Recently Jeffery Rainey, a client of ours made the switch from a BrailleNote to a BrailleSense. We asked him to document why he decided to make the switch and he provided us with the following comparison. Thanks Jeffery!
I am a full time braille user, and one of the tools I use in class is a Braille notetaker. For 7 years, I have been a BrailleNote user. I’ve seen all three versions of the BT models, the classic, MPower and Apex. Dissatisfied with the Apex, and the little progress I have seen, I decided to look for a different option.
Before I go any further, I must address that this testimony is not about laptops vs notetakers, or other PDA’s. I know benefits and throwbacks of each. It is simply a comparison between two note takers that I have used.
The only other competitor in the same class as the BrailleNote is the Braille Sense Plus. The PacMate, while largely recognized in the industry, is different, as it is a cross between a braille note taker and a cut-down PC. The Braille Plus and Levelstar Icon are Linux-based.
I contacted Di at Aroga during the summer of 2010, expecting to sit down in her office and play with a Braille Sense for an hour or so. I was surprised when she loaned it to me for a month, as well as the first month of school. I loved it from the start, and knew that it was what I would be happy with.
Let’s now compare the BrailleNote Apex with the Braille Sense plus, starting with hardware.
Both in and out of its case, the Sense is taller and thicker. Its case is of nice leather, and has Velcro. The apex case uses 3 magnets on the flap, which attract to another 3 on the bottom when it is closed. Just from daily use, I have lost “one of these magnets. It is also annoying if you have to put the unit inside a desk with a metal surface. While the Apex case has a zipper and the Sense does not, the zipper is located on the exterior case, as opposed to the interior on previous models. Be sure not to leave money inside there.
Both have very nice braille displays. The Apex uses four rectangular thumb keys on the bottom to control the display. These keys are very plastic, and feel as if they could snap off. They are also easy to bump accidentally, if you are writing with the unit on your lap. Guess that’s why they allow you to turn them off? The Sense has 2 scroll keys on either side of the display, and you can customize each set to scroll a different length, I.E. by display, line, sentence, or paragraph. These keys are sturdy, and easy to work with. In edition, the Apex has a scroll wheel in the middle of the keyboard, for controlling the display. “I do not find this feature useful, as I am so used to using the keyboard and thumb keys for controlling the display, that I see no practical reason in switching. (This can be turned off as well, after which it can be fun to turn with your finger.)
The Apex BT keyboard is very loud and clicky. While the Classic and MPower have always had clunky keyboards, the Apex keyboard sounds like someone with long nails typing on a laptop or Mac keyboard. It sounds like you’re bashing the keys, even when you are typing regularly. The Sense BT has a really quiet keyboard. I remember going back to my Apex in school, and realizing just how noticeable I was taking notes while the class was quiet.
Both units have USB. The apex has three standard USB ports on the far left at the back, while the sense has one in the middle of the right side of the unit. The sense’s port is tighter. Both units have a mini-USB port on the right. For being 2009 technology, the Sense has kept its compact flash slot and serial port, while the apex has gotten rid of both. Both have an SD card slot, the one on the sense, again, holding the card tightly in. Both have a VGA port. However, the Sense also has a built-in LCD display, which can be toggled on and off. Both units have a standard ethernet port for accessing the internet through a local area network. I will go into how the internet works on both units later.
In my experience, I have gotten longer battery life from the Sense. Both units take 2 to 4 hours to fully charge the battery. However, although you can still use the units on AC power, the Apex takes much longer to charge this way. While recording is not it’s main use, the Sense’s microphone jack is stereo, and can act as a line-in jack for patching in another device, such as a keyboard. Both the MPower and Apex have mono mic jacks.
The word processor on the Braille Sense has better support for Microsoft word 2003, and is the only one to support word 2007 as well. The BrailleNote has always had issues with word 2003 files, and you can lose the contents of a document, if it is formatted a certain way. This would be awkward to describe on paper, but it is not hard to find out for yourself. Humanware has recently released an upgrade for the Apex that adds support for formatting and recognizing characters, yet I have not used it, and do not know if they have fixed the above bug that has been there since day one. This firmware was released in 2011, and a Humanware representative was asked about word 2007 support, to which he stated, We figured we would solve word 2003 problems first, before we went forward with word 2007. The BrailleNote has also always had problems retaining new line indicators in BRF and TXT files. I have not had a problem with any of these formats on the Sense.
The Sense has recently added support for PDF. Although this process is timely, it can open a PDF with images and display the text perfectly. My college textbook came as 2 PDF files, around 20 mb each. The Sense pulled through just fine.
Here is another issue that has plagued the BrailleNote since the Mpower. In any text-based document, everything is written in computer braille. When you paste a block of text, the BrailleNote adds a symbol that looks like edlge in front of the position where you have pasted the text. After exiting the file, this symbol is changed to edlg, which does not allow you to read the text on the braille display in your preferred reading grade. You are restricted to reading in computer braille. This also upsets the spell checker, as it thinks that the English dictionary is not installed.
The media player on the sense is superior to that of any BrailleNote. One reason is because of the many audio formats it supports. Apart from the well-known MP3, Wav and WMA, the Sense can play Ogg Vorbus, Flac, M4A, Aac, ASX, and a few others. You can also tune into an internet stream in any of these formats directly within the player itself, as opposed to activating it through the station’s website. I have to laugh at the internal effects within the media player: BassBoost, which is more of a mid-range bass than full bass; reverb (which might as well be called echo, and3-D effect, which isn’t practical, since the headphone jack can only do stereo, therefore the effect is not authentic.
Surfing the net on the sense is faster than the Apex, however the Apex does have an advantage when it comes to wireless networks. The Sense does not support any wireless network on a router that uses N mode or mixed mode. I have contacted Hims technical support, and they have told me that it is not possible to support them, due to differences in wireless chip sets. This is where my knowledge ends here; I am not network savvy.
Both Notetakers have incorporated instant messaging clients. The Apex has KeyChat, which is an XMPP-BASED client. This means that you can talk to anyone who has Google Talk (or a gmail account), Jabber, LJ talk, etc. The Braille Sense Plus has recently added support for Google talk, as well as voice chat, though I have not tried out this feature as of this writing. In edition, the Plus has always had it’s own MSN client. While many people these days are ditching dedicated instant messaging clients for Facebook, MSN still remains more popular than Google Talk. The Sense also has it’s own twitter client, which I have not played with as of yet, so I will not judge.
All BrailleNotes have a planner, which I have always found useful for writing down my daily homework, as well as an appointment book. The Sense only has an appointment book.
Both notetakers can act as Braille displays for screen readers on a mac or PC, although I was not interested in this feature when I had the APEX, so I do not know how well it works. I have used the Braille Sense Plus as a display under Window-Eyes, and it works well.
The Braille Sense manual, while accurate, does not give background on all of its features. While this is fine for anyone familiar with this class of Notetakers, it can be discouraging to new users. The BrailleNote manuals have always provided good detail.
This concludes my comparison between these 2 notetakers. There are some features I have skipped, mostly because I have not used them, or do not feel like I know enough to make a legitimate comparison.