Comparing iOS Devices with Braille Notetakers

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Intro

Have you ever thought about making the switch from braille notetaker to iOS device? Are you unsure which one you should choose? Do you have both, and can't decide which one to invest in moving forward? I made the switch from a BrailleNote Apex to an iPhone, quite slowly and mostly by accident, and I'm here to tell you why a notetaker is the only way to go, and why that metal and glass frisbee in your hand is nothing but trouble. Then, I'll explain why you should ditch that outdated hunk of plastic they call a notetaker right away. Finally, I'll explore the possibility of co-existence - using both at the same time.

About Me

I have been blind since birth, and started using braille computers when I was ten and got a Braille 'n Speak. I have used Windows since 2001, a BrailleNote since 2002, iOS since 2010, and a Mac since 2011. I work as an assistive technology instructor concentrating on blindness-specific devices and software, and I have even spent five weeks at Perkins School for the Blind in Boston MA, teaching assistive technology to the students attending Perkins' summer programs.

For years, my Apex was my go-to device, and I can say, with no exaggeration, that I had it with me as often as I possibly could. My iPod slowly crept into the top PDA slot, since it was so much smaller and could do so much more. I used the BrailleNote and iPod in conjunction for a year or so, but finally came to the point where speech alone met my needs and the bulky Apex was more trouble than it was worth. Finally, my Mac and iPhone (I switched to the iPhone in 2012) completely replaced my BrailleNote, and now I carry my iPhone even more often than I ever did the Apex or its predecessors.

Definitions

A notetaker, as used here, is a device made specifically for the blind. It has a braille or QWERTY keyboard, may or may not have a braille display, is portable, and runs a highly specialized operating system with special applications on it. Examples of notetakers include the BrailleNote from Humanware, the Braille Sense from Hims, the Pac Mate from Freedom Scientific, and others.

An iOS device is an iPod Touch, iPad, or iPhone. For our purposes, it is assumed to be running Voiceover, and to be new enough to support braille displays. I may refer to the collective of all accessible iOS devices as an iPhone from time to time, but only because that is what I use. Unless otherwise noted, all iOS devices have roughly the same features and capabilities when it comes to blindness accessibility.

Why Notetakers Rock

They have gotten a bad rap lately, but notetakers are good machines… In certain situations. For instance, the BrailleNote Apex can accept Nemeth braille in its word processor; try to type Nemeth into the pages app and see what happens. Need to do a calculation? Use your favorite braille grade. Look up an address? A few quick keystrokes, and you're done. Define a word? Put your cursor on it, and one keystroke will show you the definition. Marking or spellchecking text is also much easier, and nothing can beat that braille display, right? Plus, if you love to cart around multiple devices and power cables, then using an iOS device with a braille display is perfect for you. If you prefer to just have one computer to deal with, then the notetaker wins.

Specialized Software

While the software and programs on notetakers are often more limited, they excel at what they are made to do. They fully support all manner of braille input and hotkeys, are clear and concise, and you never have to worry about an update breaking accessibility. Plus, you usually have access to help right in the app - a keystroke will tell you what you can do at any point, and/or bring up a full list of commands for working with the application.

Battery Life

The battery on modern iOS devices is pretty good, especially on the iPad. However, not only do notetakers usually have longer-lasting batteries, they normally include user-replaceable ones, too. If your battery runs low, just pop it out and drop in a new one. Battery getting too old to hold a charge? Buy a new one, and you're done, no machine replacement or expensive repairs needed. The battery on an iOS device, by the way, is only good until you hook it to a braille display. That constant bluetooth connection can cause it to drain faster than normal, and enabling VoiceOver's speech will drain it faster still. The notetaker gets good battery life with both braille and speech enabled.

Printing and Embossing

Yes, iOS devices can print… to certain printers. Braille notetakers, on the other hand, support a wide range of printers via several different connection types. Not just that, but notetakers can be used with braille embossers. Find an iOS app that will let you braille up a document, then make hard-copy braille out of it; you can't. iOS simply does not include embosser drivers, and no embosser will support the protocols that iOS requires, the same protocols many standard printers also lack. Notetakers have no such restrictions and caveats.

