Kindle Fire HDX

Blog Date: 
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

By Amy Mason

The Kindle Fire HDX is the latest tablet from Amazon, and it is again, claiming to include accessibility for blind users.  In the past, I have pretty freely lambasted Amazon’s accessibility efforts because in many cases they were downright insulting to blind users.  There has never been an eInk Kindle that allows for proper non-visual navigation of text, nor an accessible application for the Mac, or a Kindle app for the PC that allows for anything more than the crudest navigation.  Amazon made a big deal about their accessibility in the last Kindle Fire, and in truth, the tablet was so badly crippled for blind users, that it may as well have not contained accessibility features at all.  However, the Amazon stance on accessibility has begun to change (if far more slowly than one might like), as can be seen in the accessible Kindle app for iOS which arrived in May, and the Amazon Instant Video App, (also for iOS) supporting VoiceOver, but has enough changed to make this tablet worth considering for blind users?
Hmm… it’s complicated. As is the case so often with “Accessible Mainstream Technology” the devil is in the details, and everything is going to depend on what you want to do with the device.  This blog is a chronicle of my explorations of the tablet, and what I found, and is not an entirely comprehensive review, but it certainly hits the highlights.  

Hardware

The Kindle Fire HDX is like so many tablets these days, small, thin, and fairly light. It’s easy enough to hold for longer periods of time, though I have to admit a definite preference for holding it in portrait mode when the system obviously was meant to be held in landscape. The cameras, both front and back, are placed along the middle of one of the long edges of the device. If the Kindle is being held in portrait mode with the bump out for the back camera along the left hand side of the device, the power button will be on the back of the tablet near the bottom left hand corner, and volume buttons will be near the top left corner.  On the edge of the bezel, a headphone jack will sit just above the volume buttons, and the micro USB connector will be just below the power button.  It feels nice enough in the hands as far as tablets go, but really, unless you have chosen something particularly cheap and generic, most tablets feel all right in the hands these days.  It has pretty good sound and is likely to be loud and clear enough for a blind user to hear in any environment they would use it in without headphones.  For those with some vision, the display is crisp and offers good color contrast.  All in all, it’s physically a nice tablet, though there’s nothing about it that feels exceptional.

Turn on Accessibility features

When I first pulled the Fire out of the packaging, I searched out the information on the accessibility features for the device, and to my pleasure, I found a helpful little section on the Amazon webpage dealing specifically with the accessibility of the Kindle Fire HDX . This documentation details the different gestures supported by the Kindle “Screen Reader” (Talkback by any other name…) and Explore by touch.  It even provided instructions for turning on Screen Reader from the first page of the device.
“Tip: After turning on your Kindle Fire for the first time, you can turn on Screen Reader and Explore by Touch on the first screen. Press the Power button until you hear an alert and then place two fingers (slightly apart) on the screen and hold for five seconds.”
This was successful, but not flawless.  I had to try several times. During my first attempt, I misunderstood the above instructions, held power too long and power cycled the tablet without ever hearing the sound.  In my second attempt, the tablet didn’t appear to register my actions and nothing happened as I held my fingers on screen.  Third time was the charm, and I heard “keep touching with two fingers to turn on accessibility” and shortly after this a confirmation that accessibility features were turned on.   It was excellent to see that this procedure is available and fairly easy to access.  It works exactly the same as it does on the Nexus tablets from Google.
One difference I should mention between the Amazon Kindle and the Google Nexus which is immediately noticeable when the user first turns on accessibility is the tablet’s default voice.  Amazon is using the excellent Ivona voices as their default TTS engine, and Google is using the Pico TTS from SVOX, which is just not as crisp and clear to my ear.  It’s possible of course to change this on the Google devices, but I have to give Amazon points for having an exceptionally clear and pleasant voice for its TTS.

