The VarioUltra, a display sold by Baum and distributed in the US by Baum Retech, is a new comer to the market of what the assistive tech industry is calling "smart braille displays". They're called this, because, while they are not full fledged notetakers such as what you will find in a device like the BrailleNote Touch or Braille Sense, they do some other tasks unlike displays such as the Focus line from Freedom Scientific and Brailliant from Humanware. In other words, these devices are a compromise between a full-fledged notetaker and a simple display. The VarioUltra certainly fits in to this category.
Just like the Braille Edge from HIMS and the Perkins Mini from Perkins, the VarioUltra has a suite of applications built in to the unit's software. These include a word processor, calculator, clock, calendar, and alarm. That said, unlike the other 2 smart displays, the VarioUltra has some unique applications including a spreadsheet viewer and pdf reader. The VarioUltra, unlike its 2 counterparts, also has internal memory of 32 GB and can copy files to and from a thumb drive, both features neither the Edge nor the Perkins display offer. Unlike its 2 competitors, the VarioUltra comes in 2 sizes: 20 and 40 cells. The Perkins Mini only comes in a 16 cell model, and the Edge is only offered as a 40 cell option. Finally, another key difference between the VarioUltra and the other 2 aforementioned devices is that the user can have up to 4 bluetooth devices paired with the VarioUltra.
While review of the internal applications and their functions is beyond the scope of this review, we are focused on Apple products after all on this site, what follows is a hardware description and review of how this display has exhibited itself on my Apple devices. I may post a more in depth review somewhere of my over all impressions regarding the functionality of the internal programs.
What's in the box?
The VarioUltra, a couple of USB cords, a power supply with plugs to fit many international systems of electricity, a getting started card in braille, print manual, and case. One note about the case is that it is very well designed and put together. Many braille display manufacturers now are giving the user a case or sleeve that is essentially useless. Baum has not taken that shortcut, and has given the user a case much like most of the Executive Products cases that we've all come to love. The only issue I have had with mine is that the magnets, which hold the case closed, have come displaced, and are now sitting on top of one another. The case still closes just fine, but it could be an issue. Unlike Humanware, Freedom Scientific, and other companies, though, you don't have to pay extra for the well designed case. The only shortcoming of the case is that the strap is secured to the case by a very thin thread.
Buttons, switches, and arrows oh my!
Let's take a look at all of the buttons and switches on this device. this orientation is done with the braille display facing toward you, and the cursor routing buttons behind the display. Starting on the top, closest to you, from left to right, you will find the following: 2 round buttons rectangular key, a circle that looks like a joystick, another rectangular key, and 2 more small circular buttons. The small circular buttons control system functions and allow you to get various types of information. These buttons are called "S" keys. For example, pressing s3 twice will display the battery status when in note taker mode. Both rectangular buttons function as spacebars in braille display mode, which is what we will be discussing in this review, though you can find out about the notetaking functions in more detail on the VarioUltra website. The joystick (Baum refers to this as a "navistick",), will allow you to move around your screen from left to right like any display does, moving it up or down will go to the previous or next rotor option respectively.
Moving up the left top of the unit, you will find 3 round buttons. Those of you who have used the Brailliant line of displays will already be familiar with these keys, they are called command keys. Along the right side of the device, at the same level as these 3, you will find 3 more. Pressing them will do the equivalent of whatever the command for the braille letter would be with space. So, for example, the command space with g (dots 2-3-4-5,), would toggle the type of braille input. If you press these keys, the manual refers to them as "d" keys, 2-3-4-5, without space, it will do the same thing.
Located between D 1 and 4 you will find the cursor routing buttons, and behind those, the 8 dot braille keyboard.
Along the left side of the device, the switch closest to you is the device lock switch. When the switch is closest to you, this locks all of the keys on the device. If you flip it away from you, you can use all of the keys as expected. While this is a nice feature, it would be great if the VarioUltra would report the status of the switches on the side for beginners as a flash message. Continuing toward the rear panel you have the device mode switch. This controls whether you are in braille display mode, in other words connecting to an external device, or in notetaker mode, where you use the device's internal programs and can modify settings. When the switch is closest to you, it will be in braille display mode.
Behind the 2 switches you will find a micro USB port. This is used to charge the VarioUltra, which can be done with the included adapter or you can use your own supply. It's also used to connect to a PC or Android device so that you can access the VarioUltra's internal memory. Behind that is A standard USB Type A plug where you can plug in thumb drives. Along the right side of the device, you will find the power button. Press it briefly to toggle the VarioUltra from awake to sleep mode. Pressing and holding the power button for 10 seconds will restart the device.
Connection to iDevices
For those running iOS 8.2 and earlier, read below this paragraph to learn how to connect your VarioUltra to an iDevice. For those running 8.3 and later, you will first need to pair the device through Bluetooth settings and then go in and pair it again with VoiceOver. Baum has indicated that there are technical reasons for this which they will be roling out further down the road.
For devices running iOS 8.2 and earlier, the process of connecting the VarioUltra requires a few additional steps. This is because there were no braille drivers in iOS until 8.3 for the VarioUltra. However, that does not mean you cannot pair your braille display with your iDevice. For iDevices running iOS 8.2 and earlier,, you will need to complete a few other steps before pairing through the conventional way of doing so. In VoiceOver/Braille settings. First, you must set the VarioUltra to emulate a Pronto, which is another Baum product. You can do this in settings. You must also turn on bluetooth, obviously, if this has not been done. Then, you must pair the VarioUltra through settings/Bluetooth, and finally, after flipping the mode switch on the left side of the VarioUltra to notetaker mode, pair the VarioUltra with your iDevice. For detailed instructions on this process, please see the VarioUltra web page with various formats of the manual.
