Now They're Talking! A Review of Two Cell Phone-Based Screen Readers
As the world of cell phones and accessibility evolves, AccessWorld continues to examine the ever-changing landscape. When we first examined top-of-the-line cell phones in May 2003, we concluded that if only the phones had speech output and keypads that were identifiable by touch, we would be headed in the right direction. A year and a half later, the bad news is that the keypads are only slightly better. The very good news is that we can now compare two screen readers that can be installed on a few different cell phones and that provide access to most of the functions of a mainstream, feature-rich cellular telephone.
This article evaluates the Nokia 6620 cell phone with both TALKS and Mobile Speak, two screen readers for the Nokia's Symbian operating system, and compares how they provide access to the Nokia's features and functions. TALKS is produced by Brand & Gröber Communications; its performance on three other Nokia cell phones was evaluated in the January and July issues of AccessWorld. Mobile Speak is a new software product that is produced by Code Factory, makers of the Mobile Accessibility software that we evaluated in our November 2003 and January 2004 articles. These software applications were installed on two Nokia 6620 cell phones to compare them side by side on an identical system. These software products can be installed on a select number of cell phones that use the Symbian operating system, most of which are produced by Nokia. The 6620 is the latest one available on the U.S. market.
Caption: People who are blind or have low vision now have a choice of two screen readers that provide access to the features of the Nokia 6620 cell phone.
The Nokia 6620
The Nokia 6620 is the latest cell phone in Nokia's "60" series of phones, similar to the 3650 and 3660 models that were evaluated in the November 2003 and July 2004 issues of AccessWorld. It is another flat, "brick"- or "candy-bar"-style cell phone, with the control buttons exposed. It is slightly smaller than the 3650 and 3660 phones, measuring 4.3 inches by 2.4 inches by 1.0 inches and weighing 4.5 ounces. It has a large 2-inch by 1.5-inch color display screen and includes many of today's popular features, such as web surfing, text and multimedia messaging, an appointment calendar, a digital camera, and sound and video recorders.
Menus are navigated with a small five-way joystick, along with two keys placed to its left and right. The dialing keys are arranged in a stylized version of the standard 3-by-4 grid, with two nibs placed on the left and right of the 5 key for orientation. The grid is slightly curved, dipping down in the middle and rising up toward the sides, and the keys get slightly smaller as you move toward the bottom of the telephone. There are also three control keys that are placed vertically on the left edge of the phone and two that are placed on the right edge. The telephone uses the GSM network and features the Symbian operating system, which gives it the capability of downloading and installing software, such as video games and the TALKS and Mobile Speak software. The cell phone is now offered by Cingular, T-Mobile, and AT&T Wireless, but the cell-phone market changes quickly, so it is advisable to check with the service providers in your area for availability and pricing.
TALKS and Mobile Speak
TALKS and Mobile Speak are software packages that work on cell phones in much the same way as screen readers, such as Window-Eyes and JAWS, work on personal computers, providing text-to-speech access to nearly all the cell phone's features and functions. Mobile Speak is much more of a competitor to TALKS than its less-robust predecessor, Mobile Accessibility, which created a separate interface to access only a limited number of the cell phone's features and functions. We evaluated the most current versions of each application as of September 2004: TALKS for Series 60, Version 1.30.6, and Mobile Speak Version 1.0. Both TALKS and Mobile Speak use the Eloquence speech synthesizer that Window-Eyes and JAWS use, so many readers should be familiar with the voice produced by each system. TALKS and Mobile Speak can be installed on the Nokia 6600, 6620, 3620, 3650, 3660, 7650, N-Gage, and Siemens SX1. In addition, TALKS works on the Nokia 3600, and Mobile Speak works on the 7610. Not all of these telephones are offered in every market, so you need to check with the service providers in your area for availability.
The process for downloading and installing the software on a cell phone is not accessible and must be done with sighted assistance. However, Cingular offers the TALKS software as an accessory to the 6620 on a chip (what they call a "multi media card") that can be easily installed by placing it under the battery on the back of the cell phone. Beyond Sight, the distributor for TALKS, also sells the telephone with the software already installed. The distributor of Mobile Speak, Optelec, will install the software for a $100 charge if you send the telephone to them.
The Sweet 16
As we reported in our previous cell phone evaluations, before we began our reviews, we surveyed 40 cell phone users who are blind or have low vision to determine which features they would most like to have made accessible. The 16 features that were rated the highest by the respondents became the basis of our evaluation. We looked at whether users would be able to access these features and noted the barriers to accessing them. The evaluation methods we used included these:
- measuring the ability to identify and use the keypad tactilely,
- determining the ability to navigate menus,
- noting auditory and vibratory feedback, and
- assessing the readability of the visual display.