Tutorial

Similar to the Talkback tutorial on Nexus devices, Amazon’s Kindle HDX also starts a tutorial the first time accessibility features are turned on. The tutorial covers the following gestures in order:
•    Explore by touch- Touch the screen with one finger and discover what’s underneath.
•    Swipe left and right- Swiping moves the focus of Screen Reader to the next or previous item. Swipe quickly to the left to go back, and to the right with one finger to move forward.
•    Double tap- Activates the item focused by the screen reader.
•    Two finger vertical slide- A user can scroll a list by placing two fingers on the screen and sliding them up or down.  If they need to scroll further they can lift their fingers and continue the scrolling gesture from lower or higher on the screen as necessary.  Sliding is a slower and more deliberate gesture than “swiping”. It takes some getting used to if users are coming from iOS.  The gesture is identical to those used on other Android tablets with Talkback.  
•    Swipe lists by page- A user can move through a list a page at a time by quickly swiping right then left, or left then right
This tutorial leaves several gestures to be discovered later, but it covers enough of the basics that a user can set up the device, and explore the manual from within the tablet itself.

Tablet setup

This is dead simple, and I had a much better experience with setting up this tablet than I had setting up the 2013 Nexus 7.  I was able to swipe to every element I needed to interact with, and everything was spoken clearly and well.  
Choosing a language is straight forward, however, only U.S. English is supported with Screen Reader.  All other languages are unsupported and will cause Screen Reader to be turned off.  The user is warned of this, but it is disappointing as it means that this tablet will be far less useful to those who are multi-lingual, or those for whom American English is not the native tongue.  
After setting their language “preference”, a user is asked to connect to a wireless network, and confirm their Kindle account name. They are invited to join Prime, and add social networks.  

Tablet Tutorials

Most of the Amazon branded applications will pop a one or two screen tutorial over the user interface before the first use of the apps.  These tutorials can be navigated by flicking, and can be reviewed with the screen access software, but provide only minimal assistance to blind users as they largely just point to different sections of the screen and describe the use of different buttons.  

Main interface

Buttons in Amazon branded apps and in the main system do appear to be labeled and fairly easy to navigate.  However, much like TalkBack on other Android devices, system focus seldom keeps up with a user’s finger on screen. If you cannot swipe through options, it’s very difficult to pinpoint their locations on the screen as it is very difficult to get focus to catch an element unless you are moving very slowly.  Sometimes even then, this doesn’t work as advertised.   More than once, I found that my swipe gestures would get caught in circular navigation.  For instance, in some programs, a smaller subset of controls would be repeated instead of moving to a new set when the user is finished swiping through them, “Back, Play, Forward, Back…”  Sometimes, the tablet would also skip over controls or refuse to allow for backwards navigation.  Some apps were worse about this type of behavior than others, and it is entirely possible that these things could be rectified in future firmware updates to the device if users ensure that they are talking to Amazon about problems they see.  As it stands now though, it’s difficult to trust that a user is finding all pertinent content on screen at a time and it makes it hard to enjoy the tablet.

One welcome feature I observed in the Kindle Fire HDX, which has been lacking from Android devices until recently, is the option to easily suspend Screen Reader and spoken feedback from the Device Menu which a blind user can access by swiping down and to the right.  Of course, this is not so useful unless the tablet offers an easy and accessible option for re-enabling it, which the Kindle does.  The system will warn you that it will stop spoken feedback but that it can be turned on from the notifications area, or that it will be re-enabled automatically at the lock screen.  This is excellent as it allows a user to quickly regain control of the device after handing it off to someone who does not want the Screen reader running, by simply locking and unlocking the tablet.  

Settings looks a lot like those found on other Android devices, and work almost identically.  It’s a list of menus containing more menus, and a lot of toggle switches.  It works all right, though swiping through the menus didn’t always produce the expected result.  

Mayday Button

In the settings there is an option called the “Mayday Button” which is kind of a life-line of support for using the tablet.  I used this feature to see about getting the tablet set to the Eastern Time Zone as it was determined to believe I was in the Pacific time zone.  It’s a simple issue, but one that would be troublesome for some users, and it allowed me to give this feature a test. It can be reached from the Notification Shade at the top of the screen which you can access by pulling down with 2-fingers from the top, and will allow a user to connect with a live representative.  After attempting to connect, it told me that an Amazon representative would be there shortly and right after I heard this announcement I was connected with a pleasant and friendly customer service rep from Amazon by the name of Ruth.  It’s a neat feature, which mostly worked with the accessibility features of the device, but there were some difficulties and could be some potential pitfalls.

