November 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 6

Product Evaluation

It's Hard to Find Good Help These Days: A Review of Personal Data Assistants

Thanks to the generosity of the Verizon Foundation, the following product evaluation appears in this issue of AccessWorld:

You've seen these cute little devices. They fit in the palm of your hand and display phone numbers and other vital information. Your friends pull them out of nowhere at the dinner table and tap on them wildly when you tell them your new phone number. Your colleague down the hall, who used to be a disorganized mess, has suddenly become the most efficient person in the building. He pulls out his little device and runs off to an appointment every time you stop by.

The general name for these pocket-sized electronic organizers is personal data assistant (PDA). Most have touch screens on which the user taps with a stylus, and a few have built-in or optional keyboards. They are small enough to fit in a coat pocket and sometimes even a shirt pocket. Besides storing phone numbers, many have lots of advanced features, some resembling a full-featured computer.

There are a few devices on the market that might be classified as PDAs designed specifically for users who are blind. These special PDAs (some of which predate the mass-market devices) lack many of the features available in lower-priced general-market PDAs, but they have features blind users need and want, such as speech or braille output. We have not found any pocket-sized PDAs designed specifically for users with low vision.

For this Product Evaluation, we did not attempt to contrast devices for blind people with the mass-consumer-market devices. Instead, we looked at off-the-shelf products that might work for someone with low vision.

What to Look for

If you have low vision and are sifting through the sales and technical brochures for devices, hoping to find something you can use, here are some features to consider:

Large display. When we say large in the context of a pocket-sized device, we mean relatively less tiny than the others. These products, to be small enough to be stashed in a pocket, have to have cruelly small screens., High contrast. Many pocket-sized devices of any type have liquid crystal displays. These can be very small and still have clear letters, but the contrast possible on the best of them is too low for many users. Unlike a calculator or clock, a PDA often displays a comparatively large amount of data at once, and accurate reading is essential (try dialing a phone number when you can't tell 3 from 8 or 7 from 1)., User-controlled backlighting or brightness. There is a great deal of interplay between contrast and brightness. A user may find a combination that works well, then find that walking out into sunlight and trying to look at the appointment calendar is out of the question., Ability to enlarge the characters. Some users may be able to tolerate a certain amount of invisibility in the menus and icons of the PDA, but may find it essential to enlarge the phone numbers and E-mail messages themselves., Ability to set visual settings without vision. If a user needs to have white lettering on a black background and the maximum brightness and largest print size available in order to operate the device, can he or she set those options with the default visual settings turned on?, Ability to perform common tasks without vision. Buttons with dedicated functions for jumping into the phone list or appointment calendar cut down immensely on the visual load., Flexibility. No two users with low vision see the same way. A manufacturer could conceivably design a device with a large, high-contrast display, but without the ability to switch the display from dark-on-light to light-on-dark, it would be invisible to many users., Ability to change the colors of the display easily. This feature applies only to PDAs with color displays, of course. Colors can enhance the user's enjoyment of the device, but if the color selections all include low contrast or otherwise problematic color combinations, the device will be unusable to some users..

Touch Screens

Desktop computer users with low vision often spend an inordinate amount of time searching all over their 17-inch monitors for that pesky mouse pointer. Many PDAs come with touch screens as the main mode of input. For some users, touch screens can be an improvement over desktop-style mouse control of the device. With the touch screen the user needs to locate only the desired icon, not both the icon and the pointer. The disadvantage may be, however, that users must fit the pen-style stylus between the tiny screen and their faces in order to hit the mark. Some of the screens are visible only when viewed directly from the front, so tipping the screen or moving the head slightly can be enough to cause any user to lose sight of the target.

Before We Buy

To increase our chances of finding a device that would be usable by a person with low vision, we defined PDAs very broadly and set out to review the manufacturers' literature. Our criteria? The device must fit into a coat pocket, offer the ability to keep phone numbers in an organized fashion, include an appointment calendar (not simply a calendar to display the days of the month for reference), and allow at least simple note-taking capability. We hoped we might find a few devices with these minimal capabilities that would be usable by someone who might be able to read a normal computer screen under optimal conditions.

