By Scott Davert, Coordinator: Technology, Research and Innovation Center
April 23, 2021
Over the past decade, many braille displays have evolved to include onboard features, extending their functionality beyond merely providing access to the screen of a host device. Humanware has modernized the Brailliant line of displays with the new Brailliant BI 20X and 40X. The new features, when compared with the Brailliant BI series that preceded it, include the ability to connect up to five Bluetooth devices, a Wi-Fi radio which allows for access to Bookshare, NLS BARD, and NFB Newsline, book reader that allows for the opening of this content, a calculator, clock, and basic word processor. This onboard software suite, similar to that found on the Mantis Q40, has been rebranded as Keysoft Lite.
What’s in the box?
You will find the Brailliant BI 40X inserted into a case, a strap, USB-A to USB-C cable, a wall adapter and printed Getting Started Guide. Notably absent was any braille material. One would think that, at the very least, a braille getting started guide would accompany its print counterpart. The case is made of leather and has a magnetic closure. When open, it exposes all of the ports, Keys and buttons for easy access. The flap closes to cover only the back edge and top panel, leaving the buttons and ports on the sides and front edge exposed.
Getting Started Guide
The Brailliant BI 40X is a forty cell braille display which has a standard Perkins-style Keyboard, 32 gigabytes of internal memory, and the ability to connect to external media through the USB-A port. It measures 12.01 inches long by 3.54 inches wide by 0.86 inches deep and weighs 1.59 pounds. Unlike the previous two generations of Brailliants, it is constructed of EXTREMELY DURABLE plastic instead of aluminum.
Orientation of display
Positioning the device so the spacebars are closest to you, the lay-out of the display is as follows. On the front edge from left to right are five buttons. you have the Previous Thumb Key followed by the Left Thumb Key, which is about twice as long as the Previous Thumb Key. In the middle is a circular shaped button known as the Home Key. This Key is always used to return you to the previous menu. To the right of the Home Key is the Right Key, followed by the Next Key. The Right Thumb Key is larger than the Next Key. The two larger thumb Keys on the front of the device are what pans the display back and forth. The Previous and Next Thumb Keys are used for navigational purposes that depend on the application in use and how they are configured.
On the left side you will find three items. Moving from front to back, you will find a USB-A port used for inserting a thumb drive. Behind this is the Power button. Pressing and holding it for several seconds will toggle the power, and a quick press when the device is on will either wake it up or put it to sleep. Behind this is a USBC port for charging or connecting it to a computer. On the right side are two volume buttons and a 3.5MM headphone jack, which are not operational at the time of this evaluation.
On the top surface, the Keys located closest to you are two spacebars. Behind these, you will find the forty braille cells with a corresponding Cursor Routing Key behind each cell. At the left and right end of the display, you will fine three circular Keys which are known as Command or C Keys. C 1-3 are located to the left of the braille display, while C 4-6 are located to the right. C 1 and 4 are the furthest two from the user. Behind the C Keys, is a standard eight-dot Perkins-style braille keyboard. Finally, on the very back of the surface, on each end of the device, is a speaker. Next to the right speaker, you will find a microphone. Like the volume controls and headphone jack, these items are not active at the time of this evaluation, but Humanware has indicated they will be active in a future update. The under-side of the display has a braille serial number and a couple of rubber feet to hold it in place.
Running the Brailliant BI 40X for the first time
After pressing the power button for several seconds, the user will encounter the message: “starting Keysoft” with a spinning braille cell. After about five seconds, the user will be presented with a language menu. The default language is English. If the user doesn’t want to use English, there are other options available includingFrench FR, French CA, German, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish and Arabic After pressing enter on the desired language, press space with dot 1 to find the Close button and Keysoft will restart after loading the English system language. I mention this process in the evaluation, as though it is included in the User Guide, since the user has no introductory material included in braille.
The first thing most people want to do when they get a new display is set it up to their liking. On the Brailliant BI 40X, like all other Humanware products, these items will be found in the Options menu. You can navigate there from the Main Menu by pressing space with O, using the Thumb Keys, using the space bar or by pressing space with dot 4 or space with dot 1 to move through the menu until you encounter the application you wish to select. This behavior is consistent throughout the device. Options include the ability to turn on Airplane mode; toggle Wi-Fi; set up other language profiles if needed; the ability to remove blank lines; the ability to have format markers inside files; whether to get vibratory or audio feedback of error messages; whether the cursor should be visible; Word Wrap; the ability to change the functions of the Thumb Keys; the option to customize the Main Menu and the ability to run in Exam Mode.
Expanding on some unique options
There are a few options that I will discuss which may be helpful to the DeafBlind braille user. One is the ability to customize the Main Menu. For example, if a user wishes to only use the Brailliant BI 40X as a terminal, it is possible to make that the only option in the Main Menu. For some DeafBlind consumers, who only wish to have a device for their computer or smart phone, this can simplify the connection process.
