Talk Me Through It: A Review of Two Cell Phone-Based Screen Readers
As the September 2006
AccessWorld article on off-the-shelf cell phones promised, this article takes an updated look at the TALKS and Mobile Speak third-party screen-reader software products. These screen readers are compatible with a select list of cell phones running the Symbian operating system, and this article compares their performance on the Nokia 6682, a Symbian cell phone that was released in 2006. This evaluation goes beyond the normal Sweet 16 evaluation that is familiar to readers of the previous articles on cell phones. This time, it also reports more of the functionality of the phone and software, including compatibility with a wireless keyboard and headset.
Caption: The Nokia 6682 cell phone.
The Software Products
Mobile Speak and TALKS are third-party software applications that provide text-to-speech access to nearly all the cell phone's features and functions. Mobile Speak is manufactured by Code Factory, and TALKS is manufactured by Nuance. They both provide a level of access that is far greater than that of the off-the-shelf phones, accessing the phone's interface similarly to how a screen reader like JAWS or Window-Eyes would access a PC. We, at AFB TECH, evaluated the most current versions of each application as of October 2006: TALKS and Zooms Premium Edition, version 3.0, and Mobile Speak, version 2.8. Zooms, the screen-magnifier product from Nuance, is now bundled along with TALKS as part of the Premium Edition. However, you must purchase a separate license for Zooms in order to use it. TALKS Standard Edition is still available, but it does not include Zooms or the dictionary and graphics labeler tools that are described later in this article. Mobile Magnifier, Code Factory's screen magnifier, will also be bundled with Mobile Speak in version 3.0, the next update. However, this article evaluates only the functionality of the screen reader. Each product has several synthesizers and voices to choose from, but Eloquence, used by TALKS, and Fonix DECtalk, used by Mobile Speak, are the synthesizers that are probably most familiar to users of screen readers.
Currently, TALKS and Mobile Speak can each be installed on about 20 Series 60 Symbian cell phones, mostly from Nokia. In addition, TALKS has a version that is compatible with about 5 Series 80 Symbian phones, which are "minilaptop"-style phones like the one that was evaluated in the January 2004 issue of AccessWorld. See the Product Information section of this article for the entire list of compatible phones. Not all the phones are offered in every market, so you need to check on their availability with the service providers in your area. Also, the list of compatible phones is always being updated as new Symbian phones come on the market, so it is a good idea to check the TALKS and Mobile Speak web sites if you are interested in a particular phone.
The Nokia 6682
The Nokia 6682 is similar to the 6620 model that was evaluated in the November 2004 issue of AccessWorld. It is another flat, "brick"- or "candy-bar"-style Series 60 Symbian cell phone with the control buttons exposed. It is slightly smaller than the 6620 phone, measuring 4.2 by 2.2 by 0.8 inches, but it is slightly heavier with a more solid feel, weighing 4.62 ounces. It has a large 1.7-inch by 1.5-inch color display screen and includes many of today's popular features, such as web surfing, text and multimedia messaging, a sound recorder and digital music player with stereo audio, and a digital camera for capturing still images as well as live video.
Menus are navigated with a circular five-way scroll button, along with two "soft" keys placed to its left and right. The function of these soft keys varies and is dependent on the icons that are adjacent to them on the display screen. 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 phone. There are also two control keys that are placed vertically on the left edge of the phone and three that are placed on the right edge. There is a memory-card slot on the right side panel just below the power button, and there is another button on the top of the left side panel that is used to activate the voice-recognition dialing feature. The camera lens is on the back of the phone and is protected by a lens cover that slides down to reveal the lens. The phone 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.
Taking a Different Perspective
I take a different tack in this article. This is the point where I normally introduce the Sweet 16, where I discuss our evaluation of the accessibility of the 16 cell-phone features that were ranked highest in a survey of cell phone users who are blind. However, when I began to write all that down, I noticed that this article began to sound a whole lot like my 2004 article that evaluated Mobile Speak and TALKS. This time, to shake things up a bit and to try not to bore you, I just update you on the Sweet 16 features that have changed since my 2004 article. I also include a few sections that discuss some of the other interesting things you can do with these software products.
