A Review of the Orbit Reader 40
By Scott Davert, Coordinator: Technology, Research and Innovation Center, Helen Keller National Center for DeafBlind Youths and Adults
October 20, 2021
In January of 2018, I reviewed the original Orbit Reader 20 From Orbit Research. It was “intended primarily as a braille display for reading braille files and for connecting to external devices. With a much lower price point than other 20-cell displays, the Orbit Reader 20 does not have onboard translation options, Cursor Routing Buttons or many of the other features found in braille devices that cost thousands of dollars more.” Fast forward to 2021 and Orbit Research has a new device that is a 40-cell display, featuring Cursor Routing Buttons, built in translation options, connectivity for up to 5 Bluetooth devices and much more. This was done while maintaining the idea of developing a solid braille device while still keeping the price far below other comparable options.
The Orbit Reader 40 is a 40-cell display which also has a Calculator, Clock, Calendar, Alarm, Word Processor, File Manager and Book Reader. It further has the ability to give both auditory and vibratory feedback. One of the compromises with the Orbit Reader 40 is that it does not contain any internal memory. Files must be stored on an SD card or USB thumb drive and then opened for viewing or editing.
What’s in the Box?
The box you receive should include the Orbit Reader 40, USB-C cable, AC adapter, a print only getting started guide and SD card. Note that the SD card may already be inserted into the braille display, and unless you purchase 1 of the 2 available cases, one will not come with the Orbit Reader 40. The absence of a braille getting started guide on a braille only product is disappointing, considering the product ships with one in print. Orbit Research has indicated that they plan to begin shipping units with the Getting Started Guide in braille before the end of the year.
The Orbit Reader 40 measures 1.28 inches thick by 3.7 inches wide by 11.61 inches long and weighs 1.6 pounds. Placing it on a flat surface with the Spacebar closest to you, the lay-out is as follows.
On the front panel, there are 2 rectangular slots near each end of the display. These are used to secure the Orbit Reader 40 to one of the cases, or it is possible to attach a strap without a case.
The closest thing to you on the surface is a Spacebar. Moving away from you, you will find the 40 cell braille display, with a Cursor Routing button located behind each cell. To the left of cell 1, and the right of cell 40, you will find a rectangular shaped key that can be pressed toward or away from you. These are the keys for panning braille. Behind the Cursor Routing Buttons, you will find a Perkins style keyboard. From left to right, you will find dots 7, 3, 2, 1, and then a 4-way navigational pad with a Select button in the middle. To the right of the keypad, you will find dots 4, 5, 6, and 8.
The left side of the Orbit Reader 40 contains a USB-A port intended for connecting thumb drives. On the right side, you will find 3 items. The closest thing to you is the Power button. Behind this is the USB-C port, made for charging the Orbit Reader 40 and connecting to devices through USB and behind this port is a 3.5 MM headphone jack. Other than alarms and alerts, the audio does not have a purpose at the time of this evaluation in October 2021.
Along the backside of the braille display, you will find the SD card reader. The Orbit Reader 40 will accept SD cards between 4 and 32 GB
Flipping the device over, each corner contains a rubber foot which will help keep the display stable, several screws, and a place for a user replaceable battery which can be purchased for $49.95. (UPDATE 1/24/23: I have updated the price in the previous sentence to reflect the price change, as the battery was originally $44.95 at the time of writing this article.)
Though there is not a free case, there are 2 available for purchase. One is made and sold by Orbit Research which costs $59.95. The case is constructed of nylon and offers some padding to protect the device if it is dropped. It closes with a zipper and also contains a pocket on the top for storing things such as a smaller iPhone. I was able to fit an iPhone SE 2020 and an iPhone 12 Mini (without their cases) into this pocket. This case also comes with an adjustable strap and zip ties which allow the user to secure the Orbit Reader 40 to the case. When the Orbit Reader 40 is inserted, the buttons and keys on the top surface are exposed. With the zipper open, the Orbit Reader 40 doesn’t seem secure, but this is where the included zip ties can come in handy. For instructions on securing the case to the Orbit Reader 40, please see this article written by Richard Turner which covers the process in great detail. If you did not receive zip ties with your Orbit Reader 40 case, you can contact Orbit Research Tech Support and they will ship them to you free of charge. Not exposed, though, are the Power button and the USB-C port for charging. One can reach into the case and activate the Power button, though it is much easier to connect the USB-C port to a computer or charger with the device removed.
