VarioUltra 20: a Great display

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Review Category: 

Review: 

Updated 2/6/17
The VarioUltra, a display sold by Baum and distributed in the US by Baum Retech, is a new comer to the market of what the assistive tech industry is calling "smart braille displays". They're called this, because, while they are not full fledged notetakers such as what you will find in a device like the BrailleNote Touch or Braille Sense, they do some other tasks unlike displays such as the Focus line from Freedom Scientific and Brailliant from Humanware. In other words, these devices are a compromise between a full-fledged notetaker and a simple display. The VarioUltra certainly fits in to this category.
Just like the Braille Edge from HIMS and the Perkins Mini from Perkins, the VarioUltra has a suite of applications built in to the unit's software. These include a word processor, calculator, clock, calendar, and alarm. That said, unlike the other 2 smart displays, the VarioUltra has some unique applications including a spreadsheet viewer and pdf reader. The VarioUltra, unlike its 2 counterparts, also has internal memory of 32 GB and can copy files to and from a thumb drive, both features neither the Edge nor the Perkins display offer. Unlike its 2 competitors, the VarioUltra comes in 2 sizes: 20 and 40 cells. The Perkins Mini only comes in a 16 cell model, and the Edge is only offered as a 40 cell option. Finally, another key difference between the VarioUltra and the other 2 aforementioned devices is that the user can have up to 4 bluetooth devices paired with the VarioUltra.
While review of the internal applications and their functions is beyond the scope of this review, we are focused on Apple products after all on this site, what follows is a hardware description and review of how this display has exhibited itself on my Apple devices. I may post a more in depth review somewhere of my over all impressions regarding the functionality of the internal programs.
What's in the box?
The VarioUltra, a couple of USB cords, a power supply with plugs to fit many international systems of electricity, a getting started card in braille, print manual, and case. One note about the case is that it is very well designed and put together. Many braille display manufacturers now are giving the user a case or sleeve that is essentially useless. Baum has not taken that shortcut, and has given the user a case much like most of the Executive Products cases that we've all come to love. The only issue I have had with mine is that the magnets, which hold the case closed, have come displaced, and are now sitting on top of one another. The case still closes just fine, but it could be an issue. Unlike Humanware, Freedom Scientific, and other companies, though, you don't have to pay extra for the well designed case. The only shortcoming of the case is that the strap is secured to the case by a very thin thread.
Buttons, switches, and arrows oh my!
Let's take a look at all of the buttons and switches on this device. this orientation is done with the braille display facing toward you, and the cursor routing buttons behind the display. Starting on the top, closest to you, from left to right, you will find the following: 2 round buttons rectangular key, a circle that looks like a joystick, another rectangular key, and 2 more small circular buttons. The small circular buttons control system functions and allow you to get various types of information. These buttons are called "S" keys. For example, pressing s3 twice will display the battery status when in note taker mode. Both rectangular buttons function as spacebars in braille display mode, which is what we will be discussing in this review, though you can find out about the notetaking functions in more detail on the VarioUltra website. The joystick (Baum refers to this as a "navistick",), will allow you to move around your screen from left to right like any display does, moving it up or down will go to the previous or next rotor option respectively.
Moving up the left top of the unit, you will find 3 round buttons. Those of you who have used the Brailliant line of displays will already be familiar with these keys, they are called command keys. Along the right side of the device, at the same level as these 3, you will find 3 more. Pressing them will do the equivalent of whatever the command for the braille letter would be with space. So, for example, the command space with g (dots 2-3-4-5,), would toggle the type of braille input. If you press these keys, the manual refers to them as "d" keys, 2-3-4-5, without space, it will do the same thing.
Located between D 1 and 4 you will find the cursor routing buttons, and behind those, the 8 dot braille keyboard.
Along the left side of the device, the switch closest to you is the device lock switch. When the switch is closest to you, this locks all of the keys on the device. If you flip it away from you, you can use all of the keys as expected. While this is a nice feature, it would be great if the VarioUltra would report the status of the switches on the side for beginners as a flash message. Continuing toward the rear panel you have the device mode switch. This controls whether you are in braille display mode, in other words connecting to an external device, or in notetaker mode, where you use the device's internal programs and can modify settings. When the switch is closest to you, it will be in braille display mode.
Behind the 2 switches you will find a micro USB port. This is used to charge the VarioUltra, which can be done with the included adapter or you can use your own supply. It's also used to connect to a PC or Android device so that you can access the VarioUltra's internal memory. Behind that is A standard USB Type A plug where you can plug in thumb drives. Along the right side of the device, you will find the power button. Press it briefly to toggle the VarioUltra from awake to sleep mode. Pressing and holding the power button for 10 seconds will restart the device.
Connection to iDevices
For those running iOS 8.2 and earlier, read below this paragraph to learn how to connect your VarioUltra to an iDevice. For those running 8.3 and later, you will first need to pair the device through Bluetooth settings and then go in and pair it again with VoiceOver. Baum has indicated that there are technical reasons for this which they will be roling out further down the road.
