuven-Heverlee, Belgium, and manufactures one of the fastest Braille embossers today, the Interpoint 55. According to the manufacturer, it can emboss at the rate of 800 CPS. The NFB uses this machine every year to produce the menus and other documents used at our National Convention, and it is the IBTC staff's machine of choice whenever we have a large job to Braille. It embosses interpoint Braille, then cuts magazine-format sheets (two or four pages per sheet) from the roll. As the embosser prints, it generates lines on the sheets to pre-score the finished pages for binding or stapling. With simple manipulation of the menu parameters in the Print 55 software, the user can choose to emboss either single-sided or interpoint Braille on individually-cut pages.
Both costly and versatile, this embosser has proven to be quite reliable (which is a good thing because the only trained repairman, the company owner and product's inventor, is in Belgium and best contacted by e-mail or faxed message). We admire engineering professor Guido Francois, the inventor, for his dedication to his craft. He will do his best to get your machine up and running again. Additional points, possibly drawbacks, are that users cannot program the Interpoint 55 to print directly from Duxbury; it won't run without software for the printer (the Print 55), which is DOS-based. While the embosser is running, the user must make sure that the paper starts feeding perfectly and continue watching to restore order should pages flip over during the printing process; the huge roll of paper is very heavy and very difficult to load. Only a strong person can load the roll into its cradle while making the necessary connections.
HumanWare, Incorporated, of Loomis, California, is a supplier for the Paragon embosser, which is often described as a more expensive clone of the Thomas, sold by Enabling Technologies. Thus far, we have not had occasion to call technical support for this embosser. However, company technical support has been helpful whenever we have called the toll-free number about other products HumanWare carries.
ViewPlus Technologies, based in Corvallis, Oregon, focuses on Braille graphics. It is the inventor and supplier of the Tiger Advantage, an embosser which produces tactile graphs, charts, maps, pictures, and so on at twenty dots per inch on tractor-feed Braille paper. Because the Tiger Advantage embosser comes equipped with printer-driver software that interfaces with Windows, the user may print directly to the embosser from any application. Tiger Advantage also has its own translation software; it will not print directly from Duxbury. Because its small buffer would not be suitable for holding more than about fifty Braille pages of text at a time, it is more suitable for graphics than for text. The Tiger Advantage is one of the quietest printers available, and the Braille quality is up to an acceptable standard if the punch-force level is set to seven or greater. ViewPlus Technologies has a knowledgeable and friendly technical support department.
IBTC Testing Procedure
We used the same test file first used by David Andrews, past director of the IBTC, for his study, "How Fast Is It Really?" published in the November 1996 Braille Monitor. Since then several newer embossers have been added, and some, which can no longer be purchased, have been removed. Our new data below will show any differences between our results and those currently published by the manufacturers. Manufacturers produce test results based on uniform lines of Braille across a page (commonly all words of equal length and all lines of equal length). In contrast, our testing procedure mimicked a real-life printing job. We believe that our results are better indicators of the true capacity of the embossers we tested.
The test file was translated into Grade II Braille. To simulate a real-life print job, we made sure to use a test file containing various formats, such as straight text, centered and right-justified lines, regular and hanging paragraphs, two columns, lines of dots, table-of-contents guide dots, Braille and print page numbering, full and partially blank pages, and more.
We also used standard embosser setup parameters that have been widely adopted by Braille producers throughout this country. For the embossers that can handle 11.5-by-11-inch paper and can print up to forty-four characters per line on twenty-seven lines per page, we programmed the embossers to print forty characters per line on twenty-five lines per page. However, not all embossers can accommodate that wide a page. For embossers that can handle only 8.5-by-11-inch paper and print up to thirty-four characters per line, we programmed the embossers to print thirty-two characters per line on twenty-five lines per page. For each embosser the timer started at the same instant as the enter key was pressed. The timer was stopped promptly when each embosser ceased embossing.
Reading the Chart
Now we can get to the heart of the matter. The test results are alphabetical by name of embosser. Data are separated by semicolons and listed in this order: name of embosser, manufacturer's rated speed, IBTC's rated speed (both figures given in characters per second, CPS), percent of variance, and price of the embosser. The percent of variance was found by calculating the difference between an IBTC test score and a manufacture's stated claim. For example, in the first case the variance is 47 percent, which means that our test showed this embosser was 47 percent slower than the manufacturer said it would be. (In our view a variance of plus or minus 5 percent is insignificant.)
Chart of Embosser Speeds as of August, 2001
KEY: Name of embosser; Manufacturer; IBTC; Variance; Price
Braille Blazer: 15 CPS; 8.0 CPS; 47%; $1,695.
Braille BookMaker: 80 CPS; 59.9 CPS; 25%; $8,995.
Braillo 200: 200 CPS; 200.6 CPS; 0%; $37,995.
Braillo 400S: 400 CPS; 274.4 CPS; 31%; $77,995.
Braillo 400SR: See note 1
Braille Express: 150 CPS; 109.0 CPS; 27%; $15,995.
Braille Express 100; 100 CPS; 78.6 CPS; 21%; $10,500.
Braille Inferno: 50 CPS; 34.5 CPS; 31%; $2,795.
ET Braille Printer: See note 1
Impacto 600: 850 pages per hour; 536.36 pages per hour; 148.99 CPS; 37%; $32,000.
Index Basic D: 100 CPS; 72.5 CPS; 27%; $3,195.
Index Basic S: 50 CPS; 28.5 CPS; 43%; $2,495.
Index Everest: 91 CPS; 67.15 CPS; 26%; $3,695.
Index 4x4 Pro: 91 CPS; 62.2 CPS; 32%; $6,260.
Interpoint 55: See note 1
Juliet: 40 CPS; 33.5 CPS; 16%; $3,795.
Juliet Pro: 40 CPS; 24.5 CPS; 42%; $4,095.
Juliet Pro 60: 60 CPS; 37.5 CPS; 37%; $4,095.
Marathon: 200 CPS; 167 CPS; 17%; $14,995.
Paragon: 40 CPS; 27.2 CPS; 32%; $3,409.
Porta-Thiel: 10 CPS; 7.8 CPS; 22%; $1,895.
Porta-Thiel Interpoint: 10 CPS; 8.3 CPS; 17%; $2,835.
Romeo RB25: 25 CPS; 23.8 CPS; 5%; $2,195.
Romeo Pro 50: 50 CPS; 35.9 CPS; 28%; $2,895.
Thomas: 40 CPS; 37.0 CPS; 8%; $3,295.
Tiger Advantage (file contains text only): 35 CPS; 30.4 CPS; 13%; $9,750.
Versa Point Duo: 60 CPS; 40.6 CPS; 32%; $3,995.
* Note 1: Due to repair and maintenance needs, we were not able to test three embossers before the deadline for this article. The test results for Interpoint 55, Braillo 400SR, and ET Braille Printer, will be provided upon request.
In all but one case our results varied from those of the manufacturer. We encourage customers to use our results as supplemental data to assist in the purchase of a Braille embosser. However, always look at the big picture, not just price and speed, to decide on your best choice of embosser. In addition to what we have mentioned, consider the quality of Braille produced, the ease of use, the clarity of the manual, the reputation of the manufacturer and dealer, and the reliability of product or technical support and customer service. This should help you to ensure that your chosen embosser is right for you. The staff of the International Braille and Technology Center will be happy to help you as you consider your options. We prefer contacts by e-mail to <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or by telephone to the technology access line, (410) 659-9314, option 5, on business days, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time.