May 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 3

Product Evaluation

An Accessible, Pricey Answer: A Review of the Mobile Phone Organizer

The quest for an accessible cellular telephone has taken a new twist. ALVA's Mobile Phone Organizer (MPO) is the first combination personal digital assistant and telephone that has been specifically designed for persons who are blind or have low vision. This product allows you to make and receive calls, compose and receive SMS (Short Message Service) messages, edit notes, and manage contacts.

Physical Description

AccessWorld evaluated the braille MPO model 5500. This product features eight braille input keys, synthetic speech output, and a 20-cell refreshable braille display. ALVA's other model, the MPO 5200, is similar to the 5500 except that it does not contain a refreshable braille display.

Close up of the ALVA MPO.

Caption: The ALVA MPO model 5500 with refreshable braille display.

The MPO 5500 weighs 1.75 pounds and is 9 inches wide, 4½ inches from front to back, and 2 inches thick. All its controls are located on the top of the product. Near the front of the unit are nine braille input keys, including the space bar. Two additional buttons are located on either side of the spacebar. These buttons are used to activate menus. Behind the braille input keys are 20 refreshable braille cells. Each cell has an associated touch cursor key above it, and there are two braille scroll keys in front of the display.

A four-way rocker control is located at either end of the refreshable braille display. ALVA refers to these controls as "pads." One of these pads is used to control the speech, and the other is used for standard cursor movements and navigating menus. The Settings menu of this product allows you to select which pad controls the voice and which pad controls the cursor movement. Each pad has two associated buttons. The role of these buttons also flips, depending on which pad is performing which function. The two buttons that are associated with the cursor pad serve as OK and Cancel buttons. The buttons that are associated with the speech pad are Place Call and Disconnect Call buttons. Both sets of buttons are tactilely discernable, making it easy to find the Disconnect Call button, for example.

The far rear edge of the top panel contains an On/Off button. This button, which must be held down for several seconds to turn the product on or off, is flush with the surrounding surface, and can be difficult to find. The rear panel of the product contains a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port, two sets of headphone jacks, a power jack, and a slot where SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) cards can be inserted. SIM cards are used by all GSM (Global System for Mobile) cellular phones and contain information that identifies you to a cellular network. The rear panel of the MPO also contains braille markings that are meant to help you identify each port. Unfortunately, these markings were not the same as those that were described in the documentation.

The product comes with a sturdy carrying case that ALVA refers to as a holster. This semisolid case fits nicely around the MPO. The case contains a notch at the bottom that fits in the bottom of the MPO and further secures the unit. The case is designed to hold the product at all times. During the evaluation, there was no problem using the product while it was in the case.


The MPO comes with a variety of documentation. The complete manual is provided on a set of audio CDs. This manual is also stored on the product in the manual folder and can be read with the Notes application. The manual provides basic information about all the MPO's features and functions. Certain information, such as the lack of contracted (grade 2) support, is omitted. ALVA has also continued its tradition of complex numbering systems in its manuals. Section numbers, such as, make the system unnecessarily complex and may confuse some users.

The MPO also comes with a "Quick Start Guide" on audio CD, in braille, and in print. This guide offers an excellent way for new users to get acquainted with the product. When manual writers are trying to communicate to users exactly what keys are to be pressed, brackets and braces are often used to convey this information. Unfortunately, the reader of the "Quick Start Guide" on the audio CD thought it was necessary to read all these brackets and braces, which significantly decreased the guide's readability in this medium.


Speech Output

The MPO can provide output using both speech and braille. Speech is provided using a synthesizer from InfoVox. By default, the synthesizer produces a rather tinny female voice that may be difficult for some users to understand. The rate and pitch of this speech can be adjusted using the speech option of the settings menu. The Speech pad contains a Temporary Silence and a Mute option. Both these functions were useful when using the product. Pressing up and down on the Speech pad quickly increases or decreases the volume of the speech. It is convenient to have the ability to change this setting without having to use a menu.

A woman holding the MPO 5500 and pressing one of the four-way rocker switches next to the refreshable braille display.

Caption: Using the left side rocker control pad, which controls either the speech or navigation.

Navigating the Menus

The MPO features a structured menu system for launching its various applications. The main menu of the product contains Notes, Phone, SMS, Contacts, Agenda, Utilities, and Settings. Each of these menu options, all of which are arranged horizontally, contains a pull- down submenu. Both the main menu and the submenus can be navigated either by using the cursor pad or by typing the first letter of the desired menu item. This menu system works much like the pull-down menus of many Windows applications. The only significant difference is that the main menu of the MPO does not contain an option for getting help.