When I explained my problem, Ruth directed me to pull down the notification shade, and drew a little line on screen to direct me. For some reason, the device was not allowing me to perform the two finger swipe necessary to pull down the shade, and I had to ask Ruth to take care of that part for me. After this, I explored the menus to move to where Ruth directed me, and was able to tap through to Settings>Date & Time> Set Time Zone> and actually select Eastern.  

The potential pitfalls I see with this program are as follows, first, not all gestures appear to work when Mayday is on.  This of course makes it more difficult for users who want to follow along to actually do so.  Second, even after explaining to Ruth that I had the Screen Reader turned on, she continued to offer information on where to go in a way that would not be helpful to blind users.  She continued to use the pointer, and did not always give me the name of the setting I was looking for without prompting.  So, some Mayday sessions may be more difficult if the user has to explain repeatedly their need for non-visual information on the system, especially if the representative is not well trained in the use of the accessibility features.

 
Silk Browser

The Silk browser is now usable by blind users, and behaves very much like the default browser in a Nexus tablet in previous versions of Android. It’s not ideal, but it is possible for a user to enter websites in the address bar, though it is very difficult to review options from the suggestions available from the search box.  

A user has a few basic text level navigation options available when reviewing web content, but much of the web’s structure is lacking when using the Silk browser with Screen Reader.  A user is unable to jump by headings, links or other common navigational elements, so it’s really pretty rudimentary, and not recommended.  Unfortunately, Firefox and Chrome are not to be found in the Amazon app store, so although there are more accessible browsers for the Android platform in general, they are not available to Amazon Kindle Fire users.
Browsing in Silk with Screen Reader is theoretically possible, but it’s an exercise in frustration, so if browsing is an important part of the experience for you, you may wish to look at another tablet device.  

Keyboard

In the previous Kindle Fire, it was not possible to accessibly use the on-screen keyboard.  I am pleased to report that in the HDX the keyboard can be used accessibly to enter text wherever it is required. It works very much like Touch Typing Mode in iOS, so a user runs their finger around the screen and lifts it when they find the letter they want to enter.  Many Android keyboards offer a feature that allows users to quickly type using predictive text.  The Kindle’s keyboard also includes this feature.  In order to take advantage of the suggested word list, you slide your finger above the keyboard, and draw circles clockwise on screen (counterclockwise will move you back the other way).  You can be sure your finger is above the keyboard because the system will produce a high pitched beep when you slide off of it. This will move through the list of available word suggestions offered by the system. This is one of the Android features I have to admit beats out iOS.  If you are typing long words, there’s a good chance that the word you want will be guessed by the system which saves a great deal of time typing, and just honestly works really well.  

In comparison to the stock keyboard on the Google Nexus, the Amazon keyboard is actually better. Both of these keyboards offer predictive text, but they handle it in different ways. In the Amazon tablet, a user can cycle easily through the offered words with a gesture.  In the Nexus, a user has to simply search for the options above the keyboard, and double tap the one they desire. This means of course that  the user has to have pretty decent muscle memory to actually come upon the options available above the Nexus keyboard, and that they have to move across the line containing the text fairly carefully to see the suggestions available.  It is possible that another Android keyboard would provide a better experience for blind users than the default on Nexus, and perhaps the Amazon keyboard is even available in the Play store, but I am not aware of what keyboard it would be.  

 

Kindle Reader

Funnily enough, this is one of the most disappointing sections of the device.  Reading books on Android in general is a real practice in frustration, and sadly the Kindle content on the Kindle Fire HDX follows directly in the footsteps of every other reading platform I’ve had the misfortune of using on Android.

