Braille Monitor                                                 June 2012

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Braille Notetakers—Determining Your Perfect Fit

by Amy Mason

Amy Mason holding an Apex BT 32From the Editor: Amy Mason is an access technology specialist in the Jernigan Institute’s International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. As readers know, Amy does thorough product evaluations, and, given the changes in technology, this article couldn’t be more timely. Here is what she has to say:

So many options, so many features, so much money…. When choosing any piece of technology, we have a lot of options to weigh and a lot of information to consider, and with notetaker prices ranging from slightly less than $1,000 to nearly $7,500, a lot of factors must be considered. Do I want Braille, or just voice; QWERTY, or Perkins-style keyboard; what file formats will I need to open; do I care about accessing the Internet on the device; do I want to get my email on the device; will I want to play music, books, podcasts, and even FM radio; what about reading documents written using PDF; how many cells do I need under my fingertips: eighteen, twenty, thirty-two, or forty cells of Braille? How portable does the notetaker have to be? Can I connect it to my iPhone? How much storage does it have, and how does that storage translate to the number of documents, songs, and lectures I can get on the unit? It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin and long for the simpler days of the Braille ’n Speak, or perhaps even the slate and stylus.

Before we get started describing specific models and options, let’s take a minute to look at what a notetaker is and what it is not--at what it can and should do for you and where you are likely to have to find another computing option. Dedicated Braille notetakers are intended to be the equivalent of the PDA (personal data assistant) or perhaps the smart phone (without the phone capabilities). All current models allow the user to read and write files in a number of formats, keep track of contacts and appointments, do calculations, listen to media files, handle email, create voice memos, and do extremely basic Web browsing. Some offer database creation capabilities, FM radio, games, GPS functionality (usually at an additional cost), and access to social networks.

Notetakers cannot take the place of computers in most users’ lives, though they can be fantastic supplements. Computers are far more powerful and flexible than any notetaker can ever be. For instance, notetakers may allow users to open several different file types, but they do not allow a user to format text with different fonts, bold, italics, or bullets, or engage in any other advanced word processing. Computers are upgradeable and can be used for tasks that require too much power to be handled by notetakers—such as audio editing, scanning and recognizing print documents, and storing large quantities of data. In contrast, notetakers are generally closed platforms, so what you see is what you get; there is little if any possibility for the expansion of the software and capabilities of the device.

In the same vein, notetaker hardware is generally behind mainstream hardware in connectivity and interoperability with other devices. Internet browsing is limited to the type found in cell phones and is not nearly as robust as even the browser in the iPhone or Android handsets. Because of these limitations and the extremely high cost of this specialized hardware, some blind people are abandoning notetakers in favor of laptops and even iOS devices, with or without a portable Braille display.

Notetakers most certainly have a place since they have some unique advantages over other solutions. First of all, they are built to be convenient. Unlike a Braille display and iOS device or laptop, they are one single, portable unit. Their battery life is generally far superior to those of laptops or iOS devices. They are simple to use and allow for an instant-on experience. Second, they are the primary option available for people who want to read and write electronically in Braille. Notetakers generally have better Perkins keyboards than do Braille displays that allow users to write in six- or eight-dot Braille; and most back-translation-via-screen-access software, including what is available on iOS devices, introduces some level of added complexity to the process of typing Braille.

Having outlined some of the major advantages and disadvantages of notetakers over mainstream solutions, let’s compare and contrast the four families of notetakers available now.

Notetaker Family Comparison

Note: Some characteristics vary widely from one notetaker to another in the same family. Please see comparison charts within each section for more complete details.

Physical and Hardware Comparison

 

BrailleNote

Braille Sense

PAC Mate

Pronto!

Manufacturer

HumanWare

HIMS

Freedom Scientific

BAUM Retec

Operating System

Windows CE 6.0 with custom firmware (Keysoft)

Windows CE 5.0 with custom firmware

Windows Mobile 6 with Pocket JAWS screen access package and custom firmware

Windows CE 5.0 with custom firmware

Dimensions

0.78 x 9.61 x 5.63 in.

