The BrailleNote Battery Scandal

(This is a transcript of the podcast, ‘The BrailleNote Battery Scandal’ by Paul Warner)

Can you change a battery?

Hello, this is Paul Warner of VICT Consultancy.

The BrailleNote by Humanware is, of course, one of the leading portable Braille note-taking devices available today, the latest version being the BrailleNote Apex. I happen to have two of the earlier versions: the BrailleNote MPower and its predecessor, the BrailleNote BT.

What is great about Braille note-takers such as the BrailleNote is that they are far more portable than a laptop fitted with a Braille display and often their batteries can last a whole day at work or in a place of study. My office laptop’s battery used to die so often during meetings that I was eventually seduced by the twenty hours of battery life promised by the BrailleNote BT. But, alas, good things never last, or at least the battery performance wanes over time and, eventually to the point where you have to replace it.

The company we now know as Humanware grew out of a merger of two companies which took place back in 2005. One of those companies, Pulsedata International, was the original manufacturer of the BrailleNote, the first units being released in the year 2000. The BrailleNote MPower was released in 2005 and that version bears the Humanware name but, apart from the addition of some badly needed connectivity, the improvements to the KeySoft suite of applications could only be described as minor, especially after five years of the product’s existence.

The latest BrailleNote version, the Apex, released in 2010, represents a major redesign of the hardware of the product but, again, the improvements to the KeySoft applications were only minor. Indeed, the Apex had to wait a further eighteen months before an update to KeySoft allowed it to read PDF files.

But if you read the overview of the specifications of the Apex on Humanware’s website, they include ‘a convenient user-replaceable battery’. Is this really such a wonderful selling point in the second decade of the 21st century?

Perhaps the reason for this ‘amazing new feature’ being drawn to our attention is the fact that the battery in the older versions of the BrailleNote is not user-replaceable. This podcast is all about that issue – the BrailleNote battery scandal.

So, you have been using your BrailleNote BT or MPower for over a year or so and you start to notice that you’re not getting anything like the battery life you used to. You check the user guide in the BrailleNote itself and find section 2.1 which refers to ‘the battery’. You read section 2.1.3 entitled ‘Battery Care’ which reads as follows:-

‘Like all rechargeable batteries, as the BrailleNote BT battery ages, its capacity reduces. If your BrailleNote BT is used and charged every day, we expect that the battery will typically last eighteen months before its capacity is noticeably lower than it was when new. To have the battery replaced, send the BrailleNote BT back to an authorised service centre. Do not attempt to replace it yourself.’

From this, we understand that:-

  1. The battery needs replacing every eighteen months or so and
  2. you shouldn’t do it yourself.

Why can’t you change the battery yourself? Well, one look at the casing of the BrailleNote informs you that there is no battery compartment cover which can be slid back to reveal the battery. So, it looks like the case has to be dismantled with a screwdriver.

OK, do you have a screwdriver or do you know someone who has one? Oh, why bother! I think I’ll just send the unit back to Humanware, as they recommend, and they can take care of it.

That was how I was thinking until I called Humanware in England to ask what was involved. What was involved was - £170! That’s about $260! To change a battery?

After picking the phone, and myself, off the floor, and despite the warning in the user guide, I ask them if I could change the battery myself. Oh no. You can’t do that, this is a special battery which can only be replaced by authorised Humanware staff.

So, why so expensive? I was told that the price was made up as follows:-

The special battery costs £70. It is specially made for the BrailleNote and is not available anywhere else. Humanware have to buy this in and they just recover the cost from the user.

The cost of postage by courier within the UK is £20 each way, including insurance of course, and this makes a total of £40.

On top of that, Humanware charge £60 for 1 hour’s labour to strip down the unit, replace the battery and for carrying out re-calibration.

I didn’t pursue the matter with Humanware. But this left me with a couple of BrailleNotes with dying batteries. Assuming that I would incur only one set of postal charges, the expected bill for the replacement of the batteries in my two BrailleNotes would be £300 – that’s about $480. Then, I thought of the solution- Andrew.


Paul: Andrew!

Andrew: Yes, Paul?

Paul: You are a qualified Humanware engineer?

Andrew: No, I’m not.

Paul: OK. You’re a qualified electronics engineer?

Andrew: No, I’m not.

Paul: OK. Do you have any qualifications in electronics?

