Braille Monitor                                                           May 2007

(back) (contents) (next)


Accessible Personal Data Assistance Reviews

by the Staff of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind


From the Editor: Yesterday my daughter bought herself a combination cell phone and personal data assistant. She is very excited about this new piece of equipment. The notion of putting those two gadgets together strikes terror to my soul. Yet I see the handwriting on the wall, and I suspect that it is only a matter of time until I am trying to master a similar gadget. I am very pleased that blind people now have access to this part of the technology market, and even more pleased that we actually have choices. If you are thinking that the time has come for you to dip your toe in these murky waters, you will want to read the following article very carefully. Here it is:

Computer users who frequently travel for business or pleasure can stay connected with their offices or their homes with the help of PDA technology. Updating the contacts, calendar items, emails, documents and files, or tasks can be accomplished easily by synchronizing a PDA to a computer, a procedure that takes only a few minutes. With the use of an Internet-enabled PDA cell phone anyone can browse the Web or instantly download online content at any time and any place with cell phone signal. The compact size of a PDA affords users the ability to do away totally with laptop computers, thus lightening the traveler's load tremendously. The battery life of a PDA is generally much longer than that of a laptop. Some PDAs even contain small built-in QWERTY keyboards, or allow a user to connect an external Bluetooth QWERTY keyboard to the unit. A PDA user almost always prefers a larger external Bluetooth QWERTY keyboard to the tiny QWERTY keyboard on the unit. PDAs do not require any boot-up time, so accessing any installed application is almost instantaneous. PDA memory used to be extremely unreliable. When the battery went completely flat, all data and settings were lost. This is no longer the case if a PDA uses Windows Mobile5 as its operating system. As an enhanced feature some PDAs even contain an on-board GPS receiver.

With such a comprehensive feature list, why does anyone still use a computer? When compared to a computer, a PDA has a much smaller processor and hard drive. A typical computer contains at the minimum a 1.5 gigahertz processor and an 80-gigabyte hard drive. On average a PDA contains a 400 megahertz processor, and with the use of an SD card the maximum storage achievable is four gigabytes. Due to hardware limitations, PDAs do not contain a printer port, so a user cannot print directly from the PDA itself. Any mobile software programs designed for PDAs are much smaller and have many fewer features when compared to regular PC/Windows-based software. For example, Pocket Word does not have a spell check feature, and Pocket Excel cannot be used to create sophisticated graph and chart presentations. When using Pocket Excel, only three worksheets can be accessed simultaneously. Even with these limitations, PDAs are still very popular among computer users who embrace a mobile lifestyle.

In the past two years increasing numbers of accessible PDAs have been developed for the blind. Some of these have been designed with embedded screen-access programs; others are just off-the-shelf PDAs, for which the user must purchase an optional screen-access program. This article provides an evaluation of screen-access programs for PDAs. We will also look at accessible PDAs with embedded screen-access technology.

Mobile Speak Pocket 9
Reviewed by Mike Tindell

Mike Tindell is pictured here with the Mobile Speak Pocket 9.Mobile Speak Pocket is screen-access software for a PDA running Windows Mobile or Windows Pocket PC 2003 SE. An additional program is available for Mobile Speak Pocket, called Mobile Magnifier Pocket, that will magnify the screen for low-vision users.
It is possible to get a PDA with a built-in phone. If you do, the phone is also accessible using Mobile Speak Pocket. Before choosing a PDA, it is important to be sure that Mobile Speak Pocket can be installed on it. You can find a list of supported PDAs at <>.

Once you purchase the PDA, you will need to install active sync on your computer. This will allow the PDA and the computer to connect and communicate with one another. After installing active sync, go back to <> and download Mobile Speak Pocket. Connect the PDA to the computer, and install Mobile Speak Pocket. A free thirty-day trial of Mobile Speak Pocket is available from Code Factory.