The following analysis lists the 16 cell phone features that the respondents rated as the most important for accessibility and how Mobile Speak and TALKS measured up on each feature.
Keys That Are Easily Identifiable by Touch
The keys of this cell phone were not designed to be easily operated by touch. We showed the phone to six people who are blind or have low vision, and they reported some initial difficulty in differentiating one key from another, especially when moving horizontally across the dialing keys. They said that it was not efficient to dial telephone numbers with this keypad, and they had initial difficulty identifying and using the control keys on the left and right edges of the cell phone. However, they did make positive comments about the joystick and the two nibs on the right and left of the 5 key. Although using these keypads will never be as efficient as using the standard 3-by-4 grid, the respondents agreed that it is possible to get used to these keys after some practice. Also, once you program your contacts into the cell phone's memory, you do not have to use the dialing keys as often as you would with a cell phone with inaccessible menus.
Both TALKS and Mobile Speak provide voice output to access menus and screen information through the easy-to-understand Eloquence speech synthesizer, and voice characteristics, such as speed, pitch, volume, and key echo, can be adjusted according to your preferences. Both TALKS and Mobile Speak provide text-to-speech access to nearly every function and application on the cell phone, including status indicators, the Contacts application, text and multimedia messaging, and e-mail. Web browsing is not currently supported by either program.
The biggest problem we discovered is that neither TALKS nor Mobile Speak works during an active call, so you do not have access to the calendar, contacts, or other information stored on your cell phone while you are on a call. This was not a problem with TALKS on the Nokia 3650 or 3660 that we evaluated in the July issue. The Mobile Speak manual says that Mobile Speak should work while on a call, so this may be a bug that is particular to the Nokia 6620, and perhaps it will be worked out in future releases. A problem that is more of an issue of privacy, rather than accessibility, is that both applications produce voice output through the speaker phone instead of the earpiece of the phone, so that others who are near you may get annoyed listening to your phone talk. Mobile Speak has a setting to make the output come out of the earpiece, but we heard little difference when that option was activated. Nokia sells earphone accessories for this cell phone that would eliminate this issue, but they cost between $20 and $100.
Another bug that we discovered with both software products involves entering punctuation marks and symbols into notes or messages. Up to 40 different punctuation marks and symbols can be entered via multiple presses of the 1 key. However, this process is impractical because you would have to press the 1 key up to 40 times to enter the punctuation mark or symbol you want. For example, you would have to press the 1 key 24 times to enter a dollar sign or 40 times to enter a carriage return. Alternatively, the user can press the asterisk key to bring up a list of the 40 punctuation marks and symbols presented in a grid layout. The user can then scroll through the grid and select the desired punctuation mark or symbol. However, neither software product provides speech output to identify the punctuation marks and symbols while you scroll through the list to choose one of them.
We were able to acquire an accessible manual for the 6620 from Nokia in large-print and cassette formats, but braille and CD-ROM versions were not available at the time of writing. We found an electronic manual in PDF format on the Nokia web site, but it was not designed to be accessible using a screen reader.
The TALKS manual comes in several formats, including an audio CD recorded in clear human speech, as well as HTML, TXT, and Microsoft Word formats. The Mobile Speak manual is available in Microsoft Word format. The manuals for both software products are limited, designed just to get you started using the cell phones, so you can learn as you go. They do not completely describe all functions of the cell phone as the full Nokia manual would, but they both provide access to the cell phone's online help system. TALKS has a "training mode," which allows you to press keys and key combinations and to hear TALKS describe their functions. What is missing with both products is a manual that describes how to use the phone's features with a screen reader. Manuals for Windows-based screen readers orient you to the operating system as well as teach you to use screen reader commands. The same is needed here, as the Nokia manual assumes you can see the telephone's screen.
Battery Level Indicator
Both TALKS and Mobile Speak have a keystroke command to access status information, telling you how many bars the on-screen battery indicator is displaying. The cell phone also emits a warning tone every half hour for two hours before the battery dies completely. Although we did not specifically test how long a charge lasted on this cell phone, we did notice that when we ran either TALKS or Mobile Speak, the battery's power was used up quickly. During our testing, when we used the cell phone and the software for a full work day, the battery would drain almost completely. However, normal use should not drain the battery so quickly.
The status information provided by both TALKS and Mobile Speak tells you the name of the service provider to which you are currently connected, so if it is not your service provider, you will know that the cell phone is roaming and thus that you are paying more for your call.
The cell phone emits an audio tone to alert you that you have received a message, and both TALKS and Mobile Speak can also access on-screen information to alert you that an incoming message has arrived, including voice mail, e-mail, and text and multimedia messages. Composing, sending, receiving, and reading these messages is accessible with both TALKS and Mobile speak, but you may need to activate the service with your service provider. To write messages, you use the alphanumeric keypad. For example, you press the 2 key once for A, twice for B, and so forth.
