The Refreshabraille 18, 3rd generation, is now available from APH. It's an 18-cell display which offers many connectivity options, the ability to flip the Refreshabraille to have the display closer to you instead of the keyboard, and the ability to connect in unsecure or secure mode via Bluetooth.
A Familiar Feeling Device:
For those who enjoyed the solid build of the previous models of the Refreshabraille, you will be happy to know that the keyboard and the material the display is made out of has not changed. This also includes the dimensions of the device. However, one thing which has not changed that I've heard several complaints about already is the USB connector on the bottom of the device. More on this later.
As noted above, the dimensions of the Refreshabraille 3rd generation remain unchanged, but for the benefit of those reading this who have not had the chance to see a Refreshabraille in the past, I will describe the lay-out. On the front facing panel, there is a small square button in the middle of that side. Place the display in front of you on a table or other surface to be properly oriented. The top of the Refreshabraille 18 is where you will find most of the things you will need. There are 3 buttons in the bottom row: from left to right, dot 7, spacebar, and then dot 8. Behind this row of keys and slightly to the left you will see the Perkins style keyboard. From left to right, you have dots 3, 2, 1, and then slightly below that a 5 way navigation pad. This navigation pad is closer to the spacebar than the Perkins style keyboard and is in between dots 1 and 4. Continuing to the right of dot 1, we have dots 4, 5, and 6. The keyboard itself has all 6 keys configured in a straight line, just like previous models. Behind the keyboard, next to dot 3, you have a small rectangular button, which is the pan left button, you then have another spacebar in the middle and behind dots 1 and 4, and then on the right side, an advance bbar. Behind that, you have 18 cursor routing buttons and then the 18 cells of braille itself. On the underside of the unit, on the lower left side when continuing with the same orientation, you will find the USB connector.
The old and new can both be nice.
IN some respects, I very much enjoy the older parts of the display that were retained in the 3rd generation of the product. Perkins style keyboards certainly depend on personal preference, just like many things in life, and the keys are in the same design and configuration as the older versions. What is new is the joystick. Instead of being a thin nub, which was more an issue with the first generation of the Refreshabraille, the joystick is now a prominent feature and seems easier to press. Since I was a big fan of the joystick before, I'm also a fan now. The advance and previous bars, along with the spacebar in the middle, feel the same to me. The braille cells are as crisp as previous models, and feel exactly the same to the touch.
The case for a case
One of the unique things about this device is the lack of a case to house the display. With a $1695 plus shipping investment, a case would be very helpful and welcome. There are 2 cases for this device on the market, but you will need to purchase them separately. One case is made by the <a href="https://www.bapingroup.com/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=163"> Bapin Group,</a> and the other is made by <a href="https://www.executiveproductsinc.com/catalog/product_info.php?cPath=378&products_id=1965"> Executive Products</a>
This review is of the device itself, but I think it worthwhile to make a comment on these cases. Both come with a strap and are both made of leather. Both cases close with a magnetic flap, and both have a zipper pocket on the lid for storing things like thumb drives, SD cards, keys, etc. However, it's probably worth Noting that neither case's zipper pocket will fit an iPhone. The Executive Products case is selling for approximately $53 at the time of this review, while the case sold by the Bapin Group is selling for approximately $56. The $3 difference gives you a belt clip like the original case APH was selling, and also a Velcro strap which you can close to help keep the display more secure, but when opened, gives you direct access to the USB port. The leather on the Bapin Group case also feels of higher quality to me personally, but that's subjective.
Making the Connection:
Just like with previous models, the USB connection to charge and connect to devices supporting USB is located on the bottom of the display. Unlike the previous models of the Refreshabraille, the 3rd generation has a micro USB connector instead of a mini. Don't let that fool you though, plugging a USB cable in to the display is just as challenging for me as it was with previous versions of the Refreshabraille. How challenging you ask? Well, this process has given me the opportunity to come up with new and creative ways to curse, so maybe it's not all bad. While they get several points knocked off for the terrible placement of the connector, some of those points come back since they did change the connector to Micro USB, which seems to becoming a standard on newer devices. Plugging the Refreshabraille 18 in to my Mac worked just as well as previous models, as did its functionality. I also found that I did not have to reinstall drivers to get the unit to work with JAWS or NVDA.
Bluetooth is where things are a bit different. When turning the Refreshabraille 18 on, you are presented with a menu. You can move through the choices in the menu by using the advance and previous buttons. Make a selection by hitting a cursor routing button on the option you want. One of the choices inside this menu is to change the type of Bluetooth connection from "auto" or "secure". The good news about "Auto" is that you are no longer required to enter a pin to connect the Refreshabraille via Bluetooth. Just select the Refreshabraille from the list of choices on your tablet, computer, or smart phone, and within a couple of seconds, the connection should be established. I did find, however, that sometimes you had to try to pair the Refreshabraille 18 a second time when in this mode for it to make the connection successfully. This was especially true on both the iPhone 6S and iPad Mini 2 that I used for testing.
With "Secure" mode, when you select the Refreshabraille 18, you will need to confirm that the pins match on the device you are pairing with as well as the Refreshabraille. With iOS, for example, you would flick right one time to find the pin, and then flick right another time to confirm the pairing request. You will also find the word "pair" along with the pin code on the Refreshabraille. Press a cursor routing button above the word "pair" on the Refreshabraille, and the pairing should be established.
The Bottom Line:
The 3rd generation of the Refreshabraille is a step forward when compared to the previous models of the Refreshabraille. It's just as functional as the last version, and has several enhancements. While I'm not sure I would upgrade my older model to a newer one if I had the money to consider such an option, it's certainly an option users may wish to consider. First because it's the only 18-cell standalone unit on the market at the moment, meaning it doesn't have internal features, and the price of $1695 reflects this. If you find 14 cells to be too few, like what you have in the Focus 14 and Smart Beetle, but find 32 cells to be too much, 18 is a good compromise. I'm giving the Refreshabraille 3rd generation 4 stars because of the positioning of the USB connector and the lack of a case. However, the case issue can be dealt with if you tack on a few more dollars, so it wouldn't be a deal breaker for me.