Both products still provide speech access to nearly every feature of the cell phone, and we found both to be even clearer and more responsive to key commands. Both also provide extensive configurability to control how they speak display-screen information. They now offer several synthesizers to choose from, and you can visit the companies' web sites to sample the available voices. Our testers preferred the Eloquence voice from TALKS and the DECtalk voice from Mobile Speak, which are voices that will be familiar to people who have used computer screen readers over the years. However, the quality of a voice is certainly in the ear of the beholder, so we suggest that you visit each company's web site to sample the various voices.
Both Mobile Speak and TALKS have accessible electronic documentation, but the documentation is still somewhat limited, designed to get you started so that you can learn more of the phone's functionality on your own. We think that the documentation of both could be expanded. For example, both now have a "Training Mode" that is used to learn the names and functions of the cell phone's keys and keystroke combinations, but the Mobile Speak manual says nothing about this feature. I learned about it by accidentally turning it on, and I then tried about every possible key combination before I finally figured out how to turn it off. By the way, you turn it on or off by twice pressing the Edit key on the bottom right edge of the phone. With TALKS, to get it to work while on a call, you have to give the Mute/Unmute command, which is done by pressing the Edit key followed by the Clear key, which is just above it. However, the manual says nothing about that.
Battery Level Indicator
Both systems still provide speech output for the battery level indicator, but we want to report that there is no battery problem on the Nokia 6682. Many users of the Nokia 6620 reported a firmware bug that caused the battery to drain quickly because of a conflict with the speech synthesizer. That bug does not exist with the 6682, and users of the 6620 can contact Nokia to fix their firmware bug. TALKS version 1.40 and later versions come with a new release of Eloquence that fixes the battery drain issue.
Ringer Volume Control
Both systems still feature accessible ways to change the ringer volume and to turn the Vibrate mode on or off, but they both now also let you choose from various ring tones, hearing both the name of the tone and a sample of the tone.
With both Mobile Speak and TALKS, you can still press the right soft key to silence the ring during an incoming call and then hear the phone number or name of the caller. In addition, TALKS can be configured to repeat the caller ID in case you do not hear it the first time.
You can still 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 these numbers, and a call is placed to the corresponding number in the phone book. Mobile Speak has taken this one step further, allowing you to turn off the Speed Dial feature and instead assign the 2 through 9 keys to applications on the phone. This way, you have one-touch access to your favorite applications on the phone.
Beyond the Sweet 16
I now discuss some of the other things you can do with these software products and Symbian phones, as well as some other aspects that I think will be interesting to you.
Downloading and Installing
In my November 2004 AccessWorld article that evaluated TALKS and Mobile Speak, I reported that the process for downloading and installing the software on a cell phone was not accessible and must be done with sighted assistance. This is no longer the case. You can now download the software on your PC and transfer the software onto a memory card using a card reader that can be purchased at your local electronics store for as little as $15. Card readers are also being built into many of today's new PCs. After transferring the software, you can then place the card in the phone, usually in a compartment beneath the battery. With TALKS, the final step of installing the software must be done on the phone itself with sighted assistance. However, this is only a one-time process. Mobile Speak actually has an installation program on its web site, along with clear instructions that allow you to use your PC to install the software directly on the memory card. It is then ready to go once you place the chip in the phone. If your PC is equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology, you can transfer the software directly to your phone wirelessly. In addition, you can purchase the software products already installed on a cell phone if you buy the cell phone from one of the vendors listed on the manufacturers' web sites.
Caption: AFB TECH volunteer Tara Annis uses the wireless Think Outside Stowaway keyboard wtih the Nokia 6682.
