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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 December 2013 Issue  Volume 14  Number 12

Product Evaluations and Guides

Leveling the Android Playing Field with the EqualEyes Launcher and Suite of Accessible Smartphone Apps

In my November 2013 AccessWorld review of the Sprint Optimus F3 smartphone, I mentioned that the Sprint Accessibility ID Pack was an excellent way for a novice Android user to get up and running with its useful collection of accessible apps. Unfortunately, this Accessibility ID Pack is only available to Sprint and Virgin Mobile customers. In this article I will discuss a different collection of accessible apps that can also improve your Android experience. Called EqualEyes, the collection is available from the Google Play Store with a 30-day free trial; $60 for a two-year license.

EqualEyes runs on any phone running Android OS version 2.2 Gingerbread or later. The developers have been extremely responsive and release frequent updates with bug fixes, new features, and other changes, so the version you download may not function precisely as described below. For this review, I installed EqualEyes version 1.0.6 on an LG Optimus F3 running Jellybean 4.1.2 and the latest version of Talkback.

What EqualEyes Does

EqualEyes works as both an Android launcher and a suite of accessible Android apps. What this means is that, if you wish, you can replace the standard Android home screen layout with a simpler, potentially more accessible EqualEyes interface. You can open and run any of the included suites of accessible apps from these new home screens. You can also add other apps to the EqualEyes layout and launch them from there. EqualEyes does not include a screen reader, but it is optimized to run with Talkback, the built-in Android screen reader.

The EqualEyes Interface

EqualEyes boasts a clean, simple, and high-contrast interface. Each of the three default home screens includes two columns of five icons each. It was very easy for me to find and touch the icon I wanted, nearly always on the very first try. I was also able to use the Talkback flick gesture to move from icon to icon. Most of the icons launch programs that we will discuss below. But let's start with the icon at the bottom of each column. The bottom left icon is the Back button, the bottom right icon is the Next button. Find and activate either of these to navigate forward and backward through the three default home screens. It's the only way to go, since EqualEyes disables the two-finger flick gesture to change screens.

At the extreme bottom right of the EqualEyes screen there is a control labeled info box. Activating this control causes EqualEyes to speak a brief tutorial for whichever app is currently running. Slide your finger upward from this control and you discover the EqualEyes status bar. Continue moving up along the right edge of the screen, or perform a one-finger flick up or left, and EqualEyes will announce in turn the time and date, your phone and Wi-Fi connection status, your battery charge, and any missed calls or messages. Beyond that there is also a "Shortcut to All Apps" button that allows you to open any app on your phone, even if it's not on an EqualEyes home screen.

The final control is the "Expand Status Bar" button. By default, EqualEyes disables the Talkback gesture to summon the Android status bar, but you can get to it at any time to access other information, such as GPS, Bluetooth, screen brightness, app updates, etc. The EqualEyes status bar does not have a voicemail icon, which I found disappointing and more than a little inconvenient.

At the far right of the Status Bar there is a button to return to the EqualEyes home screen. However, when I ventured off the Status Bar to check my voicemail, the EqualEyes icon was no longer on the Status Bar list. Performing a "back" Talkback gesture returned me to the stock Android launcher, but when I pressed my phone's Home button I was offered the opportunity to make EqualEyes my default launcher, which I did. Overall I found the EqualEyes home screens extremely easy to navigate and use. The EqualEyes Status Bar was handy and easy enough to access.

EqualEyes Data Entry

The EqualEyes keyboard works only in landscape mode. This creates a more spacious work area, which is easier to use for most, but there are times when I would prefer to hold the phone and type in portrait mode. Fortunately, there is a way to toggle back and forth between the EqualEyes and the Android keyboard. I'll discuss this in the Settings section, below.

