The Smart Beetle is a 14-cell display manufactured by HIMS. If you need any sort of internal programs like a word processor, clock, calculator, or other bells and whistles, this is not the device for you. However, it supports the ability to connect to 6 different devices, and is natively supported in iOS 9 and El Capitan. Note that the 6 devices include 5 bluetooth and 1 USB.
What's in the Box?
Obviously, the Smart Beetle, a Micro USB cable for connecting to devices via USB, a Getting Started Guide in print and braille, a CD containing drivers, a case, and supposedly an AC adapter. I say "supposedly" because there was no AC adapter included with the unit I received. There was, however, a Micro USB cord, and I have both a computer and a power supply that can support the charging, so it really wasn’t a major deal.
Description of Device:
The Smart Beetle is about the same size as my iPhone 6S, but a bit thicker and slightly wider. For those who have seen a Focus 14, it’s almost exactly the same size as this display. It is shaped like a rectangle, with rounded edges. With the braille display being the closest thing to you as the orientation, the lay-out is as follows. ON the surface of the display, closest to you, will be the 14-cell display. On either side of that display you will find 1 diamond-shaped button to pan braille back and forth. Behind the display are 14 cursor routing buttons. Behind these buttons, and on a slightly elevated surface, you will find the spacebar, and 2 rectangular-shaped buttons on either side of the spacebar. The 2 on the left of the spacebar are f1 and f2, the 2 on the right are f3 and f4. Behind the spacebar and function keys, you will find the Perkins style keyboard for inputting text in braille. Behind the keyboard, a small speaker for the audio alerts and a couple of lights for indicating various things. ON the backside of the Beetle, from left to right, you have a reset button to the far left of the rear panel, and a Micro USB port on the right back side of the device. Both the left side and front of the Beetle have nothing on them, and the power button is the only thing located on the right side. A quick press when the display is turned on will take you to the Beetle’s menu, and pressing it for 3 seconds will power the unit on and off.
The case that comes with the Smart Beetle is rather thin in nature and has a tight fit to the Smart Beetle. Unlike the Braille Sense cases HIMS has, this one opens and closes magnetically. Unlike the case for the Focus 14, when the Beetle is in the case, it actually feels secure. This is an important feature to have in a case, as many people use the smaller displays in particular while on-the-go. Don’t take this feature for granted though, the case that comes with the Focus 14 does not secure the Focus very well. Given the brittle design of the Focus, it is extremely important to have the case made by Executive Products to secure this display. I, in fact, do not recommend purchasing a Focus 14 without the case, due to this issue. I’m happy to say that this is not necessary with the Smart Beetle. Some users have reported that the case tends to cover up dots 3 and 7 after lots of usage, but I have not experienced this.
Connecting to an iDevice:
Connecting the braille display was nothing out of the ordinary. First, press the power button briefly on the Smart Beetle to set the connection mode: Bluetooth Serial Port, USB port, or Bluetooth keyboard are the options. Press enter on the choice you want and then act accordingly.
Pairing as a Bluetooth keyboard is done in the conventional way you would pair any Bluetooth keyboard to your iDevice by going to Settings\bluetooth and choosing the smart Beetle in the list provided. For pairing as an actual Braille display, simply go to Settings/General/Accessibility/VoiceOver/braille and double tap your display's name. NO bluetooth paring code is required, which I think is a nice feature to have for those users who struggle with touch screen access. There is also no pin code required to pair as a Bluetooth keyboard.
If you are running an iDevice with any iOS version before 9, VoiceOver will treat the Smart Beetle as a Braille Sense with 18 cells of braille. While it’s better than nothing at all, you should know that the Smart Beetle will display the first 14 cells correctly, but when you pan forward, you will only get 4 cells on the next display width. This is because, as I just noted, VoiceOver treats the Smart Beetle as an 18 cell display, so when you pan forward, the display gets fed 18 cells of braille before it moves forward.
