January 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 1

Product Evaluation

Now Speaking: Apple Adds Speech Output to the iPod Nano

In the September 2008 issue of AccessWorld, I opened my article on digital audio players by telling you it was the last in a series of articles on the subject. However, just about the same time that the article was being posted, some exciting news about iPods prompted me to write another article. I received an e-mail message from Apple announcing a new iPod Nano with talking menus. Apple also announced improvements in the accessibility of its iTunes software on both the Macintosh and PC platforms. At about the same time, a couple of our colleagues in the blindness community called AFB TECH (www.afbtech.org) to tell us about the I-Tell, a new product from Cobolt Systems that can connect to many of the Apple iPod products to create a spoken interface for accessing music on the iPod. This article details our experiences in the AFB TECH lab examining these new products. I start with the new Nano and its accessibility advancements. Next, I discuss iTunes on the Mac using its built-in VoiceOver screen reader, as well as on the PC using the JAWS, Window-Eyes, and System Access To Go screen-access products. I then cover our testing of the I-Tell product and end with a section on other updates, news, and announcements regarding accessible digital audio players.

The New iPod Nano 4th Generation

The exciting news about the iPod Nano 4th Generation is that Apple has designed it to be accessible to people with visual impairments. It has speech output for accessing nearly all its menus and functions and speaks the names of all your songs and other content that you load onto it. This built-in accessibility comes at the same price paid by the general public, with no added costs, or blindness tax, that we often have to pay to use today's technology.

A person's hand operating an iPod Nano. The menu shows that Music has been selected.

Caption: A hand holding an iPod Nano.

Priced at $149.99 for the 8 GB model or $199.99 for the 16 GB model, the new iPod Nano 4th Generation measures 3.6 inches tall by 1.5 inches wide by 0.24 inches thick and weighs 1.3 ounces. It has a sleeker feel than the 3rd Generation Nano, with an elliptical shape rather than squared edges on the sides. If you were to look straight at the top or bottom panels, you would see an elliptical shape instead of a rectangular shape. The 4th Generation is also taller and narrower than its predecessor, but has the same ports and controls. Below the high-contrast color display screen, it still has Apple's patented click wheel, which consists of a center Select button surrounded by a larger circle. The click-wheel concept comes into play when you want to adjust the volume or scroll through a menu or song list. Instead of pressing buttons to accomplish these tasks, you simply run your finger along the outer circle. You move your finger clockwise to increase the volume or to move forward in a list of menu items and counterclockwise to decrease the volume or to move back in the menu list. You hear an audible click sound as you increase the volume by each unit or as you go from one menu item to another. The center button is used to select a menu item. You can also press in on the click wheel at the 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00 positions for other menu-navigation and music-management functions.

The top panel of the Nano has a slider switch for locking the click wheel, so it is not inadvertently clicked while in your pocket or purse. The bottom panel has a headphone jack on the right and a long, slim port for connecting the Nano to your computer via its proprietary USB cord. You connect the Nano to your PC to charge it and to load songs and other content.

What Is the Nano's Voice Like?

The voice of the Nano's speech synthesis depends on whether you are using a Mac or a PC to load songs. If you are using a Mac, the Nano's voice will be the voice you are using with VoiceOver, the Mac's built-in screen reader. By the way, Alex, which is VoiceOver's default speech synthesizer, is, in my opinion, the best synthesizer that is available. I still love the Eloquence synthesizer I use on my PC, but Alex is the most natural-sounding speech synthesizer I have used. If you are using a PC, the Nano's voice will be one of Microsoft's voices that come with the Windows operating systems. You can go to the Windows Control Panel and choose the Speech control to choose among the Mary, Mike, or Sam voices. Although those voices may not be the quality you are used to, they are not bad, and they are easy to get used to.

When discussing the new Nano with a representative from Apple, I learned that the Nano does not actually have built-in text-to-speech capabilities. Instead, spoken audio is generated using the synthesized voice of the computer, and downloaded as audio files along with the music. This saves space on the iPod, and it also lets you add a new voice any time you want--even in another language--just by loading a compatible voice on your computer.

Although the Nano's voice is not enabled out of the box, it is automatically enabled when you connect it to your computer and go through the initial setup process. The voice will also use the speech settings that you have set on your computer, such as speed and pitch, but you cannot adjust these settings on the Nano. To change the speech settings, you first have to turn off the voice using the Nano's menus, then adjust the voice to your liking on the computer, and finally reconnect the Nano to the PC to reload the audio files with your new settings.

What Does the Voice Support?