The EqualEyes keyboard does not offer word completion or spell check, but it does implement a number of extremely useful accessibility features. After a double tap, the "Speech Input" button announces, "Start Speaking," then beeps when it's time to begin dictation, so there is no speech announcement or partial recognition interfering with dictation. EqualEyes waits until after you have stopped speaking to announce the recognition results, then offers four controls: "Speak Recognized Text," which you can use as often as you like to repeat the dictation results, "Retry," which removes the dictation and lets you try again, "Clear," which clears the dictation if you decide you would rather enter the characters manually, and "Close," which places you back on the EqualEyes keyboard with the dictated text in the text entry field.

The current EqualEyes keyboard does not offer touch typing, a definite disappointment. You have to touch or flick to find the character you want, and then double tap to enter it. The keyboard does feature a "Read All" button that allows you to review what you have entered thus far. There are also two delete controls: a "Delete One" button that acts like a standard backspace key, and a "Delete All" button that does just that: clears the text so you can start fresh.

The "Close" button near the bottom right of the screen returns you to the edit field populated by your text. This "Close" button appears in all EqualEyes apps. It's an easy way to go back a screen or exit any app and return to the EqualEyes home screen, but you can also use your phone's Back or Home buttons, if you prefer, or the appropriate Talkback gestures.

The dialer keypad features a similar command set, in this case labeled "Read Number," "Delete One" "Clear Entry," "Call," and "Close." There is no voice dialing option, nor is there a touch-typing option. Entering a phone number requires you to find the digit you want, then double tap. This is probably the way most novice smartphone users will feel the most comfortable entering numbers and text, and indeed, novice users are the very market EqualEyes is designed to accommodate.

Phone and Messaging

The shortcuts to start the Phone, Call Log, Phone Book, and Messaging apps occupy the top two slots on the two columns of the first home screen.

The Phone app calls up the dialer keypad described above. The interface is clean and easy to use. However, as soon as you press Call, the phone's default phone interface pops up, with which you may or may not experience accessibility issues, depending on the make and model of your Android phone. Received calls also bypass the EqualEyes interface and use the phone's default layout.

The Call Log allows you to display incoming, outgoing, missed, or all calls. Double tapping any of the numbers summons a second screen, where you can delete the entry, return the call, send a message, or create a contact in the Phonebook app from the number and caller ID information.

The Phonebook includes fields for two phone numbers, and an e-mail address. There are options to Call and Send a text message to your contact, and another useful option labeled Add to Home screen. Activating this button causes EqualEyes to create a Quick Call icon on the home screen. Double tapping this icon initiates a phone call with no further user intervention. This is a very handy feature for novice users who primarily want to use their new smartphones to make and receive calls.

By default, the Message app sorts messages by conversation so they are easy to follow. Unfortunately, the New Message screen does not offer a link to your contact list. If you want to send a message to a contact with whom you have not yet exchanged messages you have to return to the phone book, or enter the phone number manually. Also, even though I had read my messages and the EqualEyes Status Bar said I had no unread messages, my phone's messaging app kept playing alerts that I had unread messages, and I had to open my phone's stock message app and clear them before the alerts would stop.

Alerts, Alarms, and How's the Weather?

The Alarm App

You can set five different reminder alarms for today, tomorrow, every day, or a custom date. Edit the alarm title to include your reminder info and pick an alarm tone. There are many to choose from, and if you slide a finger down the screen you will hear a sample of each as your finger touches the icon.

Schedule List

This is the EqualEyes appointments calendar. You can set the appointment description, date, time, and alarm tone. In the version I tested you could only set one alarm, and you could not set the advanced warning time when it would sound. I am told the next version will include the ability to set two different alarms for different times. For an all-day event, for example, I could set a primary alert for the day before the event, and then a secondary alert for the morning of the event.

Weather

I included the Weather app in this section because one of its features is the ability to set up to five alerts to sound off when the forecast shows clear, cloudy, rain, snow, or storm. Set the alarm sound you like, then choose a time. Set a snow alert for 12 hours before the weather condition and you'll have plenty of warning about tomorrow's snowstorm.