For those in the education field, there is also a feature called Exam Mode. This mode disables all of the functionality of the Brailliant BI 40X other than USB Terminal Mode. This can be done to help prevent cheating on exams. To disable the mode once activated, the user needs to enter the passcode set up when this mode was enabled. Turning the Brailliant off and back on, when there is still time remaining, will leave the Brailliant in that mode. The maximum amount of time you can put the display in Exam Mode is four hours.
Managing files with Key Files
With some of the applications Humanware has decided to include both the function of the application and also the Keysoft name. For example, the file manager is called that, but Humanware tacks on Keyfiles. This is also true of the Calculator and Editor.
The Brailliant BI 40X comes equipped with 32 GB of internal storage. It also supports flash drives. The file manager application allows you to browse, open any supported file type, delete, copy, cut, paste and search for a file within multiple connected drives. I found that, even when a drive has hundreds of files, searching only takes a few seconds. You can only search for a file name, not its contents.
This application will display all files located on a drive, and pressing enter on a supported file will open it. Text-based files such as .txt and .docx will open nearly instantaneously. .brf and specialized braille files will take a little more time to load in the Editor, since they are translated into text format. This is not the case, though, with the Victor Reader.
A 450 KB .brf file from Bookshare took approximately ten seconds to load. The same book downloaded in Daisy format took about three seconds to load.
When plugged into a PC, the Brailliant BI 40X cannot only serve as a braille display for your screen reader, but will simultaneously show up as a drive. This means that it is possible to transfer files directly from your PC to the Brailliant and vice versa. A refreshing advantage over the Focus series from Vispero is how the Brailliant can be active in both modes at the same time without disruption. Note that during the evaluation, when connecting the Brailliant to a Mac over USB, the device did not show up as a drive but was an available device in the Photos app. I’m told that the Mac requires installation of a utility but was unable to locate it on the product’s support page at the time of evaluation. References to this information are also absent from the documentation as of April 2021.
The Editor: Keypad application
The editor: Keypad application allows you to open, create, and save files in plain text format. Though you can open files in .brf, .brl, .txt, .doc, and .docx formats, any editing or creation of a file will be saved in .txt format. You can edit, copy, cut, paste, find, find and replace, select, select blocks of text, auto scroll, and use a read-only mode in case you don’t want to modify the open file. The menu structure closely follows that of a typical Windows word processor. When creating or opening a file, you will find that there are brackets that show the cursor’s location which follow you as you type.
I found that even with very quick typing, the Brailliant BI 40X was able to keep up with my input. Typing on the braille Keyboard seems to be nondisruptive to those around me, and the increased Key travel, especially that of the space bars make typing much more enjoyable and reliable than the previous generation. Tapping the power button will put the Brailliant into a standby mode that retains any changes in your current file. When you wake the Brailliant back up, the file will instantly appear and you can continue editing. The drawback to this method is that if the system crashes for some reason, your work will not be saved. I have not had Keypad crash on me, even though I have been taking notes often on the Brailliant BI 40X for a couple of weeks, but still press space with s to save my work regularly. I found using the editor to be intuitive and enjoy the fact that I can save the file as a plain text document. Multiple storage and connectivity options allow for seamless sharing of files between devices and people. Since there is a Wi-Fi option, it would be nice if there was some sort of cloud integration to
further facilitate collaboration. Since it is a basic Editor, there are some limitations when opening different file types that are roughly 2 MB in size. For exact file size limits for each format, please see Answer number 61 in the Brailliant BI20x and 40X FAQ document. It’s worth noting that, although these limits apply to the Editor, you can open files as large as 100 MB in the Victor Reader.
Brailliant BI20x and 40X FAQ document
The included calculator supports basic arithmetic operations that include adding, subtracting, multiplication, division, percentages, square root and the constant pi. Entry in computer braille is required, as the application does not currently support either Nemeth Code or UEB math. If you are unfamiliar with the computer braille symbols, the User Guide has a list of these, or you can also press space with m to pull up a context menu that lists them all. I found that this application works as expected.
The Brailliant BI 40X supports the downloading of content from Bookshare, NFB Newsline and braille books from the NLS Braille and Talking Book Library Service. Each service requires an account, which you can read more about in the links provided. You must also be connected to Wi-Fi to download content.
Within the Bookshare application, you will find the option to configure your account and also to choose your preferred format. I recommend DAISY for its increased navigability. After logging in to Bookshare, you have the ability to search by title, author, Keyword or to perform a full text search. There are also options to browse by most popular, recently added and category. Once you perform a search or browse by one of the options listed, you will be presented with a list of titles. To get more information, select the title to be presented with options to download, learn the author or read the synopsis. I find it convenient to search and download content internally. It would be even better if the author was shown in the list of results without having to select each individual title.
