Mobile Accessibility Review

I’ve had my new Android phone for a couple of weeks now, and I’m finally starting to get comfortable with it.  I have to give credit where it is due.  Without Mobile Accessibility, it would be a lot tougher to use the phone, though certainly not impossible.  However, there are a few shortcomings in the app suite/screen reader that surprised me.

First, let me step back and explain what Mobile Accessibility is.  Code factory has developed a home-screen replacement which contains alternative versions of the major functions most people want to perform with their phones.  If you stay within the application, all of the functions are accessible without resort to the phone’s hardware navigation keys.  This is not so if you leave the app.  This is a limitation of Android.  Mobile Accessibility functions as a screen reader while working with the phone’s native interface or other applications.  Accessibility is hit and miss here, but again that is a problem with the platform.  Android provides an accessibility API, but as I understand it the developer is responsible for pushing content to it rather than the screen reader being able to extract the necessary information from the control.  If that is an accurate description of the problem, I’m surprised that there are as many accessible applications as there are.  See my post from a couple of weeks ago for some helpful links.  What I will do here is talk through the built in functions and offer a few comments about the screen reader functionality of the phone.  Doubtless over time I may learn some things that modify my first impressions.  I’ll try to remember to revise or update accordingly.

Navigation

Within Mobile Accessibility, everything can be done by touch.  You can explore the screen with your finger and double-tap what you want, or you can swipe up and down to move between elements.  Swiping left and right jumps several elements at a time unless you are within an edit control, in which case the app speaks according to the navigation setting.  Triple tapping or using the menu button brings up general and specific settings to where you are, including the ability to change the navigation mode between words, characters, and sentences.  Also hidden in this menu are options to check the status of your phone, get the date and time, and see system notifications.  I would like to see some of these accessible more quickly, perhaps with multi-touch gestures.  The system notification screen is direct from the phone, so hardware navigation is required.  It seems to me this could easily be integrated.  If your phone is multi-touch capable, two-fingered actions move you to top and bottom or back to the previous screen.  Reading the manual is helpful, especially if this is your first experience with touch screen access.  It didn’t occur to me to try two-fingered gestures until I read it.

Input

If you are buying a new phone and know you need hardware navigation, chances are you will have a slide-out keyboard.  This is a superior method of text entry, since it is faster to find and press physical keys.  however, if you have a phone without a physical keyboard or for some reason don’t want to use it, Mobile Accessibility provides a virtual keyboard that works well.  You can move around to hear the letter that will be typed and lift your finger to enter it.  There is also a mode that makes the place where you rest your finger always be H.  From there you can move to where you would expect the other keys to be.  I haven’t tried this.  I do occasionally use the virtual keyboard for quick corrections even though I have a slide-out.  The Mobile Accessibility keyboard is selectable outside of the app for use as an input method for other applications.

You can also use voice input to enter text.  Mobile Accessibility integrates with Android’s (2.2 and up) voice recognition feature, which works through Google.  This takes some getting used to, but as I learn how to use it efficiently I am really getting to like it.  If you are in a quiet environment where you can use it, you’ll put keyboarding to shame.  And by the way, you can’t do this with an iPhone.  Holding down the volume-down key and waiting for two short vibrations, you speak short phrases into the phone.  It comes back with a menu of possible choices for what you said.  You can move between them with swipes and use the volume-up key to go word by word.  That little tidbit from the manual proved very helpful to be sure I entered what I thought.  Double-tapping is supposed to select the option, but I had trouble with that.  pressing volume-down also selects the current entry and I found that more reliable.  The hardware navigation keys and Enter also work.  You can use this feature outside of the application, though you get to it differently.  I have not tried this.

The Phone as a Phone

You’re carrying around a little computer that runs circles around the desktop computer you may have used just a few years ago, but it still has to actually make and receive phone calls.  At the top of Mobile accessibility’s home screen is the phone function.  when you open it, you are presented with options to call by number or call by contact.  The call log is also displayed, and you can double-tap any of the entries for a list of things you can do with it, including call, send SMS, etc.  Choosing to dial by number brings up a telephone keypad that works like the virtual keyboard.  Things break down once you have a call going.  One of the first things I had to do when I got my phone was set up voice mail.  Even though I used the settings screen to initiate the call, Mobile Accessibility’s call screen presents once the call is connected.  all one can do from this screen is long swipe up or down to answer or disconnect a call.  Yes, you can double-tap while the phone is ringing to hear who is calling.  There is also an option to use volume keys to answer or end the call.  The proximity sensor is used to allow the buttons to actually control call volume if the phone is next to your ear.  Now here’s the problem.  Voicemail wanted me to enter numbers.  How am I supposed to do that?  The hardware numbers on my keyboard didn’t work.  I finally discovered that I could get the phone’s default number pad to come up by finding the right spot on the bottom of the touch screen, but that keypad has no accessibility.  Getting it close enough to my face to see what I was doing caused the screen to go blank.  I got it done, but the accessible phone pad needs to be integrated into the in-call functionality.  I do not know if Android or my particular phone model could be the problem here.  I do recognize the potential for issues with the program speaking over the call, but having it inaccessible is worse.  That said, making and receiving calls is usually no problem.  When you are calling by contact there is a search box at the top that you can use to track down the contact you want.  I have not had much luck with Google’s voice recognition on this screen, but it is there.