Model specific

Model specific (See note in PAC Mate Section)

Model specific

Weight

Model specific

Model specific

4 lbs. 3 oz. with display / 1 lb. 13 oz. without display

Model specific

Processor

Freescale iMX31 @ 532 MHz

Model specific

Intel X-Scale PXA255 @ 400 MHz

Unspecified mobile processor @ 520 MHz

Memory

256 MB SDRAM

Model dependent

128 MB ROM/ 64 MB RAM

128 MB RAM/ 64 MB Flash

On-board Storage

8 GB Flash

Model dependent

128 MB Flash

1 GB Flash

Keyboard Style

QWERTY or Perkins

QWERTY or Perkins

QWERTY or Perkins

QWERTY or Perkins (40-cell interchangeable)

Battery

Lithium-ion (user-replaceable)

Lithium-ion (user-replaceable)

Lithium-ion (not user-replaceable)

Lithium-ion (not user-replaceable)

Number of Braille Cells

0, 18, or 32

0, 18, or 32

0, 20, or 40

0, 18, or 40

Internet Connectivity

802.11 B/G Wi-Fi (WEP, WPA and WPA2 authentication supported) Ethernet 10/100

Model dependent
-- although, at minimum, all models offer WEP/WPA/WPA2 authenticated 802.11 B/G

Via Compact Flash add-in cards -- Ethernet, Dial-up or Wireless (802.11 B/G WEP/WPA encryption)

WLAN 802.11 G-authenticated via WEP/WPA/ WPA2

Storage Card Compatibility

SDHC

Model dependent

2 Compact Flash slots (Can accommodate a number of CF adaptors for other peripherals)

SDHC

Bluetooth

Yes

Yes

Via Compact Flash add-in card

Yes

Ports

3 USB hosts, 1 USB client, headphones/ microphone, VGA port

Model dependent

Infrared, USB OTG, headphone/ microphone

Serial, USB (One host, one mini client), headphone/ microphone

Navigation and Environmental Sensors

External Bluetooth GPS

Model dependent

External Bluetooth GPS

Compass, thermometer, barometer

Printer Support

Large list of HP printers, some Epson, Canon, and others

HP (Level 3 PCL) HP compatible

HP printers with “e-print” (Also possible via ActiveSync)

Not supported

Braille Embosser Support

Several models from Enabling Technologies, Index, and Tiger

Several models from Enabling Technologies, Index, and Tiger

Most major models supported

Not supported

Visual Display Support

External via PC software or VGA port

Model dependent (For models without other support, external display available at extra cost)

Via software with a PC

External display available at extra cost

Software Capabilities

Please note that, when discussing supported file types, notetakers are unable to open many files protected with DRM including M4A, WMA, EPUB, PDF, etc. Also files with supported DRM such as NLS, Learning Ally, and Audible books require having appropriate keys installed on the device before they will function.

 

BrailleNote

Braille Sense

PAC Mate

Pronto!

File Security

Device-level encryption and password protection

Please see Braille Sense section for details

Password protection of the device and encryption of storage cards

ZIP encryption support, but not on individual files or storage media

Language Support

Several languages can be enabled at a time, but English will remain the system language.
French, German, Italian, and Spanish are also supported.

Bilingual English and Spanish
(see Braille Sense section for more details)

2 concurrent languages (English +1)
Braille: Danish, Dutch, English, French (Canadian), French (European), German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish.
 
Speech limited to installed voices (RealSpeak Solo or Eloquence)

Can switch among 3:
U.S. English firmware ships with English and Spanish voice options, but others can be installed.

Braille tables include Arabic, Croatian, Danish, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Kurdish, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish

External Braille Display for…

JAWS
NVDA VoiceOver
 (Mac) VoiceOver
 (iOS)
Window-Eyes

JAWS
NVDA (via
 BRLTTY) VoiceOver
 (Mac) VoiceOver
 (iOS)
Window-Eyes

(See Braille Sense section for more details.)

