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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 3

Product Evaluation

Internet Appliances That Use Computer Display Technology


This Product Evaluation was made possible thanks to the generosity of the Verizon Foundation.


You would think that some of today's newest off-the-shelf consumer technology would be usable by people with low vision. So far we have looked at pocket-sized electronic organizers (November AccessWorld) and Internet appliances that connect to a television (January AccessWorld). None of the products evaluated so far works well for people with low vision. Although there were many reasons these products did not impress us, a common theme has been poor screen visibility as a result of a variety of factors, including resolution, contrast, and image size. That being said, don't write these gadgets off just yet.

Stay Tuned

A pocket-sized electronic organizer that is usable by people with low vision is still far from a reality, but at the rate that new products are being launched, sooner or later we will get a winner. In the short-term, the Internet appliances are more promising. Take the problem of resolution. Our tests were done on an old television (because they are so common), but we recently retested Internet appliances on a new television and found some interesting results. (See the sidebar for more details.)

In this evaluation of Internet appliances that use computer displays, one of the products we evaluated actually met all of our test criteria, including screen resolution. The criteria are:

  1. It should be able to send and receive e-mail, provide access to the web, and cost less than a very inexpensive PC (we found a PC for $600). We looked at three popular web sites: msnbc.com for news, tdwaterhouse.com for finance, and espn.com for sports.
  2. It should be relatively easy to set up. Components should connect easily, and connecting to the Internet should be relatively painless.
  3. Whether on a monitor or its own display, the contrast and resolution should be good. The size of icons should be big and well spaced. Text should be at least 22-point font, which is between 1/4 inch and 1/8 inch.
  4. It should have either a minimum number of keyboard controls, which are easy to find and use, or there should be accessible screen alternatives to keyboard controls.

Our research uncovered three candidates: Netpliance's I-Opener, Compaq's iPAQ, and eMachines' MSN Companion. The I-Opener and iPAQ come with color liquid crystal displays (LCD), and the MSN Companion uses a computer monitor that needs to be purchased separately. All three of these devices are able to send and receive e-mail and provide access to the Internet. The I-Opener costs $200 plus $21.95 a month for Netpliance's Internet service. The iPAQ costs $600 but comes with various rebate offers, including a $100 mail-in rebate from Compaq and a $400 rebate from Microsoft if you sign up for MSN as your Internet service provider (ISP) for 3 years. The MSN Companion costs $350 plus $21.95 a month for MSN as your ISP. We checked out low-cost monitors and found that it is possible to get a 19-inch monitor for $250 (see www.mysimon.com).

I-Opener and iPAC: Cute But …

These appliances are simple, streamlined, and very attractive. The components are only a flat panel LCD display and a QWERTY keyboard. The displays on both devices can be folded down like a laptop computer. The I-Opener's keyboard comes connected to the display via a connecting cable, and the iPAQ's keyboard is wireless. Both are very portable, weighing under 6 pounds each.

When you turn on the I-Opener for the first time it automatically dials the ISP, and you are online within two minutes. Getting online with iPAC requires that you call Microsoft and set up an MSN account. Both products come with giant "getting started" cards in 18-point font that go through procedures for basic set up and for getting online. So far so good.

Both LCD displays are small (8 x 6 inches), but contrast and resolution are reasonably good in both, moreso for the e-mail features than for the web features. Text on web pages can be enlarged in both, but because the screens are so small, enlarged text goes off the edge of the screen. To see the text that scrolls off, you must use a scroll bar at the bottom of the page, which we found annoying. Furthermore, text size for web pages and e-mail does not meet our criteria for 22-point font, even when enlarged to its maximum size. On the TDWaterhouse web site, charts and captions were tiny and could not be enlarged.

The LCD displays in both appliances show an annoying "ghosting" effect when the user is typing, moving the mouse, or scrolling. They both also have a mouse that is built into the keyboard in the form of a circular navigation pad 1 inch in diameter. In the center of the pad is a depression for a finger. The pad is pressed in any direction to move the mouse around the screen. We found the pad stiff to the touch and consequently frustrating to use. In addition, the mouse buttons are on the keyboard, which requires the use of a second hand. The worst part is that the navigation pad is the only way to control the mouse because there are no keyboard alternatives. The labeling of the many shortcut buttons on the keyboard of both devices leaves a lot to be desired because contrast is so poor.

MSN Companion: A Cut Above the Others

The MSN Companion is just a textbook-size box into which you plug its mouse and keyboard. The monitor, which must be purchased separately, is connected to it, as well. We used a 19-inch Komodo monitor. Compared to the I-Opener and the iPAQ, the Companion has more connections to make. Consequently, there are more wires and clutter to deal with, and set up is more involved. Since the Companion is so compact, it can take some time to find the right ports to plug into.

MSN Companion

Caption: MSN Companion.

To get online you need to call MSN and sign up for an account. The instruction manual is written in black 10-point text on a white background and contains some black-and-white graphics. It is well organized and easy to understand. When you first log in to the Companion you are taken through a training procedure. You are shown how to use the mouse, what a link is, and what a selection box is. For those already familiar with browsing the web, these exercises can be skipped, but for first timers, they are instructive.

The keyboard has 46 hard-to-see shortcut keys. They are small green buttons with black lettering in 10-point font with small icons. Fortunately, you don't have to use these keys; you can navigate around the screen using the Tab key. As the Tab key is hit a selection box is moved from link to link. As you jump to a link the text color changes from blue to red.

When you get online you are taken to MSN's home page, which contains a lot of text shortcuts, such as read/write mail, messenger, favorites, explore web topics, local lookups, settings, and advertisements. These links are blue on a white background and are in 22-point font, which meets our criteria. There is also a toolbar at the bottom of the screen that contains a URL address bar and shortcuts for start, back, mail, messenger, and page options. The text on the toolbar is black on yellow and is slightly smaller than our criteria, but it is accompanied by large icons that are easy to see.

E-mail is easy to use. In the mode for writing e-mail, the text is dark blue on a white background. In the mode for reading e-mail, the text is black on a white background. The e-mail font size is 28, and the letters are crisp and easy to read. The average font size on web pages we looked at was 22 point, and although the contrast and clarity varied, all web pages looked good because of the resolution offered by the computer monitor. Even the charts and captions on the TDWaterhouse web site were readable.

Our Recommendation

I-Opener and iPAQ have LCD screens that are too small, have insufficient magnification, and have poor screen navigation features. When connected to a 19-inch monitor the MSN Companion offers good text size, excellent resolution and contrast, and tolerable screen navigation features.

If your grandmother wants to get online right away, buy her an MSN Companion and an inexpensive 19-inch computer monitor. You may have to spend 5-10 minutes to connect all the components for her and you may need to set aside time for a few training sessions, but once the set up and training is done, you both will be much happier than if you bought an Internet appliance that connects to a television or one that uses a small LCD display and is limited in accessibility options. That being said, be on the alert for more new Internet appliances and be sure to try before you buy.

Product Information

iPAQ: $599.99; ISP: MSN ($21.95 per month)

Company: Compaq; phone: 800-345-1518; e-mail: plextalk@plextor.co.jp; web site: www.compaq.com/products/iPAQ.

I-Opener: $199.99; ISP: Netpliance

Company: Netpliance; phone: 1-800-467-3637; web site: www.netpliance.com.

MSN Companion: $349.96; ISP: MSN ($21.95 per month)

Company: eMachines; phone: 888-765-2411; web site: http://devices.msn.com/mscompanion/.

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AccessWorld, Copyright © 2002 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

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