AFB’s AccessNote: Not quite the notetaker replacement we’ve been looking for
By Amy Mason
I love my iPhone, and my iPad. I use them for all sorts of tasks. I read documents; I do research on the web, read and post to Twitter, watch videos, and control my Apple TV. They are great for almost every mobile task. Unfortunately, there are a few tasks that have left me unable to give up more traditional solutions. First, I cannot listen to books from NLS. Second, reading Braille files, or for that matter, any long document, especially in Braille, is extremely frustrating as few programs offer a good search feature, so finding the information I want quickly is never simple, and there is no direct support for BRF files in the iOS universe that I am aware of. Finally, and most irritatingly, I have never found an application that adequately meets my needs when I am writing, especially long documents. Pages offers document search, but it’s slow and heavy to load, which is a deal breaker when you need to write something down quickly. Notes, on the other hand, is lightweight and fast enough, but searching for information in a long note involves combing through it by hand or reading the entire document because search is not supported. Furthermore, none of the Apple apps sync with my Dropbox which is crucial as I work from at least two computers, (One of which is Windows-based, so iCloud is out) and two different mobile devices. I’ve tried IA Writer, Nebulous Notes, and a handful of other Dropbox aware notetaking applications but I find navigating through documents for editing purposes to be somewhat slow and cumbersome. Although taking notes in iOS is certainly workable, it’s not as quick and automatic as typing and editing documents in Windows, Mac, or a dedicated notetaker.
In order to fill this need, The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) has recently released AccessNote which is available for $19.99 from the Apple app store. Obviously, although they cannot help me with my desire to read books from the Library of Congress, Access Note looked like it might be well-poised to assist me with the other difficulties I encountered in enjoying my iOS devices. So, how does it live up to the tasks I have set before it? Honestly, not as well as I had hoped. This is not to say that the app is bad, but it needs a few more features and a bit more polish before I really see it doing what it is meant to do. Furthermore, there are places where its developers were hampered pretty heavily by Apple’s design choices for iOS and VoiceOver.
When you first open the app, you find a very simple clean interface, with buttons for adding a new note or syncing to Dropbox. Under this you will discover a search box which allows the user to globally search notes (both titles and contents are searched). Next is the list of notes, in order of last use (with the oldest near the bottom), or in alphabetical order. Along the bottom are buttons for settings, favorites and help. So, as you heard, AccessNote scores a few points here. It has Dropbox integration, which is clean, and simple. It’s possible to search notes contents and titles from the main screen, and there is help documentation linked to from the main page. On the downside though, they made a few fairly poor choices even on this main screen. First, although I can favorite certain notes, I cannot organize them by folders, or any other criteria. I could see this getting messy rather quickly, and if I can remember what I titled a document last week, I’m fairly surprised, so the ability to categorize notes would come in handy. Every current hardware notetaker I can think of offers folder support and not having it does hamper the user significantly. Second, deleting files is not as simple as it could be. Many programs offer an “edit” option which allows a user to move or delete a batch of files at a time. In AccessNote, I have to double-tap, hold, and swipe on any file I wish to delete, at which point a button appears which allows me to delete the file. Although this implementation has been used by Apple before (in the music app) it is rather counter-intuitive, and a less than an ideal way to handle file-management.
There are a few notes to keep in mind when using AccessNote with Dropbox. How much they are going to affect you will depend on your usage scenario. First, spacing is changed drastically when a text file is saved both in Windows, and in AccessNote. (I believe this is actually an incompatibility between iOS and Windows, because I have seen this in most other text editors for iOS.) Second, if changes are made in AccessNote, and Dropbox, when the two are synced, the older set of changes will be overwritten, without warning. Third, if your internet is spotty, the sync can take a long time, and may claim to have completed successfully without actually having done so.
Not too much in the Settings menu, and with the features currently available, really there doesn’t need to be. The AccessNote team has done a nice job of offering the features necessary to get the job done, and not complicating the situation unnecessarily. They offer multiple text sizes, the ability to turn spell check on or off, the options to order your notes alphabetically, or by order of use, options for turning on or off Dropbox integration, and the ability to set your device’s tilt sensitivity. (A user can tilt the phone to move from one note to the next). Having mentioned the problem of Dropbox Syncing possibly deleting a user’s changes, it might be worthwhile to offer the user the option to pick a behavior for when there are changes made in both places since the last sync.
The options in the Help menu are something of a mixed bag. The help documentation in the User Manual is well-written, straight forward, and easy to read. It’s an excellent guide to the features of the program, and worth perusing at least briefly to get an understanding of the options available to the user. Unfortunately, access to this file requires an internet connection despite being a simple single-page html file. There is no reason that an internet connection should be required for viewing a simple document like this, and it will hurt the user experience for any user who is off-the-grid and wants to get some work done. Furthermore, the interactive tutorial was a good idea, with poor execution. When I attempted to use the tutorial, I was unable to successfully complete the commands that the speaker told me to complete. The commands worked well in actual files, but were not usable in the interactive tutorial. Also, the buttons for forward and back in the interactive tutorial were not clearly labeled, and were instead labeled “greater than” and “less than” which one might expect from a mainstream application, but in an app designed especially for the blind, this is rather disappointing.
