Braille Monitor                 June 2022

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TalkBack and VoiceOver: There is a Choice After All

by Karl Belanger and Matt Hackert

Introduction

June 29 will mark the 15-year anniversary of the launch of the iPhone, which ushered in the age of the smartphone. Just over a year later, on September 23, 2008, HTC released the Dream, running on the Android operating system. Perhaps of greater significance to this magazine’s readership, VoiceOver launched in 2009, making smartphones accessible to blind people. Not long after, the Android operating system also began supporting some rudimentary features to assist those with blindness or low vision. From those early days, however, Apple’s accessibility provided a truly superior experience, but at a significant financial cost. Back then, iPhone models typically cost significantly more than hardware that runs Android. And honestly, that cost difference has changed little over the intervening years. With the sheer magnitude of tasks that can be performed on a smartphone today—banking, scheduling, communication, ride hailing, navigation, not to mention social engagement on a myriad of social media platforms—the need for equal access for blind people to this technology is paramount.

More recently, Google has really honed its game and, in the opinion of your authors, mostly caught up with Apple in terms of the features, performance, and ease of use of their accessibility services. To that end, we have taken it upon ourselves to try a unique comparison. Each of us committed to switch platforms for a week—remove the SIM card from our personal device and install it on one using the other platform. Matt installed his SIM card in a Pixel 4A; Karl installed his in an iPhone 13 Pro. Each of us then locked our personal device in a drawer to avoid temptation and give the other platform a fair shake. And here’s what we found…

[Disclaimer: All testing and evaluation of these products was conducted before April 15, 2022; the accuracy of information in this article should be considered current as of that date.]

Moving from iOS to Android

Matt HackertMatt Hackert: I have exclusively been an Apple user since I purchased my first smartphone in 2011. On occasion, I have made some attempts to dabble on the Android side of things. Of course, back in 2011, Apple had a clear lead over Android, and my first experiences in around 2013 or 2014 with an Android tablet were unsurprisingly clunky and unpleasant. At the end of 2015, going into 2016, I took another, more serious look, just to be familiar with Android, because I was considering a job teaching access technology and believed that it was important to have some fluency with both platforms. Just as with desktop computers, it is good to know both PC and Mac.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2022, a time when Android has clearly made great strides with TalkBack, including simplified gestures, I was intrigued when my colleague Karl presented me with the challenge that we each trade devices for a week. We would swap out SIM cards and lock our regular device in a drawer.

I felt a bit of apprehension with this challenge, given my past experience, but I felt up to it. And at the end of the week, I can say that the experience was a positive one.

In the authors’ opinion, it is important to note the wide variety of hardware that runs android in comparison to Apple and iOS. While the gestures and functionality remain the same, the performance of VoiceOver on iPhone hardware is still more consistent across devices than that of TalkBack on Android devices. However, another area of significant improvement for Android has been the consolidation of accessibility tools. It used to be that, depending on hardware platform, you might use TalkBack, or you might use the hardware vendor’s proprietary accessibility suite. Thankfully, manufacturers and Google have collaborated and agreed on using TalkBack as the one, de facto accessibility tool across hardware platforms. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts and observations as a long-time Apple user switching to Android:

Transferring Data

For the switch from Apple to Android, there are several options. I experimented with two of them, neither requiring a physical connection between devices.

Backup to Google Drive

The standard method for transferring contacts, calendars, and photos from an iPhone to an Android involves using Google Drive to create a backup of your device. Using Drive requires a Google account. Of course, using an Android phone also requires a Google account, just as using an iPhone requires an Apple ID, which provides you a roughly parallel experience with Apple’s iCloud services. I have had both accounts for a long time, so I did not need to create a Google account for this project. The iOS app for Google Drive includes the option under Settings to create a backup of your phone. You select which items you want included, and it creates the backup on the Drive cloud storage service. Then, when setting up your Android phone, once you have gotten to the point where you provide your Google account credentials, you will then be able to “restore” the existing data on your Google Drive. The Drive iOS mobile app is very accessible, and I had no difficulty finding the backup feature, selecting the content I wanted included in the backup, and initiating the backup procedure. Also, importing the backup on the Android was equally accessible and painless.

“Switch-to-Android” App

As of April 13, there is a new Switch to Android iOS app developed by Google, which has been quietly released to the App Store. As of the time of this writing, the app has to be accessed directly using this URL: (https://apps.apple.com/us/app/id1581816143). The app makes the process of transferring data wirelessly very simple. It lets you select which things you want transferred, i.e. photos, videos, contacts, and calendars. To begin, the app displays a QR code to scan with your Android phone. This allows the devices to link up wirelessly. You then select the data you want transferred. The app does recommend using a cable since this can be faster. The app also provides instructions for turning off iMessages and Facetime so that you don’t miss texts or phone calls on your android device. It also gives instructions on how you can transfer data stored in iCloud, because the app cannot do this directly.

