on the cheap and sleazy side (www.cheapandsleazy.net)
Technolust: A Look at the New Writers
A Brief Look at the New Writers (Not For Starving Students, Alas ...)
Technolust: The desire to possess any new technical gadget instilled in anyone looking at said technical gadget
You've seen them. You know you want one of them! But which one?
While I can't answer that for you on this page, I can (and will) talk about the latest writers introduced -- more or less -- at the NCRA convention in Chicago this past July, and displayed at my school's recent Vendor Day.
The writers in question: Advantage Software's Passport, ProCAT's Stylus, and Stenovation's digiTouch writer.
Stenovation's digiTouch Keyboard
Of the three writers introduced (more or less) this year, this one is the least expen$ive.
The digiTouch sells for $599 for students and digitalCAT users, and $799 for everyone else.
The keyboard both communicates with and gets power from your laptop via the USB cable ... which means, no more USB-Serial adapters.
That's the good news (besides the lightness of the writer -- 1.4 pounds).
The bad news is this writer will not feel like any steno machine you've ever used ... so all the muscle memory in your fingers will have to be retrained.
The (other) good news: If you're just starting out, this keyboard will serve you well -- but (more bad news!) if your digiTouch writer breaks and you don't have a second one, you will have some difficulties using a regular steno machine.
Still, the concept is interesting. It will be worth watching to see how well Stenovations does with this writer.
Update -- 29JUN05
The digiTouch writer, in its current incarnation is no more.
In the July/August 2005 issue of the JCR the usual digiTouch keyboard ads were covered over with this message:
"We regret having to report that the digiTouch writer is based on technology and products developed and manufactured by Fingerworks and the University of Delaware; that Fingerworks has been acquired by a major corporation; that said acquiring corporation does not want its identity revealed and such is not known to us; and that Fingerworks' technology and products will be terminated.
However, please rest assured we will not be deterred in our efforts to develop an even more inexpensive and superior writer. We also have an inventory of digiTouch writers."
One of the denizens of CompuServe Court Reporting Forum posted this:
"Just got off the phone with Stenovations and Jamie the tech says the new version of the Digitouch will have slightly raised keys, about a quarter inch, and the keyboard will not be customizable."
I spoke to Jamie myself, and he confirmed the basics of the new writer. As for an ETA, I couldn't quite pin him down on that ... but when I find out, I'll post it here.
Update -- 29NOV06
New Writer Coming ...?
While researching the answer to a question from a new user of ProCAT Winner, I went to the Stenovations home page for the first time in a while ... and I found this:
Attention Digitouch Owners
If you purchased a digiTouch, Stenovations will extend a 100% credit of the original amount paid towards the purchase of the new writer we will be releasing early next summer. Details coming soon! Please check our website often for more information.
I'll see if I can scare up some more details on this new toy Soonest.
While a no-show at both the NCRA convention and my school's Vendor Day (hence the use of the phrase "more or less" above), the Passport looks like it will be the one to beat.
"But Why Wasn't the Passport Shown at the Convention?"
An excellent question ...!
In August on CRNET, the Eclipse forum (free registration required), Cindy Seibert, the wife of David Seibert, the designer of the Passport, posted the following:
"First, one of the reasons that the Passport will not be ready by the end of the year is that David has redesigned almost every part of the writer. Even the shell has been changed since you saw the original prototype at the user's group meeting in March. (It is this change in the shell design that resulted in us not having a prototype at the national convention. Our third party contractor was unable to get the new shell to us on time.)
"One of the results of the redesign is that the Passport will have a 24-hour battery life and still meet the goal weight of five pounds. This is 24 hours of actual run time, not just a single day.
"Also, the Passport is going to act as an amplifier. (Thanks goes to Howard Levine for giving us this idea.) The Passport has both a microphone jack and a headphone jack. For that reason, David can use the Passport to amplify the voices in the room for those reporters who may have trouble hearing the various speakers.
"In addition, David will be able to add a small equalizer to the Passport, via software, that will allow David to drop-back the noises outside of the normal range of human speech, while still amplifying the voices of the various speakers.
"This means the sounds of shoes squeaking, paper rustling, etc will be diminished while the voices of the speakers will be amplified."