I did attempt to link to the Help page, but I was unable to find it on AFB’s webpage, however, many of the custom keyboard and Braille commands are available in the AccessWorld Product Announcement for AccessNote.
Reading and Writing Notes
In the reading and writing pane, a user is greeted with a new note (actually titled “New Note”) where they can immediately begin typing. The only other buttons on this screen are a button for toggling “Review Mode” on or off and a button for returning to the main screen. The rest of the screen is filled with space for typing or reading the note. When re-opening an existing note, the program remembers the user’s place, which is a great feature for reading or editing longer documents. When a user has review (i.e. read-only) mode on they can also switch between notes, as mentioned earlier by tilting the phone to the left or the right. This feature has grown on me in the time I have been testing the app, because I can think of a number of usage scenarios where this would be of great benefit, such as moving between two documents one is reviewing in quick succession, or taking notes on a longer file.
AccessNote was made to be used with a Bluetooth keyboard, and this is where the program shines. There are a number of custom commands available for the wireless keyboard that really make reading and editing much easier including commands for finding text forward and backward in notes, renaming files, creating new notes, and moving between existing notes.
It feels natural to use the commands connected with the keyboard and they seemed to work consistently in my testing, so if you are heavily reliant on your Bluetooth keyboard and the other limitations of the app are not going to cause you trouble, this may be a good choice to consider for notetaking. The list of commands is fairly short, and should be simple enough to learn. One command I would love to see in future releases would be an ability to move to the next or previous misspelled word in a document.
I believe that the developers really wanted to provide a good Braille experience but were hampered by the way that Apple has implemented VoiceOver. They included a few custom commands (using dot-eight as the modifier key) such as F to search forward, C to create a new note, or R to rename the current note, but these commands can only be used if the Braille display is set to eight-dot computer Braille. Thus, if a user normally has contractions on while typing, they have to invoke the command to turn off contracted Braille and the command to turn on eight-dot Braille before they can search or rename their document. Likely, due to these limitations, and the unique advantages of the Braille display (the ability to move the cursor with routing buttons,) there are not as many dedicated commands for a Braille user as for one using a Bluetooth keyboard.
There are definite disadvantages to using this app without an external keyboard of some sort (Braille or QWERTY). Many commands, such as renaming, searching, and favoriting files, cannot be completed without an external device, and I believe this is a problem. If a user simply wishes to review files without dragging out a keyboard, I believe it would be beneficial to offer a menu or another structure for at least accessing these features that are unique to this app.
Other Thoughts and Suggestions
I found that this app was a good first attempt, but it wouldn’t be worth $20 to me in this form. One problem that I have not yet mentioned really is a deal breaker for me. As I said, earlier, reading long documents, like books, is something that I find to be less than ideal on iOS because there are very few programs that persist in remembering the place I left off, or even offer a really compelling find feature. AccessNote does both of these things, which would make it the “go-to” app, for these types of projects, except, that in long documents (I used the Project Gutenberg E-text of Little Men by Louisa May Alcott), the app and VoiceOver itself become almost unbearably sluggish. In fact, more than once while looking at this document in AccessNote, VoiceOver crashed and restarted. My testing was done on both the iPhone 4 and the iPad 3. The sluggishness and crashing of VoiceOver were understandably much more pronounced in the iPhone 4, but it was still fully noticeable on the iPad. This is a pretty major barrier to really using the app the way that I was hoping to, and I expect I wouldn’t be the only person who felt this way. If they could bring these issues under control, AccessNote might be very useful to others, like me, who want to keep their place in a document, and search long text files quickly.
Having said this, AccessNote has a real opportunity here if they are able to leverage it. It wouldn’t be the simplest piece to implement, but it could really differentiate their product, and engender a real sense of goodwill among blind iOS users. Since AccessNote already has memory of the user’s last position in a document, an easy-to-use read-only mode, and decent search, they could make a real dent in the market if they were to offer back translation of BRF files loaded into Dropbox. As you likely remember, one of the things I said that I really wished I was able to do in my iOS device (and still keep a notetaker around for) was to read Braille files on a Braille Display. As things stand, Apple’s implementation of Braille support in VoiceOver doesn’t allow me an option for reading anything that has already been formatted in Braille. In order to read a BRF file, presently, I have to change its file extension to .txt, and load it into my iOS device any way I see fit, (usually via Dropbox in my case). However, this does not fix all the issues a user would encounter. If a user has six-dot Braille on, (contracted or uncontracted) VoiceOver will do translation on the file in question, which results in double-translation and a proper mess for the reader. If, on the other hand, a user sets their Braille to uncontracted eight-dot Braille, they will find dot-seven (denoting capitalization) under nearly every character they are reading. This is distracting and could be very challenging for poor Braille readers. However, if AccessNote were better able to handle long documents, and to back-translate Braille files, a user could then read them via their iOS device, and flip back and forth between the book they are reading, and a note file for taking down their thoughts on the text. The simple ability to read BRF files on iOS is a feature that I’ve seen many users clamoring for, and pairing it with notetaking capability would give AccessNote a home on many users’ devices.
All in all, AccessNote is an interesting first effort that could do some great things if a few bugs were quashed, and a few more features implemented, but there are too many other apps that can be made to work for notetaking that cost much less than $20, and can better handle really large files. There are some interesting things going on in this app, but it’s just not worth the price of admission at this time.