November 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 11

Accessible Holiday Gifts

Holiday Gift Ideas for People with Vision Loss

The holiday gift-giving season is upon us. This time of year is filled with the opportunity to share traditions, both old and new. Among the newer traditions here at AccessWorld is this annual list of gift ideas from the AFB TECH group. While AFB TECH folks don't work at the "Home Office," aka the North Pole, they do telecommute from Huntington, WV. Here are our ideas for 2011.

Stocking Stuffers, $10 to $50

It may be true that the best things come in small packages.

Accessible kitchen equipment may be especially welcome by the cook on your list. High quality Braille Measuring Cups ($17.99), and Braille Measuring Spoons ($12.99) are available at Specialty Adaptations. Cooking meat and other foods to temperature is easy with a digital talking meat thermometer. Independent Living Aids offers the Maverick ET-84 Roast Alert Digital Meat Thermometer ($29.95).

A digital voice recorder can be a convenient and efficient tool for keeping personal information such as phone numbers, addresses, and appointments organized. The American Printing House for the Blind (APH) offers version 3 of the Wilson Voice Recorder ($34.95), a state-of-the art, easy-to-use digital voice recorder that can record up to 12 hours of voice messages. Download your messages to your computer via the included USB cable.

A tactile screen protector may be a welcome enhancement for an Apple device. These popular screen protectors enhance the accessibility of Apple devices by providing a subtle tactile effect for the on-screen keyboard. The AT Guys and Solona each offer overlays for the iPod and iPhone. Solona also offers some iPad protectors that include full braille labeling for the on-screen keyboard. Be sure you know recipient's device type and model before ordering.

iPad, iPod and iPhone Accessories, $20 to $199

The more technology-oriented people on your gift list might already own an iPad, iPod, or iPhone. For most of these folks there is no such thing as "enough" when it comes to accessories for these devices. Many accessories and add-ons are useable on all three iOS products, some are designed to work specifically with either the larger-format iPad or the iPod and iPhone which share a smaller profile.

Among the many pleasures of iOS device ownership is the ability to connect the device to a stereo system or a specialized speaker package for high quality music listening. A 30-pin AV cable connects the output of the Apple device in a way that maximizes audio. In addition to the round 3.5 millimeter earphone connecter, the 30-pin connecter on the bottom of the device provides line-level audio outputs when a compatible connecter is used. Using line-level outputs can provide a vastly superior signal, comparable to that from a CD player or FM tuner.

The Griffin Technology iPod AV Cable ($35) at Best Buy is one example of this type of cable. On one end of the cable a 30 pin connecter plugs into the charger slot on the iPod, iPhone, or iPad. The other end of the cable breaks out into RCA line-level stereo connecters and a composite video connecter. A USB connecter is also provided along with an AC module that allows concurrent charging of the device. In addition to the Griffin, Best Buy, the Apple Store, Target, and many other online sources offer similar cables in the $30 to $50 range.

We also note the popularity of iPod docks, in which the device sits on the top of a charging stand in a molded, recessed cutout. This configuration makes using the device with VoiceOver somewhat inconvenient; a simple cable connecter allows the device to be held in the hands while remaining connected.

Charging Cases, $79 to $99

If you ask most iOS device owners who use VoiceOver what they like about their gadgets, you are likely to receive a variety of enthusiastic responses. If you ask what they like least, you may hear "short battery life" at or near the top of the list. Mophie has refined the art and science of solving this chronic shortcoming. The company's wildly popular charging cases provide both a supplemental battery and a protective shell. The Juice Pack Plus for the iPhone and Mophie Juice Pack Air are just two examples of the many products available on the company website. At AFB TECH we find this brand at or near the top of almost every review of charging devices and charging cases. They are also available in some retail locations as well as from popular on line sources such as Amazon. Be sure you know the specifics of the device on which the Mophie will be used. In my household the Juice Pack doubles the operating time between charges of the iPhone.

High Quality Earphones, $25 and up

Included with every iOS device is a perfectly usable and perfectly mediocre pair of earphones. A thriving industry has evolved to address both the design shortcomings and middling audio quality of these standard issue earphones. When considering a gift, choose either a model that is designed specifically for the iPod/iPhone/iPad, or standard models. iOS-specialized offerings include those that have three controls for operating the device while listening, and a small microphone for conducting phone conversations or using applications such as Skype. Fortunately some of the most popular and well-reviewed earphones are available in both conventional and iPod configurations.

For basic replacement earphones consider Skullcandy and Sony. Ranging in price from $15 to $30, these popular brands are among the least expensive, yet step up the sound quality. They are inexpensive enough that if they are lost or damaged in use, replacements aren't out of the question. Skullcandy and Sony offer models with and without iOS controls and are widely available at Best Buy, Target, Radio Shack and from many online sources including Amazon.

The intermediate price/performance category offers many attractive options including the Klipsch Image S4i In-Ear Headset ($99). These in-ear award winners offer well-balanced and accurate sound. The in-line controls work well and the unique oval design along with several sizes of silicone tips keep background noise under control.

Another good option in this range is the Sennheiser CX300-B In-Ear Stereo Headphone ($49), available from Best Buy and Amazon. Like Senneheiser's high-end, full-size headsets, the CX300 offers both subtlety and accuracy in sound reproduction. For those who plan to use the headphones in a relatively quiet location, such as in the home or a quiet office, the result is a very satisfying experience.

External Speakers, $79 and up

An external speaker or sound dock could be the perfect gift for someone who owns an iOS device or digital book player and is frustrated with their device's built-in audio output.

A mini travel speaker fits conveniently into a coat pocket or small equipment bag. The FoxLv2 ($179) and FoxLv2 Bluetooth ($249), available from Sound Matters, provide huge sound from candy-bar sized packages. Sound and Vision Magazine describes the FoxL mini travel speaker as "a tiny stereo sound system powered by an on-board rechargeable battery, an AC adapter, or a computer's USB port. It has a 3.5mm input jack that connects easily to an iPod, any other portable music player, any cell phone with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, or any laptop computer." The Bluetooth model includes a microphone that allows it to operate as a speakerphone. Sound Matters also offers a mini stereo system package that includes two FoxL units and interconnect cables from the high-end manufacturer Audioquest. In addition to amazing sound quality, most reviews also mention the robust construction and durability of the speaker.

The Logitech Pure-fi Express Plus ($79) is available at Target and Best Buy. Logitech speakers and sound docks are noteworthy for their consistently high quality and good value. The Pure-fi product line offers several options including the cigarette-carton size Express, which provides both an Apple iOS dock and a 3.5mm connecter for use with non-iOS devices such as digital book players.

A self-powered speaker system for the home can provide convenience and accessibility to audio from Apple devices and conventional computers. Audioengine's A5 Premium Powered Speakers ($349 to $449) are truly remarkable for their high quality music reproduction. Many accessible applications such as Winamp, iTunes, and Windows Media Player allow a computer equipped with screen reading or magnification software to perform some of the same tasks as an inaccessible preamplifier or AV receiver. Because the A5 speakers are self-powered (the amplifier is built into the left speaker), no additional electronics are required. A volume control and several input choices are found on the front face, top, and back, respectively, of the left speaker. The sonic quality offered by these speakers rival any others in the $350 price category. Several connections including a 3.5mm stereo connecter, a pair of RCA stereo line level inputs and a USB connecter are available allowing connection with almost any device with an audio output. USB charging, optional wireless accessories and subwoofer connections contribute to the product's flexibility. Naturally all iOS devices and other portables will sound great.

Conventional Landline Telephone Alternative, $60 to $199

For many households keeping expenses under control is an increasingly important exercise. One service that receives scrutiny is the conventional phone line. Many people use their mobile number as their only phone service but not everyone is satisfied by the quality of a cell connection or the small form factor of the typical cell phone. If someone on your gift list wants a regular phone without the $40 to $60 monthly tariff, several new devices and services may be just what Ma Bell ordered.

Important note, these devices use a technology known as voice over Internet protocol (VOIP). Several conditions must be met for this technology to be consistently successful in the home. A full time, high-speed Internet connection is required. The quality of the connection must be sufficient to send and receive the packets of information that make up the digitized version of the phone conversation. Excessive packet loss or delay will render phone calls unintelligible.

What is the size of a computer mouse, connects either directly to a router or to a computer's USB port, provides a full year of high-quality phone service for just $60, and includes amazing customer support? It's the NetTALK DUO! One of our favorite accessories, when connected to your home network, talking via NetTALK is nearly indistinguishable from talking on a typical landline. Indistinguishable, that is, until you take into account the $65 monthly bill you typically have to pay for landline use these days. When it's time for traveling, you can bring the DUO! along with your laptop and small conventional telephone anywhere there is a Internet service.

Like other VOIP services, NetTALK provides a Web-based interface to control and configure the device and service. In our experience this process is completely accessible with both of the major Windows screen access products. In addition, phone support is excellent. A one-time requirement to enter an inaccessible device ID, located on the bottom of the DUO! in small print was addressed immediately by a support staffer.

The Ooma Telo ($199.99) (also available at Best Buy) is similar to the DUO!, yet differs in some important ways. While the NetTALK DUO! and services such as Vonage charge a recurring amount by the month or by the year, the Ooma Telo is a single purchase item. Except for a federally required fee that amounts to around $5, there are no ongoing charges for the Ooma service.

The Ooma Telo is a more elaborate hardware device than either the NetTALK DUO! or conventional VOIP devices. Ooma supports a new HD protocol along with certain cordless handsets. The requirements for network service are the same as for other VOIP services.

We have not evaluated the Ooma Telo hardware or installation/support sites for accessibility. Product information available at on the Ooma website appears accessible and useable with screen readers.

Digital Book Player, $299 to $349

The market for digital book players that support accessible formats for the blind and visually impaired appears to be alive and well.

The APH Book Port Plus offers several features that distinguish it from other devices in this category. WiFi capability allows real-time listening to webstreams and fast downloading of podcasts. Wireless transfer of content between the Book Port Plus and a PC is also possible. The recording quality and highly accessible recording and level controls also set the Book Port Plus apart in the view of serious recording professionals and podcasters. The hardware conveys a feeling of quality and is pleasant to hold.

Ultimate Portable Computer, $999 and up

The MacBook Air ($999 and up) may be the machine that best combines the power of the computer with the responsiveness of a specialized note taker.

The Air is available both through the online Apple Store and at Apple stores in several sizes and configurations. Both 11-inch and 13-inch screen options are available with several hard drive sizes and processor speeds. Memory options as well as a solid state drive can also be configured. An excellent series of observations and technical information on the Air from Mike Calvo, founder of Serotek, is available on SeroTalk. Despite the small size, this finely crafted machine can support the Apple operating system as well as Windows. Bluetooth braille displays increase the appeal for those who prefer to work in a Braille-focused configuration.

Choosing that perfect gift can be a challenge. Check out last year's Gift Ideas for even more ideas. You may also want to consider a gift to AFB in support of our valuable work. You will celebrate the holiday season with the certain knowledge that your donation is working 365 days a year to provide valuable information to expand opportunities for people with vision loss.

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