Hmmmm ....! Sounds like it will be worth the wait!
Passport Delay: Waiting in Vain? (21MAY05)
One of the attendees at a recent (April/May 2005) Eclipse training seminar in Las Vegas had some disturbing news about the Passport:
"I just came back from the Eclipse seminar in Las Vegas this weekend. The bad news is Advantage Software has now hired a new company to create/build their new writer about 2 months ago. So they are starting from ground zero. They did not even have a shell at the seminar. They only had a keyboard there that was reluctantly shown to a few people. It wasn't even worth looking at. A lot of folks were disappointed. I'm so glad I sold my three StenoRam Ultras and am now using the Stentura 8000."
A denizen of Advantage Software's CR-Net forum added some clarifying remarks:
"The official word from Advantage (David and Cindy Siebert) today is that the new company that was hired a few months ago was just to build (not design or create) the casing because they don't have the means to do it at Advantage. They indicated the "mechanical prototype" that was there was well received. Is that the keyboard you saw, maybe? Cindy said unless they have a hurricane-related delay (like they did last year), she knows of no reason why the Passport won't be available by the end of the year. That still isn't the summer as they'd hoped for before, but I'm willing to hold off a few more months."
Would-be Passport Owners Waiting in Vain? Not Quite ...
Here's the (more or less) final bit on Passport, thanks to Cindy Siebert, wife of Passport designer Dave Siebert:
"Glen, the mechanical prototype went to the user's group meeting last week in Vegas. The users were able test the feel of the writer. It is my understanding that it was well liked (David and I were not actually there)."
"The project has not been handed off to a third party. We did hire an Engineer to help get the Passport ready for production. He is doing things such as designing molds and the tools needed to produce the writer. The Passport is still Advantage Software's design."
So, I'm guessing ... about a year or so before it's ready. But in the meantime ......
Passport Update (7AUG05): Hands-on Impressions
One of the residents of Phoenix, AZ attended the recent NCRA convention, and got to play with the mythical Passport (the preproduction mechanical prototype, anyway). She sent me an e-mail detailing her impressions, along with her okay to post them for all to see. My correspondent expressed some apprehension about her ability to express herself well in writing, but I think she did just fine, thankyouverymuch. She even finishes up with a million dollar idea!
"Papa," by the way, refers to the designer of the writer, Dave Siebert (or possibly Jeremy Thorne):
It looked pretty much like your typical non-Gemini writer. Papa said he's still working on the body/shell, screen design, etc., but the keys are the piano-type ones that we're all used to.
The touch is what's different and soooo cool, IMO. I am not an author, so bear with me. If I am remembering right, Papa said that there's data suggesting that piano players and old-style typewriter users do not get carpal tunnel syndrome like keyboarders and electric steno users do, and that is because the keystrokes for the former groups do not come to an abrupt stop at the bottom as they do for the latter. I guess the idea is that the abrupt stop transfers all of the energy of the downstroke back into the fingers and hand.
I don't know how they have done it, but on the Passport, your keystrokes end "softly," absorbing some of that energy. As I was writing, my head kept showing me pole vaulters and stunt people landing on those big, cushy, mattress-y pads. That's what it felt like. Wayyyy different from everything else (I wrote the Mira, the Stylus, the Gemini), although the keys are the lever kind, not the optical Gemini kind. I totally dug it, man, and didn't want to give it up to the next guy in line, even if she was my friend.
Now, if only we could get the Gemini ergonomics and the soft landing together....I'm a dreamer (sigh).
Thanks again go to AZ resident Leah for e-mailing me with her hands-on impressions of the mockup.
Passport Update (15AUG05): A Summary of Jeremy Thorne's article, The Future of the Passport
Eclipse sales reps are discouraged from casting aspersions on Stenograph's new writers (the Mira A3 and the Stentura Fusion) ... and he then talks up the competition's efforts as they relate to Eclipse:
The writer's built-in audio recording and audiosync works with Eclipse.
The new SD RAM cards the new writers are using are compatible with all CAT software, and stores data on the memory cards in the same format used by Stentura writers with diskette drives.
