If you like our longer deep dives into product features, then this one is for you. J.J. sits down with Andrew Flatres, Braille Product Manager for HumanWare, to pour over the specs and feature set of the new BrailleNote Touch Plus. Chipset upgrades, Oreo and a move to Chrome are just some of the highlights of this discussion. Listen in, or read the transcript below, to find more information about the upgrade path for existing users and what awaits those who choose to follow the transplant option. Pricing options, as well as other Blindness related products, are available from the HumanWare website
ATIA 2019 coverage is Brought to you by AFB AccessWorld.
For the latest news and accessibility information on mainstream and access technology, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon offerings, access technology book reviews, and mobile apps, and how they can enhance entertainment, education and employment, log on to AccessWorld, the American Foundation for the Blind's free, monthly, online technology magazine. Visit www.afb.org/aw.
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Transcribed by Grecia Ramirez
From beautiful Orlando, Florida, it’s blindbargains.com coverage of ATIA 2019, brought to you by AFB AccessWorld.
For the latest news and accessibility information on mainstream and access technology; Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon offerings; access technology; book reviews; and mobile apps and how they can enhance entertainment, education, and employment, log onto AccessWorld, the American Foundation for the Blind's free monthly online technology magazine. www.AFB.org/AW.
Now, here’s J.J. Meddaugh.
J.J. MEDDAUGH: ATIA 2019 in Orlando in the Humanware suite. There are a couple of great new products here. We’re actually going to record a couple Humanware podcasts. This one, about a new BrailleNote. Yes. A new BrailleNote. Andrew Flatres, Braille Product Manager is here with Humanware to tell us all about it.
Welcome back, Andrew.
ANDREW FLATRES: Well, thank you – thank you for inviting me, J.J. so the BrailleNote Touch Plus --
AF: Yes. BrailleNote Touch Plus, launching on the 1st of February and shipping on the 14th of February. So we’re really excited to tell you that we are now – got an even faster processor, an even faster notetaker. So the BrailleNote Touch Plus is now the most powerful and fastest notetaker in the assistive technology industry. And let me tell you a bit – you know, what the goal was with our products.
AF: So there’s a lot – going back from the first Touch, we looked at the base of the platform. Android was on KitKat, and we really wanted to look – make a more powerful device. Obviously, trying to compete to mainstream technology is very difficult, especially in the assistive technology world.
AF: So what we have managed to do is secure a really good, fast processor chip from QualComm. It’s a Snapdragon 820. It has four gigabytes of RAM. And this now allows us to compete to mainstream devices. And what that means is we can now follow mainstream on these cycles. So when Google bring out the new version of Android, we can then follow six or seven months down the line and upgrade to the next version of Android.
JM: So yes. Looking at the shell, for anyone who might be curious, it feels like the other BrailleNote Touch, but it has -- you’re telling me -- the internals have changed quite a bit.
AF: Yeah. Correct. So the – physically, the size, weight, and layout of the BrailleNote Touch Plus has no significant differences other than the functionality differences. So certain buttons are slightly different because of the Oreo platform. But what we have done -- the major difference is what’s enclosed under the hood, you know, the hardware that’s being used inside.
So as I said, that Snapdragon 820 was the same processor that was used in the Galaxy S7 mobiles. So really good powerful note – processor.
JM: The galaxy S7 -- Samsung -- came out a couple years ago. They’re up to the S9, but you know, I guess, you know, it still doesn’t really matter. You’re on Android 8.1 --
JM: -- which is several versions newer.
AF: Correct. Yeah. So –
JM: Of course, someone’s going to jump in and say, why not Android 9 but –
AF: Well, this is the thing, because – so basically, within the assistive technology industry, we also have to follow and try to keep up.
AF: So obviously, Pie 9 was released – was it maybe four, four or so months ago?
AF: So what tends to happen is the Samsung manufacturers, they will then upgrade six or so months down the line. Now, just to give you some statistics, there’s about 7.5 percent of mainstream tablets and devices that are on Oreo 8.1. So it really tells you which – you know, where we fit in and compete against mainstream.
JM: Yeah. Near the top. For sure.
JM: USBC as well?
AF: Yes. We changed to USBC. I think this is really important. So the previous BrailleNote Touch was micro-USB. So this now allows you to – doesn’t matter which way you put that cable, it will always go in.
JM: And that’s the same port that a lot of Macs and a lot of, you know, some other phones are using as well. So it’s a very modern port.
A Yes, it is. Yes. Yeah.
JM: Is there still a memory card slot or other ports on there as well, or –
AF: So we’ve gone away with the removable SD card storage. The BrailleNote Touch 1 had the – an SD card storage underneath the battery. So we’ve removed that, and we’ve now gone to mounted storage. So we have 64 gigabytes of internal storage. We’ve also updated the Wi-Fi capabilities. So we’re now supporting 5 GHz as well as the 2.4 GHz.