The first option in this application is “configure account,” which not only allows you to log in, but gives you the option to set how often you would like your list of publications to be updated. There is also an option to set whether old issues of publications will be deleted when new ones arrive.
If you already have a list of favorites, they will automatically be added to the list of content you will download. You can add other publications by selecting “manage publications” from the applications menu and then selecting the periodical to which you want to subscribe. Press space with e when done. Subscription is ind
At the time of this evaluation, the only material available from NLS BARD supported by the Brailliant is the braille content. Both the book and magazine collections are available but not braille music. You are able to browse the most recent, most popular and books by category. You also have options to search the collection, browse your download history, browse by most recently added magazines and to browse your download history. Just like when searching for content on Bookshare, you are only presented with the title of the books in your search results and must press dot eight to get more info including the
name of the author. Since the downloaded content is in .brf format, you will not have access to the additional navigation options available from the DAISY content offered on Bookshare and NFB Newsline. However, the Brailliant bi20X and BI 40X are the first displays to offer this library. I found downloading content from the NLS BARD service convenient and have enjoyed using it for magazines, in particular, which I’m not able to get elsewhere.
The Victor Reader application is the program you will use to read books. Supported file types include BRF, PEF, TXT, HTML, DOCX, NISO (daisy text only), and RTF. The load times for files are the same as when you’re in the file manager for text files but the specialized braille formats also open nearly instantaneously. You have access to many of the same Editor capabilities, and there is support for robust navigation when reading formats such as DAISY. This means, for example, if you have a DAISY book downloaded from Bookshare, you can quickly jump from chapter to chapter. You can also jump quickly between sections and articles when viewing content downloaded from NFB Newsline. Sections are typically at heading level two, while individual articles are usually at heading level three. When you have set the navigation to what you prefer, using space+ T, you can then press the Previous and Next Keys to jump by that chosen element. Only those navigation options available for the currently open book will be shown. Possibilities include sentence, paragraph, level, percentage, and bookmark. One thing missing, in my opinion, are hot Keys to jump to specific elements within the open book. Instead of having to go to a menu to jump directly to the next heading level 3, for example, it would be much quicker if there was a hot Key to do this directly. You can also activate auto scroll when reading. This is present within the Editor as well and I found that the feature was reliable. It was functioning after an hour of continuous use. Another useful feature is the ability to set multiple bookmarks within a file. This is an option I wish I had while in college, it would have made jumping directly to content much more efficient, thereby speeding up my studying. One thing included on the notetakers I used in college that is not available on the Brailliant are options to copy and paste text using the Victor Reader. This would come in handy when trying to create notes based off of the textbook. Instead of having to write my own notes, I would copy and paste the most important information from the book into a separate file. After providing Humanware with this feedback, I was informed that it would be addressed in a future update.
Connecting to other devices
For this evaluation, firmware version 1.1 of the Brailliant BI 40X was used. It is compatible with iOS 13.6 and later, JAWS for Windows 18 and later, Mac OS 10.15 and later, NVDA (no specified minimum requirement), and development is ongoing for both Android and Chrome OS. The state of development with Apple’s Watch OS and Amazon’s Fire OS are not known. Evaluation was done using the latest publicly available screen reader and operating systems as of April 2021. As a general rule, when connected to multiple devices, there is a menu which allows you to jump from one device to another. However, there are no Keyboard shortcuts to jump quickly from one device to another like what is found on the Focus and gBraille displays. Instead, the user must back out of the device they are currently connected to and then find the device they wish to switch to in that menu. Absent from the Terminal menu is the ability to unpair devices. It can be found only by going to the Options menu, selecting Bluetooth, and then “delete devices”. If you are looking for information about how to specifically use the Brailliant with various screen readers, the User Guide does not provide this information. Humanware informed me that users can download and install the iOS and iPad OS app HWBuddy to get further information about the Brailliant BI 40X and how to use it. TO access this information, the user must have a compatible device and also sign up for an account. This feels
gratuitous to me, it would seem to make sense to have this accompany the rest of the product documentation.
VoiceOver on iOS
Unlike most braille displays, the Brailliant connects through the standard Bluetooth menu instead of using the one found under VoiceOver’s braille menu. Using iOS 14.5, I found that the connection was quite stable. However, there were random times where the Keyboard would not respond to commands. The only way to rectify this issue was to either turn the Brailliant off and back on or to toggle Bluetooth off and on using my iOS Device. There is also a reconnect option which will come in handy if your iOS device and the Brailliant have a failed connection. One of the nice features of the Brailliant displays is the ability to wake up your iOS device from the braille display by pressing any cursor routing button when the device is locked and the Brailliant is on that channel.