The wireless Bluetooth functionality works with Eclipse and all other CAT systems. Apparently, Bluetooth creates a virtual COM port which acts just like a standard (say "cable") COM port connection.
The new writers will accept dictionaries from any CAT system that can export their dictionaries in RTF/CRE format (you all did see Dr. Smith's thoughts on this, right?) Alas, it's not a direct conversion; you'll still have to use the RTF to Mira Conversion Utility, but it's a start.
The USB realtime interface does not work with Eclipse (no mention of other software, however ....).
This next comment merits a direct quote instead of my (cheap and sleazy) summarizing:
"So it appears that even though the Passport is way behind schedule, merely the threat of a competitive writer has caused Stenograph to change their tune and play fair rather than attempting to force people to buy their software in order to take full advantage of the functionality of their writers."
"For the love of God, Montresor --! When will there be an end?"
"The Passport will be ready when it's ready," writes Jeremy Thorne. "I wish I had better news, but it's better to be realistic than to make promises we can't keep."
Thanks to my Anonymous Source for sending me the July issue of the ESPN (that's Eclipse Software Professionals Network), from which these quotes came ... and a hearty "Sorry about that --!" to Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allen Poe, any decendants or any lawyers in their employ who may be reading this for misusing and abusing that snippet from "Usher II."
Passport Update (12FEB06)
While updating the Links page (among others), I was checking out the Eclipse home page, and I found a link named "Passport Update." Naturally, I had to click it. Here's the update:
Passport Writer Update
November 16, 2005
Please accept my personal apology for the lengthy delay in delivering the Passport writer.
As our name implies, Advantage Software is a software-development company. Until we began working on the Passport, we had no experience with hardware design. In our naiveté, we believed the Passport would be ready for delivery long ago -- but progressing from a rough prototype to a finely-tuned, mass-producible machine proved to be far more complicated than we ever imagined.
After spending an enormous sum of money and throwing out more prototype parts than I care to remember, it became apparent that we didn’t have sufficient talent in-house to develop a top-quality writer -- so we hired a team of experts to assist us. As a result, the last several months have been extremely fruitful, and I'm happy to report that the Passport is well on its way to completion.
Our latest design bears little resemblance to the renderings we originally posted on our website. The list of features is growing -- but you’ll have to wait awhile to see them. Watching our competitors incorporate our innovations before the Passport made it to market taught us a hard lesson about tripping our hand. Suffice it to say that the Passport will include some pleasant surprises.
As you would expect, the Passport will boast state-of-the-art software, but no number of bells and whistles can make the writer a success without superb ergonomics. Because the success of the Passport will depend upon its "feel," it has been designed to accommodate a wider range of writing styles than any other writer in history. No matter how light or how heavy your touch, no matter which stroke depth you prefer, you can easily adjust the Passport to be perfect for you.
So, when is the Passport going to be ready for delivery? I still can’t tell you. There have already been too many missed deadlines, and I don’t want to make promises I may not be able to keep. But I CAN promise you that this writer IS going to happen, and that it will be well worth the wait. We are sparing no expense to build a world-class machine -- and we think you’re going to like it.
Hmmm ... November 16 of last year ... convention's coming up fairly quickly ... time to send another query --!
Passport Update (1APR06)
I found this on the CR Net forum, posted by Jeremy Thorne in response to someone whose writer was definitely on its last legs:
> Any word on the Passport writer? I've waited about as long as
> I can for the Passport, and am hoping someone knows when it's likely
> to come out. Any suggestions on writers? I'm thinking of Stenograph's
> Mira, but am worried about its compatability with Eclipse. Any thoughts?
I'll weigh in here:
A while back, I would have told people to hold out because I didn't want people to spend a lot of money on a writer that was to a large degree incompatible.
However, Stenograph has stepped up to the plate and has made the A3 much more compatible than previous Miras: You can now directly read the notes from a SD memory card reader, and they have an RTF dictionary converter. Even though they didn't release the USB interface specs, they didn't encrypt the protocol, either, so I was able to write a USB interface in the latest version of the Eclipse program (currently the development version, but it will be released as 4.1 in August.)
