Product Evaluations and Guides
Voice Dream Writer: An iOS Editor with Accessibility Extras
In the August 2013 issue of AccessWorld
, I reviewed a one-stop reading solution for iPhones and iPads called Voice Dream Reader. Voice Dream Reader is an app that reads Bookshare and other eBooks, PDF files, and other documents aloud using high quality speech. The developer, Winston Chen, was not familiar with VoiceOver when he created the app, but after receiving a number of e-mails describing how much more useful the app would be if he would label the buttons and such, he improved accessibility. Additionally, subsequent to our AccessWorld review, Chen implemented a new VoiceOver-friendly method of marking text for cut and copy operations (described later) that can be significantly easier to perform than the standard iOS reverse pinch gesture.
In this review I will take a look at a brand new offering from the same developer, an iOS editor called Voice Dream Writer. In addition to the cut and copy operation mentioned above, other features that make this app exceptionally useful for VoiceOver users include two different proofreading modes, accessible spelling and homophone checkers, markdown support, and an outlining feature that makes it a simple matter to navigate and edit large documents.
The first time you start Voice Dream Writer (which will be referred to as Writer for the rest of this article) you will be asked whether you wish to store your documents on iCloud (default), or on your device. Documents on iCloud are automatically synched between and among all of your devices, but you need a network connection to access them.
The Writer screen displays six tabs across the top. From left to right they are:
- File Manager: Here you can select and open any document you have saved to your device or synched with iCloud, depending on your settings. You can sort Writer documents by name or date modified. You can also rename or delete documents.
- Add Document: Here you can create and name a new document or load one from your device, iCloud, Dropbox, Box, or OneDrive.
- Export: Here you can copy your entire document so you can paste it elsewhere; send your document with another app using the standard iOS Share Sheet; or export the file to another location, such as Dropbox or OneDrive. You can export your file in one of several document types, including plain text, RTF, Word, Pages, and HTML.
- Audio Settings: By default, Writer uses your VoiceOver language and voice to read text. You can select another built-in iOS voice for Writer and set the language and speed separately for document review and proofreading. If you own Voice Dream Reader and have purchased additional high quality voices from Ivona, NeoSpeech, or Acapela, you can access and use them in Writer.
- Visual Settings: Use this tab to select the most accessible font style and size, from 10 to 40 points. Other settings allow you to adjust line and character spacing, set paragraph style, and adjust side margins and color palate. You can also set a highlight to scroll as each word is spoken.
- Tools: Along with Help and About buttons, the Tools menu offers a word count, and the app's text search control. Enter a word or phrase to be searched and Writer will offer up a full list of appearances. The app will voice the sentence in which the word appears, and you can use a one-finger swipe up or down to move through the list and have each successive appearance spoken. Double tap any occurrence and the app cursor moves to that location. The Tools tab also contains controls to "Find misspelled words" and "Advanced Settings." I will discuss each of these below.
Creating a Document
After you create and name a new document, or load in an existing document, you can enter text using the three standard methods: the onscreen keyboard, a Bluetooth keyboard, or voice dictation. In the Voice Settings menu there are keyboard echo options to speak word or sentence when typing. These will announce the selected text element as you go.
You can use any of the VoiceOver rotor controls such as character, word, or line to navigate and edit your text. The iOS autocorrect and next word prediction features are also available.
If you have ever tried to navigate a large document or use the standard VoiceOver reverse pinch gestures to highlight text for cut or copy, you will appreciate the extra Writer controls that appear between the text window and the word predictions. The first two, Show Outline and Show Word Finder, will be discussed later. The others include:
- Cursor: One-finger double tapping this control causes Writer to voice the word located nearest to the cursor, and whether the cursor is positioned at the beginning, middle, or end of that word. It then reads the entire sentence for additional context. If you now one-finger swipe up or down, VoiceOver is disabled in favor of Writer's built-in speech, which can move the cursor by character, word, or sentence, depending on how the cursor movement unit (see below) is set.
- Cursor Movement Unit: You can swipe up or down to set this to character, word, or sentence. This determines how the Writer cursor moves, both as you review text and use the select text control (see below) to mark text for cut and copy.