Bluetooth Keyboard and Headset
The Nokia 6682 is equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology, and it is compatible with wireless Bluetooth keyboards and headsets. We wanted to test how well these technologies work with TALKS and Mobile Speak, so we purchased the Stowaway QWERTY keyboard from ThinkOutside.com and the Voyager 510S headset from Plantronics.com. With a retail price of $149, the Stowaway is a small, fold-up QWERTY keyboard that fits in a shirt pocket when folded. It does not have a number row or traditional row of function keys, but it does have a function key on each side of the space bar. You can press the left function key, along with the Caps Lock key, to turn the QWERTY row into a number row. Priced at $200, the Voyager is a small headset that fits over one ear and has a short one-inch microphone that extends down your cheekbone. It has three small control buttons: an On/Off button with a nib for identification; an Up/Down Volume Rocker; and the Activate button, which is used to initiate and end calls.
Although the headset requires no software installation, the keyboard does have software drivers that must be installed. However, installation is accessible with either TALKS or Mobile Speak, and the instructional software is a PDF (portable document format) document that is also accessible with Window-Eyes and JAWS. A wireless connection process, called "pairing," is necessary to get the devices to interact properly with the cell phone, and that process is also accessible.
These wireless devices are also accessible, and they make several tasks more convenient and efficient. The headset makes it possible to hear the software's speech privately, which is useful because the Nokia 6682 allows the speech to be heard only through the speaker, not through the phone's earpiece. You can also leave your cell phone in your pocket or briefcase and answer incoming calls by simply pressing a button on the headset. In addition, you can press and hold the same button and speak the name of a person in your contacts list to place a call using the phone's voice-recognition technology. The headset also echoes characters or numbers as you enter them on the Stowaway keyboard and plays the TALKS and Mobile Speak responses to keyboard commands. For those who would like to save $200 and do not mind being tethered to your cell phone by wires, the Nokia 6682 that we purchased from LetsTalk.com came with a wired headset, and it worked the same as the wireless headset.
Although the keyboard takes some getting used to and is a bit cumbersome for entering phone numbers, we found it to be useful. For those who are interested in text messaging or e-mailing, using this keyboard is much faster and many times more efficient than tapping away on the phone's buttons. It also makes using the phone's web browser more efficient.
We also took a look at how practical it may be to use these Bluetooth devices with the phone as a notetaker. The Symbian phones have a Notes application, which is a basic word processor that is somewhat comparable to the Microsoft Windows Notepad application, and have plenty of internal and removable memory. We wondered if this may be a less expensive alternative to traditional notetaking assistive technology devices. I tried it out by taking notes during a one-hour teleconference, but my results were not entirely positive. Although the Notes application was fine for typing in my notes, it was not easy to navigate to different sections of the document to reread my notes. For navigation, all you can really do is press the Up and Down arrow to move up and down a line at a time. You can move a word at a time, but the application does not speak the words as you move from word to word. Editing out mistakes is inefficient because you can only use the Backspace key to delete text. There is also no way to switch between files, which is important if you are in a classroom and need to access your class notes as well as your homework assignment. The Notes application works fine if you just need to take some notes and do not plan to make any mistakes, but it has nowhere near the effectiveness or efficiency of a traditional device, such as a BrailleNote or PAC Mate. To find really effective and practical notetaking functionality with these wireless devices, you probably need to look into a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) running the Windows Pocket PC applications. Some of these PDAs include cell phones, and Code Factory's Pocket Mobile Speak and Dolphin's Pocket Hal screen readers promise to provide the accessible interface, but that is the subject of another article.
Both Mobile Speak and TALKS provide access to the web browser on the Nokia 6682. The web browser is certainly accessible, but the usability and efficiency of the process come into question. Web browsing on Symbian phones can be accomplished with practice and patience, but it is nowhere as efficient as using Window-Eyes or JAWS on a computer. The process reminds me of the early days of web browsing with early Windows screen readers, but with a more awkward keypad. The Stowaway keyboard makes it easier, but we still found it a bit cumbersome to do a lot of web surfing. However, if you find some sites that you would like to visit and then bookmark them, it is then easy to go to them quickly.
I have found the browser to be helpful on several occasions. During a recent trip, for example, I was able to learn the status of my connecting flight while I was waiting in the airport. The browser also came in handy at a local college football game that I was attending with friends. I was able to get instant updates of scores from across the country and to inform my buddies of how poorly their wagers were going.