Full Braille Integration

As mentioned, braille is at the heart of these notetakers. Multiple codes and grades, complete support (such as braille hotkeys and commands), and special features like choosing how new lines are displayed are all commonplace. In iOS, braille is supported, but the operating system is still driven more by touch and, to a lesser extent, QWERTY keyboard commands than it will ever be by braille.

Learning Braille

While iOS devices do accept braille input, there are caveats and tricks you need to know. With notetakers, you can choose your grade and code, and what you type is accurately put into your document. For those new to braille, this is a very valuable tool, since you can check with speech to see if what you wrote is accurate or not. You can also pick your preferred code, and not worry about back translation oddities.

Navigation

When you navigate an iOS device, even in something you are reading, the only way to move by line, word, character, and so on is with the rotor. On notetakers, you have dedicated commands to move through text in different chunks, and highlighting text is a breeze. Spellchecking is also simple, while it is difficult to impossible on iOS.

Why iOS Devices Are Awesome

Notetakers are getting less and less popular (no, I have no hard numbers to back that up, it is simply the trend I have seen personally). Mainstream devices are taking their place, and forcing notetakers into a shrinking niche they will probably never escape. Why? Well…

Modular

You can hook a braille display to your iPhone if you want to, or not. You can connect a keyboard, or not. You can put it in a bulky, protective case, or choose a slimmer one. You can bring your iPod Touch instead of your iPad if you need more portability. All these are possible because iOS devices are inherently modular. That is, you can choose the size, and which accessories you want to bring. Is the environment too harsh for an expensive braille display, but fine for an iPhone in a heavy-duty case? Great, just bring the phone. With a notetaker, you have no choice - it's notetaker or nothing. Did your notetaker break? Well, you're out of luck, but if an iOS device breaks, you may well be able to buy a replacement for less than it would cost to repair your notetaker. Plus, so much data is backed up automatically that restoring your new device to the way your old one was is often a matter of a few minutes.

Cheaper

Is the price of a notetaker really worth it, especially if you have to finance the purchase yourself? Consider this: you can buy a 32-cell notetaker, and only the notetaker, for around $5800. You can buy a 32GB iPod Touch for around $350, a 40-cell braille display for around $2700, and we'll even throw in a mid-level Macbook Air for $1200. You still have to spend over $1500 before you reach the same cost as the notetaker, which offers eight less cells, so buy yourself a second Macbook with even more upgraded internals. There you go, one notetaker, or two Macs, a braille display (some of which even include basic notetaker functions), and an iPod Touch capable of running the latest iOS apps and upgrades. That display, by the way, will work with your two new Macs, and the Macs and iPod Touch will sync with each other, whether through Dropbox, Google, iCloud, or other services. Your lucky to get Dropbox on your notetaker, and there's no way you'll be syncing notes, web browser bookmarks, open tabs, reminders, and so on, especially not wirelessly and automatically.

So Many Apps

The BrailleNote Apex has a small set of applications, with no way for anyone to write more. The Braille Sense has a few more, and offers an SDK for developers to make programs for the platform. However, the intersection of Sense users, and those willing and with the technical knowledge to create Sense apps, is very small. Android developers can make apps for the APH Braille Plus SG, but again, how many users of that device will want/be able to do that?

On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of apps for iOS, many of which are fully accessible. There are even blindness-specific apps, like Blindsquare, MBraille, a slew of audio games, and tons more. Want to do something specific on your device? There's almost certainly an app for that, and there are resources like this very website you can use to check on that app's accessibility. No, not every app is accessible, and some really great ones are simply unusable. However, I have at least one app (usually more) on my iPhone that takes the place of each and every program on my BrailleNote's main menu. These apps are usually faster, support many more features and options, and are free. In addition, you can request that an app be made accessible, and quite often the developer will do just that.