Getting Started on Android

The only thing you need to know in advance of starting the setup on your new Android phone is the shortcut to turn on TalkBack, the Android mobile screen reader. To do this, press and hold the two volume buttons for approximately three seconds. I was very impressed with the introductory tutorial information the Pixel gave me about fundamental touch gestures for navigating to different elements on the screen. I would add that I found the newer gestures easier and more intuitive to learn than the older “angle” gestures such as down and left, or up and right, etc.

Part of the first few steps during setup include connecting to Wi-Fi, which requires entering a password and signing into your Google account. So early on, I got my first experiences with text entry on the Android on-screen keyboard. One odd inconsistency I ran across was that sometimes the onscreen keyboard included a number row on the alpha entry mode while in other cases you had to activate the Symbols button to enter numbers as well as punctuations. Looking into this further, it turns out that the number row is added for password fields. Further, this is actually a customization option, one of many that are more prevalent throughout the Android experience, meaning that you can specify in your keyboard settings that the number row always display, regardless of the type of edit box. My only other complaint about text entry on Android is that it does feel sluggish compared to what I’m used to on my iPhone.

Since we’re on the subject of text entry, let’s go over the Android Braille keyboard. This is a more recent addition to Android, and it parallels the Braille Screen Input (BSI) feature which iOS has had for some time now. Like TalkBack generally, when you enable the Braille keyboard, you are presented with a tutorial that walks you through how to use it, including instructions of how to orient and hold the phone, practice typing a few letters, and practice with additional gestures that are important such as the space, deleting a character, new line, and exiting Braille entry. As I am a proficient BSI user, I found the transition very quick and smooth, with a very shallow learning curve. I did find myself often trying to use the iOS / VoiceOver “rotor” gesture to try to switch to Braille typing. Some old habits die hard. Otherwise, I actually felt that Braille entry on the Android was just as responsive as it is on iPhone, and so while the keyboard felt a little clunky at times, I could always switch to Braille and be fine.

After initial setup, the next task was to start installing apps. This is not a part of the setup process because not all apps exist on both platforms, and there isn’t always a straightforward one-to-one analogue of iPhone and Android apps. In addition, paid apps require you to re-purchase their cross-platform equivalent if one exists. Many readers may already know that, as an example, even if you paid for Voice Dream Reader on the iPhone, you still have to pay for it again to use it on Android. Searching and browsing in the Google Play Store is much like the App Store on iOS. The layout is somewhat different, but locating and installing an app works pretty much the same way.

My Experience on Android

As noted, my experience on Android was very positive. It did take some exploration at the beginning to find how to get to things like Settings. I was also disappointed that my preferred refreshable Braille display does not support pairing with Android, although it can still be used as a Bluetooth keyboard. I just don’t get any Braille output. I am also hopeful that BrailleBack, Android’s accessibility for Braille output, will eventually get incorporated into TalkBack so that a separate app install isn’t required to get Braille support. With iOS, VoiceOver already supports Braille input and output without the need to install any additional software.

Another positive experience was the ease with which I could find documentation and answers to questions online. First, Google has extensive documentation about accessibility tools like TalkBack and Brailleback. Many times, getting help was as simple as typing a question in Chrome’s address bar like “How do I open the Apps Drawer with TalkBack?” One of the top Google search results appears with a helpful getting started article on navigating the home screen with TalkBack. Note that there is a nuanced difference between swiping up with two fingers from the bottom of the screen, the Home gesture, and just a two-finger swipe up.
In addition to Google’s robust library of helpful support articles, the access technology community more broadly has picked up on the steady improvements Google has made in accessibility, and you can now find many helpful articles and videos online by reputable sources like APH.

Moving from Android to iOS

Karl BelangerKarl Belanger: As an Android user for the last several years, I had not kept up with the intricacies of using iOS with VoiceOver. While I had briefly used an iOS device from time to time, I had not spent time using iOS as my primary operating system for a few years. After using an iPhone 13 Pro for a little over a week, here is what I found.

Transferring Data

Moving data from Android to iOS is accomplished by the “Move to iOS” app in the Google Play store. The app walks you through copying your messages, photos, email accounts, and other data from your Android to your iOS device during setup. While most of the process is accessible, the screen which prompts for what data you want to copy does not indicate what items are selected. This resulted in my first attempt transferring nothing. I selected an item, and nothing about it changed. So, assuming that everything was selected by default, I hit next, only to be greeted with an immediate transfer complete screen. After finishing setup I confirmed that nothing had in fact been transferred, so after resetting the iPhone again and restarting the process, I selected all the different items and got the transfer started. While things were transferring there was a progress bar and time estimate showing on the phones. After it completed, iPhone setup continued as normal. It’s important to note that apps do not transfer over. I wish it were possible to look at your purchased apps or offer to download the equivalent app from the iOS store, but that’s not likely very feasible.