JM: Is that N or AC or –
AF: It is both.
AF: Yeah. So then, we also have – and some other changes, we had a camera. So the camera’s changed to 21 megapixel as opposed to a 30 megapixel camera. And then of course, we do have a lot of benefits that come our way being on the Oreo platform and, of course, being upgraded on the TalkBack version as well.
JM: You mentioned the removable SD. That’s a little curious to me, because I know one of the features of the other one where people – if they had a repair issue, they could pull the card out, put it in a different unit. Is there an alternative solution for that now, or –
AF: So at the moment, what a user would need to do is they can back up their storage, but it will only back up the applications. If you do need to back up the individual files, they, of course, would need to be copied individually and put into an external SD card or USB. But nevertheless, we’ll certainly be looking at a backup utility program in the near future.
JM: Okay. So you’re running a newer version of KeySoft, like you mentioned, Android 8.1. What kind of freedom does that give you as far as more modern apps and things like that?
AF: Yeah. So apart from access to more and more apps, we have now removed KeyWeb, which was the browser that we were using on the first Touch, and we’ve gone with Chrome, number one browser. We have really optimized Chrome for a better, enhanced experience of navigating. And what we’ve done now is we’re now – what I’d like to say is using transferable skills. So anyone that knows how to navigate, sort of, mainstream – sorry. Not mainstream, but, like, screen readers like JAWS and NVDA can also know how to navigate on Chrome on the BrailleNote Touch. So we can navigate by links by pressing the letter L, headings by the letter H. So it’s a better experience navigating within Chrome.
JM: Which makes sense. Again, the limitation -- Chrome in Android 4.4 – well, I’m an Android user. It wasn’t that good. So –
AF: It just wasn’t accessible. Chrome was not -- because we were using Firefox on the previous notetaker. We were using Firefox. So Chrome just wasn’t optimized.
JM: About the previous Touch, since – what – has it been out for three, four years now? What are those users – is there still going to be upgrades for that?
AF: Yes. So there will be an upgrade path. So just to give you an example, we’ve really gone above and beyond, doing a boost up program. We did something similar with one of our previous notetakers, the Apex and the Empowers, if you remember that.
JM: Of course.
AF: So what we can now do is anyone that’s purchased a device, Touch 1, in January, we’re giving them now until the first of April to decide whether they want to upgrade by the extra – by paying an extra $200. We then also have the options of those that purchased from November last year – so November and December – we -- they can actually upgrade to the Touch Plus. Again, expiring date is first of April, by paying $645. So it’s half price of a full transplant, which is $1295.
JM: Okay. So even if – for someone who bought it three or four years ago, twelve ninety-five is a lot cheaper upgrade than, sometimes, you say you might only get $500 off. So that –
AF: Yes, it is. Yeah. Instead of having to pay for a brand new unit, you know, it offers a lot of great value there.
JM: Will that transplant – will that move your existing Braille cells over with it, or would it be a completely new, refreshed unit?
AF: So it will completely – yeah. You’ll have the same Braille cells. So what we’ll do is literally take out the main components, the main board and put the new board in with that new powerful processor in.
JM: Okay. What’s the battery life on this one?
AF: So battery life is between 10 and 12 hours. Because of Oreo, again, we benefit for a better power management, so you should get a full day use out of your tablet.
JM: Have you tried the improved camera – I mean I know megapixels is one mark – you know, using it with either, you know, KNFB Reader or other reading apps or things like that and see how it’s working?
AF: Definitely. So with the BrailleNote Touch Plus, we still continue to use KNFB Reader. So again, it’s optimized for the BrailleNote Touch Plus.
JM: Which is included; right?
AF: It is included. And the OCR quality is so much better with that 21 megapixel camera.
JM: Very cool. And the price of the new unit?
AF: So the price of the unit has gone up slightly. You know, it’s $5,695.
But talking about some of the other cool enhancements –
JM: Yes. Yes.
AF: -- we’ve introduced. We’ve also got a new reading application. Those of you might have heard an application called EasyReader, and so we’ve –
JM: From Dolphin.
AF: Correct. Yeah. So we’ve partnered up with Dolphin, and we’ve now called our version the EasyReader Plus, and it’s now been optimized for the BrailleNote Touch. So those that are Braille users and want to be able to navigate around using shortcut keys, they can do. So we’ve really, really done a good job on the EasyReader Plus.
JM: So that allows you to do text and audio or just text or –
AF: Both. Downloading –
JM: So BARD.
AF: So you can – so not BARD. BARD is – I mean you can.
JM: They are their own app. Okay.