The other case, which costs $135.95, is made by Executive Products and can be purchased through Orbit Research or other resellers. (UPDATE 1/24/23: I have updated the price in the previous sentence to reflect the price change, as the case was originally $123.95 at the time of writing this article.) The case is constructed of leather and has 2 snaps on the back to help secure the display inside the case. Unlike the case developed by Orbit Research, the Executive products case closes magnetically. When open, the ports, keys, and braille display are exposed. When closed, the case covers the entire surface of the Orbit Reader 40 with the exception of small openings which provide access to both the Power button and USB-C port. There is also a small pocket on the top of the case which allows the user to store short cables or other items. The other nice thing about the Executive Products case is the anti-slip material on the back. I found that the Orbit Research case slid around on smooth surfaces whereas the Executive Products case did not. One advantage to the case made by Orbit Research, beyond the price difference, is that the pocket on the case is larger. Both cases include a heavy duty strap which allows the user to carry the device around securely.
Initial Start Up
After charging the Orbit Reader 40, it will be time to turn it on. Press and hold the Power button for about 3 seconds and the braille will flash across the display along with a vibration to confirm the unit is turning on. When starting the Orbit Reader for the first time, the default loaded profile is uncontracted Unified English Braille. There are 2 other language profiles available by default: contracted UEB and 8-dot computer braille. These profiles can be chosen by pressing Select and then the dot number which corresponds to the language profile. If you wish to set it to contracted Unified English Braille, for example, you can do so by holding down the Select button and then pressing dot 2. The Orbit Reader will vibrate and also indicate progress on the braille display while it is loading the new profile. The user can also choose from over 40 languages, and you can get further details on supported languages and how to configure them by reading section 10.8 of the user documentation available in many formats. Shortcuts for switching profiles are available anywhere on the Orbit Reader 40 unless you are connected to another device, which would then control these settings.
Other settings are available and can be accessed through the menu. From anywhere on the device, press Select with Up arrow to launch the menu. Within this menu, the user can configure the cursor blink rate, audio/vibration alerts, splitting words, word wrap, compressing spaces, indents, and many more settings. For details, please consult the user documentation.
Stand Alone Mode
The Orbit Reader 40, like its 20-cell counterpart, has 2 modes of operation: Stand Alone and Remote. Stand Alone mode provides access to the internal applications which include a File Manager, Editor, Book Reader, Calculator, Clock, Calendar and Alarms. Remote Mode allows the user to connect to other screen readers and is covered below.
On startup, you will be placed in the File Manager. The File Manager allows you to browse and interact with the contents of an SD card or thumb drive. The user has the ability to create new folders, mark documents, sort files in multiple ways, rename files, transfer files over Bluetooth or move them. I found that all of these processes worked as expected, and that the User Guide clearly lays out the keyboard commands and steps to perform each action.
When running Editor in the background, loading your most recently edited file will take about a second. If you are in the File Manager, or reading a book you wish to take notes on, you can quickly jump to the last file loaded in the Editor by pressing Spacebar + Dots 1-2-4-6. You can press space with 1-3-4-5 (n) from anywhere in Stand Alone mode to create a new file.
Though the Orbit Reader has some unique commands, many follow the conventional keyboard mapping on a braille notetaker. For example, pressing Spacebar with Dots 1, 2, and 3 will jump to the top of the file. You can also use block commands in the Reader and Editor, with options to cut, copy, and paste.
When you wish to save your changes, press the Select button twice to exit the Editor, or space with S to save without exiting. If you put the Orbit Reader 40 to sleep by tapping the Power button without saving your changes, it retains the modifications you have made as long as it doesn’t crash or lose battery power.
If you write the name you’d like to use for your file on the top line of your document, the Orbit Reader 40 will automatically add it as the file name. If you wish to compose a text or braille document, you would include the file format as part of the name. If you wanted to create a plain text file called test, for example, the first line of the document should only contain test.txt. When you reopen a file using the File Manager, it opens in the Reader. To continue editing your document, press Spacebar + E. You can verify that you are in the Editor when you encounter a blinking cursor. If you are having issues memorizing keyboard shortcuts for specific functions, you can press the Select button while in the Editor to launch a menu. You can either use the arrow keys to move around the menu, or press the braille keyboard shortcut. Having both options of one-touch access to functions by way of shortcut keys or a menu interface accommodates users with different learning styles.
The Book Reader
The Reader supports plain text and digital braille files. There are options to save bookmarks, control auto scroll, find text, and scroll by larger chunks of text. The reader preserves your place in a file upon exiting with dot 7. Loading of braille or text documents is nearly instantaneous, as long as no conversion to contracted braille is involved. If you have a plain text file which you prefer to read in contracted braille, the conversion process can take some time but it only needs to happen once. A 140 KB text file took about 45 seconds to load in contracted braille. The next time I loaded this file, it only took about 3 seconds and displayed in contracted braille. A 3119 KB BRF file from Bookshare and a 989 KB text document each loaded in less than half a second, without conversion.