Getting Started with the iPhone

Since apps don’t transfer over from Android, I had to re-download many of the apps that I use. This was easily done through my purchases on the App Store. As is the case for anyone when switching operating systems, some of my apps and all of my purchases don’t transfer over to iOS. This may mean you have to look for alternatives or purchase the same app again when using a new operating system.

On-Device Help

One thing which stood out to me was how little on-device help there is for VoiceOver. There is an initial prompt for using the touch and slide gesture to get the home screen, but nothing else exists when VoiceOver first launches. In contrast, Android displays a very detailed tutorial the first time you launch TalkBack, even if you are on the very initial setup screen. Android has a clear advantage here because a Blind person can start to get familiar with TalkBack independently as soon as they pick up the phone. Once setup is complete, the VoiceOver settings screen has some basic info on the gestures to navigate, along with the VoiceOver practice area, but many concepts such as the rotor, VoiceOver actions, and many other gestures really aren’t explained in a way that new users will easily find it. iOS certainly has the edge in other help and training resources, such as the staff at Apple stores, AppleVis, and many other third-party books, audio tutorials and videos. But there is a lot of room for improvement in the area of on-device help and guidance.

My Experiences Coming Back to the iPhone

After using the iPhone for a week, I noticed a number of little differences, some good and some bad, between the iPhone and the Android experience I’m used to. One thing I noticed almost immediately, and something I missed more than I thought I would, is battery announcements when plugging in or unplugging a charger. On Android, when a charger is plugged in, TalkBack announces something like “Charging Started battery seventy-two percent.” If you’re using a rapid charger, or a very slow one, TalkBack will also announce this and the estimated time to a full charge. The iPhone plays an audio alert when a charger is connected, but otherwise volunteers no information. I have found the Android notifications to be fairly accurate and very useful when I need to top off my battery before leaving work. I also noticed a few differences in typing. The iOS keyboard is definitely more responsive than the Android keyboard, which enables somewhat faster typing. However, if you have set up the Braille keyboard on Android, it automatically comes up whenever the keyboard is displayed. With iOS, it is necessary to enable the keyboard through the rotor, then use the rotor to move away again after you are done typing. Android also presents a very nice tutorial when the Braille keyboard is first launched, while iOS offers only a section in VoiceOver Practice. One point for iOS is that the Braille keyboard does a better job of adjusting to the orientation of the device. On Android, screen away mode requires the charge port to the right, and to the left in table top mode. iOS adjusts to which way you are holding the phone.

The iOS also makes much heavier use of VoiceOver actions. One example of this is in the YouTube app. On Android, after each video are buttons for opening the action menu and going to the channel that posted the video. With the iOS app, these are all VoiceOver actions. On one hand this is nice because there are many fewer flicks to move through a list of videos. This does create a potential barrier for newer users who are not comfortable or who don’t know about actions.

One potential concern on Android, which I noticed a lot more on iOS, is that Android doesn’t have a split tap gesture. Split tap is the act of moving one finger around the screen to find something, then using another finger, possibly with your other hand, to tap the screen and activate the item. Some users find this more effective when typing on the phone. This isn’t possible on Android since the phone will not recognize a tap away from the current finger. Android would also benefit greatly from a direct touch feature. On iOS, Direct Touch allows applications or games to implement their own gestures and functionality, while VoiceOver stops intercepting gestures. On Android it is still necessary to disable TalkBack entirely when using these apps.

Lastly, as of the time of this article, using a Braille display on iOS is far superior to Android. There are far more commands, and more displays are supported. The overall experience is also generally much more stable. The good news is that Google is actively working on improving Braille support, and we are expecting some news on that front soon.

These issues are just things I noticed, and you will need to judge how big a deal these are for you. For example, Split tap was never something I made significant use of, so it isn’t a big deal for me. That said, I know some people who rely heavily on it, so they may not want to switch at this time.

Conclusion

As we discussed, both Android and iOS are very viable operating systems for Blind users. Currently, if you rely on a Braille display, iOS is the clear choice, but that will hopefully be changing soon as Google works on improving TalkBack’s Braille support. As you consider your next smartphone, we encourage you to look at both platforms and consider which has the features that you care about most. We fully expect both Apple and Google to continue to improve their respective products moving forward, and both Android and iOS should remain compelling options for years to come.

For getting started with an Android phone, we recommend the following article from Google:
https://support.google.com/accessibility/android/answer/6283677?hl=en

For getting started with an iPhone, we recommend this article from Apple Support:
https://support.apple.com/guide/iphone/turn-on-and-practice-voiceover-iph3e2e415f/ios

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