A Cranky Review of the Latest HIMS Note Takers

I feel cranky. I didn’t get a chance to meditate. My cleaning lady can’t speak english. My neighbor’s dog howls incessantly. I ate some old Indian food which made me feel gross and bloated. And to top it off, I just saw the latest note takers from HIMS.

For those who don’t know, specialized devices exist for the blind to help them take notes. Many have since migrated to laptops or iDevices, but some still love their note takers. The best note taker came out in the nineties, called the Braille ’n Speak. Since then nothing has surpassed it. The devices today feel hacked together and heartless, with little regard to design or aesthetics. The HIMS line of products continue this unfortunate trend.

A friend of mine brought over two note takers for me to try. I started with the HIMS Braille Sense U2. I don’t know what the letter U and the numeral 2 stand for, but they reminded me of the incredibly profane and incredibly funny Negativland song. The case actually impressed me, probably the most well-made part of the whole package. The note taker itself felt solid in the case.

The layout confused me a little. It has eight dots, which I had to get used to, since the Braille ’n Speak only had six. The keys felt kind of wobbly to me, not the solid feel of the Braille ’n Speak. Each cell has a routing button above it. The keyboard has two sets of two scrolling buttons, one at each side and a little above the display. This allows one to use the braille display uninterruptedly. It has some media playing keys on the front. It also has six function keys which I didn’t even notice until my friend pointed them out to me.

The Braille Sense as its name implies also has a braille display. I’ve never used braille displays since they cost so much money and since I never read braille that quickly. However, my friend told me that a lot of blind programmers like them for reading code. I looked forward to trying that, but first I would explore the note taking functions. I did notice that the dots on the display felt rather sharp. I think I’d prefer them a little more rounded.

I switched it on with the big sliding switch on the front. It played a sound and I found myself at the main menu. I enjoyed using the familiar space-dot-1 and space-dot-4 commands to scroll through it. The scrolling buttons also did this, and the routing buttons directly take you to a choice. I liked that.

Things went downhill from here. The file manager acts sort of like the one found in Windows. You have to use Space-tab (dots 4-5) to move forward a tab and Space-B (dots 1-2) to move back. This and other little conflicts from the Braille ’n Speak confused me. On the BNS, E-chord would act like the enter key, and Z-chord would act as the escape or abort key. On the Braille Sense, E-chord acts like the escape key, and Z-chord ends the program. Dot-8 acts as the enter key. And yet, Dot-7, which often acts like a backspace, does not act like the escape key. Little inconsistencies like this began to add up.

On the Braille ’n Speak, you could type letters in combination with the space bar, called a chord. For example, E-chord means to braille E while also holding down the spacebar. In addition, the Braille Sense uses dots seven and eight as modifiers. This means three times the number of potential commands. It also means three times the confusion.

It might not matter so much, except for the minor fact that the HIMS offers NO form of keyboard identification. Most screen readers offer a feature where you can type a combination of keys and it will tell you what they do. For example, on a Mac you can use CTRL-Option-K to enter keyboard identification mode. If you then hit CTRL-Option-L it will say: Read current line, reads the current line in the VoiceOver cursor. The Braille Sense does not offer this crucial feature, a major oversight. They do offer a menu of commands, but navigating through a menu takes time and does not offer the same level of interactivity. Plus, some of the menus had multiple commands with the same key.

With mounting dread I tried the word processor. Again I enjoyed typing as if on a BNS, but it still felt different. They did do one nice thing by adding the lower-G-chord to read the current paragraph. We wanted that and they never did it on the BNS, so at least HIMS got that right. Too bad the rest of the editor doesn’t follow suit. And too bad I couldn’t easily find out what a key does.

The abundance and inconsistency of commands really showed themselves. I could never remember which modifier to use. In the good old days we just had one, now I had to deal with three. I had the biggest laugh when I realized they use the X-C-V characters for cutting/copying/pasting. This makes sense on a QWERTY keyboard, but makes absolutely no sense in braille. This simple example said it all.

I noticed something interesting about reading lines. Dot-1 and dot-4 move by lines as they should. However, the line breaks correspond to the bounds of the braille display. The scrolling buttons behave this way and that makes sense, since the buttons’ proximity to the braille display suggests a relation. However, when using the keyboard and speech, the line boundaries should happen at line breaks.

When using a one-dimensional output such as speech, line breaks may not necessarily apply. When reading text you more often want to read by sentence or paragraph. Reading by line really only makes sense when reading code. On the BNS you could type very long lines, so reading by line would read by a more meaningful unit, since you would just place the line breaks where you wanted them. Putting the line breaks at the edge of the braille display introduces more gaps in concentration.

I felt dazed and confused. I typed a paragraph of nonsense and saved the file. It does offer a number of formats, though I don’t know how well it does at exporting to them. The save dialog box reminded me of the save dialog you’d find on a PC or Mac, where you tab between the filename, format, and the save button. I got used to that and went back to the main menu.