A PDA has a touch-screen, buttons below the screen, and often buttons on the side of the unit as well. Sighted people use a stylus to tap the screen. The buttons quickly launch programs. Mobile Speak Pocket reassigns the buttons to shift, tab, control, and alt. A blind person taps, double-taps, or taps and holds one of the four corners of the screen to operate the unit. A command turns on stylus mode so that a sighted person can use the PDA while Mobile Speak is running. Mobile Speak allows a blind person to access contacts, appointments, and email. Pocket Excel and Pocket Word are available for creating spreadsheets and documents.

Some PDAs have no built-in keyboard. Mobile Speak offers keyboard entry using a touch virtual keyboard (a keyboard simulator). When the touch virtual keyboard is being used, the user turns the PDA sideways and slides a finger along the screen. The keyboard is arranged like a QWERTY keyboard. Each letter is announced as the finger slides across it. To insert a letter, lift the finger after the desired letter is announced, and the letter will be inserted. The keyboard simulator also uses the arrow keys to reach the desired letter; press enter to insert the letter. Bluetooth keyboards are also supported. Mobile Speak Pocket supports several Bluetooth headsets to route the audio through the Bluetooth headset for private listening.

Many third-party programs have been written for Windows Mobile and Pocket PC devices. Some programs work very well with Mobile Speak Pocket. Microsoft Voice Command allows a user to speak to the PDA using a set of predefined commands. For further information visit <>. For programs that do not work well with Mobile Speak Pocket, scripts can be written to improve accessibility.

Several Bluetooth Braille displays can be used with Mobile Speak Pocket. If your display has a keyboard, it is also possible to enter text using computer Braille or Grade II into the PDA. The user can control the PDA using the keyboard of the Braille display. Many Handy Tech and HumanWare Braille displays and notetakers, such as the BrailleNote mPower and the BrailleNote PK are supported. Visit <> to see if yours is in the list of supported displays.

The price of Mobile Speak Pocket is $599. To purchase this product, contact HumanWare at (800) 722-3933 or on its Web site <>, or contact Triumph Technology at (651) 636-5184 or on its Web site <>. Vision Cue LLC also sells Mobile Speak Pocket, phone (503) 459-4003; Web site <>.

Pocket Hal 702
Reviewed by Mike Tindell

Pocket Hal is screen-access software that will make most PDAs accessible. When using Pocket Hal, a user gains access to the applications provided on the PDA, such as email, contacts, calendar, Pocket Excel, Pocket Word, and Windows Media Player for playing music. If the PDA has a built-in cell phone, Pocket Hal makes it accessible. For a list of supported PDAs visit <>. The PDA must be running Windows Mobile or Pocket PC 2003 SE.

Before installing Pocket Hal on the PDA, install active sync on your computer. Visit <> to get the latest version of Pocket Hal. Connect the PDA to your computer and run the install for Pocket Hal. You have a thirty-day trial before purchasing the product.

Many PDAs have a built-in keyboard for entering text and for screen navigation. If your PDA has a built-in keyboard, it can be used. If not, you must use a Bluetooth QWERTY or Braille keyboard. Pocket Hal supports several Bluetooth Braille displays. If your Braille display has a Braille keyboard, you can use it for text input and screen navigation. Many third-party programs have been written for Windows Mobile and Pocket PC 2003 SE. If Pocket Hal doesn�t work with a program the user wishes to use, map files can be written for the program to make it more accessible with Pocket Hal.

The purchase price for Pocket Hal is $595. Contact Dolphin US at (866) 797-5921 or visit <>.

Reviewed by Anne Taylor

Anne Taylor holds the Icon.The Icon, manufactured by LevelStar, is a Linux-based screenless PDA designed for the blind. Therefore all of the applications installed on the Icon are guaranteed to be completely accessible to the blind. This is a strong advantage to users who like using PDAs but do not want to buy an off-the-shelf PDA which may contain inaccessible third-party software. The Icon comes with a text-to-speech program already installed. Since users have to depend on speech output only, LevelStar has made a commendable effort to help them become familiar with the telephone-like keypad and the Icon's features by providing a keyboard-learn mode and a context-sensitive help feature. Users can activate the context-sensitive help feature from within any application, and only help content related to that particular application will be spoken. LevelStar also provides a Braille quick reference guide with every unit.