JAWS
NVDA VoiceOver
 (Mac)
Window-Eyes

JAWS VoiceOver
 (iOS)
Window-Eyes

Document File Support

BRF, KeySoft Braille and text documents, RTF, TXT, Word Doc 2003 or earlier, WordPerfect for Dos 5.1. (All above are Read/Write)
-----
JPEG (can save files in this format), PDF (Read Only)

BRF, DOC and DOCX, EPUB, HBL (HIMS proprietary format), PDF, PWD (Pocket Word), RTF, TXT
-----
(PDF and EPUB must be saved in a different format. RTF and Word documents will lose formatting upon save.)

BRF, FSEdit, Microsoft Office Mobile applications (PowerPoint is read-only; Word and Excel files (including 2007) will be converted to work from standard), PDF, RTF, TXT

BRF, PDF (Read-Only)
-----
RTF and TXT (Read and Write)

Audio File Playback Support

AIF, AIFC, AIFF, ASX, AU, M3U, M4A, MP3, SND, WAV, WAX, WMA, WMV, WMX, WVX
-----
Internet radio streaming (PLS) and FM radio also available

AC3, ASF, ASX, FLAC, M3U, MP2, MP3, OGG, WAV, WAX, WMA, WMV
-----
Internet radio streaming (PLS) and FM radio also available

ASF, MP3, WAV, WMA, WMP, and Internet streaming

M3U, MP3, WAV, WMA and Internet streaming

Audio Recording File Support

Customizable WAV file

MP3 or WAV

Customizable WAV file

MP3 (maximum default recording time 10 min.)

Book File Support

Audible 4 and enhanced, Bookshare, BRF, DAISY, Learning Ally, NIMAS, NLS

Audible 4 and enhanced, Bookshare, BRF, DAISY, EPUB, NLS

Audible 2 & 3, Bookshare, BRF, DAISY, Learning Ally, Net Library, OverDrive audio

Bookshare, BRF, DAISY

Supported Social Networking Services

Jabber (includes services like Google Talk, and iChat)

Google Chat (with voice and file attachments), Twitter, Windows Live

Windows Live (native)
-----
(IM protocols via 3rd party application “Mundu IM”): AOL, Google Talk, ICQ, Jabber, Yahoo

Windows Live

BrailleNote and VoiceNote
Differences Between Models

The BrailleNote/VoiceNote family of devices all come in both QWERTY and Perkins-style models with an otherwise identical body, so in the table below the QWERTY and Perkins form factors will be combined to ease readability.

 

VoiceNote

BrailleNote BT/QT 18

BrailleNote BT/QT 32

Weight

1.35 lbs.

1.6 lbs.

1.8 lbs.

# of Braille Cells

0

18

32

Price

$2,049

$4,529

$6,379

Product Overview

The BrailleNote and VoiceNote Apex are the latest models of the long-standing BrailleNote line of notetakers. They are based on a system of applications known as “KeySoft,” which have their own rich history in the market and are very popular and well-known devices. The BrailleNote line is a fairly long-standing and regularly updated product line, which gives it both advantages and disadvantages in comparison with other products in the market.

First let’s look at the good points. KeySoft and the BrailleNote have been around for a while, so they are well known and widely used in the community. If you have a problem, it is a distinct possibility that you can find another user who can help you, before you ever have to go to tech support. In the same way the onboard help system and other documentation is well written and logical. It has had a lot of time to mature, so there aren’t many surprises in the way the system is laid out. Another advantage of this device is that in the world of notetakers it is the simplest to learn and use for many consumers because of the very comprehensive context-sensitive help available at any point in this suite of programs. Furthermore, its functions are extremely consistent. Things work the same way from one program to the next with quite reliable functionality, which cannot always be said for the competition. It’s very popular in schools for a number of reasons, but one of the greatest is this consistency in its layout and functionality as well as its sheer longevity in the marketplace.

