Tech Review: The Mantis Q40 Braille Display from APH

Mantis Q40 by itself against a green background; photo courtesy of APH.

Tech Review: The Mantis Q40 Braille Display from APH

Who would win in a boxing match, a mantis or a scorpion? We’re not sure, but the Mantis Q40 Braille display definitely scored big in our latest tech review.

The Mantis Q40 is a new forty-cell refreshable Braille display sold by the American Printing House for the Blind. As you might guess, the Q signifies that this model of Braille display has a QWERTY (standard typewriter/computer) keyboard, rather than the more common Perkins-style (Braille) keyboard. The device is priced at $2,495 and is available now.

General Specifications

Physical Description

The Mantis is approximately eleven and a half inches wide by about six and a half inches deep by about three fourths of an inch, and weighs a little under two pounds. On top of the unit is the QWERTY keyboard, conforming to what you might be used to on a laptop keyboard minus the number pad on the right. Note that use of the “FN” key is required to access the Home, End, Page-Up, and Page-Down keys. For example, to press Home, one would press FN+Up Arrow. Also, the Insert key requires holding down the FN key. For this reason, as well as the lack of a number pad, it may be more convenient to use JAWS’s laptop keyboard mode, in which the Capslock key is used as the JAWS modifier key. Likewise, for other screen readers, you will want to enable laptop mode and enable Capslock as the screen reader modifier key.

At the front of the Mantis is the forty-cell display with cursor-routing keys above each cell. The front face of the Mantis has five keys which will be immediately familiar to users of Humanware displays such as the BrailleNote Touch. They are, from left to right: Previous, Pan Left, Home, Pan Right, and Next.

The left side of the Mantis has, near the back edge from front to back, the USB host port, used to insert USB storage devices, the power button, and the USB C port, used for charging the unit and connecting via USB to a computer.

Located on the back face, near the left-hand edge, is an SD card port.

On the bottom is a Braille label with the product serial number and access to the user-replaceable, rechargeable batteries.

Hardware

As noted above, the Mantis Q40 is a QWERTY keyboard with a forty-cell refreshable Braille display. It includes an SD card slot and USB port for flash media. It comes with sixteen gigabytes of internal storage and APH rates the rechargeable battery life at fifteen hours. It is Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capable.

Software

The Mantis comes with a very basic text editor, book reader, calculator, and file manager utilities. There is also a utility which allows access to Bookshare and NFB-NEWSLINE®. You can also set the date and time, and select from several formats for displaying this information.

Text Editor and Book Reader Apps

The built-in text editor is very basic. It does not support text formatting such as bold and italic typefaces, or automatic bulleted or numbered lists. It only supports saving files in .txt formats. It does allow for reading .doc and .docx (Microsoft Word), .brf, and .brl formats. In addition, the unit will display text and Word files in UEB contracted Braille. The text editor also includes Find and Replace options, as well as cut, copy, and replace. All of these editing features use conventional keyboard commands, and text highlighting works just as it does in Windows applications.

The book reader app seems to work very much like the text editor, only it opens files as read-only, so you cannot inadvertently modify a document. You can navigate by various element types, depending on the type of document. DAISY files generally have the most flexibility in the variety of navigation units supported. You can add bookmarks to any document type and navigate by bookmark in any document. If you need to perform a factory reset of the device, all bookmarks for all books will be lost. The bookmark information is not saved within the book file itself, so even backing up your library will not preserve bookmark information.

Calculator

The built-in calculator is simply a four-function calculator. Number and operation entry work as you might expect, using the number row, and the +, -, * (multiplication) / (division), and = symbols.

Clock

The clock allows you to set and view the date and time. Both can be viewed in several formats while time can be displayed as either twelve-hour or twenty-four-hour formats.

File Manager

The Mantis’s file manager allows you to cut, copy, and paste files between the internal memory and USB or SD flash media, as well as create and rename folders, and organize your files. As with the text editor, the implementation of conventional commands for cut, copy, and paste make many of these tasks simple to learn. For those tasks that do not use or do not have an equivalent in the Windows desktop environment, the Ctrl+M context menu gives you easy access to all commands, and displays the keyboard shortcut for future reference.

