May 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 3

Product Evaluation

We Think They Hear Us Now: Cell Phones with Speech

Funding for this product evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, WV.

Following up on our article, "Do Cell Phones Plus Software Equal Access? Part 2" in the January 2004 issue of AccessWorld, in which we discussed two Nokia cell phones, combined with third-party text-to-speech software, this article evaluates two cell phones that come equipped with a degree of speech output right out of the box. One of these phones is produced by both Audiovox and Toshiba and is known as both the Audiovox CDM 9950 and the Toshiba VM 4050. We refer to it as the Audiovox/Toshiba. The other phone we evaluated is the Samsung SPH-a660. These two phones were not designed to offer the overall degree of accessibility that is found in the two Nokia phones with added software, but the speech output that is included may represent the beginning of a trend in which manufacturers and service providers include accessibility without the need to purchase additional software. We investigated how well the speech-output capabilities of these two phones provided access for a person who is blind or has low vision to the device's many functions and features.

The Audiovox CDM 9950/Toshiba VM 4050

The Audiovox/Toshiba is a small clamshell-style telephone, weighing 4.1 ounces and measuring 3.7 inches by 1.9 inches by 0.9 inch when folded up. It has a small 0.6-inch by 0.8-inch monochrome secondary display screen on the outside, but flipping it open reveals a larger 1.7-inch by 1.4-inch color display on the inside. This phone has many of the features of top cellular telephones, such as web browsing, a digital still camera, and a video camera that is capable of capturing short video clips. It also has a particularly interesting feature called Voice Guidance, which provides speech and other audio output to communicate some screen information.

In our evaluation article in the May 2003 issue of AccessWorld ("Answering the Call: Top-of-the-Line Cell Phones, Part 1"), we concluded that the Audiovox 9500, the predecessor to this phone, was virtually unusable by people who are blind or have low vision because of its lack of speech output and keys that were nearly impossible to identify by touch. So, in this article, we compare our evaluations to find out how far Audiovox has come toward meeting the needs of users who are blind or have low vision.

The Samsung SPH-a660

The Samsung SPH-a660 is a small clamshell-style telephone weighing 3.6 ounces and measuring 3.0 inches by 1.9 inches by 0.9 inch when folded up. It has a 1.4-inch by 1.1-inch color display that is viewed when the phone is flipped open but no external display. Although it has no camera feature, it does have other notable features, such as a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) capability and web access. Voice Recognition, which allows you to control the phone via voice commands, is the feature that is the most highly touted on the manufacturer's web site, and this feature also includes the speech output that is of interest to users who are blind or have low vision.

Photograph of two clam-shell style cell phones, flipped open.

Caption: The Samsung SPH-a660 (left) and the Audiovox CDM 9950/Toshiba VM 4050.

The Sweet 16

As we reported in our previous evaluations of cell phones, before we began our reviews, we surveyed 20 cell phone users who are blind or have low vision to determine which features they would most like to have made accessible. The following 16 features, which were rated the highest by the respondents, became the basis for our evaluation (the starred features were tied for first place):

  1. *Keys that are easily identifiable by touch
  2. *Voice output
  3. *Accessible documentation
  4. Battery-level indicator
  5. Roaming indicator
  6. Message indicator
  7. Phone book
  8. Phone lock mode
  9. Keypad lock mode
  10. Power indicator
  11. Ringing or vibrating mode indicator
  12. GPS feature
  13. Signal strength indicator
  14. Ringer volume control
  15. Caller identification
  16. Speed dialing

We looked at how available or accessible these features are and noted any barriers to accessing them. The evaluation methods we used included these:

  • measuring the ability to identify and use the keypad tactilely,
  • determining the ability to navigate menus,
  • noting auditory and vibratory feedback, and
  • assessing the readability of the visual display.

The following analysis lists the 16 cell-phone features that the respondents rated as the most important for accessibility and how the Audiovox/Toshiba and the Samsung phones measured up on each feature.