Although the voice does not support every single feature and function of the new Nano, it does support all the major ones. It reads all the main menu items, which include Music, Videos, Photos, Podcasts, Extras, Settings, Shuffle Songs, and Now Playing. Other than Extras, it supports all the menus and features that are related to these items, except for just a few of the Settings--those that relate to the time and date and choosing to have certain menu items not appear. The Extras--alarms, calendars, clocks, contacts, games, notes, and stopwatch--are not yet supported by speech. There is also a Search tool in the music menu that is not supported by speech. It is used to do a keyword search for songs and is useful especially when you have filled up your Nano with thousands of songs. Although the voice tells you when the battery is low, there is no way to query the current battery level. And during our testing, when it warned us of a low battery, the battery was actually almost dead, so we would have been out of luck if we had not been near our computer to recharge it. Similarly, you have to have the Nano connected to your computer and use iTunes to find out how much memory you have left.

Even though there are some limitations, Apple has done a great job of providing speech support for this Nano. It does a great job of supporting the features related to listening to music, which is, of course, the main function of the iPod. You can browse your collection by playlist, artist, album, song, genre, and composer, and you can stop playing at any time and press the center Select button to learn the song's title and artist. The Nano also supports listening to books from Audible.com. One of the really nice features of the Nano's spoken menus is what Apple calls "ducking," which automatically lowers the volume of the music if you access the menus while listening to music. Then, the music volume is automatically brought back up to the previous listening level. It's a small thing, but it makes a real difference in the intelligibility of the voice, so you don't miss something you were trying to hear.

Is the Click Wheel Easy to Use?

Although the click wheel takes a bit of getting used to, it can be used effectively by a person who is blind or has low vision. However, with the Nano's new sleek design, the click wheel has become slightly more difficult to identify and use tactilely. There is not quite as much tactile differentiation between the wheel and the panel and between the wheel and the center Select button. You will have to get used to navigating with the click wheel and not accidentally move past your desired menu item when you move your finger to the center Select button. Although the tactile nature of the click wheel is not perfect, I have been able to use it effectively with minimal practice.

I usually set the lock switch to its locked position to make sure that I do not accidentally hit the click wheel to turn it on while it is in my pocket. I also lock it if I am active while listening to music, either walking at the lake or working out at the gym. That also helps to avoid one minor problem that is related to the "Accelerometer," which is an interesting new feature of the new Nano. The Accelerometer senses the Nano's movement and acts accordingly. If you are watching a video and turn the Nano sideways, it adjusts the video 90 degrees on the display to provide a wide angle or landscape view of the video. Another nice feature of the Accelerometer is that if you shake your Nano, it sets it to shuffle and plays your songs in random order. However, the problem with the Accelerometer is that it can interrupt your music with speech. If you are listening to music, it displays information about the current song, such as its name, artist, and album. If you turn it sideways, it displays the album cover and album information for the current song. The problem is that if you turn it sideways, it also interrupts the music and says "cover flow," and it says "now playing" when you turn it back. Locking the switch at the top of the Nano avoids that interruption.

A Couple of Problems We Experienced

We experienced a couple of strange problems while testing, and although they probably will not occur with all Nanos, we have to report them.

First, I loaded some random music from my collection of MP3 and iTunes music onto my new Nano set up with our Mac computer. Occasionally, the Nano would not speak the name of a song, artist, or album as I scrolled through the music. We tested the same tracks on another Nano set up with a PC, and the same thing occurred, but slightly differently. For example, the same album would have a few missing track names, but they would be different songs from those on the Mac Nano. However, I have to admit that the collection of music that I have stored on my computer comes from a wide variety of sources, including various Internet downloads, various versions of iTunes downloads, ripping commercial CDs, and Tivo recordings from live television performances, and some of it is music collected during user studies in our lab. Some of it is also fairly old, so my digital music may not be in the best shape. Although we could not figure out any logic behind what names would not be spoken, it could well have been due to the condition of my digital music collection. We did some additional testing with new music purchased from iTunes, Amazon, and Emusic and ripped music from newly purchased commercial CDs, but the Nano had no problems reading the names of any of that music.

The second problem occurred with the Nano we set up with a PC, but this is a general issue, not an accessibility issue. On the second day of testing, we connected it to the PC, and the iTunes software reported that it had been set up with a Mac and had to be reformatted. However, reformatting the Nano did not help. We called support at 800-APL-CARE (275-2273) and were told to update to Windows XP Service Pack 3. When updating did not solve the problem, we called support again and were told to update to iTunes 8.0.1 and then reformat again. That suggestion solved the problem, and it has not occurred since.

Overall, we found support to be good. When we could not figure out how to import music from a thumb drive, the agents at 800-APL-CARE talked us right through to the solution. Apparently, you first have to copy the music onto your PC.