Online Services

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the Mantis, which goes beyond its function as just a simple Braille terminal for my iPhone and laptop, is its “Online Services,” which allows subscribers of Bookshare and NFB-NEWSLINE easy access to these powerful tools. Within NFB-NEWSLINE, you can manage a list of publication subscriptions and the device will automatically check for updates at user-specified intervals. Then, from the Library menu option, you can browse for the latest issue. Each publication has its own folder. Bookshare offers Most Popular and Most Recent lists of their content, as well as Title, Author, Subject, and Keyword searches. When you find a title that looks interesting, you can read details about the title, and, if desired, download it directly to the device. I have found that with extremely large books (e.g., the Song of Ice and Fire five-book collection), the DAISY format is too large to handle them and causes the device to crash. The BRF format of the same book worked fine, although it took a few minutes to load.

Compatibility

The Mantis can connect with a PC or Mac via USB or Bluetooth. For connecting to a PC, you must be running Windows 8 or later, along with either JAWS, NVDA, or Narrator. Note that if you are running anything earlier than JAWS 2020, there is a driver you will need to install to add support for the Mantis. NVDA users will need to make sure they are running the most recent version (i.e., 2020.1 or later). For Macs, you need to be running MacOS 10.15 Catalina. And for iOS devices, iOS version 13.3 or later. There is no support at this time for Android or Chrome devices.

Assessment

Overall, I have been very pleased working with this display. Admittedly, this has been the first Braille display with a QWERTY keyboard that I’ve worked with in a while. I really enjoy having Braille so close to my fingers while not having to learn many awkward button combinations to issue screen-reader commands. I am one of those users who typically has my Braille display situated just in front of my computer keyboard. I frequently move my hands back and forth between the two, checking the Braille, but inputting commands, or just typing, from the computer keyboard because my QWERTY typing is just faster than my Perkins.

Installing the terminal drivers to run the Mantis with JAWS 2019 was very easy and setup with NVDA was effortless. Pairing with my iPhone was straightforward and works the same way it does with pairing other Braille displays to use with VoiceOver.

A brief caveat here: there is an updated JAWS driver that fixes a bug where the display would sometimes act as though a key was stuck, sometimes also causing JAWS to crash. A firmware update required to resolve this issue was made available on July 27, 2020.

Connecting to my wireless network was painless. This is how you are able to connect directly to Bookshare and NFB-NEWSLINE. Adding my Bookshare and NFB-NEWSLINE accounts was quite simple, and, as mentioned above, the applications for downloading content from these services makes downloading content very convenient.

Of course, the terminal mode is what makes this, or any Braille display, useful. The terminal menu gives you the option of whether you want to be in USB or Bluetooth mode, and in Bluetooth, allows you to select which device you wish to connect or add a Bluetooth device to.

Bluetooth connection with my iPhone is sometimes spotty. I sometimes have to go into settings and disconnect, then reconnect my phone. This is not something I have to do frequently with my Focus 40 Fifth Generation display. My other small complaint is that keyboard input seemed a little sluggish. However, the firmware update noted above has also resolved this problem. I can now type as quickly into a textbox on my iPhone as I can type in the terminal USB mode with my laptop.

Areas for Improvement

No device is perfect. I feel it is only fair to our readers to be completely honest and share the bad along with the good, so that you can make your own, informed, decision.

The biggest issue I found, at the writing of this blog post, is that there is an issue with the JAWS driver which will cause the device to lock up on occasion. This manifests in a “stuck key” and so in a document, for example, you may suddenly end up with a long string of the same repeated letter. APH is awaiting Vispero’s sign-off on an updated driver they hope will correct this issue.

The second issue I have seen is that often, when the device starts up, I typically have to disconnect and reconnect my iPhone for the Bluetooth pairing to work.

Finally, and this is not a technical issue but a complaint about the interface, it is a little more cumbersome switching devices. If you wish to switch between viewing the information from your computer to viewing information on your phone, you need to press the Home button, arrow down to Bluetooth, press Enter, then press Enter again to select your phone. This is not terrible, but it is more steps than are required on a Focus Braille display to switch between USB and the five allowed Bluetooth connections.

Conclusion

I really have been enjoying testing this device. I find it very nice having a QWERTY keyboard integrated with forty cells of refreshable Braille. The battery life is great and the sixteen gigabytes of internal memory will easily accommodate most people’s needs. It also has the option of using USB thumb drives or SD cards to expand this even further. The convenient access to Bookshare and NFB-NEWSLINE is a definite bonus.

—Matt Hackert