[blindkid] PacMate or BrailleNote?

janice jordan jjordan_pa at yahoo.com
Tue Feb 22 13:59:30 UTC 2011

Richard: Thank you for the wonderful advice! I am always amazed when I read of 
younger children and their ability to use the available technology equipment. I 
find myself so confused (and frustrated) with what is out there and how to use 
it. It is not like buying a voice recorder or a CD player that we can try out 
first and is quite an investment. I rely heavily on this listserv to gain the 
advice of users. Thank you and Kendra so much for sharing. Janice

From: Richard Holloway <rholloway at gopbc.org>
To: "NFBnet Blind Kid Mailing List, (for parents of blind children)" 
<blindkid at nfbnet.org>
Sent: Tue, February 15, 2011 7:43:53 PM
Subject: Re: [blindkid] PacMate or BrailleNote?

PacMates and BrailleNotes both seem to be fairly reliable in our experience.

Our daughter is only 8 but an extremely active user of a roughly one-month-old 
BrailleNote Apex. This replaced the BrailleNote mPower she had been using for 
about a year-and-a-half. We actually had a couple of different mPowers over that 
timeframe. Each started off used through the school system. The Apex design is 
new enough that I doubt many people have used them long enough to have problems 
with them. (I think they came our no more than about a year ago.) So far I can 
only tell you that apart from a rather flimsy case design, the Apex appears to 
be outstanding. Kendra managed to pull the strap (the leather binding of the 
D-ring for the strap on the case actually) off of the case the first day she had 
this unit. (I suspect this was a defective case.)

In short, I would buy an Apex. It is FAR thinner and lighter than an mPower or 
PacMate and unless Freedom Scientific has snuck something out recently that I 
have not seen, the PacMate Omni is still their current release and it is several 
years old. We own an Omni as well and it has been completely reliable. It is, 
however, not only older technology as compared to the Apex, but even larger and 
heavier than even the mPower, let alone the Apex. (Our Omni is coming up on 
three years old this summer.)

Before I completely talk you out of a PacMate, I should mention that a really 
cool feature of the Omni is that it comes as a no-display, 20-character, or 
40-character unit and the keyboard will detach. 

That means several things--
-You can start with no keyboard and add one when budget allows.
-You can upgrade from a 20-character to a 40-character at a later time.
-If you ever decide to switch from a braille-style keyboard to a qwerty (or 
vice-versa) you can keep your display and possibly save some money.
-And most importantly, if your display ever breaks, you can have it serviced or 
exchanged without sending away the actual PacMate.
-It is worth noting that the braille display is the most likely part to fail on 
most of these Braille Note Takes-- 6 moving pins per cell

Again, our Apex is virtually brand new so having no problems may not be terribly 

We did have some mPower issues, including:
-The CF card reader allowed pins to slip-- pins in the actual reader pushed back 
inside the unit, rendering the CF reader inoperable and hanging up the unit 
until a technician physically opened the unit and pushed them back into place.
-The power supply failed due to poor strain relief design leading to broken 
internal wiring (supply was then replaced)
-After the power supply failed, the power jack in the mPower unit ultimately 
failed too. Just like with laptops, bumping the power connection or tripping on 
the power wire can cause failures. (Expect this with any machine until someone 
adopts a Macintosh-like magnetic connection that cannot hang or tug on the logic 

The mPower battery also got frustratingly week (became prone to short charge 
life) after a time on both mPowers. All batteries will do this (just like with a 
laptop computer) so it is a problem for all the units, HOWEVER, the Omni and 
mPower have built-in batteries. (You must open the case and presumably void the 
warranty or else send this in to access the battery and at least the mPower has 
a very unique battery setup so that you'd have to have a custom battery prepared 
to replace it )I've not seen inside an Omni yet). In other words, batteries  are 
not generally a user-replacable item.

The APEX, however now has a user-replacable design, just like most laptops it 
pops right out of the bottom of the machine with a latch. (Long overdue!)

The Apex also has several noteworthy features including:
-plug and play VGA output (you only need to enable one option in the menus) to 
help sighted parents keep up with their blind kids on these machines
-built-in ethernet (wired) as well as
-built-in wifi (wireless ethernet)
We've had some problems with the ethernet setup but I understand the new v.9.1 
software is supposed to address that (now shipping)
-SD support for SD-high capacity (SD-HC) cards offers up to 32GB of SD storage 
per card vs. 2 GB max on the mPower (sizes off the top of my head)

The Apex also has more ways for input control with the little multi-direction 
input device in the center of the keyboard (braille model) as well as several 
USB connections plus bluetooth.

Note that the mPower requires extra hardware to add wired or wireless ethernet. 
I think the Omni does too.

Oh, and the removable display (on the PacMate) can also be used as a braille 
computer display if you have JAWS on a laptop. Kendra's PacMate display is now 
generally used stand-alone as a display on her desktop computer and the actual 
Omni doesn't get a lot of use. The Apex can also be used as a braille display on 
a computer, but then it is not available to use as BrailleNote. As much as 
Kendra uses her PacMate, we would never bother using that as a display for a 
computer-- she'd want it back before we had the computer display even 

So what about the PMA's? Long term, you may save some money but companies 
calculate the probable expense on their end to price these things. If you 
actually banked all you'd spend on a contract over several years you'd probably 
come out cheaper but if the unit breaks, expect a huge bill unless you're pretty 
skilled with self-repair of electronics. Also, over time, used machines show up 
that could be bought to replace a broken machine, especially as newer model get 
released a few years down the road. I suspect mPowers will be showing up used in 
larger and larger numbers pretty soon, for example. (There is an mPower on ebay 
right now for $800 buy it now [32 char display] but be careful, seller has zero 

Sorry for the long post. Feel free to contact me off-list if you have more 
specific questions. (I'll help if I'm able.)
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