Nokia calls the phone-book feature the Contacts application, and you can quickly access it by simply pressing in on the joystick while in standby mode. All the Contacts functions are accessible with TALKS and Mobile Speak. You can search your contact list; call, add, delete, or edit contacts; and assign unique ring tones to your contacts. Numbers from the call logs can also be automatically entered into the phone book.
Phone Lock Mode
The Nokia 6620 can be locked with password protection to prevent unauthorized use, and both TALKS and Mobile Speak provide the speech output to make the process accessible.
Because this is a brick- or candy-bar-style telephone with its keys exposed, it is important to have a keypad-lock feature to prevent the keys from being activated while in a pocket or purse. Both TALKS and Mobile Speak provide access to this function.
There is no specific visual power indication on the Nokia cell phones, other than the display being on. Without vision, you can simply press a key and listen for speech output from TALKS or Mobile Speak, and you will know that the phone is on.
Ringing or Vibrating Mode Indicator
The Nokia 6620 can alert you to an incoming call by either ring tones, vibrations, or a combination of the two. Both TALKS and Mobile Speak have an accessible way of navigating the menus to determine which type of alert is active and to change the setting.
Some of today's cell phones have a GPS feature that uses global positioning satellites to help emergency services locate you if you make a 911 call, but that feature is not part of the Nokia 6620.
The status information provided by both TALKS and Mobile Speak tells you the strength of the signal you are currently receiving. It tells you how many bars (between 0 and 7) that the on-screen signal-strength icon is displaying.
Ringer Volume Control
Both TALKS and Mobile Speak give you the ability to adjust the ringer volume by navigating through the accessible menu system to the Ringer Volume setting and choosing the desired volume level. Both systems also allow you to choose from various ring tones, but TALKS only reads out the names of the tones, while Mobile Speak both reads the names and allows you to listen to the tone at the same time.
Both TALKS and Mobile Speak have a keystroke that will silence the ring during an incoming call and then speak the phone number of the caller. They will also speak the caller's name if it has been previously entered into the phone book.
The Nokia 6620 allows you to assign keys to a number in the phone book for speed dialing, a feature called One-Touch Dialing. You can use either TALKS or Mobile Speak to access the One-Touch Dialing feature to assign telephone numbers to the 2 through 9 keys on the dialing keypad. Then you can press and hold one of those numbers, and a call is placed to the corresponding number in the phone book. However, we discovered a bug with the Mobile Speak software when using this feature: It actually assigned a One-Touch number to a key one digit higher than the one we chose. So, if you thought you assigned your brother's phone number to the 5 key, you actually would have assigned it to the 6 key.
Low Vision Accessibility
The Nokia 6620 has a large 1.4-by-1.7-inch multicolor display with 4,096 colors, but the text on the screen is small, ranging from 10 to 14 point, which is too small for many people with low vision. Unlike the Nokia 3650 and 3660, the 6620 does not have a contrast-adjustment feature, but the brightness can be adjusted to improve viewability slightly. Although the clock icon is in 24-point font, it is difficult to see. Our testers without any visual impairment could barely read the time on the analog clock. The digital clock is easier to see, but it is still difficult because there is a white background behind part of it and a darker background behind the rest of it. If the large display screen were used more effectively, a larger clock would be easier to see. The keys on this cell phone are small and have text or icon labels that are too small for most people with low vision to read, but both the TALKS and Mobile Speak manuals have a section that describes the layout of the keys and their functions. Also, with TALKS, you can use the Training Mode to learn the keys and their functions. Better features for users with low vision, such as zoom, contrast adjustment, and larger fonts, would certainly be desirable, but TALKS and Mobile Speak can provide access to nearly all the features that would normally require vision.
Comparing TALKS and Mobile Speak
The Sweet 16 analysis showed that TALKS and Mobile Speak both perform well when measured against the features that are important to cell phone users who are blind or have low vision, but we also investigated how well the two programs performed when measured against each other. Since they both use the ETI Eloquence speech synthesizer, the voice quality is identical, and we found both packages to be good-quality products. Since these are third-party software products that are installed on the cell phones, we expected some instability problems. But during several weeks of relatively heavy usage, we experienced only a couple of "crashes" with each product. However, we did find some differences in the way the two products performed.