Combine that with the fact that the A3 uses standard WAV file formats so that if you record audio on the A3 it syncs up perfectly with Eclipse (or any other CAT system) and you have a writer that is very compatible with Eclipse, including the following functions:
-- Realtime through the serial port
-- Read notes through the serial port
-- Realtime through the USB port
-- Read notes through the USB port
-- Wireless realtime
-- Wireless read notes
-- Load your dictionary on the Mira for seeing realtime on the Mira display
-- Record audio on the Mira and copy it to Eclipse and it will sync with the transcript
That should do the trick, eh? So as far as compatibility and functionality are concerned, there's no reason to wait. Incidentally, if you're shopping around, the Stentura Fusion is also just as compatible.
So is the ProCAT Stylus. I've even had the pleasure of working directly with some of the people on the ProCAT development team to work out some extra compatibility functionality, such as importing relative timecodes from the Stylus RTF files, meaning that audio synchronization is always precise without having to play with timecode offsets.
So, what about the Passport? It's coming, but not next month.
You know that Dyson guy on the TV commercials who talks about his revolutionary new vacuum cleaner? Well, he spent 15 years developing it and made 5,000 prototypes. Yes, when it was done, it was truly revolutionary, and it's now selling like hotcakes and making people's lives easier.
If he had settled on an early half-working prototype as "good enough" it would be just another good idea that was never quite realized, but he stuck to it and made it work.
However, anyone who found out about his project and waited around for it to become available would have had a very, very dirty house, and no matter how good the machine was, they would have been really aggravated by the time they finally aquired one.
We just got the most recent prototype of the Passport assembled. This is the first version that I've held in my hands and thought, "Now this looks and feels like an actual writer." If you've seen previous prototypes, you won't recognize this one. The keyboard feels better and the plastic housing is a totally different design. But it's still not a production model, and even though most of the parts have been finalized and will not be changed, there's no telling what else will come up as we work out the rest of the kinks.
I have no question that the Passport will eventually be a revolutionary machine, which is partly why it's taken so long. We could have finished it sooner if we had settled for old-school on/off switces for keys, limited adjustability, lousy battery life, or any of a dozen other cop-outs and shortcuts. But that's not how we do things. EclipseNT was the LAST Windows CAT system because I didn't want to rush a poorly designed product out the door. We lost some software sales to people who couldn't wait; some of them eventually came back, and others are perfectly happy with the system they bought, but I don't regret the delay one bit because it was and is the product it needed to be.
What I don't want is to have our customers or prospective customers get angry at us because they can't wait. And I don't want people who buy the very first Passports off the assembly line to go ballistic over tiny things that need tweaking because they had been waiting so long. The ideal customer for the first version of the Passport will be a faithful and enthusiastic Eclipse user who has a reliable backup writer and who can be a little bit patient with us if there are production issues that remain to be worked out. Even the first Miras needed tweaking. Fortunately, there are a number of Howard Levines out there who fit that description nicely. What worries me are users with nearly-dead writers buying a Passport out of desperation and who are wound up tight, ready to explode at the first sign of trouble.
The Passport is not my project. Eclipse is my project. That's partly why I can be objective and realistic about it. I don't want to alienate our own customers or tarnish the name of our company over an accessory. If you desperately need a new writer, buy one of the ones available now and use it with Eclipse without the slightest doubt about its efficacy. If you don't desperately need a new writer, but you are interested in pushing the envelope of new technology, hold out for a Passport, because it's going to be an exciting ride.
In short, "Good things come to those who wait."
Don't tell anyone, but I had a spy at the NCRA August 2004 convention. My Number One Spy snapped a picture of the Stylus' brochure for me. This led to several e-mails back and forth between myself and a couple of the ProCAT sales reps, then an offer by one of the reps to stop by my school just before the Washington Court Reporters Association's annual convention. After a few e-mail exchanges between our Curriculum Director and the ProCAT Sales rep, Vendor Day was created (see? It pays to ask questions!).
This means I have more pictures of the writer (a "pre-production model," alas ...) for your perusal:
It might not be apparent from the pictures (espeically that first one!), but the Stylus' display shows menus, which you access using (you guessed it) a stylus -- though in a pinch, your fingernail will work just as well.
"It's a stripped-down version of WindowsCE," said Tom Nyquist, sales rep for ProCAT. "We just took out all the junk you wouldn't need in a writer."