For devices running iOS 8.2 and earlier, the process of connecting the VarioUltra requires a few additional steps. This is because there were no braille drivers in iOS until 8.3 for the VarioUltra. However, that does not mean you cannot pair your braille display with your iDevice. For iDevices running iOS 8.2 and earlier,, you will need to complete a few other steps before pairing through the conventional way of doing so. In VoiceOver/Braille settings. First, you must set the VarioUltra to emulate a Pronto, which is another Baum product. You can do this in settings. You must also turn on bluetooth, obviously, if this has not been done. Then, you must pair the VarioUltra through settings/Bluetooth, and finally, after flipping the mode switch on the left side of the VarioUltra to notetaker mode, pair the VarioUltra with your iDevice. For detailed instructions on this process, please see the VarioUltra web page with various formats of the manual.
Connecting to a Mac
With Siera, you now have the option of connecting via USB or Bluetooth. It also appears that you will need firmware version 1.33, which was released last summer, on your VarioUltra. If you wish to connect via USB, simply put the VU in braille display mode, and plug it in to your Mac with VoiceOver running. To pair with bluetooth, you must first go in to notetaker mode and pull up the settings for bluetooth. Then, on your Mac, follow the conventional steps for pairing a braille display and use the authentication code 1111. After you activate the pair button on your Mac, the VU should come up and prompt you for the same code.After entering the authentication code in computer braille (dot 2 for times),, press the left spacebar to confirm the pairing request. Then switch the VU to braille display mode. As braille display behavior goes on Mac OS, the VU acts like most other displays. It does, however, lack speicific buttons for functions which could be useful that do not have braille display commands. For example, the Braille Edge has the ability to do the equivalent of VO Plus J to jump to linked text using the f5 key. This is not possible on the VU.
Not a unique feature, but a unique twist:
With the HIMS products, there is a feature called Terminal clipboard. This feature allows the user to compose text on the devices internal word processor, and then send that text to the connected device when the user is ready. The VarioUltra has a more advanced variation of this. While you cannot type on the fly exactly and just send the text along, you can go in to notetaker mode, compose a document in the Word Processor, and then copy it to the clipboard. it's also possible to just copy a section of a document to the clipboard. Once you have copied the text, switch back to notetaker mode, and s2 (located to the left of the left spacebar, along with D1. Be sure your text field is in editing mode prior to starting the paste. The longer the string of text, the longer the process will take. I was able to move a document that was about 2 pages long over to my iPhone in 5 minutes. Which seems crazy, but the reason for this is that it is typing each character when pasting over. It's also important to note, just like Terminal Clipboard for HIMS products, that the braille tables you use must match. So if you are typing in contracted braille using the VarioUltra's internal Word Processor in US English braille, you need to also set this up to match with VoiceOver. I find that moving phone numbers and other short notes like this is a very handy feature indeed!
When the rubber hits the road
There are 2 things that immediately stand out about this device to me. The first is how lightweight it is. While the 20 cell model only weighs 0.7 pounds, That’s about the same weight as a Focus 14, however, the VarioUltra is much more stirtily built. The second thing that stands out is the sharp Braille cells. Those who have used the first generation Brailliant, Refreshabraille 18, or the Braille connect line can expect a very similar feel. This is because, though the Brailliant and Refreshabraille do not have Baum’s name on them, they were, in fact, built by Baum.
The operation of the VarioUltra with one device, or even 2 devices, work ssolidly. I did not have a chance to run it under 3 different ones as of the writing of this review. Switching from the connected device to the notetaking mode to look up data or to read a book, for example, works flawlessly. You can pick up right where you left off on either mode. if you lock the screen on the iPhone, and then unlock it when in braille display mode, the VarioUltra will vibrate to let you know the connection has picked back up from where it left off.
One minor issue that I encountered with the 20 cell model I have while running iOS 8.2, was that because the iDevice thought it was running an 18 cell display instead of a 20, I'm never going to get a full 20 cells of braille on my iDevice. If this were a 40 cell model, 2 cells aren't quite a big deal, but with the 20, that's 10% less braille and 10% more scrolling that one has to do. That said, 18 cells of access is better than no access at all, which is what you would get in earlier versions of iOS without the emulation mode. For those running iOS 8.3 or OSX 10.11, where no emulation is required, you will get to enjoy all 20 cells of braille. Note that this does not apply to the 40 cell model, as the device that emulates is also a 40 cell display.
In terms of regular useage for me, the battery lasts about 9 hours with heavy use. That is with having it connected to devices via Bluetooth and going in to notetaker mode as needed. It's certainly not the best battery life on the market, but I carry a small external battery pack with me for times when I'm running out of power, and that works well. The battery and VarioUltra together still weigh quite a bit less than other displays on the market.
Typing on the VarioUltra takes a bit of getting used to due to the way the keyboard was ergonomically designed. At first, I found myself making quite a number of typos, but once I became used to the keyboard, I have actually found it a much more comfortable way to type than on either the Braille Edge or Refreshabraille 18, both devices which I have spent a few years using.
Conclusion
Many of the issues present prior to now have been dealt with in the latest firmware update to the VarioUltra. The ability to rapidly switch between notetaker and display mode is a huge productivity gainer for me, as is the ability to flip from one device to the other without worrying about losing the pairing of either one. Looking ahead, It would be nice if there were some way to take data on one paired device and to then copy it to another connected device. For example, if you have a phone number on your PC that you wish to have on your iPhone to make a call, it would be great to be able to copy that phone number to the internal memory of the VarioUltra, which could then be pasted in to your iDevice. it would also be neat if, since you have to establish a connection with the phone itself, if you could wake the iDevice like you can with a bluetooth keyboard by simply pressing a key. In sum, this is a top contender for my favorite display, and is something I enjoy using`.