Most Android reading platforms will allow for some basic navigation, but it’s much harder to actually access content because the system tends to just keep reading, and in many applications it’s not possible to move backwards and forwards properly in content, or move by common navigational elements. Many of the applications for reading also tend to use non-standard gestures.  The Kindle was initially allowing me to use the standard reading commands, but after an update, I appear to have lost the ability to review text by character, word, and paragraph.  I can read continuously, and I can run my finger over the screen to review words, by literally running my finger over them, but only in supported content.  Unfortunately, not all books support even this level of navigation, and if a book is not supported with Screen Reader, a user can only play/pause the book’s speaking in the same way as with previous Kindle devices.  I could not find a way to determine in the Amazon store which books would allow for review of the text, so this is a pretty chancy option for any serious reading.  (The book that failed to allow reading with full navigation in my tests was a textbook.)  Furthermore, getting to specific words is difficult if they are in the middle of a paragraph since at this point a user simply has to read word by word with their fingers.  I cannot find a way to spell a word.  As for other types of content, the reviews are mixed.  Reading a Word document that was uploaded from another source is possible; however, PDFs are not, though there is no indication of this. PDFs simply are not read or spoken.

Outside of actually reading the text, the experience has improved. It’s now possible to use search, table of contents, X-ray, and jumping to a specific page or location in the book.  Theoretically, a blind user can select text, but in my testing it was next to impossible to actually select the text I wanted, and highlighted text does not show up as highlighted non-visually, in the book’s text itself.  So, it’s certainly an improvement over what was available in the previous Kindles, or with the Kindle app on Android, but iOS is simply providing better functionality, even in Kindle’s own reading app.

BrailleBack

BrailleBack can be downloaded from the Amazon App store, and works exactly like BrailleBack on other Android devices.  It connected on the first try, when I attempted to pair a Focus 14 Blue, and contains the same options and behaviors as when these tasks are attempted on the Nexus.  The version in the Google Play store contains a description of what the app is and what Braille displays are supported. This information is not available in the Amazon App store.

Sadly, Amazon books cannot be read with the Braille display. Only speech is supported in actual book content.  This is the same behavior that is seen in Google Play, Nook, and Blio on other Android devices.  In fact, as of now, I am not aware of any book reading apps that can be used accessibly with Braille in the Android space.  A further disappointment is that web content is also not supported, and as much of the help information, and many of the stores in the Kindle are web pages, the use of Braille is sorely limited.

Content Stores

Using the App, Audiobooks, Books, and Music Stores, was pretty difficult.  Since they are running in a modified web view, all of the unpleasantness of navigating with the Silk Browser is on display here as well. When you first enter the App Store, Amazon gives you 500 Amazon Coins (worth $5).  It’s a nice starter gift, but I appreciate the fact that it is possible to pay with actual money as well instead of buying into specific Amazon currency.  App store is more limited than the Google Play store which cannot be accessed on the device, so be sure the apps you use are available if you are considering this tablet.

Music Store and Player

The Music Store appears to be well labeled, and fairly easy to navigate, though the browser abnormalities are certainly still in force. A user cannot start a sample of a song and continue to explore because as soon as the Screen Reader cursor is moved off of the original song’s sample button, the sample stops playing.  

I downloaded a free album in order to play with the Music Player. The Music Player does not suffer from the same limitations as the store.  After a song that has been downloaded to the tablet is playing the user can use the tablet normally and the music and voice will both play simultaneously.  The music does not “duck” under the speech however, and there is no way to separately set the volume of music and speech on the device.  The files I tested with allowed me to still hear and understand the speech, but this may be dependent on the music files the user is listening to.

Audiobooks

The Audiobooks are provided via Audible, and they are accessible, though the app is difficult to navigate as there were a number of focus jumping issues, and circular focus traps in this app.  It required me to spend a lot more time exploring the screen to find all of the proper controls for the book I downloaded, than should have been necessary.

Video

The Amazon Instant Video Player was really the highlight of the accessibility of the device. I didn’t see nearly the focus issues or difficulty in accessing controls as I had in other parts of the tablet, and it has some interesting features that were really pretty impressive, and don’t appear to be available in other Amazon Video applications, (such as for the iPad).  
Amazon offers free streaming of the first episode of some shows, with commercial breaks, and all controls were read as I played with the video player, including the “learn more” button attached to the advertisements, and the announcement of how long it would be before my video would resume.  