Collaboration

Nowadays, it is increasingly important to be able to work with other people on a single document or project. Shared Dropbox folders, iCloud-based documents, and so on are the norm. You can virtually hand in assignments, work with others on a group project, keep an eye on work others are doing, and more. iOS devices support this sort of collaboration quite well, while braille notetakers barely have Dropbox support.

You Still have Braille

While it is true that iOS does not have the tight integration with braille that notetakers do, anyone who knows braille can easily use it with iOS. I would never recommend an iOS device with a braille display to someone who is learning braille, but anyone who has basic proficiency is probably going to do fine. Using a display, you can not only type braille into any edit field, in many different codes, but you can see what VoiceOver is outputting as well. There is even a status cell option, which lets you quickly check on the screen curtain or speech mute status, critical battery, and other items.

Mainstream Support and Marketing

Apple is a huge company, and they market to hundreds of millions of people. That means that they have a very large incentive to make the high-quality products for which they are so well-known, and that developers of iOS apps can tap into a massive market. Do blindness-specific companies have similar motivations? To a lesser extent, possibly, but even the best of intentions do not a notetaker make. Humanware tends to launch a new product every five years or so, and when they do, it is behind the times and lacking in hardware and software. Apple puts out several products each year, all of them fully accessible, and app developers flock to them. The upshot for the blind community is a device that has all the advantages of a mainstream product, not a blindness-specific one, while still offering access to every feature, right out of the box.

Another advantage is mainstream content. For instance, iOS can read iBooks, Kindle, Nook, Audible, and more. You can download iTunes, Google, Amazon, and other music and movies, or listen to Pandora, iTunes Radio, or many other music streaming services. All this is possible because iOS is a large platform, so there is reason for other companies to support it. Will amazon ever make an  app to let Apex or Sense users read Kindle books? Of course not, the market is too small. Yet, when Kindle got on the iPhone, it was eventually made accessible, and now blind people can enjoy Kindle content just like anyone else.

More Advanced Hardware

As mentioned, even when new notetakers come out, they tend to not have the latest hardware. As a result, they can be slower and support less than their mainstream counterparts. For example, the iPod Touch has had bluetooth 4.0 since 2010, the same year the BrailleNote Apex came out, yet the Apex is still using bluetooth 2.1. iOS devices include the latest in wifi, storage, RAM, processing, cameras, manufacturing, and so forth, yet are still a fraction of the cost of notetakers. This hardware is more than just a speed difference, however, it also leads to more features, such as OCR. I can scan print with my iPhone to get an idea of what it says, or printed bills to find out what denomination they are, or even have the phone tell me when a face is in focus. I can wirelessly exchange files between iOS devices, take full advantage of the latest wifi routers, and more. Notetakers simply can't keep up with the latest hardware. The APH notetaker does include a camera, but it has worse resolution than the one on the iPhone released in 2012.

Sharing the Spotlight

Clearly, notetakers have advantages that some people will find invaluable, while iOS devices tend to appeal to a much wider audience and be more monetarily accessible. If you have both, however, the question may not be which device you should use, but rather, where does each device fit.

As I said, my iPhone has almost completely replaced my Apex - it fits in my pocket, does far more than the Apex ever could, and is much cheaper to replace if it were ever to get damaged. However, i still use my Apex for certain tasks. For instance, I was in a play last year, and during rehearsals, I didn't use my iPhone while reading from the script, I used my Apex. Sure, the iPhone could have displayed the script in braille, but I would have had to manually scroll the page each time I reached the end of the text on the screen, I could not have done a text search to jump to a new scene in just a couple keystrokes, and overall, the experience would have been slower.

If you are a student and need to type math, you could learn computer braille and use that to type your homework in braille on an iOS device. If you already have a notetaker, though, why not use that? The Apex and Braille Sense offer Nemeth support in their respective word processors. If you know, and are more comfortable with, Nemeth, why force yourself to use a different code?

