I started learning Braille only last year, and while I am becoming fairly proficient in Grade 1, I still have a long way to go with Grade 2. It is for that reason I have yet to pair my Focus 14 Braille display with my Windows PC or Mac; I just can’t get my head around the various computer Braille shortcuts that I’ll need to make it all work.
So far, I have been using my Focus 14 with my iPhone, and absolutely loving it. I’m still taking my time when typing and my reading speed is certainly picking up, but I do miss the QWERTY keyboard. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a braille display and QWERTY keyboard mashup that could connect to my PC, Mac and iPhone, ideally being able to switch between as I wanted?
Well thankfully for me there now is, in the form of the Mantis Q40 from HumanWare.
There have been other QWERTY keyboards with braille displays in the past, most notably the HIMS U2 QWERTY and even a few editions from HumanWare themselves, but these have all just been note takers; they haven’t had the ability to connect to any other device via cable or Bluetooth. The Mantis Q40 fuses that need of having a separate note taker on the move and a connected keyboard when you want.
My first impression of the Mantis Q40 when I lifted it out of the box, was it was clearly a solid and well built device: a quality I’d come to realise across most braille devices. Bearing in mind this particular device was likely to be used in schools, it makes sense that it would be solid enough to take a few falls in its stride. (You can also get a cover that wraps around the sides and creates a bumper of sorts – that is apparently coming soon.)
Starting on the top surface you will find a laptop-style keyboard with a 40-cell refreshable braille display below. Between the braille display and keyboard there are small cursor routing buttons, and then a small rise between the display and keyboard. The keyboard feels more spongy than I’m familiar with, and will take some getting used to. The braille produced by the Mantis, and indeed all HumanWare braille displays, is equally spongy and familiar to those who use these devices regularly. This is less daunting to me as I prefer spongy braille. The harder signage braille on the Orbit Reader for example can become tiring after a while as it is so firm.
On the left edge, feeling my way to the top I find a USB-C connector for charging – an excellent addition, as you can’t go wrong when plugging the charger in. This connection port can also be used to connect the Mantis to your computer, if it doesn’t have Bluetooth capability. Further down there is a power button with a status light next to it, and then there is a USB-A port – a standard USB port for connecting a thumb drive or other external storage.
On the far left of the back edge there is an SD card slot. This is for storing documents and for software and firmware updates.
On the front edge I find a number of buttons. The two rectangular buttons on the furthest edge are the Previous and Next thumb keys. Think of these like the ‘up’ and ‘down’ arrows on your keyboard. They will also let you move between items on a menu. Bringing your fingers towards the centre you’ll find another two rectangular buttons – they are the Panning keys. These will let you move to the previous and next 40-cell section of the text you are reading. Not the next line, but the next 40 characters on that line. In the centre of the front edge you’ll find a small round button. That is the Home key and can be used to get back to the main menu of the device as well as acting like your home button when connected to an iPhone, for example.
Using The Mantis
I’m not going to lie, I was nervous about trying to set this up; having only ever connected my Focus 14 to my iPhone, I haven’t gone further to connect to my PC or Mac so I wasn’t sure what I’d need to do.
First piece of solid advice – and this is aimed at the men out there – read the manual! Honestly, I rarely do but in this case I thought it prudent. Understanding the (actually very simple) menu structure and navigating around the basic editing functions of the note taker you very quickly realise that this is two devices in one. It is of course a host for your computer, smartphone or tablet, but it is also a very capable note taker with additional features such as a book reader, file manager to manage your work, a calculator for basic maths and a text editor that can work with .doc, .docx, .txt, .brf and .brl files.
Navigating the menu was incredibly simple as a novice, and I was easily able to find my way to the Bluetooth setup and begin the job of pairing the device to my iPhone and MacBook. I liked that you could connect up to five devices at once, as well as using USB to connect to another if desired. The method to connect to each device is all done in the Mantis’ menu structure. That does make it tricky to do switches on the fly but if you only switch between your phone or PC every so often that won’t be a problem for you.
I was impressed by the lack of any lag or delay in using the display with my iPhone and MacBook. The keyboard layout is very much however so a bit of retraining has to be done for your muscle memory to get used to where everything is but again that is something that can come in time. Maybe a Mac version one day?
I also liked that despite this being a QWERTY keyboard you can still input in Perkins-style braille with a simple toggle in the menu. You would use the middle row of keys – the S,D and F being dots 3, 2 and 1, with J, K and L being 4, 5 and 6. This is a good option to keep up your writing skills when desired.
My fortnight with the Mantis Q40 left me wanting. Wanting to spend more time and develop my skills using it with my MacBook or even PC one day. Clearly this is a device intended for lots of intensive work and reading. The keyboard is softer than what I am used to with my MacBook Magic Keyboard, but I’m sure I’d get used to it. I love the spongy braille as it is so much easier to read over longer periods.
This could be the perfect device for people in offices, who want to use their PC most of the time and occasionally switch to their iPhone or Android device to input text or read social media etc., but then also be able to detach the unit and go into a meeting, take notes and be able to read them back instantly if needed.
Initially I was concerned as there was no audio output from this device, but quickly I realised that there was no need, and actually this was a huge bonus. In a meeting where lots of people are talking and you are obviously expected to contribute, the last thing you need is another voice trying to get your attention. When I started using JAWS I got used to shushing people all the time but actually that is quite rude. I began to think it would be so much nicer to read and type without endless voice feedback. This device makes that possible.
Now you might be thinking why this sudden realisation? I already have the Focus 14 and get on fine with it. Why would I want to buy this? The truth is I am proficient in touch typing and can type much faster this way than with the traditional Perkins-style keyboard. Coupling that with my braille display is an absolute winner for me. Despite its $2,495 price tag, I do think this should be a considered purchase.
Please note: Humanware did not approve or pay for this review. The unit was loaned to me for a couple of weeks and views are all my own, based on my own time with the device and by reading through the manual.
I am an absolute geek who loves technology. I also happen to be severely sight impaired and that has meant my journey with new technology has been challenging. What I've learnt is what I want to share with others and I do that on air in the UK on RNIB Connect Radio's weekly Tech Talk radio show and podcast, and on AMI-Audio's Double Tap Canada radio show and podcast. I'm also a very lucky husband and the owner of the world's coolest dog!