BEX is a word-processing program for the Apple II family of computers with at least 128K of memory. The designer and publisher of BEX is Raised Dot Computing, one of the first companies to enter the screen review market in 1981, and today one of the most savvy one-stop shopping corporations handling adaptive computer aids for the blind.
The beauty of RDC's products is their accessibility to people with varying levels of vision, from those with normal sight to those with no useful vision. While this review: focuses on speech output, BEX also provides large print screen display, and translates regular print to Grade II braille and vice versa.
Both the BEX program and the documentation are divided into three levels: Learner, User, and Master. Documentation comes in print, and your choice of audio tape or braille. In addition, all purchasers receive print and braille reference cards, and a separate index. The braille edition of the index contains a table of contents for the audio tapes as well.
The Learner Level is geared for people who have never before touched a computer; it includes a keyboard map and an explanation of basic computer concepts like the "Return key" and "default." The Learner Level documentation provides an introduction to basic word- processing concepts, limiting the print discussion to simple formats sufficient for producing letters and term papers.
The User Level program adds file importing and exporting functions (computer slang for sending files to and from other systems), as well as an in-depth discussion of more complex printer formats. And by the time you get to the Master Level program, you can use up to six floppy disk drives or up to 50 volumes on the Sider hard disk system.
BEX sells for $400, which includes a one-year subscription to the company's Raised Dot Computing Newsletter, which is one of the only company-based newsletters to religiously print reviews and make announcements about competing products.
BEX recognizes when the SlotBuster or any member of the Echo family of speech synthesizers is present in your Apple, and automatically loads the SCAT or TEXTALKER screen review software, as appropriate. BEX also works well with most other synthesizers, including the Echo GP, Votrax, and DEC talk.
BEX provides a command window through which you may send any commands you wish through the interface to the device you've defined as your voice device. When you tell BEX to print text, you can piggy- back voice output onto this print stream; you can also print to the voice alone.
There are two voice output modes in BEX's Editor: jerky and non- jerky. Vhen you use jerky speech, pressing the spacebar stops the speech and cursor movement immediately, even when using a relatively unresponsive device like DECtalk. Jerky speech doss slow down output somewhat. If you choose non-jerky speech, the interruptibility of the speech will depend on your specific voice output device. The underling text-to-speech software for the Echo family or SlotBuster allow for instant silencing, while the response time for serial devices is generally much longer.
BEX is a combination menu-driven and command-driven program. The Editor and Print functions are completely command-driven, while the braille translation, file import and export, and utility functions use short menus. As you move from the Learner Level to the Master Level, the menu prompts get shorter and the documentation explains how you can modify the prompts to suit your personal taste.
BEX has a unique file structure: a file can contain up to 128,000 characters, which are divided into "pages" of not more than 4,000 characters each. These machine "pages" have no inherent relationship to the output pages. At the Learner and User Levels, you can work with the 4,000-character page, while the rest of the file remains on disk. At the Master Level, you can work with the "Zippy Chapter," where 6 pages or 24,000 characters of information are in memory at once.
BEX does a good job of managing the page structure for you. Within a page, you can always find out what your current page number is and how many pages are in the file. You can move to the "next" or "previous" page, or you can move among pages by number. Since BEX uses a variation of Apple's older � and slower � DOS 3.3, moving between pages takes some time, unless you are using the Zippy Chapter. Each time you move between pages, the previous page is saved to disk and the next page is loaded into memory, which takes about 9 seconds. BEX's "page menu" utility allows you to rearrange pages and copy them between files.
Either you like this "page" structure or you don't. It does offer several advantages. First, it helps you organize your thoughts. Second, it prevents you from inadvertently losing more than 4K of information in case of power loss, or stupidity. Third, the page structure makes it easy to reorganize information, since you can define a page as less than 4,000 characters and can easily rearrange or eliminate pages.
Once you get to the User Level, you can forget about page menus altogether, thanks to BEX's "Clipboard" feature. This wonderful feature makes moving text quite enjoyable. The Clipboard is the same size, 4K, as a "page," but it's outside any particular file. It's sort of like a scratch pad, sitting in memory, just waiting to be used. Essentially, it gives you another window on your text. You can copy text to the Clipboard or you can accumulate text on 5 Two keystrokes exchange the contents of the current page with the clipboard, which means you can always examine and edit information on it. And, with two keystrokes, you can insert the contents of the Clipboard into any page, into any file.
BEX's basic unit is the paragraph. Unlike many word processors that use a carriage return to indicate a paragraph, BEX uses four characters: space, dollar sign, p, space. Although somewhat unusual, hearing your synthesizer say "dollar-sign p" clearly lets you know when you move to a new paragraph. A carriage return in BEX marks a new line, not a new paragraph.
There is a broad range of cursor movement commands in BEX's Editor; some speak and some are silent. All of the spoken commands are interactive, which means the audio cursor and the input cursor are always the same. You can speak letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, or in groups of 500 characters. When moving letter by letter, every character (including control characters) is announced, regardless of the punctuation ability of your specific voice device.
Those cursor movement commands that are silent have a logical structure: Control-A plus a number plus a unit advances the cursor. Control-Z plus a number plus a unit zooms the cursor backwards. For example, Control-A 17 Control-W moves the cursor ahead 17 words; Control-Z 8 Control-P moves the cursor back eight paragraphs; and Control-A Control-T moves the cursor ahead one sentence. The deletion commands use the same pattern.
In BEX's default mode, keystrokes will not be voiced, but you can turn this feature on if you wish. When the keyboard echo is off, BEX has a 256K keyboard buffer, which makes it impossible to overtype text.
There is also a "lock out changes" mode, where every keystroke becomes a control character. You can quickly move around your text in this mode, and BEX will ignore any command that would change your text in any way.
