The Brailliant BI 20X is the smallest in the new Brailliant X series family of smart Braille displays recently launched by HumanWare, which currently includes 20-cell and 40-cell models. Of these, Thomas Pocklington Trust tested the smaller Brailliant BI 20X model for this review. This Braille display can be paired with computers, smartphones, and tablets to bring Braille support and interaction to a host of mainstream apps and workflows. It also comes with basic text editing features and book reading functions.
While there are quite a few traditional Braille displays already serving blind and partially sighted people in schools and workplaces, Brailliant BI 20X represents a new generation of portable smart displays offering Braille control of mainstream devices and convenient access to notes and articles on-the-go. Yet in a mature market ranging from cheaper alternatives such as the Orbit Reader product family and more expensive note-takers like BrailleSense and BrailleNote, how does Brailliant BI 20X compare and does it represent decent value for blind and partially sighted people in education or in the workplace? Read on to find out initial thoughts from the Technology team at Thomas Pocklington Trust.
The Brailliant BI 20X shares its hardware design with the Chameleon display developed and sold in the United States by the American Printing House for the Blind. It is constructed from a plastic material which feels durable and pleasant to the touch. It measures 16.6 × 10 × 2.3 cm and weighs approximately 453 g. It is light enough to fit comfortably in any standard laptop backpack. It also comes with a well-designed carrying case which combines protection with access to the power, Braille keyboard and Braille display functions.
The Perkins-style Braille keyboard on Brailliant BI 20X is typical of those found on Braille displays. The keyboard is comfortable and quiet to type on and will feel pleasant and discrete in meetings and classrooms alike. The key layout is ergonomic and is suitable for extended use.
Brailliant BI 20X comes with 20 traditional refreshable Braille cells with accompanying cursor routing buttons. The Braille is quiet, responsive and has a comfortable feel. Panning is made possible by the four thumb controls on the front edge of the unit, each of which has a tactile edge indicating the default direction assignment i.e., left, top or back, bottom or forward and right.
HumanWare and Mystic Access have developed a comprehensive audio tutorial covering all the major features found on Brailliant BI 20X, available for free download from the Brailliant BI X Series Support webpage. The user guide is also built-in to the Brailliant BI 20X device. The HumanWare Buddy app currently includes help resources for Brailliant BI 40X, but not Brailliant BI 20X. While there is indeed considerable overlap between these devices, this is worth noting as searching for “Brailliant BI 20X” in the HumanWare Buddy app at time of publication does not return any results.
Control and connectivity
The Brailliant BI 20X power button can be found on its left edge. There are also two USB ports – a modern USB C connector can be used for charging or connecting Brailliant BI 20X to other devices, while the traditional USB A socket can be used to connect Brailliant BI 20X with memory sticks or external hard disks. There is also a home button conveniently situated in the middle of the front edge which can be used to quickly toggle between connected devices or to return to the main menu.
Brailliant BI 20X comes with 16GB of internal memory. There is also a standard SD card slot on the rear panel capable of accommodating SD memory cards up to 64GB. This is ample for the text-based file formats supported by Brailliant BI 20X which are .txt, .doc, .docx, .brf and .brl. Native read-only PDF support has been announced by HumanWare and is expected to be included in a future firmware update.
Using Brailliant BI 20X
Brailliant BI 20X takes approximately 20 seconds to start up for the first time. After holding down the power button for a couple of seconds, Brailliant BI 20X vibrates and begins displaying a typical boot progress message until its device menu is displayed.
The available functions include Terminal, Editor, Victor reader, File manager, Calculator, Online services, and User Guide.
This menu can be navigated using the thumb keys, space, and backspace keys or by typing the first letter of the desired choice. It can also be customised to show or hide apps as desired which may be particularly useful in a school environment.
Connecting with other devices
The Terminal app on the Brailliant BI 20X manages connectivity with other devices. Brailliant BI 20X supports up to 5 simultaneous Bluetooth connections with computers, smartphones, and tablets. The pairing process for Brailliant BI 20X is straightforward \– selecting the “Add Bluetooth device” option enables nearby Bluetooth devices to discover Brailliant. VoiceOver manages and initiates the connection on Apple devices. At time of publication, Brailliant BI 20X can be paired with devices running current screen readers available on the latest iOS, iPadOS, Windows and macOS operating systems including VoiceOver, JAWS, NVDA and SuperNova. However, Android and Amazon Fire OS platforms are not yet supported.