Contacts

Contacts and calendar data are pulled from the phone’s stock databases, so you can sync with Google and they’ll appear within Mobile Accessibility.  You can maintain contacts as you would expect.  My only complaint here is that there is no option to sort by last name, which I prefer.

SMS (Text Messaging)

Again, this works like you would expect it to.  You can find a contact or enter a number.  your previous conversations are shown in the log and each is grouped by contact.  While you are in a conversation the incoming message is read.  I have used the voice input function here, but I’m a little afraid that I might miss something really bad due to not understanding what was actually presented to me as a choice.  Once a text is sent you can’t get it back.  At least once some of the suggestions it brought back for what I said would have been quite embarrassing if I had accidentally chosen one of them.  Review carefully.  I feel better about using it now that I know how to go word by word before making a selection.  It’s still faster than keyboarding.

Alarms

This is a handy feature.  You can set multiple alarms identified by name and have them be recurring.  I have one set for Thursday mornings at 10:45 to remind me to contain the dog before the lady who cleans our pool arrives.  They don’t get along.

Calendar

The calendar is disappointing.  What good is a calendar without reminders.  I can’t find a way to set reminders on new appointments.  Though the stock calendar app is not accessible, based on the settings I’m pretty sure it has reminders.  I’ll have to wait until one of my saved appointments comes up to verify whether they work.  Not only that, the dates differ from what’s in my Google calendar.  I’m pretty sure this isn’t a problem with the program I’m using to sync up my Outlook calendar with Google, since Google and Outlook remain correct.  I’m unable to see if the stock calendar app on the phone is also wrong.  This may or may not be a problem within Mobile Accessibility.

Email

The email function only accepts your Gmail account.  I’m not sure why the app can’t leverage the Gmail account that the phone is set up with rather than making you re-enter this information in its settings, but once that is done it works very well.  I would like to see an option to only check email when the email function is accessed.  That would save data charges and battery if you don’t really need to know that you have email waiting.  Unless something about Android prevents it a better option would be to rely on the built-in Gmail functionality for all of that.

Web

To my knowledge,this is the best accessible web browser available.  Given that other Mobile Accessibility features are hooked to outside functions of the phone, I’m disappointed that the web browser does not appear to be one of them.  If you are using an external application such as Facebook and want to go into a web site, the system’s default browser comes up.  If you install the Ideal web browser you can get limited screen reading functions, but you are never offered the option of using Mobile accessibility.  I really hope this changes in the next version, or maybe there’s a trick I don’t know to make it happen.  Within the browser, there are lots of navigation and reading options that can be found by bringing up the menu once the browser has started.  I have not used this much yet, because the place I usually go on the web, Facebook, doesn’t work well.  I don’t know where the problem is, but the whole page for the Facebook mobile site doesn’t load.  I know that Facebook tries to optimize it’s presentation based on the phone model, so it could be there is a bug on their side.  Whoever is at fault, the result is that I cannot see anything but the first few updates on Facebook from the mobile site and thus it is of little use.  I have better results using the Facebook Android app, though it has its own accessibility issues.

Where Am I

Where Am I uses your GPS receiver to announce your current location.  It can periodically report your location as you travel.  I found this function to be of little value.  As often as it reported correct addresses as I walked down a major street in my neighborhood, it also reported addresses from streets in the general vicinity.  The accuracy was way off.  I realize that is a function of the GPS receiver, but during the same walk I also experimented with Google Maps.  Using the navigation function through Google Maps accurately reported where I should turn based on my location, so I’m not sure why Where Am I was so bad on that first trip.  It seemed to work better the next time I tried it, using it in conjunction with navigation to give me clues along the way as to my location.  It would be a much more useful app if it could identify cross streets as I approached them and get nearby business information from Google.  Perhaps they plan an enhanced pay navigation app for the future.  After all, their $800 Mobile Geo product cash cow is dead or fading fast.

Apps

Mobile Accessibility provides a menu by which you can get to other installed applications on your phone.  You can use standard navigation functions to move through the menu or press a letter on your physical keyboard to jump to the first app that starts with that letter.  Once you select an app, you’re on your own.  That takes you out of Mobile Accessibility, so you’ll need the navigation controls on your phone and the good grace of the developer to use the app.

Settings

Mobile Accessibility gives you access to some basic features of your phone such as ringer type and vibration through this menu as well as settings for the app itself.  For full access to your phone’s features, you’ll want to use the Settings App that came with the phone.

Overall

There are a few other things On my  wish list and not yet mentioned here.  I’d like to have quicker access to connectivity features such as bluetooth, 4G, and wi-fi.  I’d also like to have a way to quickly turn on or off the GPS radio, since it quickly drains the battery.  I suspect there are apps that can help with this.  At least some of these are generally readily accessible on a phone’s stock home page, but Mobile Accessibility replaces the home page, so it needs to fill that gap.

This is a great first effort.  It may sound like I’m not very happy, but I’m delighted to have gone out and purchased a phone that was basically useable out of the store.  The iPhone still has Android beat for off-the-shelf accessibility, but that may very well be changing over the next year or so.  I Commend Code Factory for making a way for greater accessibility in the meantime and dropping the price to something a little more affordable than their previous offerings.  I’m a little disappointed at some feature gaps that shouldn’t be, but I expect the next version will fill them and add more useful functions.


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