While that first picture shows what appears to be a regular Stentura 8000, it should be said that this particular machine was a "pre-production model," which means they basically took an 8000 and converted it. The newer models will look much better, the salesman tells me. It will even have a special slot to keep your stylus (you know; the pen thing) when you're not using it.
It comes in any color you want -- as long as it's black. Fortunately, there is a way around that restriction, if you so desire .... :o)
Stylus Update (12MAR06)
For those of you who have bookmarked this page, you probably missed the fact that April Davis, RPR, was kind enough to write an article for this (cheap and sleazy) website about the ProCAT Stylus! You can read it here.
"But what about the Mira?"
Good question ...! And I'll have an answer for you in a few days; watch for an update to this page in a week or so.
"Dude -- that was one Helluva Long Week --!"
Well, I don't recall saying which planet's week I was talking about ... but that's neither here nor there, 'cause here comes that bit on the Mira!
"Mira, Mira, in my Hand ..."
Well, okay. So I don't have a Mira in my hand (nor a Stylus, nor a digiTouch, or even a Passport, for that matter), but I have had a chance to play with a G2 Mira ... and one of my classmates just purchased one, thanks to everyone's favorite uncle, Uncle Sam being so good to her this year.
As you probably know by now, there are two versions of the Mira: The first generation one, with a "bog-standard, just-like-everyone-else's-writer's display," and the new one, with the adjustable display.
For the starving student, this means one thing: The older ones are selling at a rather reduced rate.
If you can find one, that is; these guys are scarce as hen's teeth! (You all know chickens don't have teeth, right? Of course you do. They also don't have lips ... but you knew that too. Right? Right?!?)
The new version, the G2 (as in, "Generation Two") has a "bendy" tripod -- that is, a tripod you can tilt left, right, up or down, and a display that you can tilt.
Alas, I don't have a shot of the tripod -- yet -- but I do have a shot of the Mira:
If you'll look closely, you'll see our local Stenograph rep very stealthily placed his business card in there ...! Sneaky guy.
And here's a side view:
As you can see from the side view (above), the Mira has a (*gasp!!*) floppy disk drive.
I guess this doesn't symbolize the end of the world or anything, but when it comes to storage, I want something faster than a floppy ... like, say, a Flash drive.
Fortunately, the Mira does have other ways to save data, including backup and a compact flash memory card ... so you *should* not lose any data.
But then, the trick is to get your non-Stenograph software to access these features.
Good luck on that one.
Danger, Will Robinson!
My classmate to whom Uncle Sam was so nice to was oh so carefully carrying her Mira (atop its tripod) into class. One of the realtime cables snagged something momentarily, and pulled her Mira back a bit -- not enough to do any real damage, but enough to get it a wee bit off balance.
My friend stopped herself from falling, turned around to unsnag the cables, and turned around just in time to watch her Mira tilt over, and fall to the floor ...!
She quickly retrieved it ... and discovered that the tripod had snapped off, leaving the head inside the writer's socket!
Fortunately, the Mira was still under warranty, so she got a new tripod. She said there was a small glitch at the bottom of the display on her Mira, but she didn't think it was anything.
I pointed out to her that she paid nearly $5,000 for this writer, and it didn't have a glitch before the tripod snapped ... so she should ask for a new writer as well.
I hope she did ... I know I would have.
A Design Flaw
Mike Miller, head guy in charge of Depoman.com had some rather disturbing things to say about the Mira's standard 32MB compact flash (CF) memory card.
If you were to go out and buy yourself a 500MB CF card to replace that 32MB card the Mira comes with, you would expect it to have 500MB of space available on that 500MB card, right? I mean, it just makes sense.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Apparently, no matter how much your new CF card will hold, the Mira will only see 32MB.
This is a serious design flaw ...! Hopefully it will be corrected in the next revision of the Mira.
On the Depoman Forum where this issue was discussed, I asked the question: Does the ProCAT Stylus has this same problem? From the info on the ProCAT Stylus page, the Stylus can handle a 2GB CF card.
Of course, the trick is to get your CAT software to recognize it's there ... but I suspect this will be easy.