For all of us, the trick is to pick the tool that best fits the task. Many of us have access to only one tool, and we make it work. Others, though, have access to multiple tools. If a notetaker works better in math class, or for reading copy, or proof-reading, or doing calculations, or anything else, there's no sense in not using it. If an iPad is best for reading textbooks, sharing documents, showing a Powerpoint presentation, or anything else, use that. If you have them available, iOS devices and notetakers can work in conjunction with each other, according to the strengths of each one.

The Bottom Line

Notetakers have their place, but I feel that it is more and more with younger students or those simply uncomfortable or unable to deal with a touch screen interface. The deaf-blind, for instance, may have a better time with a notetaker since they rely so heavily on braille; if the pairing between iOS and a display is lost, someone unable to hear speech will be at a loss to fix the problem. Similarly, those with nerve problems or other medical issues that make it hard to use a touch screen or remember a lot of commands may prefer the simpler, more streamlined notetaker interface.

Nowadays, iOS devices are a perfectly viable option, and offer many great features that notetakers cannot, which outweigh their disadvantages for many people. If you have access to both, using them together is often the ideal solution; if not, though, picking one over the other will usually result in picking the cheaper and more powerful option - the iOS device. The final decision is, of course, yours, and it is wonderful that there are so many options out there today. After all, iOS is not right for everyone.

I am not trying to disparage notetaker manufacturers; they all believe strongly in their products and do their best to make competitive, modern devices. The simple fact is that they lack the massive amount of resources that Apple has, and so it becomes a simple matter of numbers. New notetakers are not released every year because the budget to do so would be enormous; there is not a huge team of programmers constantly working on notetaker software because the companies can't afford to pay so many employees. No matter how you slice it, notetaker companies cannot keep up with Apple, and Apple has done such a good job with accessibility that iOS has become a true competitor.

As stated, the competition is great, and it drives both Apple and notetaker companies to improve their respective products. Apple outstrips the competition with resources, hardware, and apps, but it cannot match the highly customized interface and all-in-one solutions offered by notetakers.

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7 Comments

#1 Well Written

That was one of the best written pieces I've read on the whole note taker versus IOS device debate. Well done. It covered both sides of the argument well.

I definitely lean more toward the modular strategy of using an IOS device with a Braille display for the reasons you mention, and:

If a note taker breaks, and it's someone's primary device, they're out of luck for several weeks while the unit gets repaired, and hopefully their data can be saved. If a Braille display breaks, at least the user still has the core device in their iPhone or iPad. If the IOS device breaks, it's a much faster turn-around time to get a replacement or repair.

In addition to the outdated technology, some of the software on note takers is also a bit outdated. Internet browsing, E-mail, and other Internet-based tasks especially struggle on note takers. Browsers consistantly crash when trying to load a reasonably simple web page, and sometimes on mobile sites. With the exception of Flash, Safari does pretty well on most every page I've ever used. Since so many employers and educational institutions are doing more online, it's becoming increasingly important to have this capability.

The camera on IOS devices have so many helpful purposes for blind and low vision users. As a legally blind user, I use several CCTV/magnifier apps daily, scan longer documents with apps like text grabber, and look up product information with bar code apps.

Braille is sometimes frustrating, with its parsing errors, but it's getting better. Inputting text works better since IOS 7, and hopefully Apple will address the odd parsing errors when editing and backspacing over text in a future update.

I have really started liking the Braille Edge as a great compromise between a note taker and Braille display. Its primary focus is a Braille display, that will connect via USB or Bluetooth to a Windows or Mac computer, or IOS device via bluetooth. This 40 cell display is about the same price as comperable 40 cell displays, about $3000, but has some distinct advantages.

In addition to being a Braille display, the unit does have basic note taker capabilities. The notepad app lets a user read and write in Braille or plain text formats, and the recent 1.1 update let's the user read .rtf, .doc, and .docx files. Maybe write capability will come in the future? It also has a basic calendar/schedular, calculator, alarm, and a couple other features I'm forgetting.