One of the BrailleNote’s standout features, which may not be recognized for its brilliance at first, is the book reader application. It allows a user to open a file for review and know that he or she won’t damage it. It almost always remembers the user’s place, and it allows a user to set options for reading the file that will stay with that file whenever it is opened in that application. It is that simple, which may not sound like much, but for serious readers or those who are often interrupted in their reading, it’s very convenient, and it’s pleasant to know that you will not come back to see surprises in your file because of unintentional key presses. The book reader is also the application used for reading DAISY books, and it allows a user to bookmark and even leave text notes in the book for later perusal. These features are useful for anyone, but students or others who are studying material for later examination will find it extremely useful.

The hardware is fairly competitive since it offers much of what users would expect in a modern mobile device. Wireless, Bluetooth, and compatibility with a fairly large number of third-party peripherals (keyboards, monitors for visual use, and storage cards) make it a fairly flexible device in spite of the fact that this class of devices is limited by its hardware and software.

Another feature which may be of interest to some users is that the BrailleNote offers a game application that allows users to play text-adventure games. It’s not strictly necessary, but games are certainly a nice touch, especially since notetakers are often used as much for entertainment as for educational or vocational pursuits.

Having looked at the advantages of the BrailleNote family of devices, it is time to turn our attention to some of the less positive aspects of the device. First, though the consistency of the brand is mostly positive, in one area it is less so. The BrailleNote devices are all the same shape and size. Therefore, if all you have is a BrailleNote 18, or even a VoiceNote, it will weigh nearly as much and be just as large as a 32-cell notetaker. A number of people are interested in the pocket-sized notetaker, but HumanWare does not offer anything to suit such a user. Another area where consistency can work against a BrailleNote user is that occasionally the global exit and help commands can override commands intended for the host device when the BrailleNote is being used as a Braille display. This is especially apparent in iOS devices. Next, the BrailleNote is not able to open .DOCX files. Since programs that create these files have been around for five years now, this is becoming an increasing problem for BrailleNote users. Finally, an important point to consider when purchasing a BrailleNote is the fact that as of now HumanWare is the only company still charging for software upgrades for its notetakers. This may change as the landscape shifts, but for now it is an important factor to consider. Having said this, students who need access to NIMAS files, those who wish to take notes on DAISY material, or those who have been using a BrailleNote product for a long time and who are happy with the features and functionality provided by the device will find the BrailleNote Apex a strong competitor for consideration as a new notetaker.

Final Thoughts

The BrailleNote line of devices can be loaded with a few specialty applications which will add some fairly powerful additional functionality to the device. These include the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, a Sendero GPS solution called BrailleNote GPS, and, most uniquely, a Nemeth Braille tutorial.

If you are interested in learning more about the BrailleNote line of notetakers, contact:

HumanWare USA, Inc.
1 UPS Way, P.O. Box 800
Champlain, NY 12919
Toll Free: (800) 722-3393
Email: <us.info@humanware.com>
Website: <www.humanware.com>

Braille Sense and Voice Sense
Differences Between Models

At the time of this writing the Braille Sense product line is undergoing an upgrade of the 32-cell devices. The Perkins-style U2 is already available, but the QWERTY style is not, so this table reflects the currently available models of the device and will likely be less accurate by the end of the year.

 

Voice Sense QWERTY

Voice Sense

Braille Sense OnHand

Braille Sense PLUS QWERTY

Braille Sense U2

Dimensions

8.6 x 4.4 x 0.8 in

7.4 x 3 x 0.9 in.

6.8 x 3.5 x 1.1 in.

9.8 x 5 x 1.5 in.

9.8 x 5 x 1.5 in.

Weight

0.9 lbs.

0.6 lbs.

0.9 lbs

2 lbs.

2 lbs.