When the unit is turned on, users will be presented with the following applications: address book, music player, library menu, Internet menu, tools menu, utilities menu, and games menu. The arrow keys located at the front of the unit are used to cycle between these menu items. To select a specific item, press the select key located at the center of the arrow keys. Once the desired application is launched, the menu key located right below the down arrow can be pressed to obtain specific user options relevant to that application. For example, if the address book application is selected and the menu button is pressed, users will hear "new address" for adding an address or "delete address" for deleting an address.

Even though the Icon is a Linux-based PDA, synchronizing contacts, the planner, and emails is easy using the proprietary software provided. When connected to the computer and in the disk drive mode (which can be selected from the utilities menu), the Icon will behave like a removable drive. Users can easily transfer files from the computer to the Icon. The Icon has many nifty features, but perhaps none is better than the library menu. In this menu users can access the bookshelf containing downloaded books, or an Internet book search option can be selected to perform a real-time search from the <> Web site. Users can search by author, title, or category; books can then be downloaded directly onto the Icon. Using Newsstand, a user can subscribe to news periodicals and designate a number of days to keep them in memory. Note: in order to take advantage of the Newsstand features, one must be a member of Bookshare.

Icon not only contains well-designed firmware, but it is also equipped with an internal wireless antenna. Users can be connected to the Internet any place that has a wireless access point. The Icon has a built-in Web browser and is also capable of streaming audio. Sending and receiving email using POP3 accounts is also supported.

The Icon uses a mini-Secure Digital card (mini-SD card) as an extra storage drive. Those who are interested in collecting audio files should know that a four gigabyte mini-SD card is now available for purchase. For those who prefer to type on a QWERTY keyboard rather than inputting each character using a telephone-like keypad on the unit, an optional docking station can be purchased along with the Icon. The Icon is shipped with Icon mobile manager, an Icon carrying case, Interface cable, AC power adaptor, Quick-Start Guide (text, audio, Braille, and CD), user�s guide (text, CD), earbuds, lanyard, and a battery.

The purchase price is $1,395 for the Icon, which does not include the docking station. Contact LevelStar at (800) 315-2305 or <> for latest pricing information.

Reviewed by Steve Booth

Steve Booth is pictured here with the EasyLink.EasyLink is a pocket-size, Braille-input Bluetooth-enabled keyboard that works with either a PDA or a cell phone using Talks software. Two models are available; one has a Braille keyboard, while the other has both the keyboard and a twelve-cell refreshable Braille display. EasyLink comes with PocketWrite software and a PDA. You can buy just the EasyLink Braille display if you already have a PDA or other equipment and wish to use EasyLink with it. The Bluetooth wireless connectivity makes this device truly portable. It has the standard Perkins-style six-key Braille input, the space bar in the middle just below the six keys, a joy stick (between dots one and four), and control and shift keys to the side of the space bar. The model with the Braille display has two navigation buttons to the left and right of the Braille display. The unit can be run on its internal battery or by connecting it to AC power.

Once set up to work with another device, EasyLink is easy to use; just Braille what you want and use either the twelve-cell Braille display or the speech your PDA or cell phone has. EasyLink is pocket-size and lightweight. If you plan to use a PDA or cell phone with Talks, this device can add functionality to those items.

The price for EasyLink is $495 without the Braille display; EasyLink with twelve-cell Braille display is $1,995; with PocketWrite software and a PDA, it is $1,495. Total package price is $3,490. As we are fond of saying, please contact VisionCue or your reseller for specific pricing and availability of the configuration you wish to purchase. EasyLink is available from VisionCue, LLC., 4858-A SW Scholls Ferry Road, Portland, Oregon 97225; phone (503) 297-1510; toll-free (888) 318-2582.