The 1.1 update also adds a nice clipboard ability found in the Braille Sense products. A user can now type a document on the Edge, and copy it to a special clipboard. The text can then be pasted onto an IOS device into any edit field, be it mail, a Pages or Notes document, etc. This gets rid of the clunky IOS Braille input problem until Apple fixes it. It also lets a user have a stand-alone device to take notes or write simple documents, should they not want to always pair the Edge with a computer or other portable device.

The Braille Edge seems to be the best of both worlds. It offers the note taking and stand-alone advantages of a full note taker. It ditches some of the common flaws of pricier note takers as well, like price, limited Internet and E-mail functionality, and other outdated hardware and software. The Edge also does lack speech and multimedia features. The device exclusively focuses on Braille. The iPhone offers several ways to record voice notes, listen to music, and read books though, and on a much smaller device. Like the original article mentions, mainstream book sources like Kindle, Nook, and iBooks are also accessible.

Those are just some additional thoughts, and a possible solution in between a full note taker and Braille display option.

#2 searching and processing large documents

One reason I don't see myself abandoning my Braille Sense U2 any time soon is that it allows me to load and search large books and documents. I admit to not having tested this capability in the newest version of AccessNote, but when I want to load a 1MB book and conduct text searches, as I often do, this simply cannot happen on any smart phone.

#3 Voice Dream Reader

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

There's an app called Voice Dream Reader you might want to look at. It supports common file formats (though not BRF) and allows you to search. It is not as fast or convenient as a notetaker, but it might do what you want.

#4 Great Article!

As several people have already stated, the article is very well-written and unbiased, which is sometimes hard to find. The only reason I have a Notetaker now is because I was lucky enough to receive one my senior year of high school. The HIMS line of Notetakers is probably the most sophisticated line I've worked with, but I definitely agree that the Web browser isn't as efficient as Safari is on an iOS device. I mostly still use my Braille Sense for the reasons you stated in the article. Also, I'm someone who prefers to read her materials herself using Braille as opposed to listening to them, though it really depends on what I want to do at the time. I will say this, though: even though my Braille Sense isn't a backup device, it did save my butt this weekend when I needed space to put my music and stuff when backing up my Windows laptop for the clean install tomorrow. lol

#5 Media Players Versus iOS Devices

This post comparing iOS devices with note takers really is one of the best posts I've seen on this site. The author did an excellent job discussing the pros and cons for each tool, then discussing how the iOS device and the note taker can co-exist.

Even though I've only had my iPhone since May, I am really learning what this piece of tech is capable of.

I continue to be amazed at its capabilities as a note taker, music player, book reader, voice recorder, Internet browser, and whatever else.

Not only do some of us have the specialized note takers, but many of us have the specialized DAISY book readers. I happen to have the Book Port Plus from APH and the Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare.

I don't expect these units to offer full web browsing. I know they just can't do that.

I am pleased that they are able to connect to a wireless network to download podcasts or stream Internet radio.

They are strong at reading books, both text and audio. They also have good recording capabilities.

Like the note takers, they also are strong when it comes to navigation. Usually it takes a couple of keystrokes and you can select the level of navigation or jump by that level within a list of elements.

For instance, if you're reading a DAISY book from NLS or Learning Ally, you can jump directly to a page or heading. You can also navigate the book.

Many users like the numeric keypad on these units.

This is why, even though I've been tempted, I have decided not to part with the specialized media players. They do what they do quite well.

The one area where the specialized players lose out, in my estimation, is in where they get the content. To my knowledge, none of the specialized players can read Kindle books or Apple iBooks. Luckily, the iPhone can, so I have access to more materials.

The specialized players can work with books from Bookshare, Learning Ally, and NLS Bard here in the US, or whatever your talking book library is in your part of the world. They can also do Audible titles.

But so can the iPhone. Here in the US, the iPhone does indeed work with Bookshare, Learning Ally, and NLS Bard. Thanks to the apps, iPhone users now can take their iPhone to school or work, and if they have an account with one of these services, they can get the books they need and use their phone right there in the classroom.

If you need Audible, there's an app for that.