Processor

Intel X-Scale PXA270 @ 520 MHz

Intel X-Scale PXA270 @ 520 MHz

Intel X-Scale PXA270 @ 520 MHz

Intel X-Scale PXA270 @ 520 MHz

Unspecified mobile processor @ 1 GHz

Memory

128 MB

128 MB

128 MB

128 MB

256 MB

On Board Storage

4 GB

1 GB

4 GB

8 GB

32 GB

Keyboard Style

QWERTY

Perkins

Perkins

QWERTY

Perkins

Number of Braille Cells

0 (Compatible with HIMS external Braille displays)

0 (Compatible with HIMS external Braille displays)

18

32

32

Internet Connectivity

Ethernet / 802.11
Wi-Fi B/G

 802.11
Wi-Fi B/G

802.11
Wi-Fi B/G

Ethernet/ 802.11
Wi-Fi B/G

Ethernet/ 802.11 Wi-Fi B/G/N/ Optional USB 3G modem

Storage Card Support

SDHC

SDHC/ Compact Flash

SDHC

SDHC/ Compact Flash

SDXC (backwards compatible with SDHC)

Ports

1 USB OTG 1 USB host headphone microphone

1 USB OTG headphone microphone

1 USB OTG headphone microphone

1 USB host 1 USB client headphone microphone

1 USB OTG 3 USB host headphone microphone

Navigation and Sensors

Bluetooth GPS (sold separately)

Bluetooth GPS (sold separately)

Internal GPS receiver

Bluetooth GPS (sold separately)

Internal GPS receiver

Visual Display

Internal LCD

External USB LCD (sold separately)

External USB LCD (sold separately)

External USB LCD (sold separately) / VGA Port

Internal LCD / VGA port

Price

$1,995

$1,995

$4,995

$5,995

$5,995

Product Overview

The Braille Sense line of notetakers has only begun to gain real traction in the United States in the last few years. They are manufactured in South Korea and were originally seen as devices with above-average hardware in comparison with the competition but somewhat clunky interfaces and poor documentation. As time has passed, however, the interfaces have largely improved, the hardware continues to improve, and the Braille Sense now offers some unique features which make it a legitimate competitor in the U.S. market.

The Braille Sense line includes a number of hardware configurations in order to meet different users’ needs. Therefore the hardware in this family of devices should be carefully compared to find the best fit, since it varies widely. The Voice Sense is an extremely small and light device. The Braille Sense PLUS and U2 lines are still quite portable (but somewhat larger because of the thirty-two-cell Braille display), while the OnHand is a smaller, eighteen-cell machine. Keep in mind some important differences when considering the options if you are interested in a Braille or Voice Sense. For example, the Voice Sense with the Perkins keyboard lacks internal storage in comparison to the other models, and only certain models offer the LCD display, which may be important to deaf-blind users or those in a training or teaching environment with a sighted instructor. Another unique hardware feature in the U2 and the upcoming U2 QWERTY which may be of interest to users is the ability to have system sounds muted in favor of a vibration feature. This is likely to make the device far more discreet, especially for those who already run the device with Braille only and will be a boon when a user is unable to listen to the device for whatever reason. The U2 and OnHand include embedded GPS, but all other models will require adding a Bluetooth peripheral if the user wants to use GPS. Most models make it simple to attach USB or Bluetooth keyboards if the user needs to use a QWERTY keyboard with the Perkins model devices, and they have a fairly wide level of support for NTFS- and FAT-formatted storage devices.

Software is a somewhat difficult topic to discuss at this time because in conjunction with the hardware refresh which is currently occurring, HIMS is preparing to launch version 7.0 of the firmware for the Sense line of devices. This changes the landscape in a number of ways, but, since the new firmware has not been available for testing and comparison, these features cannot be discussed in detail. They are expected to include IMAP mail, file encryption (per file), a Bookshare search-and-download application, and, most interestingly Google Maps integration. It is going to be very exciting to see how these features, particularly IMAP and Google Maps, will be integrated, because no other notetaker offers anything like them. Several commercial GPS solutions are presently available, but this will be the first time that a notetaker is pre-loaded with access to map information (though it will likely require an Internet connection for turn-by-turn and is very likely to require one to access the mapping feature). If the implementation is solid, it may well be a very powerful feature in the U2 line because a user could connect it to a 3G dongle and have both Internet and GPS anywhere without the added cost of a GPS application. It is not expected to be quite as full-featured as a solution like Sendero, but it may be all many people want or need.

