The Brailliant BI 14 from Humanware refreshes instantly, silently, and reliably. Those three words should be kept in mind in what follows, because they may well overshadow every other quibble and criticism I feel obligated to mention in this review, and they in fact set it apart from the Orbit Reader 20, which was my other serious contender for purchase. The Brailliant 14, the first new Brailliant model since 2012, is a solid unit, but one that makes a number of compromises to achieve its three-digit price tag while retaining piezoelectric Braille cells, as well as having plenty of room to grow in its firmware. I’ll keep to a minimum rehashing of basic info covered in the AccessWorld review, but I have somewhat of a different take. So, here comes the Consumer Curmudgeon’s Tale…
I’m having trouble coming up with a common-object size equivalent, except a VHS tape in its case (thereby informing the over-40 crowd) or an external desktop hard drive (thereby getting fellow nerds onboard): it’s a roughly 6” or 7“x4“x1” light plastic box in a slightly padded leather case with felted lining, where the leather is stitched over what feels like a sheet of plastic. The thin nylon shoulder strap is removable, but attaches to the display using speed clips that are tied to little strings looped through lanyard holes at the bottom edges of the unit. The Brailliant fixes to the case with Velcro strips located on its underside. Opening the magnetic flap of the case exposes the keyboard without needing to remove the case.
The rear of the Brailliant sports a slide switch for shifting between terminal and “application” mode; on the left side, we have the power button and USB port; the front is entirely taken up with the four long panning buttons; and the right side is empty. ON the top face, eight large Perkins keys are topped with a five-way button I’m calling a joystick, tucked between dots 1 and 4 in the space created by the curving key layout. Capacitive cursor routing sensors and the 14 Braille cells lie between the Perkins keys and the standard-size spacebar. There’s quite a bit of unused real estate flanking the cells and spacebar.
My previous Braille display, which is actually still sitting happily on the desk in front of me, was a Baum BrailleConnect 40. When I learned that Humanware had “taken production in house” many years ago in place of selling Baum displays (perhaps contributing to Baum’s demise?), and reading reports that Humanware’s displays were well built, I assumed I would open the Brailliant BI 14 box to find something similar to the BrailleConnect. Not at all, though: where the BrailleConnect and older Brailliant displays are metal, the Brailliant 14 is all plastic; where the BrailleConnect has fantastic Perkins keys with a smooth action, the Brailliant’s keys feel mushy, and I do not feel confident that they’re being registered—especially the spacebar; where the BrailleConnect has snappy cursor routing buttons, the Brailliant uses touch sensors that I have difficulty activating. The Brailliant is thicker top to bottom and, really only because of the spacebar, deeper front to back than the BrailleConnect. While the unit is in its case, I also have a hard time pressing the power button, which is flush with the side and distinguishable only by raised markings. Then again, I think my BrailleConnect cost taxpayers nearly $5,000, whereas I paid $895 for the Brailliant, shipped on sale, and Baum didn’t survive. A Brailliant built like a BrailleConnect is apparently called a Freedom Scientific Focus 14 Blue, 5th generation, and it was $1295+tax when I was shopping. The 14-cell design represents another cost-cutting measure, since there’s plenty of room for 20 cells on the face of the unit. Although announced in 2017, it also uses micro-USB instead of USB-C, so remember that the little pins should point downward.
I also have mixed feelings about the case, but it’s trivial. My first issue is that it’s not easy to line up the USB cable or depress the power button through the cutouts in the stiff side of the case, because the holes need to be slightly larger. Second, the case doesn’t protect the edge of the display where the thumb buttons are located. The magnetic clasp goes around the device here, but why are the sides, which have no jutting controls, fully covered, while the edge with buttons only has this strap? The flap should run the full length of the display. Finally—and I don’t know any way around this—it looks like a purse. Secure as I am in my sis-gendered masculinity, I just can’t bring myself to walk through my University building wearing a little purse. So, I removed the carry strap. Since the case adds considerable bulk, I may not always use it.