With the Bluetooth keyboard emulation, you will not see braille output on the display unless you also connect the Beetle as a braille display. While the keyboard commands for the Bluetooth keyboard emulation do work as advertized, I found that not all commands were listed in the manual. For example, pressing f1 will activate the control key, f2 the command key and f3 the options key. This comes in handy for when you wish to perform some keyboard commands that exist on the Bluetooth keyboard, but not in braille. However, it does not work with commands that have more than 3 keys associated with the command in my testing. For example, control Options Shift M will activate double tap and hold on a Bluetooth keyboard, but does not work with the Bluetooth keyboard emulation. I also think the keyboard command structure would have been much better implemented if there were more keyboard commands that did not have braille keyboard equivalents. For example, it would be helpful to have control options shift F as a shortcut, which activates 3d Touch on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, as this command doesn’t currently have a braille keyboard counterpart. Instead, there are commands to scroll pages, double tap, and many of the basic functions already found on all braille displays. Which, by the way, you can use from the pairing with VoiceOver. So while I think this is a cool idea, I still was hoping for innovative keyboard shortcuts. Further, it would seem to me to be more practical to keep the commands consistent with what a user may already be used to from using VoiceOver’s built in braille keyboard support. For example, when running the Beetle in Bluetooth keyboard mode, to double tap an item, press space with dots 1-4. We already have this command supported under VoiceOver itself as space with dots 3-6, so why not keep it that way?
As indicated earlier, you can connect to an iDevice as both a Bluetooth keyboard and braille display. There are a few limitations to this though, the main one being that the scroll buttons perform other functions under the Bluetooth keyboard emulation mode, so you will not be able to effectively read beyond the first 14 cells of any line. There was no mention of a command for doing this in the manual, nor could I find one through experimenting. There are also several typos in the list of iOS command provided in the manual, which lead me to believe this particular section was thrown together in a hurry.
Connecting to a Mac:
You can either connect to a Mac with USB or Bluetooth. With USB, simply plug in the Smart Beetle and if VoiceOver is running, the Smart Beetle will connect just like any other supported braille device will on the Mac. However, the Beetle is only supported on El Capitan. I did connect it through Bluetooth with Yosemite, but the Beetle showed up as a Braille Edge, and I could only see the first 14 of the 40 cells it was displaying. There was also no way to pan the device forward to see the rest of the characters in that line of 40. Pressing space with dot 5, which is the command to have VoiceOver pan forward, jumps to the next 40 cells. The Beetle is not supported via USB at all prior to El Capitan. With the keyboard emulation mode, there were no helpful hints on supported commands on the Mac.
Switching Among Connected Devices:
Certainly, one of the strengths of this display is the ability to quickly jump from connected device to connected device. When connected with a Windows computer running JAWS, iPhone, and Mac via Bluetooth, I found that switching from one to the other took less than 1 second. You can either jump among the list of devices by launching a list by pressing power and f4, or you can toggle amongst the paired devices with power and the right scroll button for braille display connections, or power with left scroll for Bluetooth keyboard connections. You can quickly jump to the device connected via USB by pressing power with f2. Where I think this could have been done better is that each pairing could be assigned a specific channel to easily switch among them more quickly, like what was done with the VarioUltra.
A HIMS Specific Feature:
Originally introduced with the Braille Sense a few years back, Terminal Clipboard is a feature some braille typers prefer. Essentially, you can bypass the braille translation option on the device you are connected to, with any of its quirkiness, and edit your text on the internal word processing program. The Beetle also allows you to do this. I found it worked well on both iOS and the Mac. One limitation is that you can only type a line of text, since pressing enter which would normally insert a line break will send the text to the connected device. That said, it’s still a great feature to have available.
The amount of time between charges will vary based on the usage of the display in Bluetooth versus USB mode. When running the Beetle only in Bluetooth, I found that I was able to get about 15 hours of usage before needing to recharge the battery. When I left the Beetle unplugged and did not use it for a couple of days, I found that the battery drain was very minimal when compared to the VarioUltra, but about equal to that of the Focus 14. This is most likely because the VarioUltra has a clock on it, whereas, the Focus and Beetle do not have this function.
At the regular price of $1345, the Smart Beetle is $50 more than the Focus 14. At the time of writing, the Smart Beetle is on-sale for $1195. For the $50 extra, when compared with the Focus 14, the only other 14 cell display on the market, you get a much better designed case, the ability to connect and quickly switch between many different devices, and the ability to run emulation of a Bluetooth keyboard. While the initial way in which this support was developed could have been done better, the Bluetooth keyboard emulation option is unique to all other braille displays on the market at the moment. These unique features certainly make it an attractive option for people looking to get a small display.