Now that we’ve looked at what the future may hold, it is important to talk briefly about what the Braille Sense offers at present. One unique feature of the device is the ability to use it as a mass storage device. For those who aren’t worrying about syncing contacts or calendar information, it is not necessary to install ActiveSync or Mobile Device Center. Instead users can simply plug in and treat the device like a big thumb drive. Furthermore, it also supports file sharing with other computers connected to the local network.

Any device has downsides, and the Braille Sense line is not exempt from this truth. First, these devices are unable to read Learning Ally files, which would make them less ideal for some students. Language support is a good bit weaker at present than with other models, although this may be remedied in part by the upcoming firmware enhancement. Second, the settings in the word processor are not persistent unless the user sets them to apply to all files. In other words, if users set up an NLS Braille file for reading—setting the reading mode to compressed and the file to read-only—and then closed the file, the next time they opened it they would have to do the same thing again. The ability to keep a persistent set of settings on a per-file basis is something that other notetakers are capable of and would be a real boon for users of the Braille Sense as well. Finally, the manual and other documentation materials are not as clear and well written as are those of some of the competition. Although these documents have improved significantly over time, users will still have to work with a few rough patches to get a complete picture of what’s happening on the device. Finally, although it has worked with previous versions, it is important to add that the Sense devices, due to changes on Apple’s side, do not work with the most current iOS firmware (5.1). This problem should be remedied in future iterations of iOS.

Despite these flaws, all in all the Braille Sense family of products is pretty easy to recommend. With the ability to use the Braille display of the device with PC and Mac screen-access software, updates to both hardware and software coming fairly regularly, and enough options to meet most users’ needs, the Braille Sense family of products is comprised of sound machines that are likely to continue to improve.

Final Notes

HIMS offers some additional software packages for the Braille Sense line. They include the Sendero SenseNav GPS solution, which may or may not (depending on your model) require a separate Bluetooth GPS receiver to function fully. They also offer a single language or bilingual dictionary. Right now English and Spanish are supported, but with the upcoming 7.0 firmware French and Italian will also be available. Finally, HIMS offers a free program called SenseBible, which includes several versions of the Bible that allow the user to search or browse at his or her convenience.

For more information about the Braille Sense family of products or accessories for these devices, contact:

HIMS, Inc.
4616 W. Howard Lane
Suite 960
Austin, TX 78728
Toll-Free Phone: (888) 520-4467
Email: <sales@hims-inc.com>, <support@hims-inc.com>
Website: <http://www.hims-inc.com/>

PAC Mate Differences Between Models

The PAC Mate is built on a concept of modularity, so the table below represents the four modules available to create a PAC Mate. These consist of the notetaker itself, with either a QWERTY or Perkins keyboard, and a detachable Braille display with either twenty or forty Braille cells. At this time there is no price difference in buying the sections separately or together, so they will be listed separately below.

 

PAC Mate QX

PAC Mate BX

20-Cell Display

40-Cell Display

Weight

2 lbs.

1 lb. 13 oz.

1 lb. 12 oz.

2 lbs. 13 oz.

Dimensions

12.3 x 6.3 x 1.6 in.

11 x 4.9 x 1.9 in.

11 x 4.8 x 1.53 in.

12.5 x 4.8 x 1.53 in.

Keyboard

QWERTY

Perkins

n/a

n/a

# of Braille Cells

n/a

n/a

20

40

Price

$995

$995

$1,395

$2,695

Product Overview

The PAC Mate is unique among notetakers in the United States for a number of reasons. First, as mentioned above, it is based on the concept of modularity, so it is the closest to being an expandable platform. It uses Windows Mobile 6 as its base operating system, so any program that the user can find which is available for this platform and accessible with Pocket JAWS is available to install on the device. Users can also install drivers for certain hardware components if they wish to add them. Furthermore, it is loaded with mainstream Windows Mobile software, specifically Pocket Word, Excel, PowerPoint (read-only support), and Outlook, as well as specialty software created by Freedom Scientific. These features are unique. No other notetaker offers Excel or PowerPoint compatibility. The hardware was also built to be expandable. The basic unit can be purchased from Freedom Scientific, and, if desired, the Braille display can be purchased separately and physically connected to the device at a later time. This allows the display to be removed to lighten the load or to be used as an external USB Braille display with a computer. The display or the PAC Mate itself could even be sent in for repairs while leaving the remaining device in user hands. They could use their display with a laptop while the notetaker was in for repair or use the notetaker set to speech-only if the display were unavailable.