- Select Text: Move your cursor to one end of the text you would like to mark, tap this button, and now, up or down swipes will mark your text as you move by character, word, or sentence. Perform a double tap to summon the Cut, Copy, and Paste options. Voice Dream Reader users will already be familiar with this method of selecting text. New users will doubtless agree this method offers much finer control than the VoiceOver reverse pinch gesture.
The next control in line is the "Start Proofreading" button, which initiates a read-all from the beginning of the sentence where the cursor is positioned. A two-finger double tap stops and starts the reading. The app uses indexing to keep the text cursor synchronized with the reading cursor. When you pause the text the cursor is positioned at the last word spoken; it doesn't appear several screens down, as can happen with other editing apps.
Writer offers two default proofreading modes, Natural and Detailed, which you can toggle between in the Audio Settings menu. By default, Natural mode speaks the text as-is, without punctuation, paragraph marks, misspelled words, etc. Detailed mode announces all of these and more, and it pauses between each spoken word so you can perform a final word-by-word review without becoming distracted by context, which can be difficult when proofing a document using a standard computer or mobile screen reader.
By default, the Detailed mode announces each letter of a misspelled word, and also spells out homophones. Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Did you write "principal" with the P-A-L ending when you meant "principle" with the P-L-E? N-E-W when you meant K-N-E-W? MS Word's grammar checker does a good job flagging these mistakes, but Writer is the only mobile document editing app I have tested that enables you to make these checks using VoiceOver.
Homophone checking can be extremely useful, but at times it can also be rather tedious. Imagine proofreading this observation about a soup recipe: "I do not know whether or not to add some more thyme." Every word in that sentence would be flagged and spelled out as a homophone. You can toggle homophone checking off and on in the Audio Settings menu, but perhaps a future version should include the option to only check and spell the 50 or so most common homophone errors.
The Audio Settings menu also includes toggles to instruct Writer whether or not to announce misspelled words and capital letters, and to check for extra spaces and new lines. This allows users to create custom Natural and Detailed proofreading modes that speak as little or as much as desired.
Writer supports a subset of Markdown, which is an easy way to include tags for headers, lists, and other formatting elements in a text file by adding a few special characters.
- Surround a word, or group of words, with asterisks (*) to create italic text, and put two asterisks (**) at each end to create bold text.
- Type a pound sign (#) at the beginning of a paragraph to create a first-level heading. Two pound signs create a second-level heading, three pound signs a third-level heading.
- Use a minus sign (−) at the beginning of a paragraph to create a bulleted list. Type a number followed by a period and a space to create a numbered list.
When you use the Export menu to save a document that contains markdown into an MS Word, Pages, RTF, or HTML file, the markdown is automatically translated into standard headings, lists, italic, and bold text. Markdown is especially useful for VoiceOver users, as it is the only text-editing app I have found that allows you to properly identify headings and other text attributes with VoiceOver.
Unfortunately, Writer does not include an import feature. You can export to MS Word, Pages, RTF, and HTML formats, but you can only create or edit plain text files, and attempting to load a formatted document leads to a "File must be in plain text" error message.
If you have ever tried navigating a very long document using VoiceOver with Pages or Word for iOS, you know it can take a lot of three-finger scrolling and flicking before you finally find your place. Others often begin their work by creating an outline, then going back to fill in the details. Writer includes a feature that can make both of these tasks significantly easier. You'll find it by double tapping the "Show Outline" button on the main Writer screen, or by performing a three-finger swipe to the right.
Writer's Outline view allows you to set the lowest outline level to headings, paragraphs, or sentences. The app will then display accordingly. For example, if headings is your lowest level, Writer will allow you to quickly swipe left or right from heading to heading, assuming you have at least one in your document. If you choose paragraphs, swiping will move you from paragraph to paragraph, while announcing headings. Choose sentences and all three will be announced.
The Edit button near the bottom of this screen offers three choices for each element: edit, reorder, and delete. Delete removes the entire sentence, paragraph, or heading section. To move the element, double tap and hold the "Reorder" button until a tone sounds, then slide your finger up or down. Writer will announce the new position as you go. This is significantly easier than marking a block of text with the iOS pinch gesture, then using the rotor's Edit feature to change the order of your sections, paragraphs, or sentences.
You can also perform a one-finger swipe up to return to edit mode, with your cursor at the beginning of the selected heading, paragraph, or sentence.