We tested pairing Brailliant BI 20X with an iPhone running iOS software 14.5. The connection is stable and responsive. Brailliant BI 20X supports all VoiceOver Braille features and commands. It is also possible to wake up a paired iPhone or iPad by pressing a cursor routing key and typing the passcode on the Braille display. While testing, we were able to compose and send a text message, write a shopping list in the Notes app and check email in Braille within moments of starting the pairing process.
The Editor app available on Brailliant BI 20X is useful for taking notes. Data is stored as text with automatic Braille translation occurring on the fly, meaning that files created from within the Editor app can be viewed and modified directly by text editing software on mainstream platforms. There are functions provided for highlighting, copying, cutting, pasting, and searching for text.
The navigation commands are also broadly consistent with conventions common to Braille displays and note-takers which will help those already familiar with these functions on other equipment to quickly become efficient with these features on Brailliant. However, working with text does mean that the Editor app does not support formatting, styles, or navigation by structural elements as these features are not available when working with text files. Even so, it is possible to Braille in Markdown and import the results into an app on app with native Markdown support on an external device.
Professional level word processing requires pairing Brailliant with a screen reader on a supported device running a dedicated word processor app such as JAWS on a Windows 10 computer with Microsoft Word. A dedicated Braille note-taker may be more suitable for those wishing to edit and format documents on one device.
The Victor Reader app can be used to read files such as Braille or DAISY formatted books available from RNIB Reading Services. In addition to the navigation features available in the Editor app, Victor Reader supports bookmarks for convenient reference. There is even a handy feature called highlight bookmarks which can store both the beginning and end of a passage within a book. However, though content obtained from RNIB Reading Services can be manually imported into Victor Reader, this is not yet possible standalone.
It is reasonable to expect a smart Braille display available in the UK to natively support searching and downloading content directly from the library and news services available to blind and partially sighted people in the UK. Unfortunately, the NFB Newsline and NLS Bard services are not applicable to a UK audience and their presence on Brailliant BI 20X only serves to indicate what might have been. While HumanWare have indicated that support for other online services is in development, no-one can reasonably be expected to invest in hardware based on yet to be implemented software.
The File manager app can be used to discover and manage files stored internally on Brailliant BI 20X and on the inserted SD card. File names are displayed in the same Braille grade used elsewhere. The experience is exactly what you would expect from a standard file manager app on any platform.
The simple calculator application is discrete and responsive. There are basic operations provided for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with support for Square root and Pi. Expressions can also include brackets. However, there is no support for other scientific or statistical functions. Furthermore, expressions can only be entered using traditional computer Braille.
Overall, Brailliant BI 20X has impressed us during our short time testing it. However, we do have some suggestions for future improvements:
- Built-in access to RNIB Reading Services, RNIB BookShare and RNIB Talking Newspaper and Magazines on Brailliant BI 20X would enable blind and partially sighted people in the UK to access the wealth of material available in Braille without the need for an additional device.
- Built-in access to handy quick reference Braille commands with popular screen readers on Brailliant BI 20X would be extremely useful for those wishing to take advantage of its connectivity features.
The Brailliant BI 20X is a stable portable Braille display with robust connectivity and support for popular computers, smartphones, and tablets. The basic Editor and Victor Reader apps coupled with extensive external device compatibility will appeal to many people at work or in education who value convenient Braille access to their learning and workflows, particularly in conjunction with mainstream devices.
Integrating support for RNIB Reading Services, RNIB Bookshare and RNIB Talking Newspapers and Magazines will transform an otherwise basic Braille device into the smartest Braille display on the market. However, until this happens, Brailliant BI 20X cannot be reasonably classified as a smart Braille display in the UK.
Read more on using Braille.
Thomas Pocklington Trust would like to thank HumanWare for its generous loan of a Brailliant BI 20X Braille display for this review.