AF: Yeah. But with EasyReader Plus, you can download books from, like – so Bookshare, RNIB, Bookshare. There’s about – over 15 online libraries, which is really cool. And it’s really promoting that instant accessibility and, you know, downloading resources that you may need for education or maybe even for pleasure.
JM: And to clarify, BARD is still available, you just have to get the NLS app because you’re running on Android?
AF: It is. And it’s a lot better – it’s a lot more accessible, being on the later platform as well.
JM: Any other new features or enhancements that we should cover?
AF: So we now have the ability to screen mirror. So in a school situation, we can now mirror the screen to tablets, iPhones. That can be quite useful especially if you don’t want to keep on having to flip up the keyboard and use the onboard touch screen.
JM: Is that an HDMI port, or –
AF: We still have the HDMI port which –
AF: -- which also now supports audio, so if you are doing any presentations, not only does the video come through, the audio will do as well. We have Google assistance, the forever upcoming technology that everyone tends to use now. The, “Hey Google”, which will allow you to – I’ve just lit my phone off there – will now –
JM: And half our listeners.
AF: Yeah. So now you’ll be able to, you know, use that feature to open applications or do certain tasks.
JM: Well, and again, you get a lot of that with the newer version of Android. Do you have a shortcut key for that?
AF: So that’s the home button at the very front. It’s a round, circular button. So if you press and hold that, that will allow you to set up the Google assistant.
JM: Makes sense. Just like on an Android phone.
AF: Yeah. And then afterwards, you will then be able to use it without pressing any function – you know, any buttons at all.
JM: Yeah. And a lot of that stuff comes – so Android 8.1 Oreo, and as you said, you’re going to be able to upgrade Android on this one.
AF: Yes, we will. We’ll be following it --as I said, the mainstream release cycles. So at some point, we will look at going to the Pie version and so on.
But also, another thing to mention, we have improved the printing capabilities so it’s a lot more easier to print. So with, again, being on that Oreo platform, it allows us to search for printers that are on your network without having to install third-party applications.
JM: So that’s mostly a wireless printing through –
AF: Yes, it is. Yeah.
JM: Network printing. Very cool.
AF: And then from a visual perspective, teachers -- sighted teachers -- friends, we have put a splash of color into the screen.
AF: So the previous BrailleNote Touch was like, an MS-DOS version. It was, sort of – there was no color. It was just structured like MS-DOS. So we’ve just put a bit of splash of paint, we’re now bringing the application logos to the screen so it looks a lot more modern.
JM: As far as word processors and things like that, do people go more towards your apps or is there – are they using Google Docs, or what’s the best way to go?
AF: It’s a bit of a mix. So Keyword is, you know, designed with KeySoft and is really easy, intuitive word processor app that we created. But then we also have the option to install Google Docs or even Microsoft Word or any other third-party app that’s a word processor. And you can do mix and match. So it’s a lot more accessible though, in KeyWord than what it is in the Google Drive, you know. So shortcut keys to insert bullet points, numbering, underline, that kind of things.
JM: Have you tried any of the assistance apps, Be my Eyes, things like that to see how they work on here?
AF: I haven’t tried that myself, no. But I can’t see reason why it wouldn’t work.
JM: Sure. I mean, obviously, the – it’s a little heavier than a phone, but still, I mean, for desktop-type chores – reading, mail, things like that – it’s –
AF: It’s ideal. I mean, yeah – I mean, if -- obviously, if you take it out of the case, you can just -- pure Touch user. We have various different cases that we can – you can use. So we have the traditional smart case, which has the Perkins keyboard. Or you can remove it and have a leather case if you’re a touch screen user.
JM: Is there going to be an 18-cell version of this one or –
AF: There is. So we’re still continuing selling the 18 – the 32-cell and 18-cell.
JM: Both. And of course, the new model of the Plus is the one – the only one that will be available going forward?
AF: Correct. So for February the 1st, anyone that places an order on the Touch, it will be the new Touch Plus that they receive.
JM: And what’s the price for the 18?
AF: Price for the 18 is a good question. I think it’s four one nine five. So, again, a slight increase.
JM: Same thing. Yeah. 200 dollars up.
JM: Awesome. If people want to get more information -- I’m sure there’s more questions to be asked -- what’s the best way to contact you guys?
AF: So a couple of ways. You can go to www.humanware.com, or you can contact the U.S. office on (1-800) 722-3393.
JM: Thank you so much, Andrew.
AF: Thank you.
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Joe Steinkamp is no stranger to the world of technology, having been a user of video magnification and blindness related electronic devices since 1979. Joe has worked in radio, retail management and Vocational Rehabilitation for blind and low vision individuals in Texas. He has been writing about the A.T. Industry for 15 years and podcasting about it for almost a decade.