If I ever get an answer to my question, I will update this page.
Well. That's it ...! Hope it was worth the wait.
But Wait --! There's More.
Our local Stenograph rep stopped by our school recently (27OCT05), with both the Mira A3 and the Fusion in hand.
As I knew he was coming (there were notices posted all over the school), I had my camera with me that day. He asked me if I wanted to come in and ask a few questions and take a few pictures before the rest of the students filed in for the spiel ... which (duh) of course I did!
I took a few notes as well ....
So now I can update this with a bit on the new writers! The sacrifices I make for you ....
Here we have the rear of the A3 Mira. In case you're wondering (as I was) A3 stands for "Audio" and "3rd Generation." -- as in "Third generation Mira with Audio."
From left to right, we have the reset button, the three slots for the Data SD ("Secure Digital") cards, the two audio ports (microphone and headphones, respectively), the USB port, the old-school serial port, the contrast button, and the connector for the power adapter.
I should point out that one of those SD cards is in there when the machine is shipped, and is difficult to remove (so don't!).
Also, these cards are not intended to be used as permanent storage; rather, you store the notes until you feel the need to do a backup (weekly is good, every other day is better, and every day is better still).
Here is the back of the Fusion (and in case you were wondering where the name Fusion came from, it's a "fusion" of the Stentura 8000 LX and the Mira; hence, "Fusion"):
While the picture is a bit fuzzy, you can kinda-sorta make out the ports ... but if not, this image borrowed from the Fusion infosheet should help:
From the top left, you can see the old-school serial port. Below that you can see the microphone and headphone jacks. On the right at the top you can see the USB port. Next to that is the power port. Below the USB port is the contrast knob, and to the right of that *should be* (can't tell from my crappy picture or this snippet from the infosheet) the reset button.
Here's an under-the-hood shot of the new Mira:
Here's the interior of the Fusion:
If you have an 8000, a Flash, or an original Mira, you've probbably noticed something: You can't tell that your battery is low until it's time to plug it in. Howzabout some advanced warning, huh?!?
Well, on the new Mira and the Fusion, you do get advanced warning:
In a dramatic demo, our Stenograph rep had the Mira connected to a laptop across the room via bluetooth (which, in case you don't know, is a way to connect your writer to your laptop with no wires! How cool is that?!?). He had one of our students steno a few words, then he removed the Mira's battery -- but still, on the screen, new realtime was being displayed!
The secret? Two batteries. If the main one is removed or just dies, the second battery kicks in. It powers everything in the writer except for the display.
The main battery will last for 12 hours. The backup battery is good for 18 hours.
The dual battery scheme is in the Fusion as well.
I should point out that you have to push a few buttons to get that display. The normal display looks like this:
You can see a closeup of it here:
From left to right, you can see the graphic display of the battery's status, a display for the SD card, the black bar lets you know if you ar recording into the writer, then finally (at the risk of being called "Captain Obvious" here), there's the stroke count, the name of the current RAM file, and the number of pages.
Both machines can have only one dictionary at a time ... so if you're a captioner and you cover baseball, and have a dictionary for each team, you'll have to merge each of those dictionaries into your main dictionary, and install that into the writer.
Both writers can store 42 hours of audio on the 256 MB SD card, or 172 hours on the 1 GB SC card.
For steno notes, you can store 243,000 pages on the 256 MB SD card, while on the 1 GB card, you can store 873,000 pages.
Now, just because you *can,* doesn't necessarily mean you *should.* It might be difficult to tell, but these SD cards are about 1 inch square. Anything that small is subject to the Law of Perversity (better known as Murphy's Law): When it's full, you're more than likely to lose it.
Hey, don't blame me; blame that perverse Murphy guy.
The best way to deal with Murphy and his ilk is to assume the worst, and plan accordingly. What that means in this case is you back up your SD cards daily to a CD-RW, store it in a different location than your writer and laptop, and rotate the backups weekly -- that is, overwrite the backup (remember, I said CD-RW) with the updated version of your files, and you should be good to go.
Just don't lose them! But if you do, you have your backups.
You did backup your SD cards, right?
Of course you did. Or will, once you get one of these fancy-schmancy machines....
Check out the update: