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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2006 Issue  Volume 7  Number 4

Product Evaluation

"Is This for Here or to Go?" A Series on Portable, Laptop-Compatible Video Magnifiers, Part 2

More and more people with low vision are on the move and want and need to take their computers and magnification with them. Keeping pace with this trend, manufacturers of closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs) are working to provide portable options for full-featured CCTVs. The idea of portable, full-featured CCTVs has been gaining momentum, resulting in a greater number of portable, laptop-compatible CCTVs that people with low vision can now more readily benefit from.

To help potential buyers make an informed purchase, this series of articles highlights the products' positive attributes and areas that could be improved. Since this type of assistive technology can be expensive, it is important to be as knowledgeable as possible about your options before you make a choice.

This article, which evaluates the MagniLink Student Addition (MLS Student Addition) from Low Vision International (LVI), is the second in a series evaluating laptop-compatible CCTVs. Future articles will evaluate similar products, including the i-Stick from OPTRON Assistive Technologies and the OPTi Verso from Freedom Vision. These products are laptop compatible, weigh less than 5 pounds, have a rotating camera that allows for near and distance viewing, and have the ability to take a "picture" of an image and save it to the computer.

All the video magnifiers that were evaluated in this series can be connected to a laptop, desktop, or stand-alone VGA monitor. Since most people who purchase this type of product use it with their laptops, I chose to use a laptop to evaluate them. For this evaluation, as with the previous evaluations in this series, I used an IBM ThinkPad running Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2, with a Pentium M 1.86 GHz processor with 1 GB of RAM. I also used ZoomText 9.0 Magnifier/Reader in conjunction with the video magnifier.

For this evaluation, as with the previous ones in this series, I set up the product at the desk in my office and used it for approximately one week to do my daily office work. I also took it to meetings, where I used it to read handouts and take notes. I even took it home, where I used it to look up telephone numbers and write checks to pay monthly bills. This way, I learned firsthand the characteristics of the product. As with the other CCTVs in this series, I evaluated the MLS Student Addition in four main areas: print and onscreen documentation, minimum requirements and product design, software installation and setup, and features.

The MLS Student Addition

Print and Onscreen Documentation

The MLS Student Addition is in the final stages of being made ready for purchase by the public. Therefore, the documentation provided with this product was preliminary; the finalized version of the MLS Student Addition's documentation may be different from the documentation which was provided for evaluation. As tested, the MLS Student Addition comes with three pieces of print documentation: A User's Manual, instructions for connecting the product to a VGA monitor, and a guide to using the MLS Student Addition in conjunction with ZoomText 9.0.

The User's Manual consists of 16 8.5-by-11-inch sheets stapled together in the upper left corner. It is printed in 14-point font, which is slightly larger than average print but far from the guideline of the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) of at least 18-point font for people with low vision. The manual also presents pictures and examples of screen layouts and dialogue boxes that are too small for most people with low vision to read. Another shortcoming of the manual is that it does not describe how to use the camera for near and distance viewing or explain how to use hot keys to turn the screen-magnification/reader program on and off while using the device. The manual also fails to mention the availability of the onscreen documentation that is available after the program is installed from the CD. These are all important shortcomings that need to be addressed.

The guide for using the MLS Student Addition in conjunction with ZoomText 9.0 is printed in 11-point font, which is even smaller than the font for the User's Manual. It also presents pictures and diagrams that are much too small for most people with low vision to read. This six-page guide describes two methods to increase the compatibility of the MLS Student Addition with ZoomText 9.0: a full-screen and a split-screen method. Although these methods actually work, they do not solve the problem of having to turn the screen-magnification software on and off while in the camera mode to see items, such as the task bar, laptop battery status, the picture-saving dialogue box, and the window-sizing buttons. The instructions, especially those for the split-screen method, involve several steps and require above-average knowledge of the ZoomText program. Following the instructions to change settings to increase compatibility would most likely require sighted assistance. Finally, the documentation would be better if it were presented in a more durable format, such as spiral-bound booklets.

Minimum Requirements and Product Design

According to LVI, to use the MLS Student Addition with your laptop, you must use Windows XP Service Pack 2 and have one integrated USB 2.0 port. To use the system in minimum resolution and camera frequency, you need a computer with an Intel Celeron M processor, 1.6 GHz, and 256 MB of working memory (RAM). These are the minimum requirements for your computer to work with the product. To have maximum resolution and picture frequency, you need higher system requirements. LVI recommends Windows XP Service Pack 2, one integrated USB 2.0 port, an Intel Pentium M, 2.0 GHZ processor, 512 MB of working memory (RAM), and an external graphics card with at least 128 MB of built-in memory.