Documentation at Apple's New Accessibility Page

When Apple launched the new Nano, it also launched its new accessibility Web page at www.apple.com/accessibility. This page has a wealth of information about the accessibility of Apple's products, and you can learn more about the Nano there, including setup instructions and the online manual. The manual is in PDF format, but has been designed to be accessible to screen readers. I found it to be more accessible than most PDF documents I have come across, but I sometimes had to change the reading order of the document. You should be able to access all the information if you know the techniques for using your screen reader with Adobe Reader. Adobe's user guide for accessing PDF documents with screen readers can be found at www.adobe.com/accessibility/products/reader.

Low Vision Accessibility

The Nano 4th Generation features a high-contrast color screen, and you can adjust the font size between a standard 10-point font and the large 12-point font. The large size is still too small for most people with low vision to read, but combined with the high-contrast display, it may be OK for a person with mild low vision or someone who is not wearing eyeglasses. Others can rely on the speech output of the Nano. The Nano comes in many bright colors, all of which contrast well with the white click wheel. The center Select button is the same color as the panel of the iPod, again contrasting well with the click wheel for easy visual orientation.

Improvements in the Accessibility of iTunes

With the release of iTunes 8.0 in September 2008, and continuing with the versions versions 8.0.1 and 8.0.2, Apple has made significant improvements in the accessibility of the iTunes software. iTunes is used to manage music and other media on your computer, including playing music, videos, and podcasts; listening to Internet radio stations; ripping and burning CDs; creating playlists; and purchasing media from the iTunes Store. It is also what you use to load music and other media onto your iPod, so the iTunes improvements go hand in hand with the Nano improvements.

The iTunes software performs virtually flawlessly on the Mac with VoiceOver. The only problem we experienced, and a minor problem at that, occurred during the initial setup and registration process. The combo box for choosing your state of residence was not speaking properly; Apple is aware of the problem and may have fixed it by now. The last time I reported on testing iTunes on a Mac, you could not independently purchase albums from the iTunes Store, but you can do so now. You can also access the podcasts, videos, and radio stations and independently manage the media on your iPod, adding and deleting songs and other media whenever you like. The nice thing that my lab colleagues and I noticed is how crisply iTunes and VoiceOver interact together. You get instant feedback and reaction to all your keystrokes and commands, with no delays. I could figure out how to access everything my sighted colleagues could, which is pretty rare with today's technology.

On a PC, prior to version 8.0, iTunes did not work with screen readers unless you were using JAWS in conjunction with the J-Tunes scripts purchased from T&T Consultancy for $75. In developing iTunes 8.0, Apple worked with GW Micro, makers of Window-Eyes, to implement Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) to improve its compatibility with screen readers. We tested it with Window-Eyes 7.1, JAWS 10 beta, and System Access To Go (SATOGO), Serotek's Internet-based screen reader that is available on any PC at any time.

We tested the initial iTunes setup and iTunes Store account-registration process with Window-Eyes and JAWS and found these processes to have some fairly major problems. We could not independently change the status of checkboxes, and many combo boxes did not work either. After we obtained sighted assistance to get everything set up and registered, things began to look better. Although it was not perfect, iTunes did show significant improvements in accessibility. We were able to use Window-Eyes, SATOGO, and JAWS to perform the major tasks of organizing and playing music and purchasing tracks and albums from the music store. However, we experienced some serious lag times between keystroke commands and a speech response, especially with Window-Eyes and JAWS. We also sometimes lost focus while navigating through iTunes with all three screen readers. We could not access all the features that a sighted user could, and we did not have the same level of access that we experienced on the Mac with VoiceOver. We had the most success with SATOGO, since Serotek was aggressively working on the bugs while we were testing, often contacting us to report updates.

Although iTunes access is not yet perfect on the PC side, Apple has laid the groundwork, and the screen-reader manufacturers are working on it. In our AFB TECH lab, we simply took a snapshot when this new baby was born, but the baby is growing fast. All the companies involved are working hard to address all the issues, and it will be getting better.

We also tested iTunes 8 with JAWS 10 beta and J-Tunes 4.0, the latest version of scripts from T&T Consultancy. That combination produced excellent results, on a level with the Mac and VoiceOver. However, it comes at a cost of an extra $75 and a moderate investment in time to learn all the commands. Even so, if you are a JAWS user and want full access to iTunes, then the J-Tunes scripts are for you.

The I-Tell from Cobolt Systems

Available from Cobolt Systems in the United Kingdom (www.cobolt.co.uk), the I-Tell provides access to the music features of an iPod. It works with all of Apple's iPod products, except for the iPod Touch and the iPod Shuffle, but the Shuffle is already accessible because it has no screen.

The I-Tell connected by cable to the iPod Classic, while the user's hand operates the remote control.

Caption: iPod Classic plugged into the I-Tell.

Priced at 59 British pounds (about 115 U.S dollars when we purchased it in September 2008), the I-Tell measures roughly 4.5 inches by 1.5 inches by 0.5 inches and weighs 1.8 ounces. Like many digital audio players, it has a 5-way control at the top and two volume buttons below the 5-way control. It has a headphone jack at the bottom, beside the cable to connect it to your iPod. It has no visual display.