BEX provides a good range of printing functions, although not quite as powerful as mass-market programs like WordPerfect. BEX's print output can be formatted "on the fly." The text on a disk is not page- or line-oriented. All printing activities are controlled by embedded format commands: each command begins with "space dollar-sign dollar-sign." An unusual feature of these commands is that they control printing relative to the image of the page. While you can instruct BEX to "Repeat this text on line 55 of every page," you can also command BEX to "Repeat this text on the third line above the bottom line on every page." Similarly, you can tell BEX either "Use a left margin of 5," or "Increase the left margin by 5." Since BEX makes large print on Epson or ImageWriter dot-matrix printers (provided you have the right interface card!), as well as regular print and braille, the relative command structure automatically adjusts for the differing numbers of characters per line and lines per page. BEX can center, or center and underline, multi-line headings.
One command does simple page numbering: for print, it's the word "Page" followed by a number on the bottom line; for braille, it's the page number at the end of line one. You can specify fancier page numbering, using running headers or footers. And, you can manually enter discretionary hyphens in your text, but BEX cannot automatically hyphenate. Nor can it place footnotes at the bottom of each page. In addition to regular tabs, you can precisely position material horizontally. Boldface, super- and subscripts, and changes in pitch are supported for many dot-matrix and daisy-wheel printers. It's also a snap to enter printer control codes directly into your text for special effects.
BEX does not provide "micro-spacing" for left- and right-justified text. BEX does give you good control over page breaks, and you can tell BEX to check to make sure there are enough lines for some text, and then BEX will move to a new page. The supplemental BEXtras disk provides examples of some pretty fancy formatting, although you may not want to try this until you have carefully studied the manual.
BEX is not only good at word processing, it is very talented at text processing as well. A big difference between BEX and other word processing programs for the blind is the fact that BEX can also translate text between print and Grade II and Grade I braille.
It's also easy to dump text from other computers, such as the Kurzweil Reading Machine, VersaBraille II, IBM, and many more devices, directly into BEX files using the "Input through Slot" option. Additionally, there are high speed features that transfer information between the Apple and the tape-based VersaBraille. And Raised Dot Computing has gone a step further in providing an interface manual, which provides detailed information on interfacing the Apple with a wide variety of other devices, plus they sell the appropriate cables to do 30.
The Read textfile utility very quickly reads both DOS 3.3 and ProDOS textfiles, so you can import text created in almost any Apple word processor. In addition to a wide variety of printers, you can print a file to disk as a DOS 3.3 textfile. The table-driven Replace characters is a feature normally found on dedicated typesetting systems and you can perform very subtle manipulations with it. Supplied tables, called "transformation chapters," include one designed to reformat text downloaded from commercial information systems, and another that reformats text imported from the Kurzweil Reading Machine. Another transformation chapter automatically places two spaces at the end of every sentence, while maintaining a single space after abbreviations. This is possible through the Contextual Replace feature, which provides very sophisticated wildcards that verge on a programming language. This feature may be difficult to understand at first.
Raised Dot Computing has built on these features to create TranscriBEX, a braille transcription system that lets sighted typists create highly accurate textbook-format braille. One TranscriBEX feature lets you prepare press braille at National Braille Press.
In attempting to provide a friendly environment to people with a broad range of vision impairments, BEX sometimes presents a "clunky" user interface. When entering data in BEX's Editor, you do not have "word wrap" on the screen, for example. This is only pertinent to a sighted user who would see words split between lines, although this in no way affects the output. Splitting words between lines is a plus, however, for large print since more text appears on any given screen at any given time. Sighted users can preview the text without leaving the Editor by hitting Control-V and printing the text to the 80-column screen. To achieve the same result, a blind user will generally need to leave the Editor, and print the text to a "review printer," so it can be examined using the speech synthesizer's screen review capability.
Another drawback, for some users, is that all text you enter in the Editor overwrites existing text, unless you specifically invoke the insert feature. While using this insert mode, you cannot edit while inserting text; but you can get around this limitation quite easily with the Clipboard feature. BEX's Editor enables you to search for character strings a page at a time, but it does not have a built-in search-and-replace feature. You can, however, exit the Editor, invoke the very powerful Replace characters function, and re-enter the Editor relatively quickly.
BEX has a rather odd copy-protection scheme. When you order BEX from Raised Dot Computing, you receive a BEX Master disk that is serialized with your name and zip code. The Master allows you to make three back-up copies, but the back-up copies you create can't copies themselves. One result of this copy protection is that new users are protected from inadvertently initializing and wiping out their program disks.
The support from Raised Dot Computing is legendary � the only way their telephone support could be any better would be to add a toll-free line. BEX even has a "System Description" option that saves a snapshot of the devices in your computer on disk for RDC to use in diagnosing difficulties. People who bought BEX when it was introduced have received three updates, free of charge.
Few, if any, companies provide such voluminous, comprehensive, technical details in their manuals as RDC does, including their progressive learner package. The material is so well presented and thoroughly explained that, if followed as recommended, even the newest user will soon feel at home with it all. They also publish an excellent Newsletter in large print, audio tape, and BEX disk, which is included in the purchase price.
A little feature we forgot to mention earlier lets you enter text using the Apple keyboard as if it were a Perkins Brailler, using the asd hjk keys. This is nice for people who prefer to enter Grade II text directly into the computer.
The folks at RDC are exceptionally adept at handling any kind of problem you might encounter, and have gone a long way toward eliminating problems before they happen. They have even included a "known system anomalies" sheet with the manual that informs you of known bugs in the program; this type of honesty is rare. The sheet is updated as bugs are eliminated and new problems found. Fortunately, the 1ist is short and consists of minor problems.
In short, Raised Dot Computing has set the standard for customer support in the field.