Of course the EqualEyes Weather app also provides local weather information, using your phone's GPS. It displays the current temperature and condition--clear, light rain, etc. Moving down the screen you will find the weather outlook for today and tomorrow, followed by a brief, day-by-day forecast for the next six days. Double tapping the Current listing calls up a detailed look, including such information as humidity, wind speed, barometric pressure, and dew point. Invoking the "Today" or "Tomorrow" fields provides the same information forecasted for your choice of morning, afternoon, evening, or night. The remaining days also offer detailed forecasts, including sunrise and sunset information.

Utilities

EqualEyes includes a shortcut to all of its tutorials, along with a collection of accessible utilities to help with everyday tasks and activities. Let's review them one by one.

Where am I?

This app uses your phone's GPS to pinpoint your current location. It did a great job, even inside my house, and when I took it for a walk I merely had to double tap the "Last Known Location" listing to update my current location.

Most people will wish to have a few more advanced GPS apps on their phone. You'll learn how to obtain these and other useful apps in the "What's Missing?" section of this review.

Light Detector

This app snaps a quick photo and returns one of three results: Daylight, Light place, or Dark place. Especially these days when many light bulbs don't radiate much heat, this app is a handy way to quickly determine if someone left the lights on. I particularly appreciated that all you had to do was start the app. It snaps a photo, announces the light status, and then closes, with no further user intervention required.

OCR

I did not have much luck with this app, which is supposed to take a picture and recognize the text. I've read on various lists that others are also having difficulties. My phone only sports a 5-megapixel camera however. Perhaps a higher resolution camera and future updates to the OCR engine will improve this much-needed app's performance.

Dictaphone

This app is handy for recording quick voice memos to yourself. You can give each recording a name, but when I was done recording a quick double tap did not end the recording. Instead, I had to seek out the "Stop Recording" button, which meant I wound up with a lot of extra chatter at the end of each voice memo.

Calculator

This is a basic four-function calculator: add, subtract, multiply, and divide. There are open and close bracket buttons, so you can do nested calculations, but there is no advanced math or scientific calculations. I would suggest the company at least add a percent button, which would turn this app into a handy tip calculator.

Settings

The EqualEyes Settings app not only lets you change EqualEyes settings, but Android settings as well. I found this very helpful and convenient.

Here's a quick rundown of the EqualEyes settings you can change.

  • Theme and Colors. Use this setting to toggle your device from black and white (white letters and icons on a black background) to green, which uses green text and icons on the same black background.
  • Back and Menu Keys: Use this setting to disable these keys and rely exclusively on the EqualEyes Next, Previous, and Close buttons. This setting is particularly handy if your phone has touch activated Back and Menu keys that engage the instant you touch them, often by accident.
  • Keyboard Type: Toggles the keyboard from the EqualEyes landscape keyboard to a portrait Android keyboard with haptic feedback and touch typing. EqualEyes adds this keyboard automatically on installation.
  • Notification Area: Defaults to disabled, but you can re-enable the standard Android Notification Bar.
  • Remove Shortcuts: We'll discuss this setting in the Customizing the EqualEyes Experience section, below.
  • Clear Interface: Removes EqualEyes as your default launcher.
  • Lock Screen: Use this setting to stop your phone from locking. This is an all or nothing setting. If you would prefer to merely extend the time before your screen auto locks, you'll need to go to Android Settings and adjust the Lock Screen menu.
  • Scrolling in Lists: You can set EqualEyes to use the Volume rocker or buttons to move up and down through any EqualEyes app list. Of course with this setting enabled you will have to return to the main home screen to change your phone's volume.
  • Wireless: This is a quick way to check your Wi-Fi settings and join or change a network.
  • Messages View Type: Use this to switch from conversation to list view for your text messages.
  • ZoomText: This setting will allow you to magnify screen text with a press of a button. You can choose to use your device's Back, Menu, or Search key. You can also increase the zoom font size to up to 130 points.
  • EqualEyes Mode: Advanced or Standard: The Advanced mode allows you to add other app shortcuts to your home screen and add more home screens if necessary. We'll discuss this in more detail in the next section.