The I-Tell is a small remote control that connects to the port on the bottom of the iPod, and then you connect your headphones to the jack on the bottom of the I-Tell. It accesses only the music features of the iPod, so if you are interested in videos or podcasts, you should look to the new Nano. However, it does a good job of accessing the music on iPods. It uses a speech synthesizer that may not be the best one on the market, but it is easy to get used to its voice and learn to use it. Cobolt has an accessible manual on its Web site and other alternate formats available on request. The manual is short and simple and lets you easily get started using the I-Tell. The I-Tell has no battery, and you do not have to recharge it. It draws its power from the iPod, so you may have to recharge your iPod slightly more often.

All the I-Tell's controls are easy to identify and use tactilely, and the device is easy to use in general. I found it to be a high-quality product and a great solution for accessing older versions of iPods. It worked perfectly with my 4 GB Nano 3rd Generation, but when I connected it to my 80 GB iPod Classic, I found one problem that sometimes occurred. I had about 40 GB of songs on it (about 12,000 songs), and it would sometimes quit speaking while scrolling through the huge list of songs and artists, and I had to reset it and start over. It also takes much longer to scroll through a long list of artists, albums, or songs because you have to press a button for each artist, album, or song. With the iPod, you can zip your finger around the click wheel to move quickly through thousands of songs. Also, it is a bit bulky and takes away from the portability of your iPod, so I found that I did not like using it at the gym, but I did like using it at home.

Update on Other Players

In my previous articles, I have mentioned that we should soon see a new BookCourier and a new player from Plextor. As of mid-November, no new BookCourier was on the market yet. However, the new Plextalk Pocket is available, and it will be evaluated in a future issue of AccessWorld. I received an e-mail message from the manufacturer of the new VI Player in the United Kingdom, announcing that it was available from the online store of the Royal National Institute for Blind People beginning in November at http://onlineshop.rnib.org.uk.

I also heard from Independent Living Aids, announcing that it started selling the new Milestone 312 as of mid-December 2008. You can learn more about it at www.independentliving.com or by sending an e-mail message to techsupport@independentliving.com.

The Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare is up to version 2.0, with more voices and languages from which to choose, a simplified system for loading books, and updated music features.

The Bottom Line

It is obviously great news that Apple has improved the accessibility of its iPod Nano and iTunes products, and that improvement mirrors the continuing improvement in its VoiceOver screen reader, which is free and built in to all new Mac computers. I know that many of us are still disappointed in the lack of accessibility we have to Apple's popular iPhone, but Apple has to be commended for its improvements in the iPod and iTunes. It is also worth noting that the Nano is Apple's number 1 iPod product and not some also-ran that Apple improved to throw us a bone. We also know that the overall accessibility and usability of iTunes will continue to improve as the screen-reader manufacturers have more time to work on it. We also know from an agreement between Apple and the state of Massachusetts that the iTunes U functionality that is used by many colleges and universities will continue to be improved.

The I-Tell product is another improvement in our access to iPods, and it worked well on all the iPods we tested it with, although if you are looking for a new iPod, I would certainly suggest the new iPod Nano 4th generation. The I-Tell is the best choice if you want to access an iPod that you already have. You could also buy an older iPod from somewhere like eBay and use the money you save to purchase the I-Tell.

Product Information

Product: iPod Nano 4th Generation.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; phone: 408-996-1010; Customer Relations: 800-767-2775; web sites: www.store.apple.com or, for iPod service and support, www.apple.com/support/ipod.

Price: $149 with 8 gigabytes of hard disk space; $199 with 16 gigabytes of hard disk space.

Product: iTunes.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; web site: www.apple.com/itunes/download.

Price: Free.

Product: J-Tunes.

Manufacturer: T&T Consultancy, Advantage House, Trentham Business Quarter, Bellringer Road, Trentham, Stoke-on-Trent, ST4 8GB, United Kingdom; phone: +44 (0) 1782 644141; web site: www.tandt-consultancy.com/j-tunes.html.

Price: $75.

Product: VoiceOver.

Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; web site: www.apple.com/itunes.

Price: Included at no cost in Mac OS X.

Product: I-Tell.

Manufacturer: Cobolt Systems, Old Mill House, Mill Road, Reedham, Norwich, Norfolk, NR13 3TL, England; phone: (44) 1493-700172; e-mail: cobolt@compuserve.com; web site: www.cobolt.co.uk.

Price from Cobolt: £59.

U.S. Distributor: Maxi-Aids, 42 Executive Boulevard., Farmingdale, NY 11735; phone: 800-522-6294; web site: www.maxiaids.com.

Price: $149.95.

This product evaluation was funded by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at accessworld@afb.net.

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