Keys That Are Easily Identifiable by Touch

Although there is still room for slight improvement, the keys on the Audiovox/Toshiba are relatively easy to identify by touch, and they represent a significant improvement over the phone's predecessor, the Audiovox 9500. Most of the keys have a raised, convex design, and the dialing keys are in the familiar 3-by-4 grid. The 5 key is slightly recessed with a nib properly placed in the middle of the key for orientation purposes, but the nib could be a bit more substantial so that it would be easier to feel. Although the Talk and End keys are nearly flush with the panel, each has a nib on it for easier identification.

The story is not so positive regarding the Samsung phone, whose keys are nearly flush with the panel and extremely difficult to identify by touch. Also, instead of a nib placed directly on the center of the 5 key, nibs are placed on the panel to the right and left of the 5 key, and they are difficult to identify by touch.

Voice Output

The Voice Guidance feature of the Audiovox/Toshiba phone does not provide speech output for navigating menus, but it does provide some speech and other audio output for several features. Handset Status information is spoken when you press and hold the OK button, which is surrounded by a four-way circle of navigation buttons near the top of the panel. The status information that is spoken includes battery level, signal strength, roaming status, missed-call indication, voice mail indication, and whether the phone-lock mode is active. Voice Guidance will speak the number of an incoming or outgoing call, but only after you have already sent or answered the call. It will speak call-history information, speaking the number, time and date of received, missed, and outgoing calls as you scroll through them. It will also speak the person's name for a call if you have placed a corresponding entry into the phone's contacts list.

The nonverbal audio output of Voice Guidance involves tones to indicate the menu position. For example, it beeps as you scroll through a list of menu items, with a different tone being emitted when you scroll past the bottom item and back to the top of the list. However, these beeps do not provide much assistance unless you have memorized a great deal of menus. The voice output is digitally recorded human speech in a female voice, which is clear. However, it is produced only through the phone's loudspeaker or speaker phone, which certainly does not give you privacy, and it can be annoying to bystanders. Initially, the Voice Guidance features themselves must be activated via the inaccessible menu system. However, after the features have been set to the On position for the first time, Voice Guidance can then be turned on and off by simply pressing and holding the menu key, which is at the top middle position of the keypad.

The Samsung's voice output is more limited, and it is part of its voice-recognition feature, which is activated by pressing and holding the Talk key. A clear, digitally recorded female voice comes on saying, "Command, please." If you say "Status," the voice speaks the name of the service provider that owns the signal you are currently receiving, the signal strength and battery level, and if the phone is roaming. You can also say "Digit dial," and the voice will prompt you with "Number, please." You then speak the number you wish to dial, and the voice confirms the number before the call is sent. If you forget your phone number, you can give the command "My phone number," and the voice will provide that information.

These phones also have other useful audio-output features, called alerts, that provide tones to indicate certain things, but sighted assistance is necessary to activate them. When these alerts are activated on the Audiovox/Toshiba, a long string of beeps indicates a new voice or text message, a beep sounds every minute during a call so you can track the minutes you have used, and another tone is heard if a call is lost because of a lost signal. On the Samsung, short tunes play when the phone is turned on or off, as well as when the phone is flipped open or closed. A beep is emitted every minute during a call, so you can track the minutes you have used. A brief ring sounds to indicate a successful connection when you have placed a call, and tones indicate that your signal is fading, but these last two indications are too loud and piercing if the phone is held up to your ear.

Accessible Documentation

Documentation is a major problem with both these phones. No audiocassette, braille, or large-print manuals are available, and the only electronic manuals available are in inaccessible PDF (portable document format) documents. The manual that is available from Sprint when you buy the Audiovox/Toshiba phone is limited, and it says nothing about the Voice Guidance feature. Several calls to Sprint's customer service representatives and technicians resulted in frustration, since none of them knew anything about Voice Guidance or where we could find the full manual. We finally found the full manual by calling the Audiovox sales office, but because it is a PDF document, sighted assistance is required to learn about the features.