The C Keys located to the left and right of the braille display could be a useful set of Keyboard commands on iOS. BY default, they are designed on iOS to make it so that the user does not have to enter a chorded command. For example, space with H (space with dots 1-2-5,) can also be activated by pressing the corresponding C Keys. However, this feature is not currently working in iOS. The only C Keys which work are 2 and 5 alone, which pan braille back and forth.
Typing on the Perkins style Keyboard functions as well as other displays. All of the bugs related to connectivity and the cursor jumping around are just as prevalent as with other braille devices. All other commands are the same on iOS as with other displays, though the User Guide does not provide these. They are available on the HWBuddy app as well as Apple’s page listing common braille display commands. For more introductory material, you may also find this introductory guide from AppleVis of help.
Mac OS Big Sur 11.2
Connecting over USB is as simple as it can be under Mac OS. As long as VoiceOver is running and the Brailliant BI 40X is in Terminal, plugging in the USB-Cable should instantly start the connection. Like on iOS, pressing multiple C Keys at once does not function though the individual C Keys do what they are intended to. When pressing space with k to launch VoiceOver help, the C Keys only give some sort of numerical value. Like with other braille devices under Mac OS, sometimes the connection briefly drops, even over USB. Typically, toggling VoiceOver off and back on with Command f5 resolves the issue. If you are new to Mac OS and braille, this support article from Apple should get you started. The HWBuddy app does have more information, but not a listing of all braille Keyboard commands.
Like on iOS and Windows, the typing experience is much better than the previous Brailliant, thanks to the newly redesigned Keyboard. When checking for the option to assign new braille commands, I noted that there are only 71 available for the new Brailliant BI 40X, but 88 options exist under the older Brailliant BI40.
Using NVDA 2020.4, I did not have to install any drivers before adding the Brailliant BI 40X. I was able to follow the instructions provided in the NVDA User Guide to get connected and to look up the supported Keyboard commands for the Brailliant BI 40X. I found that, once connected, the display performed reliably both on Bluetooth and USB. The amount of Keyboard commands available are very few, but support for braille input appears reliable. There do not, for example, appear to be Keyboard command to emulate some of the Keyboard commands a user may want such as Alt F4, Insert F12, etc. Typing in
contracted UEB was mostly reliable, though sometimes contractions would randomly mistranslate. There were also some times where NVDA would continue taking braille input, but output from NVDA would stop being displayed. Restarting NVDA resolved this issue which seemed to happen more often over Bluetooth than USB. I hope we can eventually see a more extensive set of braille commands including some of the previously-discussed emulation in NVDA. One of the annoyances with using many braille displays on a computer is needing to switch between using the braille and qwerty Keyboards. The more robust braille support generally provided with JAWS can still provide an advantage over NVDA.
Just like with NVDA, I was not forced to download and install braille drivers. I simply went to “add new display” under the braille basics menu, chose the Brailliant BI 40X and then configured it accordingly.
As written above, the set of Keyboard commands you will find when using the Brailliant with JAWS far exceeds what you will find with NVDA. Thus, it’s a shame that Humanware has not taken the time to compile a list of all of the commands available. They are different than those used on the Focus, but are about as plentiful. This guide on the BrailleNote Apex, gives many of the commands supported. See the section titled: “Jaws command summary”. However, there are other supported commands with the C Keys which are also useful. This guide from Perkins learning is a Word document that lists many Brailliant commands as well.
Typing using JAWS was very reliable, though there were random times when I had to restart my computer to get the display to show braille even though my default display was the Brailliant. Typing in contracted braille yielded flawless translation using UEB. After connecting the Brailliant, I was able to operate my computer entirely from this device. One of the things missing from the Windows experience is the plug and play support found on Mac OS. If you are unable to hear the screen reader or see the screen, you will require support for initial set up even when connecting to USB. This is not a limitation of the Brailliant, but a limitation of Windows.
Guide from Perkins Learning
Conclusion and personal remarks
The Brailliant BI 40X is worth strong consideration for those in the market for a forty cell braille display. Its software and features could use some refinement, particularly for those outside the United States who would like access to library services in their country. Though the ability to connect to multiple devices is solid, Humanware could give users a serious productivity boost by allowing them to change among the connected devices with a single Keystroke. Battery life is impressive, averaging around 14 hours for me while having Bluetooth and Wi-Fi always connected which means I get an entire day of use out of one charge. The User Guide could certainly use some updating to assist the customer in utilizing their braille display with other connected devices. If you are a new user to braille displays, the task of obtaining all the available documentation can be daunting. Unlike the Focus, qBraille, and Orbit Reader 40, the Brailliant can be updated online. An updated and more mature firmware would only serve to make an already-exemplary device an even stronger contender in the current market.
The Brailliant BI 40X is available from Humanware for $3,195. At the time of writing, it is temporarily out of stock.