On the Web site, battery life is listed as 15-20 hours, while the manual states “more than ten hours” connected to Bluetooth. During the first week, after four or five hours of playing with it, the battery went from full to 30%. It’ll be one of those devices to plug in at night after a long use session. Since the battery itself is not user replaceable (the Orbit’s is), sending it in for maintenance will also likely be something to anticipate in the long term.
All of my quibbles thus far have been essentially cosmetic, except perhaps for the keyboard mushiness. I have an issue with extraneous characters occasionally appearing that I didn’t type, and this would either be a Bluetooth issue or else the keys lacking sufficient key travel. It may be a little bit of both, since commas, spaces, and a’s seem to pop up even in the onboard notes app. Given how central spacebar commands are, it’s really awkward to feel uncertain if the keystrokes are registering, or if keystrokes are registering accidentally.
The touch sensors in place of routing buttons represent the greatest concern for me, personally. Let it be known that I have really large hands and fat fingers—as in, if I walk up to a street vendor and point to something, he squirts mustard on my finger and slaps two hotdog buns around it. The touch sensors are oriented vertically on a ridge that runs across the device separating the thicker portion housing the main keyboard and joystick from the thinner portion with the display and spacebar. The sensors are in little finger-tip-shaped indentions along this ridge. Not my fingertips, though. The fingers on my left hand can’t activate the sensors at all, unless I mash the area numerous times. I believe they are oriented somehow toward the left of the indention. With my right hand, I can activate the sensors successfully about 70% of the time on the first attempt. The sensitivity can be changed in settings, though doing so has no effect on my left hand issue, while raising the sensitivity only results in my right hand accidentally activating the sensors whenever my fingers brush against them. Even on the stiffer setting, they occasionally activate accidentally. In short, I find this a very poor substitute for traditional routing buttons. Alternatives exist, including key combinations in the onboard Notes application and, in terminal mode, the joystick, which duplicates swiping and selecting gestures. Routing buttons remain important, though; and, like much else with the Brailliant, the touch sensors are a compromise between the best way to do it and nothing at all.
The thumb keys, which function as previous/next for the outer buttons and pan back/forward for the inner ones, are all identical in size, shape, and spacing. The outer buttons duplicate right and left on the joystick in every context I can think of, and so I may ultimately reassign them. If I am practicing poor posture and orientation to the device, such as turning it at an odd angle, it’s easy to press the Next button instead of pan-right, and I do this occasionally while reading, thereby losing my place. Since thumbs aren’t the most sensitive appendages, panning always remains less certain than it could be. I think making all controls tactally distinct is a basic part of good design for a blindness product, and making the Prev/Next buttons half size would have fixed a lot. On the other hand, having the panning buttons on the front is great, because it turns panning while moving my fingers back to the left into a single motion. That extra speed and fluidity helps offset the fact that 14 cells is only enough for two full decent-sized words. The slide switch is likewise an example of good design: unlike the key combination of the Orbit Reader, the switch makes it unambiguous whether one is attached to the connected device or the onboard notes application.
Stand-Out Features and Their Limitations
The device’s application mode, which includes a clock and notes app in addition to the various settings menus, allows the user to instantly flip from the connected device back to the last activity in application mode. Most usefully, this would be either the middle of taking a note or else the clock display. That’s probably the most outstanding feature common to many of the current generation of products from various manufacturers. Given how much work it is to hustle from, say, the Mail app to a note, then into the text area of the note to jot anything down, then back to the other activity, this switch-flipping equivalent to a humble pad of paper is almost worth the price of admission by itself.
On the other hand, don’t expect to move easily between the onboard notes application and its clock. A spacebar+“for” sign chord zips to the menu, which defaults to the time, but then there’s no way to jump back to the note. A better way to check the time, at least in terminal mode, is to press the power button. This brings up the menu, which defaults to the time. Hitting power again returns to the previous activity. The manual states that this works in application mode as well, but it does not.
Flipping into terminal mode, incidentally, will also wake the connected device, so long as the Brailliant Sync app is running in the background; in practice, however, this isn’t as useful as I’d hoped, since there’s obviously still the secure unlock procedure to contend with.