If there's one area where the iPhone shines, it's in saving web pages for offline reading. Thanks to the Voice Dream reader app, you're able to save web pages directly on the phone. I think there are some other apps out therre that can also do this.

While it's possible to save these pages on the other units, you need to use your computer to do that. To my knowledge, none of the specialized media players has a web browser.

I certainly don't expect the specialized media players to be note takers in the same way as the Braile Note Apex or the Hims Sense note takers. I expect them to do what they do well. I expect them to read books, play music, and record audio notes. Their ability to download podcasts is nice to have, and it's convenient, as is the ability to stream Internet radio.

Both the specialized media players and the iPhone do a good job if you're looking for a voice recorder. The built-in voice memos app is fairly accessible, and I've seen several good voice recorder apps here on this web site. I'm looking at List Recorder as a good app for notes.

I recognize, though, that these units will always have limitations.

For instance, I know that many Victor Reader Stream users have complained they can't use their unit at a public WIFI site, since there is no web browser. This means that if you like music overnight, as I do, you need to have a playlist ready in advance of a long trip.

Fortunately, when I was in Orlando for the NFB convention, I had my iPhone with me along with the Radio Tunes app, since I subscribe to that service.

Since the hotel's WIFI network was available to me, and the iPhone has its web browser, I was able to go through the procedure for signing up to use the hotel's network. As a result, I had music through the night.

If you can't do that, you still don't always need to set up a playlist from your own collection, especially if your music library is not that large. Luckily, I'm an Apple Music subscriber. I have a conference coming up, and it's in a more rural area of my state. I'm not sure how good the hotel's WIFI will be, so I still may need a playlist. However, I have access to Apple Music's large library of songs, so I can use that if I need to set up a playlist for the road.

Bottom line: If you have an iPhone, your options open up.

This is why, at least, for me, the specialized media players and the iPhone can peacefully co-exist.

Also, before you toss out your Victor Reader Stream or other specialized media player, you may wish to think about something else. If you just got a new iPhone, you may need the media player to read or listen to tutorials on it.

In addition to the stuff on this site, Mac for the Blind has produced some excellent tutorials on how to use the iPhone. You may want to have another media player on standby so you can play the training materials on that, then use your phone to follow along with the tutorial.

As with the note takers, I believe that there still will be a place for the specialized media players. While they may not do everything an iPhone can do, they still have their place.

For what it's worth, these are my thoughts. Thanks.

#6 Benefits of nemeth

I loved your article too. The only place you lost me was when you suggested learning computer braille in order to do math on an iOS device. I've used a lot of computer braille but I don't know of any way to indicate superscript, subscript, fractions, integrals, or any Greek letters like sigma theta pi which are used a lot in math. So I can't see using computer braille even for high school math, unless you just input nemeth and ignore the iPhone speech, then export the file and figure out a way to translate it.

#7 Notetaker and tablet hybrids

You know, I'm really very grlad someone commented on this article and resurrected it. I read it four years ago when it was posted and it was very good, extremely fair and without any agenda on either side unlike most contributions in the notetaker versus other devices debate. I just wanted to chip in an experience of my own: I'm rather overloaded with tech in that I have both the Touch and the Apex, as well as an IOS device. The Touch is meant to be a hybrid, but its hybrid status comes with limitations. KeyWord can't open massive documents, for example, and it's not nearly as good with BRF and TXT formats. I tried opening the Complete Works of Shakespeare from Gutenberg on the Touch the other day and got into all sorts of difficulties. No such problems with the Apex. Sure, I could use my iPhone to open a similar file (provided it's not BRF) in, say, Voicedream and solve the problem, but as the only Braille displays I have are integrated with the Touch or the Apex I'd have to use the notetaker anyway. So in short, for good old Braille reading - choir words, notes, hymn books, court bundles etc. the Apex is still a cracking machine. Otherwise I'm an IOS man all the way (including for Kindle books). As for the Touch, i have to say it's neither one thing nor the other. it doesn't handle Braille as well as the Apex and it's of course no iPhone replacement.