TALKS responded immediately to keystrokes, while Mobile Speak had about a half-second delay in responding, but the delay was not all that significant. The Training Mode that TALKS provides to orient users to the keys and their functions is a more important advantage that TALKS has over Mobile Speak. TALKS also provides better access to the One-Touch Dialing feature. However, Mobile Speak also has some advantages. If you want to change the ring tone on the 6620, you can go to the appropriate menu and scroll through the list of available tones. When you scroll through the list, Mobile Speak will announce the names of each tone and will let you hear the tones. TALKS only reads the names and will not let you listen to samples of the tones. Mobile Speak also provides better access to the audio that can be played through the Real Player feature on the 6620. Mobile Speak can be active when you listen to sound clips or MP3 files, but TALKS has to be muted. Also, when you dial a telephone number and press the "call" button to place the call, Mobile Speak says "calling," followed by the telephone number, while TALKS says nothing to alert you that you have actually placed the call.
The Bottom Line
Overall, these are both good-quality products that provide true cell phone accessibility, and there are no really significant differences in their performance. Mobile Speak is slightly less expensive, but if Cingular service is available in your area, you can get TALKS on the 6620 essentially for free if you sign up for a two-year service agreement.
The fact that two good-quality screen-reader products are available to make cell phones more accessible is exciting news for people who are blind or have low vision because we now have a choice of two products that provide much better access to the features of the Nokia 6620 than we had with any of the phones we have evaluated previously. Nothing else has come close. Competition between the two should create more incentive for the designers to continue making improvements. Code Factory has already announced plans to include an accessible web browser in a future release, and TALKS will probably do the same. Code Factory has also announced a new screen-magnification software product that will provide more access for people with low vision. We can only hope that more service providers will follow Cingular in offering these software products as options for their customers so that they will be complying with federal regulations that require accessibility. Now, if we could just get the cell phone manufacturers to build some cell phones that are not only compatible with access software, but also have keys that are easy to identify by touch--or, better still, cell phones that are accessible out of the box, without the use of a separate screen reader--we may finally have fully accessible cell phones.
"We're most pleased to distribute Mobile Speak software throughout North America and to work with Code Factory as a global partner to ensure that this innovative solution remains at the forefront of mainstream hand-held access. We'll be releasing both Bluetooth QWERTY and braille keyboards to enable the end user to effortlessly interact with the cellular phone in order to take advantage of all of the phone's robust applications at a price thousands of dollars less expensive than alternative, dated speech-only notetakers on the market today. We will endeavor to keep the end user's needs at the center of our thinking during these and other pending development efforts on the Mobile Speak front. This is evidenced by the truth that product bugs which have been acknowledged in this product review have either been addressed in a software release that succeeds the software version which has been evaluated, or are being addressed through ongoing, aggressive development efforts."
Funding for this Product Evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.
Product: Nokia 6620
Manufacturer: Nokia Americas, 6000 Connection Drive, Irving TX 75039; phone: 972-894-4573; sales: 888-256-2098; web site: <www.nokiausa.com>.
Price: $299 after a $100 rebate. Service available from AT&T Wireless, Cingular, T-Mobile, and others. Check with your local service providers for the availability of cell phones and prices.
Product: TALKS for Series 60 Software
Manufacturer: Brand & Gröber Communications, Dresdener Strasse 2, 51373 Leverkusen, Germany; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.talx.de> for purchasing information, free downloads of demonstration versions, and new compatible phones. U.S. distributors: Beyond Sight, 5650 South Windermere Street, Littleton, CO 80120; phone: 303-795-6455; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.beyondsight.com>; Sendero Group; phone: 530-757-6800; e-mail: <GPS@SenderoGroup.com>; web site: <www.senderogroup.com>. Service provider: Cingular Wireless, phone: 800-331-0500; web site: <www.cingular.com>; or Cingular National Center for Customers with Disabilities, phone: 866-241-6568; web site: <www.cingular.com/about/disability_resources>.
Price: $295. Cingular is currently offering TALKS to customers at the introductory price of $199, with a rebate to customers with qualifying visual disabilities of either $100 or $199, depending on the length of their service contract (see <www.cingular.com/about/talks_rebate> for details). The rebate is returned to customers in the form of Cingular credit, which can be used to pay monthly service bills.
Product: Mobile Speak
Manufacturer: Code Factory, S. L. Rambla d'Egara, 148, 2-2, 08221 Terrassa (Barcelona), Spain; phone: 0049-171-3797470; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.codfact.com/english> or, for free downloads of demonstration versions, <www.mobilespeak.com>. U.S. distributor: Optelec, 321 Billerica Road, Chelmsford, MA 01824; phone: 978-392-0707 or 800-828-1056; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: <www.optelec.com>.
Price: $295, or $395 if you ship your telephone to Optelec for installation of the software.
Do Cell Phones Plus Software Equal Access? Part 1 by Darren Burton and Mark Uslan
Do Cell Phones Plus Software Equal Access? Part 2 by Darren Burton and Mark Uslan
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