At first glance the Outline view may seem a bit cumbersome, but once you've grown accustomed to it you'll begin to save a lot of time scrolling or trying to position your touch cursor.
The last major Writer feature we will discuss here is the Word Finder. Access this aptly named feature by either double tapping the Start Word Finder icon or performing a three-finger swipe to the left. Use Word Finder to perform the following tasks.
Look up a Word
The Word Finder includes a trio of controls labeled "Definitions," "Phonetic Search," and "Meaning Search." Select one of these, and then activate the text box at the upper left of the screen and type in a word. Double tap the online keyboard's "Search" button and the onscreen keyboard will disappear and be replaced by your search results.
The Definition option searches not only for words, but also for many common phrases, such as "once and for all," and "notwithstanding."
If you are uncertain of the proper spelling of a word, spell it phonetically, then use the Phonetic Search option. Writer does an excellent job finding the proper spelling for both common and obscure words. For example, when I typed in E-X-C-U-P-A-T-R-Y the very first result was the word I was looking for: exculpatory.
Writer's Meaning Search acts like a sort of thesaurus. When I entered the word "Fast," for example, I received 115 results, ranging from the usual "brisk" and "hasty," to words and phrases for which I could discern only the vaguest semantic connection. For example, "Blue Gum," which the Writer dictionary defines as a "Tall, fast growing timber tree with leaves containing medicinal oil," was halfway down the results list. Happily, or should I say propitiously, the most useful choices were almost always near the top of the list.
When you start Word Finder with the text cursor on a word, that word is automatically placed in the search box. You can edit the word, replace it, or simply tap Search. Highlight any of the results and one-finger swipe up or down to look up the word. You can also perform a second Meaning Search on any phonetic or Meaning Search result, again and again, ad infinitum.
When you finally find the perfect word, swipe up to the Insert option, which inserts the word or phrase into your Writer text.
Spell Check an Entire Document
Use the "Find Misspelled Words" option in the Tools menu to start a spell check. The Word Finder will open, with a swipe-scrollable list of misspellings. As you scroll up and down the misspelled word is announced, along with the sentence in which the word appears.
At this point you can make corrections manually, or open the Word Finder. In this mode each successive misspelled word will appear in the text edit box, with a list of possible replacements below. Highlight the correct spelling and then use the Insert option to make corrections (it would be helpful if the Insert control were renamed Replace here to avoid confusion).
Note: If you prefer to use the three-finger swipe method to summon Word Finder and Outline mode, you can remove their buttons from the screen via the Tools, Advanced Settings menu.
Composing and editing documents using Writer is significantly easier with a Bluetooth keyboard. Entering text with the touch keyboard, I often found myself accidentally entering a "best prediction" word instead of activating one of the rotor control buttons, which are located just above the predictions. Dictation did work the same as it does in other apps, and this quickly became my preferred method of entering text, which I could then correct with either a Bluetooth or onscreen keyboard.
I see little advantage to using Writer to create short notes. I prefer the iOS Notes app, or an app called Captio, which includes a control that will send your note to your e-mail box with one double tap.
Students and office workers who wish to use their iPhones or iPads to take notes in class or in meetings will enjoy this app, especially when paired with a Bluetooth keyboard. Entering text is as easy or easier than other iOS note taking or word processing apps, and reviewing what you have written is significantly easier--especially if you use Markdown. Begin each new topic or important takeaway with a minus (−) or pound sign (#) and the important takeaways will be a few Outline swipes away.
For me, and likely for many other VoiceOver users, this app would be significantly more useful if it were able to import formatted documents. If that were the case, documents created on Macs or PCs could be edited on the go, then given a thorough proofreading before a final save and send.
Since I do not take notes in a classroom, or attend many on-site business meetings, I will likely not use Voice Dream Writer a great deal--at least not until the developer has added support for RTF file imports, at the very least. This does not mean I will delete this app from my iPhone, however. The version I evaluated for this review is version 1.01. These are early days, and Winston Chen, the app's developer, has a demonstrated track record of listening to users' suggestions and requests and going to great lengths to respond to them with app enhancements and innovative new features. I look forward to seeing what he has planned.
Voice Dream Writer
Developer: Voice Dream LLC
Requirements: iOS 8.1 or later. Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch.
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