With this extremely generous scope of devices to consider, we tried to find devices with advertised high-visibility features. We did not find that manufacturers were generally proud of their displays. Few mentioned any ability to enlarge the print or adjust the contrast. A few did describe the display as large or bright. We found several of the Hewlett-Packard models had larger than typical displays.

What We Want

Although we were willing to accept almost anything we could stuff into a pocket that was more sophisticated than a felt-tip pen and bold line paper, we really had a much broader wish list. It should go without saying that people with visual impairments want all of the diverse features in a PDA that everyone else wants. We want to keep track of information and appointments, play games—and have fresh-squeezed lemonade at the push of a button! Ideally, we'd be able to check our E-mail and browse Web sites, although we recognize that the inability to carry a full-sized keyboard eliminates a lot of writing as a realistic possibility. (We also might not be able to have ice in the lemonade!)

Palm Pilot

One very popular type of PDA is the Palm Pilot, which comes in several models, ranging in price from around $150 to $450. Its close competitor and clone is the Handspring line of PDAs. The Palm Pilots have been the closest thing to a standard in such devices in this fledgling industry.

Palm makes a variety of handheld devices, some relatively large, but few have screens that exceed three inches. Most models have LCD displays, some with backlighting. This summer Palm released a color model.

Although some of the Palm models advertise "advanced LCD screen technology gives you razor-sharp viewing in dim light or bright sunlight," these displays are tiny and the characters on them are minuscule. Contrast is terrible at best.

So, you don't care so much about reading your notes. Can you write them? The basic Palm design is a device about 5 inches x 3 inches, nearly all of it occupied by the screen. Across the bottom of the device, below the screen, is a row of buttons. The buttons can be distinguished by touch, a big plus for Palm. Once the user has determined the functions of the buttons (these vary depending on the application), it is possible to do common tasks without looking at the buttons.

None of the Palm PDAs comes with a built-in hardware keyboard. Instead, a tap of an icon on the touch screen brings up a tiny on-screen keyboard, and the user taps on each character with a pen-shaped stylus to toss it into the note. A fair amount of eye-hand coordination is necessary, and users must be able to see two areas of the screen at once; the keyboard and the memo. If users are able to see the keyboard by pressing their noses to the screen (a bad idea, since touching the screen amounts to a click), they must then move their heads slightly to see the note taking shape, then move back into position to "type."

Palm sells an optional keyboard for some models. This device is small, but it is a huge improvement over tapping the on-screen keyboard with the stylus. Unfortunately, those nose-to-the-screen users will have to lie on the keyboard to read their work.

Pocket PC

The Pocket PC is a category of PDA that may be made by one of several manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard and Compaq. The major defining characteristics are that they run Windows CE as their operating system and they include some or all of a line of Microsoft applications with "Pocket" in the name. The Pocket PC in its current incarnation is quite new, but we found it widely available in retail stores and catalogs.

This operating system and these applications significantly resemble the full-featured versions that users might run on their desktop computers. Users comfortable with Windows 98 and Microsoft Word, for example, will be taking notes on a Pocket PC in no time. Pocket PCs have a Windows desktop-style interface and applications and menus cascade and clutter the screen in the same way as those on a desktop computer.

For users with low vision, though, Windows CE might resemble Windows 98 just enough to be disappointing. Although our desktop computers have accessibility and display options that allow us to enlarge desktop icons and otherwise improve the visibility and usability of the computer, Windows CE does not. It does, however, offer several color schemes (for those Pocket PCs with color displays), two of which provide high-contrast options, one white on black, the other black on white.

For our example Pocket PC, we selected the Hewlett-Packard Jornada 690 ($840) because of its unusually large display. This device has a screen with a whopping 6 inch x 2.25 inch viewing area. It also had a hardware keyboard, which we found to be a big plus. Although the keys were small, it was possible to touch-type on it. The keyboard and "large" screen meant that this device was quite a lot larger than many of its competitors, but its clam-shell-style case meant that the screen and keyboard were nearly the same size and when closed, the Jornada stayed within our coat-pocket size limit. The default settings on the Jornada included a color scheme that was fairly low contrast and desktop wallpaper (the design that shows behind the little icons when the user doesn't have any particular programs filling the screen) that contained a large ad that obscured the view of the icons in the center of the screen. However, using sighted assistance we were able to switch the colors to a much more pleasant white on black scheme and to eliminate the wallpaper altogether, giving us a crisp black desktop with bright white, although tiny, icons.

