The following review is an adapted version of this evaluation to suit the AppleVis website. It was originally written in April 2021. You can read the full review on the Technology, Research and Innovation Center's web page. This expanded evaluation includes a comprehensive review of the internal applications and how well the Brailliant BI 40X works with other screen readers not within the Apple ecosystem.
What's in the Box?
You will find the Brailliant BI 40X inserted into a case, a strap, USB-A to USB-C cable, a wall adapter, and printed Getting Started Guide. Notably absent was any braille material. One would think that, at the very least, a braille getting started guide would accompany its print counterpart. The case is made of leather and has a magnetic closure. When open, it exposes all of the ports, keys, and buttons for easy access. The flap closes to cover only the back edge and top panel, leaving the buttons and ports on the sides and front edge exposed. This feature will prove very convenient when Humanware eventually integrates its audio player functionality.
The Brailliant BI 40X is a forty cell braille display which has a standard Perkins-style keyboard, 32 gigabytes of internal memory, and the ability to connect to external media through the USB-A port. It measures 12.01 inches long by 3.54 inches wide by 0.86 inches deep and weighs 1.59 pounds. Unlike the previous two generations of Brailliants, it is constructed of extremely durable plastic instead of aluminum.
Orientation of Display
Positioning the device so the spacebars are closest to you, the layout of the display is as follows. On the front edge from left to right, you have the Previous Thumb key followed by the Left thumb key, which is about twice as long as the Previous key. In the middle is a circular shaped button known as the Home key. This key is always used to return you to the previous menu. To the right of the Home key is the Right key, followed by the Next key. The Right Thumb key is larger than the Next key. The two larger thumb keys on the front of the device are what pans the display back and forth. The Previous and Next thumb keys are used for navigational purposes that depend on the application in use and how they are configured.
On the left side moving from front to back, you will find a USB-A port used for inserting a thumb drive. Behind this is the Power button. Pressing and holding it for several seconds will toggle the power, and a quick press when the device is on will either wake it up or put it to sleep. Behind this is a USB-C port for charging or connecting it to a computer. On the right side are two volume buttons and a 3.5MM headphone jack.
On the top surface, the keys located closest to you are two spacebars. Behind these, you will find the forty braille cells with a corresponding Cursor Routing key behind each cell. At the left and right end of the display you will fine three circular keys, which are known as Command or C keys. C 1-3 are located to the left of the braille display, while C 4-6 are located to the right. C 1 and 4 are the furthest two from the user. Behind the C keys is a standard eight-dot Perkins-style braille keyboard. Finally, on the very back of the surface on each end of the device is a speaker. Next to the right speaker you will find a microphone. Like the volume controls and headphone jack, these items are not active at the time of this evaluation, but Humanware has indicated they will be active in a future update.
The under-side of the display has a braille serial number and a couple of rubber feet to hold it in place.
Running the Brailliant BI 40X for the First Time
After pressing the power button for several seconds, the user will encounter the message: “starting Keysoft” with a spinning braille cell. After about five seconds the user will be presented with a language menu. The default language is English. If the user doesn’t want to use English, there are other options available. After pressing enter on the desired language, press space with dot 1 to find the Close button, and Keysoft will restart after loading the English system language.
The first thing most people want to do when they get a new display is set it up to their liking. On the Brailliant BI 40X, like all other Humanware products, these items will be found in the Options menu. You can navigate there from the Main Menu by pressing space with O, using the Thumb Keys, using the space bar, or by pressing space with dot 4 or space with dot 1 to move through the menu until you encounter the application you wish to select. This behavior is consistent throughout the device. Options include the ability to turn on Airplane mode, toggle Wifi, Set up other language profiles if needed, the ability to remove blank lines, the ability to have format markers inside files, Whether to get vibratory or audio feedback of error messages, whether the cursor should be visible, Word Wrap, the ability to change the functions of the Thumb Keys, the option to customize the Main Menu, and the ability to run in Exam Mode.