Devices Accessory Was Used With: 

iPhone
iPod Touch

Rating: 

5 Stars

Disclaimer

The review on this page has generously been submitted by a member of the AppleVis community. As AppleVis is a community-powered website, we make no guarantee, either express or implied, of the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this review.

13 Comments

Thumb Keys

Hello Scott, Thank you for the review. When I read about the VarioUltra on their website it mentions thumb keys. Do these indeed exist? And if so do they pan as one might expect when using iOS? thanks.

michael?

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

HI Travis.
I'm not sure where you got the idea Michael did this review, but anyway. (smiles). The 2 thumb keys are the spacebars at the bottom of the display and are not made for panning. The left thumb key, when in notetaker mode, will serve to perform functions when pressed in conjunction with other keys. For example, left thumb key with L will move you to the top of a document. The right thumb key in notetaker mode functions only as a spacebar. In Braille display mode, both thumb keys function as space bars. Does that help?
TO pan with iOS, you use the C 2 and C 5 keys located to either side of the display itself.

Thanks

Hi Scott, Ha I don't know either, reading to fast! Sorry about that. Thanks for the clarification, it seems like a lot of space keys.

Some responses from BAUM Retec, Inc.

Greetings everyone, and thank you to Scott for a thoughtful review of VarioUltra. I represent BAUM Retec, Inc. (aka BAUM USA) and wanted to respond to some of the comments made.

1. The thread used to attach the carry strap to VarioUltra is super strong, and is made using a nylon filament braid design. While I have not put this to the test, BAUM Retec in Germany tell me that it would support the weight of a person if they had a long enough piece of thread to hang over something. They go on to say that it’s more likely that the stitching of the case would come loose before this thread wears out.