Battery-Level Indicator

The Handset Status feature of Voice Guidance speaks the battery level on the Audiovox/Toshiba as full, half, low, or empty. There is also a nonverbal audio alert to indicate that the battery is very low, and the Handset Status feature says, "battery empty." About 20 minutes later, it produces the alert tones three more times, and then the phone dies completely, and you must recharge it.

On the Samsung, the Status command causes the voice to speak the battery level as high, medium, low, or empty. There is also a long string of beeps to indicate that the battery is low, which sounds every 5 minutes for about 2½ hours, depending on your use of the phone.

Roaming Indicator

On the Audiovox/Toshiba, Handset Status tells you if the phone is roaming and thus that you are paying more for your call. Also, if you place or receive a call while the phone is roaming, the voice tells you that you must press the 1 key to proceed and accept the higher charges.

On the Samsung, roaming status can be determined by giving the Status command to the voice-recognition feature and listening to the resulting voice output. However, unlike the Audiovox/Toshiba, there is no voice or sound to indicate that the 1 key must be pressed to proceed with a call while the phone is roaming.

Message Indicator

Both phones emit a unique tone to alert you to a new voice-mail message, and the system can be set to provide the alert just once or to repeat it at various intervals, but sighted assistance is required to adjust these settings. The Audiovox/Toshiba's Handset Status feature tells you if there is a new voice-mail message or if a call has been missed, but the Samsung has no voice output for message indication. Text or multimedia messaging is not accessible on these phones.

Phone Book

The phone-book features of these phones are not accessible because they have no speech output to guide you through the menus and input fields. However, since the service for both these phones is provided by Sprint PCS, you can use Sprint PCS's network-based voice-input system to make calls and to use the phone-book feature that is part of the Sprint network. The cost is $5 per month, and you can add, delete, search, or modify phone-book entries with voice commands or by using the Sprint PCS web page. This type of service is offered by several service providers, so you may want to check with your service provider to see if it is available.

Phone Lock Mode

To lock these phones to prevent unauthorized use, you must access the menu systems, but neither phone's menu system is accessible because there is no speech output to guide you.

Keypad Lock Mode

A keypad-lock feature is used to avoid inadvertent dialing if the phone is jostled while in a pocket or briefcase. Since the keys are protected by their clamshell-style designs, this feature is not necessary with these phones.

Power Indicator

Both phones play a short tune when they are turned on or off, but that indicator does not help if you just want to check to see if the phone is actually on or off. If you have sufficient vision, you can tell whether the phone is on simply by looking to see if the display is on. If you do not have sufficient vision, you can press any number key and listen for a tone, which would indicate that the phone is on. Also, if the power is on and the alerts are activated on the Samsung, a tune is played when the phone is flipped open or closed.

Ringing or Vibrating Mode Indicator

Both phones have buttons on their left-side panels that are used to adjust the volume of the ringer and to put it into vibration mode. As you make these adjustments, the phone vibrates to indicate that a vibration setting has been chosen.

GPS Feature

Both phones have a GPS feature that is used to help local 911 systems locate you in case of an emergency, but your local emergency system must be equipped to use the satellite systems. The GPS feature can also access other location-based services that may be available from providers of cellular services in the future. Turning the GPS feature off will hide your location from everyone except 911 services, but it must be done via the inaccessible menus.

Signal Strength Indicator

Both phones have voice output to indicate signal strength. The Handset Status feature on the Audiovox/Toshiba tells you that your signal strength is 4, 3, 2, or 1 or that you have no service. The Status command on the Samsung gives you similar information.

Ringer Volume Control

The buttons on the side panel on these phones are used to increase or decrease the volume of the ringer and the earpiece, but it takes a bit of practice to get used to the process. You first have to press one of the buttons to enter Volume Adjustment mode; then you quickly have to press the buttons to make your adjustment, or you will leave the Volume Adjustment mode before you make your desired changes. There are nine setting levels on the Audiovox/Toshiba, the bottom level being a silent mode with no beeps, tones, or speech produced. The next level up turns off both the ringer and vibration, and the next level is vibrate only. Next, there are five levels of increasing volume, and the last setting sets the highest ringer volume, combined with vibration. The Samsung is similar, but there are eight levels of volume instead of five.

