The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  March 2005

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Why I Bought a PAC Mate

by Susan Povinelli

Susan Povinelli
Susan Povinelli

From the Editor: As the electronic notetaker options facing blind consumers proliferate, it becomes more and more clear that each shopper must evaluate his or her personal needs and expertise in order to make a sound decision about which one to choose. Susan Povinelli is a member of the Potomac Chapter of the NFB of Virginia. She has a demanding professional and personal life as an engineer and wife and mother. In the Summer/Fall 2004 issue of the Vigilant, the publication of the NFB of Virginia, she discussed her personal reasons for choosing the PAC Mate. The issues she considered will apply to other shoppers, even though the decisions they come to may well be different. This is what Susan says:

In today's market you can find several excellent electronic notetakers for the blind. How do you choose between them? Your decision should be based on how you plan to use the notetaker and your personal preferences about the operating system and the vendor. Here are the reasons I selected the PAC Mate QX400 for myself. I hope some of the decisions I made will help you decide which notetaker meets your needs.

 First, I considered the physical characteristics of the notetaker. I preferred a standard computer keyboard versus a Braille keyboard. Although I can use a Braille keyboard, I am more familiar and comfortable with the standard (QWERTY) keyboard version; therefore I am more accurate in my typing.

 I also chose the PAC Mate because it had a forty-cell Braille display. Even though this would make the notetaker heavier and bulkier to carry, I found the larger Braille display useful at meetings. Listening to the text from a notetaker can be distracting during a meeting. This way I could pay attention and still take notes.

 Another consideration that guided my choice was the operating system. I did not want to learn a new operating system, and the PAC Mate is based on the Microsoft Pocket Window system, which works very similarly to the Windows operating system with which I am familiar from both my home and work computers. I also thought that, if I encountered trouble with the PAC Mate, a sighted person with a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) which also uses the same operating system, might be able to help. I was also interested in the compatibility of Microsoft Office software. I spend the majority of my time working on databases and spreadsheets, and I wanted a notetaker that could handle them. The PAC Mate comes with Pocket Excel, which works very similarly to Microsoft Excel. I can transfer the files between my computer and the PAC Mate, which would allow me to work on them or refer to them when I am away from my office.

 The PAC Mate could transfer Microsoft Word files and documents scanned by Open Book software, so I can refer to policies away from my desk. It also has another word processing program called FSEdit, which accepts Pocket Word and Rich Text Format files and can be translated into contracted Braille and embossed.

 The PAC Mate also has an excellent calendar and task program. This is the first electronic calendar I have ever been able to use. You can also synchronize it with your Microsoft Outlook calendar.

 The final reason for choosing the PAC Mate was that I know Freedom Scientific provides excellent online help files, which are easy to follow. They give step-by-step instructions on how to install software and hardware and perform file management. They also supply audible tutorials that provide the necessary information to get started.

 I prefer to read Braille instructions when learning how to operate a new device. I was able to print the help files in Braille so I could follow along as I learned how to use my PAC Mate.

 I have to confess that the PAC Mate has a few drawbacks. The first is that it does not come with a serial or parallel interface port. You have to use the infrared connector or Universal Serial Bus (USB) cable to interface with your home computer or printers. For example, I had no trouble connecting my PAC Mate to my embosser once I plugged in the infrared connector in the embosser's parallel port. This was not a major obstacle since parallel-to-infrared connectors are readily available from computer supply stores. However, this convenience costs an additional fifty dollars.

 The second disadvantage and the one that will probably drive me crazy is that, when PAC Mate freezes up and a warm reset doesn't work, you have to use a hard reset to get the machine started again. This hard reset erases all the files on the PAC Mate, so it is necessary to reload your calendar and files afterward. I have to confess I lost the rough draft of this article because I froze up my machine and hadn't backed up my files. This can be resolved by backing up your data to your home computer or frequently saving it to a compact flash memory card.

 Backing up your PAC Mate is easy using the Microsoft Active Sync software. It you have it set to back up every time you connect to your PC, it should help avoid the problem of disappearing files. One other disadvantage I have encountered is that you must turn off the battery saver feature before embossing a document, or your PAC Mate will shut down in the middle of a printing job.

 The PAC Mate does not have the capability to print part of a document. You have to start printing all over again if interrupted. This can be really annoying if the document is very large, say forty pages or more. Hopefully this issue will be corrected in future updates to the PAC Mate's software.

 If you think that I am putting away my slate and stylus in favor of the PAC Mate, you are wrong. I still plan to use them for quick notes on the go. You can always slip a pocket slate, 3 by 5 cards, and a stylus in your pocket, but for large databases and documents, you need a notetaker.

 Before you buy your notetaker, keep in mind the following items:

• Where and how will you use it?

• Are you willing to learn a new operating system and its commands, or do you wish to stick with one that is familiar?

• Does the notetaker come with programs and utilities you can use?

• How will the notetaker connect to other devices like computers and printers?

• How good is the technical support offered by the vendor?

 Good luck with any notetaker you decide to buy.

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