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James Denham
American Foundation for the Blind
401 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 350
Chicago, IL. 60611
Phone: (312) 396-4420
Email: jdenham@afb.net

This paper evaluates the features of two of the newest Braille displays on the market. Though the functionality of these displays varies, depending on which Windows-based screen reader is driving the displays, the features of the displays are separate.

In the early 1980s, Telesensory Corporation's VersaBraille was the first product to use a refreshable Braille display. The text on the display was changed by raising and lowering different combinations of pins electronically to produce in Braille what appeared on a portion of the screen. Since then, refreshable Braille displays have increased dramatically in features and functionality. However, the cost of Braille technology has remained extremely high - about $70 per Braille cell. Recently, several new displays have come on the market that offer a variety of attractive features.

Displays typically have a variety of keys for navigating around the information on the screen, and some displays have a great many more keys than others. A Braille display, like a speech synthesizer, requires software to run. In Windows, it is the screen reader that provides the interface between the Braille display and the computer applications you need to use.

Braille Star 40

The Braille Star 40 is the newest refreshable Braille display from Handy Tech and Pulse Data International. Although it is manufactured by Handy Tech, it was jointly developed by both of these companies and is sold and supported in the United States by Pulse Data HumanWare. The Braille Star 40 is a powerful refreshable Braille display that also contains a fully functioning editor and file system. These features allow you to create, edit, and read files when Braille Star is not connected to a computer.

At First Look

One of the first things that catches your attention when you examine the Braille Star 40 for the first time is the detachable, laptop-sized QWERTY-style keyboard that sits on top of the unit. This keyboard can be used either to enter text in the editor or to control your PC. In front of the keyboard is a concave area containing 40 Braille cells and 40 cursor-routing keys. This concave setup places the Braille cells on a unique angle for reading. At both ends of the line of Braille cells, Handy Tech has placed a rocker-type control. These controls are known as triple-action keys. Each of these controls can be pressed at the top, in the center, or at the bottom. Pressing in each area performs a different action. Ten thumb key-style controls are located at the front edge of the product. These controls represent eight Braille input keys and two spacebars. The product connects to a computer using either a USB or a serial port. The back panel contains both these ports, as well as a switch for controlling which port is currently active.

Using the Braille Star 40 as a Display

The Braille Star 40 is supported by Jaws for Windows and Window-Eyes, both of which take full advantage of Braille Star's array of features and controls. The triple-action keys, for example, are used by both packages to move up or down one line. Scrolling within a line is accomplished by using either the left or right spacebar. Although most of these key combinations worked well, we found a few of them to be less than intuitive. In JAWS for Windows, for example, pressing the middle of the left triple-action key and pressing down on the right triple-action key is the command to simulate an ALT Tab. Pressing the middle of the left triple-action key and pressing up on the right triple-action key simulates a Delete key. When we evaluated the product, more than one item was accidentally deleted when we tried to switch between applications. While in display mode, the Braille input keys on the front of the Braille Star are used to toggle many popular screen-reader functions, such as the grade of Braille being displayed.


Text can be entered in the Braille Star's editor using either the mini-QWERTY keyboard or the Braille input keys on the front of the unit. While evaluating the product, we found that the angle and texture of the Braille input keys made it uncomfortable to enter Braille for an extended period. Regardless of how you enter text, you have Braille Star's editor at your disposal. This is a fully functioning editor with a variety of features, such as cut and copy, insert or overtype modes, and the ability to set up to 10 bookmarks per file.

Files can be sent between the Braille Star 40 and a PC using a supplied communications program. These files can be either text files or Grade 2 Braille files, such as web-Braille books. The Braille Star 40 has four megabytes of available memory for storing such files. Once a file is stored, it can be viewed, opened for editing, or deleted. The Braille Star does not give you the ability to rename files or to organize them in any type of directory structure.

Menu System

While in editor mode, the Braille Star offers an extensive menu system. These menus can be used to save and retrieve files, check the status of the device, change numerous options, and load different braille tables. Braille Star uses Braille tables to decide which dots should make up each Braille character for menus and messages. This feature comes in handy when you are working with multiple languages.

ALVA Satellite

The ALVA Satellite series is not a newcomer to the Braille display market. These versatile displays have been around for a number of years. What is new, however, is ALVA's new Traveler. This 44-cell display is the newest product in the satellite series and can run exclusively on USB power. Thus, no batteries or power cord are necessary when using the display as a USB device. When connected to a computer via a serial port, an external power supply can be used to power the Traveler. This loss of on-board batteries significantly reduces the weight of the unit. This lighter-weight sibling still has all the features of the other products in the satellite series. These features include two rows of cursor-routing keys, two sets of six keys for controlling Windows and screen-reader functions, six front-panel keys for scrolling the display, and a menu system for changing numerous aspects of the display. All this in an ergonomically designed case.

Two Rows of Cursor-Routing Keys

One unique feature of the ALVA Satellite is its two rows of cursor-routing keys. With most screen readers, the bottom row of keys serves as traditional cursor-routing keys. The top row of cursor-routing keys, or Double Touch cursors, can serve a variety of functions, depending on which screen reader is driving the display. These keys can execute actions, such as a right mouse click on a single character, or announce additional information about a character, such as its attribute information - underline, bold, and so forth.

The Satellite also contains two six-key Satellite Keypads, positioned below and at either end of the line of Braille cells. ALVA refers to these keypads as the Windows keypad and the screen-reader keypad. True to their names, they allow you to control Windows and basic screen-reader functions. While the screen reader decides which of these keys will do what, ALVA's menu system provides the ability to reverse these keypads. If your Windows keypad is located on the left keypad, for example, and you are left-handed and want to access the functions mapped to the screen-reader keypad quickly, you could easily reverse the role of these keypads to suit your needs.

Internal Menu

The ALVA Satellite has an internal menu system that allows you to change many aspects of the display. Through this menu, you can decide where or if the status cells will be positioned, rearrange the functions of the front panel controls, and even change the dot pressure of the Braille cells. Setting a lighter Braille-cell pressure makes the Braille appear faded, whereas increasing this setting makes the dots appear sharper. The internal menu system also allows you to check the status of the display.

Connecting the Dots

Both these products offer a variety of features that make it convenient to use a Braille display with a Windows-based screen reader. Their innovative controls and configurability give the Braille user a wealth of options. The Braille Star contains features that make it more than a simple Braille display. ALVA's menu options make the Satellite much more configurable. If you are in the market for a Braille display, I would highly recommend taking a careful look at both of these products.

Product Information

Braille Star 40
Pulse Data HumanWare
Phone: (800) 722-3393

Price $5,995

ALVA Satellite Traveler
ALVA Access Group Inc.
phone: 888-318-ALVA (2582)

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