The Orbit Reader 40 lacks support for common formats such as Rich Text, Microsoft Word, ePub or DAISY. The manual recommends using a utility for Windows called Send To Braille, which adds options to the Windows context menu to create an unformatted uncontracted or contracted braille file that can be copied to either an SD card or thumb drive. For Mac users, running the Braille Blaster program is the only suggestion given to convert files to BRL or BRF. On either operating system, you can also use the online document conversion tools on Robobraille to convert various file formats to digital braille or text.
Calculator, Calendar and Clock
You can launch the Calculator application by pressing space with dots 1-4-7. The Calculator offers the four basic arithmetic functions and works as advertised. One challenge some people face is memorizing the correct symbols for carrying out these operations. You can also press commands such as Select Up Arrow to insert a + symbol, Select Left Arrow to insert a / symbol etc. The calculator also has memories you can store and then later retrieve if desired.
The Calendar application allows you to add, edit, delete and browse appointments. You can get to the Calendar application by pressing space with dots 1-4-8. This command is also how you exit the program. If you schedule an appointment, you will be notified by audio and vibratory feedback. When scheduling an appointment, to move among the details, press the Right Arrow key. A blinking cursor at the end of the line for scheduling an appointment is where you would add notes if necessary. I found the interface to be a bit atypical, but all of the features worked.
The clock and alarm functions appear to work as advertised. I found after several days that the clock retained the exact time, which is not the case with the Focus and Brailliant displays.
Connecting with an External Bluetooth Keyboard
A thorough evaluation on this operation mode is beyond the scope of this article, however, it was examined. Pairing my Logitech K380 or my iClever BK03 keyboards was a smooth process that is clearly outlined in the manual. One important thing to note is that when a keyboard is connected, the Orbit Reader will only output with computer braille. Using the keyboard to move around the internal functions works as outlined in the manual, and there typically is very little latency unless typing in the Editor.
When connecting to an external device, the Orbit Reader supports up to 5 simultaneous Bluetooth connections along with 1 USB. It is compatible with almost any screen reader on any operating system, partially due to the fact that it can also emulate an older braille display called the VarioUltra, which is compatible with much older versions of screen readers. For example, on iOS, the Orbit Reader 40 can connect to devices running iOS 8.3 when in emulation mode, which was released 6 years ago. Unlike devices developed by Humanware such as the Brailliant and Mantis, the Orbit Reader allows the user to jump between connected devices with a simple keystroke which makes things more efficient for power users. There is also a menu which allows the user to cycle between connections instead of having to memorize keyboard commands.
Following is a write-up of how well I found the Orbit Reader 40 to work with the most popular screen readers on the market. All devices tested were running the latest public release of the screen reader and operating system as of October 2021. Instructions will not be provided for connecting to each device, as these are clearly laid out in the user documentation.
One unique function of connecting with external devices to the Orbit Reader is the ability to control whether you will be switched automatically to a connected screen reader when it becomes active, or if you wish to have full control over when the Orbit Reader 40 changes channels. The setting is located in the menu and can be set to auto, manual, or off. All testing was done with the VarioUltra emulation, since it supports all screen reader options.
Voiceover with IOS 15.1
The connection between the Orbit Reader 40 and iOS is quite stable using an iPhone SE 2020 and an iPhone 12 Mini. VoiceOver responds to all commands as expected. There was a slight lag with the Orbit Reader 40 over Bluetooth, but it is almost always able to keep pace with my reading, which is typically around 75 words per minute. This is likely because of the difference in cell technology. Most braille displays refresh all of the cells at one time, but the Orbit Reader 40 refreshes 2 cells at a time.
Voiceover with MacOS Big Sur
Connecting over USB was as simple as putting the Orbit Reader into USB Orbit and then starting VoiceOver. Unlike the connection through Bluetooth on iOS, there was very little latency between the Orbit’s display moving and the display fully refreshing. Commands over USB and Bluetooth worked as expected, and there were no challenges with the Orbit Reader 40 that were not also present when testing other braille devices on the Mac.