Another major feature that makes the PAC Mate an interesting choice is the option to have twenty- or forty-cell Braille displays as well as fairly rich embosser support. Since most Braille production is still done on pages that support forty characters across a line, it may be of benefit to transcribers who want to work on formatting of documents on the go and in fact could allow embossing simple jobs directly from the device. The PAC Mate is the only notetaker sporting this pair of features in the market at this time.

The final uniquely positive feature of the PAC Mate is the price. It is by far the least expensive notetaker on the market. The price of the hardware is directly affected by some of the limitations of the device, so it is important to look at the issues carefully before making any decision.

Speaking of limitations, the expandable nature of the PAC Mate is no longer such a benefit as it once was. The device itself has not had a hardware upgrade in years, and it is reliant upon extraordinarily outdated hardware, software, and peripherals. Ethernet, WIFI, and Bluetooth are all provided by expensive (and increasingly difficult to find) Compact Flash adaptor cards. The software is equally outdated. As previously mentioned, the PAC Mate is based on Windows Mobile 6, an operating system that is no longer supported by Microsoft and, more important, less and less supported by application developers. Several of the software packages that once made the PAC Mate more flexible than other notetakers are not being sold any longer, and even Freedom Scientific seems to have largely abandoned the device, since no new firmware has been developed since 2010 nor any sort of hardware refresh since the Omni was released in 2007. The PAC Mate is also far larger and heavier than any of its competition, and that includes mainstream devices like iPads and many notebook computers.

If, despite these limitations, you wish to consider the PAC Mate, it is useful to know that the learning curve is a bit steeper than with most other notetakers because it was built modularly, so you are dealing with software and hardware from multiple vendors to get a complete solution. That said, the manual and other help documentation are quite complete and well written. All in all, the PAC Mate was extremely powerful in its heyday and still has some unique features that are unmatched in the marketplace; but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to support as software and hardware peripherals are becoming scarcer. Sad as it may be, it may be time to retire this venerable device.

Final Notes

Freedom Scientific offers a pair of programs at an additional cost for the PAC Mate line. The first is a GPS package called StreetTalk VIP for the PAC Mate, which works with an external GPS receiver and a number of maps placed on a Compact Flash card. The second is a deaf-blind communications system that allows a deaf-blind user to communicate with another person using a computer called Face-to-Face.

For more information about the PAC Mate line of products or accessories for these devices, contact:

Freedom Scientific, Blind/Low Vision Group
11800 31st Court North
St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805
Phone: (727) 803-8000
Toll-Free (800) 444-4443
Fax: (727) 803-8001
Website: <www.freedomscientific.com>

Pronto! Differences Between Models

 

Pronto! QS

Pronto! 18

Pronto! 40

Dimensions

9.9 x 3.6 x 0.7 in.

6.8 x 3.6 x 1.25 in.

11.7 x 6 x 1 in.

Weight

Approx. 1 lb.

Approx. 1 lb.

2.75 lbs.

Number of Braille Cells

0 (Compatible with BAUM external Braille displays)

18-cell display

40-cell display

Keyboard

QWERTY

8-dot Perkins

Hot-swappable 8-dot Perkins or QWERTY

Price

$2,995

$4,995

$7,495

Product Overview

Last but not least, we will look at the Pronto! family of notetakers. These devices are still fairly obscure in the United States, but they are sold here and have a few uniquely compelling features. Part of the reason for their obscurity is that they are built by the German company BAUM Retec and sold through a fairly small distributor in the U.S., Bay Area Digital. A large part of what makes the Pronto! unique is its hardware. The line consists of three devices: the QWERTY voice-only model; Pronto! eighteen, which is a compact and light notetaker; and the highly unique Pronto! Forty, which includes a forty-cell Braille display as well as an interchangeable keyboard interface so that users can change between QWERTY and Perkins on the fly.

