The Actilino, a Braille display sold by Handy Tech and sold in the U.S. by Triumph Technologies, is the latest portable Braille display to hit the market with first shipments in the U.S. received in June 2017. The Actilino falls in the “smart Braille display” category as along with being a display it has some built in features such as notetaking, a calculator, a calendar and Handy Tech’s music Braille feature. If you are not familiar, Scott Davert gave an overview of the smart Braille display category in his article “VarioUltra 20: a Great display”> and I encourage you to read his explanation. For those who may remember back to an earlier time, the software on the Actilino (and other Handy Tech displays) reminds me of the Braille ‘n Speak to some extent.
What’s in the Box:
Besides the Actilino Braille display, there is a carrying case which ships with the Actilino packaged inside. There also is a USB-A to proprietary magnetic charging and data cable, a USB thumb drive (Handy Tech calls this the Start stick) and a two-page Braille document explaining the Start stick. All other manuals, quick start guides and software are included on the Start stick.
The Actilino’s general specifications are: 6.5 inches wide, 4.3 inches deep, and 1.1 inches high (16.6 cm x 10.9 cm x 2.9 cm); 14.72 ounces (420 grams); 16 Braille cells with cursor routing; two triple-action keys (one on each end of the Braille line); eight-key Perkins-style Braille keyboard, two space keys, and one joystick (the manual calls this a control stick). Also included are a USB-A port, proprietary magnetic charging and data port (note in version 1.0 the manual calls this a USB HID type C port but it in fact is not--the dealer confirmed this with Handy Tech), micro-SD card slot with included 16Gb micro-SD card; speakers, microphone, and 3.5mm audio jack. The Actilino also has the all-important Bluetooth for communicating with up to three Bluetooth-enabled devices. And finally, the Actilino has Handy Tech’s Active Tactile Control (ATC) technology which enables the display to sense what cells are currently being read and provide such features as auto-scrolling.
With the device sitting on a table in front of you the closest things to you are the two space keys, with the joystick between them. Also on the front downward-slanted edge is the micro-SD card slot, and a speaker on each end which are angled to face down. The microphone is presumably in this area as well but it is not tactilely discernable at least to me. Behind the space keys and joystick are the 16 Braille cells which are the classic Handy Tech concave style, with a triple action key on each end of the line. (For those who’ve not seen a triple action key they are just two keys placed in a vertical position, and pressing in the middle of them depresses both keys simultaneously giving the third function. And as for the concave style Braille cells they are sloped away from the reader providing a natural resting angle for the reading fingers.) Behind the cells are the 16 cursor routing functions which are typical of any display with cursor routing. Continuing towards the back, on a raised platform that is higher than the cursor routing keys is the eight-key Braille keyboard with the typical ergonomic layout. On the left side is a 3.55mm audio jack, and behind that the magnetic charging and data port which is a long skinny rectangular shape. Along the right edge of the display from front to back first is the round power button, and then a USB-A port. There is nothing along the back edge, and on the bottom is a Braille serial number and a removable cover to access the battery. Overall it is a simple design with a minimalist set of keys and controls. The housing of the unit is a durable-feeling plastic.
The carrying case is in the Executive Products style (Disclosure this is to offer a description I do not know who manufactures the case), with magnetic enclosure, and a nice touch. A magnet at the back of the display attaches to a magnet inside the back edge of the Actilino to hold it in place. It is easy to remove and replace the display from the case. The front edges of the case cover the two speakers which may impact audio quality so it may be a good thing it is easily removable.
Connection to iDevices:
The Actilino connects to an iDevice by Bluetooth. The manual states that it can connect up to three devices via Bluetooth, and one device via the USB connection. The pairing routine is fairly standard. By default the Actilino has Bluetooth enabled when it powers on and it remains powered on for a set amount of time before turning off the Bluetooth to save power if no connection is detected. (This is according to the manual, I have not tested the actual powering off of Bluetooth.) To pair with an iOS device, turn on Actilino, go to the VoiceOver Accessibility Settings dialog, choose Braille and choose the Actilino. At this point the iOS device and Actilino do a bit of handshaking and exchange a pairing code. You must confirm the code is shown on both devices and tell each device they match. To do this on the Actilino when it is showing the pairing code enter a y on the keyboard. Choose the “Pair” button on the iOS device and it is ready to go. It is worth noting this pairs the Braille display and Braille features. This does not enable the audio abilities of Actilino to be used with an iOS device.
Pairing the audio features is an additional step. I was unable to find the details in the manual or quick reference guides on the Start Stick, after inquiring the answer I received is as follows: When the Actilino is powered on at the main menu prompt, press dots 1-2-8-space to enable the audio mode. Then go into the iOS Bluetooth settings and look for a device starting with the “POR” sequence of letters. That is the Actilino audio interface. Pairing can then be done. When audio is enabled on the Actilino it displays a different prompt. I have been unable to find documentation on this to find if there are any special commands that can be done. Also, my experience has been that Actilino disables the audio Bluetooth feature when it is powered off, so each time you wish to use the feature after powering on Actilino you need to do the dots 1-2-8-space command.
As mentioned earlier, most of the documentation is included on the Start Stick. It is in PDF format, so Windows and Mac may be used. The software is only available on Windows, and it appears that to do any future updates to the Actilino firmware a Windows PC will be required. While the PDF files are tagged, the headings of the English version of the manual remain encoded in German language setting. So if the screen reader is set to automatically switch languages it will read rather garbled sounding. To get around this, the best advice I have is to disable the auto-language detection. (For JAWS users, this may be found in the Verbosity settings.) With only a few changes, the manual appears to be much the same as for other Handy Tech products such as the Active Star. The bad news is special Actilino functions such as the aforementioned audio feature, are not documented, unless it is in some unknown file I have not found. Likewise, I have not found documentation of the mobile Active Tactile Control (ATC) feature which I will discuss later in this article. The Quick Start guide also focuses on the major screen readers JAWS and NVDA, and Window Eyes which (since it is being decommissioned) is an interesting choice. The reason I would expect most users to get the Actilino, is to use with a mobile device, but this is not discussed much at all, instead of front and center in the documentation.
