When I first saw the new iteration of the Hims BrailleSense, the Polaris, in 2017, I was very disappointed. I liked the hardware, but found the software very unstable. Hims has taken the bold step of layering its Sense applications over a version of Android, rather like HumanWare did two years ago with its BrailleNote Touch.
But, to their credit, the guys at Hims have worked hard on making the software more stable so that using apps in Android is a much easier experience. So much so, in fact, that Hims has just brought out the Polaris baby sibling, Polaris Mini.
Meet The Mini
Like its larger sibling, Polaris Mini runs on Android Lollipop 5.1. Yes, that does mean it is roughly four major versions behind the current Android P beta cycles. And that does concern me in respect of both security and current apps not being able to run on it as well, if at all. But with the negativity out of the way, let’s concentrate on some of the really positive things this machine does well.
Firstly, it’s size is really appealing. It is small, lightweight and sleek. It measures approximately 18.7cm wide, by 11.4cm deep, by 2.2cm thick, and weighs approximately 423g.
And, for me, its case is far better than any of its predecessors with a solid clam-shell construction and slightly rubberised feel.
The hardware on Polaris Mini has also been beefed up. There is 64gb of onboard storage with 3gb of RAM, Bluetooth 4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Dual-band (2.4GHz and 5.0 GHz), Wi-Fi Direct, and a 2.1 GHz SAMSUNG Exynos 7420 processor. Battery life is reported to be around 12 to 13 hours of use with Braille and speech at mid-volume. A compass, GPS and vibration motor are all installed.
The box contents comprises Polaris Mini; USB C to USB 2.0 standard cable; wall charger; earbuds with line-in volume and microphone; case; strap; battery and Braille Quick Start guide.
Unpacking And Setup
The first thing you will want to do when unpacking your device is charge it. The battery may or may not be inserted upon arrival. If it isn’t, you will find it pretty straightforward to put in. Full instructions on how to do this may be found in the Polaris Mini user guide found here:
With Polaris Mini facing you on a flat surface, you will find several keys, ports and controls. On the front of the device, from left to right, are:
- Three-position lock switch: furthest left locks all keys, middle locks keyboard only, and right unlocks all keys
- Three-position Media Mode switch: furthest left is App Mode; middle is DAISY Mode; and furthest right is Media Mode
- Five media buttons comprising: back, record, stop, play/pause, forward
- Power button
The right panel comprises two ports: the furthest one away from you is a micro HDMI socket for connecting the Polaris Mini to a monitor. The one nearest the front is a USB C port which is used for charging the machine and attaching it to an external keyboard, pen or other drive.
The left panel, from back to front, comprises 3.5mm microphone and headphone sockets, and volume up and down buttons.
The top panel has a perkins-style keyboard which is as comfortable and responsive to use as any of its predecessors. As well as the four function keys that sit two either side of the space-bar, Hims have added control and alt keys to the line-up here for extra navigation convenience.
The Polaris Mini has a 20-cell Braille display with the same number of cursor routing buttons above, and two navigation keys at each end of the display.
The battery compartment underneath also houses a Micro SD card. I am told a 256GB card will work in the unit if you require that amount of storage. There is also a mono speaker and a 13mp camera underneath the machine.
Using Polaris Mini
A note about the power button. Once you turn on the machine and it goes through its boot sequence for the first time, it is possible to simply tap the power button to put it into Standby Mode after that. Press it again to wake up the machine straight away. You do this in the same way you would your Smartphone. But if you want to close the device down for a longer period, simply hold the power button in for a few seconds until a prompt to shut it down appears.
Polaris Mini has the same menu structure as its predecessors when you power on the machine. But there are extra items due to the fact that you can now go into the world of Android in addition to using regular Sense applications.
So after connecting to Wi-Fi, (and this is now a much faster experience on Polaris Mini,) the first thing I did was launch Play Store from the main menu and put in my Google credentials to allow me to use its services including the Play Store. The way of navigating is generally to press the tab key. When you want to use an edit field to type in information, you need to press enter once you have landed on the edit box. This then opens up the field for you to enter your search criteria, username or password.
I fully expected Android to be sluggish and crash. But no! I was very pleasantly surprised a year on to find that Android is now more stable and a pleasant experience. So much so, in fact, that I downloaded a whole raft of apps that I have in my library. One of these is a trial of KNFB Reader. It allows you to pay for the full version of the app once you’ve tried taking 25 or so pictures of your text for OCR scanning. I was amazed to find how well this actually worked for me. The Polaris Mini is much more comfortable to hold in both hands over a piece of text than a larger machine.
I also downloaded apps such as the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Kindle, and Google Assistant. There are several Google apps already installed on the Polaris Mini such as Maps, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drive and YouTube as standard.
Do bear in mind though that not every app in the Play Store is compatible with Polaris, so it will be trial and error that will carry frustrations I’m afraid. There are some work-arounds though. For example, the popular Amazon Kindle app won’t work, but it is possible to download the latest app with an extension of APK on the end of its name. This bypasses the need for the user to navigate with touch gestures which aren’t possible on Polaris. The APK version installs Kindle to your device without those, thus making it accessible.
There are, of course, lots of advantages to having access to the Play Store. You can choose to use a different Email client, web browser, Social Media apps, music player … the list is endless. But if you aren’t interested in Android, and you simply want a really good note-taker with all the features we have come to enjoy from Hims, then Polaris Mini has them without you ever needing to venture into the Play Store at all. The regular File Manager, Word Processor, Media Player, Utilities and Global Options are all there, working just as well. Just bear in mind though that you do have a little power house in the Polaris Mini if ever you fancy being bold!
Elsewhere, using the built-in stereo microphone or an external one is perfectly straightforward to accomplish. While Polaris Mini has a mono speaker due to its compact size, listening to stereo content through headphones is very nice.
There is always intuitive help at hand with Hims devices, and Polaris Mini is no exception. There is a user guide on the machine, a Braille Quick Start guide to get you going in the box, a downloadable manual from the Hims website, and a whole chapter devoted to each application on the unit itself. Just remember that Hims can’t take responsibility for or support apps that you download outside of the native Sense suite.
Conclusion And Pricing
A year ago, I wouldn’t have touched this machine such was its instability and tendency to crash. But after a couple of great updates, Hims has got Polaris to a really competitive, productive state. And now the same feature set is on a smaller machine that fits snugly in your bag or back-pack, it really is the mature companion I had long since hoped it would be. Sure there are some things it could do better, and yes I would like to see it leap in versions to at least Oreo. I would hope that Hims will move forward with updates to ensure Polaris doesn’t get left behind where security and app accessibility might be compromised. After all, it is a lot of money for a Braille device if it can’t keep up.
But if you want a small, ergonomically comfortable note-taker to use with plenty of bells and whistles to make productivity a smoother experience, then the Polaris Mini is definitely worth shelling out for.
And speaking of price, it currently retails for £3,395.00 excluding VAT. But there are always offers to be had, so do check with dealer Sight and Sound Technology, 01604 798070,