2. The issue concerning direct support for VarioUltra within iOS remains an issue. The work was actually completed last October, and is just waiting to be released by Apple. I can't comment on the delay from their side but assume they're waiting to include it with other enhancements and bug fixes. We hope it comes soon though, because if their support for VarioUltra in OSX Yosemite is anything to go by, the implementation is very nice, quick, and easy to use.

3. It is true that pairing a VarioUltra with your iOS device is different from other solutions. Yes, we require you to go through Bluetooth to pair first, and then go to VoiceOver to select VarioUltra as your preferred braille display. The good news with VarioUltra is that once you have paired the device, you won't need to do so again. Just activate VoiceOver and if VarioUltra is in range, connection should be automatic. There are a couple of reasons we chose to go this route that relate to new features that we hope to introduce later in 2015. Another reason is that while pairing a braille device in VoiceOver usually gives you 30 seconds to enter the 4-digit pin code, if you try it with a BAUM display you get just 8 seconds. This is something both Apple and BAUM Retec is aware of. Unfortunately, neither of us has figured out why this is happening.

4. This side of Apple's iOS recognizing VarioUltra as a legitimate, safe device, pairing as VarioUltra is not possible. For this reason we developed a Bluetooth emulation function that allows us to cloak the VarioUltra and have it appear as either a Pronto 18, a Pronto 40, or a VarioConnect 40. For VarioUltra 20-cell users, their only option is to go with Pronto 18 emulation, which does unfortunately result in only 18 cells being used on the display when connected via Bluetooth. This problem does not occur with the 40-cell model because both the Pronto 40 and VarioConnect 40 emulations are for other 40-cell devices. Once Apple introduces an update to iOS with support for VarioUltra, it will no longer be necessary to use this emulation.

5. A new software update is in the works as we speak. Some of the things being worked on include Bluetooth improvements that will allow customers to assign a specific Bluetooth channel to a specific device and thereafter always find that device on the channel you specify. A related enhancement is to also specify the Bluetooth emulation mode by channel so you can have both natively supported connections (PC/Mac) and emulation supported connections such as iOS on at the same time. Battery and power management are also being worked on, and have been well documented by us and others.

6. The terminal clipboard feature is something else we’re working on. I hope to have news on this and other enhancements as we move forward in 2015.

I hope this lengthy response is welcomed, and of interest to you all.

Best regards,
David Bradburn

More VarioUltra Comments

Hello, everyone:

Several updates !the VarioUltra have been offered since Scott Davert's excellent review last January. One thing that still concerns me is the braille display's relatively short batsery life per charge — 8 hours as a braille display and 12 hours as a nosetaker. That seems relatively short to me, especially because some displays have a battery life of 20, 24 or 30 hhrs per charfe. Is anyone else concerned about this issue, or am I somehow missing the boat here, as it were?

user's guides

From Scott's review, this sounds like the same issue that always bugs me. This device is for blind people, yet it comes with a print user's guide. Why doesn't it come with a full user's guide in braille rather than just a quick start guide? Blind peoplewho are going to be using this to read braille do not read print. We read braille.

Any updates

Hi,

Are there any updates to the software yet?
Can it connect wthh OSX 9.1 and OSX El Capitan?

Does it still require emulation mode to connect?

I am hopefully getting one soon, but am starting to wonder if I should consider a different display?

Updates

Hello,
The VarioUltra does include a braille quick start guide in the box.
There is also now an html online manual that one can access.
OSX El Capitan will work with the VarioUltra via bluetooth.
For iOS 8.3 and up, Apple did add VarioUltra support so you no longer have to use the emulation mode.

9.1 and El Cap

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hello.
No, you will not need to run in emulation mode on 9.1, nor with El Cap. However, I can't seem to get USB connectivity to work on the Mac, even under El Cap.

Responding to the comments

Before I worked at a college, I also felt irritation that Braille devices came with print manuals.

But my attitude has changed. Many agencies that buy these devices have only sighted access technology trainers. Without a printed manual, they'd be lost. For many young or newly blinded learners, working with a slightly clueless sighted trainer may be their first introduction to access technology, so we want to give those sightlings all the help they need.