During our testing, we discovered a bug with the Mobile Speak software that caused it not to speak the content of web pages on the particular Nokia 6682 cell phone that I use with my Cingular service. As it turns out, a Symbian phone like the Nokia 6682 can have several firmware versions. Firmware is like software, but it is code that is hardwired into the phone. I found that the firmware version on the Nokia 6682 phones that are used by Cingular is not compatible with the 2.3 version of Mobile Speak that I was originally testing. I communicated this fact to the people at Code Factory, the manufacturers of Mobile Speak, and they were quick to respond and fix the problem. They sent me the version 2.8 update of Mobile Speak, which has fixed the bug. Mobile Speak now works well, and Code Factory has assured me that this will not be an issue in future releases of Mobile Speak.
The Nokia 6682 has a built-in voice recorder, which is useful for recording short memos or phone conversations and can be used to record your own ring tones. I used it to record a personalized ring tone for when my wife calls, so now when she calls, instead of hearing a normal ring, I hear my voice saying, "It must be the old ball and chain." Needless to say, my wife is not fond of it at all, and I will have to set up a more complimentary ring tone if I want peace in my house.
The voice recorder is accessible with both TALKS and Mobile Speak, but with TALKS, it works better if you mute TALKS just before you start the recording. You just have to remember that the left soft key is Pause/Start and the right soft key is Stop. Mobile Speak worked well without having to mute, and it can access more information about the recording, such as the length and the time and date that it was recorded. After you have recorded your memo, everything else you may want to do with it is accessible with both TALKS and Mobile Speak, including replaying, renaming, moving it to a folder, and e-mailing it to a friend.
RealPlayer and Music Player
The Nokia 6682 includes the RealPlayer software for viewing and listening to video clips and has Music Player software for listening to sound clips and music in several formats, including MP3. The sound quality of its built-in speaker is not the highest, since it can sound a little tinny. However, the sound is greatly improved when you use an external headset.
The RealPlayer software is compatible with TALKS, but you have to mute TALKS just before you start a video. The RealPlayer interface is not accessible with Mobile Speak, but you could use Mobile Speak to find a video clip on your phone and then mute Mobile Speak just before you play the video.
The Music Player application is more accessible than the RealPlayer application with both TALKS and Mobile Speak, but it is still not entirely accessible. With both TALKS and Mobile Speak, you can access most of the interface to find and play songs and can pause and restart songs by pressing the joystick. However, the buttons for Next and Previous track and for Fast Forward and Rewind are not accessible. There is also a progress clock that displays how far you have progressed into a song, but it is presented only visually.
Code Factory has developed an MP3 player that you can download and install that is completely compatible with Mobile Speak. All the buttons and controls are accessible, and you have access to all the information that sighted people do.
Other Applications on the Nokia 6682
Several other applications come on the Nokia 6682 and other Symbian phones, and I discuss a few of them now. As has been reported in the previous AccessWorld articles, the built-in calculator, currency converter, clock, and calendar are all still accessible.
Mobi TV and Mobi Radio are subscription-based services that are used to play certain radio and television channels on a cell phone, similar to a satellite radio service like XM or Sirius, but we could not get either of them to work with Mobile Speak or TALKS. Our phone also came equipped with a version of the Adobe Reader software, and computer users will be familiar with the PC version that is used to access PDF documents. However, although we have seen great improvement in the accessibility of Adobe Reader on a PC, it is not yet accessible on a Symbian phone. Our phone also came equipped with a suite of office software applications called Quick Office, including a word processor, spread sheet, and presentation software. We tested Quick Word, the word processor, and it was accessible. However, it is certainly not as efficient as using a word processor on a computer because it does not have all the navigation keystrokes that are available on PCs.
The Nokia 6682 also has a still camera and video camera. You simply slide the lens cover on the back of the phone away from the camera lens, and you are automatically placed in the camera application. Both the still camera and video camera functions are completely accessible, as long as you take some time to practice aiming. Everything is accessible, including setting such options as turning the flash on and off, setting the camera to Night mode, and setting the timer. You can also save and name your images and videos and e-mail them to friends.