Connecting to Other Devices
For this evaluation, firmware version 1.1.1 of the Brailliant BI 40X was used. It is compatible with iOS 13.6 and later, JAWS for Windows 18 and later, macOS 10.15 and later, NVDA (no specified minimum requirement), and development is ongoing for both Android and Chrome OS. The state of development with Apple’s Watch OS and Amazon’s Fire OS are not known. Evaluation was done using the latest publicly available screen reader and operating systems as of August 2021. As a general rule, when connected to multiple devices, there is a menu which allows you to jump from one device to another. However, there are no keyboard shortcuts to jump quickly from one device to another like what is found on the Focus and qBraille displays. Instead, the user must back out of the device they are currently connected to and then find the device they wish to switch to in that menu. Absent from the Terminal menu is the ability to unpair devices. It can be found only by going to the Options menu, selecting Bluetooth, and then “delete devices”. If you are looking for information about how to specifically use the Brailliant with various screen readers, the User Guide does not provide this information. There are separate links listed on the Brailliant BI series support page, Humanware informed me that users can download and install the HW Buddy iOS and iPadOS app to get further information about the Brailliant BI 40X and how to use it. TO access information about screen readers through this app, the user must have a compatible device and also sign up for an account. This feels gratuitous to me, it would seem to make sense to have this accompany the rest of the information in the User Guide.
VoiceOver on iOS
Unlike most braille displays, the Brailliant connects through the standard Bluetooth menu instead of using the one found under VoiceOver’s braille menu. Using iOS 14.7.1, I found that the connection was quite stable. However, there were random times where the keyboard would not respond to commands. The only way to rectify this issue was to either turn the Brailliant off and back on or to toggle Bluetooth off and on using my iOS Device. There is also a reconnect option which will come in handy if your iOS device and the Brailliant have a failed connection.
One of the nice features of the Brailliant displays is the ability to wake up your iOS device from the braille display by pressing any cursor routing button when the device is locked and the Brailliant is on that channel. I found that this feature was reliable and that it was a much more convenient way of achieving this task, since I did not have to interact with my iPhone directly.
The C keys located to the left and right of the braille display could be a useful set of keyboard commands on iOS. By default, they are designed on iOS to make it so that the user does not have to enter a chorded command. For example, space with H (space with dots 1-2-5,) can also be activated by pressing the corresponding C keys. However, this feature is not currently working in iOS. The only C keys which work are 2 and 5 alone, which pan braille back and forth.
Typing on the Perkins style keyboard functions as well as other displays do. All of the bugs related to connectivity and the cursor jumping around are just as prevalent as with other braille devices. All other commands are the same on iOS as with other displays, though the User Guide does not provide these. They are available on the HWBuddy app as well as on the above linked Humanware Support page. For more introductory material, you may also find this introductory guide from AppleVis of value.
macOS Big Sur
Connecting over USB is as simple as it can be under macOS. As long as VoiceOver is running, and the Brailliant BI 40X is in Terminal, plugging in the USB-Cable should instantly start the connection. Like on iOS, pressing multiple C keys at once does not function, though the individual C keys do what they are intended to. When pressing space with k to launch VoiceOver help, the C keys only give some sort of numerical value. Like with other braille devices under macOS, sometimes the connection briefly drops, even over USB. Typically, toggling VoiceOver off and back on with Command f5 resolves the issue. If you are new to macOS and braille, this support article from Apple should get you started. The HWBuddy app does have more information, but not a listing of all braille keyboard commands.
Like on iOS and Windows, the typing experience is much better than the previous Brailliant, thanks to the newly redesigned keyboard. When checking for the option to assign new braille commands, I noted that there are only 71 available for the new Brailliant BI 40X, but 88 options exist under the older Brailliant BI40.
Conclusion and Personal Remarks
The Brailliant BI 40X is worth strong consideration for those in the market for a forty cell braille display. Its software and features could use some refinement, particularly for those outside the United States who would like access to library services in their country. Though the ability to connect to multiple devices is solid, Humanware could give users a serious productivity boost by allowing them to change among the connected devices with a single keystroke.
Battery life is impressive, averaging around 14 hours for me while having Bluetooth and Wifi always connected, which means I get an entire day of use out of one charge. The User Guide could certainly use some updating to assist the customer in utilizing their braille display with other connected devices. If you are a new user to braille displays, the task of obtaining all the available documentation can be daunting. Unlike the Focus, qBraille, and Orbit Reader 40, the Brailliant can be updated online. An updated and more mature firmware would only serve to make an already-exemplary device an even stronger contender in the current market.
The Brailliant BI 40X is available from Humanware for $3,195. At the time of writing, it is temporarily out of stock.