Their email client behaved pretty much as I’d expect. You tab between mailboxes and messages. I didn’t actually try it with an account, but it did have some messages in the sent box, so I did get to try that. It seemed pretty straight-forward. I just felt too scared to link it up to one of my accounts. Maybe next time I’ll create a stupid test account for testing this crap.

I tried their calendar. I found it very confusing. I enjoyed browsing around the calendar with braille commands, but something just didn’t seem to make sense. At some point my friend told me to his F6 or something, one of those little function keys I didn’t even know existed, and it brought up a menubar. I found out how to add an event. Except they don’t call them events, they call them schedules. So you add a schedule which actually adds an event on the schedule. Then somehow I got stuck in the dialog. I could not get out of it. I added one event, and the dialog just did not go away. I added another garbage event. I tabbed and shift-tabbed around. I tried to use the stupid E-chord which remember now acts like escape. Nothing would get me out of the dialog. I let my friend play with it, who has more familiarity with the unit, and they could not get out either. I had to use Z-chord to kill the program. I started to feel cranky.

I had a similar experience with the address book. I tried tabbing around, added a record, and got stuck in another dialog. This had happened twice in a row now. I could not get rid of the goddamn thing, and had to use Z-chord to kill the program. I sense sloppy coding.

I once again found myself back at the main menu, feeling even crankier. I wondered what the database manager did. It lets you keep records of things. You add different fields then add records using those fields. I felt too scared to try.

The Braille Sense has an FM radio. From a technological point this seemed like a cool idea. It even worked! This actually impressed me. Too bad radio died in 1990.

I finally found the web browser way down towards the end of the main menu. I ominously wondered if they put it near the end because it sucks. Of course, the feeling turned out true. Note taker manufacturers: if you want your device to have any hope of competing against iOS, then you must offer an equivalent web browsing experience. Nothing but the best will do.

I went to a site I knew well, my own. I did get a kick out of seeing it in braille, but the novelty soon gave way to incredulity. The braille display will prepend “ln” to a link, for example “ln my own.(1/15).” I wondered what the numbers meant, and soon realized that they referred to the link number and the total number of links. But wait, I thought I had way more than 15 links on my page. Sure enough, I soon started seeing (16/15) and so on. What a joke!

As you might now expect, it has lots of stupid stupid stupid commands for navigating.Backspace-B takes you back a heading, backspace-f takes you forward a heading. I get the back/forward thing, but it provides an inconsistent set of commands. And it didn’t even announce the piece of text as a heading.

Other commands had only slightly more logical keystrokes, but the whole thing felt clunky, and it would take me quite a while to memorize everything. Amazingly, hitting the backspace key would not take you back a page as it does in every modern browser. No no, to do that you hit backspace-p. Terrible! And remember, no keyboard identification, just pages and pages of cryptic commands.

At some point while flailing around, I accidentally hit one of the little buttons on the front. It started recording me. I hit the stop button and then the play button and it played it back while locked in this weirdo menu. To its credit, it does have a good microphone and stereo speakers.

I had had enough of the note taking, so moved on to using it as a braille display. I tried pairing it to my iPad, and it worked well. Everything actually behaved as expected in iOS. I decided to explore using the braille display on the Mac, especially for coding. This also worked well. I could read the computer’s text, and even type in grade II. The terminal even worked, and I did enjoy reading code in braille. I just don’t want to spend $5995.00 to do it. Yes you read that price right.

I had begun to get hungry. When I get hungry I get angry. My recent experience amplified my anger. We decided to order food and try the other note taker.

The Braille Edge 40 looks cute. It has a thin profile, a nice braille display, scrolling buttons, and two sets of four-way arrows. I really wanted to like this thing. Sadly, nothing about this worked as expected.

I don’t know how many ways I can write this. Nothing I did worked. I tried hooking it up to my Mac. In Terminal it actually brailled out “greater-than” instead of a greater-than sign (>). It even brailled “space”. Turning on eight-dot braille helped a little, but not completely. And while typing, hitting the backspace key did not take you back a character, it inserted a Y-umlaut (ÿ). Pathetic.

iOS faired even worse, if such a thing could happen. Scrolling the text did not work at all. The arrows did not work at all. Nothing worked. The page says it works with VoiceOver, but don’t believe it for a moment. I consider this blatant false advertising. And the price? Oh only $2995.00. Have I gone insane? I didn’t even try the note taking functions. After my experience with their full fledge note taker I felt paralyzed with fear at the thought.

This concludes my cranky review of these two note takers. I hope it will deter a blind person from wasting their money. By the way, my friend has promised to bring over more note takers in the future, so get ready for more “fun”. Sorry for the negative article. I hope you still enjoyed it. I promise to have an amazing positive article next!