More from Code Factory and Nuance
Both manufacturers have additional functionality and software products that are accessible with their screen-reader products. Both have screen-magnifying software to accommodate people with low vision, and you can look for the article evaluating ZOOMS from Nuance and Mobile Magnifier from Code Factory in the next issue of AccessWorld. TALKS has a version that supports a handful of Series 80 Symbian phones, and Code Factory has other screen-reader and screen-magnifier products that support "Smart Phones" that run the Windows Mobile operating system and PDAs that run PocketPC applications. Look for future AccessWorld articles that will evaluate Smart Phone and PDA access products.
Complementing Mobile Speak, Code Factory bundles several accessible applications. In addition to the MP3 player and sound recorder that were already discussed, these applications include a calculator; a game called Mines; a color recognizer; and FExplorer, which is a file-system browser. They also have a DAISY (digital accessible information system) book reader, which is a great way to read books in that format on your cell phone while you are on the go. A software product, called Mobile Keyboard, makes your standard PC keyboard compatible with your cell phone.
TALKS now has a pronunciation dictionary application similar to those found in PC screen readers that allows you to configure it to pronounce words, such as proper names and foreign cities, correctly. TALKS also has a feature that allows you to create labels for graphics that are found on your phone, so you can use TALKS to improve the accessibility of third-party applications on your Symbian phone. Furthermore, TALKS is compatible with the MiniGPS application on the Symbian phones. Although this software is nowhere near as robust as GPS (global positioning system) location software, such as Sendero Group's GPS product or HumanWare's Trekker, it still could be useful. It is not satellite based, but instead uses cell towers. A typical use may be to set your cell phone to alert you with a tone or sound clip when you reach the cell tower near your local train stop, so you will know when your train stop is coming up. Of course, this is not anywhere near as accurate as the Sendero GPS or Trekker, which use satellites to pinpoint your location within 10 feet. However, Nuance reports that it is working on greatly improving the accuracy of MiniGPS.
Braille Display Compatibility
For those of you who are interested in using a braille display to access the screen information on your cell phone, both TALKS and Mobile Speak are now compatible with some of the refreshable braille displays on the market. This would also be a way to accommodate a person with both vision and hearing limitations. Mobile Speak works with the EasyLink braille keyboard and the EasyLink12. It also works with the Pronto and VarioConnect displays, and Code Factory reports that they will be adding support for other devices during 2007. TALKS currently supports the Handy Tech BT devices and Baum BT devices. A display manufacturer that wants to support a specific device can get the free Braille Driver Software Development Kit.
TALKS and Mobile Speak products are sold through their networks of vendors, and you can find a complete list of vendors on their respective web sites. We found prices for Mobile Speak ranging from $199 to $245 from its U.S. vendors, and TALKS was priced at $295 from all three of its U.S. vendors. Cingular Wireless still offers a rebate of the full price of TALKS, but the rebate is available only on the Nokia 6620 phone. That phone comes with version 1.0 of TALKS, and you can upgrade to version 2.1 free of charge. However, there is a fee to upgrade to version 3.0. Those who are interested in this deal from Cingular should call its National Center for Customers with Disabilities, at 866-241-6568, because most local Cingular retail outlets are not aware of the deal.
The Bottom Line
We came to the same conclusion about these products as we did in the November 2004 evaluation. They are both outstanding products that provide extensive access to Symbian phones. Both companies should also be applauded for continually upgrading and improving their products, adding more and more functionality with the release of each new version. Although these Symbian phones are really minicomputers and occasionally crash just like a computer, crashes are rare, and the software products are stable and consistent. These products would satisfy the access needs of a technologically savvy person who is blind. We hope that this article will help readers decide between the two on the basis of the access they provide, but we do not recommend one product over the other. Each company offers free 30-day trial versions, so you can take them out for a test drive before you decide whether to purchase one. For readers who want full access to their cell phone's features and functions on an equal footing with sighted people, one of these products will do the trick.