What's Missing?

EqualEyes by no means includes all the apps you will need to enjoy a complete Android experience. It does not offer a web browser, for one thing, or an e-mail program. The included GPS app lacks the ability to plan routes or offer turn-by-turn directions. Browsers, e-mail and GPS apps are extensive software packages, and I am confident the EqualEyes staff does not have the resources to create special versions of these and other must-have apps. That's why they included a direct link to the Google Play Store on the second home screen where you can find these and countless other apps.

The novice user may feel intimidated by the hundreds of thousands of apps available. Happily, EqualEyes developers have also included a home screen shortcut that calls up a curated list of apps that are known to work well with Android accessibility. There is also a shortcut that will auto-load and play several Android Accessibility podcasts, where users of all levels can enjoy informative discussions and product demonstrations. Currently, the podcast selection is rather thin, but hopefully others will be added soon. There is also another issue the developers should address immediately. In the version I am reviewing, activating the Accessibility Podcasts icon causes EqualEyes to warn: "Podcasts use mobile data. Are you sure you want to open Podcasts?" This warning pops up even if you are logged into a Wi-Fi network where data charges do not apply. I can easily envision many first time users quickly double tapping "No," and then never returning to this treasure-trove of information. Perhaps the message should read something like: "Would you like to…" with check boxes: Listen to podcasts anytime? (data charges may apply), or, Only listen to podcasts using Wi-Fi?

Customizing the EqualEyes Experience

After you download an app via either Google Play or the Accessibility Apps listing, it does not automatically show up on your EqualEyes Home screen. You will need to add it to a home screen manually. Start by double tapping one of the "Application Does Not Exist" icons on Home Screen 3. This will prompt you to "Create an Application Shortcut," or "Create a Quick Call Shortcut." Choosing the applications option brings up a list of every app on your device, and you can select the one you'd like to add to the EqualEyes Home screen. The Quick Call shortcut option summons up your EqualEyes phonebook. As previously described, select a contact and a shortcut will appear on your Home screen that will auto-dial that number with a simple double tap. If necessary, EqualEyes will create additional home screens to contain all of your app and quick call icons.

You can delete shortcuts you created via the Remove Shortcuts option in the EqualEyes Settings menu. However you cannot remove any EqualEyes apps or shortcuts. Unfortunately, you also cannot rearrange icons. If, say, you download a mail app, an accessible browser, and an advanced GPS app, they will be stuck on Home Screen three, while the Tutorial app continues to occupy valuable page one space long after a novice user will need it. Many novice users who only wish to use their phone to make and receive calls may also prefer to group quick call icons to their spouse and children together on the first Home screen.

The Bottom Line

When Android users are asked why they prefer Android phones over iPhones, many state they enjoy the enhanced customization capabilities of the Android OS. They also prefer not to be constrained by Apple's "walled garden" approach where the company makes the final decision as to what software can and cannot be installed on their devices. Unfortunately, these are the very aspects that can lead many novice smartphone users to feel overwhelmed and steepen their learning curve.

For these users, I believe that EqualEyes is an excellent way to dip a toe into the Android world. The very first Home screen offers up everything you need to make and receive phone calls and text messages, which may be all the novice user plans to do with his or her new smartphone. The suite's roster of utilities can't help but encourage exploration and practice, however, and as the user's skills and confidence grows, the podcasts and accessible apps shortcuts will lead to an even richer Android experience.

Product Information:

EqualEyes Solutions Ltd.
Address: 2-10 Capper Street 6, London, WC1E 6JA, United Kingdom
Phone: +44 75 261 762 31

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Copyright © 2013 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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