Andrew: No, not really.

Paul: What’s your experience with electronics?

Andrew: Taking stuff apart when I was a kid with a screwdriver. That’s it.

Paul: That’ll do. Now, that’s the BrailleNote there, and could you see if you could take the case apart and we’ll see what the special battery looks like?

Andrew: No problem.

Paul: How many screws are there?

Andrew: There are six, four of which are exposed and two under the wee feet at the back. Simple enough to take them off.

Paul: OK, get to it then and we’ll report what we find inside.

Andrew: The wee feet come off quite easily as well, you just push them off. And there it is!

Paul: Well?

Andrew: There isn’t a special battery.

Paul: But there must be a battery!

Andrew: No, there are six batteries.

Paul: Six special batteries!

Andrew: No, six AA batteries.

Paul: AA rechargeable batteries?

Andrew: Yes.

Paul: But there must be something special about them, surely? Have they got any special writing or markings?

Andrew: Nope. Just run-of-the-mill rechargeable alkaline batteries.

Paul: Made in?

Andrew: China.

Paul: In China. So these are the kind of AA rechargeables that anyone could buy in a high street store or online?

Andrew: Yeah, for next to nothing, I would imagine.

Paul: Hmmm.

Remember, the BrailleNote user guide and the Humanware staff refer to ’the battery’. That’s not quite right. There are batteries – plural.

Humanware refer to a ‘special’ battery. That’s not quite right, the batteries are not special at all.

Humanware say that the battery costs them £70. I bought twelve AA rechargeables online for just under £18, enough for my two BrailleNotes. And they were in the mid-price range.

The user guide darkly warns, ‘do not attempt to replace it yourself’. They have a point there. But how difficult or dangerous should it be to change AA batteries? The question right at the beginning of this podcast asked if you can change a battery. The BrailleNote has six of one of the most common of battery types. What’s the problem?

The problem is the laughably amateur design of the interior of the BrailleNote. Back in 2008, my employer paid £3,200 for my MPower. A justifiably high price for state-of-the-art technology you might think? Nope. Look inside your BrailleNote and have a laugh. And then cry.

The accommodation of the batteries in the BrailleNote was clearly an after-thought by the designers. There is literally no room for the standard battery array of two columns of three batteries or even three columns of two, sitting nicely in the standard battery grooves.

No. What we have here is a free-floating bundle of batteries almost taped together. Well, taped is perhaps an exaggeration but the principle is the same. A hard plastic binding is used as a very rough way of keeping the batteries together.

In fact, if you imagine a row of four batteries lying end to end, and another similar row lying alongside it, you would have eight batteries, right? Now, take away a battery at one end and another battery from one of the pairs in the middle. Yes, that’s how the batteries are configured in the BrailleNote so that they can fit in between the surrounding circuitry.

There are bits of this and that holding this strange configuration together, all lovingly bundled up in the makeshift plastic sheath. In other words, a complete shambles.

The arrangement is so bizarre and fiddly that it was impossible for Andrew to install the batteries in the same configuration himself. So, I took my two BrailleNotes and new batteries to TechBytes, a local computer repair shop. They installed the batteries and both machines now work perfectly. In fact, Andy, the tech who did the work, said that he had soldered the new batteries together and that the end result was that his configuration is even more stable than the Humanware one.

As for re-calibration mentioned by Humanware, I don’t know what they’re talking about. There was no special firmware reconfiguration to be done, only the date and time information needed to be reset, but BrailleNote users themselves will be familiar with this. Even if your BrailleNote does need to be re-calibrated, there is a relatively simple procedure for this described in section 2.1.5 of the BrailleNote user guide. You don’t need an engineer to do that. You can do it yourself.

And how much did the local repair shop charge? £30, that’s about $48. Add to that the cost of the batteries and some taxi fares to get to the shop and we’re talking about a total of around £55 – and, remember, that’s for two BrailleNotes, not one!

Maybe Humanware misleads people about the battery in order to dissuade customers from finding out how badly the older versions of the BrailleNote were designed. I don’t know, but why have they been doing this for years and needlessly taking large sums of money from blind customers in the process?

And if they feel any shame at all about having sold such a badly designed product for thousands of pounds, surely they could replace the batteries for free even after the warranty expires.

No. Humanware have no shame and they want your money any way they can get it. I call that a scandal.