Connecting to a Mac
With Siera, you now have the option of connecting via USB or Bluetooth. It also appears that you will need firmware version 1.33, which was released last summer, on your VarioUltra. If you wish to connect via USB, simply put the VU in braille display mode, and plug it in to your Mac with VoiceOver running. To pair with bluetooth, you must first go in to notetaker mode and pull up the settings for bluetooth. Then, on your Mac, follow the conventional steps for pairing a braille display and use the authentication code 1111. After you activate the pair button on your Mac, the VU should come up and prompt you for the same code.After entering the authentication code in computer braille (dot 2 for times),, press the left spacebar to confirm the pairing request. Then switch the VU to braille display mode. As braille display behavior goes on Mac OS, the VU acts like most other displays. It does, however, lack speicific buttons for functions which could be useful that do not have braille display commands. For example, the Braille Edge has the ability to do the equivalent of VO Plus J to jump to linked text using the f5 key. This is not possible on the VU.
Not a unique feature, but a unique twist:
With the HIMS products, there is a feature called Terminal clipboard. This feature allows the user to compose text on the devices internal word processor, and then send that text to the connected device when the user is ready. The VarioUltra has a more advanced variation of this. While you cannot type on the fly exactly and just send the text along, you can go in to notetaker mode, compose a document in the Word Processor, and then copy it to the clipboard. it's also possible to just copy a section of a document to the clipboard. Once you have copied the text, switch back to notetaker mode, and s2 (located to the left of the left spacebar, along with D1. Be sure your text field is in editing mode prior to starting the paste. The longer the string of text, the longer the process will take. I was able to move a document that was about 2 pages long over to my iPhone in 5 minutes. Which seems crazy, but the reason for this is that it is typing each character when pasting over. It's also important to note, just like Terminal Clipboard for HIMS products, that the braille tables you use must match. So if you are typing in contracted braille using the VarioUltra's internal Word Processor in US English braille, you need to also set this up to match with VoiceOver. I find that moving phone numbers and other short notes like this is a very handy feature indeed!
When the rubber hits the road
There are 2 things that immediately stand out about this device to me. The first is how lightweight it is. While the 20 cell model only weighs 0.7 pounds, That’s about the same weight as a Focus 14, however, the VarioUltra is much more stirtily built. The second thing that stands out is the sharp Braille cells. Those who have used the first generation Brailliant, Refreshabraille 18, or the Braille connect line can expect a very similar feel. This is because, though the Brailliant and Refreshabraille do not have Baum’s name on them, they were, in fact, built by Baum.
The operation of the VarioUltra with one device, or even 2 devices, work ssolidly. I did not have a chance to run it under 3 different ones as of the writing of this review. Switching from the connected device to the notetaking mode to look up data or to read a book, for example, works flawlessly. You can pick up right where you left off on either mode. if you lock the screen on the iPhone, and then unlock it when in braille display mode, the VarioUltra will vibrate to let you know the connection has picked back up from where it left off.
One minor issue that I encountered with the 20 cell model I have while running iOS 8.2, was that because the iDevice thought it was running an 18 cell display instead of a 20, I'm never going to get a full 20 cells of braille on my iDevice. If this were a 40 cell model, 2 cells aren't quite a big deal, but with the 20, that's 10% less braille and 10% more scrolling that one has to do. That said, 18 cells of access is better than no access at all, which is what you would get in earlier versions of iOS without the emulation mode. For those running iOS 8.3 or OSX 10.11, where no emulation is required, you will get to enjoy all 20 cells of braille. Note that this does not apply to the 40 cell model, as the device that emulates is also a 40 cell display.
In terms of regular useage for me, the battery lasts about 9 hours with heavy use. That is with having it connected to devices via Bluetooth and going in to notetaker mode as needed. It's certainly not the best battery life on the market, but I carry a small external battery pack with me for times when I'm running out of power, and that works well. The battery and VarioUltra together still weigh quite a bit less than other displays on the market.
Typing on the VarioUltra takes a bit of getting used to due to the way the keyboard was ergonomically designed. At first, I found myself making quite a number of typos, but once I became used to the keyboard, I have actually found it a much more comfortable way to type than on either the Braille Edge or Refreshabraille 18, both devices which I have spent a few years using.
Many of the issues present prior to now have been dealt with in the latest firmware update to the VarioUltra. The ability to rapidly switch between notetaker and display mode is a huge productivity gainer for me, as is the ability to flip from one device to the other without worrying about losing the pairing of either one. Looking ahead, It would be nice if there were some way to take data on one paired device and to then copy it to another connected device. For example, if you have a phone number on your PC that you wish to have on your iPhone to make a call, it would be great to be able to copy that phone number to the internal memory of the VarioUltra, which could then be pasted in to your iDevice. it would also be neat if, since you have to establish a connection with the phone itself, if you could wake the iDevice like you can with a bluetooth keyboard by simply pressing a key. In sum, this is a top contender for my favorite display, and is something I enjoy using`.