NVDA 2021.2 on Windows 10
If the braille setting in NVDA for connecting a braille display is configured to automatic, plugging in the Orbit Reader 40 while in USB mode and then restarting NVDA is all that is needed. There were no drivers to install. Since it was required to run the VarioUltra emulation, the keyboard commands available through NVDA for this display are minimal, there are only 6 listed in the manual. Typing through USB was very responsive and translation errors did not occur. NVDA seems to have come a long way in the past year in terms of braille input. Though the VarioUltra supports the Braille Extender add-on, most of the VarioUltra commands involve keys which do not exist on the Orbit Reader 40. It is my hope that Orbit research will work with NV-Access to make a much larger selection of keyboard shortcuts available to increase productivity that is otherwise lost when the user has to switch to a QWERTY keyboard to carry out specific commands. Orbit Research has confirmed that they are actively working with NV-Access to get native support for NVDA and they have assured me they have a much larger set of shortcut keys in the native driver that will soon be released.
While the process for getting the Orbit Reader 40 is quite simple with NVDA, getting the Orbit Reader 40 to communicate with JAWS takes a bit more set up. Before plugging the Orbit Reader 40 in, or connecting it through Bluetooth, you need to install theJAWS driver for the VarioUltra.
After performing the steps outline in the user documentation, if the Orbit Reader 40 does not connect, you can try resetting it. No matter what I did on 2 different Windows 10 computers, the connection did not work properly until after the reset. A third Windows 10 computer I used was a successful connection without having to do the reset. The Adaptive Technology department at HKNC also had to do a factory reset to get their Orbit Reader 40 to work with JAWS.
When the connection is established, the user will have a more robust set of keyboard commands available with JAWS than with NVDA. The user documentation lists a total of 54 keyboard commands, which all seem to work as they should. Braille input was also very responsive through USB, though sometimes the Bluetooth connection performed slowly. I also recall this being a challenge with the VarioUltra itself, so it is possible that the issue may be with the driver. It’s also worth noting that Orbit Research is in the process of developing the native driver for JAWS, which should eliminate the confusion surrounding the linked driver and also provide better connectivity.
Android 11 with BrailleBack
Unlike NVDA, MacOS and iOS with VoiceOver, and the VoiceView screen reader for Kindle, Android has chosen not to include BrailleBack in their operating system. Prior to connecting the Orbit Reader 40, the user must install BrailleBack from the Play Store as outlined in the user documentation. Like other braille displays, the Orbit Reader 40 would randomly mistranslate words. For instance, the word it’s” would occasionally be mistranslated as “x’s”. Other times, it would translate as intended. Though space with l will pull up a list of BrailleBack commands, I found that only those listed in the user documentation, a total of 7, worked. Compare this with the over 60 available in iOS, and one can start to understand why people feel Android and braille are lagging far behind iOS and Fire OS in terms of braille development.
Fire OS 5.6.4
Fire OS supports the Orbit Reader 40 through the VarioUltra 40 emulation as well. Unlike JAWS and Android, there were no drivers or other files that needed to be downloaded. Like on iOS, I was able to pair the Orbit Reader 40 through the screen reader’s settings. I encountered no challenges with pairing through VoiceView, since I was able to use my residual hearing to establish the connection. Unlike Android, there are many commands available to access the Fire tablet’s features and facilitate efficient navigation. For example, there are keyboard commands for moving around various parts of web pages including headings, form controls, and many others. The neat thing about the command structure is that, for example, dot 7 with h will jump you to the previous heading on a web page. Jumping to the next heading can be accomplished with dot 8 and h. I enjoyed this design choice so much that I have created a very similar set for iOS. Though Fire OS does not allow you to customize commands, there is a much larger set available than on Android. The overall experience is not quite as polished as what you will find on iOS 15, as there are no options like the VoiceOver Rotor for things like managing emails. However, just like the Orbit Reader itself, the Fire tablets are much cheaper than an iOS or iPadOS device, only with a few compromises. With Kindle tablets costing around $60 and the Orbit Reader 40 costing $1,399, a user can have a 40 cell braille display with a lot of functionality for a much lower price than a notetaker with 40 cells.
Conclusion and Personal Remarks
One thing that stands out about the Orbit Reader line of products is the sharp and solid braille cells. I have worked with a few consumers who have been able to use the Orbit Reader displays successfully while not having such great luck with the braille displays from other manufacturers. The refreshing of cells is much more quiet than the Orbit Reader 20, but I found the keyboard to be much louder. I also found it to be quite an adjustment for typing, as the keys have a further distance to travel when pressed. Battery life is quite impressive, I would estimate about 20-22 hours of heavy use between charges. With a price point of under $1500 when compared with the cheapest 40 cell device on the market, it is certainly worth consideration. Orbit Research continues to innovate with more products costing less than their competitors, while maintaining a strong feature set.