Caller Identification

The Voice Guidance feature on the Audiovox/Toshiba speaks the number or name of an incoming caller, but you have to press the Talk button to hear it, and you are connected as soon as the caller's number or name is spoken. So, you do not have any time to decide whether to answer the call because you have already answered it. There is no speech output to provide caller-identification information on the Samsung phone.

Speed Dialing

On both phones, speed dialing relies on the phone-book feature, which is inaccessible. However, if a user who is visually impaired gets assistance to set up speed-dialing entries initially, speed dialing can be used. You simply press and hold a number from 1 to 9, and the phone will dial the person associated with that number's phone-book entry.

Low Vision Accessibility

In addition to the original 16 features, we looked at overall accessibility of the phones to someone with low vision. The Audiovox/Toshiba has a high-resolution color display, but most of the text and icons that appear are in font sizes between 8 and 12 points, which are too small for most people with low vision to read. The display has no zoom capabilities. We also found that the display can be highly reflective, depending on the lighting in the room, which can be a problem. The smaller monochrome secondary display's contrast can be adjusted, but there is no contrast-adjustment setting for the main screen. However, the background can be changed to increase readability. We found that using the camera feature to photograph a bright white image and then using that image as the background provided a good contrast. The text on the keys is too small for most people with low vision to read, but at least the keys can be distinguished tactilely.

The Samsung also has a bright high-color display, but the text and icons are also too small for most people with low vision to read. We found no glare or reflection problems with this phone, and the contrast can be adjusted, but there are no zoom or background features to increase readability. The text on the keys is also too small for most people with low vision to read, which is a problem on this phone because the keys are extremely difficult to identify tactilely.

The Bottom Line

Although these phones by no means provide the level of accessibility desired by cell phone users who are blind or have low vision, the fact that they do provide some limited speech output without the need to purchase expensive add-on software is important. We hope this represents a trend in the cell phone industry that will result in more extensive use of speech output to guide users with visual impairments. The Audiovox/Toshiba is a significant improvement over the Audiovox 9500, its virtually unusable predecessor, and it is certainly the most accessible phone that can be purchased off the shelf. We are pleased to see this improvement; it shows that manufacturers can make cell phones more accessible if they choose to do so.

Because of its poorly designed keypad, we would never recommend the Samsung to people who are blind or have low vision, but the Audiovox/Toshiba could be an option for someone who just wants access to some basic status information.

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Product Information

Product: Audiovox CDM 9950

Manufacturer: Audiovox Communications Corporation, 555 Wireless Boulevard, Hauppauge, NY 11788; phone: 631-233-3300, Customer Service: 800-229-1235; web site: <>.

Service Provider: Sprint PCS: phone: 888-253-1315; Customer Service: 888-211-4727; web site: <>.

Price: $330 or $180 when purchased with a two-year service agreement from Sprint PCS.

Product: Toshiba VM 4050 (same as the Audiovox CDM 9950)

Manufacturer: Toshiba America, 1251 Avenue of the Americas, Suite 4110, New York, NY 10020; phone: 212-596-0620, Customer Service: 800-631-3811; web site: <>.

Service Provider: Sprint PCS: phone: 888-253-1315; Customer Service: 888-211-4727; web site: <>.

Price: $330 or $180 when purchased with a two-year service agreement from Sprint PCS.

Product: Samsung SPH-a660

Manufacturer: Samsung Electronics America, 105 Challenger Road No. 1, Ridgefield Park, NJ 07660; phone: 201-229-4000, Customer Service: 800-726-7864; web site: <>.

Service Provider: Sprint PCS: phone: 888-253-1315; Customer Service: 888-211-4727; web site: <>.

Price: $200 or $30 with a two-year service agreement with Sprint PCS.

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