by Karl Belanger
From the Editor: Karl Belanger is a most talented technologist, and on top of that, he can evaluate and write as well as anyone I know. Here is his most recent offering:
With smartphones now ubiquitous, the basic cell phone has mostly gone the way of the cassette tape. That said, there are still those who want a phone for basic calls and texts. Among blind people, options are even more limited, as most of the few options for basic phones lack accessibility features. That’s where the MiniVision2 comes in. The MiniVision2 is a phone with a large button keypad, full speech readout, low vision features, and a suite of programs which provide several useful capabilities. The voice is clear, and the device is responsive. The internal software, while much simpler than that of a smartphone, still provides enough added value to entice users looking for more than basic texting and calling. The MiniVision2 costs $299.99 and only works on AT&T, T-Mobile, and prepaid carriers using those networks.
The MiniVision2 comes with several accessories in the box. In addition to the phone, charging cable, and wall plug, there is also a charging stand, a case, and the phone’s battery which must be installed. To install the battery, there is a notch on the bottom right of the device which can be used to remove the back cover. The correct orientation is with the notched end of the battery toward the bottom of the phone and the notch facing out. It will only go in one way. There is also a SIM card slot under the battery. Once the battery is installed, snap the back cover in place. Also in the box are a charging stand, a silicone case, a Micro USB cable, and a wall charger. The battery in my unit was mostly charged, but it’s usually a good idea to charge any new device first. The charging stand has a slot at the front with some pins at the bottom to charge the phone and a Micro USB port on the back. The phone goes into the stand with the buttons facing out and the screen at the top. If the phone is turned on, a sound and announcement will play when the device starts charging. Unfortunately, the silicone case doesn’t have cutouts for the charging stand, so you will need to plug the cable directly into the phone if you want to charge it in the case.
The phone is a candy bar style phone, in that it doesn’t fold. It has a screen on top, with navigation buttons beneath, and a standard telephone keypad below that. The edges are empty, except the bottom, which has the headphone jack, charging port, and the pins for the stand. The keypad has two context sensitive buttons at the top, with Call and End buttons beneath that. In between these buttons is a four-way directional button with an OK button in the middle. Below this is a standard telephone keypad with a raised line on the five. To turn on the phone, hold down the End button. The phone will vibrate and play a short tune a few seconds later. The phone will speak and announce the time and that you are on the home screen.
From the home screen you can either start dialing a number or press Down to open the menu of the device. The menu contains the various apps on the phone, plus settings. At any time, pressing left or right will bring up the volume control. Use Up and Down to select the volume to change, either voice, ring, or alarm, and use Left and Right to change it. Pressing OK on any menu option will launch an application or go to the next level menu. Pressing the top left button (Menu) will open the context menu for the current application. The top right button (Back) will take you back to the previous level of the menu. Text is entered using the keypad, pressing two for ABC, three for DEF, and so on. You will need to do this for activities like entering contacts and sending text messages.
The MiniVision2 comes up talking out of the box. All menus and applications speak, meaning this phone is fully usable by a totally blind person. The voice speed can be adjusted and can get slow enough for a new user. One nice touch is that, unlike many devices directed at the less technologically savvy, the voice can get plenty fast enough for those of us accustomed to using screen readers. You can also download one of two premium voices for each language, a male or female voice. The voices are from the Vocalizer collection of voices, which will be familiar to users of iOS.
Kennedy, my colleague, looked at the low vision features of the MiniVision2. Here is what he has to say:
I am very impressed with the low-vision accessibility aspects of the MiniVision2 due to how customizable it is for all users. The keypad has large enough numbers and letters while saving room for the display screen. The MiniVision2 customizable accessibility settings make it easy for users to pick up and use just the way they want to. There are five different fonts you can choose from, including “open dyslexic,” a font specially designed for people with dyslexia. Font sizes are customizable as well. To account for large menu items on the screen, a scrolling effect scrolls the text from right to left so the user can get the information when focusing on a menu item with the keypad. You can adjust the scrolling speed of the text as well and the delay time before the text starts scrolling. The range starts at 0.25-second delay (almost instantaneously) and going to four seconds. Text and background colors can be changed to high-contrast settings including the default, white text on a black background, yellow text on a blue background, and black text on a yellow background.
The MiniVision2 has a number of simple but useful apps on the phone. Since it is a basic phone, it does not have an app store, so additional functionality cannot be added by the user. In addition to the phone, contacts, and messages apps, the phone also includes a camera app, money reader, color detector, light detector, weather app, voice recorder, notes, and a “Where Am I” feature. All the apps are very simple, with straightforward menus and limited configuration. For example, the weather app only provides information for your current location and not other cities. The “Where Am I” feature also only gives your current address and does not allow for route-making or other GPS features.
As with any cell phone, making calls is one of the primary purposes of the device. Pressing the Call key will open the phone app from anywhere. You can also simply dial a number from the home screen. I don’t have a SIM card to test calling with, but the phone does support all the usual in-call features including muting, holding, call-waiting, and handling multiple calls. Contacts does what one would expect, letting users add and manage contacts. Interestingly, it lets you import contacts from a VCF file, which can be loaded from a Micro SD Card. This may be a useful feature for helping seniors get important contacts onto their phone. The app only lets you add a name, phone number and type, and a notes field. You can also set a ringtone for a specific contact.
The FM radio uses an attached pair of headphones as an antenna. Pressing Up and Down on the keypad moves up or down the frequencies, and holding Up or Down seeks up or down to the next station that it can receive. The radio also lets you set favorites that can be accessed by holding down one of the keys on the keypad. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a way to type a frequency, and the radio does not support recording.
The money reader uses the camera to recognize bills. There is no way to select the currency to identify, so it is likely that US dollars are the only currency that can be read. In my testing, I found it rather difficult to get the camera to recognize the currency, but when it did, the recognition was accurate.
The light detector simply makes a tone that rises or falls depending on how much light the camera sees. The detector can also announce percentages instead of the tone.
The color detector detects and announces primary colors that the camera detects. It can detect either all colors or alert when it detects a specific color you choose. Kennedy also reviewed the color detector’s accuracy. Here is what he had to say:
The color detector wasn’t perfect but was able to identify solid colors that didn’t have many others near. On the middle of the screen in a small square, you can visually see what the camera sees, or the viewfinder, and the outer box around the viewfinder changes to the detected color and announces through the screen reader.
The MiniVision2 is a solid device that provides just enough features above basic calling and texting to make it appealing for a wider range of people. The voice is clear and understandable, and everything feels very responsive. The apps, while simplified, are functional and provide useful features. Many previous phones have been excessively large, had low quality voices, were slow and unresponsive, or didn’t read all menus. The MiniVision2 manages to avoid all of these pitfalls. The end result is a solid, accessible phone with an interface simple enough for almost anyone to use, and with just enough extra features to interest those who want a little more from their device. Overall, the MiniVision2 is the best execution of a basic accessible phone I have had the pleasure of testing.