Reviewed by Steve Booth

In an article in the February 2006 Braille Monitor I discussed the Trekker GPS option, a GPS solution from HumanWare. In this article I will take a look at the personal digital assistant with Maestro. I also add an update to the information provided in the Trekker article.
The Maestro option provides speech access to the functions of a PDA. It is available on several PDAs. Contact HumanWare or your reseller to find out the latest PDA available. There are only minor variations from one PDA to another, and each uses the same accessible keyboard and software program. The PDAs have an SD card slot for additional file storage, and some have a CompactFlash card slot for this type of storage card. For this article I used Maestro version 2.0.2 and Trekker Solo version 3.0.

The Maestro is a handheld PDA with a specially designed keyboard and fully accessible speech output software. A unique feature of the Maestro and Trekker keyboard is that it fits over the PDAs flat screen. It consists of buttons that, when pressed, touch the appropriate points on the flat screen to activate the desired functions. It fits around the PDA with an elastic strap to hold it in place. The keyboard can be removed to reset the unit or replace the battery. The keyboard is arranged with a set of Braille keys at the top. Arrow keys are arranged in a cross pattern for navigation, and function keys are located along each edge. A handy describer mode can be entered at any time to learn the function of any key. Entering Braille is slightly different because dots are entered one at a time, and each letter is verified with the press of a button. While this sounds cumbersome, Braille can be entered reasonably quickly with some practice. The system allows for the entry of contracted or uncontracted Braille.

The Maestro uses Eloquence speech, which is quite clear using the external speaker. The use of headphones or ear buds may enhance speech quality. Maestro has user settings for speech rate and volume to suit individual needs.

The menu system is familiar to those used to Windows menus on a PC. The key-describer mode is easy to use, and many functions may be toggled on and off by holding down keys. Hot-key functions are available for common tasks. For example, tab and shift-tab operate similarly to the way they function on a PC. There are an escape key and four function keys. Holding some keys down for several seconds provides additional functions.

Software installation is reasonably straightforward. The directions should be followed closely for best results. If the battery goes completely flat, the software must be installed again. Maestro comes with a program CD that includes the manual and quick reference guide. Print and Braille manuals are provided.

The Maestro main menu contains functions familiar to most PDA users including the calendar, contacts, email, media player, and more. You may synchronize with Outlook, which is especially handy when traveling. Calendar, contacts, and email entries can all be synchronized. In addition, text notes may be written in uncontracted or contracted Braille.

As noted earlier, it may take practice to enter Braille on the keyboard with speed and accuracy. If you desire, the Maestro has Bluetooth wireless capability, so a wireless QWERTY-style keyboard may be attached for added convenience.

Maestro has the ability to record voice notes, and the Victor Reader software makes it possible to read DAISY books. According to the manufacturer, efforts are well underway to allow reading of RFB&D books using the Victor program included with Maestro.
This system is useful for those comfortable with commercial PDA applications. If you travel frequently and require portability, this system may be right for you. The Trekker option adds the power of GPS navigation for greater access to the world around you. However, if you plan to do extensive writing of long documents or have other needs requiring the use of many Windows applications, Maestro and other PDAs may not be your best choice. These devices are best suited for synchronizing information with a computer and for quick, on-the-fly access.

Now here is an update to the Trekker article. Trekker Solo 3.0 has additional map storage and loading capacity. Up to four maps may be loaded at once. Each map contains several states for increased regional coverage. A map-manager facility, which can be installed on your computer, provides flexibility when installing and removing maps from your Trekker system. Points of interest are easier to use. Personal points of interest may be added or removed using the map-manager program. You will need a large SD card, 512 MB or greater, if you want to install the maximum number of maps. SD cards are widely available online and at many computer and other stores.
Maestro is available from HumanWare. The cost is $1,695. Visit the Web site <> for the name of a distributor in your area or call toll-free (800) 722-3393.

We hope that you will be able to employ informed choice as you purchase a PDA. It is important to note that a smart phone and a PDA are different devices. We will cover smart phones in another article. Mobile Speak has a version of software that will run on a smart phone. Pocket Hal will also be releasing one soon.

Let us know if you have questions about the best products for you. We can be reached on the technology answer line at (410) 659-9314, option five.

(back) (contents) (next)