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The selection of a notetaker is one of the most important decisions facing many, if not most, blind teachers. In this article, written by a computer professional, you can receive dependable guidance how best to approach making that decision. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of our newsletter, so it is helpful to remember that selecting a notetaker is a moving target and that some of the information contained here will change over time. It will, however, serve as a good place to start.

Steve Dresser

In its most basic form, a notetaker is, as its name implies, a device for writing down information — the electronic equivalent of a pencil and pad of paper. Ever since the advent of notetakers, there has been an ongoing discussion of what role these devices should play in our technological lives. In this article, I will attempt to set forth the pros and cons of notetakers so that you can make the right decision for yourself or your students.

A brief history

One of the first notetakers sold in the United States was the VersaBraille Classic, from Telesensory Systems, Inc. Released in the early 1980s, this machine with a Perkins-style keyboard, a 20-cell refreshable braille display, and a cassette-based system for storing and retrieving information eventually evolved into the VersaBraille II, which used a floppy disk system for data storage. Though significantly smaller than personal computers of the day, neither machine was as portable as today’s notetakers, and both machines carried a hefty price tag due to their use of expensive refreshable braille displays.

In the late ‘80s, Blazie Engineering introduced the Braille ‘N Speak, which turned out to be a game-changer. It used a Perkins-style keyboard, but unlike the Telesensory notetakers, stored the notes in on-board random access memory (known as RAM). Because the machine had no braille display, the stored text was read via an on-board voice synthesizer. The use of internal storage rather than external media significantly reduced the size of the machine, and eliminating the braille display significantly reduced its price. The braille display was reintroduced in the mid ‘90s, and the Braille ‘n Speak morphed into the BrailleLite, much to the delight of those who preferred to read in braille.

By 2000, the personal computer had become an important tool in our lives, allowing access to a wealth of information via the Internet. Notetakers, however, remained “standalone” devices without the ability to travel on the Information Super Highway. All that changed with the introduction of the BrailleNote from Humanware, which offered a web browser and an email program, as well as a calculator, an address manager, and a planner. Internet connectivity was accomplished via an ethernet adapter (purchased separately), which was connected via a compact flash card slot. This adapter was eventually replaced by an Ethernet port and built-in Wi-Fi.

Despite these significant advances, the notetaker, though quite portable, was still not on a par with the personal computer. Then, Hims, Inc. introduced its U2 series which, in addition to an email program and a web browser, sported a dedicated app for searching YouTube, dedicated Twitter and Facebook clients, and a Dropbox application.

This year, two companies introduced notetakers that have the potential of allowing these devices to compete successfully with personal computers. The ElBraille, manufactured by Elita Group and sold in the United States by VFO Corporation (formerly Freedom Scientific) runs on Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and 10, while the Polaris from Hims, Inc. is an Android-based machine. While the initial releases of both machines look promising, it is, in my opinion, too early to know how well they will stack up against mainstream personal computers.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Everything you need in a small package. Even the largest of today’s notetakers is smaller than the smallest laptop PC. Most have built-in refreshable braille displays, which is important for braille readers who need to do precise editing of documents. The down side of refreshable braille is that it adds significantly to the cost, which puts notetakers out of range for those on tight budgets, especially if they don’t read braille.

Long battery life. As laptops have gotten smaller, and battery technology has improved, the amount of time a laptop can be run before the battery needs to be recharged has significantly increased. Today’s notebook or tablet PC typically runs for eight hours on a fully charged battery. By contrast, the average notetaker will run for at least twelve hours before the battery needs recharging, which is an advantage for students traveling from one class to another, where power outlets are often not available.

Simple user interface. Navigating the Windows user interface can be quite challenging even for highly skilled visually impaired computer users, and notetaker manufacturers have gone to great lengths to provide easier alternatives. For starters, notetakers are completely keyboard based, lacking even a port where a mouse could be connected. Applications are presented in straightforward menus from which they can be selected, either by arrowing down through the menu, or by pressing the first letter of the application’s name. Even within applications, structured menus are used, eliminating the need for toolbar buttons which can be difficult to find.

Software. Prior to the Braillenote, notetakers were essentially DOS-based, but as the power of the personal computer increased, manufacturers found it necessary to abandon DOS-based systems and move to the Windows platform. But even with all their internet capabilities, the new notetakers continued to lag behind personal computers for one simple reason: they all ran on Windows CE, an operating system that had been around prior to the release of the BrailleNote, and which was seriously outdated even by Windows XP, and even more so by Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and 10. Being wedded to an operating system which was, for all intents and purposes on life support, along with the need to keep the user interface simple, left notetaker manufacturers with two difficult choices: They could rely on obsolete software like version 6 of Internet Explorer (users of Windows 7 and upward are running version 11), or write their own software which is fragile at best. This year, both Humanware and Hims have released notetakers that have abandoned Windows in favor of Android, a popular operating system for mobile devices. It’s still too early to say with certainty how well this approach is working, but from what I’ve seen, this design shift offers some interesting possibilities.

The ElBraille, sold in the U.S. by VFO (formerly Freedom Scientific), runs on Windows 10, and offers the possibility of running most commonly used software including Microsoft Office. Since the product just started shipping this September, it’s a bit early to know what growing pains, if any, this new notetaker will encounter.

Summing up

When thinking about a notetaker for yourself or your students, it’s important to understand that despite manufacturers’ claims, a notetaker cannot yet take the place of a personal computer. Portability and a straightforward user interface are huge advantages in a classroom when taking notes, but may require the use of third-party software which is unable to meet challenges like complex formatting of documents, and rendering of modern-day web pages. Even the least expensive notetaker costs more than a laptop paired with a refreshable braille display, and the higher price can be a deal breaker when funds are short. Personally, I find it useful to live in both worlds, using a notetaker when I want portability, and a personal computer when I need to do real work. Whatever decision you make regarding the purchase of a notetaker, remember that one size definitely does not fit all.

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