Switching on the Phone

Undoubtedly, the first thing that many new users of this product will want to explore is the telephone module. The MPO and the phone must be switched on separately. As noted earlier, the MPO is switched on with the On/Off button near the rear top edge of the product. The phone is activated by holding down the Connect button for approximately two seconds. The MPO indicates that the phone has been switched on using a series of tones. This information is not spoken or indicated on the braille display. It is possible to check the phone's on/off status in the Phone and Network options under the Utility menu, but this information is not easily accessed.

Having the phone module switched on and off separately from the product has both advantages and disadvantages. Having these two functions separate allows users to work with the product in environments where the use of cell phones is not permitted, such as airplanes. Leaving the phone in the off position while using the other features of the product also extends the battery's life. It is also possible to switch off the MPO and leave the phone on. A disadvantage is that if a call is received when the MPO is in this condition, the MPO will automatically be switched on to allow you to answer the call. Since there is no indication that the phone is still active when the MPO is switched off, it is easy to leave the phone on, and the battery will drain at a much faster rate.

Making a Call

Choosing the Phone option from the main menu causes the MPO to display a message that indicates which network of cellular service providers the phone is currently accessing. This information helps you determine if the phone is in "roaming" mode or is connected to your provider's network. Although the phone's signal strength is available using other menu options, this information is not displayed with the current service provider. Pressing the OK button from this message box reveals the Phone submenu. This menu allows callers to enter a new phone number to be dialed, dial a number associated with a contact, review and redial numbers from the Missed Call and Received Call logs, and redial previously dialed numbers. If the Dial a New Number option is selected, all digits of the number must be entered in Nemeth code or dropped cell braille (dot 2 for the number 1, for example). Once you have selected a number to be dialed from one of the menus options, the MPO makes a series of sounds to indicate that it is connecting. A connecting message is also shown on the display. If, however, the phone is unable to establish a connection, a series of loud, shrill tones are played. An error message indicating the problem is not spoken or displayed in braille. During the call, the elapsed time of the call is constantly displayed in braille.

Talking and listening to a caller can be done in one of two ways. The MPO includes a headphone microphone that can be connected to one of the headset jacks on the back panel. This option allows for private calling, much like a traditional phone. If the headphone is disconnected, the MPO acts like a speaker phone. This option allows you to hear the call through the MPO's main speaker and the caller to hear the MPO user through a built-in microphone. During the evaluation of the product, I made several phone calls using both the headset and the speaker phone. The audio quality using both methods was good. Obviously, using the headset worked much better when I made phone calls in situations that had a lot of background noise.

It is possible to use the MPO while talking on the phone. If you press the Speech pad to the right, it will mute the MPO's speech. This feature is useful when you are trying to listen to the phone. The Disconnect key, which is used to end a call, can be activated no matter what application is currently being run.

SMS Messages

SMS messages are text messages that can be sent between many mainstream cellular telephones. When an SMS message is sent, it is instantly received by the recipient's phone. If the recipient's phone is active, an alert tone is played, and the user can choose to view the message. Although SMS messages cannot be long, they are often a handy way to send a quick bit of information to a colleague.

The MPO can send and receive SMS messages. The SMS Message menu allows users to compose a new message or read and reply to received messages. If the New Message or Reply to Message option is selected, you are placed in the SMS text editor. This simple editor allows you to enter up to 160 characters. The editor supports only the most basic editing functions, such as moving the cursor to the top or bottom of the text and cutting and copying text.

Once your message is complete, pressing the OK button allows you to enter a phone number to which you would like the message sent. If you are simply replying to a previously received message, the message is automatically sent. If an error is encountered with text messaging, unlike with the phone, the MPO alerts you by displaying a message in braille.

Receiving an SMS message is a simple operation. If your phone and MPO are switched on and in a good coverage area, an alert tone is played when the SMS message is received. A message is also spoken and shown on the braille display to alert you to this new message. At this point, you may press OK to read the message or press cancel to return to your previous task. When the phone and MPO were not in a good coverage area, the MPO occasionally did not alert me when a new message arrived. It is, however, easy to open the Received Items option of the SMS menu to check for any unread messages. If your phone is switched off when an SMS message is received, you are alerted to the fact that you have a new message as soon as the phone is switched on and is in a good coverage area.


The MPO's Notes feature is a basic word-processing application. Although this application can read Microsoft Word documents that are stored on the product using Microsoft ActiveSync, it does not have popular features, such as Spell Check or Word Count. Notes does offer basic functions, such as cutting and copying text. It is also the only application on the MPO that supports contracted (grade 2) braille input. The application will not, however, translate a document into contracted braille.