On the good news front for documentation, as one goes through the main menu of Actilino and navigates the various options to set to one’s specific preferences, there is on-board help. At the end of the line there is a question mark symbol (shown in computer Braille) and when the cursor routing button above it is clicked, a help message is displayed that explains in some detail what the menu item or setting is for. I found this easier to use than searching in the PDF version of the manual.
The Daily Drive:
I tested the display using an iPhone 7 and iOS 10.3. The Actilino was using firmware v1.0. So some Braille support may change with the next version of iOS or the next release of Actilino firmware.
The display is quite comfortable to use. I favor the Handy Tech concave Braille cells and therefore find the display a pleasant reading experience. If you like flat cells this display may not be for you. The keyboard is quiet an responsive. The space keys are at the bottom of the display so it is a bit of a reach and those with small hands may find it a bit large. For those with larger hands the Actilino provides a more comfortable typing experience than some smaller displays. The scroll keys are part of the triple action keys at the ends of the Braille line, so reaching is not required to use them. It is a larger device than some Braille displays, most noticeably in its depth (front to back). It is 4.3 inches which is around 0.8 inches more than several other displays. It is also a bit thicker than some. For a typical front jeans pocket, which is my standard test, it is a pocket full and I can only fit it when it is not in its case.
The Actilino has Active Tactile Control (ATC) built in so you can read without pressing any keys at all. This is true even on iOS through the Actilino’s Mobile ATC mode. In my use, ATC does work though it can be a bit finicky and I have some difficulty advancing it on shorter lines. When I set the sensitivity setting to its highest I had the best results, due in part to being a light touch Braille reader myself. I imagine for those who have experience with ATC on other Handy Tech displays will have quicker success than me. Nevertheless, it is a great idea and I hope to get more accustomed to it. Mobile ATC is a different setting than the default ATC, and this enables the actilino to advance the display via panning without the screen reader having specific support for it. This being another item I did not find in a manual, it is worth noting to enable/disable Mobile ATC press dots 1-7-8-space. No status message is displayed, so you will have to determine if it is on or off by trial and error. I was able to use Mobile ATC on the home screen, in Messages and Mail and Safari. I’ve not been given any reason to believe it won’t work anywhere else Braille scrolling via advance keys usually works. Even without using ATC the scroll keys at the end of the line are no hardship to press. The joystick works like it does on other displays when using iOS, next/previous item, next/previous item by rotor setting, and activate. I found it easy to flick to the next item using my thumb without stopping reading the Braille display.
I have not spent much time with the audio support. I did turn it on to see if it works and listened to VoiceOver. Audio quality is highly subjective to each user. To me VoiceOver did not sound great, but other audio sounded better. So in short probably a lot like Bluetooth speakers and headphone experiences commonly found with iOS devices.
I’ll take a moment here to mention that the other ATC command, dots 1-7-space, that is used with supporting screen readers such as JAWS and the built in Actilino file editor also exists. If this is on when using iOS, I found the display will hang and no longer respond using VoiceOver. I am not sure if this is a bug or a feature, just be aware.
Another feature of Handy Tech displays including the Actilino is that pressing m-space causes the display to return to its main menu. This directly conflicts with VoiceOver’s command for muting and unmuting speech. I use this command quite a bit to mute speech when I want to work with Braille. There are two workarounds I have found: mute the speech with the touchscreen, or use a m-dot 7-space command (capital m in computer Braille). VoiceOver seems to ignore the extra dot 7 and activate the mute toggle and Actilino does not go into its main menu. Note again this is as of iOS 10.3.
An issue I have experienced using the Actilino with an iPhone 7 is that they do not always connect to each other. I assume this is due in part to the Actilino being new and at version 1.0 of its software. The other part of this, is it seems that the Bluetooth component for audio support may be having an issue when using with iPhone. As I mentioned, the Actilino keeps this off by default. The iPhone will continue to look for the audio component since it was previously paired. On my display, eventually what happens is either they will not connect, or the display would connect and display Braille but the keyboard would not send commands to the iPhone. I was able to resolve it temporarily by removing the Actilino as a Braille device and then re-pairing it but eventually the issue returned. I then removed the audio support from the iPhone’s Bluetooth settings and this seems to have resulted in a more stable setup for now. Again, I suspect a lot of this is because of the new display and I would expect either Handy Tech or Apple to make this better over time.
The Actilino has several types of tones enabled by default including error, warning, action confirmation and low battery sounds. These can be configured in the Actilino main menu system under Options. With all tones disabled, the Actilino still plays its startup chime when the main menu is loaded. This is not what I would expect to happen with all tones disabled. I prefer my Braille display to be silent and not calling attention to it powering on audibly. After all, the Braille cells are right there to confirm the action and I do not need the audio. Hopefully a future update will provide the ability to silence this chime. In the meantime, there is a workaround using the music feature of Actilino to adjust the synthesizer to a quieter volume though not entirely silence it.
The Actilino is a new player in the small pocket-sized Braille display category. There are a few rough edges showing it is still at version 1.0. The incomplete documentation and a few software quirks being the two notable improvements being needed. The need for a proprietary charging cable in this day of USB-C is a little disappointing as well. The ATC feature being able to work on mobile devices is a possibly exciting development for making it even easier to read Braille on a smaller device. The ability to use the display for notetaking and stand-alone book reading by loading files on its memory card to save battery life on an iDevice is also a strong point worth considering.
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