I was also able to access the very cool “X-Ray” for video.  It gave me information on what characters were being played by what actors, and what songs, I might have heard in the episode, along with an option to jump to the place in the video where the song was playing, or a link to go and buy it.  This was a cool feature, made ever so much cooler by being pretty accessible and easy to use.

Calendar, Contacts, and E-mail

Setting up an e-mail account is pretty straightforward, and I did not discover any major accessibility concerns with the process.  Reading e-mail is not ideal as it does not appear to be possible to read continuously.  A user can read each sentence by swiping to the right or left, but this was the only navigation I was able to find.  Getting attachments will also be something of a problem, as office documents are not opened in the Kindle Reader, (like those that are sent to the Kindle device account but instead in an office suite viewer that only allows for reading the word under the user’s finger.  Read all and navigation are not supported in this app. Writing an e-mail was fairly straightforward, except that as a user finished with a field, they would have to swipe, and then double-tap to move their cursor to the new field. Otherwise, although the Screen Reader’s focus moved, the cursor would not.  

Contacts were very straight forward and I had no difficulty creating one.  It really was as simple as that.

Unfortunately Calendar has a number of flaws.  A user can only accessibly use the list view of the calendar as all others will not read all information unless the user is very precise about the location of their finger on screen. Flicking will not work, and selecting things is a real chore.    Creating an event is confusing as well as there are significant issues with setting the time and date, and it is not at all clear what a user has to do to enter the time.  It was also another application where it was difficult to keep my focus on the elements I was working with, and fell into the circular navigation pattern more than most other apps.

Conclusions

Amazon has finally made a step toward accessibility on their own hardware.  It’s my opinion that the iPad still blows both the Fire and the Nexus away on pure usability from a blindness perspective, but the Kindle Fire HDX is the first device from Amazon that has offered enough functionality to blind consumers to be worth at least a second look.  Due to the lack of customization options for the browser and the real limitations to browsing the web on the Kindle, I would have to say that the Nexus is also still a better device for the majority of blind users. That said, for users who won’t use the browser much and who will mainly use Amazon’s audiobooks and video, the Kindle is worth considering at this point.

The Kindle Fire HDX has some nice hardware, and has made leaps forward in terms of accessibility in comparison to older models of the device. If a user primarily wants to use the tablet to access Amazon services, particularly Instant Video, the MP3 store, and Audible, it may be worth looking at, but it’s still not going to be sufficient for the majority of blind users, and anyone looking to purchase the device should be aware of its limitations going in.
1. The reading experience is still extremely limited.  There is no PDF support, and some titles don’t allow for actual exploration of the text, and still relegate blind readers to merely reading a text from the beginning to the end.
2. Braille support, if a user needs it, much like on Android, is in a far more primitive state than it is on iOS or non-tablet OS’s.  If a user is reliant on Braille, or wishes to read books or web content in Braille, the Fire will not meet their needs.
3.  It’s as locked down to Amazon, as an iPad is locked down to Apple. Therefore, anyone who wants an Android because of the opportunity to tweak will be sorely disappointed by this offering.  Many of the popular services and applications available in the Google Play store are not available to users of this device, and the heavily skinned tablet will not allow for the addition of other home screens or other modifications, such as installation of the more accessible Android browsers.
4. Mayday may help users get out of some scrapes, but the experience is going to be very dependent on who the user gets as an agent, how experienced they are with the Accessibility features, and how well the accessibility functions after it is initialized.  So the use cases for it may be a bit limited.
All in all, I can’t say I recommend the Amazon Fire HDX.  Its accessibility features are about on par with  the Nexus and other stock Android devices, but the lack of customization and poor web browsing make it a poor option for anyone willing to tweak Android devices, and the accessibility, particularly of the book reading platform, is just not as robust as on the iPad.  It’s an interesting device, and perhaps it will continue to mature, but right now, it’s just not going to be a great experience for blind users.