The Pronto line has unique hardware features such as the interchangeable keyboard on the 40 and the integrated compass, thermometer, and other sensor devices. The sensors, with the exception of the compass, seem like rather unusual choices, but they may be useful to some. Furthermore, the Pronto! 18 is a physical near-match to the HumanWare BrailleNote PK, since the PK was actually a device whose hardware was built by BAUM and whose software was created by HumanWare. So those who are familiar with and particularly fond of the PK hardware would feel at home physically with the device.

The other great advantage of the Pronto! line is the extensive language support. It includes several languages not offered by any other notetaker on the market, so, if you need unique language support and are set on a notetaker, it may be worth considering a Pronto!

The software in the Pronto! is somewhat unpolished and under-localized. For the most part functions work as they should, and some rather interesting features should be noted, such as the ability to place audio tags on storage media or the option to type more quickly by striking the space bar with the last character of a word, but these are balanced by some strange quirks in the software. One notable example is the need to enter configuration files to change the default length of recordings instead of finding this option in the Settings panel with other settings. A final software concern is that it is not created especially for this market, so some features like support for Audible, NLS, Learning Ally, and other U.S.-centric content are unlikely to be present any time in the near future.

Although the Pronto! is interesting, it is not a notetaker for the faint of heart. Users are likely to have a steep learning curve because the documentation is poorly translated in places and very limited instructional information is available on the Internet. Another point that works against this line is the fact that tech support is fairly limited here, and much of the assistance available for new users comes from mailing lists, since the redistributor is quite small. They work hard to provide assistance, but they have limited resources, which will affect both training opportunities and tech support or repairs that are needed. It is entirely possible that the Pronto! line will continue to mature as a product for the United States market, and it may one day become a full-fledged competitor here; but, unless the user has very specific requirements, it may be worth holding off on this interesting but somewhat impractical line.

Final Notes

If you are interested in learning more about the Pronto! line contact:

Bay Area Digital
870 Market Street
#653
San Francisco, CA 91402
Phone: (415) 217-6667
Fax: (415) 217-6667
Website: <www.bayareadigital.us>

Conclusion

This article contains a lot of densely packed information, but it’s important to add some final pieces of advice specific to making a decision on a notetaker. As with buying most other pieces of technology, first—if at all possible—do your best to touch and explore the device you are considering. You may discover that, even though the feature set sounds promising, a device’s keyboard may be too cramped, or perhaps it weighs too much or won’t be easy to carry with your other devices. It is imperative to know whether the physical aspects of a device will suit you as well as the less tangible features. If it is uncomfortable, your device won’t get the kind of use it otherwise might.

Second, it is important to look at the features offered by the hardware you are considering, since it must meet your needs not only today, but for many years to come. You don’t want to get stuck with something you can’t use in a year or two because you can’t get peripherals or tech support or can’t open files that you need to use. Remember that notetakers will be around for a while yet, and none of these options are likely to disappear from the market any time soon. Take your time and consider the choices available. You’ll make a better decision, and in the end you will be far happier with your choice.

Third, consider the possibility that a notetaker may no longer be the right answer for you. With the advent of smart Braille displays such as the Perkins Mini, the Braille Edge, ALVA BC640, and others, you are no longer limited to having to choose a full-fledged notetaker if all you want to do is read and write simple text documents and interact with other devices.

Finally, if you do choose to purchase a notetaker, take the opportunity to future-proof your investment if at all possible. It is in the consumer’s best interest to consider maintenance agreements and other such insurance on these pricy devices.

Although some general recommendations have been made in this article, it is impossible for someone to make a decision about the right piece of technology for anyone else. I hope that this article has helped you to determine what features are most important to you in a notetaker, and that the information provided is of assistance to you as you make a decision about whether or not a notetaker, or a Braille display and a computer, or iOS device, or something completely different is the right choice for you.

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