Finally, we want to stress that the cell phone world is indeed rapidly changing. Readers who are interested in the more basic accessibility provided by off-the-shelf cell phones will want to know that the LG VX 4650 from Verizon Wireless that we evaluated in the September 2006 issue of AccessWorld is now obsolete. Verizon Wireless has replaced it with the LG VX 5300 and VX 8300, and these phones provide the same access as the 4650 did. In addition, TALKS and Mobile Speak will be supporting the new Series 60 Third Edition handsets. These new phones promise to provide access to even more features. Some of the new functionality will include extended access to digital books, access to the Blackberry network, MP3 players with a 4GB or even an 8GB hard drive, and Internet Telephony. Stay tuned to AccessWorld to monitor this continuing evolution of the world of cell phones.
"Code Factory thanks AccessWorld for the evaluation of Mobile Speak. Like TALKS, Mobile Speak works with Wayfinder and also has a pronunciation dictionary. The training mode can be activated with a long press of the Edit key. Code Factory currently provides all updates for free to customers who purchased Mobile Speak from a distributor or a telco. For Mobile Speak, several interesting add-ons are available like Mobile Magnifier, a colour recognizer which works with the camera of the phone, and a DAISY Player. Please check out our other products, such as Mobile Speak Smartphone for Windows-based smartphones which are currently sold by different carriers in the U.S., and Mobile Speak Pocket, our screen reader for PocketPCs and PDA phones. Visit our web site www.codefactory.es for voice samples, demos and information about the software. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions."
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Manufacturer: Code Factory, S. L. Rambla d'Egara, 148, 2-2, 08221 Terrassa (Barcelona), Spain; phone: 0049-171-3797470; web site: <www.codefactory.es> or <www.mobilespeak.com>. The web sites include free downloads of demonstration versions and list of vendors.
U.S. Distributor: MaxiAids, 42 Executive Boulevard, Farmingdale, NY 11735; phone: 631-752-0521; e-mail: <email@example.com>; web site: <www.maxiaids.com>.
Price: $199 to $245.
Compatible Phones: Nokia 3230, Nokia 3650, Nokia 3660, Nokia 6260, Nokia 6600, Nokia 6620, Nokia 6630, Nokia 6670, Nokia 6680, Nokia 6681, Nokia 6682, Nokia 7610, Nokia 7650, Nokia N70, Nokia N90, Nokia N-Gage, Nokia N-Gage QD, Samsung SGH-D720, Siemens SX-1, Panasonic X700, and Panasonic X701.
TALKS for Series 60 Software.
Manufacturer: Nuance Communications, 1 Wayside Road, Burlington, MA 01803; phone: 781-565-5000; web site: <www.nuance.com/talks>. The web site includes free downloads of demonstration versions and list of vendors.
U.S. Distributor: Beyond Sight, 5650 South Windermere Street, Littleton, CO 80120; phone: 303-795-6455; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.beyondsight.com>.
Compatible Phones: Nokia 3230, Nokia 3650/3600, Nokia 3660/3620, Nokia 6260, Nokia 6600, Nokia 6620, Nokia 6630, Nokia 6670, Nokia 6680, Nokia 6681, Nokia 6682, Nokia 7610, Nokia 7650, Nokia N70, Nokia N90, Nokia N-Gage, Nokia N-Gage QD, Siemens SX1, Samsung SGH-D720, and Samsung SGH-D730.
Series 80 Phones compatible with TALKS for Series 80: Nokia 9210/9210i, Nokia 9290, Nokia 9300, and Nokia 9500.
Manufacturer: Nokia Americas, 6000 Connection Drive, Irving TX 75039; phone: 972-894-4573; sales: 888-256-2098; web site: <www.nokiausa.com>.
Price: $299.99. (Note: Cell phone prices change rapidly, so check the manufacturer or service provider's web site for updated prices.)
Funding for this product evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia. We would like to acknowledge the research assistance provided by our Reader's Digest Partners for Sight Foundation interns: Aaron Preece, Patrick Barbour, Brandy Jacobs, and Eric Dowdy. We would also like to acknowledge the assistance provided by Marshall University intern Trenton Sturgill.
Now They're Talking! A Review of Two Cell Phone-Based Screen Readers by Darren Burton
Dial Me In: The Latest on Off-the-Shelf Cell Phone Accessibility by Darren Burton
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