on the cheap and sleazy side (www.cheapandsleazy.net)

Words and (some) Pictures by Cheri Mays, RPR; XHTML by G.D. Warner

Advantage Software's Passport

A Long Time Coming, and Worth the Wait


Cheri Mays is one of the first people to get the Passport in hand, and has been using it for a year and a half thus far. Sometime back, I asked her to write a review for ol' Cheap and Sleazy, and she demurred at the time, saying that the writer's software was not quite where she felt it should be, but she would be more than happy to write a review for me later.

Well, today is "later!"




Passport, Top View

The (Original)Passport

Having gotten one of the first two Passports in any format more than a year and a half ago, and having had my current model since the beginning of the year, I figure it's about time I write an official review about my Passport.

It's been a slow process waiting for everything to finally be implemented, but it's all done now and has come together very nicely.

My first model was based on the Linux platform. For reasons unknown to me, the software was changed from Linux to Windows CE some months after I received my first model. It wasn't until I received my current model a little more than six months ago that features really began to be implemented.

I pretty much BEGGED to get the machine in its unfinished form, understanding it wouldn't be fully functional, so I can't complain about any of that. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't getting impatient along the way.

So now that it's done, I can honestly say it was well worth the wait. The touch of the keys is amazing (thanks primarily to the optical sensor technology not requiring any physical contact by the keys to some mechanical sensor) and very easy to adjust. There is a tension wheel and a stroke-depth wheel in easy reach that can be adjusted on the fly, and using the menus on the writer, individual keys can be adjusted at any time as well, even in the middle of a job.

I admit that I have had some trouble getting the number bar to register with the individual corresponding letter keys, but it continues to get better the longer I use it. I do believe it's just a matter of getting it adjusted properly for my own style, and I haven't taken the necessary time to do that. I've always been bad about coming home and never taking my writer out of its case, and that hasn't changed even with my new one.

You can adjust the colors of all the different text types on all the different screens, and I have made the size of the translated text plenty big for my old eyes so I don't have to squint or worry about insufficient light or whatever. It's a wide-screen format and it's easy to scroll back to look at the text if/when necessary.

Passport Screen

Passport Screen

I always hook up to my laptop, but I let the laptop battery go dead last week and actually had to read back from the screen on the Passport. It was quick and easy.

I also prefer to keep my writer under the edge of the conference room table whenever possible (since I very rarely need to look at the screen because I insist on using a laptop on every job so I can edit the transcript throughout the job, including filling in title and appearance pages, etc.), so it's nice that I have that option, one I wouldn't have with a writer whose screen can't be placed flat.

Just my personal preference, of course.

The shadow tracking is seriously cool, and for anyone who liked to be able to see the shadows on their old paper notes to help figure out a stroke, it really is exactly like that. I can't say I've had a need for it since I always have synchronized audio to check questionable strokes, but I do use those shadows sometimes to help adjust an individual key here and there when I notice a particular key shadowing a lot.

Shadow-Tracking Screen

The Shadow-Tracking Screen (Note the Red P on the Left): Find the Shadows ....

Passport Key Adjustments

.... Then Make Adjustments

The unique way the Passport registers each stroke to eliminate stacking has always been good, but as someone who always had major stacking issues, I can't say it had worked 100% for me. I discovered I was still having a few minor issues with my Q and A strokes stacking on very fast or very long jobs. The most recent software update had a tweak to the anti-stack handling, and I've only had a couple of jobs since then and can't say for sure yet how much of a difference it has made in the long run, but it definitely seems better already. I am due to send my machine back in for a final hardware update or two that have been made since I got mine, and it sounds like that may just address those last little issues I was having.

My personal opinion is that the Passport's biggest strength might just be its multitude of backup options. With the four USB ports available, I can use one for the Bluetooth adapter and still have three more for backup. Maybe in the future there will even be something else to use one for, and there will still be two available for backup even then.

Passport's USB Ports

Passport's USB Ports

The Passport backs up to those USB flash drives in realtime seamlessly as you are writing, not just waiting until the end of the job to copy files to them. If something should ever happen (like, say you forget to charge it (*ahem*) -- not that I'd know anything about that) and the machine shuts down in the middle of a job, the notes will all be there on all the various forms of backup, including the USB drives. With the drives placed on the side of the machine rather than the back (and nicely recessed, of course, so no chance of them getting bumped and snapped off, causing who knows what kind of damage to the machine) it's very easy to glance down and check them while writing without having to turn the machine all the way around.

There's also the SD and the PCMCIA slots to back up to.

Passport PCMCIA Slot

Passport PCMCIA Slot

Passport's SD Slot

Passport's SD Slot (on right)

I believe the only backup source that doesn't back up ALL job files simultaneously while writing, including audio, is the internal RAM, which backs up just the notes and text. I challenge anyone to find a writer with backup options that provide more peace of mind than the Passport. As reliable as technology is, I personally have had failures with all the different types of media, so since there's no paper notes, I am very comfortable that I will always have backups of every job I write. At first I thought that many backups might be overkill, but the first time I went to get a job off of one of the USB drives and had the drive freak out on me and was able to grab another one that worked just fine, I gave up that notion then and there. With no paper to fall back on, I want as many other realtime backups as I can get, thank you very much.

I'm using the Bluetooth (just a standard BT adapter) and not the USB interface, but it is worth noting that the Passport's USB driver also emulates a standard COM port, so it will work with any CAT software right out of the box.

There are recessed "handles" on either side of the keyboard to make it easy to pick up and carry around, and the typical pen/pencil holders for anyone who still uses those.

I'd like to comment on the two extra keys to the left and maybe a half inch below the traditional steno keyboard, but I have yet to take the plunge and program those to do anything. I can see them being very useful eventually, and as soon as someone creative comes up with something, I'll jump on it.

Passport Keyboard

Passport Keyboard: Note the Extra Keys on the Left

There's already a button available above the keyboard to mark spots in the transcript, so they aren't needed for that. I'm open to suggestions if anyone has any.

Update (03AUG09)

Just a quick update to let everyone know that I've learned that those two extra keys can be used like Control and Alt keys on a regular keyboard. So I can put entries in my dictionary, just for an example, of one of the extra keys plus, say, the right-side G key and make it execute a global the same as Ctrl+G on the QWERTY keyboard might do, instead of having to come up with some available stroke and remember it (such as GLO*BL or whatever). I am considering a few possibilities now and can see that they could be very useful for executing macros and maybe reducing the number of strokes I use for exam designations. Now I'm excited to finally get to use them for something!

Would I like the writer to be lighter or "sexier?" Sure. My priority is on getting the best results I can, though, not on looking cool with the same old technology.

I highly recommend giving the Passport a test drive. As great as it is now, it is even still being improved upon and has the potential to eliminate stacking once and for all.

Questions? Feel free to contact me at cherimays (at) cox (dot) net.

Update (28FEB10)

A few months ago Advantage upgraded my Passport to the latest keyboard configuration, and I am happier with it than ever. The keyboard had just a slight noise to it when the keys would bottom out before (still quiet enough that I didn't even notice it until I got the machine back and realized the difference), and that's completely gone now, so it's totally silent.

The issue I was having with the number bar not registering has also been totally resolved with the latest keyboard update. The touch is simply amazing. The only way I could be any happier with the machine now is if it were a little smaller and lighter. It is functionally about as perfect as I can imagine at this point. Writing on it is a dream. It is finally the machine I always hoped it would be.

The New Passport

The New Passport

Cheri Mays is a freelancer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose CAT software of choice is Advantages Software's Total Eclipse, and (as you can see) is a very happy Passport user.