The main selling point for me on the new Brailliant was the background IOS app that keeps notes synced with Microsoft Exchange or Google accounts. I use Outlook on the PC and find its notes the overall quickest way to jot down simple information, though it’s nothing like as sophisticated as the Apple Notes app. The thought of being able to flip a switch and suddenly be ready to take notes during a phone call, for instance, and then to have those notes automatically available on all my devices, sold me. By comparison, other displays require either USB connection or swapping the SD card to transfer data, which already felt out-dated when I bought my BookPort Plus in 2011.
There are several important caveats, as it turns out. The first interesting thing to note is that the sync app developer is Harpo, a direct competitor to HumanWare that sells the BraillePen displays. It’s not a problem; just interesting. However, not to put too fine a point on the matter, it’s plain from certain messages in the app that it was not written by a native English speaker. One forum-poster in India was under the impression that Harpo is the actual manufacturer of the display, just as HumanWare used to rebadge Baum displays. I have no idea whether that’s the case, but the display build quality does not resemble the 2012 generation of Brailliants.
Second, the first time I set it up with my Exchange account, I eventually noticed that it’d failed to sync about half of the 52 notes in the account, plus it totally ignores subfolders and their contents. I flipped to application mode and back to terminal mode to re-initiate syncing, but the app reported it remained idle. Finally, I deleted the connection to the account and to my device, cycled power on the Brailliant, and tried the whole setup procedure again. This time, it only synchronized two notes. Same the next time I deleted and tried a third time. On the fourth attempt, everything synced. That was easy! I anticipate additional finickiness moving forward.
Third, contrary to HumanWare’s promotional information, it does not connect with the native Apple Notes app, or at least not to ICloud notes. I suspect Apple here, or simply the fact that Apple notes have rich content that the display would not be able to handle.
Fourth, shifting consideration from the Brailliant Sync app to the onboard Notes application, the sum total of edit functions consists of moving by character/word/line, jumping to top and bottom, deleting notes (space-d chord) and the backspace key: no cut/copy/paste, no file renaming, no folders other than the different notes accounts (local, Exchange, Google), and no search. The Orbit Reader 20’s editor is lightyears ahead. Fifth, in a related vein, there’s no way to ever move content from the Local notes folder off of the device, because there’s no SD card and no “USB mass storage device“mode.
All this, with perhaps the exception of ICloud notes compatibility, can be improved with a significant firmware update, so here’s hoping. In my experience, nothing happens quickly in the blindness industry. For example, as I’m writing this, Windows 10 version 1909 will not load the Brailliant device driver because, it says, there is a problem with its digital signature (The solution is to instead use the Microsoft generic driver, which works fine). Scott Davert pointed out the paucity of editing commands in his review over a year ago, and here we still are. I have to wonder if one of the hold-ups is the difficulty posed by competing with other displays that now have notetaker functionality, on the one hand, while avoiding competition with HumanWare’s own BrailleNote devices, on the other.
An Ode to Small Displays and Braille Literacy
Whew. Now that I have that out of my system, let me say why little Braille displays are awesome. I indicated earlier that my ancient BrailleConnect was sitting in front of me. I pulled it out a month ago as I pondered whether I could give relearning Braill another shot. Because the truth is, I suck at Braille, utterly and unambiguously. Like many low vision kids with degenerative eye conditions, I learned it alongside print when I was six, and was fairly proficient until I was around eleven. But that was at a time when the only Braille materials available consisted of what I banged out myself on a Perkins Brailler or slate and stylus, or a very few things in enormous tomes. So, since I could read with a magnifier at the time, I stopped using it for anything other than reading the labels on Talking Book cassettes or applying magnetic labels to canned goods. Why, then, did I stick the State for a $5,000 USB peripheral twelve years ago? Because Braille literacy is vital, particularly for a teacher who needs to read notes and passages from texts to a room full of college students. Speech synthesizers are just plain embarrassing and debilitating at such times, and I’ve felt it for twenty years now. I gave up, though, because, at the time, talking Iphones weren’t a thing yet and Windows on a 40-cell display was too overwhelming to even get started with. I tried again four years ago, actually, but it was like switching to a new musical instrument when I was already a virtuoso on another one, and I had a paying gig to do every day.