It would be nice though if Baum provided an embossable BRF of their manual we could simply print ourselves. The HTML version is now a welcome edition, making it easier to read on a player like the Vr Stream or Plextalk pocket.

I found when learning my Vario Ultra, I read the manual on another device while trying out the features. It simplified things, and now I use the manual on the device, but before I really understood any of its features, I needed to consult the manual on my PC and my daisy player while pushing buttons on the Varioultra itself.

Because I have an iPOD touch 4G and an iPHONE 5C, I found it wasn't as easy to switch between multiple bluetooth devices as I'd hoped. The iPOD uses iOS 6.16 and won't update to anything higher, so I have to use the Varioultra in emulation mode. When it emulates another Braille display I loose the two cells, like Scott said, so I turned off the emulation, making it accessible only to my iPHONE 5C.

On the positive side however, NVDA 2015.4 was just released with bluetooth support for the Varioultra, so switching between my PC and phone works great without wired connections. JAWS also supports a bluetooth connection.

I too found it hard to get used to the keyboard, but when I started typing on paratransit rides, I discovered it worked great hanging around my neck, snuggled next to my chest. Now I can type on even the bumpiest of vehicles, a feat a sighted person can't accomplish with a bluetooth keyboard or paper and pen. I used it extensively this summer with iExit, an app that tells you what's coming up on the highway, and my sighted husband found this a much safer alternative than trying to type on his GPS touchscreen or view search results while driving.

One trick I have for getting used to typing on any Braille display or Bluetooth keyboard is to play text adventure games. It relaxes you because typos aren't a worry.

Because the VarioUltra has no wi-fi, it is sometimes recommended in schools, where students cannot access the internet while taking exams. This was a big selling point for my employer, because of course, if you do need the internet you can use it as a display for a tablet phone or computer.

One caution when recommending it to others is that the learning curve is substantial. Scott's well-written introduction to its button layout is in my opinion clearer and easier to follow than the one in the documentation. There's no key describer mode so you have to commit to memorizing what all the keys do. The notetaker mode does have a multiplicity of menus, and in IOS the spacebar with K takes you in to Vo help where you can press keys to find out what they do.

The latest (1.31) version of the firmware, which is a free download, is essential to get the most out of the device. Older firmware had some serious bugs and limitations. Unlike some, Baum fully updates the entire manual with the new firmware so there's no poking through a series of What's New and readme files, or addendum appendices to learn the device.

There is still no terminal clipboard, and you can't use its ability to connect to a flash drive to move anything from that drive to an iOS device. But, the other issues which are mentioned in some of the comments here have largely been fixed.

One trick to learning all the Braille equivalents of the VO gestures is to master one each day. The VarioUltra manual brags that every feature of the device can be accessed through some sort of key combination, but with all its buttons, the complexithy is vast.

iOS works great with it though, and for this forum that's what really matters.

more updates

The terminal clipboard hasn't been made yet, probably because there are bugs with the word processor, which they'll use a subsystem of, probably. Battery life is still at a good 7 or 8 hours, but shoot. I have a bluetooth keyboard to love on until the VarioUltra gets more love from Baum.

The new update 1.32, (it's

The new update 1.32, (it's not that new anymore, but I'm just getting around to writing about it) solved some pairing issues, and I now have no trouble pairing with an iPAD, phone, Kindle, iPOD and three PCS and a Mac. I can only pair with four of these at once but I can quickly switch between the four paired devices. With the iPOD Touch 4G I emulate a pronto and with the Kindle a Varioconnect and I have to remember to choose that emulation in Settings first.
iOS Braille support continues to improve and has natively supported the Varioultra now for over a year. Baum just released a new Braille driver for JAWS. They also recently updated its manual to include more info about the Mac and iOS and they fixed some confusing instructions in the manual. I'm very impressed at all the regular updates I've received for this device.
Still no terminal clipboard, and battery life could be better, but I haven't read about any display I'd rather had, even if I had money to buy any one I'd want. After over a year of use it shows no wear or loss of battery capacity. I still hit the wrong key though, way too often, this device isn't for the clumsy!

updated

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

I updated the accessory review to reflect ``the current firmware versio`n.