The camera is mounted on a stationary L-shaped arm that extends approximately 14 inches past the base mount and is 10 1/2 inches above the desk's surface, and the product's total weight is just over 2 1/2 pounds (including the rectangle base plate). The fact that the device is so lightweight makes it extremely portable. The sleek design allows it to fit into a laptop bag, along with your computer, so a separate carrying case is not necessary.

Photo of MLS Student Addition focused on a textbook and displaying a portion of the page on a laptop computer in a split-screen image with another document.

Caption: The lightweight MLS Student Addition works well with laptop computers.

The MLS Student Addition is shipped with a round and a rectangular base plate, external power adapter, control box, cables for connection to a computer and a television set, and the software installation CD. The rectangular base plate is used in conjunction with the laptop. It slides under the right side of the laptop, and the weight of the laptop stabilizes the camera arm. The heavier round base plate is needed when the device is used with a stand-alone VGA monitor or a television set, or when it is used by a left-handed person.

The MLS Student Addition is powered through one USB port, drawing its power from your laptop; it does not have an internal rechargeable battery of its own. As tested with the IBM ThinkPad with a fully charged battery, it could sustain continuous use for approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes. Without connection to the MLS Student Addition, the laptop could be used for three hours. The fact that the device is powered through your laptop is helpful because you have to worry about only one battery. The drawback is that it takes a good deal of power from the laptop.

The control box, which controls the device when it is connected to a stand-alone VGA monitor or television set, is a small handheld remote that fits in the palm of your hand, and its cord connects to the back of the L-shaped camera arm. Its buttons are tactile and make a distinct popping sound when pressed. The control box could be made more usable for people with low vision, though, by changing the color of the buttons to one that highly contrasts with their background.

For desktop viewing, the MLS Student Addition's camera is turned down to face the object or text, and its lens should be positioned to cover the camera opening. For distance viewing, the camera should be pointed toward the distant object, and the lens that covers the camera opening should be folded down out of position.

Unlike the Clarity PC Mate and Optelec ClearNote, the two laptop-compatible CCTVs that were reviewed in the previous article in this series, the MLS Student Addition does not have any buttons or controls on the camera or the camera arm; all the features and functions are controlled directly through the computer keyboard. The only exception is when the MLS Student Addition is used in conjunction with a stand-alone VGA monitor or a television set. As was mentioned earlier, in these situations, the device is controlled through the handheld control box, which is similar to a remote control.

Software Installation and Setup

The software installation and initial setup of the MLS Student Addition are not difficult if screen-magnification software is running. To install the MLS software, you simply insert the CD and follow the prompts on your screen. The screen-magnification software enlarges the prompts to make them readable to people with low vision, and when the installation is complete, it can be turned off with hot keys, so you can use the MLS Student Addition's camera.

The MLS Student Addition is easy to transport from place to place. When you get to your destination, you simply connect the camera arm to your choice of two mounts, connect its USB cable to your laptop, start the computer, click the LVI MagniLink S Series icon on your desktop, and start the screen-magnification software.

Features

The MLS Student Addition features a responsive auto-focus camera with magnification ranging from 1.5 times to 55 times on a 15-inch monitor. Its camera performs well when text is moved under the camera, which is always an issue to look at when purchasing a laptop-compatible CCTV.

The following are the default hot-key settings:

  • F1: The camera displays in natural colors.
  • F2: The camera displays in positive picture with increased contrast. Press the F2 button several times to toggle through the additional artificial colors. (Shift-F2 toggles backward.)
  • F3: The camera displays in negative picture with increased contrast. Pressing F3 several times toggles through the additional artificial colors. (Pressing Shift-F3 toggles backward.)
  • F5: This hot key opens the Picture-saving dialogue box. By default, the day's date and time are suggested as the file name, and My Pictures is suggested for the file folder. Pressing Enter saves the picture. If you wish, you can save the picture under a different file name and to a folder that you choose.
  • F6: This hot key allows you to view saved pictures. You choose the picture that you want to view, and it is opened in the picture-viewing program in Windows, where you can magnify it if you need to.
  • F8: This hot key toggles you through the preset split-screen modes, allowing you to see the camera's display on part of the screen and your other open application on the other part.
  • F9: This hot key displays the Information Window, in large print, where you can find detailed information about the product's version number and changes can be made to the camera-resolution setting.
  • F11: This hot key returns the MLS Student Addition to all default settings.
  • Arrow Up: This hot key increases the magnification.
  • Arrow Down: This hot key decreases magnification.
  • Arrow Right: This hot key increases brightness.
  • Arrow Left: This hot key decreases brightness.
  • Control-Arrow Right and Control-Arrow Left: These hot keys control the guiding line, which can be displayed vertically or horizontally.
  • Control-Alt-S: This is the Global Hotkey, which activates the MLS software.