I’ve only had the Brailliant for two weeks, and I’m already enjoying it. Notes and e-mails, 14 cells at a time, are proving much easier to handle than Windows, while I’ve been surprised how quickly I’m remembering how to type in Grade 2, so long as I don’t think about it. The small display also makes it less likely that, for a slow reader like me, the phone will time out from lack of interaction with the display, since I pan more often than on the 40-cell. I’ve noticed, too, that my typing on a QWERTY keyboard has become slower and less accurate in recent years. The Perkins keys have the advantage of never requiring the typist’s hands to move at all, and I’m liking that.
Moreover, the flexibility VoiceOver has achieved for command customization on the display is fantastic. I’m already encountering some of the frustrations others have reported, such as my proudly entering the word “where” as the WH sign, ER sign, and e without pausing to think, only to have it translate somehow to WH sign followed by dot 5 h, or “whhere.” The next time I tried the same combination of signs, it behaved much better and I learned that the proper contraction is dot-5 wh. I was warned that translation inconsistencies are a thing. There’s definitely a learning curve and consequent dangers from translation. A space character somehow got inserted between the number sign and the number in a note I was reading, after which I noticed through speach that it had become "# dcaj” as a result. My first attempt to work in a text editor on the Iphone was disastrous, meanwhile, because there appears to be an IOS glitch that doesn’t track the cursor position correctly on the display if using the routing buttons until the user swipes to move the focus around in the document. One other issue I was having in typical username/password boxes seems to have been my own ignorance. The display seems to buffer single-line edit boxes until the enter key is pressed, then sends the line to the phone. Perhaps this is common to all displays using IOS. And so on. It’s still too soon for me to discern user error from temperamentalness or bugs. The bugs will come and go, however, while the fact remains that small displays do represent the first Braille technology that are in range for personal purchases, since they cost about the same as a tripped-out flagship phone that people who invest at that level buy with an expectation of tossing in two to four years.
I’m more concerned that my hands simply lack adequate sensitivity at this point for me to ever progress beyond a painfully slow pace. Decades of “finger frying", as well as perhaps just age, make it difficult for me to distinguish dot patterns. Eight-dot is a non-starter, and I really can’t often tell an ST sign from a k, regardless of orientation to the cell, or discern exactly which dots are raised without multiple angles. My finger needs glasses. It may well be hopeless, but I’m not giving up so easily this time. Not only do I keenly feel the need for Braille literacy almost every day of my working life, it’s also far less stressful, on a subconscious level, to read by touch instead of super-charged rapid synthetic speech all day. Regardless of how far I can get with it, it’s a worthwhile activity made possible, really, by these small displays that are easy to purchase, carry around, connect, and use without fanfare.
I love sitting down with my purse… I mean Braille display… in my lap in the evenings to read the newspaper while the TV or radio is on, and I’m reading and writing faster every day as a result. Despite the real shortcomings I’ve discussed, I’d buy it again. Although I’m a slow reader, the frequency with which panning is required on a small display would make the Orbit’s slower refresh rate a significant issue; if it takes a second to refresh, that’s a second every few words, while panning and repositioning my hand on the Brailliant takes less than half that. Also at the price-conscious end, the Braille Me, and its manufacturer, are still too new to possess a track record of reliability. The Focus, meanwhile, might be what I’d get if I weren’t paying out of pocket—but, in that case, it would be for work and, since that wouldn’t happen unless I were proficient at Braille, I would jump to a 40-cell display anyway. Those are obviously only a few of the newer products out there, and the Brailliant is the only one I’ve actually handled. So, this is just a review of my thinking. The amount I was willing and able to invest, given that I’m not a proficient Braille user, set a price ceiling for me. Suffice to say, I am comfortable with the decision I made, though I hope to see significant firmware updates to the Notes application soon.