The brightness and contrast controls were set using software. We would have preferred a button or slide so that we wouldn't have needed eyesight to make the adjustment. The window with the visual settings was brought up by tapping the top right corner of the touch screen with a finger, though, which was a big help. Unfortunately, once the window was on the screen, the changes in settings had to be made using a stylus on tiny icons on a cluttered screen.

Another difficulty with the Windows CE devices was that the tiny icons generally were not labeled with text. It has become commonplace on desktop computers to find that the user can simply hover the mouse over a mysterious icon and a short bit of text will appear on the screen to help identify the icon. Windows CE icons had no such "tool tips," so no amount of eyesight would reveal the significance of some of them.

One feature that attracted us to the Jornada was that it had built-in recording and playback capability. Even with the device closed, it could be used to record short notes. One button on the front edge was used for recording and another for playing back the last several recordings. Using software on the Jornada, the notes could be saved separately and they and other sound files could be played using the built-in speaker.

Although these sound features seemed like a nice addition (we thought we might at least be able to listen to music on the way to work), the absence of a headphone jack made the feature rather useless. Besides obvious privacy issues, the sound from the built-in speaker was very poor.

As we showed our adorable little Jornada to potential users with low vision or with lots of vision, we were surprised at how much delight it inspired. Its sleek purple case and Windows-style desktop made it a lot of friends. Several Palm Pilot users objected to the large size of the Jornada, and users with low vision were almost always disappointed after a few minutes trying to use the gadget.

The most common question we heard from users with low vision was "Can it run ZoomText?" Generally users speculated that speech or screen magnification programs could run on it. Alas, this is not the case.

The Sharp Wizard (Model OZ-770)

The Wizard, which we found for about $100, had the clam-shell-style case that allowed for a larger screen in a pocket-sized device. Unfortunately, the viewing area of this screen is only 2 inches by 4 inches. It has a typically low-contrast LCD screen. The contrast was adjustable, though, which was a help. This adjustment, to the great credit of Sharp, is done by a predictable set of button-presses, so if the current contrast setting makes the text invisible, it is possible to put it to rights. The screen also has a backlighting feature, which is turned on and off with the press of one button. The best contrast and brightness settings, however, made the screen readable only to people with very good vision.

In memos and the phone listing application, the Wizard has an option to make the text slightly larger. Combined with the brightness and contrast settings, it might be possible for some people with low vision to see their list of phone numbers.

The Sharp Wizard, in contrast with the higher-priced PDAs we looked at, does not have a touch screen. Instead, it has a series of buttons on either side of the screen and a little keyboard. Phone numbers and memos are entered by actually typing, a feature to look for if you can type without looking at the keys.

Shopping Tips

If you think you might have enough vision to enjoy using one of these organizers, there are a few things to watch out for besides the list of visual features already discussed.

Get your hands on the device before you buy it. It's easy to get a picture of the one you are interested in, but you need to be fairly particular about just how visible the screen really is. See how much you can tip the screen to one side or another and still read it. Hold it in daylight and office light and check if you can still see the screen.

Ignore speculation on the part of friends and salespeople that the text can be enlarged or that the device can be made to talk. If we had a nickel for every time we heard such a claim while shopping …

Consider selecting a device with a keyboard. If you know how to type, you'll be much happier with a keyboard, even though it does necessarily make the device larger.

If you find a pocket-sized device that makes lemonade, let us know!


Handspring, 189 Bernardo Avenue, Mountain View, CA 94043; corporate phone: 650-230-5000; sales and ordering: 888-565-9393; Web site:

Hewlett-Packard, 3000 Hanover Street, Palo Alto, CA 94304-1185; phone: 650-857-1501; phone: 800-826-4111; Web site:

Palm, 5470 Great America Parkway, Santa Clara, CA 95052; phone: 408-326-9000; Web site:

Sharp, Sharp Wizard Organizer, TM20 Technical Support, 1300 Naperville Drive, Romeoville, IL60446; phone: 630-378-3590; Web site:

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