What Would Make It Better

The MLS Student Addition could be improved in three main ways: by making improvements to the preliminary documentation before it is finalized, by adding the brightness-adjustment feature to the natural-colors display mode, and by improving the quality of the display when writing on lined paper in the high-contrast and artificial color modes.

All the documentation for the MLS Student Addition should be provided in at least 18- point font, to meet the American Printing House for the Blind's guideline, and the size of all pictures and diagrams should be increased to make them more accessible to people with low vision. The documentation needs to be presented in a more durable format, such as spiral-bound booklets. The documentation also needs to give more specific information on how to use the camera for near and distance viewing and on the need to use hot keys to activate and deactivate screen-magnification software while in the camera mode.

When the natural colors mode is used, the brightness level cannot be adjusted. This fact needs to be resolved, because the natural colors mode often does not provide sufficient brightness to provide high contrast on the screen.

Another display issue arises when you attempt to write on lined paper under the camera when using the inverse and artificial color modes. As with other CCTVs, in the inverse and artificial color modes, the lines on the paper can disappear or fade out in spots, making handwriting on lined paper somewhat difficult. Adjusting the brightness level can help somewhat, but even then, a slight shadow is cast by your hand, which can be distracting while you write.

The Bottom Line

The MLS Student Addition is an extremely portable auto-focus CCTV that is designed with a rotating camera to facilitate near, distance, and self-viewing and can be connected to a laptop or desktop computer, stand-alone VGA monitor, or television set. It provides up to 55 times magnification on a 15-inch monitor and gives you several choices of viewing modes, including high-contrast black on white, inverse mode, and artificial colors. Of the products reviewed in this series thus far, this one has the best display quality while moving text under the camera. When the MLS Student Addition is connected to a computer, all its functions are accessed through the keyboard. It also enables you to capture an image and save it to your computer.

As stated previously in this series, I would not recommend laptop-compatible CCTVs for extended sessions of text reading, a task that may be better left to traditional desktop CCTVs with x-y tables. Traditional CCTVs, with the video display positioned much closer to eye level, are more ergonomically appropriate for such situations, as the user may not have to lean as far forward or look down to read the screen as one would with a laptop. The x-y table also allows the text to be moved back and forth more easily, rather than having to push books or papers back and forth on a table.

The MLS Student Addition is priced at about $1,000 more than the previously evaluated products in this series, and if you also need to purchase a new laptop to meet the minimum or recommended system requirements, the cost could total $5,500. Still, it is an excellent option if portability is what you need.

Manufacturer's Comments

Low Vision International

"The MLS Student Addition was released at the end of April. To be able to supply a unit early to meet the deadline for this article, a temporary User's Manual was printed and stapled. It differed, therefore, from the final User's Manual that is supplied with the product. The User's Manual is also available on the CD, which means that it can be accessed with magnification software and speech.

"As was mentioned in the article, the control box has tactile buttons with a popping sound to facilitate the product's use. Prospective users took part in the product development, and they wanted a control box as discrete as possible--hence the lack of strong colors and the like. For users who prefer buttons with higher visibility, we will look into the possibility of developing a cover in a different color that can be placed on the control box.

"In the upcoming version (version 7) of the magnification program Lunar and LunarPlus from Dolphin, there is built-in full compatibility for the MLS Student Addition. This means that the products can be used simultaneously without problems and that the magnification software automatically adjusts to cover the part of the screen where the camera window is not positioned. For the camera window, there will automatically be no magnification from the magnification program, while the computer information can be magnified as desired."

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Product Information

Product: MLS Student Addition.

Manufacturer: Low Vision International, Verkstanddgatan 5, S-352 46 Vaxjo, Sweden; phone: +46 (0) 470 72 77 00; web site: <www.lvi.se>.

U.S. Distributors: Health Care Service, 342 Fourth Avenue, Huntington, WV 25701; phone: 304-525-9184; e-mail: <fredSilver@aol.com>. Vision Cue: 4858A SW Sholls Ferry Road, Portland, OR 97225; phone: 510-451-2582; e-mail: <llake@visioncue.com>. Virtual Vision Technologies: 6 East Wayne Avenue, Aldan, PA 19018-4024; phone: 610-622-1469; e-mail: <morganhenderson@comcast.net>. Christal Vision: 6303 Southern Hills, San Antonio, TX 78244; phone: 210-666-0700 or 800-299-0700; e-mail: <ed@satx.rr.com>. Freedom of Speech: 5100 Eden Avenue, Suite 204, Edina, MN 55436; phone: 952-929-3456; e-mail: <davidw@freedomofspeech.com>.

Price (in the United States): $3,500.

Related Articles

How to Buy a CCTV by Carol Farrenkopf
"Is This for Here or to Go?" A Series on Portable, Laptop-Compatible Video Magnifiers by Lee Huffman


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Copyright © 2006 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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