My Experiences Switching to Android, Part 2: Tips, Tricks, and Lessons Learned

Posted by Karl Belanger | 12/06/2016 | Access Technology
Editor's Note:

Karl is a blind Android user and a member of the National Federation of the Blind’s Access Technology team. This post is a follow up to Karl’s September 6, 2016 post entitled My Experiences Switching to Android.

It’s been a little over three months since I’ve started using Android as my only mobile platform. In that time, I’ve found a lot of useful apps, tips, and tricks that have only improved my enjoyment of using Android.  If you haven’t read my initial post, I suggest you do so.

In general, Android has been a very positive experience, and the strides Google has made in all accessibility areas, with the significant exception of Braille, have become even more noticeable. Especially as Android 7 begins to show up on more and more devices, accessibility will continue to improve. Despite some quirks, and a few bugs which I have noted below, Android has been a mostly enjoyable experience.

One aspect I have certainly gotten more used to is Android’s gesture interpretation. It is necessary to use more of the tip of the finger to get things to interpret properly. Also, as many Android phones have less space at the edges of the device around the screen, when holding the phone one needs to be a bit more careful. That said, once I got used to the difference I now have almost no issues with gestures.

Using the Built-in Apps

Many of the built-in apps are quite accessible and fluid to use with Talkback. The Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Chrome and Hangouts apps all present information in a very logical manner, with all buttons being labeled. While I haven’t played much with Docs and Sheets, they certainly look viable for at least basic word processing. In Chrome, it is certainly possible to browse web pages, and conduct most online activities. Talkback uses a lot of sound effects, called Earcons, to indicate when things can be tapped on, are just text, are links, etc. While these are useful, I would like to see more announcements such as when something is a link, a heading, has been previously visited, etc. when browsing the web. Sometimes, especially after scrolling down a page, Talkback will indicate that a link or other control has focus, but double-tapping on it does nothing, and exploring by touch indicates that the top of the page, or a portion much higher up, is actually on the screen. Attempting to scroll to the link and get it in focus does not always yield results either.

Context and Granularity Are Key

One feature of Talkback that I still don’t use as much as I should are the context menus. Talkback has two context menus, local and global. The global context menu provides access to things like Talkback, text-to-speech, and other accessibility settings, as well as to repeat, or copy to the clipboard, the last thing spoken. The local context menu is where things get more interesting. This contains several submenus for choosing granularity, selecting a custom action, and other options such as for selecting, copying and pasting text in a text field, depending on where you are. While they are useful, the menus take rather longer to do things, especially since the angle gestures often take me a couple times to get working. Additionally, I would like to see the custom actions, and possibly on the fly adjustment of speech rate, moved into the list of granularities which can be accessed by flicking up and down. This would greatly speed up accessing often needed items. The ability to rearrange, add or remove items from the granularity selector, similar to how configuring the rotor works in iOS, would also be a useful feature.

Things I’ve Discovered

In my previous post, I mentioned that answering a call using the two finger swipe is inconsistent and often results in the wrong action happening. While this is still true, there are decline and answer buttons at the bottom left and right respectively, that also work.

When using screen dimming, and attempting to approve an app permission, a message comes up stating that a screen overlay is in place and thus the setting cannot be changed. There is a prompt to go to settings, but rather than doing this, simply press the back button, disable screen dimming via the shortcut, triple-pressing both volume buttons simultaneously, then try the action again. You will be able to approve the permission, then re-enable the dimmed screen.

When typing, if your finger moves to fast, or in a gesture that Android interprets as hand writing, the keys will stop being read. Just lift and place your finger and things will work normally.

When scrolling through a list, it is possible to scroll by roughly a screen at a time by swiping quickly up or down with two fingers. It is often possible to rapidly scroll by doing multiple gestures right after each other, but this is unreliable.

Useful Third Party Apps

Just as with iOS, there are a wide assortment of accessible apps available. TuneIn Radio is just as good on Android as on iOS. There are a few unlabeled buttons, but nothing that impairs its use. Bard mobile is also useful, though currently does not support reading Braille books. KNFB Reader is also just as useful on Android as on iOS.

One type of app that doesn’t exist on iOS but does on Android is the launcher. Launchers are literally home screen replacements that can drastically change how the device looks and feels. For example, the LG G5’s home screen displays all the apps on consecutive pages rather than in an apps view, more like iOS. Some phones also have easy home screens, which hide some of the complexity, and less commonly used apps and settings, to make the phone easier to use for those who want a simpler experience.

The Sad State of Braille

Unfortunately, there is very little good to say about Braille support. Having not had an update since December 10 of last year, Brailleback still lacks many significant features. While there is Unified English Braille support while reading, writing is still limited to computer Braille. There is still no word wrap, so the entire display line will be utilized even if it splits a word, making reading more confusing for novice readers. Rather than only showing the control in focus, as is done on other platforms, BrailleBack shows an entire screen line, and simply shows a cursor of dots 7 and 8 under the first character of the active control, which can be very easy to miss. Last, but possibly most significant, the command structure for Brailleback is extremely limited, and the commands for movement can vary widely across different displays. Commands for basic things like moving to the top or bottom of a file, double-tapping without using a cursor routing key, or a number of other movement or information keys are not present at all in Brailleback. All these factors cause using braille on an Android phone to be a very inadequate experience.

Conclusion

Android accessibility through Talkback has finally gotten to the point where I feel confident recommending it to others who may want more configurability than iOS offers, or who don’t want to pay the premium price for an iPhone. On all but the cheapest phones, Talkback is almost as responsive as Voiceover on an iPhone, and nearly all the same tasks can be accomplished on both devices. However, as I described above, steer clear if you rely on Braille in any significant capacity. The National Braille Press have also recently released a book entitled “Getting Started with Android” which is a very good read for anyone just starting out or switching from iOS.

Switching to Android has been a great learning experience and I am very happy with my decision. I’ve enjoyed the customizability and flexibility that Android offers, from downloading different voice engines to choosing a different phone or mail app, and have enjoyed being on the leading edge of accessibility improvements. Provided the significant Braille issues are resolved, I am confident Android will reach the point where it rivals iOS for accessibility in the near future.

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