All the Notes features are accessed through a menu system. Many of these menu options also have shortcut keys assigned. The MPO provides you with a series of predefined categories or folders in which documents can be stored. You can move documents between these folders. It is not possible to create new folders or rename any of the existing folders.


The ALVA MPO has a Contact Manager that can be used to store numerous bits of information about individuals with whom you regularly correspond. As was noted earlier, the phone numbers that are entered into this manager can be used to call these individuals or send them SMS messages. Although the MPO's Contact Manager does not allow you to store as much information about a contact as is possible in other popular contact-management systems, the fields should be sufficient for most users. A Notes field, for example, is not included.

Once a contact has been entered, it is possible to look up this information only by using either a last name or a company's name. Searches that would, for instance, find all your contacts who live in Ohio are not possible.

What's on Your Agenda?

Scheduling appointments on the MPO is accomplished using the Agenda application. The MPO allows you to schedule and review upcoming and past appointments using the familiar vertical menu structure. The scheduling of recurring appointments, however, is not supported. Although a specific menu option for rescheduling previously scheduled appointments does not exist, this task can be performed by simply editing an appointment while it is being viewed in the list view. The MPO does not provide any means of looking at a calendar view. Future appointments are simply listed in the order in which they will occur.

A Word About Braille

Contracted (grade 2) braille is not supported by the ALVA MPO. All menus, system prompts, and error messages are displayed in uncontracted (grade 1) braille. As was noted earlier, the Notes feature allows you to type text in contracted braille, but all other applications, such as the SMS text editor, require you to enter text in uncontracted braille. This problem is especially annoying in the phone application, where you must enter all phone numbers in dropped case. According to ALVA, support for contracted braille will be added in an upcoming release of the product.

Connecting to Other Computers

The USB port on the MPO can be used to connect the product to a desktop or laptop computer. The product includes a cable and software for this purpose. The software is Microsoft ActiveSync. Like other Windows CE devices, when the MPO is connected, it appears as a remote disk drive in Windows Explorer. This remote drive can be browsed, and files can be copied to and from the MPO's various folders. Using utilities provided by ALVA, it is also possible to synchronize the product's Agenda (calendar) and contacts with Microsoft Outlook. Although performing this function is not mentioned in the main user manual, it is documented on the Utilities disk. Also, as was stated earlier, the MPO's contact manager does not have all the fields that a Microsoft Outlook contact contains. Only the similar fields are copied to the MPO. Being able to access all the contacts and appointments that are stored in Microsoft Outlook makes the Agenda and Contact applications of the MPO much more useful.

Phone Coverage

The MPO allows you to insert and use any SIM card. This means that any cellular service provider in your area that has GSM (Global System for Mobile) communication coverage should be able to support the MPO. I evaluated the MPO with a SIM card from T-Mobile. GSM service is designed so that when a user's original service provider is not available, the phone will work on another GSM-enabled network that is available. The product was evaluated in several different cities and was able to access a GSM network provider in most of these locations.

The Bottom Line

The ALVA Mobile Phone Organizer is a revolutionary new product. The phone and SMS applications give visually impaired users access to features that sighted individuals have had access to for years. The ability to hear current provider status and elapsed call time are functions that have only recently been added to a few high-end mainstream cell phones. Having this information on a refreshable braille display is definitely unique. Unfortunately, the MPO is still a new product. As such, it has many quirks that ALVA needs to address. Some of these quirks, such as the lack of support for contracted braille, are disappointing. The high cost of the product will also be a major problem for some individuals. Still, if you are looking for a phone that allows you to access all its features, consider the ALVA MPO.

Manufacturer's Comments

"ALVA appreciates AccessWorld's favorable review of the MPO 5500. As the article points out, there are many desirable aspects of the MPO that customers find preferable over existing notetakers, such as its size and weight and its short learning curve, not to mention its accessible phone and text-messaging components. We have already begun working on the next software release, which we anticipate to be available around the time this article is published. This will be a free upgrade for MPO users and will address many of the points cited, including corrections to the user documentation and enhanced grade 2 braille support. In addition, this software upgrade will provide e-mail synchronization with Microsoft Outlook and the Terminal utility, which allows the MPO to be connected to a computer and used as a refreshable braille display in combination with popular screen readers. We are also planning several other software and hardware enhancements to the MPO family of products."

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Product Information

Product: Mobile Phone Organizer (MPO) model 5500

Manufacturer: ALVA Access Group, 436 14th Street, Suite 700, Oakland, CA 94612; phone: (888) 318-2582; e-mail: <>; web site: <>.

Price: $4,295.

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