In the latest of our Technology Product Reviews, Peter Claridge-Bowler in the NCBI Labs team provides us with an insight into the portable and compact Focus 14 Blue 5th Generation Braille Display.
Item Name: Focus 14 Blue 5th Generation Braille Display
Reviewed by: Peter Claridge-Bowler
The Focus 14 is a refreshable braille display from Freedom Scientific. A braille display is a device that connects to a computer or smart device that is running a screen reader. It will convert the speech into refreshable braille, which allows someone who is blind or visually impaired to read and write in braille on their computer or smart device.
Unboxing / What are my first impressions of the item?
Unboxing the device is a nice, simple, and exciting experience. Upon opening the box, you’ll find the Focus in its very nice and light leather carry case, underneath it is all the cables, plugs and a quick start manual in grade 1 braille, which is super useful for really getting to know the device before you really get into using it.
Is it accessible?
Yes, it is, the device is built to operate with in tandem with a screen reader and it can also function as a standalone book reader and note taking device. It can translate into several different languages that are supported by the braille display. The different action buttons on the keyboard offer a unique experience navigating and using screen readers. Its compatible with a number of different screen readers, its designed with JAWS in mind, but it can be used with NVDA, Dolphin Supernova, Apple iOS and Mac VoiceOver.
I will admit though, the internal applications operate in computer braille which can be a very confusing experience for those who have no experience with it and it takes a lot to get used too, even more so as computer braille is not commonly taught anymore.
I have been using this for a few days, how do I feel about it?
I find that reading and writing with it a very comfortable experience, especially because you can change the firmness of the braille cells, so you can find the right amount of feedback for your reading speed, connecting it to my laptop and iPhone is a very quick process and makes sending text messages and writing documents so much faster, but I don’t like the internal systems and applications as they haven’t been kept up date and it can make switching between the connected devices quite difficult. I know that there is a short cut for changing between devices but I haven’t been successful in getting to work for me.
What did I like?
The focus is very comfortable to type and read with, the braille cells have an adjustable firmness, so you can find your comfort zone regarding reading and the Perkins-style keyboard is very responsive and operates with a very light touch. The Focus was built to work with JAWS (Job Access with Speech) and makes using JAWS really fun to use. You don’t have to use your QUERTY keyboard at all as you can control the computer and smart device directly from the display. It works excellently with VoiceOver too. All the different quick command keys are fun and quick to use and very easy to learn.
What didn’t I like?
I didn’t like that the internal applications operate in computer braille, while most newer braille displays operate in SEB (Standard English Braille) or UEB (Unified English Braille) and that the product software hasn’t been updated in a very long time. Its Bluetooth is 4.1 while most modern devices have started the switch to Bluetooth 5 and the difference is very noticeable with newer devices. The focus line of braille displays are starting to show their age in comparison to newer and more advanced braille displays/notetakers. It also has an issue with more lagging on new iPhones, like the 12 and above. Also the limited number of braille cells makes reading anything of length difficult, as you can only fit one or two words at a time on the display itself.
The scratch pad, I found really hard to get working, especially with trying to transfer Word docs and books to it. It felt very convoluted, while my experience with doing that with other devices was very quick and simple.
Did it meet my expectations?
Yes and no. I didn’t feel that it met my expectations the way I wanted it too, the device is limited internally, its firmware hasn’t been updated in a long time now, so its connectivity can be unreliable and spotty depending on how you want to use it. Transferring word docs and books to it was very difficult, I have yet to manage it successfully. The limited amount of braille cells make reading any long docs and books very difficult, as you can only fit maybe three words at any one time on the display.
Though on the plus side the reading and writing on the display is very good, comfortable, and nice to read. Typing with it is also easy with its light touch Perkins-style keyboard. It has a long battery life which is also a plus for long trips or wanting to do some reading for a while.